The Last Laugh: Hegel’s Catastrophic Comedy

Prado_-_Los_Disparates_(1864)_-_No._17_-_La_lealtad BW
Francisco de Goya, Loyalty (c. 1816-19).

I. Introduction: An Absolute Comedy of Spirit?

Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit has long been described as a work of comedy, propelled by misunderstandings that lead gradually and painfully to the reconciliation of its warring parties in a higher unity. In the book’s opening chapter there is the farcical situation of ‘natural consciousness,’ which believes itself in possession of an immediate, sensuous certainty about its reality, is repeatedly embarrassed, and is made to stumble from one mishap to the next on its path of despair. Throughout the chapters on ‘Reason’ and ‘Spirit’ we encounter paired figures—such as the heartful and the conceited, the virtuous and the cynical, the faithful and the enlightened, the beautiful souls and those they accuse—who are set at odds with one another, voice their right to condemn one another, and speak past one another until they happen upon some hidden, happy truth that unites them as one. The entire chapter on ‘Religion,’ with which Hegel ends his narrative, might be described as a retelling of human history in the mode of a divine comedy, in which the holy spark is revealed not on high but in the human community “as something concrete, summoned into action and put in movement.”[1] As Gillian Rose remarks, the Phenomenology functions as an “absolute comedy” for the modern era, which seeks out the necessary steps by which the sufferings of history can be redeemed.[2] For this comedy to be absolute it must be capable of accounting for the whole range of historical phenomena, both good and ill, granting them a place in a narrative that progresses by way of its bad turns just as much—if not more so—than its good ones.[3]

To describe the Phenomenology as a comedy is for this reason not an unambiguous designation of its genre, as it bears directly upon the philosophical stakes of the work and the sort of world that Hegel purports to describe in its pages. Indeed, we should not let the comedic course of the Phenomenology obscure the deep ambiguity of comedy itself in Hegel’s narrative of world history, in which it appears at two significant moments of historical rupture. The first of these is presented in the Phenomenology when Hegel describes the end of classical life, when the laws of the city and the gods had become laughable, and the arts of comedy and satire stepped in to salve the wounds of a dying culture. The second is found in the Lectures on Fine Art, in which comedy is presented as the last of the modern, romantic arts, and signals the end of art itself as an independent field of work. In both cases, comedy is positioned at moments of crisis, when the substance of a culture has become insubstantial, when the old ways of thinking and living have become defunct, but into which no new form of life has yet emerged. As we will see in more detail in a moment, rather than a sign of a flourishing, living culture, comedy is for Hegel a marker of cultural exhaustion.

The repeated moments of comedy—one ancient and one modern—cannot but disturb, because they direct us toward the rift at the core of Hegel’s account of modernity, which is at once ancient and incomplete. In respect to its antiquity, modernity for Hegel can only have begun two millennia ago, with the end of the classical era and the death of its ethical form of life. In the place of the ancient ethical life, as Hegel tells it, emerged the dominion of abstract law, propped up by the invention of the legal person, which has continued down from the Roman empire to the present day. In this respect, our modernity is already ancient, and to draw a phrase from the subtitle of Gillian Rose’s Broken Middle, Hegel’s comedic project is one which must draw us “out of our ancient society” and into the light of a new historical epoch.[4] As regards its incompletion, Hegel’s modernity is one which has never truly taken place. The past two centuries have not seen the realisation of philosophy’s promise but its ruin, and the delay of a properly modern age, usurped by the reign of an unconscious, unquenchable capitalism.[5]

Hence, with the doubleness of comedy in mind, there is still more to be said about Hegel’s own comic tale, which, this paper argues, is not only a narrative of misunderstanding and reconciliation, but also the ruin of all forms of life that have become exhausted and therefore laughable.

II. What is Comedy for Hegel?

Let’s not be mistaken: the comedic is not the same as the merely laughable. As Hegel writes in his Lectures on Fine Art, “there is also the laughter of derision, scorn, despair,” and in such cases this “laughter is only an expression of a self-complacent wit, a sign that they [who laugh] are clever enough to recognize such a contrast and are aware of the fact. […] On the other hand, the comical as such implies an infinite light-heartedness and confidence felt by someone raised altogether above [their] own inner contradiction.”[6] Whereas the laughable makes a mockery of contradiction, the comedic drama sanctifies it. The characters of comedy display themselves in all their one-sidedness and in the course of the drama are undone by their own hands, in Hegel’s words “revealed directly as inwardly self-dissolving.”[7] What is revealed in this process of dissolution is the light-heartedness of the comedic world, in which the contradictions of society are only ever the products of individual bluster and hubris, which shrink away by the end of the drama to show a common humanity that is the master and measure of all things.[8] Such a fully human world is as joyous as it is insubstantial, as its existence rests entirely on the whims of a humanity whose understanding of itself is out of step with its actions. Pushed to its limits, the comedic threatens to lapse not into the laughable but the ironic, which dissolves not only the hollow contradictions of social squabbles but annihilates even the most solid foundations of social life.[9]

