In Honor of a 2023 Parallax Course
Considering “Hegel’s Justification of Hegel” Further with Ivan Illich
Is the world getting better or not? This question seems very straightforward, and yet everyday I find it more mystifying. We attempted in “Hegel’s Justification of Hegel” to explain why for Hegel the “Now” is justified as a basis for thought and philosophy, that we shouldn’t question if we should “assume” today in our thinking, or otherwise thought can never get started. More can be said on the case, but ultimately what this leaves us with in Hegel is a notion that “today is better than the past somehow,” and yet the past was also necessary for us to be who we are today. Hegel wants us to focus on “The Now,” and yet doesn’t that somehow suggest today is better than the past? Doesn’t that make Hegel a Progressive? In one way, yes, and yet Hegel will also not let us “think the future,” only be “radically open” to it. But if the future is better than the past (which seems to follow), shouldn’t we think the future? It seems that way, but it’s also not so simple.
Before moving forward, in full transparency, when I have discussed “progress in Hegel,” I have not always been clear or precise in my understanding or presentation, and honestly I have wrestled with “progress in Hegel” for four to five years. My understanding and views are starting to solidify (I think, at least), and the hope of this work is to try to be more precise. I was inspired to do this thanks to Bonnitta Roy, and for that I am grateful.
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Course at the PARALLAX ACADEMY
I’ve said many times in the past that “the future is better than the past” for Hegel, and yet there is no guarantee of a future, which also suggests that the future might not be better than the past. How do we square this? It means we have to train ourselves to be able to handle the future, which for me suggests the topic of “spreading Childhood” or “spreading Absolute Knowing,” but it’s also obvious that “if there is no future” the future won’t devolve all at once, which means there will be a gradual devolution. Doesn’t that mean “the future could be worse than the past?” Yes, and yet there is a way in which Hegel would say no. How can we understand this contradiction?
The trouble with the question, “Is the future better than the past?” is that it’s not clear what the metric. Are we speaking in terms of happiness? Well, the West seems to be dealing with higher levels of depression today — doesn’t that disprove the premise? What about in terms of technology? We seem to have more advanced technology, yes, but does that make us “better” than our ancestors? Yes and no. What about in terms of money and economics? But money doesn’t buy happiness, and yet at the same time it seems better to have less poverty than more, and Deidre McCloskey makes a strong case that, in terms of socioeconomics, we are better after “The Great Enrichment” than before it. Indeed, but with prosperity comes new problems like those caused by the internet, artificial intelligence, etc., but can we really say those problems are worse than worrying about an invading army which might abuse, kill, and/or enslave us? In one way it seems absurd to say so, and yet isn’t there a way in which there is nothing worse than suicide (to get to a point where we see no reason to live at all, which of course abuse, murder, etc. can lead to)? Maybe and maybe not, but if so and suicide rates today are increasing, aren’t we worse off?
More can be said, but the point is that it seems difficult to say what exactly it even means to say that, “The future is better than the past.” And yet the ultimate question to end the debate seems to be, “Would you rather live today or a hundred years ago?” Certainly, many people would say they’d prefer to live in 1923, and perhaps they would genuinely want to stay in 1923 if teleported back then and they experienced the concrete, daily life of it. But what about 1823? 1723? On and on — I would wager that less and less people would want to stay in the past once they actually experienced it with every 100 years we go back (and keep in mind 1923 is right before WWII). What about 50 years back? 25? We could shift the numbers however we wanted, and who wanted to stay and who didn’t would likely vary significantly. Furthermore, someone might like to stay in 1923 for two years but not three, while someone might prefer 1723 for a week but not any longer. By whose assessment could we say provides evidence that “the past” and/or “this particular moment of the past” is superior to the present? Is this even possible to tell? Wouldn’t we require time-travel to carry out this experiment (empirically)? Otherwise, aren’t we wasting our time asking this question? And unless someone visited every moment of history, would their judgment amount to much?
The claim, “The future is better than the past” or vice-versa seems meaningless, and yet we can still wonder and consider it, for it’s also possible that the past was better than the future, and if we are to study the past (as Hegel thinks is central), there is no doubt we will think these thoughts. And so, as we have outlined in “Hege’s Justification of Hegel,” Hegel makes the case that Now (which I capitalize to designate its special meaning) should be assumed as justified for thinking; otherwise, thought will end up always deconstructing itself into nothing. And so I think Hegel leaves us with a few main ideas:
1. The present/future cannot be said to be better than the past overall (for there might not be a future, and it’s not even clear what constitutes “better”).
