Napoleon: Dictator, Or Political Visionary? An Interview With Thierry Lentz

In this “Year of Napoleon,” we are highly honored to present this exclusive interview with Thierry Lentz, who is the foremost authority on Napoleon Bonaparte. He has written over sixty books on the Consulate period as well as the First French Empire. He is the current director of the Fondation Napoléon, and a Professor at the Institut catholique de Vendée.

On the occasion of the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death (May 5, 1821), Professor Lentz is interviewed by Arnaud Imatz, on behalf of the Postil.


Arnaud Imatz (AI): 2021 is the year of the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death at Longwood on the island of Saint Helena, May 5, 1821. The historical figure of the Emperor of the French (although it might be more appropriate to say the “historical figures” of the Emperor) has inspired in the world, and not only in France, an infinity of novels, historical works, films (more than a thousand) and pictorial or musical works. The two legends of Napoleon, black and golden, are now firmly established. But why does Napoleon still remain so much in our memories?

Thierry Lentz.

Thierry Lentz (TL): Napoleon is present in our memories for all the reasons you have just mentioned. He occupies a very special place in French history and memory. But beyond that, he is also linked to our daily life and our habits. Our state still resembles the one he created, our institutions are his and, above all, our daily life is influenced by the Civil Code. Even though this Code has undergone multiple reforms, necessary to adapt to new times and mores, its framework is still the same. It influences our daily lives and even what happens after we die through inheritance law. We are thus aware of the importance of Napoleon in our history… without always remembering that he is indeed there, in our present.

AI: In 1815, the 15-year adventure ended in disaster; the black legend certainly seemed to have definitely won. Napoleon “the warmonger” deserved nothing but ignorance and oblivion. However, the situation did quickly change. How and why did he become the hero of the 19th century liberal romantics against monarchists and traditionalists?

TL: The defeat at Waterloo, and the Treaty of Paris of November 1815, were indeed a catastrophe for France: it was occupied for three years and had to pay a formidable war indemnity. As a result, the image of Napoleon was tarnished; and we can say that it is then that the black legend triumphed. Even his death, announced in Europe in July 1821, went almost unnoticed. The displays of mourning were sporadic.

It was two years later, with the publication of The Memorial of Saint Helena by Emmanuel de Las Cases, that things started to turn around. As Lamartine came to observe, while France was bored, and Charles X passed away as the restorer of the Ancien Régime, that the image of Napoleon, presented as liberal by the Memorial, “recovered” and came to permeate both the arts and politics. The accumulation of references created a somewhat imaginary Napoleon; at the same time as the struggle to maintain the achievements of 1789 was once again becoming a reality. We put the emperor at the head of these struggles.

AI: Should we consider Napoleon as the continuator of the French Revolution, or as its “channeler,” if not its gravedigger? Did he want to conquer Europe in the name of a kind of revolutionary internationalism, or did he paradoxically contribute, by his invasions, to the creation of European nations? Was his ambition to disseminate ideas, relating to the rights of peoples, the defense of civil equality, the “intangible principles” of the Revolution? Or was he quite simply the continuator of Louis XIV, the bearer of the hegemonic aims of France, which then wanted to be dominant in the world as Spain had once been and as England and Germany would be or wanted to be, not to speak of the United States, Russia and China?

TL: Napoleon was undoubtedly the stabilizer of the Revolution, in his own version of 1789. He was certainly not a liberal in politics. But in social matters, he established civil equality, the right to property, the non-confessionality of the state and civil liberty (which is therefore not political). At a time when the country aspired to restore order and enjoy the achievements, he was the right man on the inside. In 1802, he had already accomplished much of the task: the great reforms were launched and civil peace returned.

Outside of France, things were a bit different. He was indeed the continuator of the diplomacy of the Ancien Régime and of the Revolution, halfway between seeking to impose French dominance in Europe and intending to spread the revolutionary principles (of 1789) in Europe. This is why the evaluation of his work outside France is so difficult. This was his main failure. While there is nothing left of the “Great Empire,” a great deal of its political and social accomplishments yet remain in France and in Europe.

AI: Why was the French military superior to others at that time?

TL: The French military benefited from its modernization throughout the Revolution, mainly in terms of manpower through conscription. They were now fighting for ideas and every citizen was invited to participate. Napoleon reorganized everything again—his army corps, the doctrine of the employment of cavalry and artillery, the excellence of command, and the amalgamation of old troops and conscripts. He also benefited from the concentration of the army at Boulogne, where for two and a half years, the soldiers lived together and trained, while awaiting the hypothetical invasion of England.

This army would long remain the best in the world and would show this excellence in the campaigns from 1805 to 1807. It was finally led by a true military genius, with a unique eye and quick decision-making. Things did turn sour afterwards, with the war in Spain, which devoured ground-troops, prevented amalgamation and demonstrated that this Grand Army was not invincible.

AI: Until 1795, France had the third largest population in the world, behind only China and India. Isn’t this the major explanatory factor for the Napoleonic conquests, rather than the merits and faults of the emperor?

TL: Regarding French military losses, which were poorly understood, it was not until the 1970s to have scientifically established figures. They are essentially derived from the work of demographer-historian Jacques Houdaille. Making use of large-scale scientific surveys in the extensive records, he estimated that there were about 450,000 men killed in action and about as many deaths from injury or illness, along with a few tens of thousands of the “missing.” It can be assumed that the actual losses are in the range of 900,000 to 1 million fatalities.

As for the allies and enemies of France, they suffered, it is often said, but without knowing how to prove it, losses that were “slightly higher” than those of the Grande Armée. If we adopt this principle, the wars of the Empire cost Europe from 2 to 2.5 million men over ten years. While this death toll is significant, it is still lower than in many previous and subsequent wars.

What is more, Europe was not drained of blood at the end of the period, neither economically nor demographically. There was no systematic destruction of towns and villages, and even less of the means of production, except in the Iberian Peninsula where the responsibility was largely shared between French and English troops.

Regarding demography, specialists have shown that France had nearly 1.5 million more inhabitants in 1815 than in 1790. For the whole of Europe, population growth was greater for the 1790-1816 period to what it had been from 1740 to the Revolution. These results are of course due to advances in medicine and the decline in infant mortality. But this general finding will no doubt surprise more than one.

AI: Politically, was Napoleon a “classic” dictator, in the Roman sense, or a totalitarian dictator in the modern sense? Do you consider that despite his mistakes, especially in the choice of ministers, often traitors and incompetents, he remained an exceptional leader or even a political visionary?

TL: It goes without saying that from 1799 to 1815, Napoleon spent every minute strengthening and defending the reign of the executive, even if it meant showing himself to be more and more authoritarian. But to speak of a dictatorship and, moreover, of a military dictatorship, is to make fun of history and the meaning of words.

According to the jurist and political scientist Maurice Duverger—who has devoted a good part of his work to the concept of dictatorship—three simultaneous conditions are necessary to characterize it: 1) that the regime be installed and maintained by force, in particular military; 2) that it be arbitrary, that is to say that it suppresses freedoms and controls the decisions of arbitral or judicial bodies; 3) that it be considered illegitimate by a large part of the citizens. The study of each of these points for the Napoleonic regime leads to the rejection of any such peremptory conclusion. Under Napoleon, the establishment of a strong and embodied state was not accompanied by the systematic use of illegitimate coercion or indiscriminate force, much less for the benefit of the army.

AI: In economics, was Napoleon an interventionist or a liberal?

TL: In economic matters, Napoleon was more of a “liberal.” For him, the state did not have to intervene in the day-to-day economy, except for foreign trade which was carried out “for the grandeur of the state.” It was also important to him that the social situation be as stable as possible; and that is why he was able to intervene with public orders at the time of the crises, in particular that of 1810, which was extremely serious.

AI: Is he the “father” of the modern French state?

TL: Napoleon put an end to the trial-and-error approach when it came to the organization of the state and its administration. He simplified the grid into a pyramid model, at the top of which was the executive, not always himself in person, but those who represented the government, such as ministers. This has been called the “French model,” moreover adopted by most European states, with adaptations, even among its enemies.

AI: In his will Napoleon declared himself belonging to the Catholic religion. Can the leader of an army of soldiers from the Revolution, whose members were seen as dechristianizers in most countries of Europe, be presented as a Catholic? Wasn’t his Catholicism more of interest than conviction?

TL: We will never know whether Napoleon believed in God or not. What is certain is that he saw religions, especially the Catholic religion, as an intermediary body that should contribute to social stability and public order. This is why he “reestablished” Catholicism, organized Protestantism and Judaism, leaving them a certain dogmatic freedom, but subjecting them to the law of the state.

AI: What is the difference between the non-denominational Napoleonic state and the tradition of French republican secularism that prevailed from 1880 onwards, under the Third Republic?

TL: The Napoleonic non-confessionality, established in principle by the Civil Code, is a first step towards secularism. It proclaims that the various churches are subject to the state and to the law. But with Napoleon, this is expressed through concrete measures: public and civil status, acceptance of divorce, submission of faiths to the laws governing public order. He had no ambition to intervene in beliefs; but on the other hand, he left nothing to be organized outside of social and political necessities.

AI: Freemasonry lived fifteen extraordinary years under Napoleon, multiplying the number of lodges which went from 300 to 1220. Napoleon had many Freemasons in his family (including Jérôme, Louis and Joseph, whom the Spaniards nicknamed Pepe Botella); 14 of the first 18 marshals were Freemasons, as were a number of generals and most of the great dignitaries of the Empire. What was his relationship to Freemasonry? Was he himself a Freemason?

TL: Even if he himself was not (there is no proof of a supposed initiation in Egypt), Napoleon was surrounded by initiates such as his brothers, as well as Cambacérès, Lebrun, Fouché, Talleyrand, etc. In his Masonic policy, he relied above all on Cambaceres, who appeared to be the “protector” of the Order.

Initiated in 1781 in a lodge in Montpellier, Cambaceres climbed all the ranks and took this commitment very seriously, including at the time of the revolutionary interdicts. He then helped his friend Alexandre-Louis Roëttiers de Montaleau, grand master of the Grand Orient, to “rekindle fires” within the Directory. He thus participated in the first ranks in the meeting of June 22, 1799 by which, in the presence of five hundred masons, the Grand Lodge merged into the Grand Orient.

From that moment, French Freemasonry had almost regained its unity, further supplemented by the addition of the Grand Chapter of Arras to the Grand Orient, on December 27, 1801. It was not affected by the creation of a Scottish lodge, in 1803, an experiment immediately stopped by a new act of union signed a few days after the Imperial Coronation.

This unification of December 5, 1804, sometimes qualified as a “Masonic concordat,” confirmed the primacy of the Grand Orient which, in exchange, admitted the maintenance of several rites within it. Napoleon would have liked Freemasonry to constitute an intermediary body supporting the regime. But it was too plural for that; it crossed too many parties to be able to be a real support. It was never that, and continued its existence without problem under other regimes.

AI: It has often been suggested that after his military expedition to Egypt (1798 – 1799), Napoleon Bonaparte professed great sympathy for Islam? Was he sincere?

TL: Napoleon studied Muhammad, especially through the works of Voltaire. He admired his determined and almost warlike aspect. His sympathy for Islam hardly went beyond that. He did not convert, nor was he inspired by it for the Civil Code, as we can sometimes read on websites that are sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood.

AI: Almost all European people had a place in the Grand Army (Dutch, Saxons, Germans, Poles, Spaniards, Portuguese, Italians, Belgians, Austrians, Bavarians, Swiss, etc..). Allied strengths even made up between 20% to 48% of the total force, depending on the campaign, but only the Poles remained loyal to the end. How do you explain that?

TL: It has been said, and we have come to believe, that it was out of pure personal ambition that Napoleon made war. But this forgets that, at that time, peace was a state of emergency and that all states were primarily concerned with preparing for inevitable conflict. This is also forgets that history and geopolitics often made it inevitable. I have written dozens of pages on this subject to which I refer interested readers. I will just repeat here that Europe was not simply divided into two camps during the Napoleonic episode; otherwise, it would not have been until the fall of 1813 that a general coalition was formed against France.

Before that, the continental powers had come to terms with French dominance and tried to make as much profit as possible for themselves. It was the great success of British diplomacy to succeed in uniting all of Europe around its lowest common denominator (bringing down France and its leader), by playing on resentments and unfulfilled promises to some, and to others, on the economy and finances—much more than on the principle of a “liberation” of the Continent. This explains why many foreign contingents were placed at the disposal of the Grande Armée for nearly fifteen years, most often with the consent of their sovereigns.

AI: The controversies surrounding the figure of Napoleon have redoubled in virulence on the eve of the celebration of the bicentenary of his death. The exaltation of heroism and the spirit of sacrifice have now largely given way to victimist and navel-gazing ideology. On the other hand, the wave of political correctness and the nihilistic modes embodied in the woke spirit or the cancel culture originating in North America seem irresistible. As a result, the vast majority of the media see Napoleon only as a tyrant, an instigator of war, a misogynist, a supporter of patriarchy, a slaver (for having reestablished slavery eight years after its suppression and imprisoned Toussaint Louverture, a black separatist, who had been appointed general under the Directory). How do you answer these charges?

TL: I answer them at length in the book I just published, Pour Napoléon (For Napoleon). I think we are at an important time in the fight against the trends that you describe.

Our rulers are paralyzed by groups which have made a specialty of amalgams and historical untruths to impose their “agenda,” and to accuse their country of having “murdered” entire categories, and then defiling public places or calling for action and riot?

Nothing was done either to prevent or to combat the iconoclastic fever that came from the United States, after the tragic death of George Floyd. Even though we sometimes think that the famous “submission,” nicely denounced by Michel Houellebecq, is a bit tricky, it is all the same the first word that comes to mind.

If one believes Montesquieu’s warning that “oppression always begins with sleep,” one can only be frightened to see those we mandate to preserve national cohesion and unity sleeping soundly—or pretending to sleep so as not to see anything, which in the end comes to the same. As a historian and as a citizen, I thought that I could not remain inert in the face of this danger.

AI: Monsieur Lentz, thank you for this delightful conversation.


The featured image shows, “Napoleon I, crowned by the Allegory of Time, writes the Code Civil,” by Jean-Baptiste Mauzaisse, painted in 1833.


The featured image shows a portrait of Napoleon by Andrea Appiani, painted in 1805.

Arab Science: Dispelling The Ambiguity

Introduction

In 1883, Ernest Renan gave a lecture at the Sorbonne entitled, “Islamism and Science” (later published by Calmann-Lévy). It was the rationalist credo of a man of science who was familiar with history. Above all, it had the merit and interest of calling attention to an ambiguity, which had not escaped the Semitizer that he was, and which is contained in these words: “Arab science, Muslim civilization, Muslim science”.

This ambiguity has never been dispelled, and it is urgent to do so. Ernest Renan can actually be used in doing so.

His observation is simple: From about the year 775 until about the middle of the thirteenth century, there can be no doubt that there were very distinguished scholars and thinkers in Muslim countries. From this assumption was constructed the idea of an “Arab science,” of a “Muslim civilization” (today named as, “Islam, cradle of civilization”), even of a “Muslim science.” The ambiguity, meanwhile, has far from disappeared.

The Prominent Role Of Persia And Eastern Christians

What happened from the Hegira to the year 775, in other words, during the reign of the first four caliphs? Of course, “Omar did not burn the library of Alexandria;” but the principle that he conquered the world is infinitely more destructive: it attacks scholarly research and the very work of the mind. There is nothing more foreign to what can be called the “philosophy of science” than the first century of Islam.

Under the first four caliphs, there were no intellectual movements of a secular character. Islam was, “in the moment of conquest,” as the orientalists of the 19th century put it euphemistically, that is largely occupied with conquering, dominating, sowing desolation and ravaging the old lands of civilization.

But around the year 750, Persia gained the upper hand. It saw the dynasty of the children of Abbas come to triumph over the children of the Beni-Omeyrra. In other words, Persia chose the Abbasids against the Umayyads. The center of Islam was transported to the Tigris-Euphrates region.

This is where the traces of one of the most brilliant civilizations that the East has known can be found: that of the Sassanid Persians, who defeated the Arsacid Parthians, and took up the torch from the Achaemenids, whose brilliant state had been destroyed by Alexander. This Sassanid civilization experienced its zenith under the reign of Khosrow I Anushirvan. All tradition recognizes him as a great king. He did not just try to merely continue and resume a tradition of art and industry that had flourished for centuries; rather, he added to it an intellectual endeavor of great openness. Driven from Constantinople, the Eastern part of Greek philosophy took refuge in Persia.

Khosrow had books translated from India, which he commanded his personal physician, Burzoe, to personally research. The Fables of Bidpaï constitute one of the sources of our fabulist, Jean de la Fontaine. But this book disappeared when the Muslim armies arrived on the Iranian plateau, when the river, according to tradition, ran black with the ink of books. It was only later that this book of wisdom was rediscovered and translated from Pahlavi (Middle Persian) into Arabic, as Kalila wa Dimna , by Ibn al-Muqaffa, a Persian zindiq who had converted to Islam.

Above all, Christians of all persuasions formed the largest part of the population, for by then Persia was largely Christianized. They were well-versed in Greek science and philosophy, and medicine was entirely in their hands. Bishops were logicians, geometers. Khusrow founded the Academy of Gundishapur, the first medical university, a kind of “Silicone Valley” of its day.

When the followers of Muhammad arrived on the Iranian plateau, they put a stop to all this development for a hundred years.

But a century later, the rise of the Abbasids was akin to a resurrection of the brilliance of Khusrow Anushirvan. The Abbasids were like resurrected Sassanids. Persian troops, Persian leaders were at the head of this revolution. The founders – Abul-Abbas and especially Mansur, surrounded themselves with Persians. The intimate advisers of the princes, the prime ministers, were the Barmakids, a family from ancient Persia, who had converted to Islam late and without conviction. Christians soon surrounded these little believing caliphs – and with a sort of exclusive privilege, became their first doctors. The city of Harran, which remained pagan, and which had kept all the scientific tradition of the Greeks (and no doubt Indian) antiquity, as well as Syriac, provided the new school with a considerable contingent of scholars – foreign to the new revealed religion – especially skilled astronomers.

Baghdad thus stood as the capital of this resurgent Persia. All the great surviving tradition of the Gundishapur school was transported there.

Greco-Sassanid Science

Certainly, the language of conquest cannot be supplanted, religion cannot be completely denied. But the spirit of this new civilization was essentially mixed: The Parsis, the Christians, won. The administration, (especially the police) was in Christian hands.

All of these brilliant caliphs were hardly Muslims, and if they externally practiced the religion of which they were leaders, their spirit was elsewhere. They sought out the learning of India, old Persia and Greece. From time to time, the pietists appeared, and the caliph of the moment sacrificed his unfaithful friends or free thinkers. Then the breath of independence took hold again and he called back his scholars and his companions of pleasure.

The fables of the One Thousand and One Nights have fixed the features of this civilization, a curious mixture of official rigor and concealed laxity, where the serious arts, like those of the joyful life, flourished, thanks to the protection of misguided rulers of a fanatic religion.

The Syrian Christian doctors, continuers of the last Greek schools, well versed in philosophy, mathematics, medicine and astronomy were then employed by the caliphs to translate into Arabic the encyclopedia of Aristotle, Euclid, Galen, Ptolemy – the entire body of Greek science, but also Syriac, and undoubtedly also Indian.

A few more active minds were beginning to speculate on the eternal mysteries, with Al-Kindi in the lead. They were called filsuf; today they say falsafa; and afterwards, this exotic word was taken up within Islam but with a negative connotation. But rationalism prospered there: a sort of philosophical society, “Brethren of Purity” began to publish a philosophical encyclopedia; Al Fârâbî and Avicenna emerged; chemistry continued its underground work.

Muslim Spain took up these studies after the East; the Jews bring an active component of the collaboration there. Men like Avempace, Abubacer, Averroes elevated philosophical thought in the twelfth century to new heights.

This great ensemble which is called “Arabic” is called so only because what it wrote was in Arabic – and again, it also passed through a powerful Syriac corpus, largely destroyed, deliberately, in order to erase the traces of any existence of this Eastern Christianity. In fact, this “Arab science” was above all Greco-Sassanid. And a deep Christian leaven was its ferment.

The Awakening Of Europe

Science should have reached the West through Byzantium. But on the one hand, the treasures that they did not read, the Byzantines did not deign to share, and on the other hand, between the Latin world and the Byzantine world, religious discussions had created a deep antipathy, reinforced by the crusade of 1204. What Europe could not get from the libraries of Constantinople, where the originals were located, she sought out in the often-mediocre translations of a language which did not lend itself to rendering Greek thought, with all its abstraction and its subtleties.

It was through the Syriac and Arabic translations of books on Greek science and philosophy that Europe received the leaven of ancient tradition, necessary for the blossoming of its genius. For Greek science to reach Europe, it had to pass through Syria, Baghdad, Cordoba and Toledo. A poorly translated Greek science was sought out in Spain.

By the time Averroès died in Morocco, lonely and abandoned, Europe was on the rise. But it was predominantly Latin in its culture, and it had no Hellenists. We would have to wait another three hundred years for a Lefèvre d´Etaples, or a Budé.

From 1130 to 1150, an active college of translators, established in Toledo under the patronage of Archbishop Raymond, translated the most important works of this “Greco-Sassanid science in the Arabic language” into Latin. From the beginning of the thirteenth century, the Arab Aristotle entered the University of Paris. He had earlier entered the orbis litterarum through Boethius, but Boethius was not able to translate anything more than the Organon.

From around 1275, two shifts appeared. The first saw the Muslim countries enter into a state of the steepest decline. The second saw Western Europe resolutely take the path of the scientific search for truth. By the time Averroes became famous in the Latin schools, he was entirely forgotten by his co-religionists.

After the year 1200, there was no longer a single renowned philosopher within Islam. From 1200, philosophy and science were abolished in Muslim countries: philosophical manuscripts were destroyed (they burned the books of Averroes). Astronomy alone was tolerated to determine the direction of prayer.

Then the Turks took hegemony of Islam and manifested a complete lack of philosophical and scientific spirit. Apart from a few rare exceptions, like Ibn-Khaldun, Islam no longer had a broad mind. It killed off science and philosophy in its midst. It also killed a lot of men, women, children; and when it didn’t kill them, it oppressed them.

Among all the philosophers and scholars, only one was Arab: Al-Kindi. All the others were Persians, Transoxians – people from Bokhara and Samarkand (in other words from Central Asia), and Spaniards – from Cordoba, Seville. They used Arabic because it was the language of the dominant who had imposed themselves. In the 14th and 15th centuries, historians or historiographers of Islam were compilers and translators of encyclopedists – they did not innovate. But this corpus would reach nascent orientalist science, through Antoine Galland, then stationed in Constantinople. And, above all, thanks to the compilation work of Barthelemy d´Herbelot, the author of the Bibliothèque orientale.

Giving Arabia credit for science and philosophy is like giving credit for Latin Christian literature, the Scholastics, the Renaissance, the science of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to Rome, because it is written in Latin.

Arab Science Or Muslim Science?

This science was not Arab. But was it Muslim? No, because this movement was the joint work of Persians, Christians, Jews, Harannians, (inhabitants of Harran), Ismailis and Muslims (who inwardly revolted against their own religion). This great movement received nothing but curses from Orthodox Muslims: Mamun was damned by theologians (the misfortunes which afflicted his reign were regarded as punishments for his tolerance of doctrines foreign to Islam). It was not uncommon for those who cultivated these studies to be called sendiks or zendiks – they were beaten in the streets, their houses burned down, and often the authorities put them to death.

Islam had always persecuted science and philosophy. Then it ended up suffocating both.

We must therefore distinguish three periods. The first, from the Hegira to the 7th century, is a period of conquest and crimes. But also barely concealed disbelief. The first Arabs, who joined the movement hardly believed in the Prophet’s mission.

Second, from the 7th to the 12th century, Islam, undermined by sects and tempered by a species of Protestantism (mutazilism) was less organized and much less fanatic than it was in the second age yet to come, and the work of the mind succeeded in maintaining itself.

Third came the absolute reign of dogma, without any possible separation of the spiritual and the temporal.

In the first half of the Middle Ages (the second period), Islam supported philosophy because it could not prevent it, for the it was without cohesion, and thus poorly equipped for terror. The policing was in Christian hands and was mainly engaged in pursuing Alid intrigues.

When Islam gained truly believing masses, it stifled everything. But at the same time, it destroyed the salt of the earth and the leaven which makes the dough rise. It turned conquered countries into regions that were closed to the rational cultivation of the mind. For Islam, research was pointless, frivolous, godless; the science of nature was an offense against God; historical science applying to times before Islam might revive old errors – and applying science to Islam might lay bare the extent of its devastation and its power of destruction and desolation.

Anyone who yet maintains a little lucidity today cannot fail to see the current inferiority of Muslim countries: the decadence of governed states, the intellectual poverty of those who derive their culture and education from this religion alone, and the boundless contempt. for other religions, which then authorizes all persecutions, exactions and the worst crimes of our times. And then there is the treatment inflicted on women. Believing that God gives fortune and power to whomever he sees fit, Islam has the deepest contempt for education, for science, and for everything that makes up the European spirit.

Conclusion

To all appearances, the Muslim world has entered a sort of fourth period. On the one hand, it has a mass of believers who have never questioned their doctrine, and who more often than not know nothing about the Koran which is not translated into their language. On the other hand, it has an army of fanatics. An army, and not just a few intellectuals – determined to do battle with a Europe that for several centuries held the destiny of the world in its hands. But which no longer holds them.

Islam intends to establish the kingdom of Allah on earth, which involves converting all peoples, and bringing the whole world under its own Law, the law of submission and oppression.

Conversion to Islam removes all religious diversity in the world. But not only that – It eliminates ethnic diversity: the Berber, the Sudanese, the Circassian, the Afghan, the Malay, the Egyptian, the Nubian who have become Muslims are that no longer. They are Muslims. Persia alone was an exception. French, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Swabian, Croatian who have become Muslims will no longer be all those. They will only be Muslims.


Marion Duvauchel is a historian of religions and holds a PhD in philosophy. She has published widely, and has taught in various places, including France, Morocco, Qatar, and Cambodia.

(The original article in French was translated by N. Dass)


The featured image shows an imaginary debate between Averroes and Porphyry, from Monfredo de Monte Imperiali’s Liber de herbis, 14th century.

Aramaic: Lingua Franca Of The Ancient World

It is only in Heaven that we will see the truth about everything. On earth, it is impossible. So, even for Sacred Scripture, isn’t it sad to see all the differences in translation. If I had been a priest, I would have learned Hebrew and Greek, I would not have been satisfied with Latin, as I would have known the real text dictated by the Holy Spirit.
(Saint Therese of Lisieux, “The Last Interviews,” in the Yellow Book of Mother Agnès, August 4, 1897).

Thérèse of Lisieux is undoubtedly right, but to learn the language in which our Lord deigned to express himself, we must ask ourselves what that language was. Jesus could not ignore the Hebrew language, that of Revelation, but it was then no more than a liturgical language, what today we would call a “dead language.” The oral language, the language of communication, was Aramaic, the history of which begins with that of the men who brought it with them.

These Aramaeans were Semites who burst out of the desert to conquer the fertile lands of Mesopotamia and Syria. They went everywhere, settling, seizing supplies, creating little kingdoms.

Then arose Assyria, the empire of war, of force, of power – the “Hitlerites of the ancient world.” As soon as Assyria awakened, the various small Aramaic kingdoms disappeared, one after the other. But they left their language and their gods to the world.

This language, the Assyrians themselves would adopt. On several figurative documents concerning Aramaic origin, in particular on one of the frescoes of Til Barsip, we see depicted side-by-side an Assyrian scribe who writes on a tablet, and an Aramaic scribe who writes on a sheet of parchment or papyrus (13th century to the 9th century BC). But what the Assyrians instituted was not a properly Mesopotamian dialect of Aramaic but common Aramaic. Thus, a body of Aramaic scribes was officially constituted inside Assyrian administration.

In 632 BC, the Assyrians disappeared from the face of the earth. Then a new power arose – the Persians.

They were called the Achaemenids, among whom the prominent name is Darius the Great. With the Achaemenids, the Iranians became “the imperial race of Asia,” to use Roman Ghirshman’s phrase. In terms of political organization, Greece hardly arose beyond the polis – the State remained the City there. The Persians, for their part, developed an entity which, in its unity, encompassed countries of various races and cultures, united by the cogs of a vast administration. and above all else, these peoples were protected by a powerful army against foreign domination (especially against the persistent threat of nomads from the North and East). This empire, which remained a warrior one, was nevertheless driven by a desire for association rather than the thirst for domination, so characteristic of Assyria that always retained a powerful fascination.

The Achaemenids also made the linguistic choice of Aramaic, for reasons, no doubt, a little different than those which motivated the Assyrians; and it indeed seems to be a more conscious choice.

The use of cuneiform for writing Old Persian dates back at least to Teipses (as evidenced by the gold tablet of his son, Ariaramnes). At the time of the transformation of the small kingdom of Pars into empire, this language and this writing were only accessible to a minority of the ruling class. However, the rapidity of the formation of the Achaemenid Empire precluded the possibility of translating Persian into all languages. It was therefore necessary to choose an already existing language. But, also, by this time, Aramaic had spread throughout anterior Asia to western Iran. It was therefore Aramaic that the Persians adopted.

The Achaemenids had three other languages of culture, but it was this fourth language that they chose. Persia owes a great deal to the Kingdom of Urartu. From Urartu came the use of the breastplate. The Urartians transmitted their arts and techniques to the Iranians, as well as their strategy of conquest in their great symbols. According to Herodotus (III, 85), Darius obtained his crown thanks to his squire and his horse, just like King Rusa of Urartu. The traditions of the Urartian chancelleries were followed by the Persians: it is only in the Urartu texts that a royal inscription is divided into parts, so each one begins with “Thus spoke King X…,” which is found in the inscriptions of Achaemenid kings.

The most famous piece of Achaemenid glyptic belongs to Darius the Great. It is inscribed with his name and bears a text written in three languages. The use of cuneiform writing was not, however, completely abandoned, though it was reduced to stone inscriptions on monuments.

Thus, being already a lingua franca throughout the Near and Middle East, with the Achaemenids, Aramaic took on the status of an official language throughout Asia; and it remained in use, in particular in state affairs, from Egypt to India, where documents written in Aramaic have been found. If in Elam, one wrote in Elamite, and in Babylon in Babylonian, then all the Persian chancelleries used Aramaic.

The Achaemenid Persians also then were the enemy to be defeated, for Alexander the Great. The archives of the Achaemenid Empire were kept in Ecbatana (the Bible makes it clear), and the excavations at Persepolis and Suza confirm this. Alexander stored there all the treasures of the capitals looted during his campaigns.

This Hellenization, which is held to be the marvelous consequence of this lightning raid of unheard-of insolence, actually began long before, and rather peacefully. It was when the ancient kingdom of Urartu was formed (ca. 800 BC) that a slow expansion of the Greeks around the coasts of Asia Minor took place. Greek merchants had found on the Pontic coast iron, wax, linen, wool, precious metals, cinnabar, bronze, wood, furniture, fabrics, as well as Elamite and Median embroidery. Iran was not excluded from trade between Greece and the East. On the contrary, there was an Irano-Urartian koine, which then extended from the Oxus to the Ganges, and indisputably linked artistic traditions (some attest to the links between Crete and Iran), and therefore to techniques, in particular, metallurgy. And all interaction was probably not in one language.

Alexander’s conquest marked a pause in the development of Persian art (constant for seven centuries), as in all likelihood the use of Aramaic also marked a pause. But Alexander’s empire did not last. Thereafter, the Parthians came to the forefront of history, firmly determined to oust the Seleucid monarchy, one of the three monarchies that were heir to Alexander, and thus to reconquer Iran. They took a little over a century to accomplish all this. At the time of the Achaemenid Empire, the region where these Parthians settled existed under the name of the “Parthian satrapy.”

The Parthian Empire was born in a great expansion of the Iranian tribes of the steppes which spread to the four corners of the horizon, from the Black Sea with the Sarmatians, to the mouth of the Indus with the Saka, and from the Euphrates with the Parthians to eastern India with the Kushans. This vast area, despite the diversity of peoples and countries, climates and landscapes that it contained, became what René Grousset called, “outer Iran,” where a composite yet enduring civilization was established. Such was the Parthian element that founded, rebuilt, enriched, and stabilized civilization in this part of the world.

Much of Parthian history took place during the reigns of thirty-two kings, all of whom bore the same name, Arsaces; hence the Arsacid dynasty If they chose the path of Iranism, it was not only because they believed it more capable of supporting them in their fight against the Seleucids, then vis-a-vis the Romans who claimed to realize in their Eastern policy the imperialist conceptions of ‘Alexander the Great, but because the Parthians were more Iranian than Greek. It was not just a political choice, but a deep affinity. It was a conscious decision, not solely a political choice.

And for this reconquest and this refoundation, the Parthians relied on the language that the Achaemenids, of whom they considered themselves to be successors, had adopted before them, namely, Aramaic, which was also then made the language of the chancellery. The ostraca that have been found are either bilingual (Indo-Aramaic, or Greco-Aramaic), or only in Aramaic. This means that Aramaic extended as far as the Kushan empire and therefore Bactria, which had long been Hellenized (historians speak of the Greco-Bactrians).

Their empire lasted five centuries, and it was nurtured by an unprecedented event.

In 105, King Mithridates II received the first Chinese embassy in his capital of Hecatompylos. He concluded a commercial treaty with China, which guaranteed him monopoly on silk. The center of gravity of the Persian world now changed – from the banks of the Tigris, it moved towards Bactria and Sogdiana. Many cities were then transformed into merchant cities, provisioning and training the leaders of the caravans, including Palmyra, which was to be called to a singular destiny.

Thus, under the pax parthica, in the first century of our era, two men set out. One was called Bartholomew, the other Thomas. In the heart of Asia, where Iran was the cultural engine, but which had chosen the Semitic language of Aramaic, and within an empire which felt a particular sympathy for the Jewish world, these two men were to go far, even to the ends of the earth, to evangelize and to found churches.

The Word not only prepared His coming, He also prepared the conditions for the dissemination of His Message. And by learning the language in which our Lord deigned to speak, we can focus on understanding the role that that language has played in history in general and in that of Christians in particular.


Marion Duvauchel is a historian of religions and holds a PhD in philosophy. She has published widely, and has taught in various places, including France, Morocco, Qatar, and Cambodia.

[The original article in French was translated by N. Dass]


The featured images shows “the Kandahar Sophystos Inscription,” ca. 260 BC, or later. It is a metrical, bilingual (Greek and Aramaic) inscription. The Greek acrostic down the side reads: “ΔΙΑ ΣΩΦΥΤΟΥ ΤΟΥ ΝΑΡΑΤΟΥ (Dia Sophytou tou Naratou): By Sophistos, son of Naratos.”

Philosophical Anthropology. Part 1: Giambattista Vico

Introduction

This is the first of a three part “essay” on three thinkers—Giambattista Vico, Johann Georg Hamann and Johann Gottfried Herder—who were pioneers of a more historically sensitive anthropological and dialogical style of philosophy than the philosophies that have done so much to shape and do so much damage in the modern world. Originally what are now three essays were the final part of my book, Idolizing the Idea: A Critical History of Modern Philosophy. When I finally found a publisher willing to take on a book that was deeply critical of both major paradigms of contemporary philosophy, which are commonly (if not very accurately) termed analytic and continental philosophy, they nevertheless baulked at a 200,000-word manuscript by a writer from the academic boondocks with no reputation. I had no choice but to cut the final section, which, was for me the best part.

I had intended to write a second volume in which I would start with them, but when the Postil expressed interest in them, I thought I could spare any potential readers my tendency for prolixity. I only raise this point about their original context as chapters from a book criticising how modern philosophy has repeatedly succumbed to what I call the idolatry of the idea. That is modern philosophies—including ones which insist upon not succumbing to the sweet sirens of abstract ideas by being faithful to history (its spirits or laws) (Hegel and Marx ), or the earth (Nietzsche, and the positivists and empiricists), or Being (Heidegger), or anti-totalism (post-structuralists)—constantly set up some unassailable idea, principle or model which it uses to judge us and our world, and what it repeatedly does is try and squeeze us into the idea. I call this position idea-ist—it is not the same as idealism, because materialists are as much idea-ists as idealists.

I, following the German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, who made this same point, also call this the know-All position. For it is based upon the belief that what the philosopher knows is the essence of things, or the All that really needs to be known. Religion is by its very nature dogmatic. And that is its strength—for its proscriptions proceed from (a) God, while our powers of reasoning are limited. That our powers of reasoning are very limited indeed is manifestly confirmed by philosophers themselves who do not agree on much at all, especially the larger questions of the nature of truth, or goodness. After more than two thousand years one may have thought if there were a truth it would have been found and appreciated at least by the philosophers who have gone in search of it.