ASCP 2022 Hegel Comedy figure 1

This is the situation that Hegel describes in the Phenomenology’s chapter on ‘Religion,’ at the moment when the rituals of classical life reach their limits and give way to the revealed religion of Christianity. The comedy of the ancient Greeks, exemplified by the plays of Aristophanes, stands on the brink of this transition and makes palpable the distance between the human practitioners of ancient religion and the mythic personas that they assume in rituals and on stage.[10] On a practical level, the comedic play utilises the scission between the actor and his mask to make the persona of that mask into an object of ridicule. No longer does the actor personify the mask, but instead plays with the falsehood of the role, and expresses the “irony” and “hypocrisy” of being at once oneself and another.[11] The social consequences of this ironic distance are felt in two main respects.[12] The first is the collapse of the divine and natural worlds into a single, human world, in which the divine is revealed as only a human mask and the natural is made to serve the purposes of self-consciousness as an object of mystery cults with no essence outside its ritual function. The second is the internal, self-ironising turmoil of a society that, having made itself the entire world, can no longer take itself seriously, as it “exhibits the laughable contrast between its own opinion of itself and its immediate existence, between its necessity and contingency, its universality and its ordinariness.”[13] The divisiveness of comedy will turn upon itself and become merely laughable in the New Comedy of Menander and the deleterious side of irony will reach its fulfilment in the Roman satires, but in this first, Aristophanic moment comedy becomes what Hegel calls the most philosophical form of art in its self-conscious, critical, and humanist inclinations.[14]

The philosophical possibilities of comedy are also what places it at the other end of Hegel’s history of modern art, at the apex and dissolution of the romantic art-form—that is, the form of art that emerged from the ruins of the classical epoch and must be understood not as a form specific to the German Romantics of Hegel’s day but as the general condition of art throughout the long modernity from the fall of Rome to the present. Just as the first, classical moment of comedy was concomitant with an ironic split between the divine persona and the human actor, the second, romantic moment creates a further division within the form of art when the depths of the artist’s subjectivity are sundered from the reality of the prosaic world. Now it is not only that the artist plays with their assumed personas, as in the classical moment of comedy, but becomes isolated within their poetic fictions.[15] Whatever falls outside this fiction appears only as dull and uninteresting, fit to be skewered by the wit of one who stands apart from it. “Satisfied in itself, [the poetic subject] no longer unites itself with anything objective and particularized and it brings the negative side of this dissolution into consciousness in the humour of comedy.”[16]

This is not mere hubris on the part of the romantic subject, but is a necessary step on the part of the artist who wishes to replicate the divine unity of classical art, after the dissolution of that unity in a secular, human world. To become visible in the modern form of art, the divine has to “proceed out of itself into the secular content of subjective personality,” becoming instantiated in the person of the artist themselves, if not in their artworks.[17] The subjective turn of romantic art brings with it many of the same symptoms that marked the pinnacle of Greek comedy. On the one hand, it means the flourishing of a new humanism, which admits no higher power than that of humanity in its self-conscious, self-making artistry, for which the “depths and heights of the human heart as such” are posited as the “new holy of holies.”[18] This absolute freedom of the romantic artist, the modern human, carries with it a democratic fervour, but it also carries with it a destruction of the social dimension of human life. For, on the other hand, by uniting art and the absolute via the subjective person of the artist, “the Absolute no longer appears positively unified with the characters and aims of the real world but asserts itself only in the negative form of cancelling everything not correspondent with it, and [the] subjective personality alone shows itself self-confident and self-assured at the same time in this dissolution.”[19] In short, we find the end of the romantic phase of art in the same place that we found the end of the classical phase: in a radically subjective, isolated, and self-destructive irony that dissolves into mere laughter.

The appearance of this laughter complicates Hegel’s infamous thesis concerning the so-called ‘end of art.’[20] Not only is the end of art doubled on an historical scale, in both the classical and romantic phases of art, but the nature of that end is also double.[21] In a positive sense, the end of art means the transcendence of art’s categories of the natural and divine by a singular, human world. This is the end that faces the classical art-form when the subjective comedy of Aristophanes is superseded by the consummate personalities of Socrates and Christ, who embody in themselves what classical art could only represent. It is also what faces the romantic art-form, when its purpose of representing the absolute is completed by the more adequate modes of exposition of critical philosophy.[22] But in a negative sense, the end of art means the destruction of a particular regime of art, which has lost the fundamental points of reference that had previously guided it and descends into a state of ironic uncertainty. In the case of the classical art-form, the end of art was also the end of a society—a society which had, in Hegel’s account, built its cultural, political, and religious life on the basis of a certain kind of aesthetic presentation that had now become impossible. That this second kind of ending may yet be in store for the modern art-form—and with it, the social modernity that emerged alongside this romantic form of art—is not explicitly suggested by Hegel, although the presence of comedy in this second end of art is suggestive of a far darker repetition of the classical end. Comedy’s companions, irony, solipsism, and laughter, once augured the end of a social world and the beginning of our present epoch: what could they augur for us now, at the end of our many centuries of cultural modernity?

