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.

All this was conventional enough, and the Berenses must have been well pleased: they were progressive merchants and anxious to embellish their commercial activities with the works of polite culture. They liked to dabble in economics themselves, and although Hamann was obviously an odd fish, with an irregular imagination unlike that of the tidier imitators of the French style, of which Germany could at that time boast a good number, he did honor to the house.

From time to time Hamann quarreled with his patrons and became tutor in the houses of the German nobility along the Baltic coast. He was thin-skinned and resented the mixture of patronage and philistinism for which the Baltic barons were then (and indeed later) noted. His meditation on his mother’s Christian death, with its epigraph from Young (“He mourns the Dead, who lives as they desire”),6 is a totally conventional piece. In 1756 he could have been written down as a minor German imitator of French critics, with a special interest in economics,7 a reader of Voltaire and Montesquieu and the abbé Coyer, a friend of liberty and equality, a defender of civic virtue and public spirit. In short, Hamann is at this stage a spokesman of the rising bourgeoisie, and against soldiers and nobles; one of those progressive youths who agreed with Kant and their common friend Berens that “well earned” rightly fills the middle-class citizen with as much pride as “well born” fills an aristocrat. All this was shared by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Denis Diderot, François Quesnay, and all other champions of progress and private enterprise, peace and enlightenment, and was common enough at the time.8 If Hamann had died then he would have deserved his present obscurity; but in 1756 he began a journey that was destined to alter his life.

It is not quite clear why Hamann was sent to London in 1756. We know that the firm of the Berenses entrusted him with a mission that he failed to fulfill. The exact nature of this mission remains, to this day, a mystery. There may be some grounds for believing that it was political as well as commercial. His task, so some researchers suppose, was to deliver a proposal to leading circles in British political life that they should consider the possibility of the secession of the “German” Baltic area from the Russian Empire to form an independent or semi-independent state, a scheme likely to appeal to England because of its assumed fear of the expanding Russian power. If this is so, it came to nothing, and if any record of it exists, it has not so far been found.

The year 1756, according to Swedenborg, was to precede the Last Judgment, in which the old Church was to be consumed and the new, “true” universal Church of true Christianity was to rise like a phoenix from its ashes. Although the world in general experienced no noticeable cataclysm of this type, this is precisely what occurred within Hamann himself. The crisis in his life transformed him and created the figure that was, in its turn, to do so much to alter the thought of his time.

Of all the German provinces of the middle years of the eighteenth century, Prussia was the most consciously and vigorously progressive. Driven by the restless energy and ambition of Frederick the Great, the enlightened bureaucracy of Berlin was making a great and continuous effort to raise the social, economic, and cultural level of Prussia to that of the admired lands of the West, in the first place of France, the supremacy of whose capital city was acknowledged by the entire civilized world. Industry and trade, with state aid and control, were created, encouraged, developed; finances were rationalized, agriculture improved; foreign savants, especially Frenchmen, were invited and made much of at the court in Potsdam.

The language of the court was French. Frenchmen were not only appointed to leading intellectual positions—of these Voltaire, Maupertuis, and La Mettrie were only the most famous—but put in charge of administrative departments, to the distress of all true Prussians (particularly in the traditional Eastern part of the country), who grumbled but obeyed. Every effort was made to rescue the country from the long-drawn-out effects of the collapse of much of German life and civilization as a result of the murderous Thirty Years War, and the national humiliation and the enormous social and cultural night that followed. The policy of relatively enlightened paternalism which had begun with Frederick William, the Great Elector of Brandenburg, and the ferocious martinet, his grandson, Frederick William I of Prussia, was raised to a new height of ruthless efficiency by the great king. He was an accomplished writer and composer, besides being a soldier and administrator of genius, and the emergence of enlightened merchants like the Berenses in East Prussia and the Baltic, and the intellectual revival, of which Kant and the Academy in Berlin were among the leaders, were in complete harmony with this new awakening of the national energies.