2. The present/future cannot be said to be better than the past overall, and yet we cannot say that we should go back to the past (for “Now” is justified to assume and accept).
3. The present/future is better than the past in terms of understanding and even capacities of the subject, but we cannot say from this that the present/future is thus better overall.
4. We cannot technically speak of a future for there is no future (yet).
5. The future will be better than the past (and present) in terms of understanding, but there is no guarantee there will be a future.
6. Though the future and present are better in terms of understanding than the past, they might not be better in terms of reason (which is to say our ontoepistemology might not be A/B).
These are strange notions that almost seem to cancel one another out, but I am attempting to walk a fine line that helps show how Hegel’s progress is not naïve and yet also somehow present. Something seems to advance in Hegel, and that something might make us better Now than in the past, but if so that is somehow thanks to the past, how can we say we are “better” than the past versus engaged in a profound interconnected network with it that all develops as a whole somehow? This might suggest a notion in Bergson and Augustine, and it would somehow suggest that if we become “better” it means we were always “better” and thus better in the past too. To use Christian language, if today we become “more like Christ,” it’s thanks to Christ appearing around 2000 years ago, and relative to Eternity it means all of time has “always already” been “more like Christ,” and so we cannot speak of one age of time being “better overall” than any other. And yet, relative to linear time (which doesn’t ultimately matter), there is a sense in which we are better Now than in the past. How? In what sense?
Thinking in terms of Christianity might help understand our case, which I think is fair given Hegel’s Chrisitan background and sympathies. If God appeared 2000 years ago, how can anything be “better” than that period of time, seeing as God is “the greatest of all possible beings?” This is a point raised by Bonnitta Roy in her talk with David Cayley on Parallax, which brought to my attention a need to write on how Ivan Illich and Hegel might be thought together, which admittedly seems impossible, but (perhaps out of bias) I think there is a way. How, exactly, I think can be approached through the falling question: Do we get better at reading?
I’ll make an example of the Bible (seeing as the Bible is still with us) and is the main source through which people read about Christ, thus honoring Illich. Are we better today at reading the Bible than those in the past? Yes, yes, we could argue that people couldn’t read the Bible until after the printing press, but the question still stands: Has our reading the Bible improved? Well, there are certainly more commentaries on the Bible in 2023 than in 100AD, but arguably we’ve had periods where our readings of the Bible were worse than in the past, say when the Gospel was read through Dualism before N.T. Wright. Ah, but what about today after N.T. Wright? Are our readings better today? We’ve now gained all the commentaries of history plus a reading of the Bible that isn’t so Dualistic, which is arguably truer to the original spirit of the Torah. Doesn’t that mean we are today better in our reading of the Bible? Aren’t we more knowledgeable and conditioned? And yet even if we are, this “advancement” is in relation to a book which is 2000 years old, which suggests that in our advancement we are still honoring the past. Without the Bible, we couldn’t advance, and so in what sense are we “better” than the Bible? That doesn’t seem right to say, and yet it also seems foolish to suggest “nothing has changed.”
Dr. Stephen Railton has assembled some of the greatest resources on earth for understanding William Faulkner, and I cannot imagine that we today don’t better understand Absalom, Absalom! after Dr. Railton than before him. If our “better interpretations” of Faulkner changes how we act and think, then there is a way in which we can say that “we are better” now then we were before Dr. Railton’s work, in terms of our relationship with Faulkner. How this impacts in friendship, work, etc. might be negligible and impossible to identify, and yet it is also possible that a change has occurred. Are we “better” in all areas of life because of this change? Perhaps not: perhaps we’re more pretentious at work now and more obsessed with something that other people don’t care about, hurting our relations. And yet something has changed, something which seems positive.
Faulkner at Virginia
Welcome. Here you can listen in on William Faulkner's sessions with audiences at the University of Virginia in 1957 and…
After Railton, we certainly have more potential today regarding our reading and understanding of Faulkner than we did in the past, and in that sense we are better today than in the past. In this way, we can say that the future, if there is a future, always has more potential, which might be the source of our torture, precisely because the more potential we have the more we can be tormented if we don’t realize that potential. Hence, there is always more potential if there is a future, and so we seem “better overall” that way than in the past. And I think this is true, simply because we know more and can act different in accordance with that knowledge. But a key and critical caveat arises: that rising potential isn’t necessarily evidence that we “are” better. In fact, we today might as persons be far worse.
