Idololatria: Philosophy as a Contrary Faith

  • W. M. Alexander


As suggested in Chapter II, Christianity is related to philosophy in at least three different ways in the thought of Hamann, or to express it differently, philosophy is conceived in three different ways. The first of these we consider now.


Pure Reason Christian Theology Natural Religion Real Opponent Christian Life 
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  1. 1.
    A phrase in the “Last Page.”Google Scholar
  2. 1.
    “TO THE PUBLIC, OR NOBODY THE NOTORIOUS: YOU bear a name, and yet are not obliged to prove your existence; you evoke faith, and yet perform no sign to merit the same; you receive honor, and yet have no concept or feeling of it. ‘We know that there are no idols in the world.’ A man also are you not, yet you undoubtedly have a human form which superstition has deified. You lack not eyes and ears, which however do not see and do not hear; and the artificial eye you make and the artificial ear you plant is, like your devotees, blind and deaf. You must know everything, and yet you learn nothing; you must direct everything, and yet you understand nothing; you are always learning, and yet can never come to the knowledge of the truth…” (II, 59). Cf. Heidegger’s “Das Man”. Elsewhere (II, 261) Hamann refers to this “one” (e.g. “one does not know what one should do”; “one thinks”; “one supposes” etc.) as “a certain quantity, unknown as to its length and breadth.”Google Scholar
  3. 1.
    “Neither the dogmatic principles of the pharisaic orthodox nor the fanciful exuberances of sadducaic freethinkers will renew the sending of the Spirit. …” (II, 211).Google Scholar
  4. 2.
    In Hamann’s context, probably what we would call “deists”.Google Scholar
  5. 3.
    This new “theology” (religious philosophy) could not always conveniently admit its newness. Often it had to appear as if it were a continuation of the real Reformation, a preservation of the essence of Christianity. Fritz Blanke (“Hamann und Luther”, Hamann-Studien, p. 43) points out that in Germany no one (whether orthodox, pietistic or rationalist) dared stand outside the shadow of Luther. So the Aufklärung, like other movements, appealed to Luther. This appeal of the rationalists to the Reformation Hamann called a “Reformation-swindle” (III, 236). He asks what kind of a philosophy this is: “Is this by chance that beautiful little wolf [Wolffian — disciple of Christian Wolff] which of old in sheep’s clothing demonstrated the entire dogmatics on its ten fingers and explained and preserved the most excellent truths of our genuine religion in a comprehensible manner, but after longer deliberation, trampled upon the pearls of the holy with its feet and turned itself to rend us like a swine and a dog?” (III, 225). Hamann asks whether “just for this reason theism and papacy have not been able and have not found it necessary to usurp the name of Christianity with just as much pretension as zeal, in order to divide both shells of the mussel among themselves?” (III, 165).Google Scholar
  6. 1.
    Cf. Hamann’s deliberately ambiguous statement: “Kant’s Good Will is indeed no other than the Divine, as his Pure Reason the true LOGOS.” (TO Jacobi, 3–7 Dec. 1786, G V, 443).Google Scholar
  7. 1.
    Fürstin Amalia von Galitzin, Briefwechsel und Tagebücher, Neue Folge, p. 331. Cf. “To deny the existence of God and to want to prove it, is basically, as Voltaire says: Sottise de deux parts! [one as silly as the other]… These inveterate contradictors who lie in the heart against the truth with bitter jealousy and querulousness and boast of a wisdom which does not come from above.… The most horrifying mischief is carried on under the hypocritical guise of a philosophical Reformation” (III, 319, 320).Google Scholar
  8. 1.
    Hamann reported to Herder (14 Apr. 1785) that he had read Kant’s Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten: “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.” Cf. III, 370, line 6. (Midas was afflicted with donkey ears because he gave the decision to Pan over against Apollo in a bet.) Cf. also Hamann’s charge against Kant of “indifferentism”, i.e. the unconcern about the status and integrity of the “tribunal” (reason) which proposes to judge everything (III, 279, 280).Google Scholar
  9. 1.
    The Princess Galitzin asked Haman for explanations to difficult passages in the Socratic Memorabilia. Hamann wrote several answers on the back of one of the copies of the essay, including this comment: “Often what is properly only the dregs which remain after the effervescence of the imagination [cf. G V, 656] is decorated with the name of philosophy. How is the true to be distinguished from the host of false philosophies ? If all freaks who call themselves philosophers [Hamann is speaking of historians of philosophy] and make such pretensions, are such, then everything comes down to collecting data and tradition.” (II, 394). Cf. Hamann’s attack on the “happy compilators” (Pierre Bayle and Charles Montesquieu): “A cunning connection of word to word, phrase to phrase, event to analogy, feelings to opinions — does one attain immortality in this way? And must not the end-product be conformable to the means? Both are vain and foolish.” (To Brother, June 1759?).Google Scholar
  10. 2.
    “Adam did not believe God. — About what? That he would die.” (Biblical Meditations, I, 228). Death may be viewed as an inescapable implicate of physiology or as a matter of sociological statistics of universal import. Everyone must die. But it is a qualitatively different step to believe that one must die oneself.Google Scholar
