Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Johann Georg Hamann on Divine Condescension

(This is a Gemutlichkeit guest post who wanted to remain anonymous.  In March of 2009 I (M. Larson) attended a 3 day conference on Hamann in NYC.  I wrote a short and rather inadequate reflection on that conference HERE).


Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788) is a relatively obscure figure in the study of philosophy.  On one hand, Hamann is an obscure figure due to the neglect he has suffered at the hands of subsequent generations. It is possible that he has been neglected because of the broad range of disciplines that he treats in his writings. On the other hand he is obscure in his very thought and the communication of his ideas in difficult, often ciphered prose.[1]  Hamann was no ordinary philosopher, but also a theologian, a linguist, a classicist, and an historian. He readily incorporates these disciplines in most of is writing, making his works largely inaccessible to the majority of readers.  He was very much a loner, an independent thinker.[2]  Despite these challenges, he was well respected by a select few in his own day.  He held company with enlightened thinkers of his day such as Kant, Jacobi, Herder and Mendelssohn.[3]  Goethe lauded him as “the brightest man of his day.”[4] Hegel, who wrote the first review of Hamann’s collected writings, remarked that Hamann possessed “penetrating genius.”[5]  His contemporaries knew Hamann as the Magnus im Norden, the Wise man of the North.[6]  This title is an excellent description of who Hamann was as a thinker and a Christian.  He was a magnus, like the magi who came from the east to worship and bring gifts to Christ at His birth.  Just as they used their wisdom to find the true incarnate wisdom, Christ, so also did Hamann leave the Enlightenment behind in order to repose in faith before the mystery of the paradox of divine condescension in the Person of Christ.
            So how is it then that a man who was held in such esteem by such influential contemporaries has been relegated to the margins of philosophical study?  How was it that a man of such giftedness would spend most of his life working as an underpaid copyist, translator and customs manager in his hometown of Königsburg, Germany?[7]
Although for a time it seemed that he would be a proponent for the Enlightenment, this was not to be.  His ideas, being so anti-Enlightenment, have found little appeal among the philosophers and scholars of the past centuries.  Hamann has been labeled as an anti-rationalist and a fideist.  As Ronald Smith describes, Hamann “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.”[8] What caused this change?  And how could a man of such a terse character who represented what was seen as backward thinking in his day be able to have left a legacy at all for us today? 
            In order for one to understand the thought and the writing of Hamann, one must also be familiar with his life, particularly the pivot point for his legacy and thought, his conversion. For Hamann, philosophy and thought were not things of the mind or verbal discourse, but all of life, in life’s frailty, in all of its blemishes and paradoxes.  His conversion, still at a relatively young age, would form Hamann into the man and the thinker, as he would come to be known.
               In 1756 Hamann was hired by the Berens family of Riga to undertake a business/diplomatic task in London. The Berens family was part of society of that time which contributed to the cause of the Enlightenment from the financial aspect of things.  Others supported the Enlightenment with words; the Berens family supported with money and diplomatic connections.  The exact details of Hamann’s task remain unknown.  What is known, however, is that Hamann was to begin some sort of exchange with the Russian ambassador.  This meeting was anything but successful.  It was painfully obvious to Hamann after his first meeting with the ambassador and his cohort that his objective was not going to be met. The Russians did not take Hamann seriously.  Subsequently their negative impression of him was projected upon his sponsors, the Berens.    The futility of any second chance was confirmed when a member of the Berens family followed up on the whole affair and also received a negative reply.  With no source of income and the shadow of such a failure over him, Hamann ran out of money and became despondent.  In an effort to eek out a living, he then decided to take up playing the lute – the only instrument that he could play – professionally.  He found lodging with another fine lute player who Hamann thought would take him under his wing and help him excel in his new career.  Under his host’s patronage, Hamann lived the high life, with all its pleasures and vices, as was typical of any young enlightened savant of that time.   However, Hamann’s joy ride came to a quick halt when Hamann discovered that his new sponsor was in a homosexual relationship.[9]  This Hamann could not tolerate, so he moved out.  He sought consolation in his many books, but found no peace.  It is at this point hat he became so overcome by anxiety and melancholy that Hamann decided to look for other answers – outside of reason and ability - to life’s challenges and problems.  He purchased a bible and read it through. He writes:
I felt my heart beat, I heard a voice sighing and wailing in its depths as the voice of blood, as the voice of a murdered brother, who wanted to avenge his blood, if I did not at times hear it and continue to stop up my ears to its voice. – that precisely this made Cain a restless fugitive.  I felt at once my heart swelling, it poured itself out in tears, and I could no longer – I could no longer hide from God that I was the murderer of my brother, that I was the murderer of His only begotten Son.[10] 

