Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Irregular Language: Betz's Hamann

Vulnerability and the Vocation of Obscurity

In his After Enlightenment: The Post-Secular Vision of J. G. Hamann, John R. Betz follows Frederick Beiser and John Milbank in presenting Hamann, correctly I feel, as a figure whose ‘influence on the history of philosophy, while obscurely mediated, was, in fact, profound’. Betz’s landmark English-language study thus concretizes the recent rehabilitation of Hamann as a thinker who cannot be reduced to the sort of marginal irrationalist that Isaiah Berlin made of him in The Magus of the North. Hamann himself foresaw the obscure diffusion of his influence in his 1786 text ‘Divestment and Transfiguration: A Flying Letter to Nobody, the Well-Known’, when he noted the Christ-revering intent of his work. ‘The little stream of my authorship, despised like the waters of Shiloah that flow gently, was poured out for the sake of this king, whose name, like his reputation, is great and unknown.’ The obscure yet profound, at once ‘great and unknown’ influence of Hamann’s writing, is in keeping with his rôle as – in Betz’s words – ‘the first and arguably profoundest modern Christian thinker of language’.

The stream of Hamann’s writing flows indirectly; or, its banks are notoriously hard to bridge. Betz cites Ernst Jünger’s remark that Hamann thought ‘in archipelagos with submarine connections’, following on from his own comment on Heraclitus: ‘A confluence of ideas and sensations in that living elegy of a philosopher made his maxims into a group of small islands, lacking the bridges and ferries of method that would have established a community among them.’ Hamann’s texts constitute a practice of indirect communication, and require the reader to build the bridges, make the connections, herself. As Betz notes, a text like the Socratic Memorabilia has a ‘highly stylized public, dramatic, gnomic, allusive, oblique, ironic, pseudonymous, prophetic form’, which is grounded in Hamann’s ‘conviction that faith “cannot be communicated like merchandise”’. Hamann’s is an ‘elusive’, proto-modernist textuality, showing ‘endless associative links’ and a ‘defiance of any single significance’.     

Such strategies reveal a lack of trust in – or an ironizing of – his own communicative capacity. You could say that Hamann’s lack of trust derived from his stammering behaviour; whilst the ironization derived from his Christianity. The flight from direct communication is a form of self-denial, and Hamann’s authorship is (as Betz argues) ‘quite possibly the most rigorously Christian of modern times – both in its content and in its self-denying form ’. In some important phrases in Golgotha and Scheblimini, Hamann wrote of ‘the symbolic connection between the earthly crown of thorns and the heavenly crown of stars, and the relationship mediated in the form of the Cross between the opposing natures of the deepest abasement and the loftiest exaltation’. Betz summarizes how these phrases are an assertion of the Christian coincidence of worldly vulnerability and otherworldly, spiritual empowerment:

‘[T]his passage provides a clue to the whole of Hamann’s mimetic “cruciform” authorship: whereas the outward humility, folly, and (to rationalists) sheer incomprehensibility of his self-denying style mirrors the humility, apparent folly, and incomprehensibility (to Jews and Greeks) of Christ’s self-sacrifice on the Cross (Golgotha), the inner sublimity of his inspired, prophetic message shares in the power and the glory of the Spirit of the resurrection (Scheblimini). In short, we come to understand that the only thing that can make sense of Hamann’s writings is Christ – in the double aspect of majesty and abasement, of a glory hidden from the “wise and learned” beneath a rejected outward form.’  

Hamann’s elusive textual practices, guided by what Betz calls a ‘Christian irony and humour’, thus invoke a humility reminiscent of the statement St Paul made about himself, when quoting his critics, that ‘“His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account”’ (2 Cor. 10: 10). Betz notes that, more generally, the recognition of humility is ‘the fundamental intuition of Hamann’s thought’. He quotes Hamann’s comment that,

‘It belongs to the unity of divine revelation that the Spirit of GOd [sic] should have lowered himself and emptied himself of his majesty just as the Son of God did in assuming the form of a servant, and just as the whole of creation is a work of the greatest humility.’

The creation of the Bible by the Holy Spirit is another act of condescension, whereby the Holy Spirit (as Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote) ‘conceals himself, as Hamann strikingly puts it, “under all kinds of rags and tatters,” “under the rubbish” of the letter of Scripture.’ As Hamann writes in his Biblical Meditations :

‘How much did God the Holy Spirit humble himself when he became a historian of the most particular, contemptible, and insignificant events on earth in order to reveal to man in his own language, in his own history, in his own ways the plans, the mysteries, and the ways of the Godhead?’