This was the world in which, it was hoped, the young Hamann would play his part. His friends knew that he was not a typical child of the Enlightenment. His peculiar blend of religious and economic reading, his failure to distinguish himself in the law, which he had officially studied at the University of Königsberg, the alternating indolence and spurts of sudden energy that drove him in unexpected directions, his lack of system, his spells of melancholia, his stammer, his morbid pride, which led him to quarrel with his patrons, his inability to settle down to any fixed occupation, did not make him an ideal official or littérateur in a centralized modern state consumed with desire for power and success, and a craving for the cultural development, influenced by Paris, of which such Aufklärer as G.E. Lessing, Moses Mendelssohn, and Friedrich Nicolai were the leaders. Nevertheless, it was clear that men like Kant and his other Königberg friends hoped that Hamann’s natural abilities and imagination could somehow be disciplined and rendered useful.

What they did not realize was that, despite his earlier involvement with the Enlightenment, he was, by temperament—although there was little sign of this during his earlier life—violently opposed to the whole system: that he was basically a seventeenth-century man born into an alien world, religious, conservative, “inner-directed,” unable to breathe in the bright new world of reason, centralization, scientific progress. Like Samuel Johnson in England, he represented an older attitude: personal relationships, inner life, meant more to him at all times than any of the values of the external world. He turned out to have neither the ideals nor the temperament of a typical “progressive”; he hated the great Frederick, the “Solomon of Prussia,” and his secular wisdom. Like the Russian Slavophils of the following century, he saw the family as the basis of true human existence, and the loose texture founded on affection, tradition, local—even provincial—values, with the minimum of interference by trained experts and remote officials, as the only tolerable foundation of a truly Christian life. He was never an atheist or an agnostic. He seems never to have been tempted by the new, intellectually free, anticlerical Franco-Prussian Establishment. He may not have known this before the journey to London, and his bold economic views and natural hatred of despotism may have deceived him, as it did his friends, concerning his prospects and vocation. But they were to learn with whom they were dealing soon enough.

After a leisurely journey through Berlin, where he made the acquaintance of Moses Mendelssohn, Nicolai, and the other leading men of letters of that intellectual capital of the German world, followed by visits to Lübeck, Bremen, Hamburg, Amsterdam, Leiden, and Rotterdam, he arrived in London on April 18, 1757. After an apparently abortive call at the Russian Embassy on his mysterious mission, he established himself in the house of a music teacher and decided to taste all the pleasures of the rich life of this great Western city. He tried to cure himself of stammering, attempted to learn to play the lute, and plunged into what he later described as a life of terrible dissipation. We have no independent evidence of what occurred, save his own account, which is that of a repentant sinner. At the end of ten months he was in debt to the extent of £300 and in a state of utter loneliness, misery, and, at times, dreadful despair. He discovered accidentally that his host, the musician, was involved in a homosexual relationship with a “rich Englishman,” and the appalling shock seems to have been the occasion of the great spiritual crisis of his life.

His mission was a failure; he was penniless, alone—above all alone—and no one understood what he was saying. He prayed for a friend to lead him out of the hideous labyrinth. He returned to his earlier life; he left the musician’s house, established himself in a humble boarding house and returned to his pietist beginnings: he did what pietists did in states of spiritual oppression—he read the Bible from cover to cover. He had done so before, but now he found at last “the Friend in my own heart, whither he had found his way when I felt nothing but void, darkness, desolation.” He was starved of love and now he had found it. He began his real reading of the Bible on March 13, 1758, and, in pietist fashion, noted his spiritual progress day by day.9 He wrote shortly afterwards, like a true disciple of Luther, that beneath the letter that is the flesh there is also an immortal soul, the breath of God, of light and life, a light burning in the darkness, which one must have eyes to see.

Hamann emerged from this experience transformed. He had received no mystical vision, no specific revelation, as some converts to the new mystical trends then rising in Europe—partly in alliance with, partly in violent opposition to, the free individualist traditions of the Enlightenment—had often claimed to have had. There was no kind of connection between him and the Martinists or Freemasons or the many illuminist sects whose German centers were in East Prussia and Bavaria. He had been converted to the religion of his childhood, to Lutheran Protestantism. It is his application of this new light, which burned for him until the end of his days, that gives him historical importance.

