An ode to sociopaths

The great individuals of world history … are those who seize upon th[e] higher universal and make it their own end. It is they who realise the end appropriate to the higher concept of the spirit. To this extent, they may be called heroes. They do not find their aims and vocation in the calm and regular system of the present, in the hallowed order of things as they are. Indeed, their justification does not lie in the prevailing situation, for they draw their inspiration from another source, from that hidden spirit whose hour is near but which still lies beneath the surface and seeks to break out without yet having attained an existence in the present. For this spirit, the present world is but a shell which contains the wrong kind of kernel. It might, however, be objected that everything which deviates from the established order — whether intentions, aims, opinions, or so-called ideals — is likewise different from what is already there. Adventures of all kinds have such ideals, and their activities are based on attitudes which conflict with the present circumstances. But the fact that all such attitudes, sound reasons, or general principles differ from existing ones does not mean to say that they are justified. The only true ends are those whose content has been produced by the absolute power of the inner spirit itself in the course of its development; and world-historical individuals are those who have willed and accomplished not just the ends of their own imagination or personal opinions, but only those which were appropriate and necessary. Such individuals know what is necessary and timely, and have an inner vision of what it is.


It is possible to distinguish between the insight of such individuals and the realisation that even such manifestations of the spirit as this are no more than moments within the universal Idea. To understand this is the prerogative of philosophy. World-historical individuals have no need to do so, as they are men of practice. They do, however, know and will their own enterprise, because the time is ripe for it, and it is already inwardly present. Their business is to know this universal principle, which is the necessary and culminating stage in the development of their world, to make it their end, and to devote their energy to its realisation. They derive the universal principle whose realisation they accomplish from within themselves; it is not, however, their own invention, but is eternally present and is merely put into practice by them and honoured in their persons. But since they draw it from within themselves, from a source which was not previously available, they appear to derive it from themselves alone; and the new world order and the deeds they accomplish appear to be their own achievement, their personal interest and creation. But right is on their side, for they are the far-sighted ones: they have discerned what is true in their world and in their age, and have recognised the concept, the next universal to emerge. And the others, as already remarked, flock to their standard, for it is they who express what the age requires. They are the most far-sighted among their contemporaries; they know best what issues are involved, and whatever they do is right. The others feel that this is so, and therefore have to obey them. Their words and deeds are the best that could be said and done in their time. Thus, the great individuals of history can only be understood within their own context; and they are admirable simply because they have made themselves the instruments of the substantial spirit. This is the true relationship between the individual and his universal substance. For this substance is the source of everything, the sole aim, the sole power, and the sole end which is willed by such individuals; it seeks its satisfaction through them and is accomplished by them. It is this which gives them their power in the world, and only in so far as their ends are compatible with that of the spirit which has being in and for itself do they have absolute right on their side — although it is a right of a wholly peculiar kind.

The state of the world is not yet fully known, and the aim is to give it reality. This is the object of world-historical individuals, and it is through its attainment that they find satisfaction. They can discern the weakness of what still appears to exist in the present, although it possesses only a semblance of reality. The spirit’s inward development has outgrown the world it inhabits, and it is about to progress beyond it. Its self-consciousness no longer finds satisfaction in the present, but its dissatisfaction has not yet enabled it to discover what it wants, for the latter is not yet positively present; its status is accordingly negative. The world-historical individuals are those who were the first to formulate the desires of their fellows explicitly. It is not easy for us to know what we want; indeed, we may well want something, yet still remain in a negative position, a position of dissatisfaction, for we may as yet be unconscious of the positive factor. But the individuals in question knew what they wanted, and what they wanted was of a positive nature. They do not at first create satisfaction, however, and the aim of their actions is not that of satisfying others in any case. If this were so, they would certainly have plenty to do, because their fellows do not know what the age requires or even what they themselves desire. But to try to resist these world-historical individuals is a futile undertaking, for they are irresistibly driven on to fulfil their task. Their course is the correct one, and even if the others do not believe that it corresponds to their own desires, they nevertheless adopt it or acquiesce in it. There is a power within them which is stronger than they are, even if it appears to them as something external and alien and runs counter to what they consciously believe they want. For the spirit in its further evolution is the inner soul of all individuals, although it remains in a state of unconsciousness until great men call it to life. It is the true object of all men’s desires, and it is for this reason that it exerts a power over them to which they surrender even at the price of denying their conscious will; they follow these leaders of souls because they feel the irresistible power of their own inner spirit pulling them in the same direction.

