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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
170 occurrences of ideology
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170 occurrences of ideology
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II

A thinker who might have had a decisive role in
this counter-movement, if anyone outside his native
country had read him, was the Neapolitan philosopher
Giambattista Vico (1668-1744). With extraordinary
originality Vico maintained, especially in the last work
of his life, Scienza nuova (1725; radically altered 1731),
that the Cartesians were profoundly mistaken about
the role of mathematics as the science of sciences; that
mathematics was certain only because it was a human
invention. It did not, as they supposed, correspond to
an objective structure of reality; it was a method and
not a body of truths; with its help we could plot reg-
ularities—the occurrence of phenomena in the external
world—but not discover why they occurred as they
did, or to what end. This could be known only to God,
for only those who make things can truly know what
they are and for what purpose they have been made.
Hence we do not, in this sense, know the external
world—Nature—for we have not made it; only God
who created it, knows it in this fashion. But since men
are directly acquainted with human motives, purposes,
hopes, fears which are their own, they can know human
affairs as they cannot know Nature.

According to Vico, our lives and activities collec-
tively and individually are expressions of our attempts
to survive, satisfy our desires, understand each other
and the past out of which we emerge. A utilitarian
interpretation of the most essential human activities
is misleading. They are, in the first place, purely
expressive; to sing, to dance, to worship, to speak, to
fight, and the institutions which embody these activi-
ties, comprise a vision of the world. Language, religious
rites, myths, laws, social, religious, juridical institutions,
are forms of self-expression, of wishing to convey what
one is and strives for; they obey intelligible patterns,
and for that reason it is possible to reconstruct the life
of other societies, even those remote in time and place
and utterly primitive, by asking oneself what kind of
framework of human ideas, feelings, acts could have
generated the poetry, the monuments, the mythology
which were their natural expression. Men grow indi-
vidually and socially; the world of men who composed
the Homeric poems was plainly very different from
that of the Hebrews to whom God had spoken through
their sacred books, or that of the Roman Republic, or
medieval Christianity, or Naples under the Bourbons.
Patterns of growth are traceable.

Myths are not, as enlightened thinkers believe, false
statements about reality corrected by later rational
criticism, nor is poetry mere embellishment of what
could equally well be stated in ordinary prose. The
myths and poetry of antiquity embody a vision of the
world as authentic as that of Greek philosophy, or
Roman Law, or the poetry and culture of our own
enlightened age, earlier, cruder, remote from us, but
with its own voice, as we hear it in the Iliad or the
Twelve Tables, belonging uniquely to its own culture,
and with a sublimity which cannot be reproduced by
a later, more sophisticated culture. Each culture ex-
presses its own collective experience, each step on the
ladder of human development has its own equally
authentic means of expression.

Vico's theory of cycles of cultural development be-
came celebrated, but it is not his most original contri-
bution to the understanding of society or history. His
revolutionary move is to have denied the doctrine of
a timeless Natural Law the truths of which could have
been known in principle to any man, at any time,
anywhere. Vico boldly denied this doctrine which has
formed the heart of the Western tradition from
Aristotle to our own day. He preached the notion of
the uniqueness of cultures, however they might resem-
ble each other in their relationship to their antecedents
and successors, and the notion of a single style that
pervades all the activities and manifestations of


103

societies of human beings at a particular stage of de-
velopment. Thereby he laid the foundations at once of
comparative cultural anthropology and of compara-
tive historical linguistics, aesthetics, jurisprudence;
language, ritual, monuments, and especially mythology,
were the sole reliable keys to what later scholars and
critics conceived as altering forms of collective con-
sciousness. Such historicism was plainly not compat-
ible with the view that there was only one standard of
truth or beauty or goodness, which some cultures or
individuals approached more closely than others, and
which it was the business of thinkers to establish and
men of action to realize. The Homeric poems were an
unsurpassable masterpiece, but they could only spring
from a brutal, stern, oligarchical, “heroic” society, and
later civilizations, however superior in other respects,
did not and could not produce an art necessarily su-
perior to Homer. This doctrine struck a powerful blow
at the notion of timeless truths and steady progress,
interrupted by occasional periods of retrogression into
barbarism, and drew a sharp line between the natural
sciences which dealt with the relatively unaltering
nature of the physical world viewed from “outside,”
and humane studies which viewed social evolution
from “inside” by a species of empathetic insight, for
which the establishment of texts or dates by scientific
criticism was a necessary, but not a sufficient, condi-
tion. Vico's unsystematic works dealt with many other
matters, but his importance in the history of the En-
lightenment consists in his insistence on the plurality
of cultures and on the consequently fallacious character
of the idea that there is one and only one structure of
reality which the enlightened philosopher can see as
it truly is, and which he can (at least in principle)
describe in logically perfect language—a vision that
has obsessed thinkers from Plato to Leibniz, Condillac,
Bertrand Russell and his more faithful followers. For
Vico men ask different questions of the Universe, and
their answers are shaped accordingly: such questions,
and the symbols or acts that express them, alter or
become obsolete in the course of cultural develop-
ment; to understand the answers one must understand
the questions that preoccupy an age or a culture; they
are not constant nor necessarily more profound be-
cause they resemble our own more than others that
are less familiar to us. Vico's relativity went further
than Montesquieu's. If his view was correct, it was
subversive of the very notion of absolute truths and of
a perfect society founded on them, not merely in
practice but in principle. However, Vico was little
read, and the question of how much influence he had
had, before his New Science was revived by Michelet
a century after it was written, is still uncertain.

