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.’

This letter was Hamann’s declaration of independence from the Enlightenment. After it there followed a series of short books, essays and reviews (including two on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason), each more mystical and allusive than the last. Hamann threw himself into learning Hebrew and Arabic in order to study the Kabbala and Koran, and mixed what he learned there with whatever he gleaned from reading Plato and the Latin poets in the original languages. The resulting syncretic brew was definitely a minority taste among readers, but Herder soon developed it and became an arms-length disciple. It was through Herder that Goethe came to know of him, and eventually joined with the Hamann enthusiast Jacobi in publishing the first collected edition of his works in 1830. Berlin believes that Hamann’s influence can be felt in much these major figures wrote, and that through them a kind of diffuse Hamannism – stressing the ‘grayness of theory’, the poetic roots of thought, the orgiastic nature of aesthetic experience – permeated European Romanticism and all that flowed from it. Hamann’s style proved a barrier to most later readers, as did Hegel’s dismissive review of the published writings (which must have attracted the contrary Kierkegaard to them). But nothing in modern thought was the same after him.

Berlin tells Hamann’s story with enviable panache, but it is only a prelude to setting out his grand theme of ‘Enlightenment and its discontents’. What was the Enlightenment, according to Berlin? Somewhat surprisingly, we never learn much in detail about particular authors who participated in it or about what they wrote, though virtually every imaginable failing is attributed to them. In 1965 Berlin was already prepared to tell his audience that the modern freethinkers who tried to give us a ‘quantified world’ were responsible for ‘defective practice and appalling human suffering’. They were enemies of ‘man’s unbroken nature’ who exhibited ‘total blindness to man’s inner life’, and against whose ‘rationalism and totalitarianism’ Romantic individualists like Hamann understandably rebelled. In subsequent essays Berlin’s characterisation of the Enlightenment has become even more critical, almost black. In The Crooked Timber of Humanity, for example, we learn that the Enlightenment emerged from a long tradition of Western ‘monism’ which believed that all general questions have one true answer, that those answers are in principle knowable, and that they are compatible one with the others. While Berlin accepts these propositions as legitimate foundations for the natural sciences, he has repeatedly stated that their application to society is responsible for utopian disasters in political thought and practice. On social matters the Enlightenment and its epigones have been absolutist, deterministic, inflexible, intolerant, unfeeling, homogenising, arrogant, blind – the ink cannot flow quickly enough when he is describing the vices of the Lumières. He once makes the extraordinary claim that the Enlightenment provided the ideal ‘for which more human beings have, in our time, sacrificed themselves and others than, perhaps, for any other cause in human history’.

Yet, typically in Berlin’s writings, no sooner are we convinced of the Enlightenment’s responsibility for the troubles of our time than we are presented with an equally unflattering portrait of its enemies. In these lectures Berlin calls Hamann a ‘fanatic’, the founder of a ‘polemical anti-rational tradition’ that culminated in ‘romanticism, obscurantism, and political reaction’. Worse, he was a ‘reactionary democrat’ whose ideas nurtured a blind ‘social and political irrationalism, particularly in Germany, in our century, and has made for obscurantism, a revelling in darkness’ that is responsible for ‘permanent damage to the social and political lives of men’. The reader is left breathless and somewhat confused. If the history of modern thought is essentially a struggle between the Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment, and if the political disasters of the 20th century can be attributed to modern thought, then it would seem that we are faced with the choice of attributing them either to the Lumières or to their opponents. If Hitler and Stalin were indeed monsters born of a modern mind, whose mind was it – Kant’s or Hamann’s? Paternity in such matters can hardly be shared.

Or can it? In these lectures Berlin gives the impression that, while ‘reactionary democracy’ might have its occasional cause in the ideas of the Counter-Enlightenment, the original cause was the Enlightenment’s own excesses, which provoked this unhealthy reaction. Take, for example, his discussion of a distinction Hamann makes in his Aesthetica in nuce (1762) between ‘the dogmatic thoroughness of the orthodox Pharisees’ and the ‘poetic extravagance of the free-thinking Sadducees’. While this distinction might have brought to mind Kant’s claim to have forged an enlightened ‘third way’ between ancient dogmatism and modern scepticism, Berlin accepts Hamann’s self-portrayal as an explorer seeking a pluralistic ‘third way’ between the suffocating monisms of the Church and the Encyclopédie. Calling him a ‘champion of the individual’. Berlin maintains that Hamann’s mysticism was provoked by nothing so much as ‘an outraged sensibility’. Feeling himself ‘trampled by the inhuman tempo of centralisation in the political and cultural sphere ... forced by arrogant dictators, Frederick and Voltaire, he rose in rebellion and instituted a fierce campaign against reason’. Berlin himself is no enemy of reason, but he does feel an almost unbounded sympathy for those claiming to be victims of overweening pretension, even if that pretension is bred of rational reflection.