If we go on to examine the fate of these world-historical individuals, we see that they had the good fortune [to be] the executors of an end which marked a stage in the advance of the universal spirit. But as individual subjects, they also have an existence distinct from that of the universal substance, an existence in which they cannot be said to have enjoyed what is commonly called happiness. They did not wish to be happy in any case, but only to attain their end, and they succeeded in doing so only by dint of arduous labours. They knew how to obtain satisfaction and to accomplish their end, which is the universal end. With so great an end before them, they boldly resolved to challenge all the beliefs of their fellows. Thus it was not happiness that they chose, but exertion, conflict, and labour in the service of their end. And even when they reached their goal, peaceful enjoyment and happiness were not their lot. Their actions are their entire being, and their whole nature and character are determined by their ruling passion. When their end is attained, they fall aside like empty husks. They may have undergone great difficulties in order to accomplish their purpose, but as soon as they have done so, they die early like Alexander, are murdered like Caesar, or deported like Napoleon. One may well ask what they gained for themselves. What they gained was that concept or end which they succeeded in realising. Other kinds of gain, such as peaceful enjoyment, were denied them. The fearful consolation that the great men of history did not enjoy what is called happiness – which is possible only in private life, albeit under all kinds of different external circumstances – this consolation can be found in history by those who are in need of it. It is needed by the envious, who resent all that is great and outstanding and who accordingly try to belittle it and to find fault with it. The existence of such outstanding figures only becomes bearable to them because they know that such men did not enjoy happiness. In this knowledge, envy sees a means of restoring the balance between itself and those whom it envies. Thus, it has often enough been demonstrated even in our own times that princes are never happy on their thrones; this enables men not to grudge them their thrones, and to accept the fact that it is the princes rather than they themselves who sit upon them. The free man, however, is not envious, for he readily acknowledges and rejoices in the greatness of others.

But such great men are fastened upon by a whole crowd of envious spirits who hold up their passions as weaknesses. It is indeed possible to interpret their lives in terms of passion, and to put the emphasis on moral judgements by declaring that it was their passions which motivated them. Of course, they were men of passion, for they were passionately dedicated to their ends, which they served with their whole character, genius, and nature. In such individuals, then, that which is necessary in and for itself assumes the form of passion. Great men of this kind admittedly do seem to follow only the dictates of their passions and of their own free will, but the object of their will is universal, and it is this which constitutes their pathos. Passion is simply the energy of their ego, and without this, they could not have accomplished anything.

In this respect, the aim of passion and that of the Idea are one and the same; passion is the absolute unity of individual character and the universal. The way in which the spirit in its subjective individuality here coincides exactly with the Idea has an almost animal quality about it.

A man who accomplishes something excellent puts his whole energy into the task; he is not sufficiently dispassionate to vary the objects of his will or to dissipate his energy in following various separate ends, but is entirely dedicated to the one great end to which he truly aspires. His passion is the energy of the end itself and the determinate aspect of his will. That a man can thus devote his whole energy to a particular cause suggests a kind of instinct of an almost animal quality. We also describe such passions as zeal or enthusiasm, but we only use the term enthusiasm when the ends in question are of a more ideal and universal nature. The man of politics is not an enthusiast, for he must possess that clear circumspection which we do not normally attribute to enthusiasts. Passion is the prerequisite of all human excellence, and there is accordingly nothing immoral about it. And if such zeal is genuine, it remains cool and reflecting; the theoretical faculty retains a clear view of the means by which its true ends can be realised.

We must further note that, in fulfilling their grand designs as necessitated by the universal spirit, such world-historical individuals not only attained personal satisfaction but also acquired new external characteristics in the process. The end they achieved was also their own end, and the hero himself is inseparable from the cause he promoted, for both of these were satisfied. One may, however, attempt to distinguish the hero’s self-satisfaction from the success of the cause itself and to show that the great men in question were really pursuing their own ends, and then conclude that it was only their own ends which they were pursuing. Such men did indeed win fame and honour, and were recognised both by their contemporaries and by posterity — at least so long as the latter has not succumbed to the temptations of criticism, and of envy in particular. But it is absurd to believe that anyone can do anything without wishing to obtain satisfaction from doing so. Nevertheless, since the subjective factor is of a purely particular character, and since its ends are purely finite and individual, it must necessarily subordinate itself to the universal. But in so far as it implements the Idea, it must also help to sustain the underlying substance.

