Contemporary in Dissent: Johann Georg Hamann as Radical Enlightener

Contemporary in Dissent: Johann Georg Hamann as Radical Enlightener


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In this biography -- translated for the first time into English -- German theologian Oswald Bayer describes the life and work of journalist-theologian Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788). At a time when it seemed that the forces of secularization were attempting to claim the future, Hamann churned out small publications aimed at undermining the Enlightenment zeitgeist, turning its assumptions upside down and skewering its pretensions. Although largely forgotten until recent times, Hamann as radical dissenter -- whom Goethe called the -brightest man of his age- -- remains relevant today, as Bayer shows in this book.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802866707
Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
Publication date: 01/01/2012
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.70(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Oswald Bayer is professor emeritus of systematic theology atthe University of Tübingen, Germany, and director of theLuther Academy Sondershausen-Ratzeburg. He is also anordained pastor of the Lutheran Church of Württemberg andwas the editor of Neue Zeitschrift für SystematischeTheologie und Religionsphilosophie from 1986 to2006. His research focuses especially on Luther andHamann.,

Roy A. Harrisville is professor emeritus of New Testamentat Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota. He is alsocoauthor of The Bible in Modern Culture: Baruch Spinozato Brevard Childs (Eerdmans).

Mark C. Mattes is professor of philosophy and religion atGrand View University, Des Moines, Iowa.

Read an Excerpt

A Contemporary in Dissent

Johann Georg Hamann as a Radical Enlightener
By Oswald Bayer

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2012 Roy A. Harrisville and Mark C. Mattes
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6670-7

Chapter One

Life and Work

The prejudice that Hamann is opaque stubbornly persists to our day. In terms of an opaqueness laden with mystery many hear the sobriquet "Magus of the North," known to everyone who has heard anything at all about Hamann.

This sobriquet given by the Schwabian Carl von Moser to the man from Königsberg and which he gladly received has nothing to do with magic. It will do nothing more than recall the story of the Magi, the "wise men," told in the Gospel of Matthew. A magus is one who has seen the star of Bethlehem and "overwhelmed with joy" worships the child in the manger, as indicated in the story (Matt. 2:10). "Magus" is thus simply the designation for a Christian whose name is always involved in specific stories and cannot even be thought of apart from them. This uniqueness characterizes Hamann's life, work, and achievement in a special, most provocative way. Hamann learns that he is interpreted by specific histories, events, and guises, which one may call "typological," whether they are the "Magi from the East, to Bethlehem," Socrates, or Amos and John the Baptist who pronounce judgment, or Matthew, a tax collector like Hamann, of whom it is said that Jesus "saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, 'Follow me.' And he got up and followed him" (Matt. 9:9). Hence, instead of signing his letters with his name, Hamann signed them with the self-appellation, "Magus in telonio," at the tax booth.

Now the star of Bethlehem has not simply enlightened the whole world. Rather, it shines "in a dark place, until the day dawns ..." (2 Peter 1:19). So, Hamann knows that he belongs to a race that lives in the twilight, "entre chien et loup" (between dog and wolf), as he signs an important letter in which he critically scrutinized Kant's famous "Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?" (Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?). "Entre chien et loup," between day and night, between the times, no one can say whether the gloaming turns into an eternal night or an eternal day, unless one attends to the light of the prophetic word, "shining in a dark place...."

It is thus no miracle that a specific darkness, the darkness of the world situation, is not to be denied. Writers who are honest, subject to no illusion or guile, must account for it in the way in which they write. Reviewers of Hamann's opuscula (little works) such as Moses Mendelssohn faulted "the darkness and mysteriousness" of his style. Hamann responds, speaking of himself in the third person with irony, as he often does, "in order to arrive at the wonderful economy of his style: thus after deducting 666 2/3 typographical errors it appears to suit precisely the darkness of his whole situation."

In any case, the brightest intellect of his time knew of its opacities, above all, of his own. He confesses that self-knowledge is a descent into hell. And in Goethe we find not only the judgment that Hamann is the brightest intellect of his time but likewise the reference that Hamann saw also the shadows: "Clarity is a suitable distribution between light and shade."