If Vico wished to shake the pillars on which the
Enlightenment of his times rested, the Königsberg
theologian and philosopher, J. G. Hamann, wished to
smash them. Hamann was brought up as a Pietist, a
member of the most introspective and self-absorbed of
all the Lutheran sects, intent upon the direct com-
munion of the individual soul with God, bitterly
antirationalist, liable to emotional excess, preoccupied
with the stern demands of moral obligation and the
needs for severe self-discipline. The attempt of
Frederick the Great in the middle years of the eight-
eenth century to introduce French culture and a degree
of rationalization, economic and social as well as
military, into East Prussia, the most backward part of
his provinces, provoked a peculiarly violent reaction
in this pious, semi-feudal, traditional Protestant society
(which also gave birth to Herder and Kant). Hamann
began as a disciple of the Enlightenment, but, after a
profound spiritual crisis, turned against it, and pub-
lished a series of polemical attacks written in a highly
idiosyncratic, perversely allusive, contorted, deliber-
ately obscure style, as remote as he could make it
from the, to him, detestable elegance, clarity, and
smooth superficiality of the bland and arrogant French
dictators of taste and thought. Hamann's theses rested
on the conviction that all truth is particular, never
general; that reason is impotent to demonstrate the
existence of anything and is an instrument only for
conveniently classifying and arranging data in patterns
to which nothing in reality corresponds; that to under-
stand is to be communicated with, by men or by God.
The universe for him, as for the older German mystical
tradition, is itself a kind of language. Things and plants
and animals are themselves symbols with which God
communicates with his creatures. Everything rests on
faith; faith is as basic an organ of acquaintance with
reality as the senses. To read the Bible is to hear the
voice of God, who speaks in a language which he
has given man the grace to understand. Some men
are endowed with the gift of understanding his ways.
of looking at the universe which is his book no less
than the revelations of the Bible and the Fathers and
saints of the Church. Only love—for a person or an
object—can reveal the true nature of anything. It
is not possible to love formulae, general propositions,
laws, the abstractions of science, the vast system of
concepts and categories—symbols too general to be
close to reality—with which the French lumières have
blinded themselves to concrete reality, to the real
experience which only direct acquaintance, especially
by the senses provide.

Hamann glories in the fact that Hume has success-
fully destroyed the rationalist claim that there is an
a priori route to reality, insisting that all knowledge
and belief ultimately rest on acquaintance with the


104

data of direct perception. Hume rightly supposes that
he could not eat an egg or drink a glass of water if
he did not believe in their existence; the data of
belief—what Hamann prefers to call faith—rest on
grounds and require evidence as little as taste or any
other sensation. True knowledge is direct perception of
individual entities, and concepts are never, no matter
how specific they may be, wholly adequate to the full-
ness of the individual experience. “Individuum est in-
effabile,
” wrote Goethe to the physiognomist J. K.
Lavater in the spirit of Hamann whom Goethe pro-
foundly admired. The sciences may be of use in prac-
tical matters; but no concatenation of concepts will
give one an understanding of a man, of a work of art,
of what is conveyed by gestures, symbols, verbal and
nonverbal, of the style, the spiritual essence, of a hu-
man being, a movement, a culture; nor for that matter
of the Deity which speaks to one everywhere if only
one has ears to hear and eyes to see. What is real is
individual, that is, is what it is in virtue of its unique-
ness, its differences from other things, events, thoughts,
and not in virtue of what it has in common with
them, which is all that the generalizing sciences seek
to record. “Feeling alone,” said Hamann, “gives to
abstract terms... hands, feet, wings”; and again “God
speaks to us in poetical words, addressed to the senses,
not in abstractions for the learned,” and so must any-
one who has something to say that matters, who speaks
to another person.

Hamann took little interest in theories or specula-
tions about the external world; he cared only for the
inner personal life of the individual, and therefore only
for art, religious experience, the senses, personal rela-
tionships, which the analytic truths of scientific reason
seemed to him to reduce to meaningless ciphers. “God
is a poet, not a mathematician,” and it is men who,
like Kant, suffer from a “gnostic hatred of matter” that
provide us with endless verbal constructions—words
that are taken for concepts, and worse still, concepts
that are taken for real things. Scientists invent systems,
philosophers rearrange reality into artificial patterns,
shut their eyes to reality, and build castles in the air.
“When data are given you, why do you seek for ficta?
Systems are mere prisons of the spirit, and they lead
not only to distortion in the sphere of knowledge, but
to the erection of monstrous bureaucratic machines,
built in accordance with the rules that ignore the
teeming variety of the living world, the untidy and
asymmetrical inner lives of men, and crush them into
conformity for the sake of some ideological chimera
unrelated to the union of spirit and flesh that consti-
tutes the real world. “What is this much lauded reason
with its universality, infallibility... certainty, over-
weening claims, but an ens rationis, a stuffed dummy
... endowed with divine attributes?” History alone
yields concrete truth, and in particular the poets de-
scribe their world in the language of passion and
inspired imagination. “The entire treasure of human
knowledge and happiness lies in images”; that is why
the language of primitive man, sensuous and imagina-
tive, is poetical and irrational. “Poetry is the native
language of mankind, and gardening is more ancient
than agriculture, painting than writing, song than
recitation, proverbs than rational conclusions, barter
than trade.” Originality, genius, direct expression, the
Bible or Shakespeare fashion the color, shape, living
flesh of the world, which analytical science, revealing
only the skeleton, cannot begin to do.

