by A Modest Student Of Philosophy –
“I am now and will always be a student of philosophy
(i.e. a seeker of wisdom)” –
A Friend of National Writers Syndicate –
In his Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, Hegel traces the emergence of mature, self-conscious freedom from the age of oriental despotism through the Greek and Roman worlds, the advent of Christianity, to the Germanic world and the event of the Reformation, and finally to his own time. He is particularly concerned with explaining the delicate balance of the reciprocal relationship between the individual and community that leads to true freedom. This relationship has frequently been seen as one defined by “tension” or even “conflict” between the interests of the self and the interests of the community, each party vying for the satisfaction of its demands. But, which of these two parties – individual or community – will take priority? Is it possible to have a perfect reciprocity between them? If the free-thinking individual has an independent will reflective of his desires, will he not devote his energies to developing his talents and employing his resources towards the pursuit of his own interests? And would this not have a disruptive effect on the integrity of communal life bound together by common goals, common values and a common good? Hegel seems to understand that in order for this reciprocity to really work, and in order for it to be a true reciprocity, we, as free-thinking and freely-acting individuals have to embrace the paradox embedded in this relationship. Appreciating the implications of this paradox is required for the thriving of the individual-in-community and the community as community. It is not enough, nor is it reasonable or wise for the individual to submit his own self-interest to the service of the “greater good”. By pursuing his own enlightened self-interest, examining his own authentic desires, using reason to guide his strategy and devoting himself to moral excellence through the cultivation of virtue, the individual will more profitably serve the community than if he intentionally sets out with the conscious desire to benefit the community as such. Therefore true freedom requires the education of desire.
I will take a look, specifically, at Hegel’s treatment of Socrates and the Greeks in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Vol. 1. The relationship of Socrates to the community of Athens was an anomaly in the custom-oriented way of life of the Greeks. Hegel claims that the Greeks were more free than the civilizations of the orient, but they were only still at an intermediate phase of freedom. Their experience of freedom was hindered somewhat by two things, he says: the fact that slavery still existed in Greece, and so not everyone was capable of experiencing freedom, and the fact that obedient and unconscious conformity to customary practices conditioned the desires of the individuals within the community to such a degree as to preclude any possibility of authenticity and therefore the self-conscious choice to conform. In other words, there was no choice for the Greeks because there were no alternatives. Socrates irrupts onto the scene and exhibits a form of self-awareness that separates him from his fellow Athenians. He abides by the laws and by the civic piety of the polis, his pastimes and his responsibilities he shares with his countrymen: like every other citizen, he frequents the gymnasium and the agora, and he serves in the military. But he is unique in his ability to think and to recognise morality as the commitment of the individual soul to virtue, justice as the organisation of the human community according to reason, and rationality as the limited power of finite human thought in accordance with the truth. The contrast between Socrates as an individual within Athens as a community will serve as the perfect model to investigate the important paradox that Hegel uncovers.
Hegel’s Kantian Inheritance and his Movement Forward
Kant’s understanding of freedom involves freedom from desire – purging one’s self from desire since desires seem to “happen” to us and arise spontaneously from the nature and fate we did not freely choose. Motivation to action can come from desires or from reason, and for Kant pure practical reason in accordance with the categorical imperative is the only reliable path to genuine freedom. In other words, freedom means being good, doing what is morally right for its own sake (which ends up benefitting oneself secondarily). Hegel follows Kant in his emphasis on the development of the individual conscience. Hegel writes, “…in duty, the individual finds his liberation… from mere natural impulse… In duty the individual acquires his substantive freedom.”
Hegel criticises Kant for his inability or unwillingness to be concrete and specific regarding the content, and especially the starting point for practical reasoning about moral action. The purity of abstraction Kant finds is stripping the human being down to practical reason absent the sway of desire also denudes the moral agent from any “directionality” when it comes to what is good or what ought to be done. It is the radical singularity of individualistic desires Kant wishes to exclude from his theory because they cannot be universalized into a moral law, and Kant cannot resolve what he sees as a contradictory opposition between morality and self-interest. Yet only the individual’s desires can provide any kind of starting point for reasoning, and Hegel sees this. To put it Platonically, the individual as an individual is the origin of some kind of sense of awareness regarding The Good Itself (i.e. the Origin), because the individual has come from the good and bears the mark of its Origin. When reasoning back to understand the causal events that have led to the individual’s existence as an individual in the here and now, the individual is left with no other option than to begin here and now, in the explosive specificity of individualistic desires. Aristotle clearly explained that the order of reasoning (beginning with the effect and reasoning back to the cause) is the opposite of the order of reality, where causes have priority over the effects they cause.