The journalist and writer Johann Georg Hamann spoke, wrote, and thought clearly. In a clarity that pained him and turned his readers on their heads, he knew how to rightly divide the word. But even he often failed and let his literary essays lie as torsos.

"We live here from crumbs. Our thoughts are nothing but fragments. Indeed our knowledge is a patchwork." "I am not up to universal 'truths, fundamental principles, systems,' instead I am up to crumbs, fragments, whims, thoughts." To this corresponds the character of his public writings, which often, but by no means always, had a difficult birth. They are intentionally brief occasional pieces, "arising from special occasions in my life," "full of personality and locality, full of relationship to similar appearances and experiences, but at the same time full of allusions to the world of literature in which he lived."

In an unprecedented way Hamann was always a listener and reader first of all, and then spoke and wrote. Not coincidentally many of his works are formal reviews or can be best understood as such. Since he was always a reader first of all, and then an author, in writing he related himself at the outset to his reader, just as a letter writer relates to the one with whom he or she speaks. Not coincidentally, many of his works and ahead of them all the first writing, Socratic Memorabilia (1759), grew from his correspondence and from it allow their origin to be known.

It is true that Hamann criticizes the author's dependence on the reader and compares it to the relationship of a god to the one who offers sacrifice; the gods and their devotees are mutually dependent on each other. But Hamann does not criticize the author's dependence on the reader on the assumption it could be annulled and the corresponding attention avoided. The reader is not to be thought away. The reader belongs to the author essentially, not casually. "The idea of the reader is the Muse and help meet of the author." The reader belongs to the author as the wife to the husband (Gen. 2:18). In Hamann's speaking and thinking the metaphors that stem from the sphere of sexuality and hark back to it play a key role.

Though Hamann maintains he was not equal to systematic thought, he is nonetheless systematic precisely in the fact that thoroughly oriented to the aesthetics of receptivity he has the relationship between author and reader in mind from the very first. This relationship is not guaranteed through an a priori universality of thought or through rigid, established definitions of words. Rather, it is first established. In order for the intended communication to succeed, the author must not yet definitively establish connection with the text. Author and reader can only form it together as husband and wife form a marriage. "Writer and reader are two halves whose needs are related to each other and have their unification as a common goal." No one is a self-sufficient individual able to exist all by oneself. Together they form an indissoluble, fruitful unity in their medium, the book.

Locality, Individuality, Personality

In contrast to his contemporary Kant, and to Hegel, Hamann establishes relationships in such a way that they cannot be presumed to be a system originating with the author. The relationships he establishes are not generalizations in the sense that they can be cut away from the "profound particularity" that Hegel so severely criticized in his lengthy review of Hamann's writings, edited by Friedrich Roth in 1821-25.

It was not least against philosophers and systematic theologians that Hamann writes in his bequest, the Fliegender Brief: "I know nothing better than to oppose the universal chatter and the index finger aiming beautifully from the distance into the wide world ... than the most precise locality, individuality, and personality." In the same context Hamann points to the place of his birth, "the most dilapidated building of the old city bath situated by the Pregel and the Katzbach," to that world captured by Johannes Bobrowski's poem.

    one world,
    roads, ways today
    Wasianski is coming — who
    wrote the Lives
    and who the poems à la Grécourt,
    between Lizentgraben and
    Katzbach the whole, what do I know, world.

    But a bird sings
    through the night, in the
    too heavily pruned trees,
    summerlong this bird,
    it does not wake my son,
    but I — so I shall
    go, I fish for a dish of
    will-o'-the-wisp in the meadows
    behind the ditch.

    World. I see in the rain
    a white cloud. It is I.
    Down the Pregel
    the boat. From the mists. World.
    A hell, in which God dwells.
    World. I say with Sancho:
    God, I say: he understands me.