Hamann is first in the line of thinkers who accuse
rationalism and scientism of using analysis to distort
reality: he is followed by Herder, Jacobi, Möser who
were influenced by Shaftesbury, Young, and Burke's
anti-intellectualist diatribes, and they, in their turn,
were echoed by romantic writers in many lands. The
most eloquent spokesman of this attitude is Schelling,
whose thought was reproduced vividly by Bergson at
the beginning of this century. He is the father of those
antirationalist thinkers for whom the seamless whole
of reality in its unanalyzable flow is misrepresented
by the static, spatial metaphors of mathematics and
the natural sciences. That to dissect is to murder is
a romantic pronouncement which is the motto of an
entire nineteenth-century movement of which Hamann
was a most passionate and implacable forerunner.
Scientific dissection leads to cold political dehuman-
ization, to the straitjacket of lifeless French rules in
which the living body of passionate and poetical
Germans is to be held fast by the Solomon of Prussia,
Frederick the Great, who knows so much and under-
stands so little. The archenemy is Voltaire, whom
Herder called a “senile child” with a corrosive wit in
place of human feeling. The influence of Rousseau,
particularly of his early writings, on this movement in
Germany, which came to be called Sturm und Drang,
was profound. Rousseau's impassioned pleas for direct
vision and natural feeling, his denunciation of the
artificial social roles which civilization forces men to
play against the true ends and needs of their natures,
his idealization of more primitive, spontaneous human
societies, his contrast between natural self-expression
and the crippling artificiality of social divisions and
conventions which rob men of dignity and freedom,
and promote privilege, power, and arbitrary bullying
at one, and humiliating obsequiousness at the other,
end of the human scale, and so distorts all human
relations, appealed to Hamann and his followers. But
even Rousseau did not seem to them to go far enough.
Despite everything, Rousseau believed in a timeless set


105

of truths which all men could read, for they were
engraved on their hearts in letters more durable than
bronze, thereby conceding the authority of Natural
Law, a vast, cold, empty abstraction. To Hamann and
his followers all rules or precepts are deadly; they
may be necessary for the conduct of day-to-day life,
but nothing great was ever achieved by following them.
English critics were right in supposing that originality
entailed breaking rules, that every creative act, every
illuminating insight, is obtained by ignoring the rules
of despotic legislators. Rules, he declared, are vestal
virgins: unless they are violated there will be no issue.
Nature is capable of wild fantasy, and it is mere child-
ish presumption to seek to imprison her in the narrow
rationalist categories of “puny” and desiccated philos-
ophers. Nature is a wild dance, and so-called practical
men are like sleepwalkers who are secure and success-
ful because they are blind to reality; if they saw reality
as it truly is, they might go out of their minds.

Language is the direct expression of the historical
life of societies and peoples: “every court, every school,
every profession, every corporation, every sect has its
own language”; we penetrate the meaning of this
language by “the passion” of “a lover, a friend, an
intimate,” not by rules, imaginary universal keys which
open nothing. The French philosophes and their Eng-
lish followers tell us that men seek only to obtain
pleasure and avoid pain, but this is absurd. Men seek
to live, create, love, hate, eat, drink, worship, sacri-
fice, understand, and they seek this because they can-
not help it. Life is action. It is knowable only by those
who look within themselves and perform the “hell-
ride” (Höllenfahrt) of self-examination, as the great
founders of Pietism—Spener, Francke, Bengel—have
taught us. Before a man has liberated himself from the
deathly embrace of impersonal, scientific thought
which robs all it touches of life and individuality, he
cannot understand himself or others, or how or why
we come to be what we are.

While Hamann spoke in irregular, isolated flashes
of insight, his disciple J. G. von Herder (1744-1803),
attempted to construct a coherent system to explain
the nature of man and his experience in history. While
profoundly interested in the natural sciences and
eagerly profiting by their findings, particularly in biol-
ogy and physiology, and conceding a good deal more
to the French than the fanatical Hamann was willing
to do, Herder in that part of his doctrine which entered
into the texture of the thought of the movements that
he inspired, deliberately aimed against the sociological
assumptions of the French Enlightenment. He believed
that to understand anything was to understand it in
its individuality and development, and that this re-
quired a capacity which he called Einfühlung (“feeling
into”) the outlook, the individual character of an artistic
tradition, a literature, a social organization, a people,
a culture, a period of history. To understand the actions
of individuals, we must understand the “organic”
structure of the society in terms of which alone the
minds and activities and habits of its members can be
understood. Like Vico, he believed that to understand
a religion, or a work of art, or a national character, one
must “enter into” the unique conditions of its life:
those who have been storm-tossed on the waves of the
North Sea (as he was during his voyage to the West)
can fully understand the songs of the old Skalds as those
who have never seen grim northern sailors coping with
the elements never will; the Bible can truly be under-
stood only by those who attempt to enter into the
experience of primitive shepherds in the Judean hills.
To grade the merits of cultural wholes, of the leg-
acy of entire traditions, by applying a collection of
dogmatic rules claiming universal validity, enun-
ciated by the Parisian arbiters of taste, is vanity and
blindness. Every culture has its own unique Schwer-
punkt
(“center of gravity”) and unless we grasp it
we cannot understand its character or value. From
this spring Herder's passionate concern with the
preservation of primitive cultures which have a unique
contribution to make, his love of almost every ex-
pression of the human spirit, work of the imagination,
for simply being what it is. Art, morality, custom,
religion, national life grow out of immemorial tradi-
tion, are created by entire societies living an inte-
grated communal life. The frontiers and divisions
drawn between and within such unitary expressions
of collective imaginative response to common exper-
ience are nothing but artificial and distorting cate-
gorizations by the dull, dogmatic pedants of a later
age.

Who are the authors of the songs, the epics, the
myths, the temples, the mores of a people, the clothes
they wear, the language they use? The people itself,
the entire soul of which is poured out in all they are
and do. Nothing is more barbarous than to ignore or
trample on a cultural heritage. Hence Herder's con-
demnation of the Romans for crushing native civiliza-
tions, or of the Church (despite the fact that he was
himself a Lutheran clergyman) for forcibly baptizing
the Balts and so forcing them into a Christian mold
alien to their natural traditions, or of British mission-
aries for doing this to the Indians and other inhabit-
ants of Asia whose exquisite native cultures were being
ruthlessly destroyed by the imposition of alien social
systems, religions, forms of education that were not
theirs and could only warp their natural development.
Herder was no nationalist: he supposed that different
cultures could and should flourish fruitfully side by


106

side like so many peaceful flowers in the great human
garden; nevertheless, the seeds of nationalism are un-
mistakably present in his fervid attacks on hollow
cosmopolitanism and universalism (with which he
charged the French philosophes); they grew apace
among his aggressive nineteenth-century disciples.

