Knowledge Lost: A New View of Early Modern Intellectual History 
by Martin Mulsow, translated by H.C. Erik Midelfort.
Princeton, 434 pp., £35, January, 978 0 691 20865 7
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‘To devote our life to authorship,’ Isaac D’Israeli wrote, ‘is not the true means of improving our happiness or our fortune.’ In Calamities of Authors (1812), he chronicled the lives of writers he considered at once ‘the most honoured, and the least remunerated’. Some of these men of letters were ‘driven to madness by indigence and insult’; others ‘died of overstudy’, suffered from melancholy or were exposed to public ridicule. One of his subjects, Simon Ockley, was a professor of Arabic at Cambridge in the early 18th century. He ended up in debtors’ prison, where, he claimed, he ‘enjoyed more true liberty, more happy leisure and more solid repose in six months … than in thrice the same number of years before’. D’Israeli’s wasn’t the first such history. In De infelicitate literatorum (‘On the Ill Fortune of Learned Men’), published posthumously in 1620, Pierio Valeriano described the fates of a number of his unfortunate contemporaries: killed by the plague or by their own hand or, in the case of the medical writer Gabriele Zerbi, sawn in two.

In Knowledge Lost, published in German in 2012 and now translated into English, the historian Martin Mulsow argues for fresh consideration of members of the European Wissensprekariat, or ‘intellectual precariat’. The expansion of German universities during the early modern period created a surfeit of graduates, many of whom were unable to find academic work. If they couldn’t get a job as a tutor in a noble household (‘pitiable retainers of some great family’, as D’Israeli put it), they might find work as private secretaries, freelancers or journalists.

Mulsow’s examples include Theodor Ludwig Lau, born in Königsberg in 1670, a failed legal scholar who attempted suicide in 1719 after his efforts to publish an anthology of radical thought came to nothing. Johann Heinrich Heubel sabotaged his academic career almost as soon as it had begun. Appointed law professor at the University of Kiel in 1723, he made himself unpopular with an incendiary inaugural lecture attacking the pedantry of jurists. Heubel told the ‘falsely learned’ and ‘fundamentally perverse’ in the audience: ‘Begone! Get out!’ He was relieved of his duties the following year and supported himself by serving as a tutor to the children of the prince-bishop of Lübeck, among them the future king of Sweden. He continued his own work, compiling lists of burned books (or books whose authors had been burned), which he intended to publish together under the title ‘Vulcan’s Library’.

Research into intellectual auxiliaries has thrived in recent years. Translators, interpreters, secretaries and amanuenses are no longer considered intermediaries, but contributors in their own right. Despite his Marxisant vocabulary (he refers to the ‘intellectual bourgeoisie’ as well as the ‘intellectual precariat’), Mulsow isn’t interested in financial precarity so much as risky thinking. Professors could also be precarious, he argues, if they engaged in clandestine intellectual activity. One of his subjects is the 18th-century scholar Hermann Samuel Reimarus, the rector of a prestigious preparatory school in Hamburg, who had ‘one foot in the precariat’ because he secretly wrote a damning critique of Christian revelation, only published after his death. Mulsow’s German title, Prekäres Wissen, can be more literally translated as ‘precarious knowledge’, and it’s knowledge as much as its producers that is threatened here. As Mulsow puts it, ‘how could one guarantee that a secret message, letter, or packet actually reached its intended recipient? How could a certain message get past the censors to a potential reader? How could one make sure that the police did not confiscate and destroy the whole print run of a book?’

Mulsow wants to recover forgotten thinkers. He writes at the outset that ‘second and third-rate theorists’ are ‘the most useful’, since they’re the ones who can ‘show us the typical intellectual and behavioural models of an age’. According to this logic, the experiences of scholars who didn’t become academic superstars are more representative than those of, say, Descartes or Leibniz. But Mulsow is more concerned with what marginal intellectuals can reveal to us: with less to lose, they often staked out more radical positions than their established peers.

Mulsow’s earlier work helped to show that the Enlightenment emerged not only in opposition to Christian intellectual culture, but from it. In recent decades, historians have argued that unbelief developed from a heterogenous set of sources: ancient sceptical philosophy was rediscovered; biblical scholarship historicised Christian revelation for the first time; and antipathy grew, in some quarters, towards the theology used to justify monarchical rule. Mulsow’s Enlightenment Underground (2002) showed the way the radical German literature of the late 17th century and early 18th century developed through clandestine networks reaching into other parts of Europe.

What interests Mulsow most is the way knowledge flourishes in conditions of secrecy. He devotes much of Knowledge Lost to reconstructing the methods scholars used to dissimulate their beliefs. One of the most common tactics was plausible deniability. Expressing one’s views risked attracting the attention of state censors, so it was safer to make ‘half-joking’ statements. In 1712, Peter Friedrich Arpe, a scholar from Kiel, tried to exonerate the Italian radical writer Giulio Cesare Vanini, who had been executed in 1619 for atheism and blasphemy. By writing about atheism, Arpe might appear to be justifying it. His apologia for Vanini therefore buried his own feelings on the subject beneath what Mulsow calls a ‘rollercoaster’ of conflicting arguments.