In my book, I argue that what keeps happening in philosophy is that the questions keep shifting, and this has much to do with why the answers differ so much. I think this confirms the value of philosophy, but it is a confirmation that requires philosophers to have better appreciation of what they can and cannot do well. But such appreciation requires not succumbing to the temptation to think we know the All—and to accept that reality is, to use a religious term, “revealed.”

This in turn also means giving up another common philosophical habit—viz., the dismissal of very important contingencies which impact upon us and our world because the model or principle governing a philosophical position has occluded them. But as soon as philosophers think they know the essence of the world or us or history or whatever they think is the key to it All, they set up an optic of occlusion—and subsequently all manner of very important things become dismissed and widely ignored. Thus, for example, Heidegger dismisses mere empirical history as unimportant so he can focus upon the history of metaphysics and its role in shaping our world, but, as I argued in Idolizing, this is foolish in that it leads to the belief that the only things that matter are what metaphysics has done, or what Heidegger himself takes as an alternative voicing to metaphysics, viz., poetry can do.

I do not wish to repeat criticisms about modern philosophy that I have made elsewhere, but I will repeat one other point I made in that book: the development of modern philosophy has created a metaphysical dyad of “determinism” (we are determined by laws and/or a system), and “voluntarism” (we can make the world and ourselves the way we want). And both of these one-sided views of life are false—and it does not become true by simply oscillating between them as Marx and Nietzsche or the contemporary progressives, who see capital, or gender, sexuality or race as determining people’s behaviour, unless, like them, they can acknowledge it and thus change the world to make it how they want.

Let me be clear, principles and ideas can be very important, and the word idea is a perfectly useful word. Likewise, we have all sorts of ideas about all sorts of things, but in our day-to-day world we can easily distinguish between doing something and having a philosophy about doing something, and we can all see that the doing need not really be subordinate to the philosophy if we want to do it well. I might write on the Philosophy of Education or the Philosophy of Running or the Philosophy of Friendship or the Philosophy of Morals, or the Philosophy of Art and be a terrible educator, runner, friend, person and artist or even connoisseur of the arts. The philosophy is just a means to something—and we and our deeds are the something that we have knowledge for. At its best philosophy can help us organize the information we have—in this sense it can help us think better, but it is not a stand along thing. If someone is a terrible “reader” of affairs or people or the world, philosophy will not be that helpful.

The stuff we think with and about generally does not come from philosophy, unless we are thinking of some very specific philosophical thing; but even then, the information and associations we draw upon which can help us think better even about a philosophical claim or formulation is extra-philosophical. Likewise, although sometimes we may notice something with our senses that makes us reflect upon other associations or information we have and also while some kinds of activities and observations are conducted methodically, a great deal of what comes to mind when we think come from the names and words which trigger our feelings and other associations. And the names and words—and the value and weight we ascribe to them—in the overwhelming number of cases have arisen from collective experience and response to events.

Thus, it is when I speak of idea-ism I am talking of the tendency to take our ideas for the world and our actions as if they were all we needed to know, or even the most important thing. Yet it is obviously the case that the world and action are, with the aforementioned exception when a sensation is decisive, mediated in thought as names and words. I strongly recommend the works of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy and Franz Rosenzweig who have made exhaustive cases for why names matter, and why ideas, and the philosophical fixation with ideas is a dangerous thing. Idolizing the Idea was in many ways simply a detailed account of the history of this fixation within modernity, and it was undertaken because this tendency has gone hand in hand with a more ideocratic and ideologically driven kind of politics and sociality that is making us strangers to ourselves and each other and making us spiritually sick.

The final section of my book was intended to make the case for the alternative to philosophical know-all-ism, and idea-ism that had already been undertaken by Vico, Hamann and Herder. Vico and Herder have widely been hailed as precursors of anthropology, even if their readership is, as with Hamann, almost excusive to scholars of their works, all three are also important figures in the history of hermeneutics. But their importance has generally been pretty limited in terms of the more dominant currents of philosophy. Kierkegaard loved Hamann, and Hamann was also appreciated by contemporaries such as Schelling and Hegel—but most Histories of Philosophy do not devote a chapter to him or Herder, or Vico.

Anyone familiar with Isaiah Berlin will have immediately recognized that they are the subject matter of one of his books, Three Critics of the Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder, a work that took a previously unpublished essay by Berlin on Hamann and added it to the early book Vico and Herder. Berlin’s discussion of the three is scholarly and judicious, if somewhat uneven. I think he is most comfortable and perceptive with Vico, he genuinely appreciates Herder, but I do not think he conveys just how encyclopaedic and astutely philosophical Herder is, and I do not think he “gets” what Hamann was doing at all.

But my major criticism of Berlin is what I consider to be the simplistic way he sets up two camps, those who are on the side of Enlightenment and reason and science, and those, like Vico, Herder and Hamann who aren’t. Clearly, he has some sympathy with their objections to the Enlightenment, but he sees rampant nationalism and Nazism as the political-cultural progeny of the anti-Enlightenment. I just find this a very unhelpful and unconvincing way to think not only about them and their legacy, but philosophy and ideas and movements more generally. I have no intention of giving a developed critique of Berlin, and I do not want to give the impression that Berlin is all wrong or not worth reading, I will just say that what follows is an alternative to his way of thinking about the three and their significance.

As will be evident from the above, my interest in Vico, Hamann and Herder cannot really be separated from a more general view about philosophy which I have developed over almost fifty years, and which is a view that, to put it mildly, is not widely known or shared. Thus, I beg the reader’s indulgence for the following introductory lead into the essays on Vico, Hamann and Herder, as a way of better preparing him for what it is I am comparing them with when I discuss their contribution.

Hermeneutical Openings For Philosophical Anthropology

With the Pre-Socratics, philosophy commences with questions that seek to identify the overarching principles that equip philosophy for its own particular modality of inquiry. This initial search is for what is “eternal,” what provides an implacable and stable, even static means of orientation. With Plato it leads to a triumvirate of ideas—the good, the true and the beautiful. That we can immediately recognize the three domains of philosophy—moral philosophy, epistemology, and aesthetics—and their underpinning ontology and metaphysics is indicative of the importance of this aspect of the philosophical quest. The “pitch and jag” of questions posed to what are ostensibly answers to these, and subsequently other philosophical questions is, however, responsible for paradigmatic movements within philosophy’s unique “seam of speech.”

Aristotle’s questions ultimately lead him to open up another modality of orientation. This modality focusses upon the “structures” of things. To be sure Plato had brushed against this modality, but he does not delve into it to anywhere near the same degree or extent as Aristotle. While it certainly has multiple implications for morals (and a moral exploration of politics), epistemology, and aesthetics (consider, for example, how Aristotle’s Poetics attempts to identify not only the nature but also the structure of tragedy), it also affects how one thinks about the ontological and metaphysical terrain. For all the differences that come with this new clustering of questions and the answers that then open out into new questions, the quest is not able to throw off completely the stabilizing factors of philosophy itself—Aristotle too appeals to truth and morality and a kind of beauty.

While the early modern metaphysicians and philosophers of nature are generally identified as anti-Aristotelian, and were so in important respects, this particular aspect of philosophical development and importance is not thrown off in the paradigms that encompasses not only philosophers as epistemologically, metaphysically and ontologically diverse as Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Leibniz, Malebranche, Berkeley, but even those who branch out far beyond naturalism and veer into more historical and social considerations. In so far as historical and social analyses appeal to some sovereign idea, principle such as equality, or freedom from domination (as with Marx or the post structuralists), or culture (as in Nietzsche), or a cluster of contingencies, they remain susceptible to questions about the truth or moral character (with the kind of aesthetic emphases that have come to dominate from the latter part of the nineteenth century, “the beautiful” has lost its place as the sovereign idea of aesthetics).

To repeat, then, philosophy itself never completely shakes off the opening pitch of its questions, though what is “jagged” out of the answers will change.

But there is also a third line of questioning and orientation, and it is this line of orientation that takes greater account of social symbolization and semiosis, as it delves more deeply into the socio-historical-anthropological conditions, and the degree of impact and plasticity involved in our world-making. It is not the case that it completely abandons the original pitch, though as it evolves, that pitch dims substantially (this is evident, for example, if one compared Herder’s numerous concessions to the good, true and the beautiful, with his progeny, Rosenstock-Huessy, who has little good to say about these eternal philosophical beacons). The same is true of its relationship to the Aristotelian innovation.

Nevertheless, its own insights and quarries retrieved from its quests redound upon the “eternal” seam, as well as the more structural kind of analyses. But it does make historicity as well as culture take on a far greater philosophical significance. Further, it also creates a far more complicated picture of the problems that we confront than are conjured up by those seeking to solve our problems along more voluntarist lines. That is, the more we enter into this third paradigm the less we are likely to believe that our problems will be solved by placing excessive reliance upon either our knowledge of natural or social “laws,” or the good will and “faith” of those seeking change.

While this third paradigm, philosophical anthropology, does not completely eliminate the horizon of the eternal with its “stablizers,” it nevertheless also opens this up further. For in entering into a deeper appreciation of the social, history and culture, it must look beyond the strictly philosophical virtues and answers, not only to other narrative modes, but also to the importance of names themselves and thus it inevitably goes back beyond “ideas” For it is by responding to the range and chain of names that have left deep enough impressions on us to see their importance, so that we become conscious of the historical dimension of experience.

We should also mention from the outset, as will be developed throughout these three essays, that this should not be mistaken for “historicism” of the sort in which all meaning may only be found by sinking so deeply into historical detail there is nothing left to do but recount those details, or else appeal to them as if they themselves bore all authority for future orientation. Future and past both beckon us in our present. As we shall see in Vico, who is a pioneer of this third philosophical approach, the “eternal” and the structural are not completely overthrown by this new approach, yet, for all that, it remains another approach, replete with different kinds of questions and hence answers.

Vico’s New Science And The Opening Up Of The Idea To Past Ages

A brief comparison of Vico with David Hume is a helpful way to illustrate what is so original about Vico’s approach to philosophy.

Hume had argued that the strict divide between understanding and imagination which had been so important to the metaphysical revolution of the new philosophies was ultimately unsustainable: understanding and reason were not to be divorced so sharply from imagination, passion and impression. The importance Hume ascribed to imagination, impression and association in the context of “common life” thus helped draw philosophy back into the world as we live it, as opposed to what world a thinker wants us to (or thinks that we should) live in. Nevertheless, Thomas Reid’s critique that Hume still hung on to philosophical bric-à-brac that came from the “way of ideas” was important. For having invoked “common life,” Hume wipes away the different forms of life that peoples have over the ages by placing too much weight upon the constancy of human nature. As Leon Pompa recounts of Hume’s position:

Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature, by showing men in all varieties of circumstances and situations, and furnishing us with materials from which we may form our observations, and become acquainted with the regular springs of human action and behaviour.

This was what enabled Hume, in spite of all his scepticism, to have such “certainty” about his own enlightened faith. We may indeed see certain constants across the ages if we focus upon certain human needs and behaviours—and on occasion it might make much sense to take note of such constants as the desire to survive, or the need to eat, or the extraction of resources and the opportunity costs involved, or the use of the imagination. But there is a serious problem that Hume bypasses, which Pompa raises against Hume’s position:

…such a conception of the nature of ideas is unacceptable when we consider their operation in the social and historical world. Here we are dealing with social agents, and it is impossible for anybody to be a social agent without understanding the concept of the type of social agent in question. One cannot, for example, be a judge or a school-teacher, unless one’s conduct reveals an understanding of what one should do in the legitimate fulfilment of one’s role. Indeed, the requirement is somewhat stronger than this. For not merely is it necessary to know what one’s role involves, but it is necessary also to know that others know what is involved. One cannot, in other words, act as a judge unless one’s conduct both conforms to a shared understanding of the role and to the knowledge that that understanding is shared. For, in the last resort, it is one’s success or failure in being able to show that one has acted in accordance with what one knows to be shared that determines the legitimacy of one’s actions as a judge. Acting in a social role thus presupposes possession of a social concept which one knows to be shared. This need not be something which one can explicate theoretically, but it must be such that one can use it. It is no objection to this that we use the concept of a natural object in order to can use it, should one be challenged, in defence of one’s claim to have acted legitimately in that role.

It follows from this that ideas cannot, in the social world, have only the secondary ontological status which Hume ascribes to them. For an idea to have this secondary status, it is necessary that that of which it is an idea could have existed in the absence of the idea itself. But this is not possible in the case of social agents, for to be a social agent is just to act in accordance with certain conventions and in the knowledge that those conventions are known to be shared. In the social world, therefore, consciousness of such ideas is constitutive: without it there could be no such world.

Unlike Hume, Vico had extricated himself completely from his earlier (Cartesian) mechanistic philosophical influences, and his cognizance of the plasticity of the human imagination and its impact upon sociality ultimately added the dimension of the cadences of lived-time to our self-understanding. While Vico’s New Science is “therefore a history of human ideas,” its novelty consists in the recognition that “ideas” are themselves deeply dependent upon human development. And although, he acknowledges philosophical antecedents in Jean Bodin and Francis Bacon’s recognition of the importance of myth in aiding human instruction, and, even more pertinently, the importance of “following the method of philosophizing made most certain by Francis Bacon, Lord of Verulam,” he transfers the “idea” to “this world of nations;” thus “carrying it over from the things of nature… to the civil affairs of mankind.”

In general, then, Vico observes that philosophy (including Bacon’s) has not hitherto “reflected on and seen” the actual or historical development of human sociality, and hence also it has failed to grasp what we can discover about the growth of the human mind. To understand that development, requires philosophy taking a new methodological step by turning to the signs that humanity over the ages has left behind in its action which provide evidence of “the human will,” that is “all histories of the languages, customs and deeds of peoples in war and peace.” The New Science then proposes that:

…philosophy undertakes to examine philology (that is, the doctrine of everything that depends on the human will; for example, all histories of the languages, customs and deeds of peoples in war and peace), of which, because of the deplorable obscurity of causes and almost infinite variety of effects, philosophy has had almost a horror of treating.

And,

This queen of the sciences, by the axiom [314] that “the sciences must begin where their subject matters began,” took its start when the first men began to think humanly, and not when the philosophers began to reflect on human ideas (as in an erudite and scholarly little book recently published [by Brucker] under the title Historia philosophica doctrinae de ideis, which comes down to the latest controversies between the two foremost minds of our age, Leibniz and Newton).

The method of the “New Science” thus requires a thorough study of the writings of antiquity, primarily Greek and Roman. Moreover, one of the most conspicuous feature of Vico’s astonishing originality in the New Science lay in treating Homer as a key to unlocking not only antiquity, but as an aid for identifying different ages in their decline and emergence—the patriarchal giant age of the gods symbolized by the cyclops, and the heroic, which is the primary content of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey—as well as a close philological treatment of other ancient materials, particularly Plato and Roman authors (Tacitus, Varro, Livy, the Twelve Tables, Plautus, Plutarch). But Vico also finds supporting evidence in what he knows of the Egyptians, Germanic tribes, Chaldeans and Scythians in order to detect what kinds of ideas predominated in different ages. Vico also identifies how the ideas and the institutional contexts in which they emerge relate. The following rather lengthy passage provides Vico’s summary of the core insights into the three different major formative ages that his New Science has uncovered as providing the basic, and recurrent stages of the development of the gentiles:

(1) The age of the gods, in which the gentiles believed they lived under divine governments, and everything was commanded them by auspices and oracles, which are the oldest things in profane history. (2) The age of the heroes, in which they reigned everywhere in aristocratic commonwealths, on account of a certain superiority of nature which they held themselves to have over the plebs. (3) The age of men, in which all men recognized themselves as equal in human nature, and therefore there were established first the popular commonwealths and then the monarchies, both of which are forms of human government, as we observed a short while ago.

In harmony with these three kinds of nature and government, three kinds of language were spoken which compose the vocabulary of this Science: (1) That of the time of the families when gentile men were newly received into humanity. This, we shall find, was a mute language of signs and physical objects having natural relations to the ideas they wished to express. (2) That spoken by means of heroic emblems, or similitudes, comparisons, images, metaphors, and natural descriptions, which make up the great body of the heroic language which was spoken at the time the heroes reigned. (3) Human language using words agreed upon by the people, a language of which they are absolute lords, and which is proper to the popular commonwealths and monarchical states; a language whereby the people may fix the meaning of the laws by which the nobles as well as the plebs are bound. Hence, among all nations, once the laws had been put into the vulgar tongue, the science of laws passed from the control of the nobles…

Hitherto, among all nations, the nobles had kept the laws in a secret language as a sacred thing, for it will be found that everywhere the nobles were also priests. That is the natural reason for the secrecy of the laws among the Roman patricians until popular liberty arose. Now these are the same three languages that the Egyptians claimed had been spoken before in their world, corresponding exactly both in number and in sequence to the three ages that had run their course before them. (1) The hieroglyphic or sacred or secret language, by means of mute acts. This is suited to the uses of religion, which it is more important to attend to than to talk about. (2) The symbolic, by means of similitudes, such as we have just seen the heroic language to have been. (3) The epistolary or vulgar, which served the common uses of life.

One major implication of Vico’s work, that would prove enormously fecund for anthropologists as well as historians, is the recognition that reality is never fully encompassed by the social divisions and allotments intrinsic to a specific type of social reproduction. The imagination and institutions, ideas and experience are so closely bound up with each other, that we need to be conscious of the very different “social imaginaries” of different “life-worlds,” as they would later be called. This is also commensurate with us taking seriously ideas of a pre-philosophical ordering of reality rather than dismissing what does not conform to our more philosophical deliberations as mere delusions or superstitions.

With the New Science, Vico was seeking to become to the social and historical world what Aristotle had been to Logic and Newton to Physics: the discoverer of a great continent of learning, which once entered, forever changes how one sees things. We should also note that while Vico speaks of the will (and thus, as Berlin notes, continues in the Renaissance spirit so eloquently expressed by Pico della Mirandola in On the Dignity of Man), the metaphysic is not one of the subsequent idea-ist and voluntarist offshoots of the “will” which promises to set us free from the burdens specific to an age if we allow it flight (as, say, we find with Deleuze’s de-territorial-ization).

Indeed, the ever-conspicuous metaphysical presence of providence in the New Science militates against this. For its regular invocation in the New Science is in large part to demonstrate a profound truth that voluntarism misses: viz, that what we are doing individually and what we are actually doing collectively, or what we will to achieve, and what we actually leave behind of ourselves are not congruent: “…for out of the passions of men each bent on his private advantage, for the sake of which they would live like wild beasts in the wilderness, it has made the civil orders by which they may live in human society.” In so far as good comes out of our willing this is due to powers beyond our ken, and hence beyond our willing, which Vico identifies as Providence. At the same time, Vico does make the famous claim, repeated by Marx to his own voluntarist end:

…this world of nations has certainly been made by men, and its guise must therefore be found within the modifications of our own human mind. And history cannot be more certain than when he who creates the things also describes them. Thus, our Science proceeds exactly as does geometry, which, while it constructs out of its elements or contemplates the world of quantity, itself creates it; but with a reality greater in proportion to that of the orders having to do with human affairs, in which there are neither points, lines, surfaces, nor figures. And this very fact is an argument, a reader, that these proofs are of a kind divine, and should give thee a divine pleasure; since in God knowledge and creation are one and the same thing.

To be sure many of Vico’s philological readings have since then proved unsustainable. In part this also rested on his mistake that because man makes his world, this world might be easier to know than the natural one–for if anything is evident today, it is that in so far as we are all enmeshed in stories, it is no less difficult to move outside of our story-telling situation to really listen to story that comes from another set of appeals, contingencies and ways of seeing and making reality, than it is to be inducted into the natural sciences.

The latter requires intellectual ability, but the former requires a willingness (that far too few are willing to make) of self-dissolution, of getting out of one’s way and own “identity” so that one can open up to another way of being in and viewing the world. Nevertheless, what still rings true is that ‘the inexhaustible source of all the errors about the beginnings of humanity that have been adopted by entire nations and by all the scholars’ is that “whenever men can form no idea of distant and unknown things, they judge them by what is familiar and at hand.”

For when the former [i.e., ‘entire nations’] began to take notice of them [i.e. the beginnings of humanity] and the latter [the scholars] to investigate them, it was on the basis of their own enlightened, cultivated and magnificent times that they judged the origins of humanity, which must nevertheless by the nature of things have been small, crude and quite obscure.

In the main, and prior to David Hume and Thomas Reid, the mechanistic philosophers believed it their job to rescue “experience” from “common sense,” but what Vico has noticed is how human experiences of times long since passed have been taken as confirming or conforming to more contemporaneous philosophical concerns and manners of thinking, something he sees as particularly conspicuous and damaging in the natural law philosophies of Grotius and Pufendorf. That is, philosophers all too frequently reflect upon other times and ages and find there aught but diminished versions of their own philosophical ideas staring back at them. Vico had also understood the challenges that await the “civilized mind” in exploring the poetic sensitivity, unencumbered by the vast array of accumulated experience that develops with numeracy and literature, the division of labour and urban life. Thus, he urged that the philological philosopher needs to “listen” to the “language” which had helped form the social experience of an age and hence was intrinsic to the understanding and “reasons” of its makers, and which is not to be confused with the “reasons” of philosophers:

…the nature of our civilized minds is so detached from the senses, even in the vulgar, by abstractions corresponding to all the abstract terms our languages abound in, and so refined by the art of writing, and as it were spiritualized by the use of numbers, because even the vulgar know how to count and reckon, that it is naturally beyond our power to form the vast image of this, mistress called “Sympathetic Nature.” Men shape the phrase with their lips but, have nothing in their minds; for what they have in mind is falsehood, which is nothing; and their imagination no longer avails to form a vast false image. It is equally beyond our power to enter into the vast imagination of those first men, whose minds were not in the least abstract, refined, or spiritualized, because they were entirely immersed in the senses, buffeted by the passions, buried in the body. That is why we said above [338] that we can scarcely understand, still less imagine, how those first men thought who founded gentile humanity.

In spite of the magnitude of the task, the worlds of different ages are not completely incommensurable for our understanding, rather we need to expand our ideas and understanding in such a way that we can enter into an appreciation of the making of another age. Above all that means philosophy must take a completely different direction than that required by Descartes and the new metaphysics more generally. Although his reputation would grow long after his death, Vico opened up the importance of method for understanding certain kinds of processes and identifying the patterns that may be discernible within them. Indeed, more generally, one of the great achievements of philosophy is to sensitize us to patterns, and hence orders heretofore unnoticed; the temptation, though to be avoided, is to focus so much upon the pattern that one ignores the great array of discordances, the processes of unravelling and turbulence, the “white noise” and “fuzzy logic” that produces a new pattern completely outside our ken and range of anticipations and expectations. But thinking itself, and not just philosophy, works with patterns, as well as with unique persons, events, memories and actions.

Vico had drawn attention to the fact that different ages with their different institutions were built upon different social imaginaries, and he required that our understanding of the “history of ideas” find access to the very different underpinnings of how ideas were made in different ages. Moreover, he also recognized how these patterns would repeat themselves. This was in recognition of the cyclical nature of societies and peoples–the “gentiles”–whose ideational and institutional formations were not based on the attempt to break the cycles of nature, and the “tyranny” of those cycles. Thus, although Vico also invokes the providence of the divine mind, he only occasionally deploys biblical examples.

Scholars have been divided over whether Vico’s cyclical account of the ages which was limited to the gentile nations was a contrivance for avoiding persecution. But there is a strong argument (developed by Franz Rosenzweig in the Star of Redemption without any reference to Vico) that the covenant at the basis of Jewish existence was a unique decision of a unique people with a unique God, whose revelations occurred through time and whose promise was of a time and world to come.

It is true that one can find in Plato’s Laws the germ cell of the idea of providential gods (“being good with all goodness, possess such care of the whole as is most proper to themselves”), and this is later picked up and developed by Plotinus and Proclus. And although Vico’s conception of God as divine mind is more Greek philosophical than biblical, the fully developed idea of providence–as it is in Judaism and subsequently Christianity–goes hand in hand with the revelation in ‘Song of Songs’ (again Rosenzweig draws this point out) that “love is as strong as death.” Daniel will prophesy that the kingdom of gold will give way to inferior kingdoms until finally the earthly kingdom is no more than iron mixed with clay, but “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed; and the kingdom shall not be left to other people; it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever.” In the Middle Ages this prophecy underpinned the notion of the church as the translatio imperii, the church as God’s eternal representation on earth, a testament to the defiance of the birth and extinction of human empires.

Irrespective of Vico’s faith, when we turn to Johann Georg Hamann we find, as Berlin rightly saw, a somewhat kindred spirit to Vico in so far as the importance ascribed to language and the imagination serves as a means to waken us to our sociality and historicity. But whereas Vico has tied his project to the “history of ideas” by opening up philosophy to philology, something Hamann is also doing, Hamann poses a far greater challenge in his restoration of the figurative imagination. And whereas Vico retreated to the distant past to show philosophy its shortcomings, Hamann simply had to point to the world around him as it was still being made by people driven by their biblical faith and their figurative imaginations.


Wayne Cristaudo is a philosopher, author, and educator, who has published over a dozen books.


The featured images shows, “Der Einzug des Königs Rudolf von Habsburg in Basel 1273 (The Entry of King Rudolf of Habsburg into Basel 1273),” painted by Franz Pforr, ca. 1809-1810.

Philosophical Anthropology. Part 2: Johann Georg Hamann, On The Idolatry Of Faith In Reason

There is a great irony in Hume’s fate in so far as the very probablism which he used against religious faith was taken up in Germany by Friedrich Jacobi and Johann Georg Hamann, not only to provide an argument for the inescapable role of faith in life, but also, especially in Hamann’s case, for mounting an argument about the value of the Christian life. So impressed was Hamann by Hume that he translated his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion into German.

The religious Hamann had no delusions about where Hume stood on matters of religion—and in this respect, Hume was on the side of the enlightened, i.e., the enemy who were substituting their metaphysically derived ideas, which is to say, their bloodless version of life, for life itself. Nevertheless, as he would confide to Herder: “Hume [over against Kant] is always my man because he at least honored the principium of faith and took it up in his system.” And to J. Lindner he picks up on Hume’s statement in the Enquiry that because the Christian religion “was at first attended with miracles… even at this day [it] cannot be believed by any reasonable person,” commenting: “Hume may have said this with a scornful or wistful attitude, nevertheless it is orthodoxy and a witness to the truth in the mouth of an enemy and persecutor of the same—all his doubts are proof of his proposition.”

The sceptical Hume, for Hamann, therefore veers into the doubtful territory of faith. Had Hume been a little less prejudiced when roaming around in that territory, he would have had to concede that in it are to be found men and women, like Hamann, every bit as capable of using their reason, and yet also sceptical of reason’s overreach, whose faith, nevertheless, leads them to live the lives they do. In this respect, W.M. Alexander (whose book Johann Georg Hamann: Philosophy and Faith is, in my opinion, the best book, among some seriously good books, on Hamann) observes “Hamann’s problem” is,

the philosophy of his age and how his own thought as a Christian relates to it. How does the Christian exist (and more specifically—in his “authorship”—how does he think authentically as a Christian) in genuine contact with the world. Hamann was one of the first Christian thinkers to recognize that he lived—as did the early Church Fathers -in a non-Christian world—the Church was no longer communicating to “Jews” but to “Greeks.”

The essentially Christian character of Hamann’s thinking stands in striking contrast to what remained an essentially metaphysical position advanced by his friend Jacobi, who had become very famous in Germany with his Concerning the Doctrine of Spinoza in Letters to Herr Moses Mendelssohn. Jacobi had detected the Spinozian (deterministic) influence upon the age, and had countered that faith is an ontological given and a foundation of reason. Furthermore, it was not just, as Kant had argued, a rational element within the moral sphere of life. While an ally of Jacobi with respect to emphasising the inescapable condition of faith in the larger scheme of reason, Hamann was also critical of the latter’s metaphysical philosophizing. Thus, Hamann would pointedly say to Jacobi of his David Hume on Faith: “In the absence of your book I can say nothing further, dear Jonathan [Jacobi!], except to speak of the relation of both of the objects of your authorship to mine: ‘Idealism’ and ‘Realism’ versus Christianity and Lutheranism. Both of the former are, in my eyes, ideal; the latter real.”

While Jacobi, then, wished to ‘demonstrate’ where faith stood in the greater schema of reason and, indeed, philosophy itself, Hamann’s faith was not the result of any philosophical question, but the result of a personal crisis. As a talented young man with prospects, he had been assigned to represent a Riga merchant on diplomatic business. That had proven to be a dead end and after squandering his and the firm’s money on drinking and carousing, and trying to make ends meet as a lutenist, he entered into what was probably a sexual friendship with another young man, whom he subsequently discovered to have received money for sexual favours by a wealthy patron.

Appalled, broke, and solitary he started reading the Bible, and like so many Jews and Christians he came to the realization that it was no ordinary book—but a book that expressed the immediacy of his circumstance and experience, and God’s responsiveness to humanity’s despair and cry. The truths that the book contained, then, were inseparable from the needs and longings and willingness of the reader to respond in kind to God’s love and majesty, which he saw depicted everywhere throughout this book which was part historical chronicle, part testimony, part instruction, part description, and so much else beside. But also, and most importantly, the record of an encounter between the one true loving God and His people, which opened up the believing heart to also encounter the living God, and take up a new life based upon that encounter.

In other words, what Hamann grasped was the fact of faith, and the fact of his faith being tied in with a tradition of experiences and stories and history, and an encounter of exactly the sort that he had experienced. This is obviously a million miles away from what Jacobi was doing, let alone what Kant did when he tackled the problems of God and the soul, and came to the conclusion they were the product of reason’s own dialectical transcendence of our cognitive conditions, a transcendence which is really an illusion, in so far as the conditions only have validity as truth conditions about the things of our world when they apply to the world. This is what Kant called appearances because the things of our world must appear in space and time in order to be experienced. Kant and Hamann had for some time at least been on friendly terms, and Hamann even helped find a publisher for the Critique of Pure Reason (a work, as we see below, he thought completely wrong-headed). For his part, Kant thought Hamann was a Schwärmer, a rapid “enthusiast,” which is, to say, what the British call “a nutter.”

Generally, Hamann’s philosophical contemporaries saw the bible as either a superstitious attempt to make sense of their experiences or a mythic rendering of moral laws—a position which one can only hold until one reads the Bible. Kant read it like this and had to morally reproach Abraham. For Hamann this was missing the whole point, as was the kind of discussion around faith that had involved Jacobi, Kant, and later Hegel: Hamann did not just believe something he read, he experienced his faith completely changing his life. The book made him a different man. Thus, it was not merely a cerebral matter, but a matter of soul, and thus to treat the Bible along the usual lines of scholarly or philosophical interrogation is really to miss what is most essential about it: it would be like saying one had been swimming but one just had not gone into any water.

Note also, that while the enlightened philosophers would question the reality of the object of faith—God—they would treat God as if He were an object, or, as in Kant, once it is conceded that God is not an object like a natural object, as a “mere idea of reason.” Hamann, as with so many of the faithful, does not see God as an object (or idea of reason) at all; God is no more an idea than He is a thing. But, if we are to stay with philosophical language, God is, nevertheless, a condition of reality, not a “logical condition,” but a creator of whom we can only make sense through encounter and engagement. From Hamann’s Lutheran perspective, when we speak of or about God rather than to Him, at least if we are not disposing ourselves as a vehicle of the Holy Spirit, we are already losing sight of Him. This is also why, for Hamann, “if they are fools who in their hearts deny the existence of God, it strikes me as yet more foolish to want to prove him first.”

To repeat, Hamann has invoked God in a completely different manner from the philosophers—for the purpose of the philosophers’ inquiries, God cannot be divorced from the subjects forming their narrative (the philosophers). For philosophers, what Hamann has done by insisting on taking seriously what the book actually does as opposed to what it merely says is to open-up the floodgates that threaten reason (and philosophy) itself. This, as far as Hamann is concerned, not his problem, but their problem, and it stems from their wanting to only look so far at what is going on in our lives and in world. That is, they want to deny God to be as God: what they know is what is—the entire philosophical attempt from Descartes to Kant to lay down what constitutes experience (the laws of nature) is, from Hamann’s point of view, a confirmation of this.

Hamann overturns what he sees as the self-delusion that motivates the enlightenment project—and his thinking returns us to the pre-philosophical disposition. Ancient people did not come to their gods through their powers of reason—because reason, imagination, and world were all intertwined. Thus, too they knew that their gods existed because they were implicated in a world of mutual dependency: sacrifices are as necessary for the gods as for the gods’ responsive beneficence. One might venture that this is as true of the Jews as of every ancient people, as evident in Yahweh’s jealousy and commandment against false gods.

This kind of anthropological understanding renders the kind of clear-cut distinctions of philosophical ideation irrelevant. The kind of truth that this hermeneutical community is engaging with is the truth of their very own existence, which would have no existence apart from the very parables, commands, bonds, and common orientation that is both the content of their faith as well as its condition. Hamann’s faith is, then, indeed the kind of faith to be found in what Hume had called “common-life,” but “common life” as a whole is no longer understood in the abstract as something that can be analytically dissected into the enlightened and superstitious parts; it forms a unity, which is not to say that things people do is beyond criticism—but the pitch of the criticism is always going to come from some human place, and not some ideational “heaven” that can be found by talking and thinking a certain way.

In this respect, Hamann thinks philosophers are victims of their own superstitions. For Hamann, truths that are abstractly constructed, that have not developed within time, literally have no life. Likewise, metaphysical “truths” are at best conjectures, and typically spurious. Only what has life can be true. As Alexander rightly says: “Truth,” for Hamann, “is not primarily and most authentically an idea or text of written words but a concrete historical life.” Likewise, “truth is not an academic possession: it unfolds only in the transition of a lifetime… ‘Truths are metals which develop under the earth.’”

The notion that truth is something that is revealed over time—“by their fruits you shall know them”—requires taking our temporality and historicity seriously. This, in turn, requires conceding that we do not engage with eternal “ideas,” for such an engagement is purely beyond our ken. We and our ideas grow, and hence reveal themselves for what they are in and through and over time—our climbing high to espy the “all” is sand-castle-in-the-air stuff that brings us crashing down to earth. From this perspective, the Platonic cast of mind shares with the metaphysics of modernity a view of the cosmos in which the eternal order of mathematics takes a particular pride of place, but for all that way of thinking can achieve by way of construction and contrivance with merely material “substances,” when it comes to what we hold important in our lives, what we believe in, then, at best, it may be an ancillary, but at worst, it is an elimination of who and what we are. The elective affinity between mathematical and metaphysical thinking is an affinity that draws us away from what we sense and feel, and want.

What we find in Hamann and ultimately makes his legacy so powerful and fecund, is the combination of a resolutely anti-metaphysical disposition with a great sensitivity for the kinds of problems (if not the answers) that are genuinely philosophical. Moreover, because, for Hamann, “All of our knowing is piece-work and all human rational foundations consist either in faith in the truth and doubt of the untruth, or faith in the untruth and doubt of the truth,” we cannot simply divide the world into what conforms to faith and what conforms to reason, as if this kind of bifurcation somehow conforms to some kind of objective disjunction.

Hamann’s antipathy to bifurcation makes him an important influence upon figures such as Herder, Hegel and Schelling for whom dualism was always the source of a more fundamental philosophical problem than a genuine solution. Moreover, for Hamann: “faith is no work of reason, and therefore is subject to no attack by the same, because faith as little happens through reasons as taste and sight.”

The question of the relationship between faith and knowledge and/or reason, and the nature of the relationship between the two would become a key one of the age. Kant would argue that freedom was a matter of rational faith, and that the reason behind identifying the limits of knowledge was primarily to enable that faith so that our sense of moral duty would preside over what merely is by nature. Hegel saw the problem as a symptom of the divided nature of the modern self, which sought knowledge, but could not bear to reconcile itself with the conditions of its own actual achievements of freedom, seeking solace in a beyond accessible to faith, but ultimately a mere empty “should,” ever out of reach and unrealizable.

Hegel’s brilliant critique of the antithesis between faith and knowledge/reason in Faith and Knowledge and tirelessly repeated throughout his corpus makes perfect sense when directed at Kant, Jacobi, Fichte, Schleiermacher, and even Schelling (in so far as he commences with the Absolute’s being and (un-, or dark) ground). For they are indeed operating with conceptual dualisms within a system, and hence too each was seeking some ground or rationally defensible starting point for what was always a metaphysics. But it does not touch Hamann. For Hamann has no interest in providing a rational basis for faith; he has no system. Christianity is not a philosophical system, even if theologians may wish to bring rationality to it for coherence.

The unity of a life is more akin to the kind of unity a body of faith displays (with members in division) than a philosophical system which, from the outset, requires conceptual or ideational consistency. Hamann commences with the fact of his faith and then clarifies how it shapes his life, and the lives of others who live in their faith communities. This is an anthropological move that differs from the neo-Hegelian anthropology of Feuerbach and the young Marx, insofar as the neo-Hegelian appeal to community, freedom, equality is always to an ideational end that motivates the anthropological aspect of their thinking. Hamann, however, emphasises the common anthropological condition, and then compares different bodies with their different faiths (most specifically philosophers and Christians like him).

