Hegel wrote: "The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk." What did he mean? What is the owl of Minerva? And what might David Brooks be trying to convey when he writes in a recent column: "But that’s the perpetual tragedy of life: the owl of Minerva flies at dusk."

"Minerva" is the Roman name of the Greek Athena, goddess of wisdom and philosophy, and associated with the owl (as preserved in the saying "bringing owls to Athens" which means bringing something to a place that already has more than enough thereof).

The meaning of Hegel's saying is that philosophy/wisdom takes flight only at the end of the day, after the day's main events have taken place. For Hegel, this was not tragic. His particular point is that it is only at the end of human history (which he associated with his own time, the early 19th century) that human beings can come to understand history's developmental logic. In fact, our coming to understand history is part of this developmental logic; and once we fully understand we are reconciled to history and thus would not have wanted history to have gone differently in any important respect.

As for David Brooks, I assume he meant that human beings tragically come to understand things fully only when it is too late. His specific reference was to the Bush Administration, which (he thinks) is now beginning to understand how it should have governed and acted (in regard to Iraq) even though its new insight is coming much too late.

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