The Power of Myth: Hegel, Nietzsche, and Christianity

by Justin Tejeda

by Justin Tejeda

For being such different thinkers, Hegel and Nietzsche have a surprising amount in common. Both abandoned traditional philosophical argument for lofty prose; both wrote dense books that require patient digestion instead of casual reading; both, it could be said, were more visionary poets than philosophers. But any similarities between the two philosophers, once more carefully examined, reveal completely different underlying goals: Hegel’s poetic vision is in service of a systematized investigation into reality itself; Nietzsche’s, however, is used as a hammer against such a notion. Fitting then, that both philosophers looked towards the Christian faith for inspiration, but in completely different ways. Hegel rips the conceptual truths out from the Bible, peeling away their myth, story, and metaphor, and distills them into a purer, more rational form: the Notion. Nietzsche however, rejects the teachings of the Bible while adopting the form in which they are rendered, harnessing myth and story for his own ends. It could be said then that while Hegel appropriates the content of Christianity and rejects its form, Nietzsche does the complete opposite, rejecting its content and appropriating its form. Hegel, in his search for truth, dissected Biblical myth and rearranged it into a better, truer version of what it was. Nietzsche, content with merely dissecting it and leaving it mutilated, forged his own myths.

Hegel’s reverence for Christianity, it should be noted, is not a matter of merely appreciating the myths of the Bible as useful fictions. Hegel isn’t taking the Bible to be “metaphorically, but not literally true”, in the sense one might typically understand that sort of phrase. The Christian faith is not merely a fable with a good message to Hegel—such a reading would be appropriate for a children’s bedtime story, not the Christian Bible. Rather, what christianity expresses is indeed the ultimate truth of existence: that consciousness “is all of reality.”1 As Hegel sees it, Christian Religious consciousness is the result of a long historical process of consciousness coming to understand itself as constituting all of reality: it is “consciousness aware of its own being-for-self.”2 Hegel sketches out this process in The Phenomenology of Spirit as taking shape through a dialectical process, a logical unwinding of a single truth over time. The entirety of History is indeed nothing more than this “conscious self-mediating process,”3 which results in Spirit finally knowing itself. Crucially, the Christian religion marks the culmination of this process, and thus expresses that single truth that has guided the process of History to its final conclusion: that Spirit “itself is reality, or that everything actual is none other than itself.”4 It would not be inappropriate to say that the content housed within the Christian religion, at least as Hegel interprets it, is the center point, even the pinnacle, of Hegel’s entire philosophical project.

This is all a bit vague and abstract, and of course, everything is with Hegel. But these wordy abstractions have a point, and a fair bit of contextualization and elaboration is necessary to flesh it out. Following in the wake of Kant, who asserted that reality as we know it is a product of the structures of mind, Hegel posits a pure idealism that sees absolute consciousness (Spirit, as Hegel calls it) as all of reality. Hegel, unlike Kant, isn’t asserting reality as we know it to be the product of consciousness, he’s asserting reality itself to be nothing but consciousness. The division between object and subject, between knower and known—already made dubious, grey, and muddled by Kant—is totally dismantled by Hegel. Hegel declares: the object is “my object,” its very being is “mine,” “it is, because I know it.”5 Hegel takes Kant to his logical extremes, abolishing the supposed thing-in-itself Kant clung to, the reality outside of us supposedly causing our experiences. While Kant concedes that such a thing-in-itself can’t be known in any way, he maintains that it still exists. Hegel however, recognizes no reality beyond the mind, or beyond consciousness. He doesn’t even restrict the reality of consciousness to the single individual consciousness. To Hegel, what constitutes reality is Absolute Spirit; it’s inter-subjective, not limited to you and me, but rather, permeating all of us: it is the “‘I’ that is ‘We’ and the ‘We’ that is ‘I’.”6 Individuation, thus, is illusory. What Spirit is, and therefore what reality is, is “this absolute substance which is the unity of the different independent self-consciousnesses.”7