Just as Hamann’s discussion of faith and reason is distinctly un-metaphysical, his observations about reason is not itself dependent upon an adequate logic of demonstration: reasons come after the fact. As he would write to Kant: “I must almost laugh over the choice of a philosopher for the purpose of bringing about in me a change of mind. I look upon the best demonstration as a reasonable girl does a love-letter.”

While, then, Hamann’s insight about faith and common life is far closer in spirit to anthropology than philosophy, it nevertheless has implications for philosophy, implications which would “rein in” its rationalist tendencies. This is well brought out in a letter to J.G. Lindner, where Hamann would paraphrase (or slightly misquote) Hume and critically compare the enlightened faith in reason with Jewish faith in the Law, and both with Paul:

“The final fruit of all philosophy is the noting of human ignorance and weakness.” This same function, which is related to our powers of understanding and knowledge, shows us how ignorant we are just as the moral shows us how evil and shallow is our virtue. This cornerstone at the same time is a millstone which shatters to pieces all his sophistries. Our reason therefore is just that which Paul calls the Law—and the Law of the Reason is holy, just and good. But is it given to us to make us wise? Just as little as the Law was given to the Jews to justify them, but to convince us of the opposite: how unreasonable is our reason, and that our errors are to be increased by it, just as sin increased by the Law. If everywhere Paul speaks of the Law one puts “reason” (this “law” of our century and the watchword of our clever heads and scribes), Paul will speak to our contemporaries.

For Hamann, when it comes to the kind of knowledge we most need, he wrote to Jacobi: “Sense and history are the foundations and ground—be the former ever so deceptive and the latter ever so simple, I still prefer them to all castles in the air.” Our circumstance is such that what we can think is always either revealed, fragmented, or abstracted: “A reason which acknowledges itself as a daughter of the senses and the material, behold! this is our religion.”

To make thought something more real than the senses is itself to commence a train of abstraction that can all too swiftly leave our language and traditions which have been the means by which collective sense is formed. It is philosophy that, according to Hamann makes “castles in the air.” Or as he put it in another letter to Jacobi—philosophy carries on with “empty shadow-boxing with ideas and speculations against data and facts, with theoretical deceptions against historical truths, with plausible probabilities against witnesses and documents.”

Although all the most reputable Hamann scholars recognize that dismissing Hamann as an “irrationalist” is nonsense, if by that we mean that he does not think reason has any role to play in a life. Beiser puts the matter succinctly when he points out that “The stumbling block of all irrationalist interpretations of Hamann is therefore nothing less than the central thesis” of Hamann’s Socratic Memorabilia: that faith is neither rational nor irrational since reason cannot either prove or disprove it.

What Hamann does is something that no serious philosopher should, or even can, simply dismiss: he identifies reason’s limits as deriving from its dependency upon existence itself, community, history and language. He is not arguing that we should deny what we know or what can be known—but reason is an activity or operation taking place within our lives (a point taken up by Kierkegaard and existentialism more generally): to hypostazise it is to beguile ourselves into thinking that we really know all we would need about what is going on in life, and that we are not surrounded by genuine mysteries, which in Hamann’s case are given meaning through his faith in God and revelation.

For Hamann, one of the more persistent errors of philosophy is to treat reason as “real being,” which it is not, rather than as an activity which we undertake. As he wrote to Jacobi:

People speak of reason as if it were a real being, and the dear God as if the same were nothing but a concept. Spinoza speaks of an Object causa sui and Kant of a Subject causa sui. Until this misunderstanding is removed, it will be impossible to understand one another. When one knows what reason is, all discrepancy with revelation ceases.

Conversely while philosophers may ceaselessly dispute about what reason is, people of faith harken to their God and build their world around that harkening. To be sure once matters of faith becomes theological problems, the same problem occurs; but, if viewed with a more ancient eye, the issue of theological dispute can also turn around the matter of “which God?” is appealing to us and demanding our response—the God that creates, reveals and redeems, or a supra-human (diabolical) power that may be merely devouring us?

In this respect, Hamann’s position can be buttressed by an insight that plays a pivotal role in the work of Rosenstock-Huessy, a genuine progeny of Hamann. For Rosenstock-Huessy saw the problem of his age was not just that people did not believe in God, but they did not have any clue about the gods; only once one concedes the reality of gods—a reality that is witnessed in behaviours, for the gods are not under our command—is one in a position to understand God. For originally the gods are recognized and named, and their communal importance assigned so that they can be followed, summoned, supplicated to, and obeyed (or disobeyed). I will take up this point below.

For Hamann the discrepancy between reason and revelation ceases because revelation deals in contingencies, not metaphysics, which deals in the Absolute. The nature of the Absolute would become the centre of philosophical gravity for post-Kantian idealisms, but Hamann already recognized the problem of this philosophical move before it even takes place when he writes to Jacobi: “Being, faith, reason are merely relations which are not to be dealt with as absolutes; they are not things, but pure academic concepts, signs for the understanding, not things to be admired, but means of helping to awaken and fix our attention.”

If one thinks that the truth of life’s meaning is disclosed through reason itself, then Hamann’s position is absurd. Though it is precisely this question of what reason is and what it can really do that runs through Hamann’s critique of metaphysical thinking. While it is commonplace for philosophers to present people of faith as ignorant, or superstitious dupes as opposed, for example, to Dennett’s “brights,” Hamann’s contrast between the God of “rational salvation” and the “God of historical revelation’ is the contrast between ahistorical abstract thinking taking its cues of truth from “nature” and an historical hermeneutical community taking its orientation from a tradition and its symbols grounded in mystery, creation, miraculous contingencies, covenant, prophesy, love, hope and faith in salvation. The enlightened philosophers can only construe all this through a process of “denuding,” so that what is left is mere “nature;” or rather those features of nature, which accommodate the framing required by the experimental and mathematical conditions that render it a totality of laws.

Spinoza’s breaking down of the emotions into natural drives, which then, along with other natural circumstances, are invoked to make sense of the Bible, exemplifies the process. It is, though, the substitution of a history based upon the understanding as opposed to the history of the imagination, the substitution of what exclusively conforms to law for what is frequently parable, and the substitution of one community’s orientation—the philosophers’ community—for the communities of the Jewish and Christian peoples.

For Hamann the failure to grasp that historical nature is not mere nature, but one in which symbols, imagination, and the gamut of semiotic triggers bind and form communities is a mere prejudice of enlightenment philosophers, and illustrates a major difference between the depth of knowledge about the nature of people and life within the religious tradition that the enlightened are simply blind to because of their own prejudice. Thus, of Lessing’s Education of the Human Race, he writes in a letter to Herder:

A week ago, I took up the Education of the Human Race for the second time… Basically the old leaven of our fashionable philosophy: prejudice against Judaism [i.e. anti-historical]—ignorance of the true spirit of the Reformation [i.e. knowing only philosophical self-salvation].

Another major reason why Hamann is considered an early existentialist is because he revels in the absurd—in a manner that suggests a deep affinity with the British author Laurence Sterne—and he turns the tables on those who would take the absurdity of existence as if it were somehow capable of receiving a rational explanation. And he does this in all manner of ways, from the (seriously) playful nature of his authorship, to his position on language as a miracle, to his critique of the enlightenment as a form of idolatry. The great irony of the power of Hamann’s thought is that it plays the “fool” against reason’s majesty and might, only to expose the threadbare nature of that majesty. Philosophy engages in a substitution racket and takes unreal things as real things—and then it criticizes things we know through the very lives we live, because they do not conform to the unreal schema we have created.

Of course, Nietzsche will make this same point—but the real assessment of any comparison between Nietzsche and Hamann revolves around what one thinks of their respective faiths in the superman or Christian life, and it must be said, Nietzsche’s and Hamann’s radically different views over what the Christian life entails. Hamann would undoubtedly find in Nietzsche’s (and Heidegger’s) reading of Christianity an ahistorical fantasy. Both Nietzsche and Hamann, nevertheless, concur about Platonism being an “enemy” of life, and Hamann’s admiration for Socrates does not extend to the legacy of his greatest pupil, which he sees as an being inimical to Christianity: “Platonism is not the friend but the enemy of Christianity.”

Bearing the above in mind, then, it is true that Hamann was opposed to placing faith in the abstract “reason” of imagined “forms.” And he wrote to Jacobi that “the entire Kantian construction appears to me to rest upon the idle trust that certainty comes ex vi formae [by the power of forms].” Which is to say, he saw Kant’s entire undertaking of the transcendental delimiting of the legitimacy boundaries of our experience in the Critique of Pure Reason as completely wrong-headed.

For the mind to try and understand itself through self-reflection and the study of the “mind” is akin to someone thinking that fish are produced by a fishing rod, (the same analogy is also apposite for understanding why Hamann objects to naturalist attempts to understand language of the sort that he thought his close friend Herder had foolishly undertaken). Why the mind is more knowable than language and experience is itself, though, due to a mistaken faith. And this faith in the mind’s power to oversee itself, is, for Hamann, a blind and blinding faith that suffocates and smothers “life” with its own limited understanding and glaring light. As he would write to Herder: enlightened reason is the reason of “sadduaic freethinkers;” and their “reason is untruth, a superstition.” “Sound reason” exists in their “imagination.” Thus Alexander perceptively observes:

Hamann can sum up his authorship as an “exposure [Entkleidung] and transfiguration” of those who attempt “a violent unclothing [Entkleidung] of real objects down to naked concepts and bare intellectual entities, pure phantoms, and phenomena.”

And,

Hamann’s purpose is to challenge “the despotism of Apollo” [“God of wisdom” i.e., philosophy] which “fetters truth and freedom in demonstrative proofs, principles and conclusions” (II, 272). These things only distort truth, which is not enshrined in any consistent combination of ideas. Truth is the life which became flesh and the Spirit which “justifies and makes alive” (III, 227). God gives life to us in a unity which does not come before us dissected into intellectual abstractions. In His revelation of Himself He concentrates Himself in the unity of one human person. Not only in his thought, but in his style as well, Hamann tries to reflect this concentration and this unity. His style is its own symbolic attack on that way of thinking which “prefers the conceivability of a thing to its truth.
Truths, principles; systems I am not up to. Rather scraps, fragments, crotchets, thoughts.

I might also add here that the similarities between Hamann’s and Nietzsche’s critique of metaphysics and their eschewal of “naked” truth cannot be overestimated—but Nietzsche, unlike Hamann, hails a new metaphysics of will to power because he wants philosophers to be the value creators of the future. For Hamann, the idea that one can philosophically will a culture would be just one further symptom of the derangement of enlightenment faith.

In so far as Hamann is correct to recognize that the “Greek” (i.e., philosophical) mind, with its various “ideas,” names, and way of going about its business had culturally triumphed over the “Jewish” and early Christian spirit, Hamann had no choice than to “speak Greek.” Although he mixed it up with babble and strange tongues to both engage and confuse minds dealing with clarity and distinctness in a world full of lives which rarely offers either. That is, to truly take on what he saw as becoming the dominant faith of the new age on whose cusp he lived, any criticisms which might be heard by the younger generation had to be, at least partially, philosophically shaped. Yet the purpose of his speaking philosophically was to draw philosophy into another, more hermeneutical rather than “rationalist” or metaphysical “camp.”

Moreover, it was not that he thought all philosophical thinking was useless, a point made obvious in his Socratic Memorabilia that shows his serious respect for philosophy which was genuinely inquisitive, yet sufficiently humble to accept reason’s aporias, rather than engage in elaborate rationalisation and abstraction which swiftly becomes an idol of one’s own making. To his friend Lindner he wrote:

An ancient king of Israel believed in an old witch who saw gods mount up out of the earth. Since then, our philosophers have tightly closed their eyes in order not to have to read any distractions to the detriment of nature, and have folded their hands in their laps to pamper their beautiful skin; and it has rained castles-in-the-air and philosophical systems from heaven. Whoever would work his land or build houses, dig up or conceal treasures, must dig in the womb of the earth, which is the mother of us all.

Alexander cleverly observes three major ways in which philosophy appears in Hamann:

Hamann uses the term philosophy in at least three different senses which taken together, point to Hamann’s distinctive conception of philosophy and faith.

1. Philosophy understood as against faith, or as another faith. Often “philosophy” in Hamann means “false philosophy.” Philosophy here is “idolatry.” If he thought of “Rome” and “papacy” as cryptic symbols for the new philosophical “despotism” of the Enlightenment, then perhaps he also spoke of this philosophy as anti-Christ …

2. Philosophy understood as before faith, or better, before Christ. Philosophy here is “ignorance.” This is philosophy which is not yet Christian, but is not anti-Christian or incompatible with faith. Its symbol is Socrates.

3. Philosophy understood as in Christ, or as thinking “from faith to faith.” Philosophy here is “love of the LOGOS.” Much of what he calls “philosophy” in this sense would in modern usage be called theology. An example is in his letter to the Princess Galitzin, December 1787: “Herein [in Jesus Christ] consists the Alpha and Omega of my entire philosophy. More I know not, and do not wish to know.”

What is most original is that Hamann had, at the time of the Enlightened philosophy’s greatest self-assurance, opened up the meaning of philosophy in such a way that we may legitimately inquire after the religion of a philosophy, and not blithely accept the enlightened reading of religion as the outer shell of a philosophy, which could be understood by the “natural reason” of the philosopher, and thus turned against those world and self-making aspects of religion which could be relegated to mere “superstition.” With this insight Hamann had thrown out a philosophical challenge to philosophers from Spinoza through to Hume and Voltaire et. al.

But while Hamann’s madcap style and provocations would ensure acclaim amongst philosophical and literary luminaries, such as, Herder, Goethe, Schelling, Hegel (up to a point), and Jean Paul, his erstwhile friend Kant would fail to recognize anything of genuine philosophical importance in Hamann. And he would write his Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, as if he were oblivious to the significance of his former friend’s challenge, and provide one further enlightened rationalisation for religion being morals for people who could not take their medicine straight, as rational ideas, but who needed the hoopla of ritual to ingest it. But, for Hamann, it was actually morality itself as an object of reason, and (again) the philosopher’s substantiation of a thought process into a “faculty” that was genuinely phantasmic and idolatrous. As he would write to Herder after reading Kant’s Metaphysical Elements of Ethics:

Instead of Pure Reason the talk here is of another phantom of the brain and idol: the Good Will. That Kant is one of our shrewdest heads, even his enemies must admit, but unfortunately this shrewdness is his own evil demon, just as is the case with Lessing; for a new scholasticism and a new papacy are represented by both of these Midas ears of our glorious age.

Just as Hamann saw philosophy in anthropological terms, his hermeneutical apologetics of Christian faith is such that it exposes any such enlightened reductions as vacuous precisely by illustrating how faith orientates, and hence how different faiths orientate differently. Thus, even if one does not share another’s faith, one at least will be able to see how faith incarnates a life and a life-world. This would be an insight that would be of decisive importance for Herder.

Of the various orientations and emphases that lay behind Hamann’s insight into where faith fits in life, one of the most elemental that has important implications in more standard philosophical theologies is his (Lutheran) overturning of the more traditional theo-philosophical account of the “nature” or character and “directionf of the relationship between humans and God. The Greek movement toward monotheism, which would be so fateful in the neo-Platonic and neo-Aristotelian traditions and that wing of the Christian tradition that had been deeply influenced by those traditions, had all identified the soul’s spiritual journey as a process of transcendence, an upward movement of the soul to a God who Himself is characterized by his “transcendence.”

In response to this Hamann makes the obvious point (though one that is rarely expressed within philosophically shaped theologies) about the Jewish and Christian God that “is the basis of all his [i.e., the philosopher’s] attacks” on “natural; theology” and “natural religion”, viz., that, within the biblical narratives, it is not God’s transcendence that is the all-important issue for understanding the human predicament in relationship to God, but God’s “condescension.”

When theologians and philosophers refer to God’s transcendence, a term that evolves out of the Greek philosophical mind rather than biblical tradition, and when they refer to transcendence, without focusing upon the greater mystery of condescension, for Hamann, they not only misconstrue God, but they foster an exaggerated and idolatrous faith in the power of the world. For transcendence, as Alexander sums up Hamann’s position, is “world-oriented,” but the “symbol of ‘condescension’ is God-orientated.” That is the theo-philosophical emphasis upon God’s transcendence means that He is conceived, in the first instance, in relationship to the world, which appears familiar to us. Alexander also uses the example of baroque art to brilliant effect to illustrate what Hamann’s sees as what is at stake when we focus upon the relationship between God and humans as one of transcendence, rather than “condescendence:”

A glance at the art ruling Hamann’s age instantly reveals the source of Hamann’s instinctive objection: its world is one in which reason’s confidence in its position, its powers and its cosmos are self-secure. The world is more real than God. Everything Hamann protests against is here: it is a world in which reason demonstrates its dominance over every nook and cranny of reality. Ornamentation and artistic ramification testify to its self-confidence. No area is beyond its all-shaping power. When God in His “transcendence” is represented, it is “transcendence” (as in Sebastiano Conca’s “David Dancing Before the Ark”) over an otherwise “solid” earth. There is no question here as to what reality is utterly prior—it is man’s world and the human reason which has shaped it—and no amount of “height” in the painting can improve God’s “status.” Divine infinity has disappeared and only a domesticated variety remains.

Alexander adds that commencing with the “world-orientated” theology turns “all symbols into irrational assertions, and theology has simply asseverated that we must be content with this irrationality.”

By starting from the familiar, as natural theology does, to the unfamiliar, we have immediately reversed what Hamann sees as the far more profound insight of revelation; for what we do in the world with biblical faith is commence with something mysterious that is disclosed through parables, stories, commands etc. Moreover, for Hamann, the whole point of the Bible is revealed through how it speaks to its faithful, and the living power it reveals to those who are prepared to build their lives and world through faith in that power. Thus, for Hamann: “Every biblical story is a prophecy which is fulfilled through all centuries and in the soul of every man” (1,315). But also, “Every book is a Bible to me and every occupation a prayer”’ And “All the miracles of the holy scriptures happen in our souls” (I, 78). In other words, Hamann sees the universe as one that is pregnant with meaning. Of course, so does the schizophrenic, but the “gamble” of faith (to draw upon Pascal) lies, for Hamann, not in the origin—for faith in something is inescapable—it lies in what that faith engenders in a life and in a community.

One of the more remarkable features of the Western world today is that while the academic mind so frequently serves the enlightened ideals of freedom, equality, and justice, it has largely accepted the importance of culture as a primordial and positive force of identity. We shall briefly return to this point in our discussion of Herder, but here I simply wish to underscore that Hamann was living at a time when Western culture was undergoing a seismic shift due to philosophy extending into the various domains of human being, which up until relatively recent times it had little, or at best, as in the church, an ancillary role to play.

He had grasped that the world of Christendom and its culture was being swallowed up into a world bathed in philosophical glare. He was not a romantic wanting to revive medieval Christendom, as say Novalis or Frederick Schlegel, or Franz von Baader would become. And he did not idolize culture itself. But what is interesting is that the kinds of arguments he is raising about peoples and their faith, arguments developed and expanded along somewhat similar lines by Herder in applying them to cultures (though I think Hamann always the more radical, consistent mind), have been accepted not only by the more anthropologically inclined and in the humanities more broadly, but in society’s ideas-brokers at large.

Yet when it comes to the West itself, the victory of the enlightened mind is intrinsic to the general historical amnesia, and often sheer hostility, to Christian symbols and history. Hamann’s importance is that he taps into the experiential dimension that makes sense of Christianity as a personal and collective act, by constantly deploying biblical examples to illumine (genuinely enlighten) everyday as well as more perennial kinds of experience.

To put this slightly differently: today we can all accept that the imagination, history, language, and faith of people matter more than the reasons we impose upon them (which is not to say that we have to accept, as Gellner and others have feared that this leaves us without any means of critical judgments about cultural practice). That is, we think culture matters. Hamann opens up the door to why and how faith matters culturally and personally.

For, while Hamann is “up front” about his Christianity and Lutheran outlook, an outlook he not only did not assume his readers shared, and which many of his readers did not share, Hamann undertakes to be a thorn in the Enlightenment, a kind of Christian Socrates against the enlightened philosophers, who, for Hamann, are the sophists of his own time. They come with their own theological dogma and faith in their reason to deliver salvation, which though is largely hidden to them because they think they serve truth, and that the world will be saved through their works. But their truth is a lifeless idol.

What has taken the place of divine infinity is now reason’s infinity: its infinite capacity is the corollary of its absoluteness—whether as a heuristic (Kant) or substance (Hegel) makes no difference to the essential point Hamann recognizes. What, though, is meant to be the philosophical display of reason’s supreme majesty, is, for Hamann, really indicative of the mayhem of the age, a mayhem in which the every-day truths of every-day life are maimed by abstractness.

The most fundamental act of intellectual maiming, for Hamann, occurs through the philosophical cleavages which purport to deliver rationally pure forms and classifications. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, as the name of his short essay on Kant clarified, was symptomatic of this delusional obsession with purity. As Hamann presents the problem, the increasing ascension of philosophical purity has occurred over time at the expense of the most elemental features of human sociality: tradition, custom, belief, religion, law-making, and ultimately language itself.

The first philosophical purification consisted in the partly misunderstood, partly failed attempt to make reason independent of all tradition and custom and belief in them. The second is even more transcendent and amounts to nothing less than independence from all experience and its everyday induction. After a search of two thousand years for who knows what beyond experience, reason not only suddenly despairs of the progressive course of its predecessors, but also defiantly promises impatient contemporaries’ delivery and this in a short time, promises also, of that general and infallible philosopher’s stone indispensable to Catholicism and despotism. Religion will submit its sanctity to it right away, and law-giving its majesty, especially at the final close of a critical century when empiricism on both sides struck blind, makes its own nakedness daily more suspect and ridiculous.
The third, highest, and as it were empirical purism, is therefore concerned with language, the only, first, and last organon and criterion of reason, with no other credentials but tradition and usage.

Yet again, we see a Nietzschean trope—“be true to the earth”—already deployed by Hamann against the destructive incursions of metaphysics into the most elemental features of social life.

Such talk as reason’s grounding or basis alludes to its capacity for building a tower or ladder to better understand the ways of God, the term which still worked for the deists, and, with German idealism, would become equivalent to or more often subsumed under the term the Absolute, before the Absolute would, with Fichte and the neo-Hegelians, and Nietzsche, become the imposition of the human will. For Hamann this overweening ambition and self-idolization—addressed in the story of the tower of Babel—could lead to nothing but disaster.

With great prescience he would see that the disaster would be driven by morality—which was just a veneer for the self-belief that people have in being able to dictate to God’s creation—i.e., life—how it should be: In a letter to Hartknoch he speaks of “our moralistic century” and in another to Jacobi he writes of the “moralistic” enlightened free thinkers as “apostles of lies.” And to Johann Steudel, he refers to “the moralistic generation of vipers among the Pharisees.” This is but one more example of Hamann’s turning of the tables on the men who believed that their own light would save the world—for it is usually Christians who are presented (and indeed often guilty of) grim and earnest moralizing.

For Hamann, “morality, bourgeois righteousness, industrious community service and charities” fueled the problem of evil—and he countered with the simple faith that “Christ is the door.” I think the following sentence will also resonate with those who cannot stand the virtue signaling that has become so widespread and which emanates from people who want for nothing, and who live off the ill-gotten (for they themselves keep saying how ill-gotten everything in the West is) gains of their forefathers, but seek ever more adulation for being who they pretend to be: “A strict moralism appears to me more vile and stale than the most capricious ridicule and scorn. To turn the good inward, and to show the evil outwardly—to appear worse than one actually is, to be better than one appears: this I hold for one’s duty and way of life.”

While Hamann is not strictly a political philosopher, he could see that what the enlightened philosophers were spreading was a suffocating web of tyrannical moralising. Thus, Alexander writes: “The ‘philosophical century,’ a proud epithet to the illuminati of the eighteenth century, Hamann uses as a term of opprobrium. He speaks of the ‘Babylonian philosophy’ which stands under the Confusion of Babel. It is the new “despotism,” a ‘metaphysical, moralizing’ Catholicism, ‘which has its seat in the very place [Berlin] where such an outcry is raised over the papacy.’”

More important than the nausea he felt at the philosophical sycophancy directed at Frederick the Great, and Frederick’s own taste for vain-glory was his prophetic sense of the hellish future emerging from the idolatry of reason’s light. In 1762 when the following passage first appeared it may have seemed the ravings of a lunatic, but in 1794 it was nothing if not prescient:

Nature works through the senses and the passions. But those who maim these instruments, how can they feel? Are crippled sinews fit for movement?—Your lying, murderous philosophy has cleared nature out of the way, and why do you demand that we are to imitate her?—So that you can renew the pleasure by becoming murderers of the pupils of nature, too—Yes, you delicate critics of art!, you go on asking what is truth, and make for the door, because you cannot wait for an answer to this question—Your hands are always washed, whether you are about to eat bread, or whether you have just pronounced a death-sentence.

Such prophecy, for Hamann, stands in the closest relationship to what it was he saw as the real meaning of Enlightenment: a power grab by abstract moralizers who want to become the guides and guardians of their new world. In his Letter to Christian Jacob Krauss he responds to Kant’s essay, “What is Enlightenment?” with its “Sapere aude!” and Kant’s claim that enlightenment is the emergence of people from their “self-incurred tutelage.”

Hamann immediately “smells a rat;” for who is it who espies those in need of emancipation, and what is their role in the process, and what benefits accrue to them in terms of office, profession, prestige and such like? I quote at length because it is such a powerful indictment of the Enlightenment, which comes armed with its own mythology, and which has been used to judge all other mythologies but its own, which it seals with the sanction of a reason that is naught but its own conjuring:

Who is the other lay-about or guide that the author has in mind but has not the heart to utter? Answer: the tiresome guardian who must be implicitly understood as the correlate of those who are immature. This is the man of death. The self-incurred guardianship and not immaturity-
Why does the chiliast deal so fastidiously with this lad Absalom? Because he reckons himself to the class of guardians and wishes thereby to attain a high reputation before immature readers. The immaturity is thus self-incurred only insofar as it surrenders to the guidance of a blind or invisible (as that Pomeranian catechism pupil bellowed at his country pastor) guardian and leader. This is the true man of death-
So wherein lies the inability or fault of the falsely accused immature one? In his own laziness and cowardice? No, it lies in the blindness of his guardian, who purports to be able to see, and for that very reason must bear the whole responsibility for the fault.
With what kind of conscience can a reasoner [Raisonneur] & speculator by the stove and in a nightcap accuse the immature one! of cowardice, when their blind guardian has a large, well-disciplined army to guarantee his infallibility and orthodoxy? How can one mock the laziness of such immature persons, when their enlightened and self-thinking guardian-as the emancipated gaper at the whole spectacle declares him to be—sees them not even as machines but as mere shadows of his grandeur, of which he need have no fear at all, since they are his ministering spirits and the only ones in whose existence he believes?
So doesn’t it all come to the same thing? Believe, march, pay, if the d[evil] is not to take you. Is it not sottise des trois parts? And which is the greatest and most difficult? An army of priests [Pfaffen] or of thugs, hench-men, and purse snatchers? According to the strange, unexpected pattern in human affairs in which on the whole nearly everything is paradoxical, believing seems harder for me than moving mountains, doing tactical exercises-and the financial exploitation of immature persons, donec reddant novissimum quadrantem [till they have paid the last penny].

In this sense, then, the understanding and use of reason is itself corrupted, and philosophers who would have reason devour way more than it can chew, and in their devouring prepare the world for a new kind of hellish tyranny, concealed under the birth lights of rational progress.

In depicting Hamann’s critique of the Enlightenment, let us take up again the earlier point about the gods and the life-worlds of pre-philosophical peoples so that we can bring into sharp relief the world of faith in reason’s ideas and faith in gods. For Hamann is not for a second claiming that we should deny what we know to be true. But (again Nietzsche makes the same point but in a more palatable way to a readership hankering to display its creative genius in world-making), he contrasts one world, which divinizes its ideas without conceding that it does this, with another, which rests on faith about a God it obeys and whose way are miraculous and hence never completely rational or comprehensible.

And he finds no compelling reason whatever—precisely because he takes experience and history as the touchstones of reasons about human matters—for rationalized principles to be taken as completely truthful of anything about us or our world. Whereas Kant had thought he had demonstrated, in defense of human dignity, that the very form of our reason is the clue to how we generate a moral content so that we are not (at least in thought) beholden to the limits of our nature and world, Hamann sees nothing but lunacy in such an aspiration.

Again, the comparison with Nietzsche is apposite: Nietzsche had stressed that behind reasons of value we would find nothing, at least nothing other than a will to power. But for him that meant he and the higher men should see nihilism as an opportune condition so that they could then create a higher culture and breed supermen who would give meaning to the earth.

Hamann would have been caught between nausea and laughter had he read Nietzsche: nausea at the sickening nature of the arrogance and all the deluded blather about great men, and heroes that was so typical of 19th century romantics fearful that the world in the making was as Nietzsche had put it, one fit for nothing more than “hopping fleas;” laughter at the kind of people who sit around and fancy in all seriousness and pomposity that they can provide the conditions for human greatness. He would, though, I think we can safely say, have loved Chesterton’s depiction of the superman as the feathered creature living in Croydon who was so sensitive that a breeze could kill him.

Hamann perhaps speaks more forcefully to us today than to his contemporaries. For we have witnessed what forces the attempt to replace gods with reasons and political actions of the sort pushed for by Nietzsche and Marx have unleashed. And we can also see that the less eschatological rights-driven attempt to replace this world with a morally absolute one, while having success in the West, is not at all embraced in cultures, where traditional values and figurative speech and imagination still are very much alive.

The only God that reason ever overthrew was the God of reason, but that God was itself a philosophical/metaphysical creation. Yet it was the case that as the faith in abstract ideas grew, as people have become more caught up in and satiated by material success, as, to use Weber’s terms, instrumental reason contributed to the disenchantment of the world, Western people have cared less for a “language” and for rituals in which the “gods” were called upon.

But the world’s mysteries do not stop because we are less conscious of them. The pre-moderns, which is to say a great number who inhabit the globe today, had accepted and still accept that the world is full of mysterious powers and thus told stories about their gods. And their gods were the living powers which “overpowered,” or “ruled” over them, and hence the powers to which they supplicated themselves.

Again, let me turn to Hamann’s greatest and most original “pupil” of the twentieth century Rosenstock-Huessy, a thinker who like Hamann challenged the security of the modern mind by his persistent recourse to ancient symbols and “names” to enable it to see with different, and more attuned eyes what was happening in the pre-modern world and to the selves it was shaping, in order to better see what moderns were oblivious to in their own destructive doing. The echoes of Hamann loudly resound in the following passage addressing the perennial and existential nature of human supplication and “divine” invocation by Rosenstock-Huessy:

Manifold are the powers which raise their voices in man. Anything may become his “god”, anything his ‘world.” Atheists, for example, may bring the “concept of God” before their tribunal in the name of their own God, matter. In other words, their God is matter, and their doubts and questions are aimed at a dead thing, the definition of theology. But this heckling of theological concepts has little to do with the name of the living God. A God is present in the materialist’s question as in any other. God is not a concept. He is always a person, and he bears a name. The name in which we are asked to ask others.
For instance, when I ask a sportsman: “How may a good sport do such and such a thing?” I invoke the power of sport. The sportsman in question shall not justify himself for my personal satisfaction. He is summoned to satisfy “Sportsmanship” and Her imperative. I am evading the disagreeable situation of somebody setting himself up as in authority, but putting the Sport on the higher level and myself remaining on the same human level with the other fellow. Yet there can be no doubt that I am relying on the existence of two levels, one of human democracy, the other of ruling powers….
The power who puts questions into our mouths and makes us answer them is our God. The power which makes the atheist fight for atheism is his God. Of course, God is not a school examiner. Man never gives his real answer in words; he gives himself…The gods whom we answer by devoting our lives to their worship and service ask for obedience, not for lip-confession. Art, science, sex, greed, socialism, speed—these gods of our age devour the lives of their worshippers completely.

That the gods preceded man, and that, historically, polytheism precedes monotheism are both indications of how the ancients sought to make sense of their worlds and their selves. Monotheism was, inter alia, a cry for the concordance of these powers to cohere and life and death to be under the dominion of a higher justice and goodness than evident in our mortal experience. This cry for concordance is partly addressed in Egyptian, Greek and Roman mythologies, where the gods belonged to a common “household,” so that these living powers and mysterious surprising forces, for all their discord, share the same “dwelling.” The polytheistic residues are evident, as Rosenstock-Huessy also observes, in the plural Elohim expressing, for the Jews, “the divine powers of creation.”

The modern rebuilding of everything from scratch, the mind’s year zero of Descartes et. al. is at once a reversal of how life has been experienced, and figuratively represented by pre-philosophical people, as well as an occlusion of our fragility and dependency. The initial anti-historical bent of Descartes was quickly replaced by a combination of models and axiomatic philosophical mythical history, so conspicuous, in the social contract theorists, that were indicative of the new myth-making of those relying upon their “natural reason,” and who would interpret history as not only a repository of myth, but as a template for their own projections which were meant to grasp what was really happening in order better to fix it with their philosophies. That is, they preferred their stories to those who had made the past, and reconfigured them in such a way that the earlier stories would fit the templates and models of those who “understood” more and came later, and whose energies were devoted to making a new kind of future.

But if we rely upon our understanding to provide “meaning” of the past we are inevitably drawn back into the mythic. That generation upon generation of historians will revise previous findings of the past as they get closer to the “truth” is invariably the result of the new quest and questioning being posed to the “facts” of the past. But the new quest with its own certitudes—such as the certitude of knowing what is involved in the creation of a less oppressive or more just society (in spite of philosophers ceaselessly disputing the principles and assessments as much as historians dispute the roles and “weights” of different causes and meanings of events)—is itself but the identification and valorisation of ideas of orientation and value that reflect faith in the new god.

Historical knowledge ostensibly provides a firm foundation alongside reason, but its mythic dimension is the inevitable result of us not simply deriving meaning from events, much less interpreting an event as just a collection of itemised or catalogued facts, but us drawing upon events to support the meaning of the world we inhabit. Thus, Hamann surmises against Viscount Bolingbroke: “Perhaps the whole of history is more mythology than this philosopher thinks, and like nature a sealed book, a cloaked witness, a riddle which cannot be solved unless we plough with some other ox than our reason.” And, “The field of history has always seemed to me to be like that wide field that was full of bones, and behold, they were very dry. Only a prophet can prophesy of these bones that veins and flesh will grow on them and skin cover them.”

The reference here to prophecy stands in the closest relationship to another invaluable insight of Hamann, viz., that as we are ever poised between past and future, and as future is making us as much as past is forming us, we are as much implicated in the quality of our prophetic capacities as in our observational ones. Neither our prophetic nor observational capacities are substances. But they are all part of a more general sensorium which informs our understanding, even though we understand very little of how we understand, let alone prophesy, or mediate between past and future.

Our knowledge is indeed in part, and our prophesying in part; united, however, it is a triple cord that is not quickly broken. If one falls, the other will lift up his fellow; if the two lie together, then they have heat. What would all knowledge of the present be without a divine remembrance of the past, and without an even more fortunate intimation of the future, as Socrates owed to his daemon? What would the spirit of observation be without the spirit of prophecy and its guiding threads of the past and future? It rains its gifts on the rebellious also, that the Lord might nonetheless be and dwell among them incognito without their knowledge and will.

And,

Despite the authority of the intellectual universe into presence and absence, I do not pretend that these predicates are anything more than subjective conditions by which no actual duplication of the objects themselves is substantiated, but rather merely a relationship of the diverse views and sides of one and the same thing to the measure of the inward man which corresponds to them, to his negative, variable, finite power which is incapable of any omnipresence because this is the exclusive property of a positive immeasurability.

Likewise, the spirits of observation and of prophecy are expressions of a single positive power which cannot be divorced by their nature but only in thoughts and for the use of thoughts; they in fact mutually presuppose themselves, refer to each other, and have effects in common. Hence when I compared the present with an indivisible point, the duplication of its power and its close connection with the past, as effect, and with the future, as cause, are not at all cancelled.

The enlightened philosophers had indeed put themselves in the role of prophets through their intimation that knowledge in accordance with the philosophical strictures they placed upon it would yield a more benign future. But knowledge is a vast, indeed boundless field, when it comes to trying to identify precisely what will come of what we do. The enlightened philosophers were only as good as the lights by which they operated, and those lights were (to rephrase Pascal) as much of the heart as of the head, the question that Hamann keeps throwing at these philosophers and their philosophers is simply: how much do you really know about the human heart and the human circumstance? Is it really better than the vast compendium of observation across ages, types of people and circumstances, the concatenation of contingencies gathered within the Bible?

Of course, this earlier “knowledge” is not method-dependent, and hence “unenlightened,” but are Spinoza and Descartes, Rousseau and Kant et. al. really more insightful about who and what we are than the biblical authors, or artists such as Homer or Shakespeare? Some do concede they are. But there is no compelling grounds to concede this. Further those who use philosophy to prove the superiority of the philosophical approach to value and existential meaning are only compelling to those who already share their faith in philosophy’s power.