To assert with Luther that, as Betz puts it, ‘there is no exaltation of the creature apart from Christ’s humility, which is the key to the economy of salvation and the logic of every ascent’, is also to maintain a Lutheran emphasis on human humility qua passivity and a dependence on – or readiness to accept – what ‘God accomplishes in and through human beings’, or ‘what only God can give: ontologically, the grace that heals our nature from sin; noetically, the faith that enlightens the darkness of ignorance’. To depend on ‘the grace of God’s prior condescension, in the absence of which Christianity is easily distorted into a kind of Promethean asceticism’ – a work ethic, muscular Christianity – is to resist ‘what we might claim for ourselves as something owed, whether through inheritance or through virtuous works’. Betz enables us to see how Hamann associates divine condescension and human humility alike with suffering and hence with true cognition. When ‘in Christianity God suffers on account of his loving proximity to human beings’, Betz notes, ‘for Hamann, Christ is the model of all true learning in that he “learned […] through what he suffered” (Heb. 5: 8)’.

‘In other words, for fallen human beings, just as authentic reasoning begins with the suffering of reason’s “insufficiency” and a corresponding recognition of one’s need for the light of faith and the guidance of revelation, true moral learning begins with the suffering of one’s moral weakness and a corresponding recognition of one’s need for grace.’

As Hamann notes, recognition of dependence on divine condescension renders proud, self-sufficient rational aspiration irrelevant: ‘The condescension of God to the earth; no tower of reason whose spire reaches to heaven’. Indeed, as Betz observes, for Hamann ‘the purpose of reason is precisely to deconstruct all proud knowledge falsely so called, the kind of knowledge which is really doxa but nevertheless opposes itself to faith, so that true knowledge can begin’. Importantly, this rational project of undermining proud rationalism looks forward to Jaspers’ existentialist critique of neo-Kantian epistemological reification. It also looks back, to Augustinian and then Lutheran resistance to late medieval conceptions of philosophical rationality, as Betz suggests when he traces the ‘modern doctrine of reason’ back beyond Renaissance humanism to late medieval distinctions between philosophy and theology, which ‘ceded to philosophy (and to reason) far greater capacities than the Augustinian and, later, Lutheran traditions allowed, each of which remained more profoundly impressed by the degree to which reason is affected by the fallenness of the will’. (It would be interesting to consider the unstable, post-juridical rationalities – shaken by paranoia or drug use – of Philip K. Dick, and perhaps of Robert Walser, in this context). The political dimension of Hamann’s critique of proud reason is also worth noting here; his distance from Moses Mendelssohn’s modern conception of rights as being ‘as it were, pre-possessed by reason and claimed by independents in the manner of private property, [whereas] for Hamann, they are something received in faith from the Creator by dependents as a covenantal gift’ (Betz).

Betz stresses Hamann’s underlying intention to develop, and not curtail, rationality. Quoting Hamann’s remark that ‘the true genius knows only his dependence and weakness, or the limits of his gifts’, Betz observes that Hamann’s Christian mode of cognition ‘glories ironically in weaknesses and limitations (2 Cor. 12: 9), whereby the intellect is made receptive of divine light and wisdom. Herein, and not in any proud rationalism, lies the true path to enlightenment.’ Hence, Betz writes, Hamann’s ‘occasionally vitriolic rhetoric is never directed at reason per se, which he considers a gift of God, but only at its idolatrous misuse and transgressing of its proper limits’. He cites Hamann’s comment that ‘Faith  has need of reason just as much as reason needs faith’. Referring to the arguments of his doctoral supervisor, the prominent Lutheran theologian Oswald Bayer, Betz suggests that ‘one could even say that Hamann was more rational than his contemporaries, a kind of “radical Aufklärer,” in that, like Kant, but going beyond him, he subjected reason to metacritical  scrutiny’:

‘Specifically, Hamann calls attention to what the Aufklärer  virtually ignored, namely, the historical contingencies of tradition and the “impurities” of language and metaphor pervading all putatively “pure” thought. […] As a humbling of autonomous reason and all proud systems of thought (in the sense of 2 Cor. 10: 5), it is meant not to leave reason in a state of despair, but to prepare it for faith, thereby saving reason from theoretical suicide and providing it with its ultimate object, an object that can only be given.’       

To be continued.


  1. Thanks for this. I've been meaning to investigate Hamann recently, prompted by Kierkegaard's frequent use of and reference to him. I think I'll get hold of Betz's book. You highlighted in this review precisely the aspects of Hamann that interest me -- his subjecting reason to metacritique in a way that presents reason as fulfilled by faith. I'm not sure whether I buy that conclusion, but I find the argument undeniably fascinating. Looking forward to the continuation of your remarks.

  2. Thanks for your comment and encouragement. The next post might take a bit longer than a week to complete!