Thus was the course of Hamann’s life changed forever.  No longer would he be a scatter-brained prodigy of the Enlightenment, but one of its staunchest critics – albeit still scatterbrained. Ronald Smith describes the change in Hamann’s thought:
He came to himself and accepted what he was (as engaged in the Bible).  This did not mean the acceptance of a new harmony.  On the contrary, it meant final and decisive break with the conception of the harmonious life in a harmonious universe which was characteristic of the rationalism of the time.  Nor did it mean, as with the Pietists, the entry into a special domain of religion.  In London, then, Hamann broke in principle simultaneously with the philosophy of the Enlightenment and with the subjectivism of Pietism.[11]

His “London Experience” transformed him into a man of faith whose view of “divine condescension” served as his hermeneutic to understanding everything about God, man, and the world.  After coming to the recognition of the hope and freedom that comes trough faith in the God who condescends, Hamann saw it as his task to share this recognition with his contemporaries.[12]  Thus are many writings on the topic of faith and reason.   

Divine Condescension
            Unlike the typical, orthodox Lutheran emphasis on God’s particular revelation in the pages of Holy Writ, Hamann sees God revealing himself in a Trinitarian manner in nature, history, and in Scripture.[13]  God makes himself accessible and perceptible to men and their senses in manifold ways.  Hamann sees the work of the Divine in all of life. 
Word of God
            In Hamann’s view divine condescension is epitomized in the incarnation of God’s only Son.  Jesus Christ placed aside His glory, His divinity - one could say - so that we might become partakers of the divine nature (1 Peter 1:4). Hamann’s expressions in this regard come straight from the early church Fathers, chiefly Saint Ignatius.  The divine condescension is also - in a matter of speaking - kenosis – God’s self-emptying.
Hamann focused on the irritating tension between the eternal and omnipresent power, rule, and majesty of the Son of God and the simultaneous emphasis on His service, modesty, kindness, humility, vulnerability and suffering during His earthly ministry.[14]  Hamann remarks that when Jesus Christ became a man He did not simply come as any man, but as a poor and wretched man. 
            The Holy Spirit also choose to give us God’s Word in the text of the Scriptures where the Scriptures themselves portray Jesus Christ in a foolish and crazy manner that does not fit with human logic or the generalizations that man has made concerning plausible events in world history.  The Holy Spirit speaks to us in the text of the Scriptures in a way which seems unholy and unclean, which our proud reason sloughs off as fables and fiction.  Hamann bases his views in this regard squarely on the words of 1 Cor. 1:25.[15]  The Holy Spirit comes and uses the frail and imperfect words of mankind to create and sustain faith via the Words of Holy Scripture.  The Spirit comes and dwells within the frail and imperfect believer, Illuminating his mind and will and making him into a holy dwelling of the Divine. 
            Hamann’s view of Scripture and revelation is also tied to his view of the working of God in human history.  “As the glory of God is revealed only in the lowliness of creatures and of the human word, the eternity of God is revealed in the lowliness of the temporal.”[16]  However, instead of rejecting the findings of natural science and history wholesale, Hamann is affirming in their role in the life and thought of the believer.  Hamann sees history and science as part of a greater whole, as did the earlier scientists prior to the Enlightenment.  He writes:
Natural science and history are the two things upon which true religion rests.  Unbelief and superstition are based on shallow physics and shallow history.  Nature is as little subject to blind chance or to eternal laws as all events are to be derived from personalities and reasons of state.  A Newton will be equally moved as a natural scientist by God’s wise omnipotence and as a historian by God’s wise government.[17]

