Few philosophers have walked a more circuitous road to their place in the pantheon of Great Thinkers than Hegel. Though at the time of his death in 1831 Hegel held the prestigious chair of philosophy and the office of rector at Berlin University, for most of his adulthood he had eked out a living along the typically rocky path of the German intellectual around 1800—a mixture of tutoring, lecturing, newspaper writing, and, for the politically connected, school administration. For twenty years after his death, Hegel dominated historical, religious and literary debate in Germany; he was interpreted by the influential generation of Young Hegelians that followed him as the philosophical champion of liberalism. Twenty years on again, and Hegel’s legacy had, ironically, become entwined with that of the chief theorist of proletarian revolution. Meanwhile, from the turn of the century, Anglophone analytic philosophy rejected his approach outright.

In the decades that followed, Hegel was periodically revived by thinkers seeking a metaphysical ground for Marxism—such as Lukács, or Lenin, who claimed that it was impossible to understand Capital without first reading the Science of Logic. But it was not until the French Hegel revival of the thirties and forties that he was widely read again in the West—only to be rejected once more by the poststructuralist generation as an emblem of the stodgy rationalism of the French academy. ‘We simply plunged into Hegel, Husserl and Heidegger’, Gilles Deleuze complained to Claire Parnet. ‘We threw ourselves like puppies into a scholasticism worse than that of the Middle Ages.’ Adorno, his most sensitive German reader in the post-war years, came to prominence with a work in which he observed passingly that, if Hitler’s missiles could be seen, in Hegel’s terms, as a symbolic manifestation of the state of the World Spirit, their headlessness, blindness and futility at the same stroke served, like Nazism itself, to refute Hegel’s philosophy of history. (The observation comes in the thirty-third fragment of Minima Moralia. Adorno’s less well-known Three Studies of Hegel and Introduction to Dialectics lectures, both from the mid-fifties, offer a vigorous endorsement.)

It is in defence of Hegel as a thinker under perpetual attack that Klaus Vieweg has written Hegel: Der Philosoph der Freiheit, an intellectual biography marking Hegel’s 250th birthday. The ‘freedom’ of the subtitle, innocent enough to the general reader, is in fact meant to provoke. In the popular imagination, Vieweg suggests, Hegel is still the court philosopher of Prussian absolutism: a toady, a bureaucrat, a career professor. It is an axiom of poststructuralist thought that ‘presence’, ‘identity’ and ‘synthesis’ are instances of knowledge as power, seeking to subsume and erase all difference. The aim of Vieweg’s book—a generalist biography, short on fresh scholarly insight, but long on readability—is to defend Hegel against these ‘dishonest vilifications’ and restore him to his proper place as the German thinker of the French Revolution. Over nearly 700 pages Vieweg shows that Hegel was and always remained the young seminarian who poured himself a glass of champagne when he learned that the Bastille had been stormed. Der Philosoph der Freiheit rejects even the middle-ground position that, as with much of the German thought of his era, there may have been overlap between Hegel’s emancipatory and reactionary tendencies. Vieweg’s Hegel is through and through a defender of reason and freedom, ‘the credo that ran through his life’, as well as a vehement critic of the Prussian court and church, if in his own abstruse way.

As contemporary Hegel scholars go, Vieweg is something of an oddity. Most of the big philosophical names to have launched an attempt at a ‘post-deconstructive’ Hegel have come from the West, with a pedigree that runs through the Frankfurt School—Axel Honneth, former student of Habermas and director of the Institute for Social Research, or Christoph Menke, former student of Albrecht Wellmer, for example. Vieweg, by contrast, came up through the gdr system of the seventies, at Jena and at Humboldt in Berlin, which produced a number of solid Germanists, if nothing as cutting-edge as the theoretical experiments taking place on the Bielefeld campus during that era. In addition to writings on Hegel and scepticism, his publications include a Spanish-language work on the concept of freedom, a book written with his daughter on the philosophy of Star Trek—the liberal, utopian alternative to the Wagnerian fantasia of Star Wars—and a detective novel that is also an E. T. A. Hoffmann riff. Like Rüdiger Safranski, his frg equivalent, he has a knack for rendering difficult arguments in punchy prose accessible to the Bildungsbürger.