To what was he converted? Not just to the simple faith of his childhood, but to the doctrine known to all those who are familiar with the writings of the German Protestant mystics and their followers in Scandinavia and England, according to whom the sacred history of the Jews is not merely an account of how that nation was guided from darkness to light by God’s almighty hand, but is a timeless allegory of the inner history of the soul of each individual man. The sins of individuals are like the sins of nations. Hamann’s own religious conversion in London took the form of discovering in himself all the crimes of the children of Israel: just as they stumbled and fell and worshiped idols, so he fell into hedonism and materialism and intellectualism and fell away from God; and as the balm of divine grace enabled them to rise and return to the Lord and repent their sins and resume their painful pilgrimage, so he too returned to his Father and the Christ within him, was born again, wept with bitter contrition, and was saved. The story of the wanderings of the Israelites, their Reisekarte, he declared, was the story of his life, his Lebenslauf.

This was the inner sense of the biblical words. He who understood them understood himself—all understanding of anything whatever was self-understanding, for the spirit alone is what can be understood, and to find it man need only, and must only, look within himself. God’s word was the ladder between heaven and earth sent to aid weak and foolish children—it alone would vouchsafe them a glimpse of what they were and why they were as they were, and what their place was, and what they must do and what avoid. The Bible was a great universal allegory, a similitude of that which was occurring everywhere and at every instant. So indeed were human history, and nature properly understood—understood with the eyes not of analytical reason but of faith, trust in God, self-examination, for all these were one.

The rest of his life is comparatively irrelevant. He returned to the house of his patron, Berens, who treated him with great sympathy and immediately began to conspire with Kant to obtain a new post for him. Kant suggested that they might write a primer on physics together, but their difference of approach made collaboration impossible.10 Hamann proposed marriage to Berens’s sister Katharina, but withdrew his offer, because her brother vetoed it. He made one or two journeys to his friends on the Baltic coast and then took an ill-paid post in the office of the Department of War and Crown Lands. This he kept for a while, but it brought in too little even for his modest requirements—he was fond of food and drink but otherwise his pleasures were few. He returned to his father’s house and collaborated in the Königsbergsche Gelehrte und Politische Zeitungen, an enterprise financed by the bookseller Kanter, who had always been exceptionally kind to him, lent him books, and encouraged him in every way. He began publishing his strange but arresting pamphlets: fragments, unfinished essays, peculiar amalgams of philosophy, literary criticism, philology, history, and personal testimony, and attracted the attention of the Berlin literati, who tried to lure this strange talent into their circle—unsuccessfully, as they soon realized.

He did not marry but lived with one of his father’s servants, to whom he remained faithful all his life and by whom he had four children. She was a simple, illiterate, and affectionate woman, and he was happy to use this as an excuse for declining posts that might embarrass her. From journalism he returned again to public service and in 1767 became an official in the General Excise and Customs Administration, then managed by one of Frederick’s French experts, with whom Hamann remained on the worst of terms. He had by this time met Herder, who became his faithful and passionate disciple and, as he himself grew more famous and influential, spread his master’s word throughout German-speaking lands.

Hamann occupied himself with attacks on liberal theologians—to him more contemptible than atheists—in obscure polemical pamphlets to which he gave grotesque titles. The flirtation with Mendelssohn, too, soon came to an end and was succeeded by one with F. K. von Moser, an enlightened bureaucrat who was fascinated by his originality. He corresponded with the Swiss pastor Lavater, who was the greatest champion of the varieties of illuminism and religious experience of his age, and became celebrated for his theory according to which analysis of physiognomies provided the key to knowledge of the varieties of character, disposition, and talent. He traveled occasionally to Western Germany, and at least once to Poland.