Christ for the Christian is arguably “the pinnacle of being a person” in history, and in that sense none of us can “get better” after Christ. Perhaps we have more potential as people, but “how” to deal with, use, and channel that potential might have no greater expression than Christ. Furthermore, perhaps there is no point in history in which God could manifest and it be “better” than the point at which God did manifest in Christ. Why exactly might have something to do with how that particular point resulted in history changing profoundly forever forth in ways it then could not, in Christ experiencing and releasing into humanity stories and metaphors that are best for helping us develop and evolve, and so on, and perhaps God had to manifest at that particular point so that our potential would expand from then in a manner that would be best for us to later realize “the fullness” of that Revelation in history. However, even if Christ was “the pinnacle of being human,” our potential for grasping Christ and employing Him may increase with time, which isn’t an improvement over Christ but a realization of Christhood, which is to say an “unfolding of the fullness of the Revelation” through time. In this way, we might see a way to bring a notion of progress through time together with an acknowledgment of a “fullness” or “model” which has “already” arrived and transpired (and even while acknowledging that an “Age of the Holy Spirit” could be just as valuable as all other eras).
Simone Weil and Flannery O’Connor come to mind as two Christians who emphasized that God came in Christ in a particular moment in history in a particular body in a particular way, and both perhaps resisted notions of a “Christ consciousness” developing through history, which we might associate with narratives of “Emergentism” and “growing complexity.” And yet we might also see a way to bring these positions together, for we easily could be experiencing a “growing complexity” and even “Christ consciousness” (as a “consciousness of Christ” as center of history) thanks to the passage of time, without that necessarily meaning that we are “better at being people” today. Indeed, perhaps today we have more potential than ever before, and the future will have more potential than now, but that doesn’t mean we are wiser or better at life than Jesus Christ. In fact, we might be worse at it, and because we have more potential, that might make our situation worse than the past, because the overall increase in potential could more so torture us.
Technology, science, and the like may simply advance because more time passes (“trial and error”): we today simply have the advantage of “more time” than those in the past, as those in the future will have that advantage over us. In this way, it is fair and accurate to describe “history as a story of progress,” but we make a mistake if we assume that means we are progressing as people. For the Christian, Christ was “the best of the best” at being human, and we now cannot advance beyond him: we must always “go back” and revisit Christ in terms of our Now (which I think Paul is a model of, as came up in “Wrestling with Christianity III” at SENSESPACE, but that would require another paper at another time). Christ is then like Absalom, Absalom!, and our relation to Christ is like learning to read a book, which even if we are more capable of doing than ever before, that is only thanks to something done in the past. If the future is better than the past, it is only such in light of the past: the past is never even passed (to allude to Faulkner).
The future is always potentially better than the past, and thus there is always a growing potential due to the passage of time. But as God is Hell in some theologies to those who hate God (which is to say the potential of loving God tortures them), so we can say that “unrealized potential” is a torture, and the more potential there is the more there can be “unreleased potential” and thus greater torture. A world that can be more like Utopia is the same world which can thus be more like Hell, so to say the future has more potential than the past is only contingently a good thing (and, for the Christian, to the degree we “reference our humanity” back to Christ). If we screw up the opportunity, we easily will be worse off than those in the past (suggesting Illich’s principle that the best of things becomes the worst of things when corrupted). Perhaps not, but “growing potential” might be a strong motivation to “get things right”: if things are advancing in this way, we need to figure out Childhood and its spread quickly (error is becoming more fatal by the day).
To summarize, understanding “historic progress” might be best accomplished if we consider progress like our relationship to a book and reading in general. Perhaps today we can read and understand Faulkner better than ever before, but that is only thanks to Faulkner and his work; furthermore, if we don’t understand Faulkner, we might be more tortured and bothered by that ignorance more than in the past, precisely because today we can more so and more readily understand Faulkner. The blessing of potential can hence be a curse based on what we do, and I myself can think of people who were very talented and ended up miserable precisely because of that very talent when they failed to fully realize it (as they didn’t feel like they needed to do, precisely because they were talented).