Vieweg’s claim is laid out over nine chapters, each comprising four sections: a biographical excursus situating Hegel personally, professionally and geographically; a summary of the intellectual currents of his time and place; a gloss of the work Hegel produced in that period; and a narrated interlude describing a day in Hegel’s life. Despite the unusual form, the picture that emerges is largely a familiar one. Hegel was born in 1770 in Stuttgart, capital of the Duchy of Württemberg where his father was a minor functionary at the Ducal Court. After excelling as a young student, he was sent to the Tübinger Stift, some twenty miles away, to pursue a religious career. There he roomed with Schelling and Hölderlin; the trio quickly became drinking buddies and philosophical collaborators, swearing fealty to Rousseau and the French Revolution. From Tübingen Hegel went to tutor in the home of an aristocratic family in Bern, where, instead of a freedom-loving Swiss republic, he encountered an oligarchy scarcely freer than the police state whence he had come. Here he wrote his first fragments on religion. Through the influence of Schelling, whose Naturphilosophie had established him as a philosophical prodigy, Hegel then secured a position as an unsalaried lecturer at Jena, the epicentre of the German philosophical universe. On the strength of The Phenomenology of Spirit—finished, as legend has it, just as the first cannonades of the Grande Armée sounded in the distance—the university offered him the position of ‘extraordinary Professor’, also unsalaried. Eventually Friedrich Niethammer wrangled an editorial job for Hegel at a newspaper in Bamberg. Financially stable for the first time in his life, he wrote his Science of Logic and Encyclopedia. These were well enough received that, after a stint in Nuremberg as the headmaster of the Gymnasium there, Hegel was appointed as chair of philosophy at the University of Berlin in 1821—replacing Fichte, his old philosophical adversary—in the wake of the Karlsbad Decrees, reimposing an iron censorship after the liberal reforms of the Napoleonic era. It was there that he wrote the Philosophy of Right, delivered his famous lectures on history and aesthetics, became rector, and died during the cholera epidemic of 1831.

As a biography, Vieweg’s book has two goals. The first, in which it largely succeeds, is to dispel any lingering perception that Hegel’s philosophy is a theoretical apology for the Prussian restoration. Vieweg shows clearly and plainly that, unlike erstwhile revolutionary sympathizers like Kleist and Beethoven, Hegel never took a conservative turn. Even as a functionary of the Prussian state he advocated on behalf of his students, Karl Ulrich, Leopold von Henning and Gustav Asverus, who had been charged with taking part in revolutionary activity, Asverus with high treason. As a presumed sympathizer of the French Revolution, Hegel’s mail was read by the Prussian censor and he was trailed by the secret police. On the other hand, the revolutionary aspect of Hegel’s character was more intellectual than practical. He knew well that advancing his thought required the suave handling of censors, university rectors and aristocratic patrons. Of the two camps of ‘German genius’—those with the necessary social skills and institutional dexterity to successfully navigate the interpersonal networks and political currents of German cultural life (Goethe, Schiller, Schelling), and those too stubborn, idiosyncratic, or just too mad to do so (Hölderlin, Kleist)—Hegel clearly belonged to the former. It is in its second goal, to show that it was Hegel’s life-loving nature, his drinking, his womanizing, his illegitimate-son-having, his card-playing, and his friendships that enabled him to break through the abstraction of post-Kantian thought, that Der Philosoph der Freiheit stumbles. Hegel’s thought was designed precisely to absorb biography into philosophy, and not the other way around. In the Hegelian system personality is reserved for concepts (‘Spirit’, ‘Virtue’, ‘the Unhappy Consciousness’) and not for individuals. Consequently, the biographical and philosophical passages in Der Philosoph der Freiheit never quite coalesce. Vieweg’s Hegel remains a proper name, a cipher, a philosophical effect, a nodule in the larger constellation of thought that was German Idealism.

In fact, despite its biographical interest, the book’s most substantial contributions to the popular picture of Hegel are intellectual-historical. Most illuminating here is the early chapter on the Tübinger Stift, which offers the reader a glimpse of the enlightened despotism—scarcely distinguishable from the regular kind—that produced the German Idealists. Together with its sister school, the Hohe Karlsschule, Schiller’s alma mater, the seminary sought to turn potentially destabilizing intellectual and political currents to the advantage of the aristocratic ruling class by training an enlightened curia free of the tangled loyalties of noble kinship. Hegel and his classmates were schooled in Greek and Latin; the literature and philosophy of antiquity; the rationalist philosophy of the seventeenth century, including Spinoza, still politically and theologically radioactive at the time; political economy and statecraft; and modern literature—even Schiller, who had himself been jailed by the Duke fifteen years earlier for leaving his regimental post to attend the first performance of The Robbers. Hegel absorbed this knowledge while living in what Isaac Sinclair, his friend and fellow seminarian, called ‘a slave galley’, a miserable environment of cramped quarters, scant communal meals, moralizing sermons, compulsory group prayer, informants and spies, where Enlightenment spirit was fused to reactionary impulse. What Hegel ultimately learned there was the art of abstracting political questions into religious and metaphysical ones. The seminary also permanently lodged Lutheran Christianity and the state into the centre of his thought, tying freedom to obedience and individuality to belonging. Like many success stories, Hegel was first a victim of the institutional structure in which he would later triumph.