The Greeks as a Customary People
Hegel recognises that the Greek people have a very special advancement in the realisation of freedom, and it involves the idea of rule-based in intellectual principle. This is not only a growth in freedom but in the consciousness of freedom, which is itself the key component to true freedom.
This is a great leap forward from the oriental despotism. Peter Singer comments:
Hegel’s discussion of the oriental world contains many points of detail, all related to the ideal that in oriental society, only one person – the ruler – is a free individual. All others are totally lacking in freedom, because they must subordinate their will to that of the patriarch, lama, emperor, pharaoh or whatever else the depot may be called. This lack of freedom goes very deep. It is not simply that the subjects of the despot know that the despot can punish them cruelly for disobeying his will. This would imply that they have wills of their own, that they can and do think about whether it is prudent or right to obey the despot. The truth is, says Hegel, that the oriental subject has no will of his own in the modern sense. In the Orient, not only law, but morality itself is a matter of external regulation. Our concept of the individual conscience is lacking.
This means that a sense of “self”, which is necessary for true morality, is completely lacking, and the ability of the individual to make judgements and evaluations of moral actions is absent. What happens is the weight of the “outside world” and the ruler’s imposed notions about right and wrong are forced on the people with so many involuntary and obligatory mandates that the individual is not truly an individual, but a cog in the collective machine whose actions are taken as a “fact” not subject to the scrutiny of conscience or self-examination. In this case, ethical behaviour is impossible, precisely because of the lack of individual will. What is mandated from the top-down hierarchy is never questioned but simply accepted as the laws of nature are accepted. This means that such people live in a world that is entirely shaped for them and not by their own actions and desires. Hegel’s rejection of this social architecture and the inability of individuals to shape their own thought and movement suggests that individuality is far more important to Hegel than he admits.
The great leap in both individuality and freedom, which are inseparable, came with the Greek polis, specifically Athens. No longer was there one and only one “free” individual, as in oriental despotism. In the Greek city-states, there were some, perhaps most, who were free, but in an incomplete way. Hegel saw the Greeks as limited in their freedom not only because not everyone in Greek society was free (the style of the direct democracy in Athens required slaves to take care of the daily chores while the citizens were free to debate public policy in the assembly), but also inasmuch as their morality was essentially bound up with what is customary. To oversimplify the issue, one could say that the Greeks valued what had passed the test of time rather than what had passed the test of reason. They clung to an enduring tradition that gained authority and dominance in dictating their habits and practices precisely because it was old, it was a legacy of their ancestral culture, it was something that gave then an identity as a community with a common heritage. This meant that for the Greeks their self-interests were the interests of the community and being a moral agent meant abiding by the time-tested way of life in a communal self-propagation.
In other words, the Greeks were “free”, but their freedom was such that it did not admit of the kind of authenticity that we attach to the appreciation of individuality, ethical self-examination, personal or individual conscience and the cultivation of a will that recognises its priority over the community even while it is within it. The desires of one’s own individual self were shaped and influenced in such a way and to such a degree that the originality characteristic of the authentic self was co-opted from the beginning of life and swept up into a culture so thoroughly reinforced in every aspect of daily routine and ritual that it was never given the space or the nurture to discover itself and examine itself as an independent self. In other words, the Greek sense of duty was bound up with a culture that revolved around celebrating itself through the artistic, religious and political achievements of its people (for the Greeks, politics, too, was something with aesthetic value). Exile from one’s community was seen as a punishment on par with death – perhaps worse than death, because the self as a self had no identity independent from the community. Hegel considered this to be an imperfect form of freedom because the habits of the Greek community were not the product of a reflective conscience that could derive the principles of action from an abstract universal law, and so motivation and devotion to a code of conduct was not a commitment of reason. The motivation did not come from threat of external force, it came from within, but the “within” itself was not a fully-developed self-conscious conscience.