The world conversation in which Hamann lived is defined by the most exact personality, individuality, and locality in which he lived. Born on August 27, 1730, in Königsberg, East Prussia, he was the son of a public bath administrator and surgeon, whose father was a pastor in Lausitz and whose brother, likewise named Johann Georg Hamann (1697-1733), was a literary figure. His mother hailed from Lübeck. The father's occupation earned Hamann the title he proposed for a selection of his writings planned by his pupil and friend Johann Gottfried Herder. The title was "Quackery" or "Little Metacritical Tub." As the father bathed everyone in a tub, so the son will test and metacritically treat all, including Kant, the critic of pure reason.

Hamann's youth in the port, government, and university city is played out in an atmosphere in which Pietism and Enlightenment are woven together without significant conflict. At the age of sixteen, in 1746, Hamann begins the study of theology and philosophy, then changes to law and political economy. Chiefly, however, he studies literature, philology, and rhetoric, but also mathematics and the natural sciences. He drops out of the university without a diploma, as an "Invalide des Apoll," as he calls himself in a letter to the king. Afterward, he resides for a longer time as a home tutor on Baltic estates.

In these years (1752-56) Hamann's baroque encyclopedic erudition is broadened. He obtains the most varied bibliographic tools, scholarly lexicons, review periodicals, and dictionaries. Characteristic of Hamann's authorship is the combination of philological detail with philosophical insight and breadth, of work in detail with a profound systematic interest.

Hamann's studies in this period are devoted chiefly to texts in political economy. His first larger publication is the translation of a manuscript in political economics, to which he adds his own appendix. Correspondingly, in 1756 he is employed by the Berens Trading Firm in Riga. While a student in Königsberg, he is befriended by Johann Christoph Berens, and together with Berens, Johann Gotthelf Lindner (1729-1776), and others he publishes the weekly Daphne. The learned tutor becomes a businessman.

In 1757 the Berens firm sends Hamann to London with a commission apparently having to do with political economy. There he completely loses his bearings. He fails both professionally and personally. Yet his life is changed. Among the many books, those "miserable comforters," he finds his way to the one book, finds his way from distraction to concentration on the one thing needful, from unbearable unrest to certainty. He finds that in the Author of the Bible he has met the Author of his life-story through the "descent into the hell of self-knowledge"; has met a friend who interprets and understands him. Having become the reader of the one book, this reader of many books learns that in reading he is read and in understanding is understood.

That the knots were untied "on the evening of March 31," 1758, while he meditated on the story of the fratricide in Genesis 4 does not mean that Hamann had this experience in an isolated moment or as pure intuition. He did not experience it unmediated, but in the context of a profoundly penetrating and extensive reading and writing, just as Martin Luther witnessed to the "reformational change" in himself and his theology. While reading, Hamann writes the Biblische Betrachtungen (Biblical Meditations of a Christian), in the form of a diary and not intended for publication, along with a pietistic general confession titled Gedanken über meinen Lebenslauf (Thoughts about My Life), and other texts, among them the Brocken (Fragments), all of which not only prepare for Hamann's later work but in essence already contain it. The life-change from the many books to the one book witnessed to in these texts does not nullify the old books but transforms their study and allows entry into a newly established context.

Socrates in Königsberg

The coincidental beginning of Hamann's actual authorship indicates its enduring peculiarity. After his return from London to Riga, the Bible reader, the one understood by God, senses the old spirit opposing his new experience. His old friends Johann Christoph Berens and Immanuel Kant now see in Hamann only a "Schwärmer," and a man of no civil use. In the context of this dispute, Hamann's courting of Catharina Berens, in whom he saw the bride "according to God's will," fails in 1758. The two friends seek to return Hamann to the Enlightenment. The ensuing conflicts involving the fundamental one between Enlightenment and Christianity are witnessed to in a series of comprehensive letters, chiefly to Johann Gotthelf Lindner, who mediates between Hamann and the two friends. The Socratic Memorabilia are born in 1759 out of the work on this basic conflict.