In later years he met the philosopher F. H. Jacobi, one of the most famous thinkers of his day, and conquered his head and heart; Jacobi replaced Herder in Hamann’s affections and became his most devoted and admiring pupil. Toward the end of his life he gave up his post, which appeared to him beset by unspeakable humiliations and acts of meanness directed by his superiors against himself personally. He cannot have been a very competent official: all his life he remained obsessed by the thought that his hatred of abstraction was itself a sufficient guarantee of his practical nature and capacities. His last years were spent in comfort, for the affluent Jacobi introduced him to an even richer religious seeker named Buchholtz and to an exaltée lady, the Princess Golitsyn—the German widow of a Russian diplomat. Although Buchholtz seems to have been a little odd, Princess Golitsyn was perfectly sane—a Catholic who looked upon Hamann as a saint at whose hands she obtained the greatest spiritual comfort of her life. He died in her house in Münster in 1788, and is buried nearby—a peculiar and enigmatic figure to the end.


In most histories of German and European literature Hamann—if he is mentioned at all—is considered as one of the inspirers of the German literary movement known as the Sturm und Drang, among the most prominent attributes of which were a belief in self-abandonment to spontaneous feeling and passion, hatred of rules, and a desire for unbridled self-expression and self-assertion on the part of the artist, whether in life or in the creation of his works—the conception of the poet, the thinker, as a superior being, subject to agonies not known to the common run of men, seeking to realize himself in some unique, violent, unheard-of fashion, obedient to his own passion and will alone. Indeed Hamann, who mildly scandalized his contemporaries by placing the emblem of a hornèd Pan on some of his works, by his writings probably helped to stimulate some of his contemporaries into violent outbreaks against classicism and order, and did emphasize the irrational sources of man’s creative power. If he did not encourage divine frenzy, he had less against it than the champions of neoclassicism among whom he lived.

Nevertheless his Romanticism needs a good deal of qualification. He was not a “heaven-storming” irrationalist. When Lavater wrote to him confessing spiritual agonies because he was not sure of his faith, Hamann replied: “Eat your bread joyfully, drink your wine with good cheer—for your work pleases God.” To be concerned too deeply about one’s own spiritual condition is to lack faith in God, that simple childlike faith upon which all rests; self-doubts and self-tortures (although Hamann was not a stranger to them) are mere pathological symptoms. To Jacobi, who complained that he could not reconcile his head and his heart, he replied in similar terms—submission, not Promethean struggle, is the way to serenity and truth, however great the obstacles in our path. Our parents heard “the voice of God walking in the garden in the cool of the evening.”11 We may never be able to return to this, but that is the radiant vision in the light of which we must live. We are all God’s children—so long as we live in this knowledge, we shall not go astray.

So, too, he told the Roman Catholic Princess Golitsyn, who was troubled by her unquiet conscience—about whether she had done all that it was right for a good Christian to have done, and lived a sufficiently pure and dedicated life—that she should sow her seed and trust in God. Do not wait for the seed to bloom; do not look for a quiet conscience too anxiously—one must learn to support one’s “nothingness” (Nichtigkeit) and have faith in God’s mercy. One must do what appears to be right and then let well alone. To be preoccupied with one’s virtue is appalling arrogance and a wall against God.

The princess was particularly troubled about the education of her children. From her journal we learn that Hamann’s tranquil sermon on the holiness of humility, on the need to learn to be contented, indeed happy, in one’s own insignificance, liberated her from her self-torment. God speaks to us through his works, through the world that he gave us, and in particular to our senses—do not seek to reduce him or his world to some inner core, some irreducible and ultimate entity. Accept what is given—flesh, passions—and do not attempt to explain them. What is given is given; to learn to submit is to learn to understand.

Nevertheless Hamann naturally has thoughts about genius that are of interest. The notion of the free, spontaneous, creative impulse in man that knows no rules, or creates as the wind blows—this penetrates, as might be expected, everything that he wrote; he was not, of course, its originator, but he gave it a new and historically important direction. The notion that genius is a divine afflatus, so that the artist himself does not always know what it is that he is making, since he is but an instrument through which a higher—superhuman—power is speaking, is at least as old as Plato’s Ion. Edward Young’s celebrated essay on the subject12 released a great volume of pent-up German feeling on this topic. The second half of the eighteenth-century is full of denunciations of narrowness and specialization—of anything that cribs and confines men and prevents the richest realization of the “complete man,” which is conceived as a harmonious process, prevented hitherto only by human error or vice and the destructive institutions that this has bred. This is not confined to German writers: Diderot, too, speaks of the battle between the natural and the artificial man within civilized man, and Rousseau’s sermon on the destructive effect of man’s institutions upon those who are brought up under them is well enough known. But the real revolt against neoclassicism is German, and directed against the ascendancy of the thinkers of Paris.

