“Do either nothing or everything; the mediocre, the moderate, is repellent to me: I prefer an extreme.”
—Hamann to J.G. Lindner,
May 20, 1756
“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.
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 …
Copyright © 1993 by Isaiah Berlin and Henry Hardy
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‘The Magus of the North’ November 18, 1993