Herder is the greatest inspirer of cultural national-
ism among the nationalities oppressed by the Austro-
Hungarian, Turkish, and Russian empires, and ulti-
mately of direct political nationalism as well, much
as he abhorred it, in Austria and Germany, and by
infectious reaction, in other lands as well. He rejected
the absolute criteria of progress then fashionable in
Paris: no culture is a mere means towards another;
every human achievement, every human society is to
be judged by its own internal standards. In spite of
the fact that in later life he attempted to construct
a theory of history in which the whole of mankind,
in a somewhat vague fashion, is represented as devel-
oping towards a common Humanität which embraces
all men and all the arts and all the sciences, it is his
earlier, relativistic passion for the individual essence
and flavor of each culture that most profoundly influ-
enced the European imagination. For Voltaire,
Diderot, Helvétius, Holbach, Condorcet, there is only
universal civilization of which now one nation, now
another, represents the richest flowering. For Herder
there is a plurality of incommensurable cultures. To
belong to a given community, to be connected with
its members by indissoluble and impalpable ties of
common language, historical memory, habit, tradition,
and feeling, is a basic human need no less natural
than that for food or drink or security or procreation.
One nation can understand and sympathize with the
institutions of another only because it knows how much
its own mean to itself. Cosmopolitanism is the shedding
of all that makes one most human, most oneself. Hence
the attack upon what is regarded as the false me-
chanical model of mankind used by scientifically
minded French philosophes (Herder makes an excep-
tion for Diderot alone, with whose writings, wayward
and imaginative and full of sudden insights, he felt a
genuine affinity) who understand only machine-like,
causal factors, or the arbitrary will of individual kings
and legislators and commanders, sometimes wise and
virtuous and altruistic, at other times, self-interested
or corrupt or stupid or vicious. But the forces that
shape men are far more complex, and differ from age
to age and culture to culture and cannot be contained
in these simple cut-and-dried formulae. “I am always
frightened when I hear a whole nation or period
characterized in a few short words; for what a vast
multitude of differences is embraced by the word
'nation,' or 'the Middle Ages,' or 'ancient and modern
times.'” Germans can be truly creative only among
Germans; Jews only if they are restored to the an-
cient soil of Palestine. Those who are forcibly pulled
up by the roots wither in a foreign environment when
they survive at all: Europeans lose their virtue in
America, Icelanders decay in Denmark. Imitation of
models (unlike unconscious, unperceived, spontaneous
influences by one society on another) leads to arti-
ficiality, feeble imitativeness, degraded art and life.
Germans must be Germans and not third-rate French-
men; life lies in remaining steeped in one's own
language, tradition, local feeling; uniformity is death.
The tree of (science-dominated) knowledge kills the
tree of life.

So, too, Herder's contemporary, Justus Möser
(1720-94), the first historical sociologist, who wrote
about the old life of his native region of Osnabrück
in Western Germany, said that “every age had its own
style,” every war has its own particular tone, the affairs
of State have a specific coloring, dress and manner have
inner connections with religion and the sciences; that
Zeitstil and Volksstil are everything; that there is a
“local reason” for this or that institution that is not
and cannot be universal. Möser maintained that
societies and persons could be understood only by
means of “a total impression,” not by isolation of ele-
ment from element in the manner of analytical chem-
ists; this, he tells us, is what Voltaire had not grasped
when he mocked the fact that a law which applied
in one German village was contradicted by another
in a neighboring one: it is by such rich variety,
founded upon ancient, unbroken tradition that the
tyrannies of uniform systems, such as those of Louis
XIV or Frederick the Great, were avoided; it is so
that freedoms were preserved.

Although the influence was not direct, these are the
very tones one hears in the works of Edmund Burke
and many later romantic, vitalistic, intuitionist, and
irrationalist writers, both conservative and socialist,
who defend the value of organic forms of social life.
Burke's famous onslaught on the principles of the
French revolutionaries was founded upon the self-same
appeal to the “myriad strands” that bind human beings
into a historically hallowed whole, contrasted with the
utilitarian model of society as a trading company held
together solely by contractual obligations, the world
of “economists, sophisters, and calculators” who are
blind and deaf to the unanalyzable relationships that
make a family, a tribe, a nation, a movement, any
association of human beings held together by some-
thing more than a quest for mutual advantage, or by
force, or by anything that is not mutual love, loyalty,
common history, emotion, and outlook. This emphasis
in the last half of the eighteenth century on nonra-


107

tional factors, whether connected with specific religious
beliefs or not, which stresses the value of the individ-
ual, the peculiar (Das Eigentümliche), the impalpable,
and appeals to ancient historical roots and immemorial
custom, to the wisdom of simple, sturdy peasants un-
corrupted by the sophistries of subtle “reasoners,” has
strongly conservative and, indeed, reactionary implica-
tions. Whether stated by the enthusiastic populist
Herder with his acute dislike for political coercion,
empires, political authority, and all forms of imposed
organization; or by Möser, moderate Hanoverian con-
servative; or by Lavater, altogether unconcerned with
politics; or by Burke, brought up in a different tradi-
tion, respectful towards Church and State and the au-
thority of aristocracies and élites sanctified by history,
these doctrines clearly constitute a resistance to at-
tempts at a rational reorganization of society in the
name of universal moral and intellectual ideals.