In this way, perhaps we can think of history that way: we gain more talent with time (simply thanks to there being “more trial and error because there is more time”), which is precisely why we are less likely to think we need to go to practice, which is precisely why we end up not realizing the fullness of our potential, and so end up more tortured and miserable as an adult knowing “everything we could have been” but wasn’t (precisely because we were complacent thanks to our talent). In this, we can see how “gaining potential” through history might be precisely the mechanism of our devolution, if we don’t “keep our eyes on Christ,” per se (to avoid sinking like Peter). Perhaps we are gaining complexity and “emergence” through time, but that might be precisely why we find ourselves in a “fragile world” like Jim Rutt discusses and/or “A Meta-Crisis.” Our growing talent and potential is hence our potential downfall.¹
In terms of talent and potential, the future is better than the past, but that is precisely why the future may burden us. On this point, we might highlight a difference between “Evolutionary Change” and “Developmental Change,” which are often conflated but not the same: a rat can evolve and change in its environment in response to its environment without necessarily developing and improving, and yet since the only evolution which survives tends to be that which helps the rat survive, it’s easy to thus conflate “evolution” and “development.” The more I learn about Spiral Dynamics, the more it seems to me that it was originally conceived as an “Evolutionary Model” of how people and personalities change in response to their environment, but Spiral Dynamics has gradually been treated by some like a “Developmental Model,” which can be problematic. Responding to this “Developmental Spiral Dynamics”-model I’ve spoken of “Cone Dynamics,” but it’s increasingly clear to me that what I mean by “Cone Dynamics” is what was originally meant by “Spiral Dynamics,” so I somewhat regret generating the term. However, the new term “Cone Dynamics” might be needed today because the phrase “Spiral Dynamics” has been so connected with ideas of development independent of the material condition, and so I find myself having to use the language of “Cone” to escape those associations. Furthermore, the metaphor of a “spiral” I think was a mistake, for a spiral looks like an advancement; furthermore, the top of a spiral tends to be bigger than the bottom, and I’m of the opinion that “developmental changes” occur in small percentages and spread out from there (relative to the spread of the corresponding “material condition”). For that reason, the metaphor of a “spiral” strikes me as problematic, but I also understand that no language or image is perfect.
Anyway, the point is that Evolutionary Models are not Developmental Models, and yet there is something about them which seems to relate. Evolution which “survives” is developmental somehow, and yet evolution doesn’t have to lead to development. What are we to make of this? Well, that we cannot speak meaningfully of development (as distinct from “evolution”) unless we describe an environment, and so to the degree we are at “home with our environment” is to the degree we can speak of Development versus Evolution. To use Bonnitta Roy’s language, to the degree we can make the Now an “instrument” is to the degree we can speak of Now as developmental versus mere evolutionary, and for the Christian like Illich that will depend on to the degree we (reference back to and) learn to be “like Christ.” The future is always evolving, yes, and so is always growing its potential, but to the degree the future develops is to the degree we are like someone in the past.
In this way, we can say the future is always more evolved than the past, but we cannot say it is more developed. If there is a future, “evolution” and “development” will overlap, for the evolution which survives is developmental relative to our environment (which may or may not be good, please note, so we also must be careful to say “the future is better-as-in-good-er than the past”), but there is no guarantee there is a future, precisely because “evolution” and “development” are not similes. This is the trick: if there is a future, “evolution” and “development” will seem like they are the same, and thus it becomes easy to believe “the future is always better than the past,” but this is only the case if there is a future, which there might not be.
Furthermore, if evolution developed “consciousness,” then it is possible that evolution contingently arose to a consciousness which could intentionally bring “evolution” and “development” together. This would suggest evolution has increased our freedom with time (a point that aligns with a Hegelian view of history), but is that increase in freedom “good” and/or a “development?” The jury is still out, and the answer seems contingent on what we do today (keep in mind that if the earth is billions of years old and consciousness is perhaps 100,000 years old (to throw out a number), then the test has not run for long). What examples of “evolution” overlap with “development” after consciousness might depend on what happens Now, which again suggests that “thinking the Now” is a key priority. The question of if the past was a mistake, or rather an opportunity for a negation/sublation that required what seems like a mistake (say consciousness), depends on what we do today. We cannot change what happened in the past, but we can change what it means.