Those who put an end to suttee, or cleared slums, or created tolerable conditions of life in the place of some crushing, poverty-stricken patriarchalism, have rightly not been condemned by the majority of mankind. Hamann speaks for those who hear the cry of the toad beneath the harrow, even when it may be right to plough over him: since if men do not hear this cry, if they are deaf, if the toad is written off because he has been ‘condemned by history’... then such victories will prove their own undoing, for they will tend to destroy the very values in the name of which the battle was undertaken.

These sentences reflect Isaiah Berlin’s own ‘outraged sensibility’ better than anything he has written subsequently. There can be no doubt that he remains a liberal humanist, someone convinced that the abolition of suttee was justifiable, that cruelty practised in the name of tradition is still cruelty, that ignorance is a curse and that learning is enlightenment. He is no Heidegger or Horkheimer agonising over the rise of modern ‘subjectivity’ and a technological world. Nor is he a conservative lamenting an imaginary ‘world we have lost’ or seeking to fix absolute limits to the rational exercise of public power. If anything (and this may be the key), Berlin is an ultra-liberal frustrated by the internal limits of the Enlightenment itself: what he sees as its blind spots and intolerances, its all too quick willingness to see in its critics l’ infâme rather than dissenters wishing to live differently. What Berlin appears to want is not the contrary of the Enlightenment, but what the Germans call ein Aufklärung über die Aufklärung. If he had his way, liberals would not simply tolerate those who pursue their own ends in the spacious private sphere which liberalism was first to create and defend; they would even learn to understand those individuals or groups – religious fundamentalists, nationalists, romantic rebels – who reject the Enlightenment and liberalism. Not Bayle’s distanced toleration but Herder’s intimate Einfühlung, the imaginative and emotional capacity to see things from another’s viewpoint, is the foundation of Berlin’s political creed. Failing to find this principle defended within the Enlightenment, he has attempted to extend his own liberalism by grafting onto it the alleged pluralism of the Enlightenment’s severest critics, the Vicos, the Herders and the Hamanns.

Modernity is not a bloc: this is Berlin’s important lesson. Ever since the rise of the Enlightenment as a self-conscious movement of thought it has been haunted by a less visible Doppelgänger, whose profile and history Berlin has traced with admirable sympathy. And if we learn to listen to its voice, he evidently believes, we can learn to moderate the Enlightenment’s excesses. Still, as one looks back over his writings since these Hamann lectures were given, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that at a certain point his attempt to study this phenomenon took on a life of its own, that its relation to what the Enlightenment was really about became cloudy. The more we learn about the Counter-Enlightenment, the less we learn about what it was the ‘counter’ of. The more Berlin has tried to feel himself into the mindset of those who rejected the moral, epistemological and psychological assumptions on which his own enlightened liberalism must rest, the more he leaves the impression of having cut himself off from his intellectual roots – of having, in a word, gone native.

Take, for example, Berlin’s recurring description of the Enlightenment. It stands charged with ‘monism’: the belief that human nature and values are universal, objective and timeless, and that they can be understood in the light of reason. Scholarly quibbles aside, this description is accurate enough. But did these views really lead the Lumières to cultural ‘intolerance’ and moral ‘absolutism’? Were they really rendered ‘blind’ and ‘unfeeling’ to the needs of the human heart? Did they actually practise a ‘rationalism’ derived from their faith in social ‘determinism’? Berlin might cite passages from Condorcet, La Mettrie or Helvétius to make his case, but their fantasies stand out as exceptions to the fundamentally sceptical empiricism which the Lumières brought to bear on medieval scholasticism and the modern rationalistic systems of Leibniz, Wolff and Malebranche. The more one considers Berlin’s schema, the more the questions accumulate. By wishing to make punishments proportional to the severity of crimes, was Beccaria guilty of ‘rationalism’? Did Diderot’s and Lessing’s literary works really mark them as ‘unfeeling’ prophets of cultural ‘intolerance’? Did Voltaire’s despairing cry after the Lisbon earthquake, ‘il y a du mal sur la terre’, actually inspire others to plan mad utopias or ‘sacrifice themselves’ on the altar of progress?

The issue is not whether the Enlightenment was more diverse than Berlin lets on; he is speaking at a justifiable level of abstraction about a large movement of thought, and makes this clear. The issue is whether, in seeking to recover the lost history of the Romantic sensibility, he has uncritically accepted the Counter-Enlightenment’s caricature of what it was reacting against. That picture, which emerged in the wake of the French Revolution, is hardly sustainable once we turn back to the original Enlightenment and remind ourselves that Voltaire, Diderot, d’Alembert and Kant were not mad scientists intent on turning society into their laboratory, that their perhaps naive hopes for man’s natural reason and goodness did not translate into rationalistic plans to mass-produce virtue. Those plans were concocted in the heads of the Saint-Simons, Fouriers and Comtes after the Revolution, and after the reaction against the Enlightenment had already set in. Even on the issue of respecting cultural differences – which for Berlin, a Jew in Europe, is perhaps the central one – the reader finds far more room for manoeuvre in the tolerant works of Bayle, Lessing and Mendelssohn than in the murky writings of Hamann or Vico.

