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  • Ägypten und Aufhebung:G. W. F. Hegel, W. E. B. Du Bois, and the African Orient
  • Jeremy W. Pope (bio)

Au Nil je le rencontre encore.
L'Égypte resplendit des feux de son aurore;
Son astre impérial se lève à l'orient.

—Victor Hugo, "Lui"

The internal, mental transition is mediated by Egypt.

—G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History

The elder Hegel one finds in Berlin has become something of an antiquarian—frequenting museums, perusing the works of explorers and epigraphers, and, like many of his compatriots, seeking solace from political unrest.1 At the intersection of lecture topics in religion, aesthetics, and history, he alights repeatedly on the subject of ancient Egypt. Among Hegel's sources is Aloys Hirt's Ueber die Bildung der Aegyptischen Gottheiten. Inside a folder of brown scratch paper, Hegel carefully arranges a table with the column headings: "Griechischer Nahme," "Ägyptischer [Nahme]," [End Page 149] "Thier," "Gestalt," "Tempel," and "Localität"—an apparent correlation of Græco-Roman and Egyptian mythologies. The table begins with careful systematism, but by page three the professor's interest begins to fade. The fourth page is altogether blank, Hegel having abridged only half of Hirt's text into tabular form. Helmut Schneider remarks, "scheint Hegels Eifer mit fortschreitender Arbeit erlahmt zu sein" [Hegel's enthusiasm for further work seems to have waned] (1981, 56).

This fragment, likely a minor one from Hegel's final years, is in fact quite typical of his intermittent engagement with ancient Egypt throughout the early nineteenth century. Even the degree of Hegel's interest is no easy read, and scholars have arrived at widely divergent conclusions on the matter. Martin Bernal has argued that "Hegel wrote exceptionally little about Egypt, . . . and his placing it above India seems to have been a shallow device to keep the overall direction of the Universal Idea from east to west" (1987, 256). By contrast, Helmut Schneider speaks of "Hegels lebhaftes Interesse an Ägypten" [Hegel's lively interest in Egypt] (1981, 56), and Jay Lampert follows with the argument that "Hegel gave considerable attention to Ancient Egyptian thought; he includes chapters on Egypt in several texts" (1995, 43). Such is the state of the research constellation that is Hegel and Egypt: depending on one's interlocutor, it is a subject at either the distant margins or the center of Hegel's thought.

The source of this dissonance runs more deeply than any quantification, any indexing of Hegelian references to the Nile valley, can possibly reveal. Rather, it is encoded in a qualitative reading2 : Hegel's is an Egypt lacking in definitive personality. Elsewhere his geography is a dramatis personae of memorable characters—Africa, the land of sensuous consciousness; China, the realm of theocratic despotism; India, the region of reproductive imagination; Persia, the "doctrine of Light"; and Greece, the miracle of "real Individuality" and artistic beauty (Hegel 1822, 222, 224). Egypt, by contrast, is a mere "riddle" [Rätsel], a "germ of ideality" (199, 219). As he states in his lectures on the philosophy of religion, "[t]he Spirit of the Egyptian nation is, in fact, an enigma" (1895, II, 114). Lampert has observed the dominance of this trope in Hegel's depiction: [End Page 150]

Hegel saw the entirety of Ancient Egypt as the expression of the problematic as such. The Sphynx, the pyramids, the hieroglyphs, the mysteries, the mummies, the animal-headed gods—all elements of Egyptian culture—manifest precisely the issue of the problem, the enigma, the hiddenness of spirit inside matter, the riddle.

(1995, 43)

As an iterative "symbol of the symbolic," Egypt resides in a distinctly liminal realm—in Whitehead's terms, "on the fringe of life," neither wholly animate nor dead (Regier 2004, xviii; Whitehead 1927, 1). Where Africa, China, India, Persia, and Greece claim their emotive and memorialized essences, Egypt has only an enigma, an intellectualized riddle.

And yet: For whom is the riddle posed? A riddle for the Egyptian, trapped at the cusp of Idea? Or equally a riddle for Hegel himself—in his own words, a "mighty taskmaster" directing the exercise of Hegelian writing and, subsequently, reading (1822, 214)? And for those studying in his...


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