III. The Many Ends of Classical Life

To give an answer to this question, we would do well to understand what precisely Hegel meant by modernity. And so we must return to the beginning of modernity in the breakdown of classical life, to discover what separates our present modernity from the life of antiquity. For Hegel this is no simple task, as evidenced by his repeated retellings of that moment throughout his work. In the Phenomenology of Spirit alone, Hegel recounts the end of classical life three separate times, once in the chapter on ‘Self-Consciousness,’ again in the chapter on ‘Spirit,’ and finally in the chapter on ‘Religion.’ In each retelling the narrative becomes more concrete, moving from the abstract figures of the stoic, sceptic, and unhappy consciousness in the first telling to the historically specific examples given in ‘Spirit’ and ‘Religion.’ But as the story is retold, the loss of classical life becomes more profound, marking the period of modernity with its absence and denying modernity a clean break with its ancient beginnings.

ASCP 2022 Hegel Comedy figure 2

Let’s proceed through each of these three moments of the Phenomenology to enumerate the traits of modernity as Hegel defines it:

(1) The chapter on ‘Self-Consciousness’ presents the first and most abstract account of the transition from classical to modern life. After the famous dialectic of the Master and the Servant has resolved into the latter’s labouring self-consciousness, Hegel introduces three subject-positions which the Servant may assume. The first is that of the Stoic, who attempts to gain freedom from their Master by retreating from the world into the inner freedom of thought, and the second is that of the Sceptic, who seeks to negate all unfreedom by refusing to commit themselves to any position of limited freedom.[23] Having retreated from the world and destroyed its own self-certainty, self-consciousness moves from stoicism and scepticism to the position of the ‘unhappy consciousness.’[24] Knowing itself as a fallen, imperfect being, the unhappy consciousness imagines an unchanging but inaccessible other with which the hope for its salvation must lie. Irrespective of whether we call this other God, or nature, or the in-itself, in the figure of unhappy consciousness Hegel runs together the whole history of philosophical thought from Augustine to Kant, typifying the modern condition as a futile “attempt to ‘find’ outside or beyond the labors of Spirit the significance or redemption of those labors.”[25]

(2) The impasse of unhappy consciousness is followed by Hegel’s magisterial dissection of modern thought in the chapter on ‘Reason,’ which is in turn followed by a strange reversal. Having concluded ‘Reason’ with the intellectual freedom of self-legislating thought, Hegel pivots to a history of institutional freedom in the chapter on ‘Spirit,’ which returns us again to the classical epoch and its attendant dilemmas. The ‘ethical life’ (Sittlichkeit) with which Hegel begins this chapter corresponds to the social order of classical Greece, which is described as a simple (that is, undivided) form of collective life, the essence of which is immediately embodied in the polity that engages itself in a manner that is “publicly open to the light of day.”[26] But this ethical life is soon fragmented, as the members of its polity engage in argument over the proper source of their customs, setting the rights of the individual against that of the family and the laws the city against the laws of the gods. Each of these rights lives immediately in the spirit of the people and cannot attain a greater precedence over any other.[27] That is, until a new form of law emerges as a “formal universality” that no longer dwells within the living polity, but hangs over it as an abstract, spiritless law.[28] The regime that emerges is what Hegel calls the ‘state of legality,’ which corresponds to the Roman empire and its innovation of juridical personhood as the basis for universal dominion. Defined solely as a person in possession of abstract, impersonal rights, the denizen of the state of legality ceases to be a subject with a determinate, individual existence.[29] In Hegel’s words, this “universal law is splintered into the atoms of absolutely multiple individuals; this spirit, having died, is an equality in which all count for as much as each and where each and all count as persons.”[30] These persons live like automata, subject to a law that exists apart from them, because it has been made an abstract, external thing that is no longer answerable to any political will, whether it be collective or individual.[31] Although Hegel’s account of ‘Spirit’ continues beyond this point, this legal state is our inheritance from Rome, and in his later lectures on world history, religion, and fine art, it is the advent of abstract law that separates the classical epoch from our own.[32]

(3) Finally, the chapter on ‘Religion’ recapitulates the narrative that we have followed thus far, folding together legality and the unhappy consciousness as symptoms of the post-classical moment: “In the state of legality […] the ethical world and its religion have been absorbed into the comic consciousness, and the unhappy consciousness is the knowing of this entire loss.”[33] In these terms, Hegel characterises early Christianity as a religion that unites the unhappy consciousness with the regime of abstract law in a single cosmic vision, in which the world is overseen by an all-powerful but ever inaccessible law-giver, whose bodily return to the world is indefinitely postponed.[34] However, in the incarnation of God as a man, Christianity leads us toward an ‘absolute’ form of religion that recognises the divine not as an alien power but as the product of the religious community’s “consciousness of itself as being spirit,” as being master of itself.[35] And here we come full circle and discover comedy as the forerunner of Christianity’s historical epoch, firstly as the moment that humanity discovers itself as a self-making power, and secondly as the recognition of the vast gulf that lies between the destruction of classical ethical life and the realisation of that power in absolute Spirit.