As we saw with the founding of the new metaphysics, it initially takes off by studying nature and reason as such, before moving into ethics, politics, aesthetics etc. But Hume had raised the issue whether the science itself really needed the metaphysics (even though he still drew upon it). For his part Hamann, like Pascal, had the good sense to know that the study of natural science (a subject which he seems to have taken little interest in) was completely irrelevant to the kinds of claims he was making.

On the other hand, he made the critical observation of the Cartesian and post-Cartesian view of nature that is at once the kind of pre-philosophical observation any person sensitive to “nature” could make, and also central to the phenomenological critique of reductive naturalism and its metaphysics. The following collection of citations from Hamann all bring out different features of this insight, and give a sense of how important it is to Hamann:

Only a “bloody-lying philosophy” pretends this is all to nature, and thereby sets nature aside
Nature is an equation of an unknown quantity, like a Hebrew letter without vowel-points. It is a book, a letter, a “fable.” It takes more than physics to exegete her).
The great and small Masoretes of philosophy have poured over the text of nature like a flood. Must not all her beauties and riches be reduced to water?
Is nature a matter of “single, natural points to which everything reduces itself? Does everything consist of mathematical lines?”
Nature groans under such tyranny and longs for the day when it will be free of man’s fallen condition.

Just as Plato had moved from the study of the cobbler to reasoning about how we should live, and the nature of the entire cosmos, the new philosophical idea-ism had quickly moved from the study of “nature” and “mind” to all else beside. But such a move requires ignoring the very different (to use Wittgenstein’s formulation) “rules” of different “language games.”

And it is precisely when we take stock of the unavoidable fact that reasoning, whilst not denying ‘blazes’ of insight, or the mute thereness of all manner of contingencies, nor, even, the importance of silence in reflection, is operating in a world made by and smothered in the calls and behests, the promises and decisions, the education within a “problematic” and field of learning with its historical development, and concatenation of support structures, professional opportunities, that is to say in the vast formative, triggering, incubating and commanding powers of language enmeshed in assigned roles and circumstances, the understanding of which circulates socially.

As Hamann would write: “If I were only as eloquent as Demosthenes, I would need to do no more than repeat one phrase three times: reason is language, Λόγος; this marrowbone I gnaw and will gnaw myself to death over it.”

Hamann’s conviction that reason cannot be divorced from language, and that human life is so bound up with language that one cannot “transcend” it to make any sense of actual lives, and “life-worlds” stands in striking contrast to the idea that the mind “uses” language as a tool is an elementary, albeit widely held belief that is found in philosophy. Whether Hamann followed all the conceptual twists and turns of the first Critique and how they related to Aristotle, Leibniz, and Newton is impossible to gauge from his pithy critique of Kant and comments expressed in letters, but he certainly recognized immediately that Kant had treated reason as if language were not intrinsic to reason or even the world. Commencing with a paraphrase of Kant’s question, he observes:

How is the faculty of thought possible? the faculty to think right and left, before and without, with and beyond experience?—then no deduction is needed to demonstrate the genealogical priority of language, and its heraldry, over the seven holy functions of logical propositions and inferences. Not only is the entire faculty of thought founded on language, according to the unrecognized prophecies and slandered miracles of the very commendable Samuel Heinicke, but language is also the centerpoint of reason’s misunderstanding with itself, partly because of the frequent coincidence of the greatest and the smallest concept, its vacuity and its plenitude in ideal propositions, partly because of the infinite [advantage] of rhetorical over inferential figures, and much more of the same.
Sounds and letters are therefore pure forms a priori, in which nothing belonging to the sensation or concept of an object is found; they are the true, aesthetic elements of all human knowledge and reason.

That Kant had privileged mathematical physics over the vast expanse of the world “experience,” thereby creating a hiatus between “morality” and “experience,” each with their own transcendental foundations adding support to metaphysical principles, whilst also making the faculty of (aesthetic and teleological) judgment a mediator between two worlds, is completely in keeping with the Cartesian break with experience as historical. Thus, conceptualisation of experiences in Kant, governed by the understanding in conjunction with its intuited representations, draws upon a mental disposition to reality, which has nothing to do with the actual social processes involved in the demarcation of different spaces of investigation, role reciprocation, and the great amalgam of activities and other dispositions (mental as well as physical and social) where tradition and language reinforce each other. But it is precisely these kinds of convergences that Hamann notices. Thus, in his Essay on an Academic Question, (published under the pseudonym Aristobulus) Hamann writes:

The lineaments of a people’s language will therefore correspond with the orientation of its mode of thinking, which is revealed through the nature, form, laws, and customs of its speech as well as through its external culture and through a spectacle of public actions.

It is through speech that we take notice, that we form not just groups, but communities beholden to publicly declared commitments and associations, thereby leaving the eternal present of mutability or more elemental languages of mere animality, and move between past and future, as generations may “feed off” the discoveries and legacies, as well as errors of the past. “Speak that I may see you!—This wish was fulfilled by creation, which is a speech to creatures through creatures; for day unto day utters speech, and night unto night shows knowledge.”

But, for Hamann, speech does not thereby elevate us to the all-seeing position of a Zeus, or deist’s philosophical God, which the philosopher would love to reach, and which may free us from error. On the contrary,

To speak is to translate—from an angelic language into a human language, that is, to translate thoughts into words—things into names—images into signs, which can be poetic or curiological, historic or symbolic or hieroglyphic—and philosophical or characteristic. This kind of translation (that is, speech) resembles more than anything else the wrong side of a tapestry:
And shews the Stuff, but not the Workman’s skill, or it can be compared with an eclipse of the sun, which can be looked at in a vessel of water.

Or, as Paul put it, we experience the world as through a glass darkly. And while our senses do indeed convey information to us, it is our galvanization of collective and collaborated experiences that enables us to make sense of our senses. Thinking that reason somehow provides the all-knowing vantage point, makes no sense at all to Hamann, because reason can only work with the materials at its disposal, and apart from sensation it is primarily language. Thus, he writes to Jacobi:

With me it is not so much the question: What is reason? but rather: what is language! And I take this to be the basis of all paralogisms and antinomies which it is customary to lay at the doorstep of the former [the reason]. Thus, it happens that one takes words for concepts, and concepts for things themselves. In words and concepts no existence is possible which applies simply to things and matters of fact.

Language is simultaneously the storehouse, retriever of all past knowledge and past experience, as well as what activates so many of our moods and aspirations for the future—it speaks from and of the inner as well as the outer. We did not make language any more than we made our hands or feet or heads. Yet, at the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, we are making and remaking it all the time, just as it is making and remaking us. It is the source of our reason as much as the source of the abuse of reason, and much else. But it is also miraculously bestowed, rather than willed, and it grows and activates far beyond any limits of intention. It is alive with spirit. The divine word and the Holy Spirit are, for Hamann, both intrinsic to the faith that is deeply experiential and antithetical to a more abstract way of thinking based-on separating our participation in life from life as objectified.

Hamann had seen and amply demonstrated that the seam of biblical speech fitted the very condition that anything real has: potency. And the reality of something is its truth. Plato had conceded that even as he attempted to bifurcate reality into the higher and lower, the idea and that which participates within it. As did Aristotle, who distanced himself from this dualism of Plato, as he tried to conjoin the aspects of what made the real in such a way that it would remain within the province of philosophy. This required designating what was substance and what mere accident so that we could compare and inquire into substances.

But both Plato and Aristotle elevate the mind and definition in tandem with the idea and substance. The proof, though, of a process resides neither in our understanding nor defining—again that is what Hamann knew and appealed to. Of course, there are philosophers in moral philosophy who follow some variant of Kant’s dualism in which the truth of a principle is in its rational grounding—the world and all in it hence must be shrunken in order to conform to an overarching morally rational principle. Which only serves to show exactly what Hamann knew—that a madman is not to be divorced from the contingency he loves by the demonstration of his madness. He or she must be won over by loving another contingency.

Hamann plays the madman because he thinks we are all a little mad, and the maddest are those who believe in their own purity and rational certainty; they have found the perfect means of convincing themselves that the unreal is real. Contingency, though, including the contingency of our feelings, memories, “prejudices,” schooling, allegiances etc. are enmeshed in our convictions and willingness to change our minds.

Hamann grasped that the way the world is spoken of becomes the way the world is: this speaking is through commands and decisions, oaths and affirmations, loyalties and obligation, the creation of masters and protectors and commanders. When the heart goes bad, it may still, indeed, in some cases only then open itself enough to be saved, which is a Jewish and Christian idea; but to believe that the heart might be able to escape sin, that it will not mess-up, is a philosopher’s moral fantasy, that rests upon principles and ideas being substitutes for who we really are, what we do and what we believe, and what tempts us and what saves us.

The Enlightenment with all its hope has been one current in the formation of a modern world that for many is experienced as a hopeless, loveless, isolating, selfish enterprise. Just as language is the clue to our world making, to how we beckon and call, describe, and evoke, draw others into social projects whether to hold a meeting, build a bridge, follow a career, go to war, make a law, buy a product and engage in any number of actions, the poor use of language is also responsible for all manner of errors and seductions. It is not that we think without language, but the language we think with may not be its best usage.

The philosophers of the Enlightenment elevated the mind, but generally either ignored or objectified language as in the study of linguistics. This is because it puts demands upon the world to be represented in sufficient clarity and distinctness that we know what things really are, as opposed to what we merely think and say they are. Mystery dissolves under the glare of enlightenment. And the danger of the idea of enlightenment itself was that it tore us out of the traditional gatherings and collective experiences and the sediments of that gathering in language and promised redemption through abstraction.

To be sure, the radical nature of the search for light had taken on such momentum because of the scale of carnage of the religious wars and Thirty Years War, as well as the new pathways of life that accompanied the Reformation, and the new modalities of social power which required political articulation. While, then, the Enlightenment was itself a reaction to, and symptom of a tradition in crisis, the fact was that Hamann could also see a catastrophe of enormous magnitude incubating in the solution, which is why he sought to temper the philosophical abstractions that were carving out a new future with the more figurative traditional spiritual stock and forces of Christian culture.

Hamann’s friend and admirer Herder would attempt to bring those “forces” of culture back into philosophy. In this respect he more than Hamann continues in the vein of Vico.


Wayne Cristaudo is a philosopher, author, and educator, who has published over a dozen books.


The featured image shows, “The Cult of Reason being celebrated at the Notre Dame, Paris,” anonymous engraving, 1793.

Philosophical Anthropology. Part 3: Why Herder Matters

1. Herder And Philosophical Anthropology

Like Hamann, Johann Gottfried von Herder has remained a peripheral figure in the history of philosophy, often (and irrespective of the mounting number of books and articles demonstrating the folly of this oversimplification) wrongly caricatured as an irrationalist, nationalist and relativist. As with Hamann he does not fit the more common arc of the history of philosophy that moves from Descartes, Spinoza, Locke and Leibniz to Hume and Kant, through Fichte, Schelling and Hegel.

Although, due to Herder’s Spinozian organicism (and its fusion with Leibniz and Shaftesbury), and his metaphysical arguments for the centrality of attractive and repellent forces, the claim that there is a point of “indifference,” that nature is an organic whole of gradations, along with his preoccupation with the spirit of peoples, many of his ideas (though to be sure thrown-off and applied rather than systematically developed) are firmly imprinted in Schelling and Hegel.

Nevertheless, Herder’s approach is so contrary to systemic closure that his absence in Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy should not be surprising: for ultimately philosophy in Herder is so closely allied with the vast expanse of human sensibility and knowledge more generally that it makes it difficult for philosophers to know exactly what to do with him. Thus, it was that Kant, Herder’s former teacher, in his first review of Herder’s Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind, chastised him like a schoolboy for his lack of philosophical rigour: “Our resourceful author should curb his lively genius somewhat, and that philosophy, which is more concerned with pruning luxuriant growths than with propagating them, should guide him towards the completion of his enterprise.”

For his part, when Herder was his student he had been deeply impressed by Kant, and had even read a poem of his in class lauding his teaching. But, Kant’s critical philosophy was symptomatic of the depth of division between their respective philosophies. Whether in the analytic or the continental and poststructuralist tradition, Herder has remained largely out of sight and mind. It is true that Heidegger did give a graduate seminar on Herder’s work, On the Origin of Language, in 1939 which has now been published and translated as, On the Essence of Language: Concerning Herder’s Treatise On the Origin of Language—but this treatise is not only a mere slither of Herder’s corpus, it represents a position Herder later came to see (largely due to Hamann giving him a blast) as mistaken.

If it is Kant and his successors rather than Herder that has been incorporated into the larger body of philosophy, Herder was, nevertheless not only a decisive figure in the formation of the golden age of German letters, commencing but moving far beyond Sturm und Drang, but also a major influence in nineteenth century movements outside of Germany such as Emerson’s Transcendentalism, English romanticism, the Oxford movement, the pre-Raphaelites, and figures, such as, Ruskin and Carlyle.

Within Germany, there was hardly any contemporary cultural figure Herder did not engage with personally—Lessing, Klopstock, Winckelmann, Jacobi, Lavater, Mendelssohn, von Haller, Schiller, Abbt, Nicolai, Lenz, Wieland, Merck, Gleim—a “who’s who” of German letters of the time. He was Goethe’s greatest educator. And after Goethe had broken with him—due to Herder’s intolerable rudeness toward him—Jean Paul would make himself his “student.”

Likewise, there is no subject that did not interest him. In every way, he defied conforming to a type. He was an inspiring pastor, rather than a university professor; an inspirer of poets, translator and literary critic, rather than a poet (he wrote many poems, but they are not what make him important); a philosopher generally unacceptable to other philosophers; the author of a philosophical anthropological history, rather than a historian as such; a Christian and a Spinozist (and hence too a major figure, along with Goethe, in the Romantic rendering of Spinoza); a disciple of Hamann who, nevertheless, does not share Hamann’s hostility to metaphysics; a lover not only of Hebrews and Winckelmann’s Greece, but of all human cultural achievement. Few had read so widely and deeply about the various “spirits” of the ages and across the globe, or indeed, as his Adrastea illustrates, European political history and genres of expression of the eighteenth century.

I should also mention that there has always been a current of interest in Herder in the English speaking world, beginning in 1800 with what remains the only complete translation of Herder’s Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit by T. Churchill (translated as Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man).

By far the most comprehensive and detailed examination of Herder’s life and thought in English is Robert Clark Jr’s extremely thorough Herder: His Life and Thought. It is also the case that work on Herder is now more intense than ever, and with such landmark studies as the recent edited collections by Hans Adler and Wulf Koepke, Companion to the Works of Johann Gottfried Herder, and, Anik Waldow and Nigel De Souzas’s Herder: Philosophy and Anthropology (also an edited collection); as well as a number of quality works by F. M. Barnard, Michael Forster, John Zammito, Sonia Sikka, Vicki Spencer and others, Herder’s intellectual importance no longer need be a forgotten secret.

Yet the fact remains that Herder is still something of a minor philosophical figure in a time when the appetite for German eighteenth and nineteenth century philosophy has never been greater. Perhaps nothing is more indicative of this state of affairs than the fact that while there is now a reasonable selection of his works available in English, such major works as his Letters on the Advancement of Humanity (with the exception of some letters), his two large and important critiques of Kant: Understanding and Experience: A Metacritique of the Critique of Pure Reason, and Kalligone, his critique of Kant’s Critique of Judgement, as well as his encyclopedic Adrastea have not been translated. Though there is a reasonable amount of German secondary literature on Herder’s writings on Kant, his critique of Kant remains largely ignored in the English-speaking world, and most of the German material tends to side with Kant. More’s the pity, for Herder rightly saw that the Kantian legacy is one in which people who do not know or feel enough (aesthetics) are all ready to pass judgment as if they were reason incarnate.

If, we are looking for the key to what holds Herder’s work together, there is much merit in Nigel DeSouza’s claim that “Herder’s thought as a whole is best seen through the lens of the term ‘anthropology:’ all his writings on literature, the arts, history, language, religion and education have at their center the aim of understanding human beings.” Herder himself writes that: “Philosophy is drawn back to Anthropology.” Nevinson’s observation, which defines Herder via negation, is no less astute: “Herder was neither a priest, nor a poet, nor a philosopher.”

Herder’s genius is the genius of intellectual openness, and insatiable interest. He has the same spirit of endless humane curiosity that makes Herodotus the world’s first historian and anthropologist—though Herder took inspiration from almost everyone and everything he read, even if he could be a savage polemicist. Indeed, when it came to philosophical inspiration for his ideas, he was an enormous sponge soaking up—and refashioning for his own purposes—all manner of contradictory intellectual influences, which he combined into a philosophy which was uniquely his. Thus, along with Hamann, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Shaftesbury, he incorporates the pre-critical Kant, Rousseau, Bacon, Vico, Montesquieu, Thomas Abbt, Locke, Newton, Baumgarten, Plato, and pretty much everything else he could get his hands on.

Ultimately it is the integration of philosophy, anthropology, literature, history, religion, natural science and the recognition of humanity as culturally constituted, and culture itself as temporal (cultures are born, live and die) as well as spatial habitats that makes Herder our contemporary. Paradoxically, in spite of falling far behind Kant or Hegel in terms of direct philosophical influence, he is more our contemporary than either of them. For while their genius is indisputable, each come to grief through the limits of making what they know dominate their respective systems.

While Kant has the advantage over Hegel of making systemicity a heuristic rather than Absolute, in the overall scheme this matters little—for Kant’s philosophical inquiry is based upon the fabrications that have already been philosophically prepared for it, i.e. the transcendental conditions, and accompanying cognitive sources Kant believes he has been the first to successfully isolate within the greater orb of reason, while Herder consistently held that the mind and soul cannot be divorced from the gamut of physiological forces which provide its great “sea of inflowing sensuality which stirs the soul, which supplies it with material.” Hence contra the lineage that links Descartes with Kant: “One will never get deeply to the bottom of these forces if one merely treats them superficially as ideas that dwell in the soul, or, worse still, separates them from one another as walled compartments and considers them individually in independence.”

The Newtonian base-line of the first Critique, when taken in conjunction with the account Kant provides, and the orientation required to build up our concepts so that they match our intuitions, serves for what is ultimately a very narrow funnel for a more enlightened understanding of the world, and the kind of knowledge we have of it. The epistemological foundation, and underlying ontology, of theoretical knowledge is theoretical physics, hence the touchstone of human knowledge is supplied by the disposition of the inquirer, whose own participation in reality, is also “theoretically” limited to that of observer and crafter of models for testing and confirming the laws of nature.

Of course, this is then subordinated to the moral aspirations and ideas of the rationally moral “free” subject. The Critique of Judgment belatedly comes to rescue the subject from the isolation of moral freedom, by conceding that the sensory side of the subject may be awakened to what is beautiful and sublime, and be permitted to deploy a heuristic for the purposes of identifying ends within natural processes, and a moral purpose within history. Hamann, Herder, Schelling, Hegel all react to Kant’s compartmentalizations and the transcendental “funnels” of the self’s mental activities as simultaneously failing to provide anything more than a mental spectre of the unity we experience in action, as well as the vast body of knowledge—including the scientific knowledge of nature that falls outside Newtonianism or biology—that refuses to be funneled into Kant’s compartments.

Hegel is closer to both Hamann and Herder in simultaneously valorising the underlying unity we provide for our imaginings, knowledge and experiences whilst rejecting the fissures Kant requires to ensure claims be allocated to the compartments philosophy has created. Nevertheless, whereas Hegel’s Absolute requires perfect knowledge at every movement of its dialectical development (even if, to save him from himself, Hegelians avoid this or purport, in spite of all Hegel’s claims to the contrary, that this is not the case), Herder’s philosophy is developmental and dialogical, provisional rather than complete, an aspiration for further conversableness.

Schelling’s anti-Hegelian combination of the contingency of being, and the irruptiveness of freedom is closer to Herder, but, unlike Herder, his philosophical labour is so tightly aligned with his metaphysical conundrums and explorations that one is interminably drawn back into the cosmic inwards of his system. That is, whether Schelling is exploring nature, the arts, mythology or revelation, the demonstration of his system with its key principles shapes the directions and developments of his corpus.

Again, Herder is not sufficiently beholden to philosophy for such a conceit: although there are recurrent philosophical decisions and metaphysical ideas that drive his work—such as organic relationships, providence, force, sensation, physiology, language—he assembles philosophical positions to enhance the “understanding” of the material under observation so that the different groupings best be compared and learnt from. The primary purpose is always to make our inquiries contribute to a better understanding of the world and the cultures and peoples who constitute it.

Far from being inconsistent with his opposition to system-building, this is all part of a programmatic undertaking for philosophy, rather than the marshalling of evidence to confirm the principles of exploration as such. That Hamann could respect and intellectually support Herder in spite of sharing none of his metaphysical speculations is indicative of the intellectual openness of his philosophical deployments. (Hamann commented that Herder’s God, Some Conversations was a “Schuhu, a great horned owl that had better creep away and hide itself in the dark.”
While Nietzsche emphasises that truth is grounded in perspectivism, Herder can be seen as something (but only something) of a kindred spirit in opposition to abstractions that simply ride over the social, historical and cultural (“spirited”) habitats which supply people with their understanding and ideas about life and what has value.

But Herder wants to take to the open seas to “gather” as many perspectives as humanly possible. Nietzsche also uses the metaphor of open seas—but outside of his beloved Greeks, and the rather slim pickings he takes from European history and elsewhere, as in his appeal to the Book of Manu, Nietzsche’s dreams of supermen and higher men, alongside his divide between master and slave morality leaves him little need to leave his (and Zarathustra’s) mountains.

Nietzsche, in spite of his opposition to Platonisms of all sorts represents the terrible tendency of idea-ism—which, connects him with Marx, and the 68 generation, viz., intellectual self-satisfaction with the very little knowledge one actually has, and complete self-assurance that this knowledge of the world and people suffices for dictating a future that the people of the world need to make a better world. For his part, Herder could never know enough. The ambition and the urge, confirmed by the sheer depth and breadth of the subject matters of his corpus, is expressed with youthful exuberance in his Travel Diary of 1769 where he writes of the thrill of travelling (in mind as well as body), whilst contrasting the world and all its inexhaustible richness with the situation of the everyday life of the scholar.

On land one is chained to a fixed spot, and restricted to the narrow limit of a situation. Often the point is the student’s chair in a musty study, a place at a monotonous boarding-house table, a pulpit, a lectern. And the situation is often a small town, where one is an idol of an audience of three, to whom alone one pays attention, and a monotony of occupation in which one is jostled alike by conventionality and presumption. How petty and restricted do life, honor, esteem, desire, fears, hate, aversion, love, friendship, delight in learning, professional duties and inclination become in such circumstances; how narrow and cramped the whole spirit in the end!

The Diary itself is a great sea of ambition and enthusiasm, a life-long project requiring him to know all he can, to answer the countless questions he raises about—pretty-well everything. At one point he exclaims:

What a work on the human species! The human spirit! The culture of the earth! Of all spaces! times! Peoples (Völker)! forces! mixtures! forms! Asiatic religion! And chronology and policing (Polizei) and philosophy! Egyptian art and Philosophy and policing! Phoenician arithmetic and languages and luxury! Everything Greek! Everything Roman! Nordic religion, law, customs, war. Honour! Papal time, monks, learning, North-Nordic-Asiatic crusaders, pilgrims, knights! Christian heathen awakening of learning! France! English, Dutch, German form! -Chinese, Japanese politics! Natural science of a new world! American customs etc.—Great theme: the human race will not pass until it is all done! Until the genius of luminosity is traversed! Universal history of the world!

A no less ambitious account appears in the same work:

Let my first prospect be the study of the human soul, in itself and in its manifestations on this earth; its strains and stresses, its hopes and satisfactions, its influence on a man’s character and on his conception of duties; in short let me discover the springs of human happiness. Everything else is to be set aside whilst I am engaged in gathering materials for this task and in learning to know, arouse, control and use every motive force in the human heart, from fear and wonder to quiet meditation and gentle day dreaming. For this purpose, I will collect data from the history of all ages: each shall yield to me the pictures of its own customs. Usages, virtues and vices, and its own conception of happiness; and I will trace them all down to the present and so learn to use them rightly. In every age—though each in a different way—the human race has happiness as its objective; we in our own times are misled if, like Rousseau, we extol ages which no longer exist and never did exist, if we make ourselves miserable by painting romantic pictures of these ages to the disparagement of our own instead of finding enjoyment in the present.

The critical reference to Rousseau, the warning against extolling ages “which no longer exist and never did exist,” and the dangers of idealizing other peoples and ages for the purpose of criticising one’s own nation and age is indicative of Herder’s desire for a well-informed understanding of what humanity has actually achieved in its diverse ways of world-making, in the context of its material, physical, social, and historical conditions. Herder realized that he was laying out a research project rather than providing anything like a final reckoning. Thus, in the Preface to what (among many contenders) is probably his magnum opus, Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man he writes:

He who wrote it, was a man, and thou who reads it, art a man also. He was liable to error, and has probably erred: thou hast acquired knowledge, which he did not and could not possess; use, therefore, what thou canst, accept his good will, and throw it not aside with reproach, but improve it, and carry it higher. With feeble hand he has laid a few foundation stones of a building which will require ages to finish: happy, if when these stones may be covered with earth, and he who laid them forgotten, the more beautiful edifice be but erected over them, or on some other spot!He who wrote it, was a man, and thou who reads it, art a man also. He was liable to error, and has probably erred: thou hast acquired knowledge, which he did not and could not possess; use, therefore, what thou canst, accept his good will, and throw it not aside with reproach, but improve it, and carry it higher. With feeble hand he has laid a few foundation stones of a building which will require ages to finish: happy, if when these stones may be covered with earth, and he who laid them forgotten, the more beautiful edifice be but erected over them, or on some other spot!

In the penultimate paragraph of the Preface, he will even refer to the book as his “infantile attempt.” To be sure, his hope that such a building might be completed “before the end of the chiliad, if not in the present century” reflects a providential view where our participations might somehow form a whole to be completed, thus underestimating the importance of the ever-changing temporalities intrinsic to the dialectical relationship between who is exploring and what is being explored. But ultimately, it is Herder’s opening of the vista of ideas, and his provision of an opening for doing philosophy, rather than the prospect of any closure that makes him so important. Although he displays little interest in the technological side of Bacons’ programme), he esteems Bacon for his emphasis upon the empirical study of the natural world around him.

Thus, the opening chapters of Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man, commencing with the chapter “Our Earth is a Star among Stars,” are intended to supply the most up to date relevant scientific details of what we know about the natural conditions which give rise to life, and its organic forms, on earth before he focuses more upon “man” and his powers and habitat. Like Vico, Herder’s project requires listening to peoples of the past, to learn from them how they have gone about their “business.” And like Hamann he appreciates the centrality of language, and tradition. But it also requires a conversation between traditions in the context of them becoming contemporaries in a new world.

Further, Herder is driven both by a desire to understand as well as educate so that we may better appreciate the vastness of human experience, especially human achievements across ages, peoples and “nations” and cultures. In this respect he is dedicated to the project of moral and political advancement for the purpose of creating more peaceful conditions, and a richer deployment of the powers of the human spirit. But he is ever cautious of the dangers of adopting the higher moral ground for instructing those whose material and spiritual habitats have thrown up very different circumstances, problems, as well spiritual resources for dealing with their situations. Different habitats have required, and frequently still require very different responses from those appropriate for our “life-world.” The danger with abstraction, in part at least, lies in the failure to adequately appreciate the different constituent conditions which need to be understood if we are to understand what we are talking about, or what is a requisite of any “talking with.”

While empirical material is of the essence, Herder does see philosophy as an important means for improving our judgment in order to have a better (a clearer and more distinct) comprehension of what we are dealing with. Philosophy’s role is largely to assist in the organising of the material. Thus, in the Fourth Grove of his Critical Forests, he says:

The essence of philosophy is to entice forth, so to speak, ideas that lie within us, to illuminate into distinctness the truths that we knew only obscurely, to develop proofs that we did not grasp clearly in all their intermediary steps. All this requires judgments and inferences, judgments that start from the comparison of two ideas and are developed through a series of inferences until the relation of these ideas to each other becomes evident. Herein lies the essence and formative power of all philosophy: that through it I can see manifestly, certainly truths I did not see before at all, or at least not as clearly, not as distinctly; that through it I can form judgments of taste with a certainty and distinguish beauties in a light in which they had not appeared to me before; that through it I can view the origin, form, and consequences of the essence of good and evil in a manner that I simply had not glimpsed before. Such is the plastic power of philosophy.

Closely related to this role for philosophy is a view of ideas that is very close to Leibniz’s emphasis upon perception being a continuum in which clearer ideas are rooted in more obscure ideas and perceptions which are, nevertheless, in spite of their obscurity formative of the mind. In the Fifth Collection of his Letters on the Advancement of Humanity, number 61, what he writes of Leibniz well applies to himself: “There is nothing I admire more in this great, impartial soul, who his whole life joyfully adopted everything which served any part of science.” For all of his deep debt to Leibniz, though, which includes him not depriving sensation of intellection at its elemental levels, and his appreciation of Leibniz’s ability to always look for the best in a position, there is none of Leibniz’s logicism. Likewise, he refrains from accepting the idea that monads are completely self-contained and windowless.

But, as in Leibniz, the sharpness of distinction between reason and feeling is blurred for Herder. For a feeling has its reasons. This does not mean that Herder makes feeling everything, but it is allied with the importance he ascribes to aesthetics in intellectual development, and also it is indicative of an important difference between him and Kant on the matter of representations. Kant’s critical philosophy works in close conjunction with the problem of the fit between a “model” of the sort that is required for investigations in physics and brings together mathematics and the isolation of variables. From Herder’s perspective such a belated process of intellection cannot be taken as providing a clue to the ground of experience. Thus, in the same work, Herder writes:

The whole ground of our soul consists of obscure ideas, the most vivid and most numerous ideas, the throng from which the soul prepares its more refined ones; these obscure ideas are the most powerful mainsprings of our life, make the greatest contribution to our happiness and unhappiness. If we imagine the integral parts of the human soul in physical terms, it possesses, if I may be permitted to express myself in this way, a greater mass of powers specific to a sensuous being than to a pure spirit: the soul has therefore been endowed with a human body; it is a human being. As a human being it has developed, in accordance with its mass of internal powers and within the bounds of its existence, a number of organs with which to perceive surrounding objects and, as it were, to intromit (sic) them for its own enjoyment. Even the number of these organs and the vast wealth of impressions flowing into them demonstrate, as it were, how great the mass of the sensuous is within the human soul.

Philosophy, then serves, primarily as a means of sifting and clarifying for better comparison the material contingencies and hence also values that accompany the different experiences that form different persons and peoples. Different regions, and this is true for different ages, are enmeshed in different sensoria:

The sensibility of human nature is not exactly identical in every region of the earth. A different tissue into which the strings of sensation are woven; a different world of objects and sounds that initially rouse one dormant string or another by setting it in motion; different powers that tune one string or another to a different pitch, thereby setting its tone forever, so to speak—in short, there is a quite different arrangement of our faculty of perception, and yet it still lies in the hands of Nature.

The temptation of philosophy is to take short-cuts by laying down principles or finding general concepts—against which Herder says, “I cannot lay down rules; my aim is to present a history of individual experiences”—into which to pour what Kant calls a “manifold.” But, for Herder, by this very act philosophy ceases to be an assistant in the great labour of better understanding. Thus, he urges:

Let the man, who is proud of his reason, contemplate the theatre of his fellow beings throughout the wide world, or listen to their many-toned dissonant history the way of man resembles a labyrinth, abounding on all sides with divergent passages, while but few footsteps lead to the innermost chamber.

Concomitantly, just as Vico had criticized the tendency for philosophers to read history as if early peoples were opaquely expressing the ideas of later-day philosophers, Herder requires of philosophers that they go beyond their own systems and principles in order to recover what they have yet to learn. Although Herder played an important role in reviving Spinoza on account of his provision of an organic and dynamic view of life’s intrinsic unity, he also criticises the fact Spinoza has “only a metaphysical sense of the poetry of the Prophets; and in the whole composition of his works, he is a solitary thinker, to whom the graces of the social world and an ingratiating manner are entirely unknown.”

The problem of Spinoza and enlightened philosophers, including Kant, who undertake to identify and lay down general ethical or moral ideas in detail is their mistaken belief that the more abstract and general ideas are sufficient for providing guidance to the living. Thus, the philosopher is in danger of becoming a “know-all” about the good, true and the beautiful, instead of a contributor to a deeper fathoming of what they actually entail. And, as we have said repeatedly, what they entail must not be closed off by a decision that delimits them from the outset. Their content can only be discovered by the undertaking a “journey” of the human spirits and the multitude of achievements of those spirits.

2. The Importance Of Herder’s Metacritique Of Kant

Herder’s two critiques of Kant are his two most detailed cases pitting the idea of philosophy as a “journey” in opposition to the kind of philosophy that is “fixed and restricted to the narrow limit of a situation.”

Since the deafening silence that greeted the publication of the Metacritique (there was support from others on the philosophical margins such as Wieland, Gleim, and Knebel), and Goethe’s expression that he wished Herder had never published his Metacritique (Clark even makes the ridiculous suggestion, given its length and elaborate details, that he probably did not even read it), there has been no shortage of commentators lining up to “tut-tut” over Herder’s critiques of Kant, including, a Herder scholar of great merit, Michael Foster, who calls them, “an angry and irresponsible attack on Kant.” Such a dismissal does no justice to the character, nature, depth, or significance of Herder’s criticisms of Kant. Even more silly is the claim, made when it first appeared, that the two volume Metacritique merely plagiarises Hamann’s Metacritique (a work, though delivering a surgical strike, runs to less than twenty pages).

Herder wrestles seriously and at length with both the first and third Critiques, and he does so because he detects that Kantianism has been as influential as it has been damaging to philosophy, and not only to philosophy, but to the culture, particularly the younger generation. In the Preface to the Metacritique he writes:

The critical philosophy has played its role for twelve years, and we see its fruits. Which father (they all ask themselves) wishes that his son would become an autonomous critical type, a metaphysicus of nature and virtue, a dialectical or even a revolution rabble rouser, in accordance with a critical blow? Now look around and read. Which recent book, which science is not more or less covered with the stains of this sort, and how many noble talents (we hope, only for a while) destroyed?….
A person who would deform a nation’s language through artifice (verkünstelt), (how cleverly it is done) has corrupted and spoiled the tool of its reason; a great many young people have had their noblest organ mutilated, and the understanding itself, whose field can never close out speculative inquiry, misled. Could we have a greater duty and gift, than the free heartfelt use of our understanding?

The same concerns are also a primary motivation for writing the Kalligone where he speaks of how he has seen “so many, many youth corrupted by the Critique,” and he criticizes “the ignorant, arrogant, and insolent,” who take on academic positions, while they “should still be learning.” They pontificate upon what they neither have “the concepts,” nor “knowledge,” to understand. “The time will come,” he warns, “when the nation itself is ashamed of every ignorant, indecent, random criticism of a shame inflicted on her.”

If the Kalligone is often polemical, that is largely because Herder had spent a lifetime thinking about art and its social and historical significance, and hence the work is replete with examples from different genres, while Kant’s aesthetics proceeds with little attention to actual aesthetic works. What Herder finds particularly galling is that Kant treats human creativity as if it were of far less consequence than the philosophical dictates concerning aesthetic value and meaning. Indeed, Herder is repulsed by Kant laying down an aesthetic without thinking he needs to explore the vast array of aesthetic creations which have played such an important part in the cultural formations of peoples.

Further, whereas Herder attempts to think how all kinds of knowledge are gathered and connected through the physiological apertures of our being, and the capacities of expression available to us, and thus how aesthetics is an essential part of what defines us as human, Kant’s third Critique was an “after-thought,” predicated upon the belated recognition of a gap in the critical system.

Thus, in the first Critique there was not a hint that art was even on Kant’s “radar” as important for answering what he referred to as “all the interests of my reason, speculative as practical,” which he says, “combine in the three following questions: 1. What can I know? 2. What ought I to do? What may I hope?” Kant continues by “flattering” himself that he has “exhausted all the possible answers” to the first question, “which is merely speculative.” It was only belatedly that Kant realized that there needed to be some bridge between freedom (practical reason) and necessity (“experience”), which sent him back into the cognitive sources and kinds of judgments—in this case, aesthetic and teleological judgments—which provide clues to claims about beauty, sublimity, self-regulatory systems (biology), and a sense of historical moral improvement.

A core component of Herder’s critique of Kant, in both the Kalligone and Metacritique, is his frustration at Kant’s philosophy failing to adequately incorporate the developmental and conditional—specifically social, historical and cultural—of science, morals and aesthetics because of the apparatus it sets to work with.