Hegel suggests that the progress of freedom must move beyond this customary culture – but not much. Hegel appreciates the fact that there was no tension or conflict between the self-interests of individuals and the interests of the community, however the accord of these interests probably seemed to him hollow inasmuch as there was no substantial difference, and the agreement between individual and community was not one of free choice but of cultural conditioning – there was no other alternative. If the kind of cooperative reciprocity of the Greek community and the individuals who comprise it could be reproduced but with the added element of self-consciousness on the part of the individuals, then the relationship between individuals aware of their own freedom and between those individuals and the community as a body would be harmonious and meaningful rather than the monotonal unanimity of a collective cramped by unconscious devotion to custom.
Hegel is right. The more perfect and complete form of freedom is when morality is discovered by reason. The Greeks were aware that a duty to the polis existed, but were unable to articulate why. The clearer the picture of morality that reason is able to discern, the more freedom is experienced by both individual and community. One of the aspects of morality that Hegel discovers in his criticism of Kant is that morality is not the product of reason, but it is perfected by the use of reason to illuminate the principles of action. Whether the conclusions Hegel draws from this realisation are in fact possible is another issue. The problem seems to be this: that reason can never fully illuminate morality, because the origin of morality is always already there and it is essentially beyond reason, therefore it can never be reducible to the terms of reason. Plato’s Socrates declares in the Republic that the Good is beyond being and therefore beyond intelligence (509b). Therefore, the Good, i.e. the origin of all Being and the gravitational moral force for all Being, is beyond the probing of the logos. But on the other end of the spectrum, there is the individual will and the freedom of the radically singular self. Here too there is a similar inscrutability. The unique individual and the desires resident therein are as mysterious as the Good itself, especially because the individual is always more or less educated about the nature of the true Good and more or less content with pursuing a perceived good. This suggests that the perceived “good” may not only not align with the Good as such, but may also be damaging to the individual himself or his community, which would put the “interests” of the individual at odds with the good of the community and perhaps even himself.
Hegel’s progress of the idea of freedom through the unfolding of history results, he claims, in the absolute self-consciousness, or the self-realisation of the absolute. But will this ever be as adequate as Hegel thinks it is? This is impossible given the nature of morality.
Before Pericles appeared in Greece, the desire for culture through thought and through reflection was awakened; men wished to be cultured in their ideas, and in their various relations to guide themselves by thought, and no longer merely through oracles, or through custom, passion, the feelings of the moment. For the end of the State is the universal, under which the particular is comprehended…. Now culture is certainly an indefinite expression. It has, however, this meaning, that what free thought is to attain must come out of itself and be personal conviction; it is then no longer believed but investigated – in short, it is the so-called enlightenment of modern times.
The Greeks had the kind of community that Hegel admired, minus the slavery and the unconscious devotion to principles of action rooted in a non-reflective tradition. Why were the Greeks, who were advanced in so many ways including science, technology, philosophy and politics, missing this key element of genuine and authentic freedom? I think it boils down to the fact that they had a backwards-looking orientation in terms of their standards for moral action, and these standards were not moral law because they were universal, but because they were specifically Greek. The Greeks viewed time as approaching and washing over a man from behind, because one can see what has come before, but the future is always something of a surprise. This orientation led poets like Hesiod to portray the successive ages of man in a steady decline from the Age of Gold to the Age of Iron, indicating that it was difficult if not impossible for humanity to uphold the excellence of earlier men, and that the nature of the unfolding of time is anti-progressive as humans stray further and further from their divine origin.
In other words, the Greeks put too much emphasis on their own culture to provide for them the substance of freedom and virtue. This is what Nietzsche admired about the Greeks – the unconscious, organic and spontaneous celebration of life in all its forms, including poetry, politics and philosophy. And this is also why the Greeks were so puzzled by the paradox of Plato’s dialogue Meno. Why can a wise statesman not produce virtue in his own son? Why do rogues exist in spite of the rigorous cultural adherence to religious practices? The culture is supposed to provide a quasi-incubating environment for thought and action – the culture shapes a person’s will and desire such that the culture itself is infused in every coil of wilful consciousness that a Greek person exhibits. It is supposed to inform every thought and action such that decision and examination of conscience in terms of one’s personal ethics, values and alignment with an absolute GOOD were unnecessary.
