Children gather during Holy Week in Spain (CESAR MANSO/AFP via Getty Images)

March 30, 2024   6 mins

The hardest word in Hegel’s notoriously difficult Phenomenology of Spirit appears in the book’s final sentence. It is not a dense new German construction, but the translation of a Hebrew place name. Or, perhaps better, of an Aramaic place name, since that is what we now call the vernacular spoken by Jesus and his contemporaries, in Galilee and Judaea, in what we now call the first century CE.

Though Hegel leaves him unnamed, it is the figure of Jesus that hovers over the conclusion of his thrilling, Romantic treatise on the human (and divine) “experience of consciousness”. For what the final sentence of The Phenomenology of Spirit tells us — and this is the book, remember, that conjures up all the spectres of Marx in 19th-century Europe, 20th-century Asia and beyond — is that the secret of human history, in all its melancholy glory, is Golgotha.

In Hegel’s mysterious vision of the end of history, history restlessly circles and progressively spirals upwards from (and towards) its spiritual core. That is the rock that the waves of Hegel’s great oceanic book break upon, again and again — “the Golgotha of absolute spirit”. Without its Golgotha, Hegel says, history “would be lifeless”. Which is also to say that, without Golgotha — whatever that is — global history would be lacking in “truth”.

How do we know this? In the original German, Hegel deploys the phrase “die SchĂ€delstĂ€tte”, which Martin Luther, the 16th-century theological avant-gardist (and restorationist), used to Germanise a sinister Jerusalem place name, Golgotha, in his epoch-making translation of the New Testament. We read in the Gospel of Mark, for instance, that on the morning of his death, Roman conscripts brought Jesus “to the place called Golgotha, which means the place of a skull”. It is there that the Romans crucified him. And Luther’s rendering of that place — “the place of a skull” — is SchĂ€delstĂ€tte. Three hundred years later, that is the name that Hegel bestows on the dark heart of global history. In Aramaic, it is Golgotha — and in Latin, Calvariae Locus. The place of a skull. The place where Jesus died.

If Karl Marx & Co. had remembered this, they might have known that fully liberated worldwide luxury communism was never on the cards. And if Francis Fukuyama & Bros. had remembered this, they might not have been taken in by the late-liberal fever dream of the end of history.

Whether or not we’re Hegelians, we can agree that Hegel saw better than most what was coming in his century — and is still coming in ours. Which is suffering and death, and the sublime question of what humans will do with them. What will become of us through suffering and death? What will become of us through our own Golgotha?

“Whether or not we’re Hegelians, we can agree that Hegel saw better than most what was coming in his century.”

Hegel puts it differently, and more vividly, in a manuscript of his Lectures on the Philosophy of World History. He writes that:

“Even as we look upon history as an altar on which the happiness of nations, the wisdom of states, and the virtue of individuals are slaughtered, our thoughts inevitably impel us to ask: to whom, or to what ultimate end have these monstrous sacrifices been made?”

This gloomy vision of world history can help us to decipher the last sentence of his Phenomenology. For what is history, here, but a vast zone in which “monstrous sacrifices” have been made (and are still being made, and will always be made)? And what is Hegel’s Golgotha, but the place par excellence where a “monstrous sacrifice” was made?

Yet the question formulated in Hegel’s Lectures still hangs: What are we to make of the gruesome spectacle of human history?

One of the peculiarities of this question is that the spectacle of world history is not one that we can disinterestedly observe. It can never just be an object for our “brooding reflection”, for we are all immersed in the spectacle. And history irresistibly makes something of us, too — something which Hegel ultimately calls a sacrifice. His question therefore becomes: to whom or for what are we being sacrificed? A sacrifice is not senseless. It is not lacking in intentionality, or in structure.