In the Metacritique, Herder also does not accept, for a moment, the very restricted view of the sciences that comes from the net Kant weaves with Euclid, Aristotle and Newton. Although Kant “experts” tend to spend their labours nuancing the intricacies of Kant’s moves and choices, the most egregious error of the first Critique emerges from the very thing that makes it such a water-tight accomplishment; the alignment of what Kant sees as the three foundational sciences of space and time (Euclid, and the foundations of mathematics in the number line), of rational thought (Aristotle), and of the physical world (Newton).

But no matter how great a philosophical attempt one may think the critical philosophy was, it was an all-or-nothing philosophy. For if these foundational sciences are just further steps along the way to a greater understanding, how can they then serve as foundations robust enough to provide the clues to the elements of cognition for the framing of nature’s law-governed structure?

Developments in spatial/geometric understanding, logic itself, and eventually even within physics were the developments that were far more destructive to the critical philosophy than any of the idealist critiques that were made by Fichte, Schelling and Hegel. For while the post-Kantian idealist philosophers, whether fairly or not, could all be accused of metaphysical regression, once the bulwarks of the transcendental philosophy were shown to be less than implacable, the very basis of the problem as well as the clues to the solution had also collapsed.

Now, while Herder does not put the case as bluntly as I have just done, this needs to be born in mind when assessing Herder’s Metacritique, which is, as we shall see below, very much driven by a much more developmental understanding of knowledge so that he finds the very idea of “pure reason” to be a mistaken enterprise, and the mistakes of that enterprise lie at the very foundations of Kant’s problem and ricochet through the answers it provides, which in turn generate in Kant further problems and answers.

Just as in the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein breaks open the kind of logical atomism which he once “perfected” by tackling the most basic assumptions which allow it to take off, Herder’s Metacritique refuses to concede the adequacy of the nomenclature for a philosophical enterprise as all-encompassing as Kant proposes his to be. That challenge stands in the closest relationship to his emphasis upon what he sees—and what Hamann also sees—as a false dualism between thought and language, a dualism which is ensconced by Kant’s dividing representations (Vorstellungen) into intuitions and concepts, with intuitions being mute, as they await to be “understood” by means of our concepts. By his invocation of Vorstellungnen as the primary genus which then requires further subdivision, Kant has already mentalized, and thereby invoked a kind of understanding of experience that simply confirms the dualism that he commences with.

By contrast, Herder finds it meaningless to talk in this way about experience as such—what does it mean, he asks, to “intuit” “a tone, a smell, taste, feeling?” Instead of the term Anschauung (which Kant deploys in a manner that draws upon an incipient dualist metaphysics), Herder argues that we would do better to use the more accurate, and less metaphysically and “mentalized” weighted term, Inne-werden (“an awareness” of something). Mentalization without regard to how language dictates our organizations is for Herder an error—one he believes (with more than a little generosity) neither Leibniz, nor Locke committed, both of whom he cites on language.

For Herder, when we are talking of ideas, we are always referring to names of things, names come from the fact that objects are intrinsically meaningful because of the capacity of people to recognize common generalities within differences. In his Ideas of a Philosophy of Mankind, he makes the point in such a way that we can see immediately how his argument also differs so fundamentally from Kant’s asocial atomistic approach and the metaphysical quandaries that are generated out of the approach. Likewise, we see how Herder has pitched the nature of knowledge in such a way that it bypasses the kind of metaphysics that Kant grapples with:

No language expresses things, but names: accordingly, no human reason perceives things, but only marks of them, which it depicts by words. This is an humiliating observation, which gives the whole history of our intellect (sic) narrow limits, and a very insubstantial form. All our science of metaphysics is properly metaphysics, that is an abstracted systematic index of names following observations of experience. As a method, and an index, it may be very useful, and must guide our artificial understanding to a certain degree in all other sciences: but considered in itself, and according to the nature of things, it affords not a single perfect and essential idea, not a single intrinsic truth. All our science reckons with abstracted, individual, extrinsic characters, which reach not the interior of the existence of any one thing, as we have no organ to perceive or express it. We know not, and can never learn to know, any power in its essence: for even that, which animates us, and thinks in us, we feel and enjoy it is true, but we do not know. Thus, we understand no connexion between cause and effect, because we can see into the interior neither of what acts, nor of what is produced, and have absolutely no idea of the entity of a thing. Thus, our poor reason is nothing more than a figuring arithmetician, as its name in many languages implies.

As we can see, then, for Herder, to commence with metaphysics, as if it were the condition of the sciences, rather than a concatenation of ideas and names that has emerged in conjunction with experience and with the sciences, is to proceed in a fundamentally wrong-headed manner. A point which, for Herder, is confirmed by the fact that knowledge is built out of historical experience. Closely related to this is Herder’s fundamental disagreement with the way questions of the soul in Kant are transported beyond any social, historical or anthropological content onto the plane of pure reason.

In Kant, we recall, the ideas of God, and the soul are the products of a transcendental dialectic, reason taking categories, whose sole legitimate function is for the understanding of experience, and treating them as substances. That is, Kant’s treatment of God and the soul is a purely rational one, which is why his transcendental critique is ipso facto a critique of rationalist metaphysics. Nevertheless, for all its elaborateness, Kant’s critique of rationalist metaphysics is simply a reformulation of the enlightenment critique of the feverish imagination, except now it is reason that has literally taken leave of its senses—or more precisely taken the understanding’s categories out of their legitimate deployment.

Herder, although open enough to seek common ground with deism—as he does in his defense of Spinoza in God, Some Conversations—ultimately does not see God as a rational answer to a rational problem, but as an anthropologically invoked power, a power which is part of a community’s sense of itself and its world. If we want to understand God or the soul in the sense that Herder does, we need to understand the meanings that people have ascribed over time and in their respective locations to these names. God and soul are not metaphysical objects—at least in the sense Kant uses the term—but words that circulate in a community’s doings.

From Herder’s perspective, then, we can understand why different peoples have different gods, and we can then track how the different communal commitments to the powers they serve help form a collective history and identity (a culture) over time; with Kant all we can say is that people have been deluded by a transcendental dialectic, and their different delusions (cultures) count for little in the greater scheme of achieving knowledge and freedom.

All of the above is closely related to another feature that Herder’s Metacritique shares with Hamann, viz., opposition to the compartmentalisation of the pure forms and functions of reason by reason. In this respect he sees the critical philosophy as resting on a phantasmic starting point. Kant has made himself both party and judge, law and witness in reason’s “trial.” But for Herder, we are not capable of overseeing what we are within; we use our “reason” to identify and demonstrate what our reason does, which is also why it is wrongheaded to identify “transcendental elements” divorced from reason’s ongoing discoveries. And those discoveries cannot be separated from the names that have accrued over time to identify experience. Closely related to this is Herder’s emphasis upon the capacity of the soul to “recognize” unity in its diversity.

By claiming that the cognitive elements are pure, i.e. transcendental, means they are neither physiological, nor psychological. But the fact that the very names of the components which Kant draws upon are also often psychological and physiological, lends support to Herder’s refusal to accept what he ultimately sees as an attempt to surpass the reason—which Herder tabulates late in the Metacritique—of the wisdom of life, culture, and the supra-cultural in a wisdom of life that is “transcendental hot air.” For Herder the truer formulation for any “Critique” of reason would be: “the [physiology of human knowledge,” something he sees Bacon as already having made a major contribution to.

Given these broader metacritical points, it is perfectly understandable why Herder takes issue with the key terms that gets the Critique off the ground, viz., the “a priori,” and “pure.” Thus, he writes:

In order to avoid misunderstandings, we want to leave aside completely the words a priori, and pure, i.e., pure concepts, calling general concepts general, necessary [concepts] necessary, without bringing into play the strange convoluted concept of a priority preceding all experience, because generality and necessity cannot be ascribed to any knowledge, if it is not necessary and general in its nature.

And as with Hegel later, Herder is just as unwilling to concede the very starting point of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason—the distinction between analytic and synthetic judgments. For Kant, an analytic judgment logically contains the predicate in the subject—while a synthetic judgment is formed by adding knowledge that goes beyond mere logical unfolding.

As readers of Kant know, the example he gives of an analytic judgment is that bodies are extended substances. As readers of Leibniz know that is what Descartes thought, but Descartes got it wrong. I just raise this so the reader may see that while some analytic judgments may be straightforwardly analytic in Kant’s sense—e.g., a bachelor is unmarried—the distinction is very unhelpful when we are speaking about subjects where knowledge is involved. And this was Herder’s point where he notes that:

The determination, that the predicate contains in the concept of the subject and is part of the same, which would have to be brought out analytically through division, is far too narrowly conceived: because in naming the subject not everything, which lays in it or belongs to it is revealed immediately; judgments are made, if we do not want to eternally rattle-off one and the same A+A, or wish to dissolve 4 into 2 + 2, which expand our knowledge, i.e. that say something in the predicate that is not instantly apparent in the subject.

Kant’s theory of mathematics depends upon mathematical judgments not being analytic, but synthetic (they cannot be empirical because numbers and geometry are not contingent entities, but he argues they are not merely logical either; rather, they are constructed by the mind; more specifically the faculty of “inner intuition”). This is laid out in the earliest section of the Critique of Pure Reason, “The Transcendental Aesthetic,” and it was an essential element in his grand design of laying down once and for all the foundations of a metaphysics that he thought could lay claim to be complete and implacable. It was also intended as the coup de grâce against Leibniz’s Platonism—Leibniz is the real bête noir of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and the entire strategy of the Critique is to discredit what he saw as Leibniz’s rationalism.

But Kant’s theory of mathematics, and the argument that mathematical judgments are synthetic, has frequently met with bewilderment, and is one major reason Kant’s theory of mathematics has found no strong philosophical support (the other problem is that the “architecture” of Kant’s solution does not help once we get beyond the number-line and operate with irrational numbers, and take note especially of non-Euclidean geometries).

Herder’s response to Kant’s primary claim about mathematics, which is the key to providing Kant’s “solution” to the problem of how the apodictic knowledge and axiomatic system of mathematics is applicable to phenomena, i.e., physical structure and laws of the natural world is this: “Thousands and ten thousand mathematical judgments are analytic; the ‘synthetic method’ cannot help but proceed analytically in mathematics until they reach an identical concept.” Likewise, he also takes issue with the primary reason that Kant has for arguing that mathematical (which includes geometrical) judgments are synthetic, i.e. (and as I have just said) because mathematics involves construction. Herder responds that “there are definitely cases in mathematics, where I recognize the truth of apodictic sentences, although I cannot construct them identically; and opposite cases, which are nevertheless apodictically certain, but the construction seems to contradict the concept.”

More generally, whereas Kant’s Critique proceeds by way of piling dualisms upon dualisms, dualisms, which Herder says involve “artificial hair-splitting” which extends to “syllables and spelling, such as deist and theist, transcendent and transcendental and so many other spider-webs.” Herder emphasises how our ideas are dependent upon integration, and that integration reaches from the most elemental of physiological processes to the greater social and cultural processes in which we are incorporated.

Thus, whereas Kant had argued that Hume had opened up the way for him by positing the problem of causation as an illustration of a synthetic a priori judgment, Herder argues that the sentence “what happens must have a cause” is an identical sentence: “because in the occurrence we postulate the cause of becoming.” Likewise, for Herder, if we deploy concepts such as force, effect, countereffect we are committed to conceptual associations, which are intrinsic to their very meaning. Thus, when we say “the effect and countereffect is the same” we are simply using the ideas in a manner that makes them meaningful.

Of course, this is another example of Leibniz’ enormous influence upon Herder. But whereas Kant had insisted upon the synthetic a priori safeguarding us from metaphysics spawning a rationalist substitution for experience, Herder is not at all convinced that this is the case. The question remains one of integrating material, and for Herder the “integration” is done “all the way along the line:” this is what reasoning does: it associates by bringing parts together in so far as they conform to some underlying “identity.” The strict division between purely rational or “pure experience” requires that our abstraction denies the integral unity that is involved in perception.

Our knowledge is initially dependent on an infinitude of micro-cognitive sensory processes, so that “every sense has its sphere; every object its meaning.” It is true that once we “model” experiences to espy sharper differentiations, our testing of natural phenomena can be enhanced. But to take a late stage in a process of understanding, as if that requires completely refabricating the development of the process is, for Herder, only to create an entirely new fleet of problems that are not only unnecessary, but catch us in the kind of spider webs of reason which, in spite of its intention, occlude our lived experience of ourselves as social and historical creatures.

Herder’s refusal to accept the a priori/a posteriori disjuncture is also evident in his critique of Kant’s discussion of space in the transcendental aesthetic. While Kant acknowledges that mathematics begins through practice (he speaks in the first Critique of mathematics having “long remained, especially among the Egyptians, in its groping stage”) he stresses that it only really became a science once someone brought out “what was necessarily implied in the concepts that he had himself formed a priori, and had put into the figures in the construction by which he presented it to himself.”

That there is a tipping point in which practical know-how is transformed into a “science” is not to be disputed, and that the development is irrelevant once a foundation has evolved (leaving aside here the development of foundations themselves) is also not a problem, especially for those doing the science. But the issue dividing Kant and Herder is whether the science is really explicable in Kantian terms, and whether his explanation actually adds anything at all to the science, which of course it doesn’t and wasn’t actually designed to do; Kant’s “theoretical reason i.e., understanding of phenomena” only has a purpose in so far as there is also its other—“practical or moral reason.”

To reformulate this somewhat: Kant is a Euclidean and Newtonian, but neither Euclid nor Newton are Kantian. Kant is not tackling the problems that lead to a metaphysics of experience in order to advance either mathematics or physics (and ironically as those disciplines advanced, Kant’s philosophy looked ever more arcane and unhelpful), but to circumscribe the bounds of the metaphysics of experience—that is, in order to create a rational faith in our moral freedom.

But here we just need to say that there is nothing philosophically wrong-headed in Herder pitting the importance of our lived-experience within spaces and times (in a move that anticipates phenomenology) against Kant’s transcendental aesthetic. For Herder’ counter argument to Kant is undertaken to demonstrate that Kant’s philosophical terminology is dubious, and that becomes even more apparent when one tries to address other questions about the nature of knowledge that Kant had not considered.

The accusation, then, that Herder fails to understand Kant’s problem I find completely unconvincing; he is considering (unsurprisingly given his own philosophical holism) where the bits and pieces of the system that Kant builds with his answers lead. Stated otherwise, it is not the case that Herder fails to understand that Kant’s view of space and time is developed around the primacy Kant allots to kinematics—this strikes me as so obvious to anyone who reads the first Critique with any care, that it is not really plausible that Herder missed this. Rather, Herder refuses to sever a theory of knowledge from our own being in the world, and he refuses to accept an ontology that does not register with the kind of being we are as well as the way our existence develops.

Thus Herder’s “discussion of the word space” commences with the fact that “we are with others”—space is originally a location, a “where” of our existence—it thus has to do with places. Space, he says, is a “concept of experience caused by the sensation or impression that I am neither the All (das All), nor everywhere, that I occupy only one place in the universe.” But our experience is such that “we encounter some occurrence which makes space for itself with its powers.” We learn that there are limits that surround what we encounter but that may be overcome.

Movement, change, velocity, location are all part of the experience, as are our being action and suffering: “Our language,” Herder reminds his readers, “is full of expressions of space in every being, act and suffering.” Herder’s approach to time is similar, starting with our noticing natural changes and dividing them—they are grounded in “practical purposes.” He continues that “time has nevertheless become a discursive, i.e. general concept of measurement of all transformations.” And time is intrinsic to ordering our concepts in a series, just as space for our situating things.

On the surface this may seem to confirm Kant’s view of time and space as a priori forms of experience, but whereas Kant is focusing solely on time and space as kinematic “backdrops” for an experience that applies more to projectiles than to people if we conceive them as more than mere mechanical composites, Herder is interested in space and time as lived, and how, in the living, times and spaces are discursively developed. And this extends to the sciences as well as the most basic aspects of human orientation and participation. That is, living in space and time will indeed be essential to developing such a science as physics (not that it is inevitable, for all knowledge is contingent), but it is not confined to that.

In so far as we are ever something of a mystery to ourselves, and that our knowledge of ourselves is revealed through our doings over time, any epistemology or ontology we invoke has to be open enough to the variety of vistas that we may consider and engage with as well as the variety of actions that we engage in. The “knot” of human physiology and aesthesis (which is closely connected to how nature operates within and through us), language, and historical being, for Herder, cannot be severed by an appeal to ideas which are taken to be formal conditions (calling them transcendental does not help one iota).

To be sure, one might well find fault with the metaphysical arguments Herder deploys against Kant. Nevertheless, Herder’s own metaphysical arguments are predicated upon them being able to link up with the fundamentals of experience grounded in physiological (aesthetic) impressions, and linguistic and historical contextualizations. Were this not the case, Newtonianism would not need to have been the result of a vast array of social and historical contingencies (predecessors, pedagogical spaces, literacy, mathematical knowledge etc.) that prepared Newton himself for the experimental and mathematical approach to nature he excelled in. (And Herder is neither ignorant of, nor positioning himself against Newton’s work—as far as it goes).

That Kant can narrow his focus in such a way that he sloughs off developmental matters into the domain of irrelevance suggests that the human mind, in spite of all Kant’s safeguards and deference to the phenomenal world we are implicated in, really is, for Kant, “God-like” (in the Greek rather than biblical sense). This is, in spite of Kant thinking that by arguing against the idea of “intellectual intuition” he has emphasised the finitude of human intellect. But what Kant gives with one hand, he takes away with the other; for he has dispensed with all manner of finitudes to prioritise the philosophical disposition itself above the contingencies which are fundamental to its precondition, but which fall outside the problem he has cordoned off.

Were the problem as Kant depicts it, why would we need to be “schooled” in its nature? Why would the sciences need to evolve—and I do not mean (as Kant emphasizes) the specific laws observed, but the sciences which study the laws? Hegel tackles this problem by tracking reason’s dialectical development and the emergent spheres of conceptual schema taking definitive ideational shape. But while Hegel is resolutely anti-dualist, the logicism of his philosophy enmeshes History in a philosophical logic and thereby creates an irreconcilable difference between his approach and that of Herder’s. Thus, for all his differences with Kant, Hegel’s philosophy, as with Fichte and Schelling, takes off from Kant’s problematic in which reason is substantialised, rather than, as in Herder, an operational development of our historical and language-dependent nature.

In sum, Herder is absolutely right to challenge Kant on the very ground where the problematic is laid down and the cognitive sources and elements are identified, for the mind not only cannot be purely extracted, but its nature is revealed by its doings. Isolating a particular “doing,” and then making that particular doing the basis for all our other knowledge is precisely what Herder contests. To be sure, Herder is willing to concede that there might be fundamentals akin to categories that we might identify as more elementary for understanding how we process information, and he provides a number of different tables throughout the Metacritique, commencing with his initial categories of understanding: “1) Being; 2) Existence; 3) Duration; and 4) Force.” Further, as force is construed “through number and measure,” and as our understanding also draws upon “contiguity, sequence and emergence,” for Herder, space and time are indeed the “mediums” in which force operates.

We will not reproduce how Herder develops the conceptual associations that he builds up throughout the Metacritique, we will just underscore, and repeat, the point that Herder recognizes that the sciences work in close association with “how” we go about knowing—principles and “laws” are closely connected, but knowledge is essentially developmental. And, for Herder, it is inconceivable that one can meaningfully do this without considering the labours of the species over time, and in the context of its habitat. That Kant is too indifferent to the importance of this habitat is stressed by Herder near the conclusion of the Metacritique where he criticizes Kant’s Conflict of the Faculties for how narrowly Kant construes philosophy, all the better to make the case for his own critical philosophy being the great arbitrator.

The ploy is, for Herder, a symptom of the narrowness of Kant’s vision of philosophy and the sciences, and is closely associated with a strong institutional dependency on Kant’s part. For Herder, Kant’s philosophical cleavages, with their respective foundations, is really just supplying the conditions for institutional specialization—which would then be carried out along Kantian lines. It is thus also the privileging of the academic “guilds” as much as Kant’s philosophy. For his part, Herder opposes the guilds, and ultimately anything which would close off knowledge for a more “holistic,” yet developmental, and hence pedagogically dynamic curricula. Likewise, he also emphasizes the importance of outsiders (a class to which he belongs):

Erasmus and Grotius were not faculty theologians, and took upon themselves the freedom, to clean up much in Theology. The monk Roger Bacon, and his name’s sake Francis Bacon, Descartes, Leibniz, Tschirnhaus, and how many others, who expanded the sciences not with words but with concepts, were lovers of the sciences, although no Faculty-trustees. As the faculties slept or became barbarised, a free society of lovers, the academy of Florence, arose, others followed, for whom we have to thank for the greatest developments in the sciences.

As mentioned above, behind Kant’s transcendental critique of “experience,” and Herder’s Metacritique, there is another set of questions and answers that sharply divides the two. From the outset of the critical philosophy, Kant had claimed that by identifying the source and scope of (judgments or knowledge of) experience by recourse to their “cognitive source” and “elements” and “rules,” he had hoped to secure what he sees as most important about human beings and rationality—moral freedom understood as the categorical imperative—from the mechanistic “reductions,” which would make any appeals to virtue and dignity irrelevant. Thus, it is that Kant locates freedom and dignity in pure reason itself, rather than any experience.

For his part, Herder is as little attracted to Kant’s view of freedom as he is to Kant’s ideas of reason and aesthetics, and the two metaphysical pillars (of nature and right) that the transcendental philosophy grounds and (in the third Critique) “bridges.” Herder remarks on Kant’s formulation of the moral law well bring out what he thinks of Kant’s view of freedom: “The general will of the legislator is just as incompetent-presumptuous as it is powerless: because the general, in this case the will, only becomes actual in deed through the particular and most particular… And what if persons, means and ends collide? Thus, the most vain egotism, which submits to the great purpose of the “judgment of all,” under the name of ‘self-esteem, self-respect,’ pervades everything and furtively engages in an eternal war between ‘self-purposes and self-legislators.’”

Although Kant is not mentioned by name in Herder’s work, Of Religion, Doctrines and Customs, Herder makes the decisively anti-Kantian observation that the egoistic usurpation of moral law-making, in its “empty legislative form” finds:

…neither power, salvation, spirit, nor life… Nothing tires more than commanding; even the pride that one has in being able to command soon becomes tiresome; and how? and would not a pure “un-will” to obey step into the position of the pure will to command? Mighty autonomist, your monarchy ends. Instead, anarchy, an impotent-wild word stand-off, would take over: “Compel yourself!”—”I cannot.” “You can, because you should.”—”I do not want to, because I cannot,” etc.

Herder can see no point in taking the essential social dilemma of moral choice and making it akin to a private matter to be subject to a formal law, as if the labour of socialization and instinctual cultivation were largely unimportant. We are, emphasizes Herder, mimetic creatures, and that mimesis extends even to how we use our limbs. We do not instruct ourselves out of nothing, but are socially saturated, as we are exposed to “an ocean of ideas, habits and actions” which we absorb and then use as though they were our property. “Spirit receives from spirits.” While “our entire lives are led by drives,” Kant’s moral thought treats drives as impediments to the purity of our reason and pure will, thereby relying upon a drive of his own fabrication—it is but “the personification of pride in its deepest powerlessness.”

Against such abstract egoic and formalistic ethics, Herder anticipates Nietzsche (albeit devoid of the latter’s pagan call for a revival of master morality, and the cruelty such a revival would require). For Herder, Kant’s grounding of morality in the form of reason is one more example of what he sees as the narrowness of a philosophy which fails to adequately embrace the idea that it is only through learning about the vastly different goods, truth and beautiful creations of the species that we can better form our world. The fact that the philosopher deals in ideas does not give him or her any special purchase on what we can know, or even what is worth knowing:

Really, ideas yield nothing but ideas, greater clarity, correctness, and order in thinking—but that is all one can count on with certainty. As for how everything will mix within the soul; or what will be encountered and what will have to be changed; how powerful and enduring this change will be; or, finally, how it might combine and clash with the myriad incidents and contingencies of human life, let alone of an age or of an entire people, of all Europe, of all the universe (as our humility imagines)—you gods, what an altogether different world of questions!

It is the different world of questions that ultimately require, for Herder, a turning not only from the known into the unknown, but from the living to the living. We have to put ourselves aside, and not just look for what catches our own light. At the same time, Herder sees difference and connection, and it is the appreciation of both that he sees as essential for human growth:

As the philosopher is much in the dark respecting the origin of human history, and singularities occur in its remotest periods, which will not accord with this system or with that, men have fallen on the desperate mode of cutting the knot, and have not only considered the Earth as the ruins of a former habitation, but have supposed the human species to be a remnant of the former inhabitants of this planet, who escaped perhaps in caves or mountains, from the revolution of its Last day. Thus, its reason, arts, and traditions, are treasures saved from the wrecks of the primitive World; whence on the one hand, they appear from the beginning with a splendour derived from the experience of thousands of years; and on the other, never can be clearly traced, while the remnant of the human species has served like an isthmus, at once to unite and to confound the cultivation of two worlds. If this opinion were true, there could be no such thing as a pure philosophy of the history of man; for the human species itself, and all its arts, would be nothing more than the recrement arising from the destruction of a former world.

3. “Humanity:” Encountering, Culture, And Dialogue

While Herder eschews any philosophy “according to which the whole human species possesses one mind; and that indeed of a very low order, distributed to individuals only piecemeal” (which is again indicative of a major difference between Herder and Hegel—and indicative of the difference between emphasising reason in language or reason as mind or spirit), he sees that while we can only understand humanity via the history of its traditions, we need to investigate what it was that those tradition and the organic powers of the species enabled and hence what made them sustainable for any length of time.

Such an understanding necessarily has a philosophical dimension, and thus he writes: “The philosophy of history, therefore, which follows the chain of tradition, is, to speak properly, the true history of mankind, without which all the outward occurrences of this World are but clouds, or revolting deformities.” Note that this openness which requires of us that we take history seriously avoids the seminal pitfall of historicism, whose founder he is sometimes said to be, viz., the task for a philosopher of humankind is not to become so locked in the history of the world of a people that it is an exercise in monadic identification.

Rather, the point is to search for the “Glorious names, that shine in the history of cultivation as genii of the human species, as brilliant stars in the night of time!” If the past leaves us with nothing but dead facts we have to ask what we are doing with it. Rather a philosophical study of history is undertaken to appreciate a living connection between times and regions—for once we enter a past world, we may be changed for the better by the experience of feeling, seeing, and knowing more about humanity and its powers.

In so far as the very enterprise is one which requires inquiring into times and habitats, there is the danger that one is so ensconced in one’s own tradition and experiences that one is incapable of really seeing the other. Thus, Herder insists, in letter 116 of the Tenth Collection of his Letters for the Advancement of Humanity: “The original form, the prototype of humanity hence lies not in a single nation of a single region of the earth; it is the abstracted concept from all exemplars of human nature in both hemispheres.” Concomitantly he stipulates: “Let one be unbiased like the genius of humanity itself; let one have no pet tribe, no favorite people on the earth…let none put into the hands of any people on earth on grounds of ‘innate superiority’ the sceptre over other peoples—much less the sword and enslave the whip.” He adds a couple of pages later: “Least of all, therefore, can our European culture be the measure of universal human goodness and human value; it is no yardstick or a false one. European culture is an abstracted concept, a name. Where does it exist entirely? With which people? In which times?”

To be sure there is a certain pedagogical and moral idealism in the project, but the idealism requires that we learn from each other, rather than push people into the prefabricated idea requiring common conformity to values and expectations which are laid down by those whose philosophical lights make them the leaders of humanity. Thus, he emphasizes again:

There must gradually awaken a common feeling so that every nation feels itself into the position of every other one. People will hate the impudent transgressor of foreign rights, the destroyer of foreign welfare, the brazen abuser of foreign ethics and opinions, the boastful imposer of his own advantages on peoples who do not want them.

If we compare this with Rousseau, who would force people to be free, with Kant, whose moral republicanism sloughs off anthropological, historical and social experience, with Nietzsche, who divides the world into masters and slaves and calls for philosophers of the future to create the conditions for the coming of the superman, with Marx, who would extinguish all classes save the proletariat, with the anti-domination philosophers, whose focus on domination largely bypasses non-Western brutalities, and who see nothing but an unjust world in need of their moral leadership, we can readily see how Herder’s position is essentially a prototype of dialogical encountering between diverse hermeneutical communities.

The point is to learn from each other. The idea that is sometimes expressed by people who know a little bit about Herder is that he can be adequately classified as a relativist. Bu this can only be held if one not only fails to take seriously what Herder is trying to do and how he goes about it. His great work, Adrastea, is “devoted to truth and justice.” And the statement made almost immediately after the “Dedication” of the Adrastea is as succinct an account of how Herder considers the truth as any he provides:

The ray of light refracts itself in a thousand colours and swathes itself differently to each object. But all colors belong to one light, the truth. In many melodic courses, the sound changes up and down; and yet only one harmony is possible on a gamut of world events and the relationship between things. What now fails, dissolves itself into another age.

Although Franz Rosenzweig shows no signs of any in-depth reading of Herder, his proclamation to Rosenstock-Huessy that the dialogical method he favoured involved shoving “the whole of history between myself and the problem, and so think with the heads of all the participants in the discussion” is essentially a restatement of Herder’s understanding of truth.

The importance of the many-sided character of truth and the dialogical dimension is also well brought out by Herder’s treatment of the importance of error in Letters for the Advancement of Humanity:

Free investigation of truth from all sides is the only antidote to delusion and error of whatever nature they may be. Let the deluded defends his delusions, and defend his opinion against those who think differently; that’s their business. Even if neither were to be improved, for the unprejudiced person a new reason, a new insight into truth, would surely emanate from every disputed error.

Herder is not, then, arguing that there are no truths, but as in one’s dealings with the deluded person, just having the truth does not suffice. It is our engagements with each other that matter—for every errancy can be important for gaining greater insights about each other, and our world, every encounter an opportunity for generating new forms or deeds of conviviality, love and solidarity (or their opposite), and hence for helping create a more “truthful” and valuable world.

The historical context of Herder’s work is one in which different “peoples” have become increasingly conscious of each other’s presence. How, then, do we deal with this? That is a serious and real, and not just “ideal” question. Having ideas about better and worse ways to be in the world, having principles that facilitate action is not the same as the idea-ism of paradigmatical imposition of a sovereign principle that is indifferent to what is occluded by the principle.

This is also why, as we mentioned earlier, Herder is happy to accept the traditional philosophical appeals to the good, true, and beautiful, provided that their content is open to the creative explorations of the human species. To be sure, he extends this way of thinking into the political and does side with republican politics. At the same time, he is conscious that this ideal itself can be phantasmic and even disastrous. Thus, he writes, in the same Letter, of the potential danger of pursuing “the best form of the state, indeed of all states:”

This phantom is uncommonly deceptive in virtue of the fact that it obviously introduces into history a nobler yardstick of merit than the one that those arbitrary reasons of state contained—indeed even blinds with the names of “freedom,” “enlightenment,” “highest happiness of the peoples.” Would God that it never deceived! The happiness of one single people cannot be imposed onto, talked onto, loaded onto the other and every other. The roses for the wreath of freedom must be picked by a people’s own hands and grow up happily out of its own needs, out of its own desire and love. The so-called best form of government, which has unfortunately not yet been discovered, certainly does not suit all peoples, at once, in the same way; with the yoke of badly imported freedom from abroad a foreign people would be incommoded in the worst possible way. Hence a history that calculates everything in the case of every land with a view to this utopian plan in accordance with unproved first principles is the most dazzling deceptive history.

And, in keeping with this, he emphasises:

All excessive subtle taxonomies of human beings according to principles from which we are supposed to act exclusively are quite foreign to the spirit of history. It knows that in human nature the principles of sensuality, of imagination, of selfishness, of honor, of sympathy with others, of godliness, of the moral sense, of faith, etc. do not dwell in separated compartments, but that in a living organization that gets stimulated from several sides many of them, often all, cooperate in a living manner. It allows each of them its value, its rank, its place, its time of development—convinced that all of them, even unconsciously, are operating towards a single purpose, the great principle of humaneness [Menschlichkeit]. Hence it lets all of them bloom in their time right where they are: sensuality and the arts of the imagination, intellect and sympathy, honor, moral sense and holy worship.

In sum, then, Herder’s desire for cultures and communities learning what each has been able to create, and hence to cultivate over time is predicated on the fact that the world is “a world,” albeit a world constituted by different habitats, sentiments, ideas etc. The faith he has is that this world can be one in which peace ultimately reigns. And he requires that we all explore and bring to the human banquet what is the best of our creations—it also requires identifying each other’s delusions and pathologies.

Herder is not so starry eyed about other people and cultures that he does not criticize them. But he is also very critical of his own culture. Only through our inquiries into our respective histories and behaviours can we all learn from each other. We will all inevitably be enmeshed in our prejudices and have our myopia—Herder himself is not completely free from this, but who is? We have to be able to put aside “one-sided,” “fixed” and “rigid” ideas—(and one of the great virtues of poetry for Herder is that it helps us overcome separation and one-sidedness).

In this sense, there is indeed a biblical, messianic component to Herder’s thinking. He was a Christian thinker, but a Christian who was frequently critical of how Christians have acted. Although, an exploration of Herder’s Christianity would be a huge topic in itself, it is not exaggerating to say that the central tenet of the Christian faith, for Herder, is the advancement of humanity itself.

Thus, in the second Collection of the Letters for the Advancement of Humanity, he writes that “The religion of Christ, which he himself taught and practised, was humanity itself. Nothing but that… Christ knew no more noble name for himself, than that he named himself the Son of Man, a man.” And in Adrastea, he asks: “Does Christianity teach anything other than pure humanity?” But this is not the Godless humanity of Voltaire, or the Enlightened who think they know what humanity is without it having to be revealed through its deeds and dreams. This idea of a humanity bonding through its conversableness also stands in the closest relationship to his view of providence. Thus too, in Adrastea, he writes:

Now you know… what my religion of all religions is. It’s an Adrastea, but in a much higher equation than the Greeks ever gave it. She was first a jealous, then a warning or punitive goddess; her highest maxim was, “Not beyond measure!” The nemesis of Christianity postulates balance and retribution in everything, in the moral as well as in the physical world, the least and the greatest, as the law of nature, but the determination of human beings elevates them in the overcoming of evil through good, with the charitable persistence of magnanimity. Humanity finally makes it the tipping of the scale, as a compensation of Providence, as it were, the decisive voice of the judge of the world, the judge, who always comes and is there, who receives and recompenses everything.

Herder’s contribution to philosophy is ultimately a “programmatic” contribution, a contribution which requires that philosophy develops in keeping with all the available knowledge it can draw upon. The development, itself, though is for the greater purpose of advancing our common humanity.

But this can only be done if we do not take humanity as an abstraction, but as the plethora of powers that have accrued over time and across the spaces. Those powers are themselves tested and judged in the course of the times. Thus too, Herder states that revolution “is as necessary to our species, as the waves to the dream, that it become not a stagnant pool. The genius of humanity blooms in continually renovated youth, and is regenerated as it proceeds, in nations, generations, and families.”

Herder’s deference to errancy and providence also places his thought at odds with that most modern kind of idea-ism which, for all its other differences, is as common to Kant and Robespierre, as to Marx and the anti-domination thinkers, as it is to even more garden variety ethics: the ethico-political idea-ism which emphasizes volition and principles. There is, of course, much that Herder does not really explore, but it does provide a kind of orientation and spirit that opens up the philosophical enterprise to a more expansive vista and quest so that it can be attentive to its own paradigmatical and sovereign entrapment.


Wayne Cristaudo is a philosopher, author, and educator, who has published over a dozen books.


The featured image shows a portrait of Johann Gottfried von Herder, by Gerhard von Kügelgen, painted in 1809.

Of Latrines in Qumran: A Fake “Essene” Debate

Le Nouvel Observateur echoed the Revue de Qumran (winter 2006) in announcing the discovery of latrines at the site of Qumrân, latrines which lent credence to the Essene thesis. Supposedly, the sect of the Essenes had fixed rigorous rules concerning the places of toilet, with the recommended burial of excrement with a shovel, and that only to the northwest of the dwellings, about five hundred meters away. As discoverer Joe Zias explained, “the Bedouin of the desert have no such custom. So, we finally have proof of the Essene occupation of the site.”

Qumran settlement, viewed from the West, showing latrine area.

American and then French websites were quick to pass on this “news” by way of the two researchers, Joe Zias, an Israeli from the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem, and the other American, James Tabor.

The article by Cécile Dumas which appeared in Nouvel Obs (“Qumran: les esséniens trahis par leurs latrines” [“Qumran: the Essenes Betrayed by their Latrines”]) nevertheless cautiously mentioned that the Essene “hypothesis:” “…was questioned in 2005 by two Israeli researchers, Yitzhak Magen and Yuval Peleg. After nine years of excavation at Qumran, Magen and Peleg had asserted that there had never been an Essene monastery on the site of the old fortress, but only a pottery factory.”

A Quick Review Of The Essene Question

As early as October 2004, the journal Sciences et Avenir announced that the ten excavation campaigns carried out by Magen and Peleg were “…the most important since the time of Roland de Vaux:” “The discovery of coins, pottery and especially jewelry invalidates the thesis, according to which this site housed the famous sect of the Essenes, who lived in poverty for spiritual reasons and who would have been the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls.”

