You may have noticed that I’m not one for being political, and I tend to shy away from engaging in such polarizing discussions. You may have also noticed I tend to err on the side of rationality, compared to emotionality. What I’ve learned over the years is, if you look at the world rationally, you will see things rationally. The trick is knowing in the moment if you are looking at something through a lens of rationality or one of fear.
Given our current political landscape, it’s not surprising that many people are interested in are looking for a different, more empowering perspective.
In conversations recently I’ve found myself leaning on the philosophy of 19th century German philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. His principal achievement was developing a perspective of idealism (sometimes called “absolute idealism”) where the dualistic nature of conflicts is overcome so that people can come into unity and balance — a fairly optimistic viewpoint, and one I think will help us in gaining a new perspective on the events of the present day. Hegel observed that the patterns in world history show that human progress is not a linear path. Instead, it’s more like a pendulum swinging back and forth, each time attempting to over-correct and compensate for a previous society’s failings.
Hegel theorized that it takes three or so moves of this pendulum before the right balance on any issue can be found. He called these moves a thesis, an antithesis and a synthesis. The thesis and antithesis are opposing views on how an element of human progress ought to be guided. Hegel says they need to interact, debate and clash for the synthesis to emerge, which is a resolution of the two opposing sides.
As an example, our Founding Fathers instilled in our constitution equality among its people (the thesis). But the slave-owning states would not join the revolution if that meant completely abandoning the foundation of their economy (the antithesis). After the Revolutionary War, new states were added to the country in pairs — one free and one that allowed slavery. This compromise was the synthesis. However, once it was established as policy it became the new thesis, which allowed a new antithesis to arise in the form of the Abolitionist Movement, and then the Civil War and so on. This video goes more into Hegel’s theory.
In our present world climate, we can lean on Hegel’s argument when it seems like progress is taking two steps forward, one step back (or perhaps, depending on where you sit, one step forward and two back). Viewing current events through the lens of fear, it can feel like rifts are forming that may never heal. However, by looking at things with as much of a rational lens as we can muster, we may be able to see the swing of the pendulum at work. Observing the swing, we may notice that it spends the vast majority of its time in the middle area, only reaching the extremes of its movement for a short time before a correction pulls it back.
I am not suggesting that we ought to wait around for the pendulum to swing back on its own, toward a preferred direction. The swing gains its energy from people taking action for the outcomes they support. The challenge is that, when we get caught up in fear, we hand over our power to make change to those who fill us with that fear. We often feel paralyzed to do anything that would make a difference. Taking action, no matter how small, can break the surly bonds of fear, release the cloud of emotion, and bring ourselves and our outside world more into balance.
Often, these same struggles take place within each of us. We find ourselves wanting to grow and change, but afraid to leave the comfort of old patterns. Sometimes the conflict is obvious — “I want to be more social,” vs. “I want more alone time.” Sometimes it’s more subtle, like a nagging feeling that you may be undervaluing yourself, held against a fear of losing clients if you raise your rates. Once again, approaching these issues with fear can keep you passive, feeling stuck and directionless. No matter if you like the way things are or would like to see them change, being in action is the key to ensuring the swing from thesis and antithesis to synthesis occurs.
Hegel’s work is a reminder that living through seemingly scary experiences — whether internal or global — does not mean that all is lost. Instead, it’s an indication that human process is making an attempt at self correction, to find balance between two or more opposing forces. He reminds us that no matter where we are in the swing, the strength of the human spirit, and the actions we take to make the world a better place for all of us, will sift through the wisdom of time to eventually find a point of synthesis (if only to start the process all over again).
This week, pay attention to Hegel’s philosophy at work in your own life. See if you can spot the thesis, antithesis and synthesis in your workplace, family interactions, or simply out in the world. Can you see a synthesis emerging from the interplay between the thesis and antithesis? Do you have the patience to allow the synthesis to develop naturally, or do you feel the need to control it? When you do attempt to intervene, how well do things turn out?
“I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. ’Tis the business of little minds to shrink, but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death.” — Thomas Paine