It is no easy matter to make the Counter-Enlightenment appear consistently pluralistic. Berlin has made great efforts in this direction but the results are decidedly mixed. He is on strongest ground when writing of Herder, the thinker in this group who seems closest to his heart; with Vico the pluralistic portrait is highly implausible. The one presented in these lectures on Hamann is no more persuasive, though it offers clues for understanding how Berlin goes about sketching them. His approach is disarming because he begins by describing all his subject’s warts and blemishes, which appear obvious even to the untrained eye. But once these admissions are made, Berlin then sets out in search of the fundamentally pluralistic principle he believes is buried in their works, and around which the apparently reactionary and often baroque machinery of their thought is said to turn. In Herder that principle is Einfühlung, in Vico it is the verumfactum equation, between the true and the made. In Hamann it is the linguistic foundation of thought, and therefore of reason, a principle that makes Hamann look remarkably similar to Vico and Herder. Whatever other features of Hamann’s writings we may find repugnant – his mysticism, his irrationalism, his vitalism, his misanthropy – we are asked to keep our attention fixed on this pluralistic principle and to consider how it might improve our enlightened liberalism.

This is a seductive approach, especially when dealing with authors like Hamann and Vico, whose obscure and scattered writings defy easy summary. Yet the more closely one studies those writings themselves, the more one begins to suspect that what Berlin calls separating the ‘kernel’ from the ‘chaff’ is actually a subtle, though probably inadvertent, exercise in bowdlerisation. This is especially apparent when he comes to questions of religion. If I understand him, Berlin believes that the theological speculations dominating Counter-Enlightenment thought actually mask important epistemological doctrines that can be detached from theological claims and incorporated into a more pluralistic liberalism. But this is the wrong way round: with Vico and Hamann it is clear that theology preceded epistemology, and that the latter is the modern patina they felt compelled to apply to their religious doctrines in order to satisfy their Enlightened adversaries. After all, it was not reading Hume that converted Hamann to the faith; it was his reading of the Bible at a moment of spiritual need, though he later promoted radical scepticism as an un-Humean bridge to faith. It is revealing that of all the Counter-Enlightenment thinkers whom Berlin has studied, the only one for whom he feels unmitigated repugnance and whom he holds directly responsible for the crimes of totalitarianism is Joseph de Maistre. Maistre is also the only figure in Berlin’s gallery who does not dress up his theology in the modern philosophical garb of epistemology and linguistics, but speaks flatly of the human need for blood, soil and the Cross.

What makes Counter-Enlightenment theology difficult to interpret and take seriously is its heterodoxy: it is equally distant from Catholic or Protestant church doctrine (Hamann’s Pharisees) and modern secularism (the Sadducees). Commentators are therefore tempted to ignore these invocations of religion as confused reactions or as intellectual ‘chaff’. But Counter-Enlightenment theology was really something new under the sun and deserves to be treated as central to the entire enterprise. It represented, not a nostalgic reaction, but a forward-looking, often aggressive, attempt to re-enchant a world whose gods had been driven out by modern doubt and Enlightened reason. It was, in more senses than one, post-modern. In Vico’s case, this re-enactment takes the mild form of cultivating a ‘heroic’ civil religion, while in Hamman’s it is a gnostic faith, a new Socratism combining sceptical criticism, private revelation and orgiastic enthusiasm. Against the Enlightenment, both assert that man is fallen, that he lives inescapably in ignorance, and that this ignorance is preferable to what Vico calls the ‘barbarism of reflection’ and what Hamann calls the ‘venereal disease’ of human curiosity. And both believe that God reveals himself to us without reason, either through Vico’s slow corso of providential history or Hamann’s Aurora of illumination. Both men were heretics, but of the two only Hamann has an inkling of where this heresy would lead. When he writes that ‘Leben ist actio’ we already begin to see how the campaign to re-enchant the world would eventually abandon God in favour of ‘life’ in the works of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Bergson, Jung, Batailk, Foucault and so many others.

Isaiah Berlin knows this history and has written as insightfully about it as anyone alive. One cannot help wondering, then, why he has devoted such energy to promoting thinkers who stand at the beginning of an intellectual tradition so hostile to his own refined liberal humanism. In his anxious pursuit of principles that might make ours a more ‘pluralistic’ world, he has not only cast an inappropriate shadow of suspicion on the alleged ‘monism’ of the Enlightenment: by seeking those principles outside the Enlightenment, in the works of its most profound but also most tenacious adversaries, he now finds himself in company that is really not his own. It may very well be that the intricacy of his writing on these obscure thinkers reflects his own ambivalence about them and his unspoken doubts about the real consequences of their ideas. In reading his essays one has the uncomfortable impression of watching someone welcome harmless stray puppies into his home, only to discover years later they they are all grown up, straining at their leashes, teeth bared.