The trouble with the Enlightenment

Mark Lilla

  • The Magus of the North: J.G. Hamann and the Origins of Modern Irrationalism by Isaiah Berlin, edited by Henry Hardy
    Murray, 144 pp, £14.99, October 1993, ISBN 0 7195 5312 1

In his distinguished career as an intellectual historian, Isaiah Berlin has established himself as our foremost collector of stray philosophical puppies. Vico, Herder, Maistre, and now Hamann: these are not household names, not even in the upper reaches of what used to be called the Ivory Tower. Berlin’s interest in them is anything but pedantic, however. In essay after elegant essay he has laboured to persuade us that these half-forgotten thinkers can help us to answer the central question raised by modern historical experience: how did the optimistic, progressive spirit of the 18th-century Enlightenment give way to the two dark and dangerous centuries that followed? And while he has offered no final answer to this question, he believes one is to be sought in the clash of rival instincts and irreconcilable aims that have haunted the modern mind. Enlightenment versus Counter-Enlightenment, rationalism versus romanticism, monism versus pluralism, hedgehogs versus foxes, positive liberty versus negative liberty – it is in these oppositions that we must try to understand ourselves and our times.

It is astonishing that a historian of Berlin’s stature, engaged in such an ambitious enterprise, should have received so little critical attention, especially in his adopted country, where his challenging theses about the character of modernity have been passed over in awkward silence by his fellow historians of ideas. (A rare exception was Perry Anderson’s ‘England’s Isaiah’, LRB, 20 December 1990.) There is, as yet, no monograph on his work. Several decades ago one might have attributed this reception to the lowly status then accorded intellectual history in Britain; today, however, it is a flourishing enterprise in the universities. The difficulty may lie in the fact that the new intellectual history has been so intent on reducing the historical and geographical scope within which ideas may be discussed that it simply cannot make out what Berlin is after. Works in this new vein do a good job of reproducing the clash of contextual cymbals and bells, but avoid the basso continuo that has resounded across time and borders. What makes Berlin’s writings so exciting to read and ponder is that the bass dominates, bringing us genuinely closer to past thinkers and permitting us to understand their deepest motivations.

The welcome publication of this short book on Hamann offers a new opportunity to consider the ensemble of Berlin’s studies of modern thought. The volume is a collection of lectures originally delivered in 1965 and then forgotten, until their existence was discovered by Henry Hardy, who shaped them into a publishable manuscript. The result is a happy one. Not only does the book give a sense of how Berlin began thinking about the opposition between the Enlightenment and the Counter-Enlightenment, it offers us yet another remarkably vivid portrait of an important thinker, in an essay form which Berlin has perfected. As in his portrait of Vico, he once again shows us how a philosopher forgotten shortly after his time managed to anticipate (in Vico’s case) or indirectly influence (in Hamann’s) the later course of modern thought.

Berlin’s case for Hamann, while not original in content, is compelling. Hamann was born in Königsberg in 1730 in moderately humble circumstances and had a conventional education. While working as a tutor he managed through a stroke of luck to befriend the young scions of the Berens family, who were rich Riga merchants. Hamann shared with them a taste for things French and could be considered a partisan of the Enlightenment and the reforms of Frederick the Great. After earning the family’s trust he soon entered its employ, undertaking a secret mission in England whose nature remains unknown to this day. While abroad, however, Hamann began leading what he later called a shamefully dissolute life, which eventually drove him into a deep spiritual crisis and psychological collapse. He left his job and, on 13 March 1758, locked himself in a cheap rented room in London and began reading the Bible. Unlike Descartes, whose seclusion in an overheated room reportedly gave birth to the modern cogito, Hamann emerged from his room a true Christian believer. When he disembarked at Riga at the end of July, his friend Berens encountered an utterly changed man: a radical mystical Lutheran, a sworn enemy of the Enlightenment, the future Magus of the North.

Shortly after Hamann’s return, the frantic Berens attempted to ‘deconvert’ him from his idiosyncratic faith by arranging a now famous meeting at a country inn between the former friends and the young Immanuel Kant. The meeting was a disaster in human terms, though it produced one of the most important documents in modern German culture: Hamann’s witty, petulant letter to Kant outlining his reasons for rejecting pleas to return to the Enlightened fold. The letter is important because it does not undertake an orthodox defence of the church against worldly wisdom, but rather tries to employ modern philosophy against itself, proving it to be self-refuting. To mount his counter-attack Hamann relies on Hume, whose works he had discovered in London and whom he would later translate into German. (Kant eventually read Hume in this translation, thus giving Hamann an indirect role in developing the critical philosophy.) Hamann’s claim was that since the Enlightenment offers no answer to the challenge of Hume’s scepticism, man has little choice but to accept the necessity of exercising faith in everything he does. ‘Hume,’ he famously wrote, ‘needs faith if he is to eat an egg and drink a glass of water.’

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