Although Hamann was among the earliest European thinkers to protest against the effect of French education and French doctrines based on a false psychology and a false view of God and nature, this is not where his strongest claim to originality in this field lies. He is not principally interested in creating conditions in which a small group of the elect may be able to express themselves freely at the expense of, or at any rate beyond the horizon of, the common man. Nor is he interested in the social conception of genius as it was treated, for instance, by the French Encyclopedists, some of whom thought that in a rationally organized society anyone could in principle be transformed into a genius, as for example Trotsky seemed to believe (this is what Diderot, with his customary sense of reality, mocked so exquisitely in his essay on Helvétius’s On Man); nor is he with Mendelssohn and Nicolai, who conceived of genius as consisting in the communication of ideas until they became universally accepted and so raised human life to a new level.

As against the stress on social conditions, Hamann believed that genius was individual and incapable of being bred or cultivated by social organization; each man was as he was, saw what he saw, and spoke to those who understood him—not everyone, but those with whom he had special rapport; how large or small a number, there was no telling. Against Mendelssohn and Nicolai he maintained that only the free can understand or inspire or be inspired; and freedom consists in being at once one’s master and one’s most faithful subject; acceptance of general rules was always slavery—he who trusts the judgments of others more than his own ceases to be a man. Even though Winckelmann had said that by imitating the Greeks modern man would become inimitable, Hamann remained suspicious. Like Prometheus, we must steal the divine fire, not make a picture of it: he who wishes to rob the arts of fantasy and arbitrary freedom is making an attempt on their honor and their life. We must commit “a Promethean plagiarism of the primal, animal light of nature”; hence the dichotomy of originality and slavery, spontaneity and abdication; hence, also, the hostility to classical models and utilitarian or other brands of moral and aesthetic didacticism.

But this is not Hamann’s principal concern. He is not interested in the needs of the artistic elite. He is a moralist and a critic of life, and wishes to go to war with the enemies of mankind in general; he wishes to help to liberate human beings as such. His originality consists in translating the appeal to the authority of the individual conscience and the rejection of institutional authority, which came to him from his pietist upbringing, to the whole of life; except that by a self he means something that is in constant communication with others and with God, and sees the truth, practical and theoretical, only through the medium of these relationships and submission to them—self-knowledge (which for him is obtained in communion with God) is not a threat against one’s freedom, not a painful act of artificial self-discipline. He rejects with both hands the puritanism of the pietists: the notion that man is no more than an unclean vessel, a mass of sin and corruption, and that since all men are accursed they must seek to root out of themselves all natural desires: “Victory consists in death; life in dying,” as a line of contemporary pietist verse runs.

Hamann is as passionately opposed to this as he is to the utilitarian harmonization of the passions, as advocated by the French philosophes. He goes so far as to accept the pietists’ doctrine that reason is a poisonous snake, the arch-heretic, the great enemy of God and his truth—thus Johann Konrad Dippel, who, like Schopenhauer after him, thought that all suffering was caused by a thirst that could never be satisfied, and tried to demonstrate this by instances of children who died ecstatically. But thereafter Hamann parts company with this grim sect far more sharply than does their other scion, Immanuel Kant. His words of praise for his peasant common-law wife—indeed, his motive for living with her—are rooted in his love of what seemed to him healthy, innocent, natural, free from the self-torture to which the misuse of our God-given sense and languages leads the learned: better provincialism, roots in local life, than bloodless uniformity, hothouse plants, the death in life of sophisticated academics; the greatest crime is to divorce the intellect from the “deepest abysses of the most tangible sensuousness.” “Let there be light!”

