Born to a Protestant family in Stuttgart, Hegel received an excellent early education. He studied philosophy and theology at the seminary of Tübingen, where he was particularly influenced by the works of Kant and Schiller. After passing his theological examinations in 1793, Hegel worked in Bern and Frankfurt as a tutor for several years.
Among the German idealists, Hegel attempted to formulate a complete system of philosophy that would account for the differences and similarities of all previous philosophies. In 1801, with a dissertation written in Latin entitled On the Orbits of the Planets, Hegel secured a lectureship at the University of Jena, where he spoke on a wide variety of subjects. On October 13, 1806, the same day that Napoleon victoriously entered the city, he finished his Phenomenology of Spirit. In this work, an early masterpiece much influenced by German Romanticism, Hegel describes the process by which both individuals and societies can grow to “absolute knowledge” by developing consciousness from sense perceptions to reason, which is the ultimate essence of the world and the guiding principle of history. Reconciliation is reached when a concept progresses through an endless dialectical process; thesis leads to antithesis, which finally leads to synthesis, which itself inherently contains a contrasting element that negates it and serves as the antithesis in the next stage of development.
Due to the war, Hegel left Jena and eventually settled in Nürnberg, where he served as headmaster of the Royal Gymnasium, met his future wife, and wrote the Science of Logic (1812–16). In 1816, he resumed his academic career at the University of Heidelberg and published The Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Outline (1817), which serves as an introduction to his philosophy. His major work of his last period was the Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts, or Elements of the Philosophy of Right, known in English as the Philosophy of Right (published 1820, title page 1821), which argues that the nation-state is a manifestation of God and that the ideal state is the real materialization of the ethical idea. The work was heavily criticized as a hidden apologia for the Prussian state., but more recent scholarship challenges this view. Hegel’s philosophy of government and law became highly influential in Prussia, and Hegel himself became a power in the political and academic life of Germany. He died suddenly, at the peak of his career, from an attack of cholera.
In this brief selection from the Philosophy of Right, along with an addition made by Hegel’s students from his oral lectures and comments, Hegel argues that there is no right to suicide since there is no right over one’s own life—indeed, the concept is a contradiction. Central to Hegel’s thinking is the notion of the individual as secondary to moral and societal interests; “the particular person,” he says, “is really a subordinate, who must devote his life to the service of the ethical fabric.”
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Paragraph 70 and Addition, tr. S. W. Dyde. London: George Bell and Sons, 1896, p. 76.
from The Philosophy of Right
Since personality is something directly present, the comprehensive totality of one’s outer activity, the life, is not external to it. Thus the disposal or sacrifice of life is not the manifestation of one’s personality so much as the very opposite. Hence I have no right to relinquish my life. Only a moral and social ideal, which submerges the direct, simple and separate personality, and constitutes its real power, has a right to life. Life, as such, being direct and unreflected, and death the direct negation of it, death must come from without as a result of natural causes, or must be received in the service of the idea from a foreign hand.
The particular person is really a subordinate, who must devote his life to the service of the ethical fabric; when the state demands his life, he must yield it up. But should the man take his own life? Suicide may at first glance be looked upon as bravery, although it be the poor bravery of tailors and maid-servants. Or it may be regarded as a misfortune, caused by a broken heart. But the point is, Have I any right to kill myself? The answer is that I, as this individual am not lord over my own life, since the comprehensive totality of one’s activity, the life, falls within the direct and present personality. To speak of the right of a person over his life is a contradiction, since it implies a right of a person over himself. But no one can stand above and execute himself. When Hercules burnt himself, and Brutus fell upon his sword, this action against their personality was doubtless of an heroic type; but yet the simple right to commit suicide must be denied even to heroes.