Abstraction evolved into existence with evolution, but was this a development? That depends. Hegel would have us “assume the Now” and “think Now” and assume it wouldn’t be better to go back in history and direct evolution away from consciousness; instead, Hegel would have us assume that if we use abstraction correctly, we will develop better than had evolutionary not generated abstraction. Hume suggests that we must train philosophy to be “good philosophy” instead of bad and warns we naturally direct “abstraction” in problematic ways, but it is possible for us to right this mistake and focus on “the concrete” and “common life”; in other words, we are to think of thinking as a problem so that we might “rightly order it” with the concrete and material world. If we didn’t have consciousness, we wouldn’t have to worry about the problem of philosophy at all, but Hegel would have us assume that we gain something from practicing “good philosophy” that would prove “a greater development” than had we not evolved consciousness and not had to worry about consciousness, abstraction, philosophy, etc., at all — depending on what we do Now (a “flip moment”). Since everything for Hegel hinges on what we do Now, he would have us focus on the Now versus ponder the future or nostalgically look to the past, and yet at the same time Hegel studies and “learns to read” the past precisely to better act Now.
We decide today if consciousness was “just an evolution” or an “evolutionary development” (both), but there are no guarantees, and for Illich that depends on if we “go back to Christ.” To consider Hegel and Illich together, we could say that the degree we make Now express an overlap between “development” and “evolution” will be to the degree we work to be “like Christ” Now, in terms of our present moment (which for me requires us to “learn to think and read like Paul,” which is difficult). For Hume and Hegel, it could be said that “our Christ” is the concrete world itself and its history, and as Christianity would have us learn to read and interpret Christ so that we could “be like Christ,” so Hume and Hegel encourage us to pay close attention to the actual, concrete world and ultimately place philosophy in service of it. We are to limit thought with the world (to allude to Alex Ebert), which is to say “we think the problem of thought” to a place where it is “bound” by what we experience, the body, “common life,” matter — a position that is stressed by Bonnttia Roy. For thinkers like Hume, thought and abstraction will prove “a mere evolution” to the degree “thought is unbound,” while thought will prove a “developmental evolution” to the degree “thought is bound.”
Ivan Illich shared the thinking of Hume and Hegel to “bind thought” with “flesh” and “the world,” and how he did so was modeled by the person of Christ (in my view, a Christian can happily incorporate Hegel and Hume into their thought alongside Illich). Regardless, how we learn to “bind thought” with the concrete world and “common life” is precisely the same skills that we gain and develop in learning how to read a book like the Bible, which I believe Paul models for us in Romans, Corinthians, and the like (I believe combing the Gospels and Paul together into one big book of “The Second Testament” has contributed to us not seeing Paul has engaged in something fundamentally different from Jesus, making it difficult for us to place Paul in our thinking).
As the world progresses relative to its ability to better read and understand the Bible for the Christian (only gaining more potential innately), so we progress to the degree we get better at “reading the world,” per se, which is to say we learn to better refer to “what was always already there” in new and dynamic ways. As the Bible is in the past and we are ever-learning how to read it and progressing accordingly, so the world has been around for billions of years, and we are ever-learning to better read matter and understand the composition which has always been there, the Big Bang which started everything and in a way has always “been in” everything, and so on. Hegel placed a hard emphasis on the need to “interpret” and “learn to interpret” (which Žižek has suggested means we need to “interpret the world” versus try to first change it, as Marx stressed), and in this we see similarity with the Christian who learns how to “be like Christ” relative to how they learn to interpret the Bible and “see it alive” in the world through the Holy Spirit. And as for Christians “Christ was the pinnacle of creation” and thus what learning to interpret and “participate in” will determine to what degree we progress toward being like “the pinnacle of creation,” so for Hegel the Now is “all there is” and thus what learning to interpret and “participate in” will determine to what degree we progress toward being like “what is.” And as Dylan Shaul emphasizes, for Hegel, our work is to “reconcile ourselves to what is,” for that is how we prove “open” to the future which we cannot predict and which must always remain “other” (“like God,” per se).
But what is reading? How do we read? To answer that, I would ask readers to turn to “Hegel as You” by O.G. Rose, as well as refer to my discussions with Jacob Kishere, Dimitri Crooijmans, and Tyler Murphy on Christianity today. A concert of works and models, “reading” might be the highest intellectual act — and the most dangerous.