This is joy in creation, sensuous joy. God himself was made flesh, else he could not discourse to us, who also are flesh; but we have divided the spirit and the flesh. “To gather the fragments together—disjecti membra poetae—is the work of a scholar; to interpret them, of a philosopher; to imitate them or shape them [sie in Geschick bringen], of the poet.” God is not a mathematician, he is an artist. Poetry gives unity and life. So, too, history is a valley of dead bones, unless a prophet comes, like Ezekiel, to clothe them with flesh.

To live truly and to create is one: this is the gist of the “rhapsody in cabbalistic prose” hurled at Michaelis’s head in 1762 under the title of “Aesthetics in a Nutshell.”13Leben ist actio“—life is action, not some impersonal metaphysical power, the self-developing Idea of Hegel, or the praxis of Marx, which it is difficult to identify in concrete spatial or temporal terms, something which even in the most materialistic terminology retains the mythical quality of its metaphysical origins; but day-to-day action, faith in instinct, in that understanding without which there is no communication with others, in direct face-to-face encounters with things or men, in the fullness of life. This is how artists create, but it is also how all men achieve the realization of what is most human in them, how societies achieve unity of spirit, their members that blend of practical wisdom and love and sensuous satisfaction that distinguishes full human beings from the absurd two-dimensional figments of theorists, and from that inner desiccation and alienation in the theorists themselves which cause them to confound real life with their bloodless, stylized categories. A connoisseur who sits in his study, contemplating now a picture upon his wall, now a volume upon his table, is not a living human being at all, but a marionette. The beaux esprits for whom the French are writing will never see the dawn of the rising day, for they do not believe in the resurrection of the flesh. No! Nature is like Hebrew consonants from which the vowels are missing, an equation with at least one unknown, and we can fathom this unknown only by action, not by contemplation in accordance with rules.

What kind of action? Hamann speaks, as always, in metaphors. We must ravish nature, enter into and be at one with her: “Nature is our old grandmother…to commit incest with this grandmother is the most important commandment of the Koran of the arts, and it is not obeyed.” How can fastidious modern connoisseurs do this, since they are ashamed of nature, cover her up, concern themselves only with the pretty clothes with which they hide her? Hamann’s denunciations of the rationalists, and insistence on the wisdom that comes from true participation in life—at its highest level by the genius, at every level by human beings seeking to fulfill themselves—are perhaps the earliest hymn to the rejection of rules and norms and contemplation in favor of action. “Think less and live more,” he said to Herder—in that long line of the champions of life against what Goethe famously called “gray theory,”14 which begins in earnest with the German Sturm und Drang, from Wilhelm Heinse’s novel Ardinghello, with its passionate call to throw away all convention and let all passions fulfill themselves, no matter how destructively or how great the scandal to the respectable, to Jacobi’s Allwill and Woldemar (with its central doctrine that “What cannot be got wrong…has not much in it; and what cannot be abused has little practical value”), to the cult of unbridled individualism of Friedrich Schlegel’s Lucinde, and continues towards Byron and Max Stirner and Nietzsche and Knut Hamsun and D.H. Lawrence.

“Every creature has a natural right to appropriate all that surrounds it to the limits of its power”; these limits will be determined only by the resistance of other creatures. All calls to discipline are mere manifestations of “bourgeois order, which ruins man,” just so much “barbaric legislation.” These doctrines of Heinse, which he admits may seem wild, debauched, horrible to the mass of the philistine public, but will govern the lives of the truly free, who will alone understand them, these are not the views of Hamann, who believed in submission to the laws of God as we feel them with our whole being; yet though he opposed the general spirit of this cry for anarchy he admired the novel in which it was contained. “Beauty is the appearance of our entire being unfalsified,” said Heinse, and this was Hamann’s doctrine also. Beauty is life in its most characteristic, whole, dynamic, palpable form, full of conflict and contradiction as it may be—not smoothed out and brought to order by some theory-ridden Frenchman in a wig and silk stockings. This is the doctrine that he communicated to Herder, and that was destined to influence German Romanticism and, through it, all European thought.

