The real is rational and the rational is real

In this essay…

The debate on reality has been the cornerstone of philosophical development. Hegel’s statement – The real is rational and the rational is real – asks two questions: What is real? How would we validate reality? The nature of reality differs from person to person. For Hegel and Plato, Ideas are real. But for Marx, matters are real. In the process of validating reality, rationalism becomes an important component for idealist thinkers like Hegel and Plato. The philosophical movement of rationality travels from ancient to modern days.

Why does Hegel propose this notion?

However, the above quote was given by the German philosopher, Hegel in the context of justifying the “unchallenged authority” of the state. In the first part – ‘The real is rational’ – Hegel explains the nature of reality in an idealistic sense. Since Hegel was inspired by Socrates’ tradition, for him, “ideas” are real. Sometimes idea attracts the equivalence of god. Once he established the nature of reality, Hegel proposed his political ambition through the second part – ‘Rational is real’. It means ideas can only be understood through reason.

The end objective of Hegel is to equate the state with god so that people would not dare to challenge the absolute truth. It is so because Hegel was officially paid for by the German state. That’s why Hegel says – ‘State is a march of god on the earth’. It means a maximum reflection of God is seen in the state. Reflection of God in the state is a reality that only is understood through reason. Thus, people must be obedient to the state without questioning authority.

Before the Socrates tradition, atoms were deemed as reality. It was scientific thinking. It comes very close to Vaisheshika’s school of thought in Hinduism. It believes that all objects in the physical universe are reducible to a finite number of atoms. God is regarded as the fundamental force that causes consciousness in these atoms. Thinkers from Vaisheshika believe that all objects of the universe are composed of five elements – earth, water, air, fire, and ether. That’s why when a person dies, his ashes were mixed in these “panchtatva”.

However, in Socratic tradition – instead of the atom – ideas are deemed as reality. Disciple of Socrates, Plato says that ‘ideas are real’. According to Socrates, matter can be seen through naked eyes but ideas can’t be seen. It means God is an idea and god is absolute. To understand god, we need the enlightenment of the soul. The soul can be enlightened through dialectic – deliberation. It would inculcate reason in a person. Plato says that due to ignorance in the people, we consider the material as real. Actually, it is not real but the illusion of reality. In his words, “Ideas are a shadow of reality”.

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To understand the reality of ideas, Plato gives the example of the ‘Allegory of the cave”. For him, the cave is a symbol of darkness or ignorance. In the cave, the hands of people are tied behind. They are made to sit opposite to the sunlight and face toward the wall of the cave. People inside the cave whose hands were tied see the shadow of real birds on the wall. Their state of ignorance made them to realize that those are merely reflections and not real. But actually, it is not.

The state of knowledge having an enlightened soul will acknowledge the role of sunlight. Thus, what they are seeing on the wall of the cave is a reality that can’t be seen by naked eyes. Similarly, ideas are real and can’t be seen with naked eyes.

Real is rational: Tells nature of reality

On the line of Socratic and Hegelian tradition, we can extrapolate the nature of reality at the individual level. For example, a person possesses intellect, humor, and other feelings. These are real things that exist in our life. These things can’t be seen by naked eyes. It can only be understood through reason and rational dialogue. For example, Buddha says – “Pain is inevitable and suffering is optional”. This is the idea that reality in daily life that can be learned through enlightenment. It means pleasure and pain are part of our life. It totally depends on us how much we suffer from the pain. It indicates that ideas that are real have a rational spirit.

Similarly, on the social level, it is often asked in society whether a god exists or not. Non-believers like Karl Marx reject it as propaganda. But the believers of the concerned religion explain that God exists. For them, it is a reality. It can’t be seen through naked eyes in the same fashion as we can’t see the intellectualism of an individual. These things can be realized through reason. For example, the dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna in Geeta is real. A man with an enlightened soul can understand its reality in even today’s life. For this, we have to be free from the shackle of ignorance.

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Along with these, the debate of “ideas” as reality at the state level is found in the work of German scholar, Hegel. According to him, reality comes out of reason and not observation. It is because the idea is understood by the use of reason and matter is understood through observation. The idea is intangible in nature and thus it can’t be seen through necked eyes. Thus, he equates “idea” with the “god”. For him, a maximum reflection of god is found in the state. It is so because the state is a source of ‘universal altruism’. It means, unlike family and society, the state loves all the people of the state in a universal fashion. It is explained in his second phrase – “rational is real”.

Rational is real: Political purpose of Hegel

Once Hegel established “idea” as reality in the first phrase “real is rational”, he attempted to establish the state as God. This is what fascist leaders want. For example, In the words of Mussolini – “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State.” It indicates the provision of duty without rights. It is similar to Hobbes’s political obligation who sketched an idea of an absolute state – Leviathan. In that state, people would surrender all their rights before the state except the right to life. Hegel says that this thesis can only be understood through reason.

Hegel proposed the reason behind the proposal of the “state as a march of God on the earth”. According to him, ideas shape history. The reflection of idea/god found in the state. The state gives security and welfare. It is even found in Indian philosophies where King provides Raksha i.e. security and Palan i.e. welfare. Abul Fazal in his conception of social contract during medieval India explains that the state has the duty to protect – Jan (Live), Mal (Property), Din (Faith), and Namus (honor). Similarly, Hegel claims that the state is an institution of universal altruism. Applying dialectical idealism, we found that the state works in the interest of all.

However, in the case of family, there is altruism (love) Vs particularism contradiction. It is because of biological determinism and feeling of “mine and thine” for own family. In the case of civil society, there is a contradiction between egoism and universalism. Unlike family, it is universal in nature but there is a sense of egoism in civil society. It means civil society acts on the basis of the self-interest of that particular community. But the state has no contradiction because it is based on universal altruism. It loves all equally.

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Implications and critical perspective

In the contemporary world, this is true that the state has a sense of universal altruism. For example, the Indian constitution and the spirit of constitutional force the state to see every person from the same prism irrespective of caste, culture, race, gender, etc (Article 14). It takes care of its people during bad times. For example, the Government of India launched PM Gareeb Kalyan Scheme to take care of poor people. The state even takes care of its citizen abroad. The government of India launched operation Ganga to evacuate its citizen from Ukraine when Russia invaded Ukraine.

However, Karl Marx criticized their perspective of Hegel. For him, ideas create ‘false consciousness’ among people. For example, the government in Afghanistan led by the Taliban justifies all heinous acts in the name of ideas/gods. It restricts the ability to reason and asks against the government. Consequently, it leads to compromise in women’s rights and exploitation of minorities in Afghanistan. Further, Hannah Arendt, known for the finest work in totalitarianism, says that ideas and ideologies reduce a person to a ‘superfluous entity’. It means the concerned person loses their ability to think on their own. Thus, it creates a ground of a totalitarian state where the rights of the weaker section are subjugated.

In conclusion, there is a need for a middle path as suggested by Buddha in his conception of the ‘Golden mean’. There is nothing black or white in the ideological sphere. There are many shades of grey in between them. Idea and matter both exist in nature. Neither ‘idea’ without ‘matter’ is a happy word nor ‘matter’ without ‘idea’ is a happy word. For example, Taliban-led Afghanistan has ideas without matter. It has been increasing the suffering of the people in Afghanistan. Russia under Stalin had ‘matter’ without ‘idea’. But Russia witnessed the genocide of its own people. Hence, as Krishna in Bhagwat Geeta says – we should go for the option that ensures maximum pleasure of its own people – the role ‘idea’ and ‘matter’ both matter.

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