The Way of the Impure

On the Beautiful Soul, Evil, and Forgiveness

Simone A. Medina Polo
5 min readJun 6, 2022

[This essay is the fourth in a 5-part series of short-writings that came from Todd McGowan’s 2022 Seminar on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.]

In the “Spirit” section of the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel arrives at the figure of the beautiful soul through the concerns that set the stage morality’s contradiction between pure duty and actuality — in other words, the moral view of the world between the absoluteness of morality and the absoluteness of nature (Hegel, 1977, 365). In fact, Hegel’s restaging of Kantian morality goes as far as calling it an antinomy of morality of the claim that there is a moral consciousness and that there is none (Hegel, 1977, 383). At the crux of Hegel’s critique of Kant is that Kant resists nature and actuality as a necessary essence of morality — furthermore, Kant is not serious about his own claims in that pure duty cannot be accomplished without becoming impure, thus its actualization is deferred continuously as a pure duty without satisfying the imperative injunction that drives it into morality. As Hegel writes: “Morality is both the activity of this pure purpose, and also the consciousness of rising above sense-nature, of being mixed up with sense-nature, and struggling against it” (Hegel, 1977, 378 and 386).

When morality is actualized and acted upon, duty goes beyond its own purity in a sense missing its aim — in this way, it doesn’t need the natural world to be opposed to it as it is actualized all the time by virtue of morality’s own essence. Nonetheless, this contradiction in the disparity between the way morality thinks about itself and its own essential nature is displaced through the evocations of hypocrisy, whereby moral self-consciousness does not assume responsibility for this contradiction as an internal contradiction and instead renders it solely external (Hegel, 1977, 378). In this instance, we are introduced to conscience as it is attained through a self-interrogation of deeds against the backdrop of expressed convictions — this is distinct from the convictions found in the ethical substance that took the immediacy of the commitment without mediation and reflection that allows it to express why a duty is a duty (Hegel, 1977, 390). Every act becomes suspect to the judging conscience that convinces itself of its purity as it condemns the corruption and impurity of the world.

The figure of the beautiful soul is this moment of morality where the judging consciousness of conscience seeks to preserve its own purity by fleeing the world where active selves are deemed corrupt (Hegel, 1977, 400). Hegel characterizes the beautiful soul as an unhappy consciousness stuck in its one-sided stubbornness as a resistance to the dread of internal contradiction, which entails a certain trusting gesture of letting-go of its moral integrity over to otherness — in that sense, the decrying of hypocrisy reveals itself to be a symptom of the internal contradictions of moral consciousness insofar as this disparity reveals the persistence of evil in its own self (Hegel, 1977, 401 and 402). Furthermore, since morality is actualized all the time, the beautiful soul’s retreat from the ugliness of the world remains an action making the corrupted world that it condemns.

Perhaps one more of the most striking aspects in Hegel’s treatment of the beautiful soul is that its pure heart is overcome through heartbreak — in other words, the stubborn beautiful soul lets go of itself only when its own heart is broken as it confesses to its own evil.

Why does Hegel refer to heartbreak precisely at the moment when we are through with the beautiful soul? A psychoanalytic example is helpful: think of a person who has set up for themselves an ideal-ego against which not only do they measure themselves as an ego-ideal that unsuccessfully aims to meet its super-egoic demands, but they judge others by that standard. Many relationships go by with the same result where neither themselves nor others can measure up to these judgements. Let us suppose further that this person remains stubborn and retreats from this issue by externalizing the agency of this failure in claiming it always someone else who is to blame. This retreat eventually catches up to this person the moment that they realize that this failure is not just an external failure in the other, but that this failure is also their own and it is only through that failure that they are constituted as a subject — this is precisely the point with Hegel insofar as evil is a necessary passage through finitude for any actual morality. But of course, by then a subtle deed has been committed through the very judgement which never retreated from the world successfully — much like the psychoanalytic example given, relationship after relationship, the beautiful soul is struck by a madness of its very moral attitude, a yearning where it wastes itself, and simultaneous consumption of everything around it. My claim here is that the heartbreak is the significant turning point of the beautiful soul in that, despite its retreat from the world, it ends up pushing the world away to the point that this break with the world perpetually haunts it.

The heartbreak allows the possibility for forgiveness as it is both the renunciation of the self to the other and comprehensive of morality in its truth (Hegel, 1977, 407 and 408). As Hegel notes, much like the unhappy consciousness who turns to the priestly mediator (or a psychoanalyst), the beautiful soul can’t find any release from its misery in itself as it has to turn to the other for forgiveness (Hegel, 1977, 137 and 406). In that sense, when the beautiful soul (and thus morality to its furthest extreme) fully embraces its throughout actualization, it is through forgiveness as the beginnings of Spirit’s self-consciousness. And it could only be forgiveness that achieves the true sense of mutual recognition in Hegel, not as an appeasement of antagonism into a neutral position, but rather as the exacerbation of antagonism to a point where the only reconciliation is a unsettling one that starts by accepting the necessity of evil as its condition of possibility. In its truth, Spirit begins to know itself by way of Religion (Hegel, 1977, 409–411).

References and Citations:

Hegel, G.W.F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A.V. Miller. Ed., J.N. Findlay. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.



Simone A. Medina Polo

Simone A. Medina Polo is a philosopher and an PhD candidate at the Global Centre for Advanced Studies for Philosophy and Psychoanalysis.