There have been places and periods of history, when only a congenital optimist could have had any hope for the future of our species. Think of the end of Athens’ golden age, the fall of the Roman Empire, the petering out of the Renaissance, the end of the Enlightenment, the rise of fascism. It’s when things look bleak indeed, that it pays to remember the German 19th century philosopher, Hegel. In his lectures on the philosophy of world history, published in 1830, Hegel offered us a way of looking at the darker periods of history, that neither glosses over their pain nor, refuses to give up hope but intellegently helps us to understand why Human progress cannot be linear, while encouraging us to trust that it does occur, nevertheless. For Hegel, history moves forward in what he termed a “Dialectical way”. A dialectic is a philosophical term for an argument made up of three parts. A thesis, an antithesis and a synthesis. Both the thesis and the antithesis countain parts of the truth but they are also exaggerations and distortions of the whole. And so, need to clash and interract until the best elements find resolution in a synthesis. One cannot, in short, get there in one leap. Hegel thought this pattern constantly observable in History. The world makes progress by lurching from one extreme to another, as it seeks to overcompensate for previous mistake. And generally requires three moves before the right balance on any issue can be found. So, for example, the ancient Athenians discovered the idea of individual liberty. But their regime was blind to the need for collective discipline and organisation. The ancient Persians knew all about that and were thereby able to conquer the Athenians on the battlefield. Yet, they were also despotic enemies of free thought which with time, became its own liability. It took many centuries for the correct synthesis between liberty and discipline, to be worked out in the form of the Roman Empire. In Hegel’s own era, the stifling, unfair, 18th century system of inheritage, traditionnal monarchy, had been abolished by the French Revolution. But, what should’ve been a peaceful birth of representative government ended up in the anarchy and chaos of the Terror. This, in turn, led to the emergence of Napoleon, who restaured order, but became a military brute, trampling on the liberty he had professed to love. Only after 40 years and much bloodshed, did the modern balance, Constitution, emerge. An arrangement which more sensibly balanced up popular representation, with the rights of minorities. Or, to take another example, the European Enlightenment had stressed the importance of reason, but it had in many parts been sterile and reductive. The movement known as ‘Romanticism’ had then swept in to assert the importance of emotion. But this had carried excesses of its own. Only eventually had a correct reconciliation been worked out between the legitimate, competing needs of reason and emotion. Hegel argument has a highly reassuring feel at moments when it seems that one kind of progress has been entirely lost. He’s on hand to reassure us that we’re merely seeing the pendulum swing back for a time. But also wisely council that this was needed, because the initial move forward had been blind to a range of crucial insights. All sides on a matter will contain important truths, lodged amidst exaggerations and bombast. Yet, these truths will eventually be sifted out through the wisdom of time. Hegel reminds us that big overreactions are eminently compatible with events broadly moving forward, in the right direction. The dark moments aren’t the end. They are a challenging, but even in some ways necessary parts of an antithesis, that will, eventually, find a wiser point of synthesis.