He detested the tame imitations of this attitude more even than the materialism of the French. He disliked Laurence Sterne, for example, who was greatly admired by the Romantics, because although he broke through the conventions and the rules, he took too much pleasure in his own waywardness, his attitude was too narcissistic, not passionate and single-minded enough, not serious, a mere pretense at unconventionality while remaining deeply embedded in the convention, a mild titillation of the philistine and the orthodox; and he equally detested the “Anacreontic” poetry of C.M. Wieland and his disciples, pseudo-idyllic exercises, remoter from actio than the wrong-headed but formidable activity of, say, Voltaire, whose brilliance and verve Hamann admired as much as he condemned his doctrines.

The reader may enquire why Rousseau is not included in this catalog of anti-intellectual naturalism. The reason is that Hamann’s attitude to Rousseau, like that of many of the anti-rationalists, is exceedingly ambivalent. On the one hand Émile and The Social Contract are rationalist treatises with an artificial view of man worthy of Voltaire or the abbé Raynal or d’Alembert or the miserable Berlin rationalists, men who in the battle against fanaticism have themselves become rationalist fanatics, murderers, incendiaries, robbers, cheats of God and man. Rousseau is Utopian, a dabbler in abstractions; his theory of education is founded upon the absurd myth of “beautiful nature, good taste, and balanced reason”; school is not a peaceful harmony of teacher and pupil, as Rousseau would have it, but “a mountain of God like Dothan, full of fiery chargers and chariots round Elisha.” On the other hand there is a “sensuous fascination” in his novels greater than that of Richardson’s, and his bitter indignation with the salons and convention, and his wish “to serve men by his knowledge of the human heart acquired by his excesses and those of others,” are sympathetic.

All this before he had read Rousseau’s Confessions, before indeed these had appeared. And he had a kind word for Diderot, the most German among the French, who, in spite of his terrible rationalist views, realizes that rules are not everything, that “something more immediate, intimate, obscure, certain” is what matters. Still, of course, Diderot follows a false philosophy—he occasionally repents of it, but is mostly in error. Hamann would have approved of Diderot’s paean to genius (in a section of a Salon devoted to the painter Carle Van Loo) as something dark, farouche, unapproachable, as opposed to the twitter, the charm and sweetness, of the fashionable wits. Yet Hamann is inconstant: he bursts forth with the most passionate admiration for La Nouvelle Héloïse, but later attacks it. Saint-Preux is an idiot and my Lord Edward is not an Englishman. Julie does not deserve love or admiration or the absurd sacrifice of these to the insupportable Wolmar; Rousseau’s language is not that of the passions but of rhetoric. It is all false. It is all French.

Although Rousseau’s tone, particularly in La Nouvelle Héloïse and the Confessions, is that of a free, rebellious spirit, what he advocates is the striking off of the old yoke—of convention or science or art—in order to impose anew one of those eternal laws which are graven within our hearts: the old morality preached by Plato and all the true sages of all times and climes. This is not what Hamann advocated. He wished to destroy what seemed to him the fixed, frozen establishment of rules and regulations as such, in order to reawaken in man a sense of his unity with God, and make him live spontaneously in him—if in a troubled relationship—obedient to no rules that could be embodied in letters of any kind, ephemeral or eternal, least of all eternal. Hence Rousseau, in the end, was for him as Protagoras for Socrates, perhaps the best among the sophists, but still a sophist.

Goethe said of Hamann (to Chancellor Müller), “He had a clear head in his day, and knew what he wanted,” but Kant said, “The late Hamann had such a gift for thinking of things in general, but he did not have the power to point out their principles clearly, or at least to detach anything specific out of this wholesale trade of his.” This is both amusing and true. But Hamann remained untouched by what he knew of Kant’s attitude to him, and was, indeed, confirmed in his view of Kant as an intelligent man but blind—his eyes shut tightly against reality in order to perceive his own internal, imaginary structures more clearly. He would have echoed the romantic dramatist Klinger, who said, “Kant’s iron Colossus of Rhodes—his imperative—or his fantastic touchstone swinging suspended over the moral world by a hair” was not a fit instrument by which to explain or judge mankind. Hamann, who was not an altogether modest man, saw himself as a German Socrates, who refuses to engage in vain talk with the sophists, and silences the importunate Athenians who pester him with too many questions, and gives his disciples courage to conquer their vanity by his example. His business was to blow up established values, both those of tradition and those of philosophy, and to organize a counter-revolution back toward simplicity and faith, against the arrogance and optimism of the new science.