At the same time abhorrence of scientific expertise
inspired radical protest in the works of William Blake,
of the young Schiller, and of populist writers in East-
ern Europe. Above all, it contributed to unpolitical
turbulence in Germany in the second third of the
eighteenth century: the plays of such leaders of the
Sturm und Drang as J. M. R. Lenz, F. M. von Klinger,
H. W. von Gerstenberg, and J. A. Leisewitz are out-
bursts against every form of organized social or po-
litical life. What provoked them may have been the
asphyxiating philistinism of the German middle class,
or the cruel injustices of the small and stuffy courts of
stupid and arbitrary German princelings, but what they
attacked with equal violence was the entire tidy order-
ing of life by the principles of reason and scientific
knowledge advocated by the progressive thinkers of
France, England, and Italy. Lenz regards nature as a
wild whirlpool into which a man of feeling and tem-
perament will throw himself if he is to experience the
fullness of life; for him, for C. F. D. Schubart, and
for Leisewitz art and, in particular, literature are pas-
sionate forms of self-assertion which look on all
acceptance of conventional forms as but “delayed
death.” Nothing is more characteristic of the entire
Sturm und Drang movement than Herder's cry “I am
not here to think, but to be, feel, live!”, or “heart!
warmth! blood! humanity! life!” French reasoning is
pale and ghostly. It is this that inspired Goethe's reac-
tion in the seventies to Holbach's Système de la nature
as a repulsive, “Cimmerian, corpse-like” treatise,
which had no relation to the marvellous, inexhaustibly
rich vitality of the Gothic cathedral at Strasbourg, in
which, under Herder's guidance, he saw one of the
noblest expressions of the German spirit in the Middle
Ages, of which the critics of the Augustan age under-
stood nothing. J. J. W. Heinse in his fantasy Ardinghello
und die glückseligen Inseln
(1787; trans. as Ardinghello;
or an Artist's Rambles in Sicily,
1839), leads his central
characters after a bloodstained succession of wild ex-
periences of more than “Gothic” intensity, to an island
where there is total freedom in personal relations, all
rules and conventions have finally been flung to the
winds, where man in an anarchist-communist society
can at last stretch himself to his full stature as a sub-
lime creative artist. The inspiration of this work is a
violent, radical individualism, which represents an
early form, not unlike the contemporary erotic fan-
tasies of the Marquis de Sade, of a craving for escape
from imposed rules and laws whether of scientific
reason or of political or ecclesiastical authority, royal-
ist or republican, despotic or democratic.

By an odd paradox, it is the profoundly rational,
exact, unromantic Kant, with his lifelong hatred of
all forms of Schwärmerei, who is in part, through
exaggeration and distortion of at least one of his doc-
trines, one of the fathers of this unbridled individ-
ualism. Kant's moral doctrines stressed the fact that
determinism was not compatible with morality, since
only those who are the true authors of their own acts,
which they are free to perform or not perform, can
be praised or blamed for what they do. Since respon-
sibility entails power of choice, those who cannot freely
choose are morally no more accountable than stocks
and stones. Thereby Kant initiated a cult of moral
autonomy, according to which only those who act and
are not acted upon, whose actions spring from a deci-
sion of the moral will to be guided by freely adopted
principles, if need be against inclination, and not from
the inescapable causal pressure of factors beyond their
control—physical, physiological, psychological (such as
emotion, desire, habit)—can properly be considered to
be free or, indeed, moral agents at all. Kant acknowl-
edged a profound debt to Rousseau who, particularly
in the “profession of faith of the Savoyard vicar” in
the fourth book of his Émile, spoke of man as an active
being in contrast with the passivity of material nature,
a possessor of a will which makes him free to resist
the temptations of the senses. “I am a slave through
my vices and free through my remorse”; it is the active
will, made known directly by “feeling,” which for
Rousseau is “stronger than reason [i.e. prudential argu-
ment] which fights against it,” that enables man to
choose the good; he acts, if need be, against “the laws
of the body,” and so makes himself worthy of hap-
piness. But although this doctrine of the will as a
capacity not determined by the causal stream is
directed against the sensationalist positivism of Helvé-
tius or Condillac, and has an affinity to Kant's free
moral will, it does not leave the objective framework
of Natural Law which governs things as well as per-


108

sons, and prescribes the same immutable, universal
goals to all men.

This emphasis upon the will at the expense of con-
templative thought and perception, which function
within the predetermined grooves of the categories of
the mind that man cannot escape, enters deeply into
the German conception of moral freedom as entailing
resistance to nature and not harmonious collusion with
her overcoming of natural inclination, and rising to
Promethean resistance to coercion, whether by things
or by men. This, in its turn, led to the rejection of
the doctrine that to understand is to accept the view
that knowledge demonstrates the rational necessity and
therefore the value of what, in his irrational state, may
have seemed to man mere obstacles in his path. This
conception opposed as it is to reconciliation with
reality, in its later, romantic form, favored the un-
ending fight, at times ending in tragic defeat, against
the forces of blind nature, which cares nothing for
human ideals, and against the accumulated weight of
authority and tradition—the vast incubus of the un-
criticized past, made concrete in the oppressive in-
stitutions of the present. Thus, when William Blake
denounces Newton and Locke as the great enemies,
it is because he accuses them of seeking to imprison
the free human spirit in constricting, intellectual ma-
chines; when he says “Robin Redbreast in a cage/
Sets all Heaven in a rage,” the cage is none other
than Newtonian physics that crushes the life out of
the free, spontaneous life of the untrammeled human
spirit. “Art is the Tree of Life, Science is the Tree of
Death”; Locke, Newton, the French raisonneurs, the
reign of cautious, pragmatic respectability and Pitt's
police were all, for him, parts of the same nightmare.
There is something of this, too, in Schiller's early
play DieRäuber (1781), where the violent protest of
the tragic hero Karl Moor, which ends in failure,
crime, and death, cannot be averted by mere know-
ledge, by a better understanding of human nature or
of social conditions or of anything else; knowledge is
not enough. The doctrine of the Enlightenment that
we can discover what men truly want and can provide
technical means and rules of conduct for their greatest
permanent satisfaction and that this is what leads to
wisdom, virtue, happiness is not compatible with Karl
Moor's proud and stormy spirit which rejects the
ideals of his milieu, and will not be assuaged by the
reformist gradualism and belief in rational organization
advocated by, say, the Aufklärung of the previous
generation. “Law has distorted to a snail's pace what
could have been an eagle's flight” (The Robbers, Act I,
Scene 2). Human nature is no longer conceived of as,
in principle, capable of being brought into harmony
with the natural world: for Schiller some fatal Rous
seauian break between spirit and nature has occurred,
a wound has been inflicted on humanity which art
seeks to avenge, but knows it cannot fully heal.

Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, a mystical metaphysician
deeply influenced by Hamann, cannot reconcile the
demands of the soul and the intellect: “The light is
in my heart: as soon as I try to carry it to my intellect,
it goes out.” Spinoza was for him the greatest master
since Plato of the rational vision of the universe; but
for Jacobi this is death in life: it does not answer the
burning questions of the soul whose homelessness in
the chilly world of the intellect only self-surrender to
faith in a transcendent God will remedy.

Schelling was perhaps the most eloquent of all the
philosophers who represented the Universe as the self-
development of a primal, nonrational force that can
be grasped only by intuitive powers of men of
imaginative genius—poets, philosophers, theologians,
or statesmen. Nature, a living organism, responds to
questions put by the man of genius, while the man
of genius responds to the questions put by nature, for
they conspire with each other; imaginative insight
alone, no matter whose—an artist's, a seer's, a think-
er's—becomes conscious of the contours of the future,
of which the mere calculating intellect and analytic
capacity of the natural scientist or the politician, or
any other earthbound empiricist has no conception.
This faith in a peculiar, intuitive, spiritual faculty
which goes by various names—reason, understanding,
primary imagination—but is always differentiated from
the critical analytic intellect favored by the Enlighten-
ment, the contrast between it and the analytic faculty
or method that collects, classifies, experiments, takes
to pieces, reassembles, defines, deduces, and establishes
probabilities, becomes a commonplace used thereafter
by Fichte, Hegel, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Goethe,
Carlyle, Schopenhauer, and other antirationalist
thinkers of the nineteenth century, culminating in
Bergson and later antipositivist schools.

This, too, is the source of that stream in the great
river of romanticism which looks upon every human
activity as a form of individual self-expression, and on
art, and indeed every creative activity, as a stamping
of a unique personality, individual or collective, con-
scious or unconscious, upon the matter or the medium
in and upon which it functions, seeking to realize
values which are themselves not given but generated
by the process of creation itself. Hence the denial, both
in theory and in practice, of the central doctrine of
the Enlightenment according to which the rules in
accordance with which men should live and act and
create are pre-established, dictated by nature herself.
For Joshua Reynolds, for example, “The Great Style”
is the realization of the artist's vision of eternal forms,


109

prototypes beyond the confusions of ordinary experi-
ence, which his genius enables him to discern and
which he seeks to reproduce, with all the techniques
at his command, on his canvas or in marble or bronze.
Such mimesis or copying from ideal patterns, is, for
those who derive from the German tradition of revolt
against French classicism, not true creation. Creation
is creation of ends as well as means, of values as well
as their embodiments; the vision that I seek to translate
into colors or sounds is generated by me, and peculiar
to me, unlike anything that has ever been, or will be,
above all, not something that is common to me and
other men seeking to realize a common, shared, uni-
versal, because rational, ideal. The notion that a work
of art (or any other work of man) is creation in accord-
ance with rules dictated by objective nature, and
therefore binding for all practitioners of it, as Boileau
or the Abbé Batteux had taught, is rejected in toto.
Rules may be an aid here or there, but the least spark
of genius destroys them, and creates its own practice,
which uncreative craftsmen may imitate and so be
saying nothing of their own. I create as I do, whether
I am an artist, a philosopher, a statesman, because the
goal that I seek to realize is my own, not because it
is objectively beautiful, or true, or virtuous, or
approved by public opinion or demanded by majorities
or tradition, but because it is my own.

What this creative self may be differs according to
doctrine. Some regard it as a transcendent entity to
be identified with a cosmic spirit, a divine principle
to which finite men aspire as sparks do to the great
central flame; others identify it with their own individ-
ual, mortal, flesh and blood selves, like Byron, or Hugo,
or other defiantly romantic writers and painters.
Others, again, identified the creative self with a super-
personal “organism” of which they saw themselves as
elements or members—nation, or church, or culture, or
class, or History itself, a mighty force of which they
conceived their earthly selves as emanations. Aggres-
sive nationalism, self-identification with the interests
of the class, the culture or the race, or the forces of
progress—with the wave of a future-directed dynamism
of history, something that at once explains and justifies
acts which might be abhorred or despised if committed
from calculation of selfish advantage or some other
mundane motive—this family of political and moral
conceptions is so many expressions of a doctrine of
self-realization based on defiant rejection of the central
theses of the Enlightenment according to which what
is true, or right, or good, or beautiful, can be shown
to be valid for all men by the correct application of
objective methods of discovery and interpretation,
open to anyone to use and verify. In its full romantic
guise, this attitude is an open declaration of war upon
the very heart of the rational and experimental method
which Descartes and Galileo had inaugurated, and
which for all their doubts and qualifications even such
sharp deviationists as Montesquieu, or Hume and
Rousseau and Kant, fully and firmly accepted. For the
truly ardent opponents of classicism, values are not
found but made, not discovered but created; they are
to be realized because they are mine, or ours, whatever
the nature of the true self is pronounced to be by this
or that metaphysical doctrine.