These challenges, in fact, were not new. For years the archaeological material had spoken, although it was partially still under investigation because of its abundance. In 1992, the colloquium organized by the New York Academy of Sciences (and published in 1994) should have put an end to the assumptions that absolutely want to establish a link between the site and the texts found nearby (or, rather, not nearby, but often several kilometers away). The reliable data, in fact, proceeded in a different direction entirely:

The “Essenes of Qumran” hypothesis assumes that the inhabitants of the site were “monks” and that they wrote the texts found in eleven caves near and far. They therefore had to devote time to writing. It was thus imagined that they had a room devoted solely to this single activity. For the rest, they lived very poorly, one on top of the other (for lack of space), until they disappeared in the year 68 AD, during the first “Jewish War.”

Qumran: A reconstruction.

However, in 1992, archaeologist Pauline Donceel-Voûte demonstrated that what we took to be the remains of writing tables were nothing other than pieces of fixed dining tables or benches (also fixed and arranged along the walls); and when correctly put back together, the remains corresponded perfectly to the usual version of a dining room in the East and in other parts of the Roman Empire, particularly being on the floor, where one could enjoy the freshness of the evening.

The arguments for the Essenes, advanced by archaeologists, are based on the presence of two inkwells and on the assumption that these items were totally devoted to the copying of manuscripts. Thus, the room was called the scriptorium, as per the monks of the Middle Ages (that is to say, a thousand years later).

In fact, the only two inkwells found there (locus 30) did not even belong to the level of the remains of the first floor, where the Essene scriptorium is believed to have existed, but rather were found on the ground floor. It should be added that this supposition is really unnecessary: serious historians of antiquity know that, unlike Rome, where there were copying companies, copyists in the East were itinerant scribes who worked on the tablets they themselves carried. There is not the slightest reason to imagine a brotherhood of copyists, just because we have found a lot of manuscripts. In short, the scriptorium of the Essene monks is not history.

In fact, the site was always an economic one, linked to the harvest of balsam, a wild shrub that only grew in this region (not at all a desert at the time) and whose scented essence was of enormous value. This essence was stabilized using extracts from bitumen which was available just East of the Dead Sea. Several geographers and historians of antiquity speak of it. We also know that Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, a great consumer of perfumes, obtained possession of this region from Antony (she would hardly enjoy it, however, given the victory of Julius Caesar).

Among the archaeological materials found on the site of Qumrân are also pottery and glass. Remnants of production from both indicate on-site manufacturing, particularly costly glass, even though this manufacturing was not year-round but only during the stay of specialized, itinerant craftsmen. Such a cost was justified given the production of vials intended to contain the various perfumes – which were used less for cosmetics than for worship and burials.

Glass vials and jar; ceramic lamp and jug.

Such economic profitability is enough to explain the probable presence of soldiers, on-site, or in the surroundings – for such wealth was subject to robbery. The pottery produced on the spot was mainly for the use of the inhabitants (the rich). “Cave 4,” located under the promontory, may have served as a warehouse, well protected from hot weather; this would explain the (probable) presence of shelves.

Stepped cistern.

A complex set of open-air pipes brought water from heavy rains, or from the mountains, into the cisterns. But it only rained in certain months of the year; hence the large number of these tanks. Slightly dug into the ground rather than underground (which would have required a lot of work), they had to be covered to limit evaporation. Steps made it possible to descend to draw water, as the level fell. These accumulated amounts of water were nevertheless sufficient for pottery to be made at certain times of the year. There is no evidence to suggest that a single one of these cisterns ever served as a mikveh, that is, a place for Judaic ritual ablutions.

A reconstructed layout of Qumran, showing water containments.

Numerous lamps (which by nature are quite characteristic of an era and allow it to be dated to within 25 years) have been found among the archaeological material. The date of these lamps extends into the 2nd century AD, which is not surprising, for as long as the balsam shrubs existed, such places were economically viable, except during 68 to 70 AD, because of the “Jewish War.” Activities then resumed until 135 AD (the Second “Jewish War”), or perhaps even beyond. The idea that the site was abandoned in 68 (by the “Essene monks”) is also not history.

The cemetery adjacent must have been inaugurated after the site was abandoned (that is to say, not before 135 AD at the earliest), because its proximity to the buildings would have made their inhabitants impure. Much of our knowledge of graves dates back to the few excavations carried out in the 1950s (by de Vaux), not that there haven’t been any since – but these new excavations were carried out in an illegal context, and their results cannot therefore be officially published. The old idea that the majority of the people buried there are men remains open to question until it is confirmed by the facts (which in themselves can be explained in many ways). Very similar burial sites have been unearthed in the surrounding areas. The “cemetery of Qumran” therefore does not offer the specificity that has been invented for it, by making it the cemetery of “Essene monks.”

Sometime after 135 AD, this cemetery was used again (probably at several times). We can assume that the ruins offered an ideal place to camp for the many visitors who followed one after the other. This would explain the presence in these places of very late coins (which date up to the 6th century AD).

It is important to keep in mind all this demonstrated archaeological data, before coming to grips with the interpretative hypotheses which so want to associate the site with the manuscripts of the caves, the cemetery and certain passages (more than doubtful) of the historian of the Jewish War, namely, Flavius Josephus.

The Zias-Tabor Article

In addition to the various claims in their article, one notices that the burying of excrement is not the characteristic of a small Jewish sect. In the Bible, we read in the book of Deuteronomy: “You shall also have a place allocated outside the camp, so that you may go out there to relieve yourself, 13 and you shall have a [h]spade among your tools, and it shall be when you sit down outside, you shall dig with it and shall turn and cover up your excrement… so He must not see anything indecent among you or He will turn away from you” (Deut. 23:13-14).

This prescription is therefore of general application to all the sons of Israel, with modifications (which have not been lacking). It is this prescription which evokes Book II of the Jewish War, where we read moreover that the “Essenes” do not go to the toilet on the Sabbath day. According to James Tabor, this requirement would correspond to the situation in Qumran, where the latrines are located further than the number of steps allowed on such a day. This is nothing more than the need to attribute the Messianist current, which produced the Dead Sea texts, to rabbinical rules which have nothing whatsoever to do with this Messianist current. But things get worse.

The entire passage concerning the “Essenes” exists in the Philosophoumena, and the comparison of the two texts clearly shows the mutilations that the passage underwent in transmission. In the Greek version of Josephus, everything, in fact, indicates that this constitutes an interpolation, carried out in the 3rd century, on the basis of the record of the Philosophoumena, by a pagan author linked to imperial power, who is very mocking and quite anti-Semitic. This passage, moreover, is absent from the manuscripts of the Latin Hegesippus, as well as those of the Hebrew Josippon. In fact, the very name “Essenes” is unknown there. Regarding this “name,” it is important to remember that it is that of Greek priests – those at the temple of Artemis in Ephesus, which denotes a certain sort of humor; or, at worst, a sarcastic touch. And just after the mention of what the “Essenes” do not do on Shabbat, we read that on other days they do it “wrapped in their cloak so as not to offend the sight of God.” If that is not mockery, what is it? Such derision arises throughout the reading of the passage.

The non-critical use of Josephus and the connection with the situation of latrines outside the biblical context is just not admissible. But that is not all.

Details Presented As “Evidence”

In the Dead Sea Scroll, called the Temple Scroll, we read this: “You will make a certain place for them outside the city. This is where they will go, outside northwest of town. You will make aids there, frames with pits in the middle into which the excrement will descend, and it will not be visible to anyone being away from the city of three-mile cubits [± 500 m]” (11QT 46,13)..

Let us suppose that there are indeed correspondences with the latrines discovered by Zias – but are they “proofs,” or simply a series of partial and fortuitous connections? On site, there is no trace of a deep pit or aedicule. The situation in the Northwest is not significant either – for latrines certainly could not have been eastwards, out in the emptiness. As for the approximate distance, it does not correspond to what this other manuscript indicates: “There will be a space of about two thousand cubits [± 350 m] between their camp and the location, and nothing shameful and ugly will be visible around their entire camp” (1QM 7,7 ; parall. 4Q491 frag 1 3,7).

Now, as we have seen, Deuteronomy itself prescribes a distance. There is therefore nothing in particular there. In addition, equally probable traces of other latrines have been discovered within the site of Qumran itself. What then remains in favor of the argument?

A comparison – yet one more – is still made with the deceased in the cemetery, who are supposedly overwhelmingly young men and buried there before 68 AD(!). Joe Zias wonders why they were young (which remains to be seen) – and he assumes that is because they got sick. And why were these “Essenes of Qumran” (according to the Essene hypothesis) sick? Because of the latrines and the obligation of ritual baths and purifications! Because everyone walked on contaminated soil, while complying with the laws of nature; and the water in the basins could not be replenished before the rainy season. So, after about nine months), the water was quickly polluted. The “Essenes” therefore got sick.

Of course, when the water is polluted, it can surely be noticed with the naked eye, sooner or later. However, for more than a hundred years, the supposed inhabitants of the place continued to poison themselves in this way without questioning anything, because, explains Tabor, their poor state of health “…must have been such as to nourish Essene religious enthusiasm. They must have seen their infirmities as a punishment from God, or as a lack of purity, and therefore they tried even more to purify themselves [with baths].”

Were the “Essenes of Qumran” so stupid? To this web of hypotheses, let us add this one – that the “Essene monks” actually preferred to recruit simple-minded people. The proof? Well, is there not the link – yet one more – to the activity of copying (sometimes several copies), which is attributed to them? They copied because very few of them were able to create an original work. Moreover, if certain manuscripts present work of different hands, that is because, being sick and tiring quickly, the copyists were replaced. These explanations constitute obvious “proofs.” Who would dare doubt?

Qumran: supposed “scriptorium.”

Enough. Time to put an end to this fantasy. “Essene monks” are the fabrication of hypotheses that are groundless (and often improbable). They are a construction which, alas, became the tree that hid the forest for too long, the forest of a vast Messianist current that existed and did not disappear in the year 68 AD. Quite the contrary. A question arises here: why such relentlessness in trying to demonstrate the idea of “Essene monks?”

Too often there is a gray area between the realm of scientific research and that of beliefs. Since Voltaire decreed that Jesus had gone to be trained among the “Essenes” (as he imagined them from the doctored texts of Josephus), the sect of the same name has become a belief dear in some circles. Is it a coincidence that, among 20th century scholars, those who spread this idea the most were former priests? Of course, no one takes Voltaire’s assertions seriously. However, the “Essenes” remain attractive. The idea of the existence of an important Jewish current of which the New Testament would not speak and which, for its part, ignores everything about the beginnings of Christianity. And, thus, does not all this cast doubt on the veracity of the Christian witness?

Nevertheless, the heyday of the “Essene” fiction is numbered. Sooner or later, archaeology will prevail over exegesis, where presuppositions have always played a major role.


Theologian and Islamologist, Father Edouard-Marie Gallez is the author of Le messie et son prophète (The Messiah and His Prophet), published in Paris in 2005 (and awaiting an English translation), which is an 1100 -page study that reconnects the origins of Islam to factual history by showing that the Koran and Islamic legends developed gradually over time. This study paved the way of current research into early Islam. For more information, see http://rootsofislamtruehistory.com and http://thegreatsecretofislam.com. Father Edouard-Marie also participates in research groups on early Christianity and its influence.


The featured image shows the supposed “Scriptorium (Locus 30)” at the Qumran site.

Birds in Palaeolithic Portable Art

Here is an excerpt from Richard Pope’s intriguing new book about man’s long fascination with birds and flight. It’s called, Flight from Grace, and the little sample that follows wonderfully demonstrates the genius of early man. The book takes wing immediately with little-known facts, supplemented by astonishing images of artifacts that stand testament to the human spirit.


Portable art, which includes carvings, figurines, and engravings on ivory, stone, bone, and antler, is found often, but not exclusively, in caves. Bird representations are not uncommon in this art, particularly in the Magdalenian period (15,000–10,000 BCE). In French Palaeolithic art alone, out of 121 possible bird representations, Dominique Buisson and Geneviève Pinçon accept 81 as certain. Of these 81 sure bird representations, 15 (19 per cent) are on cave walls and 67 (81 per cent) are portable. Birds are much more common in portable art everywhere during the Palaeolithic. It is also striking that of the 81 sure French birds, almost half of which are not identifiable to species (47.6 per cent), 37 per cent represent either web-footed birds like ducks, geese, and swans or crane-like waders, and 10 per cent are raptors. The popularity of these waterbirds and raptors is also attested throughout Palaeolithic bird art in general. R. Dale Guthrie is right to point out that not all of these representations are masterpieces. Often carved in difficult materials, they range from the relatively crude to the superb. The artistic quality of these birds would not, however, have affected their function as amulets, pendants, charms, and ex-votos.

Flying waterbird Hohle Fels Cave ca 28000 BC.

At the mention of mammoth-ivory sculpture of the Palaeolithic, one’s first thought is of the numerous figurines of plump females – the so-called Palaeolithic Venuses – found from Spain right across to Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia. What is interesting for us, however, is the common association of these Venuses with carvings of birds. Although these early Venuses are never bird-headed, as they often are in the Neolithic, these cult objects are often found in association with bird figurines and pendants. The Palaeolithic Venuses are thought by many to be figures with cult significance, and I believe that the bird figurines generally reflect the same cult status and represent various early forms of bird worship.

Perhaps our oldest known bird sculpture, dating from at least 28,000 BCE, is a mammoth-ivory carving found in the Hohle Fels Cave in the Swabian Jura mountain range in Germany – a charming representation of a flying waterbird, thought by some (not birders, I suspect) to be a cormorant but almost certainly some kind of duck. You can even see the feathers carved on the bird’s side. The only representation of a bird that is older is the Chauvet engraved owl and perhaps a partridge/quail engraving on a flint flake, discussed below.

Before considering this bird’s significance, it is interesting to note what else was found in the Hohle Fels Cave in the period dating from before or around 30,000 BCE. There is an ivory Löwenmensch similar to, although less exquisite and smaller than, the famous one found in the Stadel Cave, which is known to date from about 38,000 BCE. Significantly, these Löwenmensch figurines are not carvings of humans wearing lion masks but of human figures with lion heads. They are monstrous hybrids that could exist only in the human imagination but must have been part of the local belief structure, as we can deduce from the fact that we have two such figurines from two different caves in the Swabian Jura, where one of the earliest settlements of human beings in Europe took place. Our oldest Palaeolithic Venus, possibly a pendant, was unearthed here in 2008 and found to be at least 37,000 years old; fragments of a second one were discovered in 2015. Although it seems slightly younger, dating from about 26,000 BCE, we also have a carved stone phallus measuring nearly 8 inches (20 centimetres), almost certainly associated with some kind of ritual or ceremony concerning procreation and fertility, as are the Palaeolithic Venuses. A stunning find was a fivehole flute made from the wing bone of a griffon vulture dating from about 33,000 BCE – an object suggestive of the dance floor, which is so closely connected to the origins of the sacred. Lastly, dating from about 28,000 BCE, there is a carving of the head of a horse, notably not a major food item for these humans, that is reminiscent of the horses in cave wall art. Clearly, this cave was some kind of sanctuary where religious beliefs were manifested. So, although we can never know the meaning of any Palaeolithic work of art for certain, the fact that the bird carving was found in the same cave as carvings of naked women, a Löwenmensch, a phallus, a horse, and a flute suggests that something more than art classes was taking place in this early cave and that our bird very likely had some kind of cult importance in the belief structure of these early humans.

We also have a number of exquisite flying-bird pendants (and three that are not flying) from the incredible Mal’ta site in Siberia northwest of Lake Baikal, excavated by the Russian archaeologist Mikhail Mikhaylovich Gerasimov. Most of them were found in connection with hearths, and cult status is nearly certain. Several of them were found in the famous grave of a four-year-old child, the same child who clinched the genetic link between the Mal’ta-Buret’ people and North American Indigenous peoples. These mammoth-ivory flying-bird pendants were originally thought to date from 23,000–19,000 BCE, although more recent radiocarbon dating has suggested a somewhat later Magdalenian date around 15,000 BCE.

Mammoth-ivory flying-bird pendants, Mal’ta, ca. 15,000 BC.

Most of the Mal’ta bird figurines represent flying waterfowl, probably swans judging by the long necks. Thirteen of them are very similar in shape and are both phallic and snakelike in form, suggesting connections between the bird deity and two other potent symbols of the sacred.

In western Europe, echoing Mal’ta, we again find representations of waterfowl: a carving of waterfowl with young at the Mas d’Azil Cave, a swan engraved on stone at the Gourdan Cave and one at the Teyjat Cave, a duck/goose engraved on horn at Gourdan and one at the Caves of Nerja, and a duck engraved on stone at the Cave of Espélugues in Lourdes. Michèle Crémades and colleagues illustrate several ducks from the Parapalló and Escabasses Caves and geese from the Labastide and Gourdan Caves.

Waterbirds, such as grebes, loons, ducks, geese, and swans, were sacred to subsistence-hunting peoples in the Palaeolithic and still revered in the Neolithic and historic periods. Diving birds, like the zhingibis (grebe and the maang (loon), still play an important role to this day in Ojibwe trickster stories and creation legends, as well as in the Ojibwe clan system, where we find Crane, Loon, Black Duck, and Goose among the totems. You might well ask, why diving birds? But think about it: grebes, loons, and diving ducks are perhaps the only creatures that are at home in the murky depths of lakes and rivers, nest on dry land, and are at home in the sky, being strong migratory fliers. The ability to survive in all three elements makes them obvious candidates for magical status.

Duck/goose engraved on horn found in the Gourdan Cave, 17,000–10,000 BC.

Equally important, ducks, geese, swans, and cranes are markers of the retreat and reappearance of winter; they are among the last to leave in autumn and the first to arrive in spring. Migration must have been very mysterious and seemed magical, like eclipses and solstices; birds, the sun, and the seasons disappear and then, hopefully, reappear – a source of major anxiety. Wherever did these mysterious beings go? What if they did not reappear? Hence the reverence for waterbirds, the sun, and the spring, along with the need to devise rituals in order to ensure their return. And last but not least, ducks, geese, and swans were a crucial food source for the people who hunted them, collected their eggs, and reaped them in great numbers during the flightless period of the moult. It is natural to revere fellow creatures that you rely on for food. These are birds you would not want to offend lest they abandon you. Perhaps indicative of their power is the touching, late-Neolithic burial at Vedbaek in Denmark of a tiny baby boy next to its young mother, the baby cradled in a whooper swan’s wing. The swan may have been meant to escort the child to the other world.

It is interesting to note that this waterfowl cult persisted in various societies throughout the Neolithic until modern times. In Russia and Siberia, Margarita Aleksandrovna Kiriyak tells us, “[b]irds are a widespread subject of rock drawings in the Neolithic art of north Eurasian tribes. Both waterfowl and birds of prey are encountered among the images.” There are also many carvings. She provides us with a photograph of a beautifully carved, upright goose made of smoky obsidian that is sitting with its neck stretched up, found at the Neolithic Tytyl’ IV site in western Chukhotka. Joseph Campbell points out that “early Russian missionaries and voyagers in Siberia … found among the tribes numerous images of geese with extended wings.” Steven Mithin reminds us that, “[a]mong the nineteenth-century Saami people of northern Europe, swans and waterfowl were the messengers of the gods.” The Canadian High Arctic was peopled by immigrants from Siberia, so we are not surprised to find Palaeo-Eskimo carvings of birds, such as waterbirds, cranes, and falcons, like the carvings of the Dorset (Tuniit) culture (500 BCE–ca. 1200 CE), which long preceded the later Inuit culture. Coastal-dwelling peoples who made their living from the sea revered the seabirds, which were so crucial to their existence. Newfoundland’s Beothuks, for example, appear to have had such “birds at the centre of their belief system.” Beothuks were buried in seaside graves with the feet of actual birds – guillemots – attached to their leggings and with various carved and engraved ivory and bone pendants, of which over 400 have been found, all plausibly identified as representing seabirds’ feet, seabirds’ primary wing feathers, or the tails of Arctic terns in flight. Since one equips the dead with precisely those items needed for the journey to the afterlife, which in this case entailed flight over water to an island paradise, these birds were doubtless crucial helpers serving in their classic role as psychopomps.

In his Folklore of Birds (1958), Edward Armstrong devotes three whole chapters to the ubiquitous cult of waterfowl – geese, swans, and loons in particular – that survives in later, worldwide folklore. This was a tenacious tradition!

Among the long-legged waders, cranes are well attested in Palaeolithic art. Jean-Jacques Cleyet-Merle and Stéphane Madelaine, after careful study of a Magdalenian engraving on a perforated stick of reindeer antler from Laugerie-Basse in the Dordogne region, convincingly established that the engraved wader was a common crane by cleverly fitting two separate pieces back together. They say that there is a striking similarity between this bird and the two engraved on the piece of schist found in the Labastide Cave, which they take to be cranes as well. Crémades and colleagues illustrate a crane-like wader found in the Gargas Cave in the Pyrenees and add three recently discovered engraved cranes, one on a spear point, from Magdalenian sites in the Pyrenees. In the Belvis Cave, there is an engraving on bone of a very odd, horizontal wading bird – longnecked like a crane or heron. In the Morín Cave, there is an engraving on a rib fragment of what appear to be five overlapping bird heads; although Don Hitchcock thinks that they are ducks or swans, I think that they look more like large, long-billed waders – cranes or herons. In any case, this edible, upright, dancing bird, which marked off the seasons by its migration, was obviously very special for early modern humans. It is not surprising, then, that among the special dances performed in ancient Greek sanctuaries was the Crane Dance, performed “with tortuous, labyrinthian movements.”

After the owls in the Chauvet and Trois Fréres Caves, it will come as no surprise that owls figure in Palaeolithic portable art as well. We have at least four very old owl representations dating from about 25,000 BCE at the sites of Dolní Věstonice and Pavlov in Moravia in the Czech Republic. Two are owl pendants, which were probably worn either for clan reasons or as amulets offering protection by a deity, just as one might wear a Saint Christopher medal or a cross around one’s neck today or hang a Magnetic Mary in the car. The other two are baked-clay figurines of owls, neither of which are earless, making them perhaps Eurasian eagle-owls. There is also an Upper Palaeolithic owl carved from an animal tooth that was found in the Mas d’Azil Cave, which is quite similar to the Dolní Věstonice figurines. Lastly, we have a handle of some sort with a carved face of an owl found at the Russian site of Avdeevo dating from about 19,000–18,000 BCE.

Owl pendant found at Pavlov, ca. 25,000 BC.

Waterbirds and owls do not exhaust our list of birds in Palaeolithic portable art. In Mezin, a Magdalenian settlement near Kiev, six little mammoth-ivory figurines of birds were found dating from about 15,000– 13,000 BCE. They are beautifully and delicately carved with fat bodies and flat tails and incised with delicate patterns of lines presenting our earliest known example of the meander pattern. Some are flying birds and some are not, and none of them seem to be waterfowl. They appear to represent plump, edible birds, and judging by their fat bodies and longish, flat tails, my best guess is that they represent some kind of a grouse, partridge, or ptarmigan. They are linked to the goddess motif by the etched pubic triangles – vulva symbols – on their backs.

Ptarmigan will continue to be an important theme in art when we move into the Neolithic. In far northeastern Russia in Chukhotka, among the many small stone bird carvings, we find a number of ptarmigan.

Baked-clay figurine of an owl, Dolní Věstonice, ca. 25,000 BC.

It is noteworthy that grouse and ptarmigan were also revered in western Europe. There is a detailed carving of a grouse, with the head missing, on the end of an atlatl, or spear-thrower, made of antler that was found in Mas d’Azil. The Gönnersdorf Cave, an Upper Palaeolithic site on the Middle Rhine with over 150 engravings of animals on slate, also has a few lifelike bird engravings from around 15,000 BCE, one of which is a ptarmigan. A bird that Armstrong, probably rightly, takes to be a ptarmigan engraved on a reindeer antler was found in the Isturitz Cave. There is an engraving on a limestone pebble from Laugerie-Basse that is either a corvid – scavenging bird – or a capercaillie.

There is a bird engraved using the sunken relief method on a flint flake found at the open-air site Cantalouette II in the Dordogne region. It is interesting because of the sunken relief technique and its Aurignacian origins (33,000–29,000 BCE). It is one of our oldest pieces of Palaeolithic bird art – along with the Hohle Fels waterbird and the Chauvet owl – and it may be a grey partridge or a common quail.

The grouse/ptarmigan can hardly have been a fortuitous choice for carvers; to assume that it is just a pretty design is an anachronistic assumption. Upper Palaeolithic and Neolithic artists did not work that way; this crucial winter food source was probably chosen for clan and totem reasons or because the carvings were seen as fetishes and carried with one to please and appease the grouse spirit. These carvings were not baubles.

There seem to be few Palaeolithic representations of birds other than waterbirds, birds of prey, namely owls, and birds of the grouse type in our early portable art. There is a bird pendant carved from a cave bear’s canine tooth that was found in the Solutrean layer (20,000–15,000 BCE) of the Buxu Cave in Spain. It is thought to be some kind of crake or other member of the Rallidae family, although that is doubtful. There are a few bustards, like the two from the Gourdan Cave, one from Laugerie-Basse, and one from Abri de la Madeleine, although they can be hard to tell from geese. There is a bird, together with a bison, engraved on sandstone in the Cave of Puy-de-Lacan, and it is usually thought to be a long-legged duck or goose, although it is much more likely a bustard. Apart from these edible birds, there are hardly any others.

Mammoth-ivory bird effigy, Mezin, 15,000–13,000 BC.

The great tradition of Palaeolithic art came to an end around 9500 BCE after at least 25,000 years, “perhaps the greatest art tradition humankind has ever known.” The uniformity of subjects and techniques over so long a period is astounding.

What we see in these bird drawings, figurines, pendants, and engravings is a 20,000-year continuum of representations of various birds that demonstrates the persistence of the bird as cult object and sacred amulet throughout the Palaeolithic. It is not accidental that birds, snakes, Venuses, and penises turn up so regularly in this animistic culture, where humans need all the help that they can get to survive. It will not be surprising if earlier finds from the Middle Palaeolithic (298,000–48,000 BCE) turn up, and if they do, we can bet that among them there will be birds.

As we prepare with regret to leave the Palaeolithic and enter the Pre-Pottery Neolithic (10,000–6500 BCE), what can we conclude about the role of birds in human eyes up to this time? Any thought that birds were just pretty or edible creatures that could serve as the subjects of objets d’art must be banished. As Armstrong puts it, “to man in the Old Stone Age [or Palaeolithic] birds were not merely acceptable as food but symbolized mysterious powers which pervaded the wilderness in which he hungered, hunted and wove strange dreams.” Birds, in various forms, from diving birds to owls and grouse, were sacred and thought to have spirits whose help was sought for coping with life and death. Birds were carved from mammoth ivory, bone, antler, and stone, depicted on atlatls, worn on the body as pendants, buried in the grave with children, carried as fetishes, or simply kept as cult representations deep in caves, where they were painted or etched on the walls of inner sanctum rooms in positions of honour that reflected the degree of sacredness imputed to these feathered deities. From our earliest Upper Palaeolithic finds at Hohle Fels and Chauvet to our youngest ones at Lascaux and Mas d’Azil, the importance of birds for humans remains paramount.


The featured image shows, “Margaret (‘Peg’) Woffington (the actress),” by Jean-Baptiste van Loo, painted ca. 1738.

The Second Vatican Council In Spain: Effects, Answers And Advice

1. The Second Vatican Council As An Event

The French philosopher Alain Badiou defines an event not merely as something important or significant that can occur in any of the different areas of social, political, artistic or scientific life. It is, rather, about a bankruptcy in the field of knowledge or politics, because with the event in question a new situation emerges. In the Catholic world, in general, and in Spain in particular, we can consider the Second Vatican Council as an authentic event. And, as such, as Michel Onfray has maintained, the Second Vatican Council was “the Christian May ’68.”

And, in this event, the new conciliar political theology, as it emerged from the dominant hermeneutic in the Vatican, turned out to be antithetical to the previously dominant one. It signified the triumph of ecumenism; the opening to the left, communism and Marxism included; the final acceptance of liberal democracy as a legitimate political framework for Catholics; the experience of worker-priests; the pacifist option and non-violence; the sweeping aggiornamento; ecumenism; cosmopolitanism; the radical modification of the liturgy; the new scenography of the Eucharistic process, and so and so forth. Commenting on these changes, Onfray, a militant atheist, pointed out that “the Church precipitated the forward movement that heralded its downfall.”

Likewise, at that time, fundamental principles of the Catholic creed were being questioned, such as, the principle of authority, the dogma of the Eucharist, celibacy, divorce, preconjugal sexual relations, orthodoxy itself; and, on a speculative level, the demystification of biblical texts, the appearance of theology without God, the “textual” exegesis of biblical texts, and so on.

However, it does not seem that the agnostic and left-wing intellectuals were very impressed by the new Vaticanist theology. In a profile of the famous Maurrasian traditional Catholic historian, Philippe Ariés, his friend Michel Foucault made reference to “the antics of the Second Vatican Council.”

In few societies like the Spanish one, the repercussions of the new Council were more decisive, especially in conservative and traditionalist sectors, but also for the progressivists and the left opposed to the political regime born of the Civil War. Because traditional Catholicism had been in a country that did not experience the Lutheran Reformation or the separation between Church and State, it was much more than a religion; it was a system of beliefs and morals that had marked the whole of society—its ideas, its mentalities, its politics, its habits of life, etc. For all these reasons, the crisis of traditional Catholicism was a truly national and, above all, a social and political crisis—a fact that also coincided with a decisive change in the economic and social structures of the country.

Under the aegis of the so-called “technocrats,” Spanish society underwent qualitative changes in its social and economic structures. As in the case of the productive structure, there was an incessant and contradictory process of “creative destruction” in the areas of morals, social values and mentalities. The doors were opened to cultural secularization. Tradition was losing its plausibility in the process, in which industrial society was consolidated and stripped of its paradigmatic character for today. As the theologian Olegario González de Cardedal pointed out: “Thus began a process of immanentization of reality with the resultant closure to the transcendent order and eschatological promises.”

“A poor Church, a poor Spain!” Exclaimed the priest, Aniceto de Castro Albarrán, a former contributor to Acción Española, in one of his writings. For the political regime born of the Civil War, the situation was enormously problematic. Its institutions and its civic culture clearly depended on the social doctrine of the Church, a doctrine that came from the era of Pius XI and even from Pius IX, a supporter of the confessional State, of the condemnation of liberalism that starting with the Syllabus and of social and political corporatism. In 1953, the Spanish State had signed a Concordat with the Vatican, which granted multiple privileges to the Catholic Church in educational, moral, social and political matters.

However, the regime tried to convert itself, under the new political and social contexts, into what the liberal philosopher John Rawls has called a “decent hierarchical political system,” which progressively accepted the principles of religious freedom, economics, equality before the law, etc. As the historian Juan Pablo Fusi has pointed out, from the 1960s Spanish society began to enjoy numerous “spaces of freedom,” especially at the level of intellectual debate and the possibility of founding new publishing houses, newspapers and media. In fact, the religious freedom projects promoted by Minister Fernando María Castiella were formulated before the convocation of the Council. In the Organic Law of the State, Spain continued to be confessionally Catholic. The new Spanish legislation was presented to the Pontiff, but its fundamental demands, such as the renunciation of the participation of the government in the appointment of bishops, the privilege of the Fuero, the presence of bishops and priests in official bodies and political institutions, were ignored by Franco.

In any case, for the most conscientious intellectuals and politicians of the regime, the new strategy of the Vatican and of the new pontiff, Giovanni Battista Montini, Paul VI, was clear – for he was a man trained in the doctrines of Jacques Maritain, devoted to the thesis of the “new Christianity,” son of a deputy of the People’s Party of Luigi Sturzo, secretary of the FUCI (Federazione Universitari Cattolici Italiana), supporter of the Christian Democracy, and one of whose teachers had been Father Giulio Bevilacqua, a prominent antifascist priest. Furthermore, the beginning of his pontificate had coincided with the shift to the left of the Christian Democrats, a prelude to the historic compromise. When he was Archbishop of Milan, Montini sent a letter to Franco, on behalf of Jorge Conill, an anarchist sentenced to death for his terrorist activities.

According to some testimonies, Montini had been in favor, after the end of World War II, of the restoration of the Monarchy and the elimination of Franco. Very controversial was the content of the pontifical address of June 24, 1969, in which Montini compared the situation in Spain with that of Vietnam, the Middle East and Nigeria; which caused a harsh reply from Emilio Romero, in the columns of the official Pueblo newspaper. The philosopher Leopoldo-Eulogio Palacios, formerly of Acción Española and author of El mito de la Nueva Cristiandad (The Myth of the New Christianity), a famous criticism of the doctrines of Jacques Maritain, argued that Paul VI was the one who had put into practice the project defended by the French philosopher in his writings. Upon being elected Pontiff, Franco welcomed him like “a bucket of cold water.” However, Franco added with his usual political realism: “He is no longer Cardinal Montini. Now he is Pope Paul VI.”

There could, therefore, not be the slightest doubt that Montini and his acolytes had as their project the end of the Spanish regime, in favor of a Spanish Catholic Church incardinated in the context of European liberal democracies. Actually, there was nothing strange about that attitude. The Vatican is a state with its own political interests, which it tries to impose on the nations of Catholic roots. And, in that sense, the Vatican hierarchy had long considered an authoritarian and confessional system, such as the Spanish one, to be dysfunctional. As Carl Schmitt pointed out, the political activity of the Catholic Church is characterized by “astonishing elasticity;” it is “a complexio oppositorum.” “There does not seem to be any contradiction that she is not able to encompass.” A clear example of this was its strategy throughout the twenties and thirties of the last century.

On the one hand, the condemnation of L’Action française, in 1926, accusing it of exacerbated nationalism, to reach a pact with the Third Republic; on the other, the Lateran Pacts with Mussolini’s fascist Italy. And, as Antonio Gramsci pointed out, “the Vatican is more realistic than Maurras and better conceives the formula of politique d’abord.” It was not, of course, a disruptive strategy at the social level; quite the opposite. To employ again a Gramscian conceptualization, it was a project of “passive revolution,” and the guarantor of a balance between the new social, political and religious forces. Or, what comes to the same thing – a guarantee, in a new political context, of the privileges of the Catholic Church, in social and educational matters, achieved throughout the Franco regime: Change what was considered an accessory, for what the ecclesiastical apparatus considered essential.

Although the Vatican’s project was objectively reformist, it received, as we will see, the help, sometimes direct and at other times indirect, from the emerging sectors of progressive and even revolutionary Spanish Catholicism and against the representatives of conservatism and traditionalism—and ultimately against the regime of General Franco.

Faced with these offensives, there was no unitary or common strategy, tactic or response on the part of the political and intellectual forces affected by the regime, or simply conservatives. And thus it is that considering the Franco regime as a homogeneous whole is wrong. Undoubtedly, there was a reaction that we could call traditionalist, which was the loudest; but it was not, nor could it be, the most effective. Likewise, there was an alternative, from the positions of a new positivist conservatism, consisting of assuming the secularizing process with all its consequences. And another, apart from the Vatican project overseen in Spain by Vicente Enrique y Tarancón, that was assumed from Catholic-conservative positions, namely, the principle of religious freedom.

2. The Progressive Offensive

Years later, the philosopher and theologian Adolfo Muñoz Alonso lamented, anticipating not the decline of the Falange as an effective political force, but that of the regime born of the Civil War: “…the political mistake of the confessional organizations that have shunned the clarity and the distinction of ideas and aspirations in the field of the specific apostolate ‘and’ the politicization of the Second Vatican Council combining heterogeneous factors.”

The progressive hermeneutics of the new papal encyclicals and of the theological-political content of the Second Vatican Council was, at least in certain political and intellectual spheres, decisive. Very significant, in this regard, was the interpretation of the content of the encyclical Pacem in Terris, by John XXIII, which was made by certain liberal, Christian Democrat and socialist sectors. The Taurus publishing house brought out, in 1963, a book entitled, Comentarios a la Pacem in Terris (Comments to the Pacem in Terris), in which Mariano Aguilar Navarro, José María Díez Alegría, Manuel Giménez Fernández, Eduardo García de Enterría, Lorenzo Martín Retortillo and others collaborated.

Giménez Fernández highlighted the eagerness of Juan XXIII for renewal. García de Enterría pointed out that the Catholic Church had abandoned “indifference to the forms of government” to explicitly embrace “the democratic principle” and with the definitive “abandonment of what the ancient doctrine called monarchy,” and of “political paternalism.” For his part, Martín Retortillo pointed out “the happy coincidence that exists in many of its points” between the pontifical doctrine and that of the French politician Pierre Mendès France in his book, A Modern French Republic, which was translated into Spanish by the Aguilar publishing house; and he concluded that in the encyclical the fundamental rights were not limited to the negative ones of a liberal nature, but also to the positive ones, such as, that of social security.

