Extented abstract: The Death of Jan Hus and the Life of the Spirit. Hegelian Reflections on the 600th Anniversary Commemorations in Constance

Monday, 6th of July, 2015, in Constance: The clock was slowly approaching 6pm, when all the bells of the Cathedral of Constance started to ring. It was an ear-deafening sound, though not unpleasant, announcing the start of the ecumenical church service in the memory of Jan Hus, who was burned at the gates of the city the very same day, 600 years ago.

Upon entering the cathedral, the visitor encountered a circle of roses at the beginning of the nave. As it turned out, a local woman, dressed in a medieval costume, was handing out roses along with instructions to the visitors. The circle marked a dark spot, on which, according to a local legend, Jan Hus stood, when he entered the church in the morning of July 6, 1415. The chronicles tell us that Hus, who wanted to address the assembled clergy with a speech that day, was stopped after only five steps. He was not allowed to deliver his speech, but had to remain where he stood, while he was being condemned as heretic and later in the afternoon burned at gates of the city. The legend claims that the dark spot appeared in the centuries after; as if the blood of the martyr was staining the stones where he stood when he was unjustly condemned.

600 years later, the cathedral was packed with people: a sight to behold ‒ and admittedly rare in central Europe these days. The benches were filled to the last seat and many visitors had to stand throughout the ceremony, in which the speech that Hus prepared for his defense, 600 years ago, was read aloud, as if to undo the historical injustice he suffered. The ecumenical service, which not only attracted a huge audience but featured representatives of different Protestant churches as well as the Catholic Church, was the climax after a weekend of commemoration.

This essay is an empirical reconstruction and interpretation of the collective memory of Jan Hus based on our fieldwork during the 600th anniversary celebrations in Constance. In this essay, I’d like to re-think the commemoration of Jan Hus in terms of the Hegelian spirit and its embodiment in community members, shared practices and social institutions. For this purpose, I will mainly draw on Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit and the commentary of Robert Pinkard (1994), who argued that the Hegelian concept of essence from the Phenomenology can be construed as that what counts as “authoritative” for a specific form of life. According to Pinkard, Hegel tried to show in the Phenomenology that under modern conditions only the reasons that humans determine for themselves, can count as authoritative. Following Hegel’s argument in the Phenomenology, it can be said that isolated individuals are not able to determine properly for themselves, what counts as authoritative, but only as members of communities “held together by a definite and shared sense of what is sacred” (Pinkard 1994:220). The essence of all things, the authoritative and sacred of a community, is, in Hegelian terms, nothing else than the absolute.

It is one of Hegel’s best known claims that the absolute cannot be understood as a mere object of feeling, imagination or thought, but needs to be recognized as a self-conscious subject in its own right. The importance of (monotheistic) religion in his thought results from the fact that the religious representation of the absolute as God is far more adequate than other conceptions of the absolute. For Hegel, Christianity went one critical step further, tearing down the barrier separating human subjects and God. In Jesus Christ, God becomes human, lives as a human and dies as a human. In turn, Christ’s resurrection is interpreted as a rebirth in spirit, in the concrete sense of the spirit of a religious community. Whereas religious knowledge, to some extent, retains a representation of God as transcendent and thus distinguished from his worshippers, the absolute knowledge in the Phenomenology dissolves this distinction by locating the absolute in the practices and beliefs of a community. Accusation of atheism notwithstanding, Hegel most likely considered himself a theist. Similar to Whitehead’s process theology, he believed in a primordial nature of God (the absolute as abstract concept or idea), but highlighted God in the becoming through his community of believers (the absolute as concrete historical process).

In this essay, I’d like to make a similar argument about the “second live” of Jan Hus, his commemoration and spiritual resurrection in memory practices of various communities. Despite the fact that the mnemonic practices, similar to religious practices, seem to refer to a reality beyond their present (historical, spiritual, transcendent etc.), this “other” can be reconstructed as part of the “self”. The converging as well as diverging memories of Hus not only tell us something about him as historical figure, but also a story about the mnemonic communities themselves and what they regard as authoritative and sacred.

Starting from this insight, I will raise several questions: Why and how do modern individuals and communities remember Hus? What drives them to choose this historical figure as crucial for their own identity? In my analysis, I’ll suggest answers along the following lines: First of all, we have to imagine Hus not just as a religious martyr, but as a quintessential modern man. Second, we have to understand the commemoration of Hus in terms of self-determining social practices, of communities that retroactively make history matter.

The essay is structured according to the Hegelian distinction between subjective, objective and absolute spirit. The “subjective spirit” deals with the life and death of Jan Hus as a modern man. The “objective spirit”, which might be left out for the purpose of the talk, is concerned with political, academic and religious institutions and their conflicting claims about Hus. Last but not least, the “absolute spirit”, will highlight the cultural and more reconciliatory side of Hus’ “second life” in the works of art, in religious service and in scientific reflection.

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