God saw fit to create the world through speaking the word.  God gives it definition and value. According to Hamann all of history and everything that takes place is in a matter of speaking, God’s speaking, i.e. God’s Word.  God still speaks. Therefore all of history is a revelation of God. When Hamann criticizes the short-sighted generalities that come from “enlightened” historical study, he points his readers instead to the final judgment that awaits all of those on earth whether they believe it or not. Connected with this is Hamann’s rejection of the Enlightenment concept of progress.  According to Hamann, man is not moving in the direction of improvement – neither morally nor intellectually.  The telos of mankind and all of human history is only able to be understood in light of where it is going, i.e. the Eschaton.  In the Eschaton God speaks his final word and His verdict is based on faith in Christ.  In the last Judgment it will not matter how morally one conducted himself or what sort of improvement one was able to affect.  Without faith there is no true wisdom, no improvement, for without faith there is only the incomplete.  Hamann ends his writing Golgotha and Scheblimini with the following words of warning taken from 1 Thessalonians and Revelation, “And HE, the God of peace, who is higher than all reason, sanctify us wholly, that our spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless until the coming – ‘He that testifieth these things saith: Surely I came quickly! Amen.”[18]
            Connected with God’s action and revelation in history is the manner in which God becomes perceptible in Nature through His speaking, through the divine Logos.  God reveals Himself to men in the material, perceptible creation, as through a parable.[19] 
Every appearance of nature was a word, a type of sign and testimony to the new, mysterious, and inexpressible -but just as inward - unity, sharing and communion with divine energies and ideas.  Everything that man heard, saw, and touched was a living word.  For God was the word.[20]  Hamann writes about the connection between Scripture and creation in his Aesthetica in nuce:
The book of creation contains examples of general concepts which GOD wished to reveal to creatures through creation.  The books of the covenant contain examples of secret articles which GOD wished to reveal to man through man.  The unity of the Author is mirrored even in the dialect of his works – in all of them a tone of immeasurable height and depth! A proof of the most splendid majesty and of total self- emptying! A miracle of such infinite stillness that makes GOD as nothing, so that in all conscience on would have to deny his existence, or else be a beast.  But at the same time a miracle of such infinite power, which fills all in all, that we cannot escape this intense solicitude! -

            Hamann is often characterized as a fideist.  Such a view is probably based on such expressions of his such as: “What is truth?  A wind blows where it lists, whereof one hears the sound but cannot tell: whence? Whither? – A spirit that the world cannot receive, for it sees him not and knows him not.”[21] But such quotes should not give the impression that Hamann is completely against reason per se.  Hamann is against the idea of a “pure” reason, a reason that claims too much for itself, as he expresses in his Metacritique of Pure Reason, which was directed against Kant.    Hamann’s perspective is that the chief aim of reason is to lead man to the recognition of his limits and to drive him to the grace of God.  Hamann likens the modern man’s (mis)use of reason to the Jewish (mis)use of the Law.[22] Reason is dim and incomplete without the perfect illumination of the divine truth and revelation.  Hamann bluntly states, “The greatest contradiction and abuse of reason is when it tries to reveal.”[23]
            Hamann also wrote a treatise entitled Golgotha und Scheblimini, which dealt not only with reason, but its relation to religion, revelation, and faith.  Hamann’s tract was a response to Moses Mendelssohn’s tract, Jerusalem oder Über religiöse macht und Judentum.  Mendelssohn asserted that Judaism was not at all in conflict with the religion of reason (Vernünftreligion) of the Enlightenment.  Hamann’s goal with this writing was to cut down the idea of a religion of reason and morals on the one hand and also to point any Jewish reader to the fulfillment of their religion in the revelation that comes only in Christ[24] In his Metacritique of Pure Reason he writes:
The sensibility and the understanding arise as two stems of human knowledge from One common root, in such a way that through the former objects are given and through the latter thought: to what end is such a violent, unjustified, willful divorce of that which nature has joined together! Will not both stems wither and be died up through a dichotomy and rupture of their common root?  Would not a single stem with two roots be an apter image of our knowledge, one root above in the air and one below in the earth?  The first exposed to our sensibility whereas the latter is invisible and must be thought by the understanding, which is in greater agreement with the priority of thought and the posterity of the given or taken, as well as the favorite inversion of pure reason and its theories.[25]

Just as the Law is supposed to accuse and condemn so that man is brought to repentance, so also is reason to drive a man to despair of himself and seek God.  Just as the Law has been and can be abused, so can reason.  He writes:
The Jews, through their divine legislation, and the naturalists, through their divine reason, have each seized a palladium to make the equation.  As a result there is no mediating concept left to Christians and Nicodemuses except to believe with all their heart, with all their soul, with all their mind: For God so loved the world - - This faith is the victory that overcomes the world.[26]