To make a distinction of this kind, however, is simply psychological pedantry. Those who indulge in it label every passion as a lust, and thereby cast doubt on the morality of the individuals in question. In so doing, they present the results of such individuals’ actions as their actual ends, and reduce the deeds themselves to the position of means, declaring that those concerned acted solely out of lust for fame, lust for conquest, and the like. Thus the aspirations of Alexander, for example, are characterised as lust for conquest, which lends them a subjective colouring and presents them in an unfavourable light. This so-called psychological approach contrives to trace all actions to the heart and to interpret them subjectively, with the result that their authors appear to have done everything because of some greater or lesser passion or lust, and, on account of such passions and lusts, cannot have been moral men. Alexander of Macedonia partly conquered Greece, and then Asia; therefore he was filled with a lust for conquest. He acted from a lust for fame and conquest, and the proof that these were his motives is that his actions brought him fame. What schoolmaster has not demonstrated of Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar that they were impelled by such passions and were therefore immoral characters? — from which it at once follows that the schoolmaster himself is a more admirable man than they were, because he does not have such passions (the proof being that he does not conquer Asia or vanquish Darius and Porus, but simply lives and lets live). These psychologists are particularly apt to dwell on the private idiosyncrasies of the great figures of history. Man must eat and drink; he has relationships with friends and acquaintances, and has feelings and momentary outbursts of emotion. The great men of history also had such idiosyncrasies; they ate and drank, and preferred this course to another and that wine to another (or to water). ‘No man is a hero to his valet de chambre’ is a well known saying. I have added — and Goethe repeated it two years later — ‘not because the former is not a hero, but because the latter is a valet’. The valet takes off the hero’s boots, helps him into bed, knows that he prefers champagne, etc. The hero as such does not exist for the valet, but for the world, for reality, and for history. Historical personages who are waited upon in the history books by such psychological valets certainly come off badly enough; they are reduced to the same level of morality as these fine connoisseurs of humanity, or rather to a level several degrees below theirs. Homer’s Thersites, the critic of kings, is a stock figure in all ages. Admittedly, not every age belabours him — in the sense of thrashing him with a stout cudgel — as happened to him in Homer’s time; but his envy and obstinacy are the thorn which he carries in his flesh, and the undying worm which eats at him is the tormenting knowledge that all his excellent intentions and criticisms have no effect whatsoever upon the world. We may even derive a malicious satisfaction from the fate of Thersites and his kind.

Besides, psychological pedantry of this variety is not even internally consistent. It depicts the honour and fame of great men as faults, as if honour and fame had been the objects they aimed for. Yet, on the other hand, we are told that the designs of great men must have the assent of others, that is, that their subjective will should be respected by their fellows. But the very fact that they rose to honour and fame implies that they did meet with this required assent and that their aims were recognised by others as correct. The ends which world-historical individuals set themselves in fact correspond to what is already the inner will of mankind. Yet the assent which they are supposed to receive from others is treated as a fault after they have received it, and they are accused of having coveted the honour and fame they achieved. To this we may reply that they were not at all concerned with honour and fame, for the ordinary and superficial appearances which had previously been revered are precisely what they would have treated with derision. And only by so doing were they able to fulfil their task, for otherwise they would have remained within the ordinary channels of human existence, and someone else would have accomplished the will of the spirit.

Yet, on the other hand, they are again censured for not having sought the approval of others and for having flaunted their opinions. It is perfectly true that they rose to honour by treating accepted values with contempt. Since the innovation they brought into the world was their own personal goal, they drew their conception of it from within themselves, and it was their own end that they realised. It was this which gave them their satisfaction. They willed their own end in defiance of others, and were satisfied in the process. The aim of great men was to obtain satisfaction for themselves, and not for the well-meaning intentions of others. They learnt nothing from others, and if they had followed their advice, it would only have limited them and led them astray. They themselves knew what was best. Caesar had formed an extremely accurate impression of the so-called Roman Republic, for he realised that the supposed laws of auctoritas and dignitas had fallen into abeyance and that it was right and proper to put an end to the latter as a source of individual arbitrariness. He succeeded in doing so because this course was the correct one. If he had followed Cicero, he would never have achieved anything. Caesar knew that the republic was a lie, and that Cicero’s words were empty. He knew that this hollow structure had to be replaced by a new one, and that the structure he himself created was the necessary one. Thus such world-historical individuals, in furthering their own momentous interests, did indeed treat other intrinsically admirable interests and sacred rights in a carefree, cursory, hasty, and heedless manner, thereby exposing themselves to moral censure. But their position should be seen in an altogether different light. A mighty figure must trample many an innocent flower underfoot, and destroy much that lies in its path.

—— GWF Hegel 1975 [1830], Lectures on the philosophy of world history, ed. J Hoffmeister, trans. HB Nisbet, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 82-89.

When do world-historical individuals know they’re world-historical individuals? When world history has unfolded, of course. In the meantime you’ve got a heap of lunchbox-historical individuals who think they’re the next Napoleon transgressing social norms. It’s a recipe for sociopaths, with a predictive power of 0. She’s all post-hoc justifications here, mate.

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