Members of the intellectual precariat didn’t only have to worry about their own work. They could be drawn into controversy over what their close friends and relatives were writing. Some chose to come clean: the law professor Nikolaus Gundling referred to his ‘crypto-Socinian grandfather’ (Socinians doubted the doctrine of the Trinity) before the connection could be used against him. By contrast, the chief pastor of Hamburg, Abraham Hinckelmann, concealed the fact that his grandfather had been a follower and close friend of the mystic Jakob Böhme. Hinckelmann came to believe (wrongly) that his grandfather had ghostwritten many of Böhme’s works, but despite publishing a careful critique of Böhme’s teachings he kept his family history secret. Yet he found himself caught up in debates over Pietism, a Lutheran reform movement that drew inspiration from Böhme, and suffered a haemorrhage, which he attributed to stress. He died in 1695 at the age of 43.

Mulsow illustrates some of the ways in which material conditions undermined the pursuit and transmission of knowledge. Consider the risks of sending manuscripts by post. In 1734, a package of handwritten excerpts on the history of philosophy went astray in Leipzig. They had been loaned by one scholar, Christoph August Heumann, to another, Johann Jakob Brucker. Brucker is remembered as the author of an enormous history of philosophy – in Mulsow’s view, ‘the largest and most important’ to appear in the 18th century. Without Heumann’s notes, Brucker’s book would never have been written: Kaufbeuren, the small Bavarian town where Brucker lived, lacked the library for such an undertaking. But the loss ruined the men’s friendship and made it impossible for Heumann to write his own critical history of philosophy.

It takes great patience and imagination to reconstruct the careers of forgotten scholars, let alone attempt to recover their private thoughts. Mulsow extends his attempt even to intellectuals who decided to destroy their work. He writes of the followers of Harpocrates, the god of silence, that ‘it can be extremely difficult to find out anything.’ These men retreated or were made to desist from scholarship and publication. Perhaps making a virtue of necessity, they argued that truth was a privilege for the few, to be shared only with one’s closest devotees or not at all. But Harpocratic secrets were not necessarily hermetic or mystical. In the early 18th century, Hermann von der Hardt, a professor of Oriental languages, sought to demystify the Bible and explain it in purely secular terms. As a result, he was first forbidden from giving lectures on biblical interpretation and eventually forced into retirement altogether.

Where does all this leave us? Mulsow offers a clue in the introduction when he writes that ‘intellectual history has become to no small degree a cultural history of intellectual practices.’ Those who have worked on the subject for decades may welcome this development, but it’s worth thinking about what has been left behind. The big questions don’t go away simply because scholars lose interest. One reason to care about the second and third-tier intellectuals in Knowledge Lost is their significance to the intellectual origins of religious doubt. Yet Mulsow doesn’t examine the ways in which writing and circulating clandestine literature contributed to radicalisation. Such considerations belong to ‘Whig history’, he writes, in which ‘radical Enlightenment philosophers’ are presented as ‘the heroic forerunners of modernity’ (this is surely a dig at Jonathan Israel, who sees the Enlightenment as a battle of heroic radicals against conservatives and moderates).

For Mulsow, the ‘dividing line between the knowledge precariat and the knowledge bourgeoisie’ is a better frame of analysis than Israel’s division of Enlightenment thinkers into moderates and radicals. The problem of ‘one’s own precarity’ was ‘far more urgent than any fidelity to some specific philosophy that we might designate “radical”’. Certainly, organising intellectuals by political belief reduces intellectual life to a form of politics. It also assumes that metaphysical and political ideas complement each other neatly when, as Mulsow shows, they could arrive in surprising permutations. Knowledge Lost confirms that moderates and radicals belonged on a spectrum. They might agree on many things; a kind of productive ambiguity even allowed them to correspond and collaborate.

Yet in trying to extrapolate from Mulsow’s examples we run into the problem of selection bias. He argues that being in a position of professional precarity made scholars more likely to express unorthodox positions. But this doesn’t necessarily hold for 18th-century German scholars more broadly, let alone precarious scholars in general. What the book does show, rather, is that there are striking similarities between the ways Mulsow’s subjects handled controversial knowledge, whether atheistic, magical, mystical or something else.

Rather than asking how the Enlightenment arose from a conservative and hierarchical intellectual culture, or pursuing a social history of literary unfortunates, Mulsow has produced his own ‘cultural history of intellectual practices’. He suggests in the conclusion that this sort of history isn’t hostile to all grand narratives, just to the traditional idea of the Enlightenment as a transition to modernity. Knowledge Lost is, he argues, a contribution to the history of freedom – the freedom to think, to publish, to write in one’s own name – and to the history of security: the ability to store information safely and to protect it from state surveillance.

All big questions worth discussing. But sometimes the reader is left wanting to know more about the fate of the precarious intellectuals. After his suicide attempt, Lau turned to writing on financial matters, perhaps in the hope of persuading German princes to support freedom of religion on economic grounds. He continued to lament the failure of his radical writings, which he had published anonymously: ‘I have piped loudly and melodiously enough, but they did not want to dance.’ In 1737 he commissioned a consoling portrait of himself in the guise of a nobleman, wearing a cuirass and sword. The engraving – a rare image of a German radical thinker from the period – shows him surrounded by seven emblems representing different aspects of his thought. When von der Hardt’s ruler, the duke of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, forbade him from further publication of his rationalist biblical scholarship, he burned his own manuscripts and presented their ashes to the duke. As for Heubel, the historian of book burning, he never held another academic position and never completed ‘Vulcan’s Library’. But, at the behest of his noble patrons, he did translate a three-volume history of Charles XII of Sweden. Arpe, like Heubel, was appointed to a professorship at Kiel, and then sacked. He later gained a diplomatic post at the court of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, which he duly lost.


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