In the two millennia that have transpired since the birth of Christ, the formation of Rome’s legal imperium, and the triumph of our unhappy consciousness, the laughter of comedy has continued to haunt us—reminding us that the void left by the destruction of classical life has not yet been filled by any form of life substantially different from that which began so many centuries ago.[36]

IV. Resolutions

In Hegel’s portrait of modernity, the second moment of comedy collapses into the first, as our own age comes to appear unbearably ancient, and the fate of the classical world appears disturbingly like our own. The modern era is defined not by its novelty but by its inheritance of domination and despair from late antiquity, which persists in the laws, ideologies, and forms of alienation that emerged to fill the gap left by the collapse of ethical life. The modern exhibits no substance of its own, composed of the ruins and fragments of a social life that has long since passed away.[37] Indeed, as Hegel is at pains to make clear, there is no return to the fullness of classical life, which exists for us like a fruit sculpted from marble, preserved in imitation though “the actual life in which that fruit existed no longer exists.”[38] Counter to the neoclassicism that prevailed in the Germany of his day, Hegel refuses to see in the sunny disposition of antiquity a model for political and social revival. Ethical life was an immediate, unconscious form of life, and only by its loss are we able to look back on that era to self-consciously comprehend what it must now mean for us.

Evidently, the process of modernity remains incomplete. Sifting through the rubble of classical life, modernity seeks to finally shed itself of its atavistic tendencies, to become truly modern, although it has not yet overcome its most foundational archaisms.[39] This overcoming is, ultimately, the project of Hegel’s Phenomenology, which seeks to perform for the modern era the same comedic intervention that the works of Aristophanes made for the classical. The Phenomenology’s three ends of antiquity are also the three beginnings of our modernity, the dilemmas of which must be resolved for absolute Spirit to be realised. And so, we may name three conclusions corresponding to the three conditions of modern life:

(1) Theoretically, the separation of unhappy consciousness is to be repaired, bringing our other-worldly thoughts of metaphysics and theology down to earth. The alienated halves of unhappy consciousness will not be united in an immediate harmony, as was the case in classical ethical life, but must be thought speculatively as the dirempted parts of a whole.[40] This is the realisation of absolute Spirit in philosophy, the moment of which has famously been missed, as the two centuries since Hegel’s day have seen the perpetuation of the unhappy consciousness in the philosophical as well as the social and political spheres.

(2) Ethically, the reign of abstract law is to come to an end. No longer haunted by the unhappy consciousness’s abstractions of self and other, its separations of the universal and the particular, a new ethical life becomes possible as the culture of non-alienated humanity.[41] As Hegel’s critics from Marx to Lukacs have made clear, the construction of this new ethical life must mean the overthrow of bourgeois property rights, even where this takes us beyond the historical-political juncture of Hegel’s own writings.

(3) Practically, we are to realise our capacity to think the absolute. This is the social import of Hegel’s philosophy, which knows divinity as the mirror image of the human community, which will only be free when it recognises itself as the source of its fantasies of salvation, intercession, and redemption.[42] As utopian as Hegel’s desire for a new ethical life may seem, it is not founded on faith in an otherworldly agency but on the knowledge that the world we inhabit is one made by human activity, and that it may just as well be unmade by that same power.[43]

The circuitous path that we take to the realisation of absolute Spirit and a new ethical life is the stuff of Hegel’s comedy. This comedy must be painful, as we are disabused of illusions that have persevered so long as to appear as fact, and as we stumble through the ruins of our history, mistaking the most ancient follies for evidence of our novelty. It is no wonder that the Phenomenology ends with a scene of disinterment, as absolute Spirit stands like Prince Hamlet over the open grave of its predecessors, declaiming to itself on the solitude of history’s survivors. But in temperament absolute Spirit is unlike Shakespeare’s Dane and more alike to his Fool, who attends on decrepit monarchs and mocks tragic heroes, who is the subject of punishments as much as he is the dispenser of truths.[44] Against the melancholy proposition that all things must pass away stands the comedic statement, identical in all respects but its tone, ‘Yes, indeed, all things must pass!’ The dead form of life in which we live may yet be buried, and even the most unquestioned foundations of our ancient modernity may yet crumble into dust. Just as classical comedy oversaw the ruin of a world that had grown laughably exhausted, Hegel’s absolute comedy is one which seeks to complete the dissolution of the laws, ideologies, and forms of alienation inherited from classical life’s incomplete end.


