One word more
… about giving instruction as to what the world ought to be. Philosophy in any case always comes on the scene too late to give it. As the thought of the world, it appears only when actuality has completed its process of formation and attained its finished state. The teaching of the concept, which is also history’s inescapable lesson, is that it is only when actuality is mature that the ideal first appears over against the real and that the ideal grasps this same real world in its substance and builds it up for itself into the shape of an intellectual realm. When philosophy paints its grey in grey, then has a shape of life grown old. By philosophy’s grey in grey it cannot be rejuvenated but only understood. The owl of Minerva begins its flight only with the falling of dusk.
G. W. F. Hegel, Outlines of the Philosophy of Right, translated by T. M. Knox, revised, edited, and introduced by Stephen Houlgate, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p.16But surely you paint “on” not “in”? Perhaps: ‘When philosophy paints its grey on grey, then has a form of life grown old. By philosophy’s grey on grey … it cannot be revived but only understood.’
And surely it is night that falls, not dusk?
‘The owl of Minerva takes flight only as night falls.’
‘The owl of Minerva only takes flight at nightfall.’
‘The owl of Minerva takes flight only into the dusk.’
‘Only at twilight does the owl of Minerva begin its flight.’
So, according to Hegel, our task can never be to change the world, telling it what it should be. There are complicated arguments here: about how the ideal and the intellectual sphere are only possible at a certain – late – stage of development; about the temporal disjunction between the ideal and the real, between the thought of the world and the world. But the key point is, surely, that the world can never be bent to the will of the “should” because thought is always a step or two behind. Our intervention is always too late. The present moment has already gone.
And here it is difficult not to think of Gatsby – as tragic Hegelian hero. For his whole tragedy is to think that he can recreate a moment from the past and regain the love of Daisy. His problem is that she cannot hold to that singular moment in the past and recreate it again in the present. That Daisy, and her love for the young Gatsby, is lost in the flow of time. She only remembers.
Nick Carraway is the philosopher, a minor part of the action, mostly an observer. At several points he states his sense of being old before his time, outside of his world, looking back into it: ‘a form of life grown old.’ For him the present is always out of reach. But he has the role of philosopher and, despite his taste for nostalgia, at least can understand and give a truthful account of what happened. And so, The Great Gatsby concludes with Carraway’s Hegelian reflections on the tragedy of history that Gatsby embodies.
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night…But what then is the foundation of Gatsby’s relentless dream? What is his intense commitment to that singular moment in the past?
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.