The doctrinal and intellectual offensive of the self-proclaimed progressive or conciliar Catholicism was decisive, especially in the university and intellectual fields and among the youth. Its main champions were theologians, such as, José María Díez Alegría and José María González Ruíz, and intellectuals, such as, José Luis López Aranguren. Its ideas were disseminated by prestigious publishers, such as, Taurus, Edicusa, Alianza, Peninsula and Guadarrama; and it was highlighted in magazines, such as, Cuadernos para el Diálogo (which was edited by Franco’s former minister Joaquín Ruíz Giménez), Triunfo and El Ciervo. There were some popularizers of Catholic progressivism, or of the so-called Liberation Theology, such as, Enrique Miret Magdalena. Significant was the publication by the Taurus publishing house of the complete works of the heterodox Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who had been accused of being a modernist by many Catholic theologians and by official science, but whose ideas were well received by progressive Catholic sectors.

Among Taurus’s first books was the work of José María Díez Alegría, who reinterpreted natural law, in which he showed himself to be a revisionist of Catholic natural law. In this respect, he understood that the norms of natural law were susceptible not only to exceptional variation, but to some historical variability, and thus the norms were limited by circumstantial determinations, and, in any case, subject to the double effect moral principle. Furthermore, natural law evolved historically in the ever more perfect knowledge of this principle and in its progressive application to social life.

The introducer in Spain of certain aspects of what would later be called Liberation Theology was Canon José María González Ruíz, by way of his book, El cristianismo no es un humanismo (Is Not Christianity A Humanism?), in whose pages he defended a “theology of the world.” It was an attempt to reconcile Christianity with worldly, social reality. His objective was dialogue with Marxism, especially for its criticism of religion as a system of alienation or “estrangement.” Faced with this interpretation, González Ruíz argued that Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular, were “essentially materialistic;” that the Christian ethic was “primarily projected toward man rather than toward God;” and that the Catholic Church had to “make concrete and committed decisions in the face of individual and collective human situations.” In that sense, he mentioned “our Marxist brothers.” He interpreted the Second Vatican Council as a “monumental self-review.” And he advocated the encounter with Marxism on a “common ground.”

However, the most charismatic representative of Catholic progressivism was José Luis López Aranguren, who in his book, El marxismo como moral (Marxism as Moral) advocated, like González Ruíz, a dialogue between Christians and Marxists. For López Aranguren, Marxism was not a scientific doctrine, but “moral voluntarism,” which coincided with Christianity in its criticisms of capitalism, propitiating a “reaction to previous religious individualism.”

At the same time, López Aranguren was very critical of the reality of official Catholicism. In his understanding, a point of “total secularization” had been reached; that is, the destruction of the distinction between the sacred and the profane. A phenomenon that had had a powerful impact on the reality of the Catholic Church. Such a crisis had manifested itself in the pontificate of John XXIII and in the Second Vatican Council, and had an impact on theology itself, on the discussions around dogmas, on the very notion of orthodoxy, on biblical hermeneutics and of revelation, and so on. The social and political phenomenon par excellence was the “contest.” The paradox of a “theology without God” had even been reached. López Aranguren rejected the existence of religious orders and considered secular institutes “spiritually poor.” His pessimism about the future of Catholicism was very remarkable, because the Second Vatican Council had unleashed “forces that were very difficult to contain,” so that “humanly speaking, I cannot expect much from Catholicism.”

Along with these charismatic leaders of progressive or oppositional Catholicism, there were a series of epigones among which were the young theologians Enrique Miret Magdalena, Casiano Floristán, Enrique Iniesta, Antonio Aradillas, José María Llanos, Tomás Malagón, and José Luis Martín Vigil (author of a significant novel entitled, Los curas comunistas (The Communist Priests). Synthesizing the approaches of these priests, Miret Magdalena highlighted his animosity towards the idea of religious unity, which, in his view, was of “pagan and non-Christian origin;” the commitment to the working class; the defense of the fundamental values of Christianity, that is, just peace, social love, real freedom and respect for personal conscience. “And whoever does not accept these values, no matter how much he says he believes in all dogmas, he is not a Christian and, therefore, he cannot be a Catholic.”

In the same way, we must highlight the influence of the Instituto Fe y Secularidad, organized by Jesuits, such as, Alfonso Álvarez Bolado and José Gómez Caffarena, whose objective was to raise the dialogue between Christians and Marxists.

The phenomenon of worker priests was generalized in Spain in the 1960s. A pioneer was Father José María Llanos, who in 1955 settled in the neighborhood of El Pozo del Tío Raimundo, and later was a member of the PCE. Perhaps this phenomenon’s most charismatic representative was Francisco García Salve, a militant Jesuit of the Workers’ Commissions and the PCE.

In 1973 the group, Cristianos por el Socialismo (Christians for Socialism) appeared in Spain, founded by Juan N. García Nieto, Alfonso Carlos Comín, Pedro Ribera, Juan Pujades, Father José María Llanos and the historian, María del Carmen García Nieto. The most charismatic militant of this group was, without a doubt, José Carlos Comín, of Carlist descent, who managed to give a supposedly messianic image, with an eloquent and prophetic oratory, not exempt at times from a certain exhibitionism. His own face, that of a contemporary Jesus Christ, sought to give a new image of committed and revolutionary Christianity.

At the same time, new Christian-inspired unions appeared, such as, the Unión Sindical Obrera, which emerged from the Catholic Workers’ Youth. Likewise, emerged the first Workers’ Commissions, whose members came, generally, from Catholic sectors; and many Catholics were part of the Maoist Revolutionary Workers’ Organization. And the deeds of the revolutionary priest, Camilo Torres, those of Che Guevara, the new Christ resurrected, or the Chilean experiment in socialism, promoted by Salvador Allende, with the support of some left-wing Catholics, were glorified as examples. In this context, the homilies that were fined were abundant, the difficulties of the self-proclaimed grassroots Catholic movements were many, and the priestly fitting out of jails in Zamora significant.

Naturally, this process had to generate its own dialectic; and generate it did. Conservative and traditional groups had to seek an answer to the new context; but, as we have already pointed out, it was not a common answer, but a diverse one.

3. The Traditional Reaction

Previous to the Council, the traditional Spanish Catholic sectors had focused their attention on the criticism of figures, such as, Miguel de Unamuno and, above all, José Ortega y Gasset, prototypes of heterodoxy. Good proof of this was the content of magazines such as Arbor, in the 1940s, and then in the mid-1950s Punta Europa, financially supported by the Oriol family and edited by the traditionalist writer, Vicente Marrero Suárez.

Then, in the conciliar context, Verbo magazine came to existence, which gradually became the intellectual organ of Spanish traditionalist Catholicism. The new magazine was considered heir to Acción Española, although its model was La Cité Catholique, edited by the former Maurrasian, Jean Ousset. Among its founders were Eugenio Vegas Latapié, Juan Vallet de Goytisolo and Estanislao Cantero. Its most common contributors were Rafael Gambra, Álvaro D´Ors, Vicente Marrero, Francisco Javier Fernández de la Cigoña, Francisco Elías de Tejada, Blas Piñar López, Gabriel de Armas, Francisco Canals Vidal, Bernardo Monsegú, Julián Gil de Sagredo, Eustaquio Guerrero , Gabriel Alferez Callejón, José Guerra Campos, Jerónimo Cerdá Bañuls, and so forth; as well as French traditionalists, such as, Jean Madiran, Marcel Clement, Marcel de Corte, Michel Creuzet, Jean Ousset, or the Brazilian Plinio Correa de Oliveira.

Significantly, numerous writings of the Archbishop of Dakar, Marcel Lefebvre, known for his criticism of the doctrinal development of the Second Vatican Council, were published in the magazine. However, it never intended to break from the Vatican, so Verbo also published writings of the doubting Montini, in which the continuity between the doctrine of Vatican II and Catholic tradition was defended. Although, in one of its first issues, the Syllabus of Pius IX also appeared.

Verbo was always marked by nostalgia for past times. It was and still is a traditionalist, Thomistic magazine. Its political model was the traditional, Catholic and corporate monarchy of Acción Española. Eugenio Vegas Latapié rejected, following Charles Maurras, the concept of “organic democracy.” And Vallet de Goytisolo published numerous writings subjecting to criticism the doctrinal foundations of the technocracy, which he accused of being an ideology heir to the Enlightenment, secularizing, mechanistic and atheistic. In his works, Vallet de Goytisolo rejected mass society, which he reproached for its lack of its own hierarchical structure, which implied “the disappearance of intermediate bodies, the extension of functions, the progress of the technology of propaganda,” “religious uprooting,” “the destruction of traditions,” “dialectical materialism,” and the “elimination of the transcendent.” As an alternative, Vallet de Goytisolo advocated a return to classical natural law and traditional society; what he called “the natural legal order” and the “pluralism of natural or intermediate societies within which the State must limit itself to complying with the principle of subsidiarity.”

In 1965, Editorial Católica Española (the Spanish Catholic Publishing House) created the Vedruna Prize, endowed with 100,000 pesetas, “to promote the study of Catholic Unity as the political-social foundation of Spain, regardless of the theological order that exceeded that purpose.” The award jury was made up of Juan Iglesias Santos, Blas Piñar López, Raimundo de Miguel, Jesús María Liaño Pacheco and Jaime de Carlos and Gómez Rodulfo. The prize was awarded to the traditionalist philosopher, Rafael Gambra, author of the famous, Historia sencilla de la Filosofía (Simple History of Philosophy), for his book, La unidad religiosa y el derrotismo católico (Religious unity and Catholic Defeatism), published by Editorial Católica Española, with a foreword by Juan Vallet de Goytisolo. In the work, Gambra limited himself to defending the topics of traditionalism, with abundant quotations from Joseph de Maistre, Donoso Cortés and Menéndez Pelayo, whose foundation was the defense of Spanish Catholic unity as a platform for political, social and moral cohesion. For Gambra, a Catholic could not accept the separation of political power from the moral and religious order. The “regime of neutral coexistence” was an inheritor of the Lutheran Reformation and of “rationalism” and “statism,” which “are areligious and agnostic plants in the soil.” Secularism was synonymous with “apostasy.”

Some theologians collaborating with the Punta Europa magazine expressed themselves in identical terms when criticizing the exegesis of liberal or left-wing intellectuals and theologians. In an editorial, the magazine endeavored to demonstrate that the concept of freedom defended in Pacem in Terris was the same as that coined by Leo XIII in Libertas. Luis Vitoria denounced the confusion of some theologians, in particular, Enrique Miret Magdalena, with respect to pontifical innovations, because “only fidelity to the traditional makes true progress possible.”

However, the main issues were those of religious freedom and the confessional state. From his natural law perspective, Father Vitorino Rodríguez argued that under the concept of religious freedom very different meanings could be understood. In this regard, he denied that “false religions were assisted by a natural right to public profession and proselytism, because a religious attitude due to error…is incompatible with the hallmarks of natural law: universal, inviolable, printed in the nature of every man.”

At best, what a Catholic state could do was “tolerate,” for reasons of political prudence, the public presence of other religions. Along the same lines, the Jesuit Eustaquio Guerrero affirmed that there was no reason why, after the Council, Spanish society should abandon the confessional state and the principle of Catholic unity; there was only “the prejudice and passion of progress that seeks to reconcile the Church with the world through the burial of Constantinian Catholicism and the delivery, in the press, of Spain to the liberal and Protestant world.”

The Spanish Church was experiencing profound disagreements within itself. Between 1966 and 1968, the crisis of Acción Católica (Catholic Action) took place, which practically led to its disappearance. Meanwhile, on March 1, 1966, with the presence of the nuncio Riberi and the attendance of seventy bishops, the Spanish Episcopal Conference was established. Its first president was Cardinal Quiroga Palacios, with Morcillo as more or less its vice-president, and José Guerra Campos, its general secretary. All of them were faithful to Franco and traditional orthodoxy. However, the strategy of the Vatican soon became noticeable. From 1969 to 1971, the presidency fell to Casimiro Morcillo. But on his death, Vicente Enrique y Tarancón, Montini’s man in Spain, took office. During the Civil War, the Levantine priest had been a fervent champion of the “Crusade.” Later, he was appointed bishop of Solsona. Franco himself, as Tarancón recognized in his Confesiones (Confessions), wanted him to occupy the headquarters at Oviedo, Toledo and Madrid.

Then Tarancón was appointed secretary of the Conference of Metropolitans, predecessor of the Spanish Episcopal Conference, and rapporteur of the Synod of Bishops in Rome. He participated in the Second Vatican Council, where he met Montini. His pastoral work continued in Oviedo, where he was coadjutor archbishop. He acceded to the archbishopric of Burgos and later that of Toledo as Primate of Spain. Paul VI gave him the cardinal’s hat in 1969. Until then, he had not shown any progressive fickleness. At all times, he was a typical man of the ecclesiastical apparatus. In the context of the time, he managed to embody, at a strategic level, a relative “center” between progressives and traditionalists, to carry out Paul VI’s project of “passive revolution.” In public, he portrayed himself as a pragmatic and worldly man. His opinion of General Franco was always positive; he described him as “a nice man, very talkative… He spoke of Spain with passion and of the Church as if he were party to all her secrets.” He reproached Franco, however, for “not having understood the Council.”

Tarancón’s antagonistic opposite was the ascetic, José Guerra Campos, who soon became known, in traditional circles as, “The Bishop of Spain.” Tarancón was aware of this antagonism when, in an interview, he described Guerra Campos as “a deep man, a great researcher, somewhat extreme.” Guerra Campos showed himself above all be an intellectual, a theologian and a philosopher. He was not a pragmatist like Tarancón. Unlike other members of the clergy, he became familiar with Marxist philosophy, Kantism, and the evolutionism of Teilhard de Chardin. In a conference at the University of Santiago de Compostela, he lectured on Marx. This was positively valued by the Italian communist newspaper, L’Unitá. The Galician priest participated in the famous Gredos Talks. And he was a consultant to the Spanish Episcopate at the Council. Shortly after, he was appointed titular bishop of Mustia and auxiliary of Madrid-Alcalá in June 1964 and 1965. He participated in the sessions of the Council of 1964 and 1965, with a special intervention on Marxist atheism.

Guerra Campos always denied that Vatican II represented a break with traditional Catholic doctrine. His criticism focused on what he called the “noisy manipulation of the Council,” in clerical circles, with a “disregard for the basic texts,” and “with the interpretation of others in the light of some future, imaginary Vatican Councils II.” The very term aggiornamento did not mean revision according to the dominant spirit of the time, but within tradition, a “wise interpretation of the spirit of the Council that we have celebrated, and the final application of its norms.” For this reason, he rejected the obsession to revise or reject all the content of the tradition, concluding that the novelty was positive per se; and that the Church of other times was obtuse “when the Second Vatican Council has not substituted or suppressed a single truth of faith and a single moral principle of the previous catechisms.” Far from any relativism, the Council had defined Catholicism as the only true religion, because “God wanted to manifest himself fully in Christ, who reconciles all things to himself.” The Church was the bearer of “a revelation that constitutes at the same time, the call and the answer of God for those who seek… Christ is the totality of religious life, he is the only way of salvation.”

In contrast, Guerra Campos accused certain theologians of “imposing the dictatorship on matters of opinion, where the appreciations of the believers are free, while on the other hand all daring against dogmas is tolerated.” When criticizing the dissenters, Guerra Campos took advantage of Montini’s famous speech, delivered on June 29, 1972, in which it was stated that “the smoke of Satan has entered the Church,” to denounce the innovations that he considered dangerous such as “the Church’s retreat to the passions of the world… emptying the faith of its revealed contents… to practically confuse it with a current of opinion and desires of this time… reducing the mission of the Church to a temporary action, a revolutionary political action.” One of the mainstays of his speech was the defense of the Catholic confessional state: “The true religion (we call true religion not a human religion, but the one that springs from the manifestation of Christ, the revelation of God in History), has the maximum right, the exclusive right to be recognized as such and to be, as such, favored: not with coercion, but with positive help so that this message, which is a gift of God, really reaches to all men.”

For Guerra Campos, Christianity was the appropriate response to the two humanisms that were vying for hegemony in the modern world: exalted humanism, whose greatest exponent was Marxism; and the humanism of depression, represented above all by atheistic existentialism. Both led to “slavery.” Even less effective was “scientism,” which, according to the expositions of the biologist Jacques Monod, led to “the radical denial of freedom.” Guerra Campos was to be the doctrinal inspiration for some of the traditionalist groups that came to light as a response to the innovations of the moment.

Not by chance, on May 2, 1966, Fuerza Nueva appeared as a publishing company and, above all, as a political pressure group. Its leaning was clearly traditional Catholic. Its great promoter, Blas Piñar López, did not come from the Falange, nor from Carlism; nor was he a supporter of technocracy. Son of a military defender of the Alcázar of Toledo, Piñar came from Catholic Action. His ideology drew from the sources of Sardá and Salvany, Ramiro de Maeztu, Manuel García Morente convert, Juan Vázquez de Mella, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, and the Catholic propagandist, Manuel Siurot. The old Falangist writer, Ernes-to Giménez Caballero defined him as a champion of “a new Traditionalism, heir to what a Mella, an Aparisi and Guijarro defended.” Appointed director of the Institute of Hispanic Culture in 1957, he held the position until January 1962, when he was suddenly dismissed because of a newspaper article, entitled, “Hypocrites,” and published in ABC, in which he bitterly criticized the international policy of the United States, on the eve of negotiations concerning the permanence of North American bases in Spanish territory. However, Franco personally appointed him attorney in Cortes, one of the so-called Cuarenta de Ayete (Forty of Ayete—procuradors).

The first issue of Fuerza Nueva magazine appeared in December 1966, in which it set out its “reason for being,” and brought about by the progressive denaturalization of the regime born of the Civil War: “We understand that the ideological baggage of our Regime cannot be liquidated in a cheap auction, and that its deep roots, which have their life in the Spanish tradition and in the national revolution, demand that the ruling minorities act to further their evolution, their development, their perfection, their purity and their refined loyalty to the principles that were forged as their doctrinal foundation, but never to their mythologization, to their misleading and sometimes contradictory applications, and, ultimately, to their repeal or abandonment.”

And, thus, Piñar and his acolytes represented, at that time, a political project that no longer coincided, in its essential features, with the renewal pursued by the new ruling elites of the regime and their insertion into the international economic and political framework. Like the rest of the traditionalist sectors, Fuerza Nueva always suffered from what Svetlana Boym calls, “restorative nostalgia,” not a “reflexive” one. Piñar’s project was still that of the “Crusade”—traditional, corporate and confessional monarchy. Verbo traditionalists, Carlists, theologians, Thomist philosophers, military men and Falangists collaborated on the pages of the new magazine. Among its militants appeared the odd neo-fascist, as was the case of Ernesto Milá, soon expelled for his religious heterodoxy. According to Milá, in Fuerza Nueva an “almost Taliban fundamentalism” dominated, where “the religious phenomenon cornered every other element in Piñar’s personal equation.” Fuerza Nueva “aspired above all to carry out a pastoral task and to spread the Catholic religion much more than any political thought, even though for them Catholicism was, in itself, a political definition.”

The religious perspective of Piñar and other members of the regime could be seen in the parliamentary discussions on the project of religious freedom advocated by Minister Fernando María Castiella at the beginning of 1967, and which would be approved in June of that same year. According to the conservative journalist, Torcuato Luca de Tena, who at that time worked as a parliamentary chronicler, there were, on the issue of religious freedom, two parties: the fundamentalist and the progressive.

Of course, in the Spanish context, the so-called “progressives” were, in reality, “fundamentalists, but less.” The “fundamentalists” included, Coronel de Palma, Piñar, Sanz Orrio, Fagoaga, Oriol, Valero Bermejo, Gómez Aranda, and others. And the “progressives” were Lamo de Espinosa, Villegas Girón, Chozas Bermúdez, Mateu de Ros, Fernández Miranda, Martínez Esteruelas, and Herrero Tejedor. “The fundamentalists cited Pius XII, John XXIII and Paul VI in numerical and chronological order. The progressives, in reverse chronological order, cited Paul VI more than John XXIII, and the latter more than Pius XII. The fundamentalists were tenacious and audacious, but they were more of the former than of the latter. Progressives were tough and bold, but they were more of the latter than the former. The fundamentalists read works of Saint Augustine and consulted Aranzadi. The progressives read texts of Saint Thomas Aquinas and leafed through the Medina and Marañón. (Someone dared to quote Maritain, but I swear that only happened once).” The attorneys Bárcenas, Manglano, Piñar, Coronel de Palma, Valero Bermejo and Tena Artigas “fought with admirable tenacity to show the minds of those present the risks of a rupture in our Religious Unit.” While other attorneys, such as Alfredo López, affirmed that “it is not only about defending the possible risks of religious freedom, but about defending religious freedom itself.”

In his speeches, Piñar defended the confessional status of the state as a good; something that could not be identified with Catholic unity. The civil right to religious freedom should not promote religious pluralism, because religious pluralism was contrary to Catholic unity, initiating “apostasy;” it was “bad.”

Among the attorneys opposed to the new legislation were Agustín Asís Garrote, Baron de Cárcer, José María Codón, Luis Coronel de Palma, Miguel Fagoaga, Luis Gómez de Aranda, Fermín Izurdiaga, Jesús López Medel, Lucas María de Oriol, Fermín Sanz Orrio and Piñar himself.

Almost at the same time, the Spanish Priestly Brotherhood (Hermandad Sacerdotal de San Antonio María Claret and San Juan de Ávila) emerged, which was formed on November 19, 1968. It had received the approval of Casimiro Morcillo. And its Governing Board was formed by the Franciscan, Miguel Oltra, as president; Francisco Santa Cruz was vice-president; Venancio Marcos, secretary; and Pablo María de la Sierra was treasurer. Its main figure was Miguel Oltra.

The Brotherhood appeared in public on July 9, 1969, in Segovia, before the tomb of San Juan de la Cruz. Two months earlier, on May 12, the San Antonio María Claret Priests and Religious Association, which brought together hundreds of Catalan priests and religious, had met in Vic, and before the tomb of the famous confessor of Isabella II, they deposited their Declaration of Priestly Principles and Criteria. The Segovian act was attended by some five hundred priests, as well as the Cardinal Archbishop of Tarragona and some bishops.

In its Declaration of Principles, the Brotherhood declared its “firm adherence to the Chair of Peter.” Its doctrinal sources were Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium. It criticized progressivism, which was accused of marginalizing “the supernatural order or at least disfiguring it by wanting to replace it with a declericalized sociomorphism, which does not know what to do with the priestly mission in modern society.” The dignity of the priesthood lay in “the priestly function of Christ… intermediate between God and men,” the consequence of which was the resounding affirmation of celibacy. It denounced that in the seminars the great masters of theology had been replaced by “amateurs” and “minstrels,” at the “service of political subversion.” No less serious seemed to them “moral errors” and “general corruption of customs.” And this it was that there was “a great crisis of authority and obedience.” It criticized the insistence on responsibility and maturity: “Prudence has reason to be when it is put at the service of Faith, Hope and Charity.” It advocated “social justice,” but not at the cost of faith in the supernatural: “The supernatural and Revelation mark infinite solutions to temporality… Our pastoral care has to be exercised in connection with the divine. Any other temporalistic attitude degrades and desecrates the sacred mission that the Lord has entrusted to us.” In this sense, the condemnation of communism, liberalism and the so-called “Prophetic Groups” was radical: “It is our duty to denounce them and point the finger at them.” Against ecumenism, patriotism: “We consider Patriotism as a virtue included in the fourth commandment of the Law of God. Our apostolate is not exercised in the abstract but in concrete souls, in those close to us, and these are the Spanish. Our Patriotism becomes Catholic ecumenism if we channel our people to Christ.” The Brotherhood had as an organ of diffusion the magazine, Dios lo quiere (God Wills It).

The traditional front experienced a relative reinforcement with the emergence of another doctrinal organ, the Iglesia-Mundo magazine, whose first issue appeared on April 16, 1971, with the support of Archbishop Morcillo and the bulk of the conservative and traditional sector of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. It also enjoyed some support from the regime, particularly from Admiral Carrero Blanco. One of its inspirers was Guerra Campos. Its director was Jaime Caldevilla García-Villar, a Carlist fighter in the Civil War, a graduate in philosophy and the law, and a journalist. Its main contributors were linked to the Spanish Priestly Brotherhood, Verbo and Fuerza Nueva, namely, Victorino Rodríguez, Bernardo Monsegú, Luis Madrid Corcuera, José Ricart Torrens, Luis Vera, Gonzalo Vidal, Vicente Marrero, Vallet de Goytisolo or Adolfo Muñoz Alonso.

Less important was the magazine, Qué pasa? (What’s Happening?), edited by the extravagant convert Joaquín Pérez Madrigal, a true champion of fundamentalism; and El Alcázar, which has become the organ of the Spanish Confederation of Ex-Combatants.

4. Political And Symbolic Conflicts

At the beginning of the 1960s, conflicts between the regime and a part of the clergy were frequent, particularly in Catalonia and the Basque Country, where sectors of the Church continued to support nationalist demands. In this process, the Montserrat Monastery played an important role in Catalonia, where the famous magazine, Serra D´Or was published, which gradually became an organ of Catalanism and rebellious Catholicism. In the Basque Country, a sector of the clergy supported not the clandestine PNV, but the terrorist organization ETA.

However, the most decisive conflict arose years later, when the so-called Joint Assembly of Bishops and Priests was convened between September 13 and 18, 1971. Based on a series of surveys among priests, its objectives were reduced, in theory, to deal with the problems that affected the Spanish Church; to seek solutions and facilitate ways of dialogue between priests and bishops; and deepen the meaning of the priestly ministry. The surveys apparently reflected a deep malaise in the clergy, who appeared disoriented on issues such as morality, politics, priestly ministry, disillusionment with the results of the Council, problems of faith, punishment, criticism and rejection of the alliance with political power, and so on. In practice, its leitmotif was clearly political, that is, to go a step further in the disassociation of the Catholic Church from the Franco regime. According to Martín Descalzo, this was one of “the greatest hours” of Cardinal Tarancón’s life. Descalzo described the event as an Assembly “without extremists,” that is, without integrationists or progressives.

The traditionalist sectors criticized, from the first moment, the convocation. The canonist Salvador Muñoz Iglesias considered it “unnecessary [and] counterproductive… based on the results of a survey whose approach seems tendentious and whose data does not have the value that it is intended to give them.” Some bishops such as Guerra Campos, García Sierra, Cantero, Delgado Gómez and members of Opus Dei were equally adverse. Especially harsh were the criticisms of the Priestly Brotherhood: “With regard to the celebration of the Assembly, an adequate spiritual preparation is lacking.” The Brotherhood also denounced “the intimate feeling that the last lines of the Assembly were drawn beforehand and not precisely by the Episcopal Conference.

Whatever was said, nothing was going to alter the prefabricated result.” It was a “clerical movement of doubts, questions and problems.” In the same way, the Brotherhood condemned “its exaggerated and tendentious “democratism,” which does not harmonize with the hierarchical character of the Church; and its obsession with ‘extremism,’ which is not convincingly clarified or defined, to know what is and is not an evangelical requirement. Thus, they place themselves in fashionable ambivalences, leaning almost blatantly towards those who sound the loudest and get the most noise in the divided river of the Spanish clergyman.”

As a reply, the Priestly Brotherhood convened an alternative Assembly, which was held at the Residence for Religious of the Sagrada Familia de la Moraleja, with the participation of theologians such as Román Orbe, Francisco Paula Solá, Antonio Peinador Navarra, Jesús González Quevedo and Antonio Meseguer Montoya. Some sixty-two priests participated in the Assembly. In its conclusions, the documents on which the convocation of the Joint Assembly was based were rejected; its postponement and its “reorientation to safer theological and ecclesiastical bases” were demanded. It accused the conveners with defending their “own monologue” and of not playing “fair” in the designation of certain dioceses. Ecclesiastical celibacy and its traditional social function were defended; the philosophical, scriptural and theological training to be given in the seminaries was defined; the defense of the Church as a hierarchical society, evangelization, and so forth was asserted.

The conclusions reached by the Joint Assembly emphasized that the State stop intervening in the appointment of bishops, to have freedom of the press, religion, the right to conscientious objection, fundamental rights, and so on. However, the most controversial proposition was the one calling for forgiveness for the attitude of the Spanish Catholic Church during the Civil War: “We humbly acknowledge and ask forgiveness because we did not always know how to be ministers of reconciliation among the people divided by a war between brothers.” A statement as opportunistic as it is ahistorical, which made the strategy of the new hierarchies of the Church very clear. After the debates, the vote was as follows: 123 votes in favor; 113 against; and 10 null; which meant that it was not approved because it required two thirds majority. “I was in complete agreement with the substance of the proposal,” said Tarancón, “but I think it was not wise to refer so clearly to the war. That gave many weapons to begin their attack and in fact many changed their position and went from satisfaction to criticism. That politicized the assembly more than anything.”

In response, Miguel Oltra sent a letter to Tarancón, protesting the content of the proposal: “We are willing to suffer all the persecutions rather than deny our fidelity to the true Church of Christ, and to the ideals for which thirteen of our bishops were murdered and seven thousand priests.” Guerra Campos accused the Assembly of fomenting division in the clergy. And, regarding the issue of the Civil War, he accused the assembly of being “political and unjust… The accusation, which could be partially true in individual cases, is not fair when viewed globally. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church in the years preceding the war fostered, despite the persecutory climate of legislation and the streets, a spirit of compliance and collaboration with the constituted powers of the Republic … The movement the defense that took place in Spain, both to contain the dissolution of society and to save a series of spiritual values, sprang spontaneously from thousands and thousands of lay Catholics, who acted under their own responsibility. It is a fact that the hierarchy and the clergy in general did not induce armed action.”

Iglesia-Mundo highlighted the number of priests killed during the Civil War, along with images of the destruction of churches and religious objects. Archbishop Marcelino Olaechea objected that it was intended to bury the Church of the “Crusade” in “the night of oblivion.”

The historian Ricardo de la Cierva, Franco’s official biographer, commenting on the content of the Assembly, pointed out that the Church’s strategy sought, in the face of the conciliar phenomenon and given its reactionary historical trajectory, to recover lost time. As a Catholic historian, to Cierva it seemed “painful, incomprehensible and absurd,” and “a flat, absurd and inconsistent inversion, putting off such recovery sometime in the future.” In that sense, it seemed as if a kind of “anarcho-Christianity” was emerging. In that sense, it seemed as if a kind of “anarcho-Christianity” was emerging.

Faced with such onslaughts, the president of the government, Luis Carrero Blanco, himself a traditional Catholic, had nothing to do with criticizing what he considered a betrayal on the part of the Church. Not without reason, the admiral recalled the material aid given to the Catholic Church since the end of the Civil War by the state, which had spent “some 300,000 million pesetas in the construction of churches, seminaries, charity and teaching centers, maintenance of the faith, and so on.” Soon there was reference in the press to “Carrero the Big Fuss.”

In this context, the appearance of the Tácito group, which emerged in 1973, had special relevance, most of whose members came from Asociación Católica de Propagandistas (the Catholic Association of Propagandists), which, in those years, had downplayed the “National” part of its name, for it said it was “fleeing from national-Catholicism.” Its organ of expression was the newspaper YA, and its members included, José Luis Alvarez, Luis Apostua, Fernando Arias Salgado, Landelino Lavilla, Marcelino Oreja, Juan Manuel Otero Novas, Alfonso Osorio, and others. Its political project was defined as “legal reformism.” The Tacitans advocated a gradual evolution towards liberal democracy from the current legislation, through the incorporation of human rights, into the Spanish legal system, the repeal of laws incompatible with such rights, a legislative chamber elected by universal suffrage, jurisdictional unity, and the recognition of regional diversity. And all this backed by “a new pact between a faithful Prince and a free country.”

The traditionalist forces were losing the game. The Confraternity of Priests, Hermandad de Sacerdotes, had convened an International Priest Day in Zaragoza. However, the bishop of the city of the Ebro, Cantero Cuadrado, from the conservative sector, released a statement in which it was noted that the Episcopal Conference did not authorize the convocation. Significantly, Cantero Cuadrado pointed out that the Brotherhood had been warned that its Conferences would only be allowed if “the development of the themes were strictly spiritual and priestly,” and avoiding “any controversy and any confrontation of a personal nature.” For this reason, it was pointed out that the Conference was not authorized or endorsed.”

Father Miguel Oltra protested against the attitude of the hierarchy that contrasted with its permissiveness towards the left, having allowed a meeting, held in El Escorial, of the association Fe Cristiana y Cambio Social en Hispanoamérica (Christian Faith and Social Change in Latin America), which brought together supporters of the Liberation Theology and Christian-Marxist dialogue. Finally, the Conference was held, but without the support of the Episcopal Conference or the Vatican. Guerra Campos did not attend, although he sent a telegram of support. The Conference began on September 26 at the Basilica del Pilar. In the homily, Oltra criticized the politics of hierarchy, Liberation Theology, and more specifically the heterodox theologian, Hans Küng.

The Episcopal Conference was controlled by Tarancón. And, to a large extent, Guerra Campos was marginalized. On April 13, 1973, his appointment as the new archbishop of Cuenca was made public. The ceremony of entry into the diocese had a small number of attendees from among the hierarchies, highlighting the presence of Marcelo González Martín; which reflected the estrangement from the Episcopal Conference of the new bishop of Cuenca. In a note entitled, “Normas del obispado y acuerdos de la Conferencia Episcopal” (“Norms of the Bishopric and Agreements of the Episcopal Conference”), published in the Bulletin of the diocese, the powers of the Episcopal Conference regarding the actions of bishops were stated. This provoked new criticism from the followers of Tarancón, such as the magazine Vida Nueva.

The assassination of Admiral Carrero Blanco by the terrorist organization ETA on December 20, 1973 once again highlighted the discrepancies between the different sectors of the Church. His burial was the occasion for a noisy, but not excessively large, demonstration organized by members of the Confraternity of Priests, like Venancio Marcos, and Fuerza Nueva, with Blas Piñar at the forefront, where the Civil Guard, the Army were cheered and shouts of “Tarancón to the wall” given. The Levantine cardinal was in charge of officiating the funeral in a very tense atmosphere. One of the ministers, Julio Rodríguez, refused to shake the cardinal’s hand during the ceremony, which was later reproached by Franco himself.

Under the mandate of the new president of the government, Carlos Arias Navarro, the political and symbolic conflict did not cease; quite the opposite. It was not only the house arrest of the bishop of Bilbao, Antonio Añoveros and his projected expulsion from Spanish territory, for a homily in defense of Basque; which further worsened relations between the regime and the Catholic Church. Franco, apparently advised by Marcelo González, had his prime minister rectify matters; he did not want a direct conflict with the Vatican, which he knew he would lose. Added to this were the cultural and symbolic conflicts caused by the new “openness” policy promoted by the new minister, Pío Cabanillas.

The premieres of Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell once again scandalized the traditionalists. They did not take long to demand the prohibition of the two works and the intervention of the Episcopal Conference. In effect, from its perspective, a Jesus Christ was shown, “not as a son of God, but as a fearful social leader.” And the same happened with Godspell, in which Jesus appeared as “a hysterical and screaming rock opera singer. Surrounded by half-naked whores, mediocre apostles and a libidinous Magdalene who caresses Jesus continuously, highlighting her carnal appetites.” For the editors of Iglesia-Mundo, it was a sample of “blasphemous colonialism.” Julián Gil de Sagredo described Godspell as a “sacrilegious and blasphemous play.” The playwright Pablo Villamar, a member of Fuerza Nueva, presented as an alternative a play entitled, Jesucristo Libertador (Jesus Christ, Liberator).

For its part, the Confraternity of Priests convened a conference at the end of September 1974 in Cuenca, under the aegis of Guerra Campos. In the course of the Conference, the sympathetic press highlighted the figure of the priest and theologian, Luis Vera, canon of the Cathedral of Malaga. Vera accused the progressive theologians of being “the paratroopers the devil,” whose claim was “to give birth to new churches from five-star hotels.” At the end of the event, Vera, a short man, was hoisted up by some of his fellow priests, as highlighted in a photo by Pueblo newspaper.

For Vera, the new theologians were neither Spanish nor theologians, because “they do not use the weapons of Tradition and the Magisterium of the Church;” and they were limited to “copying foreigners.” He denounced “Philosophy” and then “Liberal Theology” as “Trojan horses” to subvert the Church from within. “Next to her, the subversion led by existentialism and Marxism.” He criticized González Ruíz and Díez Alegría, both of whom he accused of trying to sell us “a faith without faith, which wants to substitute God for man, charity for philanthropy and faith itself for revolution, violent if necessary.” Vera was especially hard on González Ruíz, who wanted to convince the Marxists that God was not a hindrance and ended up fabricating a God who, of course, “does not hinder anyone.”