In this writing Hamann deals with the language of the eighteenth century inspired by the figure of Socrates. By means of the spirit of the time and through the general public he seeks to reach his friends, Berens and Kant. The twofold inscription, "with a double dedication to the public, or to no one" and "to two" corresponds with this attempt. The two friends cannot be directly reached, but only indirectly. At heart they share in the publicity. In essence they belong to the general public. But the general public has power. It fascinates and creates dependence.

With the publication of the Socratic Memorabilia Hamann intends to liberate his friends from enslavement to the general public, "to purify" two "of your devotees ... from service to your vanity." The public, the omniscient No One, is to be conquered from within by the unknowing Socrates, to be struck with its own weapon. In remembrance of the beloved figure of Socrates, Hamann offers the insatiably inquisitive general public a "gift," a "sacrifice," which it is to desirously accept and allow to be tasted. But the sacrificial gift is a "pious fraud," has a barbed hook, is a "Greek gift" (Trojan horse). Hamann's Socrates, a contemporary in dissent, lurks behind the customary readership. Moloch, the "public," gulps what brings its downfall. The societal general public, perceived by Hamann in its artificiality and power with a visual force comparable to Hobbes's Leviathan, is seen as an idol, is exposed with biting irony, is to burst and at least set the two friends free. With his authorship of the Socratic Memorabilia, Hamann intends to entangle the "omniscient No One" and the "unknowing Socrates" to the effect that Kant and Berens will step out of the no man's land, out of the fascination of the anonymity that knows much but understands nothing, and become individuals who have grown skeptical of their own knowledge and confessed their own ignorance, in order to make room for faith.

Hamann adopts the following proposition from David Hume, whose skepticism had special significance for him: "the final fruit of all worldly wisdom is the observation of human ignorance and weakness." So, according to Hamann, the philosopher "falls on the sword of his own truths." "Reason is holy, right, and good; but through it comes nothing other than the recognition of thoroughly sinful ignorance.... Therefore, let no one be deceived. Whoever among you thinks to be wise, let that one become a fool.... The office of philosophy is the embodied Moses, a stubborn and severe teacher of the faith." Hamann has no illusion about the success of his indirect sermon and on the title page sets as a motto the opening lines of the Satires of Persius: "Who then will read something like this? — Are you asking me? — Nobody, by Hercules! — Nobody? — Perhaps two or perhaps no one!"

The witness to which Hamann was called by his conversion in London did not lead him, a stutterer all his life, to a public office in the church. It is as a writer that he was a "minister verbi divini," a servant of the divine word, in this, as in many other ways comparable to Kierkegaard. Authorship is a preaching office of its own. So Hamann's language does not take the usual shape of the Reformation tradition of preaching. The graphic language of the Luther Bible is rather woven into the life-story of the author, in concrete situations of conversation, encounters, journalistic constellations, reviews, replies, in anti- and metacriticism. Hamann engages his opponent with irony and ridicule, parodying and satirizing, scolding and flattering. In this way, still living in the respublica litteraria (republic of letters) before the time of the collapse of the rhetorical tradition, he makes use of the means of rhetoric — situated within the strategy of his witness.


Excerpted from A Contemporary in Dissent by Oswald Bayer Copyright © 2012 by Roy A. Harrisville and Mark C. Mattes. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Independence and Freedom....................xii
As a Dissenter....................xiii
The Root of Freedom for Criticism....................xv
1. Life and Work....................1
2. Style and Form....................19
3. Original Motif....................42
4. The Modern Concept of Nature in Crisis....................67
5. Freedom as a Fundamental Concept of Anthropology (Herder–Hamann)....................87
6. Criticism and Politics (Hamann–Herder–Frederick the Great)....................104
7. What Is Enlightenment? (Kant–Hamann)....................117
8. History and Reason (Reimarus–Lessing–Mendelssohn–Hamann)....................128
9. Reason Is Language (Hamann–Kant)....................156
10. Natural Right and Social Life (Mendelssohn and Hamann)....................171
11. "Essay of a Sibyl on Marriage"....................184
12. Created Time....................193
Appendix: Chronological Table....................224
Index of Persons....................227
Index of Scripture References....................232

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