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The Magus of the North

For more information about Isaiah Berlin, see the Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library. For permission to reprint any material by Isaiah Berlin, contact Curtis Brown Group Ltd.

Do either nothing or everything; the mediocre, the moderate, is repellent to me: I prefer an extreme.”

Hamann to J.G. Lindner,
May 20, 17561

Think less and live more.”

Hamann to J.G. Herder,
May 18, 1765


The most passionate, consistent, extreme and implacable enemy of the Enlightenment and, in particular, of all forms of rationalism of his time (he lived and died in the eighteenth century) was Johann Georg Hamann, who came to be known as the Magus of the North. His influence, direct and indirect, upon the Romantic revolt against universalism and scientific method in any guise was considerable and perhaps crucial.

This may seem at first sight to be an absurd claim on behalf of a man whose name is scarcely known in the English-speaking world, who is barely mentioned, at best, in some of our larger or more specialized encyclopedias as an esoteric writer, confused and obscure to the point of total unintelligibility, an eccentric and isolated figure, about whose views—beyond the fact that he was consumed by some kind of highly individual Christianity, usually described as a form of pietism, believed in the occult truths of divine revelation and the literal inspiration of the Bible, rejected the French atheism and materialism of his time, and was at most a minor figure in the German literary movement known as Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Stress”)—virtually nothing is said. Literary histories and monographs sometimes speak of him as a minor contributor to the turbulence of the “pre-Romantic” German literature of the 1760s and 1770s; he occurs in the biographies of Kant as a fellow citizen of Königsberg, as being an unhappy dilettante, an amateur philosopher whom Kant once helped, then abandoned, and who criticized Kant without understanding him; and biographies of Goethe occasionally contain a few admiring quotations about him from Goethe’s autobiography, Dichtung und Wahrheit.

But no definite impression emerges: Hamann remains in these histories (as he did in his life) in the margin of the central movement of ideas, an object of mild astonishment, of some interest to historians of Protestant theology, or, more often, altogether unnoticed. Yet J.G. Herder, whose part in altering historical and sociological writing can hardly be disputed, once wrote to him that he was content to be “a Turkish camel driver gathering up sacred apples before his ambling holy beast, which bears the Koran.” Herder revered Hamann as a man of genius, looked upon him as the greatest of his teachers, and after his death venerated his ashes as the remains of a prophet. America was indeed called after Amerigo Vespucci, but it was Columbus who discovered that great continent. In this case the Columbus, as Herder freely admitted, was Hamann.2

Hamann’s disciple Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi transmitted much of his thought to the Romantic metaphysicians of the beginning of the nineteenth century. Schelling regarded him as a “great writer” whom Jacobi perhaps did not understand at all; B.G. Niebuhr speaks of his “demonic nature” and its superhuman strength; Jean Paul says that “the great Hamann is a deep heaven full of telescopic stars and many nebulae that no human eye can resolve,” and even for a Romantic writer goes to unheard-of lengths to praise his unique, unsurpassed genius, in the same spirit J.K. Lavater says that he is content to “collect the golden crumbs from his table,” and similarly Friedrich Karl von Moser, “the German Burke,” admires his eagle flight. Even if some of this is due to the enthusiasm of contemporaries which left little trace on later generations, it is still sufficient to stir curiosity about the character of this peculiar figure, half hidden by the fame of his disciples.

Hamann repays study: he is one of the few wholly original critics of modern times. Without any known debt to anyone else, he attacks the entire prevailing orthodoxy with weapons of which some are obsolete and some ineffective or absurd; but there is enough force in them to hamper the enemy’s advance, to attract allies to his own reactionary banner, and to begin—so far as anyone may be said to have done so—the secular resistance to the eighteenth-century march of enlightenment and reason, the resistance which in time culminated in Romanticism, obscurantism, and political reaction, in a great, deeply influential renewal of artistic forms, and, in the end, in permanent damage to the social and political lives of men. Such a figure surely demands some degree of attention.