Reason can be used if it is used ministerially and recognizes that it is dim and that the divine light of truth is needed in order to understand all about life. Hamann expresses similar sentiments in a letter addressed to Kant.  He writes: “Reason is not given to you in order that you might become wise, but that you may know your folly and ignorance; as the Mosaic law was not given to the Jews to make them righteous, but to make their sins more sinful to them.”[27]
            Even though Hamann had more sympathy for Lessing then for Lessing’s clerical nemesis, pastor Goetze of Hamburg, Hamann was known as a staunch defender of Christian Orthodoxy.[28]  He himself writes:
Unbelief in the most essential, historical sense of the word is thus the only sin against the spirit of true religion, whose heart is in heaven and whose heaven is in the heart.  The mystery of Christian godliness consists not in services, sacrifices, and vows which God demands from men, but rather in promises, fulfillments, and sacrifices which God made and did for the welfare of men.  It consists not in the noblest and greatest commandment which he laid down, but in the highest good which he freely gave; not in legislation and moral teachings are relevant to merely to human convictions and human affairs, but in the carrying out of the divine counsels, works, and institutions for the salvation of the whole world.[29]

Here Hamann shows his true colors as a Lutheran who clings to the grace alone of the gospel. 
            Hegel describes Hamann’s faith with the following words in the biographical section of the introduction that he wrote for the first edition of Hamann’s published works:
Hamann sands over against the Berlin Enlightenment above all by virtue of the profoundness of his Christian orthodoxy, but such that his way of thinking is not adherence to the wooden, orthodox theology of his time; is spirit retains the highest freedom, in which nothing remains a positive, but rather is subjectivized into the spiritual present and into one’s own possession.[30] 

In short, Hamann’s Christianity could be described as being that of “a lively individual presence.”[31]  God was not a God of ideas or reason, but the God of active, perceptible presence among and for his people. 
            Hamann saw himself as a type of Socrates whose ignorance may be more simply understood as a technique for reaching knowledge rather than a resignation of all rational knowledge.  In his first published work, Socratic Memorabilia, published in 1759, Hamann deals with the thought of the great philosopher Socrates and compares him and his thought to the challenges of the Enlightenment, his lifestyle as one of renunciation and humility, which was completely at adds with the progressive thought of the Enlightenment.[32]  In Socrates Hamann saw “the same personal movement toward the truth which for Hamann himself is expressed in faith.”[33]  The Socratic ignorance is the ante-room to faith.[34]

With the onset of postmodernism and the various overblown promises of the Enlightenment having being shattered, the thought of J. G. Hamann fills a necessary void in the thought of postmodern man.  People are more open to speaking about faith than previously, but usually such talk ends up in the dead end of civil gospel, civil religion, and universalism, all very rational, benign band aids to fill a gaping hole in contemporary thought.   Perhaps for this reason there seems to be a renewed interest in the study of J. G. Hamann across denominational lines.  To the contemporary reader his ideas do not seem so out of touch with the challenges between faith and reason that occupy people’s thoughts today. 
            For the Lutheran reader Hamann’s concept of the divine condescension holds particular appeal in its similarities to the theology of the cross, where God hides His glory in easily despised means. Ronald Smith writes:
The miracle which Hamann sees continuing in his own life is the same miracle which he sees in all of history: it is an affirmation of God’s seriousness with regard to his creation.  But this manifestation of God which he discerns in history is not simple and immediate: it is highly paradoxical and indirect.  It is concealed at the same tm e that it is made manifest.  It is a God incognito, a humble and poor, who makes himself known in the events of history, in the event of Christ, and in the sacraments. So he can say that it is in the elements of water, bread and wine that he perceives the presence of the teleion, the end and a communicatio idiomatum, as in the life of Christ himself.[35]

Hamann did not encourage any anti-intellectual escapism.  He denounced any sort of religious or rational retreat from the world, against any Gnostic theosophical, or spiritual flight from connection to the earthly.  Fro Hamann it is in the sensible here and now where life is to be lived and understood.  The true natural reality of existence will not be discovered if one simply observes empirical signs that are left to man in creation as simply self defining.  Nor will man come to a true understanding if one chooses to simply make abstractions or generalizations of what one observes in nature [36] True wisdom and the meaning of existence come from God’s speaking.  He still speaks today. 