Hegel believes that human suffering is not without intrinsic meaning. Because of this, he places himself in line with the incomparably brilliant Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who advanced the earth and life sciences, formulated infinitesimal calculus, foreshadowed AI, promoted civilisational dialogue with China, and elaborated a radically modern, yet richly traditional metaphysics. Hegel tells us that his own philosophy can be read, like Leibniz’s, as “a theodicy, a justification of the ways of God”. He tells us, too, that he is “personally convinced” that the world is “governed by providence”. It is his “general notion of a divine world order” — burlesqued by Voltaire in his 1759 novella, Candide, or Optimism — that he shares with Leibniz.

“It is in world history,” writes Hegel, “that we encounter the sum total of concrete evil.” Needless to say, that sum is both incalculable and inexpressible. Hegel himself feels that world history presents “a most terrifying picture”. But he also concludes that the “concrete events” in history are “the ways of providence”. What he means by this is that “the history of the world is a rational process”. And what that means, for him, is that divine reason — and divine love — must obscurely be present “in everything, especially in the theatre of world history”.

How could divine love be present in the “monstrous sacrifices” that human reason rightly finds abhorrent? There is only one way, and it is what Hegel calls “the category of the negative”. The negative is, for him, precisely a category of sacrifice. “We cannot fail to notice”, he writes, “how all that is finest and noblest in the history of the world is immolated upon its altar”. The negative, then, is Hegel’s altar — his place of sacrifice. And he thinks that divine love can be present in global history, because the divine itself has been placed upon that altar. Hegel’s God is no stranger to the anguish and irrationality of the negative.

It is only through suffering — or “the labour of the negative”, as Hegel puts it in the Phenomenology’s opening pages — that a divine love could prove its “seriousness”. And where then, for him, is the place where divine love has revealed its seriousness — by actually convulsing, and dying, and “decaying” in history?

At Golgotha, at the SchÀdelstÀtte.

For Hegel, the place where Jesus died thus symbolises the essence of history — both past and future — because it is the place where we can contemplate human suffering in all its glistening horror, where it is the divine itself that is being sacrificed, and the divine itself that is dying. Only after his baptism of blood, in Hegel’s reading of the gospels, is Jesus finally transformed into the bearer (or figure) of a new and higher life.

Hegel cannot consider the rationality of history without the suffering of God. At the same time, he cannot consider the realisation of meaning in history without our suffering — which is perhaps to say, without our participation in the suffering of God. Without our Golgotha.

But Hegel’s stress on the necessity and radical meaning of human suffering does not make him — like his younger contemporary, Schopenhauer — a pessimist. It is Schopenhauer who systematises pessimism as a new style of philosophy, in conscious opposition to Hegel — generating a fierce and largely forgotten “Pessimism Controversy” (Pessimismusstreit) in 19th-century Germany. For Schopenhauer (as for Voltaire, before him), optimism is a term of abuse. In his words, the world is nothing but a blood-land of “tormented and anxious beings who survive only by devouring one another”. Where Leibniz had reasoned that ours must be “the best of all possible worlds”, Schopenhauer counters that it is certainly “the worst of all possible worlds”.

Schopenhauer is blistering in his criticisms of both Leibniz and Hegel. And yet, on the last page of his huge opus, The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer points us — much like Hegel, on the last page of his Phenomenology — to the sacred narratives of Jesus’ death. Schopenhauer tells us here, whatever we make of it, that his own theory of ethics is “in complete agreement with Christian ethics”. Furthermore, he tells us, it is the figure of “the crucified Saviour” — or perhaps, he adds, one of the outlaws crucified with Jesus — who has revealed “the inner essence of the world”.

For Hegel, the essence of history is divine reason, which must be revered. For Schopenhauer, it is an effect of demoniac will, which must be negated. The contrast is not only stark, but self-conscious. And yet, in the last pages of both their iconic 19th-century works, we find that if love is to be the secret of history (Hegel) and compassion the basis of ethics (Schopenhauer), then “the place of a skull” — the place where Jesus died — is world history’s symbolic centre. All the chaos, anguish, and destructiveness of recent months invite us to remember that.

David Lloyd Dusenbury is a philosopher and historian of ideas. His latest book, I Judge No One: A Political Life of Jesus, is out now.