The most extravagant of the German romantics,
Novalis or Tieck, looked on the Universe not as a
structure that can be studied or described by whatever
methods are most appropriate, but as a perpetual
activity of the spirit and of nature which is the selfsame
spirit in a dormant state; of this constant upward
movement the man of genius is the most conscious
agent who thus embodies the forward activity that
advances the life of the spirit most significantly. While
some, like Schelling and Coleridge, conceive this
activity as the gradual growth into self-consciousness
of the world spirit that is perpetually moving towards
self-perfection, others conceive the cosmic process as
having no goal, as a purposeless and meaningless
movement, which men, because they cannot face this
bleak and despair-inducing truth, seek to hide from
themselves by constructing comforting illusions in the
form of religions that promise rewards in another life,
or metaphysical systems that claim to provide rational
justification both for what there is in the world and
for what men do and can do and should do; or scientific
systems that perform the task of appearing to give
sense to a process that is, in fact, purposeless, a form-
less flux which is what it is, a brute fact, signifying
nothing. This doctrine, elaborated by Schopenhauer,
lies at the root of much modern existentialism and of
the cultivation of the absurd in art and thought, as
well as of the extremes of egoistic anarchism driven
to their furthest lengths by Max Stirner and, in some
of his moods, by Nietzsche, Kierkegaard (Hamann's
most brilliant and profound disciple), and modern
irrationalists.

The rejection of the central principles of the
Enlightenment—universality, objectivity, rationality,
and the capacity to provide permanent solutions to all
genuine problems of life or thought, and (not less im-
portant) accessibility of rational methods to any thinker
armed with adequate powers of observation and
logical thinking—occurred in various forms, conserva-
tive or liberal, reactionary or revolutionary, depend-
ing on which systematic order was being attacked.
Those, for example, like Adam Müller or Friedrich
Schlegel, and in some moods, Coleridge or William
Cobbett, to whom the principles of the French Revolu-


110

tion or the Napoleonic organization came to seem the
most fatal obstacles to free human self-expression,
adopted conservative or reactionary forms of irrational-
ism and at times looked back with nostalgia towards
some golden past, such as the prescientific ages of
faith, and tended (not always continuously or con-
sistently) to support clerical and aristocratic resistance
to modernization and the mechanization of life by
industrialism and the new hierarchies of power and
authority. Those who looked upon the traditional
forces of authority or hierarchical organization as the
most oppressive of social forces—Byron, for example,
or George Sand, or, so far as they can be called
romantic, Shelley or Georg Büchner—formed the “left
wing” of the romantic revolt. Others despised public
life in principle, and occupied themselves with the
cultivation of the inner spirit. In all cases the organiza-
tion of life by the application of rational or scientific
methods, any form of regimentation or conscription of
men for utilitarian ends or organized happiness, was
regarded as the philistine enemy.

What the entire Enlightenment has in common is
denial of the central Christian doctrine of original sin,
believing instead that man is born either innocent and
good, or morally neutral and malleable by education
or environment, or, at worst, deeply defective but
capable of radical and indefinite improvement by ra-
tional education in favorable circumstances, or by a
revolutionary reorganization of society as demanded,
for example, by Rousseau. It is this denial of original
sin that the Church condemned most severely in
Rousseau's Émile, despite its attack on materialism,
utilitarianism, and atheism. It is the powerful reaffir-
mation of this Pauline and Augustinian doctrine that
is the sharpest single weapon in the root and branch
attack on the entire Enlightenment by the French
counterrevolutionary writers, de Maistre, Bonald, and
Chateaubriand, at the turn of the century.

One of the darkest of the reactionary forms of the
fight against the Enlightenment, as well as one of the
most interesting and influential, is to be found in the
doctrines of Joseph de Maistre and his followers and
allies who formed the spearhead of the counterrevolu-
tion in the early nineteenth century in Europe. De
Maistre held the Enlightenment to be one of the most
foolish, as well as the most ruinous, forms of social
thinking. The conception of man as naturally disposed
to benevolence, cooperation, and peace, or, at any rate,
capable of being shaped in this direction by appro-
priate education or legislation, is for him shallow and
false. The benevolent Dame Nature of Hume, Holbach,
and Helvétius is an absurd figment. History and zool-
ogy are the most reliable guides to Nature: they show
her to be a field of unceasing slaughter. Men are by
nature aggressive and destructive; they rebel over
trifles—the change to the Gregorian calendar in the
mid-eighteenth century, or Peter the Great's decision
to shave the boyars' beards, provoke violent resistance,
at times dangerous rebellions. But when men are sent
to war, to exterminate beings as innocent as themselves
for no purpose that either army can grasp, they go
obediently to their deaths and scarcely ever mutiny.
When the destructive instinct is evoked men feel
exalted and fulfilled. Men do not come together, as the
Enlightenment teaches, for mutual cooperation and
peaceful happiness, when history makes it clear that
they are never so united as when given a common altar
upon which to immolate themselves. This is so because
the desire to sacrifice themselves or others is at least
as strong as any pacific or constructive impulse. De
Maistre felt that men are by nature, evil, self-destruc-
tive animals, full of conflicting drives, who do not know
what they want, want what they do not want, do not
want what they want, and it is only when they are
kept under constant control and rigorous discipline by
some authoritarian elite—a church, a state, or some
other body from whose decisions there is no appeal—
that they can hope to survive and be saved. Reasoning,
analysis, criticism shake the foundations and destroy
the fabric of society. If the source of authority is
declared to be rational, it invites questioning and
doubt; but if it is questioned it may be argued away;
its authority is undermined by able sophists, and this
accelerates the forces of chaos, as in France during
the reign of the weak and liberal Louis XVI. If the
State is to survive and frustrate the fools and knaves
who will always seek to destroy it, the source of
authority must be absolute, so terrifying, indeed, that
the least attempt to question it must entail immediate
and terrible sanctions: only then will men learn to
obey it. Without a clear hierarchy of authority—awe-
inspiring power—men's incurably destructive instincts
will breed chaos and mutual extermination. The su-
preme power—especially the Church—must never
seek to explain or justify itself in rational terms; for
what one man can demonstrate, another may be able
to refute. Reason is the thinnest of walls against the
raging seas of violent emotion: on so insecure a basis
no permanent structure can ever be erected. Irra-
tionality, so far from being an obstacle, has historically
led to peace, security, and strength, and is indispens-
able to society: it is rational institutions—republics,
elective monarchies, democracies, associations founded
on the enlightened principles of free love—that col-
lapse soonest; authoritarian churches, hereditary
monarchies and aristocracies, traditional forms of life,
like the highly irrational institution of the family
founded on lifelong marriage—it is they that persist.