Hegel will not have us think ahead of the present, and yet Hegel seems progressive, which would suggest that progress is possible to the degree that we don’t overly-focus on what progress might look like in the future. Hegel’s progress emerges where we don’t try to imagine it, but instead do the work of reconciling ourselves with what “is” so that we will be prepared for what comes. We will have a future to the degree we tarry with the Now and the Real, and if we do this the future can be better, precisely because we will have improved at tarrying with the Now and the Real (and so become better “interpreters,” better humans). History is better to the degree we get better at understanding history in this sense, which is the act that keeps history going, for the skills that develop out of the efforts to master interpretation are also the skills which make us better humans, and if history is to continue we must get better at being human.
Not all “evolution” is “development,” even though the evolution which survives into the future can necessarily “seem like” development, thus making it very difficult not to treat “evolution” and “development” like similes. For Hegel, Hume, and Illich, to the degree we learn to “read” and “interpret” what “is” will be to the degree that we actually progress, which suggests that progress occurs to the degree that the Now interacts and interprets the past and present, and in this way it makes no sense to suggests that “the future is better than the past” in some overall sense. Yes, the future is always more evolved than the past, which is to say it has undergone more “trial and error” (which is ultimately all evolution is), but that doesn’t mean it will be more developed necessarily, only that it will have more potential, which might precisely be why it tortures us.
Unless — and this is a big “unless” — we believe that subjects and objects are somehow ontologically connected in strange and profound ways, which means change in the environment “work back” on the subject and thus assure “evolution” and “development” always ultimately converge until time and history are over. Ah, well — isn’t that something. On this, we will have to discuss Hegel’s “Absolute Idealism” and the notion that we and the world are two-sides of the same coin (as described in say Wolfgang Smith, John Vervaeke, etc.), which means it is not only subjects which change in response to their environments, but also environments which change in response to subjects, and both work in a “feedback loop” on one another to move “evolution” and “development” together in a Great Dance of some kind. There is no “I and world” but only an “I/world,” and “everything that rises converges,” as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin might say.
All this would bring us to the most speculative part of this work, which frankly cannot be fully addressed until around the end of The Absolute Choice, but regardless the conclusions we reach, we see reason to believe that “development” and “evolution” are not necessarily similes (even if somehow they all “work out together” in Absolute Idealism), and that is all we need to argue to see ways to bring Ivan Illich and Hegel together in a model of progress that is formally similar to “the problem of talent” and reading the Bible to be like Christ. Christ gives us a model of “orbiting as progress” while Hegel helps us see how we “gain potential” in that orbiting.
Another topic, but I believe this “model of progress” might also shed light on the best way to approach and consider friendship, a deep concern of Ivan Illich. We gain more “potential” to relate to our friends in new and different ways, but that “potential” is also precisely why being around our friends can feel so “heavy” and difficult. They know us so well, as we know them, and we’ve already done so much with them…What can we do now? What can we talk about now? Has not everything been exhausted? And they are changing and becoming different — how can we relate with them? Is friendship an “experience of time” which is a low-resolution form of “flow” which also connects with “intrinsic motivation?” “Reading,” “the movie which plays in our heading during reading,” and “flow” seem connected…
There is something here on how history develops that might model with friendship, but that would require more time to consider. It has something to do with “hearing Music,” as Socrates and Plato discuss, which has something to do with “life as instrument” as Bonnitta Roy teaches…History being a choice between “instrument” and “instrumental.” Does evolution develop toward “instruments” or “making us instrumental?” Does the evolution which “survives” survive precisely because we are “more like instruments” or “more instrumental?” That seems to be the question…
To close with language woven throughout The Absolute Choice (and a point that might or might not reflect Hegel’s own thinking — I’ll let readers decide), if we are more A/B than the past, then we are arguably “better overall” than the past, but this is only possible because there was a past which provided the material for “understanding” to become “reason” so that we might be A/B versus A/A. Furthermore, we’ve “always already” been A/B, and so we haven’t gained anything the past didn’t already have, only realized something “always already” present. This is a kind of progress, yes, but it’s also a realization of where we’ve always been standing — a “(non)journey,” as discussed in The Absolute Choice.
If Hegel believes there is ultimately no future unless we become A/B, then it’s fair to say that “the future is better than the past” if there is a future. Also, what do we mean when we talk about “the future?” Tomorrow? Next Thursday? Next year? We are always dealing with a vague notion that seems to refer to some “overall destination” that we are seeking, and with this in mind we might say that Hegel believes “the directionality” of Now is “toward” A/B. Hence, we cannot say that today has “reached the future” or not and that thus it is better than “the past,” for when do we know when we have reached that future which will supposedly be “better than the past?” It’s unclear, and for this reason we should be careful to worry about it but instead focus on the Now.