Vera asked the Episcopal Conference to maintain religion classes at the University, institutes and schools; find solutions to the issue of Clergy Social Security. He also demanded clarification on the Justice and Peace Commission, chaired by Joaquín Ruíz Jiménez. He deemed it necessary to demand the anti-modernist oath from all who held office in the Church. He asked for the accounts of Cáritas Española, and reports on Christians for Socialism; and the control over emigrant chaplains, among whom “the anti-Spanish and the Marxists” abounded. The government demanded the defense of “the confessional State;” and that Jehovah’s Witnesses were not to be included in the Law of Religious Freedom as a Christian Church; and the monitoring of public morals.

The content of Vera’s lecture was well received by Fuerza Nueva. The canon of Malaga had “materially nailed the Jesuit Díez Alegría and his companion from Malaga, González Ruíz.” And Que pasa presented the Confraternity of Priests as “a dam against modern heresies.”

5. The Secular Conservative Alternative

At that time, and in response to the situation, a secular right-wing project emerged, the work of one of the regime’s thinkers, Gonzalo Fernández de la Mora, who in 1965 had published his controversial book, El crepúsculo se las ideologías (The Twilight of Ideologies), in whose pages not a few saw a legitimation of the technocratic elite that had run the state since the late 1950s. On his part, Fernández de la Mora never abandoned his youthful Catholicism. He was not an anti-religious thinker, although he clashed on more than one occasion with traditionalists and fundamentalists for his positive assessment of Ortega y Gasset and Xavier Zubiri. However, he clearly perceived, although not without displeasure at first, the changes undergone by Catholicism since Vatican II, judged them irreversible and drew his own conclusions. In the new context, the confessional nature of the State was indefensible. And he opposed any form of political theology or recourse to religious enthusiasm.

Mora’s alternative was a new secular conservatism. In El crepúsculo se las ideologías and other writings, Fernández de la Mora accepted modern consciousness, which was as much as saying the functional rationality of calculation and efficiency; the rationality accepted by the Weberian “disenchantment of the world,” and with it the fragmentation of worldviews, the loss of a unity of religious world-vision, and, above all, the experience of relativism. Consequently, his philosophy of history, taken directly from Augusto Comte, was decidedly progressive, “the laboratory of pathos to logos.” Progress was synonymous with the rationalization of the various social, political and cultural spheres. In the field of religions, at least in Europe and developed societies, there was the “internalization of beliefs,” that is, secularization. In that sense, alternatives, such as, Christian democracy were already anachronistic. In the new, scientific-industrial context, religion was increasingly displaced to the private sphere. Furthermore, revealed religiosity could not monopolize the content of ethics, since there was a rational and natural ethic, valid for all: “Revelation is the object of faith; the moral order is the object of rational acceptance.” Religion was not “primarily and fundamentally something communal; it is essentially a relationship with God, from which community consequences are derived;” it was “individuals and not nations that were the subjects of acts of faith.” Consequently, he was averse to the confessional state, which he considered a “historical anecdote:” “Pure religion is a solitude with God.” For this reason, he not only criticized the traditionalists, but the leftist theologians, like González Ruíz, who wanted a new politicization of the faith.

Naturally, such views did not appeal to the traditionalists. The one in charge of criticizing him was the American, Frederick D. Wilhelmsen, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Dallas and Extraordinary Professor at the University of Navarra. In his criticism, he accused Fernández de la Mora of having embraced “a clearly positivist policy,” whose main enemy was not liberalism or socialism, but “Catholic traditionalism in all its forms.” In his response, Fernández de la Mora called Wilhelmsen’s article “totally chaotic,” which could only be taken “relatively seriously.” In his plea, he reiterated his secularizing views: “What I think is that religiosity consists, fundamentally, in a relationship between man and God, not in a social pact or rhetoric.”

6. Catholic Neoconservatism And Religious Freedom

In January 1963, the first issue of the Atlántida magazine came out, a response to which fell to the historian, Florentino Pérez Embid. The magazine was edited by Rialp, a company closely linked to Opus Dei. At that time, the Andalusian historian distinguished three currents in the Spanish intelligentsia: traditionalism, Christian progressivism and universalist Catholicism. The description of the first seemed like a tirade against Punta Europa. It was a process faithful to Catholic orthodoxy, but it did not devote due attention to the development of “the answers that today are demanded by the new problems posed by thought and by life.” The second was manifested among Catholics adhering to what Pérez Embid called the “bourgeois left,” that is, La Institución Libre de Enseñanza (The Free Institution of Education), the “98” and Ortega y Gasset. Finally, “universal Catholicism,” the trend with which Embid himself identified, was characterized by “the breadth of horizons and a more energetic deepening in the permanent and living Catholic orthodoxy.” In this position were combined the renewal of the typical doctrines of traditional thought in philosophy and history, and “a careful attention to the orientations of contemporary science and thought, and a positive and open attitude towards the current transformation of social structures and of the forms of life.”

Atlántida positively received the declaration of religious freedom and the content of the Second Vatican Council. For Millán-Puelles, the principle of religious freedom was “a fundamentally positive sign,” “a good in itself.” And thus religious freedom was based on the dignity of the human person, “a person with whom God wants a free dialogue.” For his part, Recasens Siches—disciple of Ortega y Gasset and exiled after the Civil War—considered religious freedom as an essential right of the human person. It was, deep down, the only one of all freedoms that possessed an “absolute character.” In this sense, he considered that in Christian doctrine and the historical development of Christianity there had been a “hurtful contradiction” between religious intolerance, on the one hand, and the doctrine held by the majority of Christian philosophers, on the other. Fortunately, the theological and doctrinal foundations of intolerance had been “suppressed and buried by the Second Vatican Council.”

From the perspective of the Second Vatican Council, Gustave Thils analyzed pre-conciliar theories on religious freedom, concluding that the Catholic doctrine was historically very complex and that its apparent uniformity turned out to be more apparent than real. And it is that this doctrine had to be studied in different historical and social contexts and could not be interpreted or defended sub specie aeternitatis. Hence, it was necessary for the new generations “to invent in a certain way—under the influence of the holy spirit—the new type of relationship and the renewed form of encounter that is concretely imposed.”

7. Privilege, Secularization And Decadence

With the death of Francisco Franco, said the chronicler of the Ricardo de la Cierva regime, “an entire era” ended. Undoubtedly, the process of political change culminated in a kind of “agreed rupture.” However, on the social realm there was a perceptible continuity in many respects. And the Catholic Church was one of the institutions that managed to control, as far as possible, and for its own benefit, the transition. The “passive revolution” advocated by Montini and Tarancón can be said to have triumphed in its general aims. Significantly, while Marcelo González, and not Guerra Campos, officiated the funerals for the soul of Francisco Franco in the Plaza de Oriente, Tarancón, in the Church of Jerónimos Monastery, in a ceremony with a deep medieval aftertaste, lectured, paternally, Juan Carlos I on the characteristics and content that the new political situation should have.

Without the support of an increasingly exhausted regime, the traditionalist sectors were progressively ostracized. Miguel Oltra was “exiled” to Cullera and away from Madrid. Guerra Campos was confined to his headquarters in Cuenca. The Confraternity of Priests continued to exist, but was increasingly marginalized and isolated by the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Fuerza Nueva finally became a political party. After multiple failures, Piñar won a seat in Madrid in the 1979 elections. In March 1978 he presented, at the headquarters of his party, the schismatic bishop Marcel Lefebvre, who had published his book, Yo acuso al Concilio (I Accuse the Council), in Spain; which alienated him from the support of Catholics. These sectors, with great intellectual and political courage, but without any efficacy, opposed the Political Reform Law, the Constitution and secularizing laws, such as, divorce, and later abortion.

Meanwhile, Tarancón and his acolytes continued to apply the Maurrasian maxim of “politique d’abord.” As José Luis López Aranguren pointed out, despite appearances, the Levantine cardinal promoted a “center policy.” Basically, his party was Unión del Centro Democrático (the Union of the Democratic Center, the “Zentrum Católico,” where former Francoists, numerous Acenepistas [members of the National Catholic Association of Propagandists (ACNP); they are also called “propagandists” or “Christian Democrats”], and Tácito militants. Which marginalized not only fundamentalists, traditionalists or the extreme left, but genuine Christian Democrats, such as, Joaquín Ruíz Jiménez and José María Gil Robles.

In the 1978 Constitution, an important mention was made of the Catholic Church and none other (article 16.3). Without being explicitly confessional, it created the conditions for the State to be constitutionally obliged to “cooperate” with the Catholic Church. In addition, freedom of education and the right of children to receive religious and moral training that was in accordance with the convictions and preferences of their parents was guaranteed (27.3). The state was not actually secular, but non-denominational. Later, with the UCD government, came the 1979 agreements, in which religious assistance to the Armed Forces, the military service of clergy and religious, religious education, the financing of the clergy and the Church by the part of the state, and so on. These agreements demonstrated the dependence of the Church on financial aid from the state.

However, what seemed unstoppable was the process of secularization of Spanish society that began in the 1960s. As López Aranguren and Fernández de la Mora, each in their own way, anticipated, and later corroborated by not a few sociologists, religious and moral faith was privatized. However, the necessary secularization of institutions degenerated into what the philosopher Augusto del Noce has called “natural irreligion,” that is, a spiritual attitude characterized by “an absolute relativism, so that all ideas are seen in relation to the psychological and social situation of those who affirm them, and, therefore, valuable only from the utilitarian point of view of the stimulus for life.”

Furthermore, new winds were blowing in the Vatican. Paul VI died on August 6, 1978. And after the ephemeral period of Albino Luciani, John Paul I, an authentic restorative process was launched by the hand of the Polish Karol Wojtyla, John Paul II, a pontiff who had suffered the rigors of communism and so he did not understand, nor did he have to understand, dialogue with the Marxists, nor the ethical, moral and political permissiveness of the previous period. In the new context, Tarancón and his acolytes were upset. According to some sources, the new pontiff, upon receiving the Spanish cardinal who, at the age of seventy-five, presented his previous resignation, accused him of being responsible for the decline of Catholicism in Spain, “while we strive to subdue communism each time weaker.”

However, the advent of Wojtyla did not really mean a reinforcement of Spanish traditionalism. His restoration project had a different character and other intentions. Nevertheless, he promoted the beatification processes of the Catholics killed during the Civil War, something that Paul VI had always rejected. Significantly, when Wojtyla arrived in Spain on his first successful trip, the PSOE had won the 1982 elections by an overwhelming majority, and Miguel Oltra died in Madrid. Shortly after, on the emblematic date of November 20, Fuerza Nueva dissolved itself, after its electoral failure. Isolated and forgotten within the Catholic Church itself, José Guerra Campos, after his dismissal as bishop of Cuenca, settled in Madrid to care for a sick relative. Finally, he died in Barcelona, in an apartment at the María Inmaculada School, belonging to the Spanish Confraternity of Priests, on July 15, 1997.

John Paul II relied on a new generation of conservative bishops, among whom Ángel Suquía and Antonio María Rouco Varela stood out, rectifiers, as far as possible, of the previous situation. However, the secularizing process advanced irreversibly. The seminaries were empty; the number of practicing Catholics plummeted; and political life was established outside the Church. Good proof of this were the abortion and homosexual marriage laws of the government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, approved practically without public debate. In fact, it was something that, in the social imagination, had been taken for granted for a long time. So much so that when the Popular Party governed, under the leadership of Mariano Rajoy, none of those laws was repealed. And it is that in the ideology of the Spanish right, Catholicism or “Christian humanism” no longer appears as the dominant reference, but liberalism.

8. Spain: Land Of Mission

There is no doubt, then, that the situation of Catholicism in Spain is in a profound decline, although it continues to enjoy undoubted socio-economic privileges. Fernando Sebastián, Archbishop Emeritus of Pamplona and Tudela, considers that “in these years of democratic life, the Christian life of the Spanish has weakened… Since the 1970s, Spanish sacramental practice has dropped to less than half. During the last thirty or forty years we have been suffering from a severe vocational crisis that has drastically reduced the number of priests and religious in our churches and institutions, and the dominant trends are inclined towards secularism and moral permissiveness.” He wonders, at the same time, if all this was a consequence of the Second Vatican Council: “We do not know what would have happened with the continuity of the previous situation and without the celebration of the Council. Could Spain have continued for a long time as an island of Tridentine Catholicism in a liberal and secularized Europe? In any case, it is evident that the Catholic Church, “has been reduced to a minority of practicing members, has lost significance and social influence, lives in a rather marginal situation and is sometimes undervalued by opinion and by the public powers.”

Faced with this situation, there has been a tendency to focus on defending the Catholic corporate and institutional interests. However, the struggle between conservatives and progressives within Spanish Catholicism continues. And the conciliar spirit has revived, after the resignation of Josef Ratzinguer. Good proof of this has been the controversy of the exhumation of Francisco Franco’s mortal remains from his tomb in the Basilica of the Valley of the Fallen.

In May 2011, a so-called Committee of Experts for the Future of the Valley of the Fallen was created, chaired by the socialist, Ramón Jáuregui, commissioned by the PSOE for dialogue with progressive Catholic sectors. Among its members, left-wing Catholics, such as, Manuel Reyes Mate, Catalan nationalist priests like the historian Hilari Raguer, and Carlos García de Andoaín, federal coordinator of Christian Socialists. Cardinal Rouco Varela rejected the presence of ecclesiastics on the Commission. On the other hand, the conclusions were as expected: The Valley of the Fallen was the most significant monument of “national-Catholicism.” It had to relocate and resignify itself; and Franco’s corpse had to be taken out of its grave in the Basilica.

The conclusions had no political consequences, as the PSOE lost the 2011 elections. The government of Mariano Rajoy did nothing about it. However, in February 2013 Josef Ratzinguer resigned as Pontiff, and Peter’s chair was occupied by the Argentine Jesuit Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Reyes Mate and other leftist theologians expressed their hope regarding the political significance of the new pontificate. It was “the beginning of a new time.” It has not been the only one. A philosopher like Gianni Vattimo has stated that, with Bergoglio, the Catholic Church today represents the “emancipatory sense of religion,” “the struggle against imperialism and capitalist exploitation,” “a Communist International, today, can only be religious and Christian.”

The arrival to the government of the socialist Pedro Sánchez raised the question again. And, finally, after a series of conversations and pacts between the Spanish government and the Holy See, the mortal remains of Francisco Franco were taken out, on October 24, 2019, from his tomb in the Basilica of the Valley of the Fallen to the cemetery of Mingorrumbio, in El Pardo. Quite a symbolic event. Perhaps this is one of the last episodes of the consequences of the Second Vatican Council in the recent history of Spain.

Like Pontius Pilate, the Catholic Church tried to wash its hands. Of course, he did not succeed. In a display of typically clerical cynicism, Monsignor Luis Argüello, spokesman for the Episcopal Conference, affirmed that “It was one thing not to oppose him and another to say that the Church supports him.” Later, he said it was “time to look forward” and “seal the reconciliation.” Once the exhumation was done, he limited himself to reiterating the Church’s non-involvement in that political decision, although he criticized the content of the homily dedicated to Franco during the ceremony, which he described as hagiographic. This good man surely thinks he is subtle. But he is no more than a Pharisee. Or, what is worse, he underestimates us. He takes us for fools.

Bergoglio’s pontificate is assuming a true intellectual, political and moral regression, that is, a return to the eccentricities of the Second Vatican Council. Good proof of this is the content of the latest encyclical of the current pontiff, Fratelli tutti, whose content is a poorly digested amalgam of progressivism, ecology, political correctness and ecumenism: all seasoned by typical Vatican eclecticism – again, complexio oppositorum. In short, a mediocre, heavy, lumpy text that, except for the brief references to divinity, could have been signed by any member of a Masonic lodge. And it is, to a large extent, that the thought of the current pontiff is inserted in what the theologian Russell Ronald Reno has called “the ideological consensus of the postwar period,” that is to say, “the empire of the weak gods.”

On the other hand, the COVID-19 epidemic has highlighted even more, as the philosopher Giorgio Agamben pointed out, the crisis of Catholicism, by highlighting that European societies no longer believe in anything other than “naked life;” and, furthermore, the absolute hegemony of “the religion of science.” “First of all, the Church, which, becoming the servant of science, already converted into the true religion of our time, has radically abjured its most essential principles. The Church, under a Pope named Francis, has forgotten that Francis embraced lepers. She has forgotten that one of the works of mercy is visiting the sick. She has forgotten that the martyrs teach that one must be willing to sacrifice life before faith, and that renouncing one’s neighbor means renouncing faith.”

With regard to Spain, Bergoglio’s performance has been devastating. He has not bothered to visit our country, not even on the anniversary of Saint Teresa of Jesus. He ruthlessly criticized the discovery and evangelization of America. For years, the Catholic Church has become, especially in Catalonia and the Basque Country, a disruptive force at the service of peripheral nationalisms. Catholic is not synonymous with Spanish, and perhaps it never was, as Gonzalo Fernández de la Mora pointed out, in a specific criticism of Menéndez Pelayo’s thesis. Not long ago, Bergoglio welcomed Pedro Sánchez, a staunch atheist, grave robber, and a radical supporter of euthanasia and abortion. Of course, underneath this reception, there is the entire economic mess of the Spanish Catholic Church: concerted teaching, the IBI, the Cathedral of Córdoba, and so on and so forth. However, negotiating with a pathological liar can be a serious mistake. We will see that with the new education law drawn up by Isabel Celáa. I guess the Church hierarchy will get what it deserves.

Meanwhile, Spanish society, as we have already discussed, is a missional land. And faced with this dramatic situation, the Catholic Church is not capable of offering us more than the blandness of COPE or the mediocrity of TV13, whose main message is western films. Never has Spanish Catholicism been so decadent and socially insignificant. A puppet of a state that maintains it, in exchange for complicity and silence. But only a free Church will be able to exercise her mission in society.


This article was originally published in Razón Española, No. 224, February 2021. This translation appears through the kind courtesy and gracious permission of Gonzalo Fernandez de la Mora and Razón Española.


Pedro Carlos González Cuevas is professor of the history of political ideas and history of Spanish thought at UNED. He has been a fellow at the CSIC and at the Center for Political and Constitutional Studies. He is the author of several works on the history of the right wing and conservatism in Spain.


The featured image shows, “Spain pays homage to Religion and to the Church,” by Corrado Giaquinto, painted ca. 1759.

The Universality Inherent In Christianity

It has long been fashionable to regard Christianity as myth, no different in substance than many other ancient myths. Sometimes this is done to glibly dismiss Christ’s message; sometimes it is done in sorrow, viewing, as C. S. Lewis did before his conversion, Christianity as one of many lies, even if was “breathed through silver.” René Girard entirely rejects this idea, offering an anthropological, rather than spiritual, argument for Christianity being a true myth, and for the complete uniqueness of Christianity, as well for as its centrality to the human story. Girard’s appeal is that his framework explains the core of all human societies, and thus explains, at any moment, the present. Therefore, though he died in 2015, Girard says much about America in 2021.

Girard was a devout Roman Catholic, a Frenchman who spent much of his academic career in the United States. (He has gotten some extra attention from the fact that he taught Peter Thiel, who became a big admirer of Girard and who gave a eulogy at his funeral). Girard first published his theory of mimetic contagion in 1978, in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. I was going to read that book, but was encouraged to start with the more recent, and much shorter, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. So here I started, although I glanced at Things Hidden from time to time, as well as at several other books Girard wrote. This edition of I See Satan Fall contains an excellent Foreword by James G. Williams, summarizing the basics of Girard’s thought on mimetic contagion, making it a good place for a novice to start.

Girard begins by announcing his intent to explore and highlight, rather than minimize as most devout people do, the similarities and parallels between the Gospel and pagan myths, and for good measure his intention to dismantle Friedrich Nietzsche. He then outlines his theory of mimetic contagion, using as his frame the Tenth Commandment, “You shall not covet. . . .” “Covet” for Girard means not an untoward desire, but simply any desire for what others have. He identifies this not as God’s mere prohibition on greed, but rather, far more fundamentally, as a unique early attack on the internal cycle of violence that is the basis of all human societies.

One of Girard’s purposes has nothing to do with religion, and that is to explain how human societies began, namely in violence, a specific kind of violence with a specific kind of purpose. But as can be seen from his dissection of the Decalogue, his other purpose is to prove that Christianity (and to a lesser extent, Judaism) is unique among all human religions, able to release mankind from the prison into which the forms of violence the underpin all human societies have placed us. Christ’s death on the Cross was fully as meaningful as Christians would have it—even if Christ was not, in fact, as he claimed, the Son of God, his sacrifice upended the entire anthropological order of the world. He showed a path of redemption, both secular and divine (reflecting the hypostatic union) previously unknown to mankind.

Violence in human societies arises because we desire what our neighbor has, because our neighbor desiring it makes it desirable in our eyes. “Our neighbor is the model for our desires. This is what I call mimetic desire.” That is to say, despite our own perception that our desires are internally generated, in most instances they arise by imitation; we desire what others desire, not what we independently want. (A related principle is well-known in the context of how wealthy people feel about their wealth, but Girard’s vision is far broader).

My neighbor, however, by his possession of what I desire, thwarts my desire, at the same time my desire, in a reflection of my own actions, perceived by my neighbor, intensifies my neighbor’s desire for what he already has. Girard calls this “double desire,” and the rivals are “mimetic doubles,” very similar to each other but perceiving unreal huge differences. (This insight is part of why Thiel admires Girard; it has obvious applications in many human realms, including business.) We perceive ourselves as autonomous, when in fact we are “enslaved to our mimetic models.”

This spiral of rivalry and its consequences Girard calls “scandal,” and he says this process inevitably engulfs entire societies through a process of “violent contagion,” citing Matthew 18:7, “Scandals . . . must come.” The original rivalries are often forgotten entirely as new ones arise with blinding speed, eventually converging on one society-wide scandal. This violent contagion convulses a society; it will tear itself apart in mass violence unless something is done.

That something is to identify a single innocent on whom the concentrated fury of the accumulated rivalries can be directed, through the killing of the innocent by the society acting as a whole. This killing produces a superbly cathartic effect on the society, and peace is restored, for a time, as everyone in society congratulates himself on a job well done—even though this killing is invariably, in reality, utterly unjust. (Girard focuses on a “single victim,” but elsewhere suggests that the victim can be more than one individual, and just as easily a large identifiable group).

Girard thus sees social conflict as normal, not accidental. It is inevitable in the nature of man. Not for Girard fantasies of peaceful societies of the distant past; he would not be surprised at the evisceration of such silliness by Lawrence Keeley in War Before Civilization, and he would no doubt agree with Carl Schmitt’s thoughts on the friend-enemy distinction. But it is not any violence that is Girard’s focus, but this very specific kind of violence. At the same time, he sees mimetic desire, because it allows us to choose what we desire, as what makes us human, rather than animals driven purely by instinct, and therefore of itself intrinsically good. “Our unending discords are the ransom of our freedom.”

Girard then turns to the Passion of Christ, demonstrating that the behavior of the men surrounding Christ’s death, from Saint Peter to Pontius Pilate, and even the Jews who had so lately cheered Jesus, are examples of mimetic contagion, where the players are driven to give in to the rising violence even when that is not their intention, and in fact wholly contrary to their declared and actual intention. Neither Peter nor Pilate wants Christ crucified, yet they are swept up in the contagion. In this the death of Christ is entirely unexceptional, and it echoes a long list of similar episodes in the Bible, both of the persecution of various Old Testament prophets (and of the prefiguring Suffering Servant of Second Isaiah), and of, more recently in Biblical time, the death of John the Baptist.

From whence comes mimetic contagion? It comes from Satan. Now, it is never precisely clear, at least in this book, if Girard sees Satan as an individual and entity. It does, in fact, appear not; at one point, Girard refers to the Devil as “totally mimetic, which amounts to saying nonexistent as an individual self” (italics in original). Yet as a devout Roman Catholic he probably did (my guess is this is addressed elsewhere, perhaps in the several books of interviews of Girard that have been published recently). Maybe this apparent confusion results from Girard’s stated intention to make his book wholly scientific, rather than theological, in focus.

Regardless, Girard heaps contempt on modern attempts to write Satan out of the Bible and Christianity; in his view, Satan is the hinge around which our temporal world turns. Satan is responsible for mimetic crisis, by showing us what we desire and then blocking our acquisition of what we desire, thereby creating scandal. Girard cites the episode in Matthew 16, where Peter “invites Jesus, in short, to take Peter himself as the model of his desire,” and Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan, for you are a scandal to me.” Jesus instead demands we, like him, avoid mimetic rivalry by focusing our desire on the desires of the Father.

But, in the words of Mark 3:23, Satan can cast out Satan. He initiates the cycle of mimetic violence, and also, through the catharsis that follows the killing of the scapegoat, restores order and harmony to society, a feeling of having been purified. This is the key to his being the prince of this world, for if he merely brought chaos and anarchy, he would have no power. Yet he continuously plays both sides of the game, thereby maintaining his power.

The Crucifixion is an exemplar of this process; “[w]hat makes the mimetic cycle of Jesus’s suffering unique is, not the violence, but the fact that the victim is the Son of God.” His sacrifice ended the rule of Satan—because it broke the cycle of mimetic violence that was the formation of all human societies prior to Christianity, founding an entirely new anthropology. Jesus is wholly different, because he invited his disciples to desire what he desired, however that desire was not a mimetic rivalry, but the desire to imitate the Father in all things. If accepted, this protects us from mimetic rivalries entirely, and is thus an upgrade to the Tenth Commandment.

After outlining this cycle, Girard proceeds to contrast myth and Christianity, what he calls a study in comparative religion. He does this by analyzing the hagiographical Life of Apollonius by Philostratus, a militant pagan. (Apollonius was a wonderworking guru of the first century A.D., a great favorite of shallow-thinking New Atheists, such as Matthew Ridley in his execrable The Evolution of Everything, who think that the parallels to Christ in the supposed life of Apollonius disprove the existence of Christ).

Girard discusses at length how Apollonius ended a plague in Ephesus by egging on the pagan Ephesians to stone to death a crippled beggar, overcoming their hesitation by enticing them to throw the first stone, whereupon the dead beggar was revealed to have been a demon, and the plague ended, with the intervention of the god Heracles. Girard believes this was a real episode, though certainly no demon was revealed and no god intervened, but the plague, one not of disease but scandal resulting from mimetic rivalries engulfing the city, was still by this blood sacrifice cured. Moreover, contrasting Christ’s defusing of the proposed stoning of the woman caught in adultery (John 8), Girard notes that even the process of killing itself is the result of mimetic contagion—it is difficult to get the stoning started, but once it begins, it becomes unstoppable.

From this jumping-off place Girard moves backward, to earlier myths, such as those of Oedipus and those surrounding the cult of Dionysus. Girard interprets various founding myths that involve a murder followed by the divinization of the object of the murder, often in a form of resurrection, as evidence of the universal pattern of mimetic contagion resulting in a crisis existentially tearing at the social fabric and its cure through the single victim mechanism. (His book The Scapegoat analyzes many more examples).

Through this mechanism false gods are often created, because it seems divine how the victim can bring society together, and these new gods underpin the creation of human societies. This is the “founding murder”; the story of Cain and Abel is one, as is that of Romulus and Remus. Girard takes these myths as representative of multiple cycles of mimetic violence surrounding the formation of societies and ensuring their stability. Religion forms the core of every social system; it is essential to humanity, not a parasite upon the real mechanisms of societal formation. Girard has no truck with theories of social contract, and no doubt thinks equally little of other theories of societal formation, such as Francis Fukuyama’s.

Turning back to Christianity, Girard analyzes passages from the New Testament that suggest the Gospel writers recognized, for the first time in human history, the “powers and principalities,” that is, Satan, as complicit in this process of societal formation. A key point of Girard is that Gospel passages that seem opaque or obvious are often nothing of the sort, but rather encapsulate enormous insights we typically miss. His book is filled with passages from both the Old and New Testaments that could be seen as banal but into which Girard breathes life. The passages Girard cites are often read as superstitious or magical thinking, but he rather interprets them as deeply insightful into human nature and conduct, and what is more, aware of how Jesus, true man and true god, upended this age-old human mechanism.

It is to this last point that Girard devotes the final third of his book. He directly attacks the view that the Gospels are just another myth. Anti-Christian apologists have long tried to show that the Gospels differ only in the particulars of myth; the broad themes are just the same as all other myths. In a jujitsu move, however, Girard entirely agrees with these critics—the Gospels are substantially identical in their form to other myths, because both the myths and the Gospel are part of a larger, essential truth, that of the cycle of mimetic violence. The difference of the Gospels is that that Christ completely inverts, and thereby utterly destroys, the universal pattern that existed before his sacrifice.

To demonstrate this, Girard steps back to the story of Joseph, comparing it to the story of Oedipus. There are a great many broad similarities—but the crucial difference, in which the ancient Jews prefigured Christ, is that Oedipus was guilty of the crimes for which he was punished, and Joseph innocent. In the Bible, the guilty are the accusers—that is, Satan; in the Greek myth, the righteous are the accusers. In other words, the Bible, both Old and New Testament, is unique, because it, even before Christ, attacks the standard mythic narrative. “The story of Joseph is a refusal of the religious illusions of paganism.” Similarly, the Psalms “are the first [texts] in human history to allow those who would simply become silent victims in the world of myth to voice their complaint as hysterical crowds besiege them.” And Job “not only resists totalitarian contagion but wrests the deity out of the process of persecution to envision him as the God of victims, not of persecutorsNo one and no tradition before the Bible were capable of calling into question the guilt of victims whom their communities unanimously condemned.” Judaism was the first religion to reject the mimetic contagion and the divinization of victims.

So what then of Christianity, which does indeed divinize the victim? It merely appears to follow the form of myth; but in fact is a complete inversion of myth. Girard here explicitly rejects Marcionism, the ancient heresy that the God of the Old Testament is a mere demiurge and entirely distinct from the God of the New Testament. Rather, the Old and New Testaments are not in any way in contradiction. Not only is Christ innocent, as Joseph was, but there is no violent unanimity in the community as to his death (though due to the process of mimetic contagion, unanimity is near complete at the moment of the Passion), and thus Christ’s death does not bring harmony—it brings not peace, but a sword.

The Gospel therefore reveals truths hidden since the foundation of the world, a crucial anthropological reality. “The Gospels reveal everything that human beings need to understand their moral responsibility with regard to the whole spectrum of violence in human history and to all the false religions.” In fact, Christ himself repeatedly cites passages from the Psalms revealing this reality, further showing the continuity of the Old and New Testaments. By the Cross, mankind escapes Satan, and thus the Eastern Orthodox view (largely disappeared in the West) that Christ by his sacrifice on the Cross duped Satan to his irretrievable detriment contains great insight and truth (although, Girard notes, it is perhaps less trick than simply “the inability of the prince of this world to understand the divine love”). Christ thereby subverts mimetic contagion, releases us from its hold, and redeems mankind.

Not that mankind often takes the opportunity to accept the redemption that Christ offers. Yes, Christianity has spread widely, and mimetic contagion is no longer the core of societies, or at least of Christian societies (though the entire world is influenced to a greater or lesser degree by the Cross). We still scapegoat, but we are ashamed of it, and try to hide our participation in any mimetic contagion in which we become involved. We accuse others of scapegoating in order to criticize them, in particular to stigmatize perceived discrimination.

This leads to the modern phenomenon of victimology. “Our society is the most preoccupied with victims of any that ever was.” Yet we often tell ourselves that we are inadequately compassionate and we must do more. What is this? Merely another instance of mimetic contagion. “The victims most interesting to us are always those who allow us to condemn our neighbors. And our neighbors do the same. They always think first about victims for whom they hold us responsible.” Nonetheless, Girard ascribes the modern concern with human rights “to a formerly unthinkable effort to control uncontrollable processes of mimetic snowballing.” This is the result of Christianity, of course, even though moderns frequently, in a bizarre error, scapegoat Christianity as the cause of victimization.

Finally, and crucially, Girard examines modern trends of thought that reject Christianity’s view of the victim as innocent, and attempt to reintroduce the pagan view of the victim as the justified target of mimetic violence—justified both by his supposed actual crime, and by the benefit to society that results, both cathartically and instrumentally, from his death. He ascribes to Nietzsche the rediscovery that pagan violent unanimity was an identical process to that taking place in the Passion. But Nietzsche falsely concluded from this insight that the pagan view was superior, and, famously, Christianity a “slave religion,” born of resentment, that hampers human flourishing by excessive concern for the victim, when in fact Christianity is “heroic resistance to violent contagion.” Nietzsche exalts Dionysus over Christ; this is a regression, not an advance.

Here, and really only here in the book, Girard enters choppy waters. He makes several claims that either make little sense or have been disproved. In the first category, he ascribes to the concern for victims “colonial conquests, abuses of power, the murderous wars of the twentieth century, the pillage of the planet, etc.” It is unclear how such a causal mechanism would work and he does not explain. In the second category, he denies that the West is decadent or (spiritually) aging; rather, it “seems to have extraordinary longevity, due to renewal and perpetual enhancement of its leadership and institutions.” No comment is necessary, although this book was published in 1999, so Girard’s apparent optimism is more understandable.

Regardless, Girard did foresee the logical consequence of excessive focus on victimization. “The current process of spiritual demagoguery and rhetorical overkill has transformed the concern for victims into a totalitarian command and a permanent inquisition… The fact that our world has become solidly anti-Christian, at least among its elites, does not prevent the concern for victims from flourishing—just the opposite… We are living through a caricatural ‘ultra-Christianity’ that tries to escape from the Judeo-Christian orbit by ‘radicalizing’ the concern for victims in an anti-Christian manner.” Yet at the same time Nietzschean influence grows, in part because Christianity is made the common scapegoat. Those on the Right can see the Nietzschean strain rising in reaction to the Left’s advances, most notably recently in the work of Bronze Age Pervert. Girard would not be a BAP fan.

But this rising Nietzschean influence is not the real threat; those ideologies that reject the concern for victims, especially National Socialism, never got much traction. The real threat, “the most powerful anti-Christian movement… is the one that takes over and ‘radicalizes’ the concern for victims in order to paganize it,” which “presents itself as the liberator of humanity . . . in place of Christ,” but is actually a mimetic rival of Christ. This ideology has brought back Satan, because it both creates mimetic contagion by “borrow[ing] the language of victims” and offers the age-old solution to contagion, violence against the innocent who are seen to oppose social justice. In other words, the modern Left (though Girard does not use that term, or identify this tendency by name) is literally Satan, the prince of this world, the accuser of the innocent, the tempter from the beginning, Antichrist.

Yet Antichrist is not an entity but something “banal and prosaic,” by which Girard means not inefficacious at creating evil, but something existing since the foundation of the world. “The Antichrist boasts of bringing to human beings the peace and tolerance that Christianity promised but has failed to deliver. Actually, what the radicalization of contemporary victimology produces is a return to all sorts of pagan practices: abortion, euthanasia, sexual undifferentiation, Roman circus games galore but without real victims, etc. . . . . Neo-paganism locates happiness in the unlimited satisfaction of desires, which means the suppression of all prohibitions.” This is not surprising. Christ did not imprison Satan when he defeated him; he fell like lightning, and he fell to earth, “where he will not remain inactive.”

Yes, Christ showed us how to resist Satan, but we have, more often than not, failed. The katechon, the power that holds back the Antichrist that Saint Paul mentions in Second Thessalonians (and a key focus of Carl Schmitt), only holds back Satan in part. Christianity can redeem the whole history of man, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete (whose name in Greek, parakletos, means “defender of the accused”). But we must choose; for God gave us free will. And our record is not good.

Girard does not say what must be done, but it is obvious. We must break this renewed cycle of mimetic violence brought to us by modern neopagan philosophies, by our restoring the fruits of Christ’s sacrifice, refusing to participate in mimetic scapegoating and rejecting concern for false victims.

This is easy enough to apply to 2021 America. To take only one example (there are many), Girard would see clearly that George Floyd was no victim; he is just a tool in a massive ongoing scheme of mimetic scapegoating by the Left/Satan. The real victims, the focus of the violent unanimity of Burn-Loot-Murder joined with a constellation of other powerful groups, are white people as a group, especially those who refuse to deny their supposed “whiteness” and join their persecutors, and most of all devout Christian white people. They are demonized by the Left as it inflates a Girardian scandal.

You only have to glance at the vocabulary of critical race theory with its core ideology of demanding the violent elimination of white people to see the truth of this. As I have been saying for some time, the result is likely to be violence when a leader arises to defend, and to focus the mimetic rivalry of, whites.

This social situation is, shall we say, extremely unfortunate, but Girard would not be surprised—white people are simply today’s Ephesian beggar, but with a lot more guns. This will not end well, but it will be their fault, not ours. Girard would ask, with Rodney King, that we all “just get along,” yet he would know that against this type of action of Satan, such a plea is unlikely to work—unless a society adopts the true vision of Christ, thereby breaking the mimetic rivalry.

I’m not hopeful that’s about to happen, because as Girard says, the Left is an ideology, a satanic one, and ideologies can only be broken by force. Maybe after that’s finished, we can try again to master the cycle.


Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.


The featured image shows, “The Last Judgment” by Jan Mandyn, painted ca. 1550.