Thus Socrates’ principle is that man has to find from himself both the end of his actions and the end of the world, and must attain to truth through himself. True thought things in such a way that its import is as truly objective as subjective. But objectivity has been the significance of substantial universality, and not of external objectivity; thus truth is now posited as a product mediated through thought, while untrained morality, as Sophocles makes Antigone say (454-457) is ‘the eternal law of the Gods/ And no one knew from whence it came’. But through in modern times we hear much said of immediate knowledge and belief, it is a misconception to maintain that their content, God, the Good, Just, etc., although the content of feeling and conception, is not, as spiritual content, also posited through thought.
Socrates answered this by reorienting Greek thought towards the individual will, consciousness, desire and self. And the reason that the Athenians killed Socrates was because he raised selfhood as something in itself, independent of the will or desire or culture of the State, and therefore as something potentially threatening to the State. Socrates brought to the attention of people that there was something unique to character, and that personal choice had everything to do with the presence or absence of virtue in an individual. Hegel comments:
[Socrates’] philosophy, which asserts that real existence is in consciousness as a universal, is still not a properly speculative philosophy, but remained individual; yet the aim of his philosophy was that it should have universal significance. Hence we have to speak of his own individual being, of his thoroughly noble character, which usually is depicted as a complete catalogue of the virtues adorning the life of a private citizen; and these virtues of Socrates are certainly to be looked at as his own, and as made habitual to him by his own will. It has to be noted that with the ancients these qualities have generally more of the character of virtue, because with the ancients, in ordinary morality, individuality, as the form of the universal, was given free scope, so that virtues were regarded more as the actions of the individual will, and thus as personal qualities; while with us they seem to be less what is meritorious to the individual or what comes from himself as this unit. We are accustomed to think of them much more as what exists, as duty, because we have a fuller consciousness of the universal, and consider the pure individual, the personal inward consciousness, as real existence and duty. With us, virtues are hence actually either elements in our dispositions and nature, or they have the form of the universal and of what is necessary; but with Socrates they have the form, not of ordinary morality or of a natural or necessary thing, but of an independent determination.
From the Greek world, Hegel proceeds to the Roman, but in the Roman world, even though the idea of individuality, and the private consciousness as well as the personal conscience was alive, it was not well. There are plenty of philosophical schools – Stoicism, Epicureanism and Skepticism, for example – that testify to the fact that the Roman political organism had a crushing and stifling effect on the notion of the individual as a free being with a free will. Philosophy became a retreat from the “real (and very hostile) world”, but even further, philosophy provided a withdrawal from itself. The Stoics regularly advocated suicide as a way of exiting the world through a philosophical excuse. Independence, liberty, and personal will is a terrible thing in the Roman world. But Christianity extends a spiritual escape route from the intellectual torment of individualism in the face of Rome’s domineering power.
In the development and progression of the human consciousness of freedom, Hegel resists individualism in favour of community, solidarity, culture and the relentless unfolding of history as the realisation of Geist. Yet at the same time he recognises that individuals are, of themselves, required to come to a certain consciousness and conviction regarding their morality so that the design of their political institutions and social constructs is rationally organised in order to perform the function of realising the absolute Spirit. In other words, individuality is truly, at the heart of everything. If the world is not rationally organised, then the independent spirits of individuals who are acting according to their own self-interests would come into conflict with morality as such, and the law that is designed to manifest that morality. Hegel thinks that rationality is what will be able to make a chaos of conflicting wills converge or harmonise in a peaceful civil state wherein law would not be thought to be at odds with the will and desire of the individual. In fact the individual would derive a certain type of intellectual pleasure in acknowledging the rationality of his actions in accordance with the rationality of the laws. Hegel says:
We may well see the ends of reason realised in the virutes of individual subjects and in their sphere of influence: but these are only isolated individuals who constitute but a small proportion of the mass of mankind when we compare them with all the others, and the extent to which their virtues are effective is relatively limited. But in many cases, passions, private interests, and the satisfaction of selfish impulses are the most potent force. What makes them powerful is [that] they do not heed any of the restraints which justice and morality seek to impose upon them, and the elemental power of passion has a more immediate hold over man than that artificial and laboriously acquired discipline of order and moderation, justice and morality.