[1] G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on Fine Art, trans. T.M. Knox (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), 1162.

[2] Gillian Rose, Mourning Becomes the Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 72.

[3] On the topic of the painful course of the Phenomenology’s narrative, see my forthcoming “It’s Just One Thing After Another: The Bad Infinities of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit,” in Infinity Wars: Hegel and Spinoza, eds. Caitlyn Lesiuk and Luara Karlson-Carp (Melbourne: Index Books, 2023). Additionally, as Allen Speight notes, the comedic reading of the Phenomenology should not be mistaken for a frivolous or purely positive reading: “The notion of the comic perspective in the PhG as an essential resolution, a brighter and higher result that is forever putting tragedy in some sense behind it, is one that we must reconsider. At the moment, it is worth stressing some evidence to the contrary: that while Hegel was quite aware of the ‘comic’ potential of his book, he was nevertheless insistent that the PhG’s ultimate dramatic tone was not one that was meant to get beyond the tragic, since that would leave out ‘the seriousness, the suffering, the patience and the labor of the negative’ that are essential to its movement.” Speight, Hegel, Literature and the Problem of Agency (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 69.

[4] As Gillian Rose notes, the foundational “diremption between law and ethics—modernity’s ancient predicament—is always ‘recently’ repeated: philosophy is always and hence currently being revalued.” But still the philosophical understanding of this diremption may yet be realised: “The Owl of Minerva has spread her wings. Not that a shape of life has grown old, for it has always been already ancient, but we may now be prepared and readied for comprehension. We may now be prepared and readied for philosophy’s grey in grey; not for the colour on colour of post-modernity, with its premature celebration of a new epoch for the coming millennium, even if incipient in the old. For our antiquity has yet to see the soaring of soft-plumaged Minerva in her nocturnal figuration.” See: Gillian Rose, The Broken Middle (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988), xi-xii.

[5] Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. Dennis Redmond (2001), []: “Philosophy, which once seemed outmoded, remains alive, because the moment of its realization was missed.”

[6] Hegel, Fine Art, 1200.

[7] Hegel, Fine Art, 1163.

[8] Hegel, Fine Art, 1199: “The general ground for comedy is therefore a world in which man as subject or person has made himself completely master of everything that counts to him otherwise as the essence of what he wills and accomplishes, a world whose aims are therefore self-destructive because they are unsubstantial.”

[9] Hegel, Fine Art, 160: “True, irony implies the absolute negativity in which the subject is related to himself in the annihilation of everything specific and one-sided; but since this annihilation, as was indicated above in our consideration of this doctrine, affects not only, as in comedy, what is inherently null which manifests itself in its hollowness, but equally everything inherently excellent and solid, it follows that irony as this art of annihilating everything everywhere, like that heart-felt longing, acquires, at the same time, in comparison with the true Ideal, the aspect of inner inartistic lack of restraint.”

[10] As Lydia Moland notes, Aristophanes represents a pause on the widening gyre of irony, a snapshot of a society on the brink, preserved in the last form of art available to it: “Hegel mentions a last moment at which ancient Greek art pulled back, briefly, from the satirical abyss and achieved a higher reconciliation in the so-called Old Comedy of Aristophanes […] Aristophanes’s comedies, Hegel thinks, manage to wrest a final reunification from the widening rupture between subjectivity and objectivity, between human and divine. In the face of classical art’s collapse, he creates art.” Lydia Moland, Hegel’s Aesthetics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 93-4.

[11] G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. Terry Pinkard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), §744; §742.

[12] Paul T. Wilford, “From Comedy to Christianity. The Nihilism of Aristophanic Laughter,” in Hegel on Tragedy and Comedy, ed. Mark Alznauer (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2021), 162: “This destruction occurs along two axes. First, comedy sunders the relation between the divine and the natural, which Hegel illustrates by recalling the ‘mystery of bread and wine’ and reminding us that in the cult of Bacchus and Ceres, self-consciousness had made nature’s essentiality its own, appropriating its independence and transfiguring its significance […] Second, comedy ruptures the relation between the divine and the sociopolitical community. The demos, acknowledging no higher authority, believes itself ‘to be master and regent.’ […] Although it is the source of all normativity, the demos cannot take itself seriously: the grounds of authentic democracy begin to teeter.”

[13] Hegel, Phenomenology, §745.

[14] H. S. Harris, Hegel’s Ladder vol. II: The Odyssey of Spirit (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), 647: “What Hegel’s logic shows is that Comedy is the most self-conscious form of artistic expression. In the context of the Art-Religion, we can say that the Old Comedy is the philosophical mode of Art. Even that ceases to be true as a proposition about the New Comedy of Menander; and in any case it does not make Comedy the ‘best or highest’ form of Art. Among the literary forms it it is clear that Hegel regards Tragedy as the ‘highest’ (the noblest or most beautiful expression of human nature).”