Hamann is the pioneer of antirationalism in every sphere. Neither of his contemporaries Rousseau and Burke can justly be called this, for Rousseau’s explicitly political ideas are classical in their rationalism, while Burke appeals to the calm good sense of reflective men, even if he denounces theories founded on abstractions. Hamann would have none of this: wherever the hydra of reason, theory, generalization rears one of its many hideous heads, he strikes. He provided an arsenal from which more moderate Romantics—Herder, even such cool heads as the young Goethe, even Hegel, who wrote a long and not too friendly review of his works, even the level-headed Humboldt and his fellow liberals—drew some of their most effective weapons. He is the forgotten source of a movement that in the end engulfed the whole of European culture.


Hamann’s life, at any rate in its outward aspect, was uneventful. He was born on August 27, 1730 in the East Prussian capital of Königsberg.3 His father, Johann Christoph, came from Lusatia and was apparently a surgeon barber who became the supervisor of the municipal bathhouse, a fact in which he took some pride. His mother, Maria Magdalena, came from Lübeck. His social origins were therefore not very different from those of Kant and Schiller, and a good deal more humble than those of Goethe, Hegel, Hölderlin, and Schelling, not to speak of the sons of the gentry and the nobility. The background of the family was pietist; that is to say, it belonged to, although it was not at all prominent in, that wing of German Lutheranism which, inspired by the revolt against book learning and intellectualism generally that broke out in Germany toward the end of the seventeenth century, laid stress on the depth and sincerity of personal faith and direct union with God, achieved by scrupulous self-examination, passionate, intensely introspective religious feeling, and concentrated self-absorption and prayer, whereby the sinful, corrupt self was humbled and the soul left open to the blessing of divine, unmerited grace.

This highly subjective wing of German Protestantism had its analogues in the Moravian Brotherhood, in the mysticism of Jakob Böhme’s English disciples (Samuel Pordage, for example), of Valentin Weigel, Johann Arndt, and the followers in the eighteenth century of William Law, of the Methodist preachers—the Wesleys and Whitefield—and of Swedenborg and his disciples, among them William Blake. It spread widely in Scandinavia, England, and America, and in some of the Masonic and Rosicrucian lodges both in France and in Germany. The German pietists were distinguished by a personal emotionalism and, in the second half of the century especially, a gloomy puritanical self-abasement and self-mortification, and a stern opposition to the pleasures of the world and especially the secular arts,4 for which the Calvinists of Geneva, Scotland, and New England had also been known.

Even if the ascetic and introspective quality of this outlook can be traced in Hamann’s character and views, the bleak puritanism, of which there are notable traces in Kant—a child of a similar environment—is wholly absent. So too is the shallow and sometimes hysterical emotionalism of some pietist confessional writing. Hamann appears free both from the narrow hatred of learning which caused the expulsion of Leibniz’s disciple, the philosopher Christian Wolff, from Halle earlier in the century, and from the more exhibitionist forms of German Protestantism, though he did remain devoted to Luther’s life and personality to the end of his days.

His education was somewhat desultory. He was instructed by a former priest who believed in teaching Latin without grammar. He and his brother wandered from one small and sordid school to another and never acquired respect for system of any kind. By the time he reached fifteen, the normal age for higher education in Germany at that time, he managed to scrape into Königsberg University, where he heard lectures on history, geography, philosophy, mathematics, theology, and Hebrew, and displayed considerable gifts. He listened to the philosophical lectures of Martin Knutzen, who had also taught Kant, and took some interest in astronomy and botany. He did not seem to be drawn to theology. He preferred, he tells us in his autobiography, “antiquities, criticism,…poetry, novels, philology, French authors with their peculiar gift for invention, description, and capacity for giving delight to the imagination.” He deliberately evaded acquiring useful knowledge and obstinately pursued humane studies for their own sake, determined to remain a servant of the Muses.