  11. 1.
    Cf. the title of Hamann’s last major work: Exposure and Transfiguration. A Flying Letter to Nobody the Notorious, 1786, and the dedication of the “beginning of his authorship” in the Socratic Memorabilia, 1759: “To the Public, or Nobody the Notorious.”Google Scholar
  12. 1.
    Cf. Hamann to Jacobi, 27 Apr. 1787 (G V, 508): “My reason is invisible without language, and again to be sure it is the only expression of the soul and of the heart for the revelation and communication of our innermost being.”Google Scholar
  13. 2.
    How does language embody thought? “This meaning and its determination arise, ‘as all the world knows’, out of the connection of a word-sign (a priori arbitrary and indifferent, but a posteriori necessary and indispensable) with the intuition of the object itself, and through this repeated connection the concept is communicated to, impressed upon, and embodied in the understanding, by means of the word-sign as well as by means of the intuition itself.” (III, 288). It has been pointed out that Hamann has adopted what is essentially Hume’s position on habit.Google Scholar
  14. 1.
    Cf. Hamann in Golgatha and Scheblimini (III, 301): “He speaks and it takes place! ‘And however the man would name the animals, that is what they were named.’ [Gen. 2: 19]. According to this example and image of ‘definition’ the case should be for every word of man and remain so. Upon this likeness of ‘image and superscription’ with the model of our race [Gen. 1: 27] and the master of our youth [Jer. 3: 14] — upon this ‘natural law’ for making use of the word as the most authentic, most noble, and most powerful means for the revelation and communication of our inner ‘declaration of will’, — upon this is the validity of all contracts grounded, and this strong fortress [dieser feste Burg!] of the truth which lies in concealment is superior to all French [i.e. Enlightenment] contrivances, machinations, pedantries and quackery. The misuse of language and its natural testimonies is therefore the grossest perjury, and makes the transgressor of this first law of reason and its Tightness to be the most vexatious enemy of man, the perpetrator of high treason and the opponent of German [play on words: ‘genuine’, ‘frank’] uprightness and honesty, upon which our worth and happiness rest.” (Cf. also III, 300).Google Scholar
  15. 2.
    Among these unities is the unity of thought and life. Hamann’s Socrates was not an author, he filled no public office, yet once in battle he saved Alcibiades and Xenophon and “his philosophy fitted every place and every situation.” (II, 78). Philosophy and life are not divorced. This is Hamann’s ideal. Socrates dies for the truth. If God came into the world, he would fare no better, and everyone who would witness to the truth must expect the same. (II, 82).Google Scholar
  16. 3.
    It will not have escaped the reader that Mk. 10: 9 and Mt. 19: 6 have: “What God has joined together”. The easy use of “nature” here for “God” and the sense in which it is meant are discussed in Chapter VI.Google Scholar
  17. 1.
    Divorce and sodomy, i.e. unnatural analysis and unnatural synthesis.Google Scholar
  18. 2.
    Cf. III, 309-310: Atheism is falsely so called. It is actually an “Atticism”, a superstition or false faith dressed up in fancy language.Google Scholar
  19. 1.
    Hamann tells Reichardt to hold to the concrete: “Hang on to the vivit! [He lives]”.Google Scholar
  20. 1.
    Hamann recognized the unavoidableness of analogy, and the necessity for a norm in measuring the content of language against its reality. He suggests above what this criterion might be. Some kinds of truth can be expressed only in figurative language: in this way alone can its content be preserved. (Cf. To J. G. Lindner, 16–20 July 1759, ZH I, 369, lines 5f.).Google Scholar
  21. 2.
    Here is the point of contact in Hamann’s invidious comparison of “papacy” and “Enlightenment”. Hamann sees his task as a new version of Luther’s fight in the Reformation, except that instead of a scheme of salvation by works symbolized by “law” (as it was also for Paul), the scheme is now a scheme of salvation by reason symbolized by “philosophy”. Reason is under “grace”, not under “works”. It cannot control and systematically trace its ordo salutis; it must receive truth in the lowly and contingent forms of history and sense-experience, which do not submit to proof. Hamann sees that grace stands over reason as well as over the rest of the Christian life. Parallels are not difficult to schematize: With regard to grace, Hamann asks: “Whether the pearl of Christianity must not be a life hidden in God, a truth in Christ the Mediator, and a power which consists neither in words and practice, nor in dogmas and visible works …” (III, 165). “I know that in doctrine and in life I am an erring sheep. However it is a great comfort to me that I belong to a church which makes righteousness which is valid before God as little a matter of good works as of orthodoxy.” (To J. G. Lindner, 11 Apr. 1761).Google Scholar
  22. 1.
    Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, trans. by Fritz C. A. Koelln and James P. Pettegrove (Boston: Beacon Press reprint, 1955), pp. 134–196.Google Scholar
  23. 2.
    For Hamann’s cogent and brilliant concept of tolerance see appendix to Chapter V.Google Scholar
  24. 3.
    “The standard organ of the German Enlightenment”: Nadler, VI, 267.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, Netherlands 1966

Authors and Affiliations

  • W. M. Alexander
    • 1
  1. 1.St. Andrews CollegeCanada

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