111

The philosophes proposed to rationalize communi-
cation by inventing a universal language free from the
irrational survivals, the idiosyncratic twists and turns,
the capricious peculiarities of existing tongues; if they
succeed, this would be disastrous, for it is precisely the
individual historical development of a language that
belongs to a people that absorbs, enshrines, and
incapsulates a vast wealth of half-conscious, half-
remembered collective experience. What men call
superstition and prejudice are but the crust of custom
which by sheer survival has showed itself proof against
the ravages and vicissitudes of its long life; to lose it
is to lose the shield that protects men's national exist-
ence, their spirit, the habits, memories, faith that
have made them what they are. The conception of
human nature which the radical critics have promul-
gated and on which their whole house of cards rests
is an infantile fantasy. Rousseau asks why it is that man
who was born free is nevertheless everywhere in
chains; one might as well ask, says de Maistre, why
it is that sheep who are born carnivorous, nevertheless
everywhere nibble grass. Men are not made for free-
dom, nor for peace. Such freedom and peace as they
have had was obtained only under wisely authoritarian
governments that have repressed the destructive criti-
cal intellect and its socially disintegrating effects. Sci-
entists, intellectuals, lawyers, journalists, democrats,
Jansenists, Protestants, Jews, atheists, these are the
sleepless enemy that never ceases to gnaw at the vitals
of society. The best government the world has ever
known was that of the Romans: they were too wise
to be scientists themselves: for this purpose they hired
the clever, volatile, politically incapable Greeks.
Not the luminous intellect, but dark instincts govern
man and societies; only elites which understand this,
and keep the people from too much secular education
that is bound to make them over-critical and discon-
tented, can give to men as much happiness and justice
and freedom as, in this vale of tears, men can expect
to have. But at the back of everything, must lurk the
potentiality of force, of coercive power.

In a striking image de Maistre says that all social
order in the end rests upon one man, the executioner.
Nobody wishes to associate with this hideous figure,
yet on him, so long as men are weak, sinful, unable
to control their passions, constantly lured to their doom
by evil temptations or foolish dreams, rests all order,
all peace, all society. The notion that reason is sufficient
to educate or control the passions is ridiculous. When
there is a vacuum, power rushes in; even the blood-
stained monster Robespierre, a scourge sent by the
Lord to punish a country that had departed from the
true faith, is more to be admired—because he did hold
France together and repelled her enemies, and created
armies that, drunk with blood and passion, preserved
France—than liberal fumbling and bungling. Louis
XIV ignored the clever reasoners of his time, sup-
pressed heresy, and died full of glory in his own bed.
Louis XVI played amiably with subversive ideologists
who had drunk at the poisoned well of Voltaire, and
died on the scaffold. Repression, censorship, absolute
sovereignty, judgments from which there is no appeal,
these are the only methods of governing creatures
whom de Maistre described as half men, half beasts,
monstrous Centaurs at once seeking after God and
fighting Him, longing to love and create, but in per-
petual danger of falling victims to their own blindly
destructive drives, held in check by a combination of
force and traditional authority and, above all, a faith
incarnated in historically hallowed institutions that
reason dare not touch. Nation and race are realities;
the artificial creations of constitution-mongers are
bound to collapse. “Nations,” said de Maistre, “are
born and die like individuals.... They have a common
soul, especially visible in their language.” And since
they are individuals, they should endeavor to remain
“of one race.” So, too, Bonald regrets that the French
nation has abandoned its ideal of racial purity, thus
weakening itself. The question of whether the French
are descended from Franks or Gauls, whether their
institutions are Roman or German in origin, with the
implication that this could dictate a form of life in the
present, although it has its roots in political contro-
versies in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and early eight-
eenth centuries, now takes the color of mystical
organicism which transcends, and is proof against, all
forms of discursive reasoning. Natural growth alone is
real. Only time, only history, can create authority that
men can worship and obey: mere military dictatorship,
a work of individual human hands, is brutal force
without spiritual power: he calls it bâtonocratie, and
predicts the end of Napoleon. His closest intellectual
ally was Bonald, who in similar strain denounced indi-
vidualism whether as a social doctrine or an intellectual
method of analyzing historical phenomena. The inven-
tions of man, he declared, are precarious aids compared
to divinely ordained institutions that penetrate man's
very being, language, family, the worship of God. By
whom were they invented? Whenever a child is born
there are father, mother, family, God; this is the basis
of all that is genuine and lasting, not the arrangements
of men drawn from the world of shopkeepers, with their
contracts, or promises, or utility, or material goods.
Liberal individualism inspired by the insolent self-
confidence of mutinous intellectuals has led to the in-
human competition of bourgeois society in which the
strongest and the fastest win and the weak go to the
wall. Only the Church can organize a society in which


112

the ablest are held back so that the whole of society
can progress and the weakest and least greedy also
reach the goal.

These gloomy doctrines became the inspiration of
monarchist politics in France, and together with the
notion of romantic heroism and the sharp contrast
between creative and uncreative, historic and unhis-
torical individuals and nations, duly inspired national-
ism, imperialism, and finally, in their most violent and
pathological form, fascist and totalitarian doctrines in
the twentieth century.

The failure of the French Revolution to bring about
the greater portion of its declared ends marks the end
of the French Enlightenment as a movement and a
system. Its heirs and counter-movements that, to some
degree, they stimulated and affected in their turn,
romantic and irrational creeds and movements, political
and aesthetic, violent and peaceful, individualist and
collective, anarchic and totalitarian, and their impact,
belong to another page of history.