[15] Moland, Hegel’s Aesthetics, 127: “Once anything can be art, romantic art breaks into the two components that classical art had held together. In classical art, the ‘external is the very own shape of the inner itself and is not released therefrom into independence.’ In romantic art, by contrast, the deep subjectivity expressed by Shakespeare or Cervantes’s characters meant that the two separated, generating either tragic or comic endings. In the current stage of what he calls art’s ‘dissolution’ [Auflösung], Hegel describes what happens when those two extremes are not even held together by a Shakespearean hero or a Quixotic plot. Hegel puts the emerging binary this way: we have, on the one hand, ‘the real world’ in its ‘prosaic objectivity’ and, on the other hand, ‘the subjectivity of the artist which, with its feeling and insight, with the right and power of its wit, can rise to mastery of the whole of reality.’ Put more succinctly: the two corresponding ends of art are imitation and what Hegel calls subjective humor.”

[16] Hegel, Fine Art, 1236.

[17] Hegel, Fine Art, 607: “At first the infinity of personality lay in honour, love, and fidelity, and then later in particular individuality, in the specific character which coalesced with the particular content of human existence. Finally this cohesion with such a specific limitation of subject matter was cancelled by humour which could make every determinacy waver and dissolve and therefore made it possible for art to transcend itself.”

[18] Hegel, Fine Art, 607: “Yet in this self-transcendence art is nevertheless a withdrawal of man into himself, a descent into his own breast, whereby art strips away from itself all fixed restriction to a specific range of content and treatment, and makes Humanus its new holy of holies: i.e. the depths and heights of the human heart as such, mankind in its joys and sorrows, its strivings, deeds, and fates.”

[19] Hegel, Fine Art, 1236.

[20] As Martin Donougho notes, the meaning of ‘end of art’ is quite complex, and can convincingly be reduced to six different meanings, most of which will be incorporated to one degree or another in the fourfold meaning that I propose. Worth listing in full, Donougho’s possible meanings of the ‘end of art’ are: “1. Art no longer discloses or embodies an ultimate truth or value (as with the ancient Greeks). 2. Reflection replaces intuition and representation in our way of life, including our attitudes to art. 3. The times are unfavorable to the production of new art (and so much the worse for us). 4. The cultural dialectic between form and content is all used up; there is nothing more to disclose; theoretical historicism is incompatible with current practice, though we can try to escape. 5. Contemporary art is playing out an endgame of sorts: as museal art, or as Biedermeier style, as ‘objective humour,’ as a humanistic Weltliteratur or world-art, or perhaps in the form of epigraph (fragmentary Einfall or inspiration), and so on. 6. Art is ‘essentially’ past: to gain a vantage point on a form of life is already to embalm it or lament its passing; or—resorting to paradox—the very unity of the Ideal supposes its dividedness.” See: Martin Donougho, “Art and History: Hegel on the End, the Beginning, and the Future of Art,” in Hegel and the Arts, ed. Stephen Houlgate (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2007), 189.

[21] My account of the multiple ends of art owes a lot to Gillian Rose’s commentary on this matter, in which the social end of art is identical with its classical demise, and the formal end of art is identified with its romantic conclusion. See, Gillian Rose, Hegel Contra Sociology (London: Verso, 1981), 129-30: “The thesis of the end of art, like the thesis of the end of religion, does not mean that works of art are no longer created. It means that art is no longer a formative, educative, political experience. But, in the case of art, the end of art has two meanings, for there are two ends of art. The first ‘end’ of art refers to the end of a society, Greece, in which life is ‘lived aesthetically’, in which social institutions are themselves aesthetic. It thus signifies the beginning of art in the sense in which we understand art, as relatively autonomous from other social institutions. It signifies the beginning of artistic re-presentation, of art as a relation between meaning and configuration, between concept and intuition. Art ceased to be the fundamental politically formative mode of experience at this point: it lost its end in the sense of telos. The second ‘end’ of art refers to modern art, to art in post-revolutionary, bourgeois society. This end of art means ‘end’ in the sense of finis. Art has fallen into such a contradiction between meaning and configuration, between concept and intuition, that it is no longer art in the second sense of a relation, a partial lack of unity, between them” (bold emphasis mine).

[22] The predominance of first the religious subjects of Socrates and Christ and later the poetic subjects of the Romantic movement mean we no longer need an artistic object with which to represent the absolute, making way for its fully subjective exposition in critical philosophical writing. See: Hegel, Fine Art, 1236: “We ended with the romantic art of emotion and deep feeling where absolute subjective personality moves free in itself and in the spiritual world. […] Yet on this peak comedy leads at the same time to the dissolution of art altogether.”

[23] Although it is unclear whether these positions are supposed to be taken as identical with the historical philosophies of stoicism and scepticism—and whether Hegel’s characterisation of these positions better fits the ancient Aurelius and Pyrrho or the modern Montaigne and Pascal—the third subject-position of self-consciousness seems to more point more specifically to the post-classical impasse of theological thought.