He lingered on for six years at the university, took part in student literary publications, made friends, and is described as a man of passionate, affectionate, and sensitive character, frank and impulsive, with a quick temper, in need of affection, timid, highminded, with fastidious literary taste. His writings of that period are of no great interest. His style had not developed the eccentric attributes for which it—and he—became notorious in later years. At the age of twenty, in the literary periodical Daphne, he appears as a typical young German of the Aufklärung, uttering impeccably conventional sentiments derived from the fashionable French writers, with a tendency, not uncommon in German writers of that time, toward a heavy-footed style, an effort to imitate Gallic esprit and gaiety which in German writers often became clumsy, elephantine, embarrassing, and pathetically lacking in wit. He read enormously and chaotically and began that vast accumulation of apparently unrelated information which cluttered his pages in later years.

After the university he was not sure what career to choose: he was regarded as a promising young littérateur, a disciple of the French lumières, who might make his mark as an essayist or journalist. In common with other poor students of the time, he became tutor to the sons of prosperous local bourgeois; he made friends with the brothers Berens, rich merchants in the city of Riga, in our day the capital of Latvia (then called Livonia, and part of the Russian Empire), whither they persuaded him to accompany them. Christoph Berens was an enlightened man with a great faith in the then rising science of economics, and he directed Hamann’s attention to the French economic writing of the time.

Hamann’s first work of this period is an appendix to his translation of a book by the French economist Plumard de Dangeul. In the course of this, after an autobiographical excursus—in imitation of Edward Young’s Night Thoughts rather than Rousseau—about his sad career as an usher, his misanthropy, and the various attacks of gloom and melancholia which he endured, he manages to quote Terence, Cicero, Madame de Graffigny, Gellert, Xenophon, Montesquieu, Plutarch, Pope, Hume, the early Councils of the Church, Plato, Mandeville, Aeneas Sylvius, the Marchese Belloni, Mathurin Régnier, and the political testament of a head of a gang of smugglers. He praises the Encyclopédie and ends with a great paean to merchants as such, men engaged in increasing material welfare, in cultivating the arts of peace, as against the robber barons, the idle and corrupt monks of the Middle Ages, the hideous wars that devastated mankind, to which he favorably compares the eighteenth century as an age of peace.5 If Plato and Aeneas Sylvius had lived now and had been acquainted with the Berenses they would not have looked down on trade and despised as they did the merchants of the Piraeus or the bankers of Italy. Trade is a form of altruistic benevolence, commerce brings blessings greater than Hobbes’s or Machiavelli’s bloodstained despots.

  1. 1

    The standard complete editions of Hamann’s writings are Johann Georg Hamann, Sämtliche Werke, edited by Joseph Nadler (Vienna: Herder, 1949–1957), and Johann Georg Hamann, Briefwechsel, edited by Walther Ziesemer and Arthur Henkel (Wiesbaden and Frankfurt: Insel, 1955–1979).

  2. 2

    Goethe saw Hamann as a great awakener, the first champion of the unity of man—the union of all his faculties, mental, emotional, physical, in his greatest creations—man misunderstood and misrepresented, and indeed done harm, by the dissection of his activity by lifeless French criticism. In Book 12 of Dichtung und Wahrheit he expresses Hamann’s central principle thus: “Whatever a man wants to accomplish—by deed or word…—must have as its source his united powers in their totality, since all that is divided is worthless.” (See Goethe, Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit, edited by Siegfried Scheibe, Vol. 1, Berlin: Akademie, 1970, pp. 424–427, quotation at p. 426, line 7.) Goethe wrote to Frau von Stein about his delight in grasping more of Hamann’s meaning than most men. Goethes Liebesbriefe an Frau von Stein 1776 bis 1789, edited by Heinrich Düntzer (Leipzig, 1886), p. 515 (letter of September 17, 1784).

  3. 3

    Today still part of the Russian Federation, and officially known since 1946 as Kaliningrad.

  4. 4

    See the interesting account in Anton Reiser, the novel by Goethe’s admirer Karl Philipp Moritz.

  5. 5

    The Wars of the Spanish and Austrian Successions, the rumblings which culminated in the Seven Years War, and the Anglo-French wars, as well as the colonial wars in India and elsewhere, seem to have made no impact on him.

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