The success of the relationship between individuals and between the individual and his community rests on the appreciation of the origin of morality.
Hegel relates the myth of the gods gifts to humanity when Prometheus and Epimetheus took care of the practical concerns of humanity, but political wisdom was still lacking. Zeus commands Hermes to give political wisdom not to certain groups of people and not others (as the skills in the crafts and the particular arts are distributed), but rather:
to all, for no body of men (polis) can exist if only a few partake of those qualities. And it shall be the law that whoever cannot acknowledge authority and justice must be exterminated as a plague to the State…. For all must partake of this virtue or not State could exist. Thus if anyone is inexperienced in the art of flute-playing and yet professes to be a master in it, he is justly thought to be mad. But in justice it is otherwise; if anyone is not just and confesses it, he is thought to be mad. He must profess to be so, for everybody must either share in it or be shut out from social life.
The form political wisdom must take, however, is the articulated by Hesiod in The Works and Days 293-297: “He is the best man of all who perceives everything by himself,/ seeing which of his courses will turn out better at last;/ and he also is good who obeys one speaking the good./ But he who neither perceives by himself nor hearing another/ takes to heart the advice he receives is utterly worthless.” Even though political wisdom is distributed to all, each must know his abilities and his limitations. This means that the people who are not capable of discerning the truth and establishing a course of action that exhibits personal virtue and concern for the best possible state of the soul as well as a prudent sensitivity to the avoidance of injustice, and the fostering of an environment of virtue within the community, must follow those who are capable. Politics, like ethics, is a practical science that does not deal with absolutes (as theoretical sciences do), but with things that are “for the most part the case”. Therefore wisdom of the Socratic variety – i.e. an awareness of what cannot be known (the authentic desires of other individuals) and what cannot be coerced (morality) is essential to the political art and to the creation of a just state.
Hegel recognises that Socrates is the outlier of Greek customary society as he has described it. Socrates is free in a way that his fellow Greeks are not free because he does possess an extraordinary degree of self-awareness. Socrates follows the injunction of the Delphic Oracle as if it were intended for him as an independent, free-thinking authentic self, whereas, Hegel points out, the Greeks understood the commandment – “Man, Know Thyself” – to mean not know thyself in an individual, authentic-self-sort-of-way, but “know thyself as man” – it enjoined the Greeks to know what it means to be human. Socrates, however, takes this from the universal to the particular. Knowing what it means to be human is important, but knowing one’s own beliefs, convictions and conscience is far more important if one is going to sustain a political organisation that respects and appreciates freedom and justice. And freedom and justice are the only political conditions that will enable a continuance of philosophy as self-examination. Therefore the reciprocity of these things is essential, and the reason that it is not a “Catch 22” is because both freedom and awareness of selfhood as an opportunity for self-discovery is because both have their origin in individual selfhood as such.
The State, therefore, if it is to be a mature, self-conscious expression of freedom, must consist of individuals who realise and appreciate their own individual freedom and the personal opportunity to choose their own actions and therefore develop a true morality. Morality cannot be forced or mandated – it must be voluntary. If it is forced, it is merely conformity and obedience to a mandate, but if it is free and spontaneous, it is true and original.
Socrates’ peculiar human wisdom consists in not thinking that he knows what he does not know. Socrates’ wisdom takes the form of humility. If he were a god, it would be possible to know the perfect order of all things, but he realises that this is impossible for a human being, because even a power as great as reason has its limitations. Therefore, when it comes to organising the human community, no one can presume to know the proper relationships between individuals. We have to focus on what we can know – and we can know what is unjust. Therefore, in our human communities, when it comes to regulating and establishing a framework for human interactions, our efforts are most profitably spent on creating the kind of system that defines, outlaws and punishes unjust acts. Socrates refers to himself as the gadfly of Athens, and he calls this mission divine. He is going to let the city and its leaders know when they are about to act unjustly but he is not going to tell them what the nature of true justice is. He professes to lack that knowledge. This is, understandably, a source of frustration for the Athenians – how can Socrates lecture them about justice and yet offer no theory about what true justice is?
