Georg Hegel (1770-1831), philosopher and historian, had to decide what to retain and what to jettison of the French Enlightenment tradition that had permeated German culture. From the Enlightenment he chose freedom of action, not just freedom of thought. The other important element brought forward was reason – reason reveals itself through the struggles of man. Hegel introduced a system to study history called ‘a dialectic’ – a progression in which each successive movement emerges as a solution to the contradictions inherent in the preceding movement with the development of freedom and the consciousness of freedom.
Hegel turned to the study of Greek history to determine why freedom was so elusive. The fall of Athens had been brought about by the symbiosis between the individual and society being shattered following a combination of events – rise in trading empire, rise of aristocracy and imperialist wars. As the wealth of the polis increased, political power fell into the hands of a few. Those in power ruled in their own interest without regard to public welfare. The fall of the polis, Hegel explains, was the result of the spirit departing from it. The death of the spirit in a people involves the loosening of a sense of the citizen’s identification with his state.
Then Hegel applied logic to support his principles. The law of identity states that A is A. What is the nature of this statement? Behind it, Hegel points out, lies the statement ‘A is not non-A.’ In other words, the principle of identity rests on the principle of exclusion. What is negated is part of what is affirmed. Hegel’s new idea is to claim everything is linked to its opposite. “To be what a thing really is,” he says, “it must become what it us not.1” That means, an idea or concept must establish itself against its opposite in order to be authentic.
The world is chaotic and evil and not what it should be. There is a significant gap between what is and what it ought to be. Hegel believed strife is the essence of progress and life. If the tension and struggle ceases man becomes a mere creature of habit. He developed a philosophy of action. The spirit is always active in the search of some aim, in realizing one’s potential or self-actualization. When we cease to strive to realize a potential, Hegel maintains, then we live by habit, by rote. When we accept a definition of ourselves, when we have no further goal or aim, when we feel we are as good as we can be, then the let down sets in. When we no longer strive to close a gap between potentiality and actuality, we are dying. This is true for both states and individuals.
The spirit stimulates man to be what is not yet and ought to be. The spirit or creative energy can understand freedom and work to realize it, or it can create new things. Self-realization occurs through tension and struggle. This allows the development of thesis by comparing opposing points of view and disregarding those elements of the respective arguments advanced which are shown to be false, one may ultimately arrive at the truth which in effect is something of a synthesis of the opposing points of view.1
The world is chaotic and mean and not what it should be, in Hegel’s time as well as today. Four decades of government deregulation has fed the growth of global corporations that allows wealth to be concentrated in the hands of a few. Global corporations are responsible for the removal of traditional government accountability to a fixed population from most of politics. This creates a lack of ability of those affected by decisions to protect their legitimate rights and interests. In this world of economic uncertainty, the middle class is under siege while economic gap between the wealthy and the rest of society grows.
The World Health Organization declared “The social determinants of health are the (economic and social) conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age, including the health system.” British workers (Wilkinson & Marmot, 1998) have identified the social gradients, stress, early life, social exclusion, work, unemployment, social support, addiction, food and transport as key determinants of health. Poverty is a key factor underlying whether these determinants of health can be obtained.
Health equity suggests that everyone can reach their full health potential and that they should not be disadvantaged from attaining this potential as a result of their class, socioeconomic status or other socially determined circumstance (Whitehead and Dahlgren 2006). Inequities reduce the freedom and opportunities for an individual to reach their full potential in general, and wellness or good health, in particular. Inequity is the biggest factor affecting the health of the population. The present economic situation has seen an increase in inequity and poverty.
Many now believe it is not enough to define poverty as not having enough material resources to merely survive, but rather having enough resources to participate in society in a meaningful way. Peter Townsend’s definition of poverty: people are deprived if they cannot obtain at all, or sufficiently the conditions of life – diets, amenities, standards and services – which allow them to play the roles, participate in relationships and follow the customary behavior which is expected of them by virtue of their membership in society.2 The consequences of lack of participation is disengagement from school, community and political affairs.
Many have discussed Hagel’s ‘failure’ to theorize a remedy for the poverty that disrupts modern society.3 Peter Townsend’s definition of poverty works with Hegel’s philosophy of action. Today the growing income gap limits previous choices and freedom of action – Hegel focused on relative poverty (that sinks below a certain standard of living) and was concerned about workers not receiving the freedoms of civil society.4 He saw the importance of one always striving to reach their full potential (or self-actualization) – to ensure the health of the state as well as the individual.
The solution to today’s inequality and poverty can come from the dialectic process described by Hegel. The present trickle down economics of small government and minimal regulations which makes decisions through the lens of individualism that is responsible for the increasing income gap constitutes one opposing view while making economic and environment decisions through the lens of the social determinants of health to counter inequity in the system makes up the opposing thesis. We accept progress results from the conflict of man’s interest and passions – assuming he has choices not limited by social or health inequities. Somewhere between the two thesis lies the goal of the individual struggling to reach the self-actualization envisioned by Hegel.
1An Outline of European Intellectual History Locke to Hegel, Harold J Foster, Editor Forum House: Toronto 1969, p. 151 – 167.
2Raphael, Denis. Poverty, Income Inequality and Health in Canada. CSJ Foundation for Research and Innovation, 2002.
3Fraser, Ian. Speculations on Poverty in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, from The European Legacy: Toward New Paradigms, Volume 1, Issue 7, 1996, p 2055
4Balaney, David and Naeem Inayatullah. Savage Economics: Wealth, Poverty and the Temporal Walls of Capitalism, 2010, p. 135.