To review, in Hegel, we cannot really say that today is better than the past, and yet we should not want to go back. The future will have more potential than now simply thanks to the passing of more “trial and error,” but whether or not that potential proves a source of torture and complacency is contingent and depends on what we do today. Following both considerations, our focus should be on Now. Yes, if we innately become more A/B with time, we can say the future is “better in terms of ‘reason’ compared to ‘understanding,’ ” but there is no guarantee of a future, and again that “progress” is ultimately just “the progress of a (non)journey,” and so again we should focus on Now. Progress is bound to our relationship with Now, and if we progress beyond it, “progress” will prove a simile for “effacement.”
¹A question here could be asked on the idea that “Christ was the center of history” — is that so? There might be a tendency in Christianity to see the life of Christ as “the end of history,” but in a way that suggests this age for the Christian in which the Holy Spirit is active and alive is less important. But why should that follow if Christ and the Holy Spirit are equally God? Perhaps Christ paved the way for the Spirit, and so Christ was necessary for the Holy Spirit, but does it follow that Christ was therefore “more important?” Not necessarily, and this might actually suggest it is a mistake to see Christ as “the pinnacle and center of history,” for right now could be just as important as then, seeing as the Holy Spirit is amongst us. And if the Father was more active before Christ in the Torah, since the Father is part of “The Trinity,” then there is an argument to be made that all of history is all equally important, which means it is perhaps wrong to think of Christ as “the peak of history.” And yet at the same time there seems to be truth to the notion — how?
If God came in a person, then that person could provide a key model for how we can “be like God” in our daily lives. Christ provides a framework and collection of “rules of thumb” by which we might interpret our present moment and how we should respond to it in light of what we know about God as a person in Christ. It is not self-evident though how Christ would approach nuclear weapons or Capitalism, but because we have a model in Christ, which is deeper and more alive than mere dogmas or premises, we can begin to approach these topics. “How to do so” I think is modeled in Paul, who can be seen in his letters as trying to “wrestle with God” to determine what should be done about topics and issues which Christ never directly spoke on and that cannot be directly found in the Torah. Paul is attempting to understand Corinth (for example) in light of Christ’s person and the principles that seemed to emerge in Christ’s life, which have to be balanced and considered in light of the Torah. This is a very complicated intellectual act which suggests why “interpretation” is such a profound intellectual achievement, and hence why Hegel would emphasize it.
Interpretation as we see in Paul is “the birth of theology,” following N.T. Wright, and it also suggests that great interpretation is also a translation of the present moment in light of what is being interpreted. We are to think “what is” in light of “what has been” while also meditating upon the interplay between them, an act which performing can change us into different kinds of subjects, and, as a result, we will then enter the future differently than we would have had we never undergone this training in interpretation. For Hegel, to be changed by interpretation as subjects is precisely what is required so that we can understand the present moment and rise to its occasion, which is what we must do if there is going to be a future, and if we do this the future will be better than the present. Thus, if there is a future, it will be better than today, and it will be such because we will have transformed ourselves through exercises and practices of interpretation. We will have striven to “be like Christ” relative to topics Christ didn’t directly speak on or live with, through the methodologies of Paul, which parallel with the methods of Hegel. Hegel would have us do philosophy as Paul does theology, which is how we can reconcile ourselves with what “is” so that we might be “open” to the future which itself is entirely “open.”
Here, we can see how it could be possible to think of Christ as somehow central to history, and yet also square the idea that Christianity introduces the idea of a “progressive history” versus a history that is circular (as some scholars have argued). If Christ introduced a model by which we can learn how to be better interpreters and so better at reconciling ourselves with what reality “is,” and if this act results in the world becoming better, than we can see how a model which appears in the middle of history begins a trajectory of historic improvement. Yes, the idea of progress can also come with the idea of a Second Coming and New Jerusalem, but we might think these as episodes which become possible to the degree humans become “better at being humans,” which is the act of becoming better “interpreters” in a way that aligns with Paul and Hegel. Christ then as a model for how to live with “what is” thus unlocks progress in what could come.