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The Sunburst: Hegel on Beginnings

For my three mentors
with wholehearted gratitude

Rhodus, hic saltus.
Here is the rose, dance thou there
HEGEL from Aesop

Of all philosophers, it was Hegel who taught me how to begin.

Which would strike anyone as odd, given that Hegel would never be considered as a literary writer much less an existential philosopher. To be sure, reading his dry, gray prose could only remind you of a Kant who, in turn, would be the dullest writer around if only he did not have the greatest mind in the past three hundred years. Well, we can't have it all; and while we can accuse both men for not having the imagination of Plato or the dramatics of Augustine, we would also thereby forget that the steady-handed Aristotle and the boring Aquinas surpassed their masters. It's an acquired taste, you see.

I digress. I wanted to tell you how Hegel taught me to begin.

When I taught philosophy, I would deliver a schola brevis on beginning and what it means on the first day of classes. I tell my students--who are beginning a new school year with empty pages of fresh notebooks and warm smiles that would disappear as soon as I gave the first quiz--that the philosopher is a perpetual beginner. And that there is joy in beginning: what with the feeling of starting a new chapter, the anticipation of the unknown, the knowledge that we are never alone in taking the first few steps or the hope that things will be better. There is liberation in beginning; you cut off the shackles that held you down in the past and clean the slate so you can write anew. I tell them that beginning is essentially being tabula rasa.

In the next breath, however, I tell them that no one really begins with a clean slate. That like the Iliad, we are thrown into a war which had started ten years ago, and are expected to begin when everything else has had a head start on us. We always arrive too late. Thus we always have to catch up because we are already in the middle of things or in media res. Try as we might, a new chapter is still a chapter which only follows the preceding chapters; our stories have unfolded long ago; and while we attempt to set sail to new lands, like an Odysseus, we will always have home--the past--as a reference that can neither be erased nor forgotten.

Beginning, then, is a paradox by itself. But that does not mean that it is impossible to begin as we can--and in fact--do it everyday, anytime, even twice on a Sunday. It only proves the old dictum that we already know so well: that beginning is the most difficult part of any undertaking.

I wanted to tell you how Hegel changed all this. And perhaps, if only I could deliver a first day lecture again, I would use Hegel to resolve the paradox of beginning into a synthesis--ala vintage Hegel.

For you see, while everyone knows the same things about beginnings, i.e., to begin with the end in mind (Stephen Covey); that the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step (Lao Tzu); that he who has begun is half done (Horace); or that what is not completed is less advanced than what has not begun (Valery); Hegel makes everything stand on its head, or better, reverses the beginning and the end. For he says: The beginning is the end.

Superficially, one needs to only look at his writings, especially the introductions and prefaces. The cheater's guide to reading Hegel is to just read the introduction or preface and you will pretty much know what you need to know about the rest of the book. Now that is wrong, you say. True, if you are a Hegel scholar. But while scholars will advise that one just do a light reading of the introduction, read the rest, and only then read the introduction thoroughly for the second time, you can read the introduction meticulously first and consider the rest as optional. For, like all good writers, Hegel writes the introduction last; but unlike all the good writers, Hegel gives a complete and exhaustive--and even creative--summary of what he will say (or said) in the rest of the book. It is no coincidence that the preface to The Phenomenology of Spirit has become a classic by itself, as the introduction to The Philosophy of History has been extracted into a single volume as well (Reason in History).

Why does he write this way? Precisely because the beginning is the end. The how of the beginning and its telling can only be told after the fact of beginning, after reaching the end. There is no point in introducing someone you haven't met as there is no point of writing a preface to something you have not written. The wayfarer knows this: what can he tell you of a journey that has just begun? The essayist knows this as well: if an essay is an attempt or a trial, and if it is an honest attempt, he cannot say beforehand where he will go or what he will see; he does not know this yet. What can one say in the beginning? "Of new beginnings," Jean-Luc Marion says, "precious little can be said."

And Hegel's philosophy shows this clearly and precisely. (I'm sorry if this will bore you). In the Science of Logic, Hegel begins with the Absolute, with the immediacy of Being as that which is closest to us but at the same time the most undetermined. We know what Being is and affirm it completely; the problem is, however, we know it only in an abstract form--something that Heidegger would resonate with in his attempt to remind us of the meaning of the question of being. Being abstract, the path to understanding what is closest to us has to pass through the detour of alienation, that is, through the Nothing. Being and Nothing: the closest friends though they may be antithetical. Why such close friends? Because, as Parmenides at the dawn of philosophy said, they are the only two paths available to mortal men; in other words, they comprise all.

And as Hegel's logic goes, if they are both all, they can never be too different from each other (against Parmenides' strict exhortation that the Nothing is "a path that cannot be explored.") If you want the whole, you have to go through both paths--even if one goes to heaven and the other to hell. The way to the nearness of Being is through the darkness of the Nothing. The end of happiness passes through the valley of tears. The way to begin is to end all beginning. Because as Hegel says, "The True is the Whole."

This is why the end for Hegel is still the Absolute but now in a changed form: an Absolute that knows itself--Being--completely. It began with an ignorant immediacy (Being) followed by a mediated knowledge (Nothing as Being) and ends with Absolute Immediate Knowledge of Itself. In other words, it ends up as itself. Only then is it able to properly begin.

I can tell you what this means to me.

I can tell you about my experience with my never-ending thesis project and how I've realized that my initial question--how is it possible to let street children be?--seems to have moved with the horizon in every attempt to near it. Or I can tell you how my illness has taken so much from me, has closed a number of doors for me, and much worse, has left me with only a few friends. I can also tell you that as of now it seems that the dream of giving another first day lecture in a philosophy class has been postponed indefinitely. I can tell you so much about endings and goodbyes.

But I wish to tell you of beginnings and hello's.

So let me begin or end--it no longer matters--with a surprising image from the dry Hegel:
The gradual crumbling that left the face of the whole is cut short by a sunburst which, in one flash, illuminates the features of the new world.


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