[1] John R. Betz, After Enlightenment: Hamann as Post-Secular Visionary (West Sussex, UK: John Wiley and Sons Ltd., 2009), 10, 15.
[2] Oswald Bayer, Zietgenosse im Widerspruch: Johann Georg Hamann als Radikaler Aufklärer (München: Piper, 1988), 10.
[3] Johann Georg Hamann, Writings on Philosophy and Language, trans. and ed. Kennneth Haynes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), vii.
[4] Kanzler Friedrich von Müller, Unterhaltungen mit Goether, ed. R. Grumach (Weimar, 1982), 109.  As cited in John R. Betz, After Enlightenment: Hamann as Post-Secular Visionary (West Sussex, UK: John Wiley and Sons Ltd., 2009), 2.
[5] G. W. F. Hegel, “Hamanns Schriften,” Jahrbücher für wissentschaftliche Kritik (1828).  As cited in John R. Betz, After Enlightenment, 2.
[6] G. W. F Hegel, “The Writings of Hamann,” in Hegel on Hamann, trans. Lisa Marie Anderson (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2008), 4.  
[7] Ronald Gregor Smith, J.G. Hamann 1730-1788: A Study in Christian Existence with Selections from his Writings (London: Collins, 1960), 103. 
[8] Isaiah Berlin, The Magnus of the North: J. G. Hamann and the origins of modern irrationalism, ed. Henry Hardy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993), 12. 
[9] John R. Betz, After Enlightenment, 30. 
[10] London Schriften, 343. Cited by John R. Betz, After Enlightenment, 31. 
[11] Ronald Gregor Smith, J.G. Hamann 1730-1788, 43.
[12] Harry Sievers, Johann Georg Hamanns Bekehrung: Ein Versuch, sie zu verstehen (Zürich: Zwingli Verlag, 1969), 9.
[13] Christian Reuter, Autorschaft als Kondeszendenz: Johann Georg Hamanns erlesene Dialogizität (Berlin: Walther de Gruyter, 2005), 36.
[14] Ibid., 34.  
[15] Jahann Georg Hamann, Gedanken über menien Lebenslauf. As quoted in Christian Reuter, Autorschaft als Kondeszendenz, 38.
[16] Walter Leibrecht, God and Man in the Thought of Hamann, trans. James H. Stam and Martin H. Bertram, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 60.
[17] Ronald Gregor Smith, J.G. Hamann 1730-1788,103.
[18] Johann Georg Hamann, Writings on Philosophy and Language, 204.
[19] J. G, Hamann, Biblische Betrachtungen. As Cited by Christian Reuter, Autorschaft als Kondeszendenz, 29.
[20] Johann Georg Hamann, Ritter von Rosenkranz, Quoted in Christian Reuter, Autorschaft als Kondeszendenz, 38.
[21] Johann Georg Hamann, Writings on Philosophy and Language, 203.
[22] Ronald Gregor Smith, J.G. Hamann 1730-1788, 120.
[23] Ronald Gregor Smith, J.G. Hamann 1730-1788, 119.
[24] Christian Reuter, Autorschaft als Kondeszendenz, 36. 
[25] Johann Georg Hamann, Writings on Philosophy and Language, 212
[26] Johann Georg Hamann, Writings on Philosophy and Language, 195.
[27] J. G. Hamann, Letter to Kant.  As quoted in Ronald Gregor Smith, J.G. Hamann 1730-1788, 50.
[28] Walter Leibrecht, God and Man in the Thought of Hamann, trans. James H. Stam and Martin H. Bertram, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 71.
[29] Johann Georg Hamann, Writings on Philosophy and Language,194.
[30] G. W. F Hegel, “The Writings of Hamann,” in Hegel on Hamann, trans. Lisa Marie Anderson (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2008), 6.
[31] Ibid., 30.
[32] Ronald Gregor Smith, J.G. Hamann 1730-1788, 52.
[33] Ibid., 54.
[34] Ibid., 55.
[35] Ibid., 96.
[36] Henri Veldhuis, Ein Versiegeltes Buch: Der Naturbegriff in der Theologie J. G. Hamanns (1730-1788) (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1994), 401.  

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. I think that central to Hamann is the idea of an active humility, not that of self-abasement or abjection but of wonder and an obligation to recognize the coincidence of the infinity and our need and joy in the encounter but also -- as part of that -- outr incapacity to mastery or circumscribe the plenum of a dynamic becoming. For the divine, the reductionism and abstraction which is the necessary hallmark of science is incommensurate.


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