Georg Hegel was a 19th-century German philosopher. His works were complex and dense, difficult to read and harder to understand. He is often dismissed today as an obscurantist and as irrelevant, but I see him as struggling to understand both the order of human history and the relation of reason to that history. In probing this question, he also examined the orderliness of reason itself. Hegel is enormously important to me because geopolitics isn’t simply about the mechanistic force of geography. It goes beyond that to determine the order of historical events, which are driven not just by geography but also by human actions.
To understand Hegel, you can start by reading the work of his contemporary, Adam Smith. Smith argued that human beings, in pursuing their own economic interests, create an unintended consequence: an increase in the wealth of nations. The concept of the free market is the idea that markets are operated through reason. The key here is that growth in national wealth is not the result of planning but the fact that individuals are compelled by nature to pursue their interests. Prosperity isn’t the intended result, but it’s nonetheless an outcome of individual actions driven by needs and interests.
What Smith was doing in the narrower sphere of economic life, Hegel was trying to do in the broad unfolding of all human history. For Hegel, humans began not knowing that there was such a thing as reason. Over time, they became aware, and as this unfolded, human life became increasingly rational until the 19th century, when reality and reason merged. This was, in time, the concept behind Francis Fukuyama’s book, “The End of History.”
Hegel laid out the history of human civilization from ancient China to Europe in such a way that you could see the necessity of each step and the logic of the unfolding. He referred to people who influenced the unfolding as “world-historical figures.” Think of Alexander the Great or Napoleon. These extraordinary figures were able to grasp that history was about to be transformed and understood what they had to do to remain in power and usher in the new age. All other politicians were of no importance, trapped as they were in the reality of their time.
What Hegel did was make the unfolding of history comprehensible by declaring most political events trivial. He saw the relationship between humanity and reason in the way that we are all trapped in unfolding events and identified figures who, at critical junctures, grasped what was happening and did what they must.
My profession is forecasting, and to forecast, you must understand how the past unfolded and how a moment came to be. It was my reading of Hegel in graduate school that gripped me and took me down this path. It is not a book I would recommend to anyone not serving a long prison sentence. I wish he could have written more clearly, but I realize that human history is not a matter of crisp clarity. It was in his complexity that my own understanding, puny by comparison, emerged.
George Friedman, founder and chairman
Tara Westover first entered a formal classroom at the age of 17. She had never heard of Napoleon or the Holocaust. She was raised on a mountain in Idaho in a family better defined by her father’s survivalist and paranoid tendencies than her parents’ fundamentalist Mormonism. The youngest of seven siblings, Westover spent more time helping in her father’s scrapyard (work that would have made even a seasoned OSHA inspector queasy) and helping craft tinctures for her mother’s herbalism and midwifery business than learning to read or do algebra. But like several of her siblings, she was inquisitive and bright.
“Educated” is the story of how Westover’s understanding of her parents and her family evolved, driven by horrific junkyard accidents, physical abuse and discovered talents. But it’s also a fascinating commentary on memory. Westover describes how she curated her memories in her journals so that they would comport with the idea of the girl she thought she was expected to be, often obliterating truth and fact. In writing the book, she consulted with several family members on key events – and their memories were nearly always in conflict with one another. The worldview and belief system imposed by her family shaped how she understood herself and her history. One of the most intriguing aspects of her education is how Westover comes to understand her truth – and how she applies her historical training to write her own story.
I plunged down a rabbit hole of Google searches, hoping to glean more details about Westover’s bizarre upbringing. One of the most interesting results was an Amazon review of the book by Tyler Westover, the brother with whom Tara seems closest. “My purpose in writing this review,” he says, “is not to try to prove either side wrong; rather, it is to ‘humanize’ the people on both sides, while also providing a partial perspective that people on both sides of the argument may be able to agree with.” Tyler, an engineer, has a different approach to analyzing and describing their shared history but also recognizes that, as an older, male sibling, his life at Buck’s Peak was not the same as Tara’s. Not by a long shot.
Tara and Tyler do not disagree, however, on the fact that they had a highly unconventional, often traumatic and deeply isolated childhood. Other Westover siblings did not try to leave their bizarre home; those who did seemed unable to fully disengage from some of the unusual characteristics of their upbringing.
In a world that is increasingly driven by globalization and its fallout, it seems inconceivable that children in the United States, of all places, could grow up so completely isolated not only from the world but from their own society. The Westover children were focused instead on stockpiling ammunition, fuel, food, water and herbal remedies in preparation for the end times, when the “Government” or United Nations forces would surely storm their homestead and force the children into public school. In the end, though, it was Tara’s own curiosity for the outside world that drove her to a classroom – and kept her there.
Emma Pennisi, editor