Socrates knows that he does not know the perfect order of all things, and that it is not something possible for a human being to know. Presumption of this sort inevitably leads to tyranny within the community, the disintigration of freedom and therefore the destruction of the conditions for the possibility of moral agency. Socrates is doing something far more interesting than suggesting what sort of leaders a society should have – he knows that having a good overlord will not make for a moral society. People cannot be made good from the top, down. It is not a matter of following rules imposed by threat of force (i.e. the law) – it is a matter of examining oneself and finding within this self the desire for the Good. This means that for human beings, justice is not constituted by creating the perfect order of all things – it means realising that because human beings have limited knowledge, and because there are some things that are unknowable, then human beings are incapable of creating this type of justice. Therefore, justice in the human community means a lack of injustice. This is also why Socrates does not fear the unknown. He does not fear death because it is unknown, and the Good itself is the unknown, because it is beyond knowledge. The Good is infinite – there are infinite ways to have good, beautiful, healthy relationships and to pursue one’s own interests. There are relatively few ways to go wrong – and we can know and understand those ways, and steer clear of them. But this freedom comes with an additional catch: Socrates realizes that everyone already pursues what they think is good, and yet many people are wrong about what is good. For example, a bank robber does not rob a band because it is wrong or evil, but for the gains he perceives in terms of the success of the robbery (money), or for the thrill (adventure and excitement) or for fame. But even bank robbers would not, themselves, like to be robbed. The human material world is one of “mixed goods” not pure good. As long as we are pursuing our happiness within the material world and we associate it with the accumulation of wealth, fame or political power, we will ultimately be unsatisfied, and will ultimately be defeated by the mixed nature of these goods. Thus Socrates suggests that in order to not be corrupted by the powerful influences of wealth, fame and political power, like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, we must educate our desire and put our priorities in order. For this reason, he enjoins the Athenians:
“Men of Athens, I am grateful and I am your friend, but I will obey the god rather than you, and as long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease to practice philosophy, to exhort you and in my usual way to point out to any one of you whom I happen to meet: Good Sir, you are an Athenian, a citizen of the greatest city with the greatest reputation for both wisdom and power; are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation and honours as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of your soul?” (Apology 29d-e)
Be sure that this is what the god orders me to do, an dI think there is no greater blessing for the city than my service to the god. For I go around doing nothing but persuading both young and old among you not to car for your body or your wealth in preference to or as strongly as for the best possible state of your soul, as I say to you: “Wealth does not bring about excellence, but excellence makes wealth and everything else good for men, both individually and collectively.” (Apology 30a-b)
It is evident that Socrates associates the Good community with the individual pursuit of the Good itself. The community as such cannot be good unless its constituents are virtuous or have devoted their lives to the pursuit of the Good. The education of desire is the essence of philosophy and it is through philosophy that the individual is able to come to a self-conscious awareness of their desires, and be, therefore, enabled to organize his priorities. There is nothing evil in itself about wealth or fame or power, but they become an impediment to happiness and virtue when they are sought as the highest goal. It is the responsibility of the individual to make the personal self-conscious commitment to the Good – his community cannot do this for him. Once individuals have devoted their energy to philosophy and virtue, they can shape a free and just community and nurture a culture of virtue. This will encourage, and it may stimulate others to join the pursuit, but it is far different from the assumption that mankind’s baser instincts of lust or greed or jealousy can only be covered over by an orthopractical solution. It is not possible for the enlightened few to design the “good society” and enforce obedience and conformity to the design such that the individuals become moral. It is, however, possible for the enlightened few to educate the others, which means appealing to their individuality, awakening them to their authentic desires, and encouraging them to discover their happiness in whatever way their inclination and talents lead them.
A culture of philosophy is as close as we can get to the good community, here, in the place of unlikeness. Socrates would agree with Hegel that the progress of the development of human society and civilization since the beginning of recorded history reveals the discovery in time of an eternal and absolute truth that becomes progressively more refined in the self-conscious articulation of a community of freely-thinking rational individuals committed to excellence.
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