[24] See: Hegel, Phenomenology, §206-7.

[25] Robert B. Pippin, Hegel’s Idealism: The Satisfactions of Self-Consciousness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 166.

[26] Hegel, Phenomenology, §447.

[27] Hegel, Phenomenology, §475: “Its actuality only reveals the contradiction and the germ of corruption which ethical spirit’s beautiful unanimity and motionless equilibrium have in this motionlessness and beauty itself, for immediacy bears the contradictory meaning of being the unconscious restfulness of nature and the self-conscious restless restfulness of spirit.”

[28] Hegel, Phenomenology, §475.

[29] G. W. F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, trans. Robert F. Brown and Peter C. Hodgson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 426: “In the Greek world we have individuality; in the Roman Empire we have abstract universality. What is concrete in this universality is just self-seeking, is prosaic, practical dominion. In the case of the Romans we are not dealing with any inherently spiritual, free life; joy is envisaged theoretically, yet there is only a lifeless existence, a vitality that has, as its exclusive purpose, practical understanding, the validating of what is inflexibly universal, a universality that sticks to practical matters. For that reason we can be brief, because the manifold materials are reducible to these characteristics.”

[30] Hegel, Phenomenology, §476.

[31] Hegel, Phenomenology, §442: “The ethical world [is] disrupted into the this-worldly present and the other-worldly beyond.” See also: Rose, Hegel Contra Sociology, 92: “If the individual defines himself as a ‘person’, the bearer of property rights, he has abstracted from all his other characteristics and social relations. A corollary of defining part of oneself as a legal ‘person’ in contradistinction to other legal ‘persons’ is that a further dimension of oneself is isolated: subjectivity, the substratum in which the accident of being a bearer of property rights inheres. ‘Subjectivity’ is thus even more cut off from the totality of social relations which determine it.” Or: Terry Pinkard, Hegel’s Phenomenology: The Sociality of Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 251: “In the breakdown of Greek life, both the ‘substance’ (a form of life’s ground rules and what it takes as authoritative for it) and the self-identity of the individuals in that form of life have, as Hegel puts it, externalized themselves. By this, Hegel means that the ‘substance’ has become embodied in the institutionalized practices of self-conscious reflections on the ground rules of that form of life itself. Whereas prior to the denouement of the Greek form of life, the ‘substance’ had resided more or less unreflectively in the accepted practices of the culture, in the way people simply ‘went on’ in the same way, after that denouement it becomes an object of reflection and criticism. (In this sense, the ‘substance’ has become an object of external reflection.)”

[32] Hegel, Fine Art, 514: “Now since what is disclosed in Satire is the dissolution of the Ideal, a dissolution prosaic in its inner content, we have not to look for its actual soil in Greece as the land of beauty. Satire in the form just described belongs properly to the Romans. The spirit of the Roman world is domination by abstraction (i.e. by dead law), the demolition of beauty and joyous customs, the suppression of the family qua immediate natural ethical life, in general the sacrifice of individuality which now surrenders itself to the state and finds its cold-blooded dignity and intellectual satisfaction in obedience to the abstract law.”

[33] Hegel, Phenomenology, §753.

[34] Georg Lukács, The Young Hegel (London: Merlin Press, 1975), 19: “The Christian religion stands opposed to the individual as something objective, ‘positive,’ and the need to obey its commandments is, on the one hand, a consequence of the loss of freedom and, on the other, a continuously self-reproducing process of oppression and despotism. In Hegel’s view this period of despotism extends to the present day and pervades every aspect of social life and ideology.”

[35] Hegel, Phenomenology, §759. See also: Hegel, Fine Art, 1162: “The Divine here in its community, as the substance and aim of human individuality, brought into existence as something concrete, summoned into action and put in movement.”

[36] Peter Wake, “Taking the Ladder Down. Hegel on Comedy and Religious Experience,” in Hegel on Tragedy and Comedy, ed. Mark Alznauer (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2021), 150-1: “If, as Bergson claims, laughter is a corrective, it corrects here in the context of a phenomenology of religious experience—the belief in an inscrutable, transcendent power of fate—and it corrects or critiques the concomitant denial of human agency that this notion of fate entails. Comedy’s element is the social, and this is a strictly human social world. It is the source of the state of spiritual well-being that Hegel attributes to the comic; but it is also the source of its fleeting nature. The well-being or repose that comedy can instill is, qua religious consciousness, temporary. What we see retrospectively is that although comedy liberates consciousness from fate conceived of as an external, alien force, the labor of spirit will be to bring comic consciousness to the full recognition that nothing of substance has been put in its place.”