Socrates attempted to do his work by means of analytical reason. Hamann saw himself as doing so by other methods, by breaking through established conventions and expectations with every weapon that could break the crust of custom or dogma. This was the justification, in his own eyes, for his hermetic style, his mysterious formulae, with which he hoped to puzzle, intrigue, and awaken the reader, his frenzied scurrying from one topic to another, his deliberately disordered succession of ideas, the constant selfincarnation in fantastic personages drawn from mythology or poetry or his own wild, extravagant imagination—anything to stop the reader in his tracks, harry him, astonish, irritate, open windows on new vistas; above all, to break the normal train of association to which his own unself-critical life or the authority of his spiritual or literary guides had accustomed him. Into the reader thus awakened he hoped to pour the true word of God—the unity of spirit and flesh, the oneness of life, the need to live and create, the paramountcy of belief, the feebleness of reason, the fatal delusiveness of all contrived answers, constructed theories, everything calculated to lull the spirit into the false dream of reality. The true image of the practical man is that of a sleepwalker, a man who, with infinite sagacity, reflection, coherence, talks, acts, executes perilous enterprises, and does this with greater sureness of touch than he would—or could—do it if his eyes were even a little open.

This paradox is echoed by nearly every Romantic writer—the confidence of the sleepwalker which comes from his blindness: reality is disturbing, but must be faced. The only way to awaken such deluded beings is by breaking the spectacles through which they normally look at reality, by affectation of madness, by the methods used later by Novalis, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Gogol, and in our own day by Pirandello, Kafka, and the surrealists. Of course, only men of original genius can achieve this, and Hamann certainly believed himself to be one, no less than Socrates. Genius is not healthy, but a divine malady which, as Hippocrates says, is at once divine and human—panta theia kai panta anthropina—that which unites heaven and earth. Genius is mad in the worldly sense, for the wisdom of this world is folly; and the only use of reason is not to give us knowledge but to expose to ourselves our own ignorance—to conduce to humility. That we have learnt from Socrates. But, as Hume correctly says, reason taken by itself is impotent, and when it dictates it is a usurper and an impostor.

This is Hamann’s central message, and his own justification for his method. If it was a rationalization of the fact—supposing it was a fact—that he was unable to write clearly because his thoughts were turbid and chaotic, the apologia is ingenious and had a powerful historical effect. Kant was properly horrified: “One can only laugh,” he said, at these “men of genius, or perhaps apes of genius”—“one can only laugh and continue on one’s own path with assiduity, order, clarity, paying no attention to these jugglers.” He was, no doubt, right. Nevertheless, it is doubtful whether without Hamann’s revolt—or at any rate something similar—the worlds of Herder, Friedrich Schlegel, Tieck, Schiller, and indeed of Goethe too, would have come into being.

Herder owed Hamann a great deal, and he and Jacobi—who owed him even more—were, with the brothers Schlegel, the chief subverters of the tradition of order, rationalism, classicism, not only in Germany but in Europe. Madame de Staël’s De l’Allemagne lifted the curtain on a part of this turbulence. The doctrines of Fichte and Schelling and even of Hegel, which strike the reader brought up in the Anglo-Saxon tradition of philosophy as wild irruptions into the well-ordered procession of sane and scrupulous rational European thinkers, could scarcely have taken place without this counter-revolution, which has cast alternate light and darkness upon the European scene, and, whether as cause or as symptom, is indissolubly connected with the most creative and the most destructive phenomena of our own time. This is the revolt of which Hamann was the first standard-bearer and perhaps the most original figure.

Copyright © 1993 by Isaiah Berlin and Henry Hardy


This Issue

October 21, 1993