[37] Rebecca Comay, Mourning Sickness (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 59: “The task of modernity will be to explore this fissure. The rubble of Sittlichkeit had revealed what all ruins do, namely that the world is constructed. If the polis looked beautiful, this is because it was already artifice and artifact—the product of construction and as such susceptible to unmaking or deconstruction. Modernity begins with this corrosively denaturalizing insight. This is why its setting is the demolition zone left upon the collapse of Greek Sittichkeit, as the rift became a chasm, the gods fled, the dead sank into oblivion, and the world disintegrated into a heap of isolated particles and scattered stage props—‘cold, soulless atoms.’ The only way of imparting unity to this pulverized universe was through the abstract force of a law stripped of all legitimacy (and thus requiring for its execution the military prowess of a ruler whose own authority had been reduced to an ostentatious display of destructive, orgiastic excess) (PhG §481). This is how Hegel sums up the accomplishments of the Roman empire—‘a miserable life of worms.’ Hegel is the last one to belittle these worms. The achievement of the imperium remains colossal: it makes chillingly explicit the profundity of the disenchantment.”

[38] Hegel, Phenomenology, §753. See also, Wilford, “From Comedy to Christianity,” 166: “All previous forms of religious life are now void: oracles are silent, statues are lifeless stones, hymns are mere words, and games and festivals no longer express the joyful unity of man and the divine. Worst of all, that mode of externalization, language, which was the medium of the soul existing as soul, is no longer a vehicle for the divine. ‘The works of the muse lack the power of the spirit which brought forth its certainty of itself from the crushing of the gods and men (der Zermalmung der Götter und Menschen).’ In comedic consciousness even the greatest poetic creations of antiquity are for consciousness what they are for us now (us moderns): ‘beautiful fruit’ already plucked. Consciousness can never return to the world that produced them. The source of the fruit has passed, drowned in waves of laughter.”

[39] On this point of the perpetual incompletion of modernity, indeed the composition of modernity as an indefinite process of modernisation, see Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity (London: Verso, 2002); and on the postponement of this completion of modernity, and the necessity of additional modernist ‘turns’ to sustain the image of modernity, see Jacques Rancière, “The Archaeomodern Turn,” in Walter Benjamin and the Demands of History, ed. Michael P. Steinberg (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), 24-40.

[40] Gillian Rose, Dialectic of Nihilism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1984), 5: “In turn this is part of a larger endeavour to retrieve the speculative identity of form and history which appears in these most recent works as the opposition of metaphysics and law. Just as I read Hegel’s exposition of the antinomy of law as the speculative identity and non-identity of the state and religion—of ‘politics’ and ‘ideology,’ as we have come to call them—so I read the antinomy in the work of our contemporaries as presenting us with a pale cousin: the nihilistic identity and non-identity of law and metaphysics.”

[41] Rose, Hegel Contra Sociology, 223: “The overall intention of Hegel’s thought is to make a different ethical life possible by providing insight into the displacement of actuality in those dominant philosophies which are assimilated to and reinforce bourgeois law and bourgeois property relations. This is why Hegel’s thought has no social import if the absolute cannot be thought. However, as long as these relations and law prevails the absolute can only be thought by an abstract consciousness and hence any specification of it, as the ‘in-itself’ is in effect ‘for us’ and not ‘in-itself.’ This   counts for the difference between the unconvincing nature of Hegel’s attempts to state the absolute by comparison with the powerful speculative rereadings of law.”

[42] Rose, Hegel Contra Sociology, 98: “Hegel’s philosophy has no social import if the absolute cannot be thought. How can the absolute be thought, and how does the thinking of it have social import? ‘The idea which a man has of God corresponds with that which he has of himself, of his freedom.’ If ‘God’ is unknowable, we are unknowable, and hence powerless. If the absolute is misrepresented, we are misrepresenting ourselves, and are correspondingly unfree. But the absolute has always been misrepresented by societies and peoples, for these societies have not been free, and they have re-presented their lack of freedom to themselves in the form of religion.”

[43] William Wordsworth, The Prelude XI.140-144:

“Not in Utopia,—subterranean fields,—
Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us,—the place where, in the end,
We find our happiness, or not at all!”

[44] In this poetic parallel, let us not forget the Fool’s disappearance from Lear; recalled only at the end, confused by the king with his other caretaker, Cordelia, whose death silences whatever laughter remained. The tragi-comic possibility that the comedy may end in total disaster—the fool hanged and the bodies unburied—haunts the conclusion of the Phenomenology. As Rebecca Comay suggests, the insubstantiality of Hegel’s comedy may reduce Spirit to a ghost: “The unburied corpse of the beautiful polis will be displayed one last time in its putrid splendor. The vaporized body of the beautiful soul presents a challenge even beyond that of the rotting corpse of Polyneices: how to mourn a missing body, a body that has gone missing even to itself, spirited away, a body whose wounds will disappear without a trace, like Sade’s Justine, forever young and beautiful, intact and virginal—a continually unwritten surface, unscarred despite an infinity of mutilations? How are we to commemorate Spirit’s final act of self-erasure?” (Mourning Sickness, 117).

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