Heine on Kant and Robespierre as terrorists

Strong words from Heine’s 1834 History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany:

“The life-history of Immanuel Kant is difficult to write, for he had neither a life nor a history. He lived a mechanical, orderly, almost abstract, bachelor life, in a quiet little side-street of Königsberg, an old city near the north-east boundary of Germany. kant-silhouette I believe that the great clock of the cathedral did not perform its daily work more dispassionately, more regularly, than its countryman, Immanuel Kant. Rising, coffee-drinking, writing, collegiate lectures, dining, walking — each had its set time. And when Immanuel Kant, in his grey coat, cane in hand, appeared at the door of his house, and strolled towards the small linden avenue, which is still called ‘the philosopher’s walk,’ the neighbours knew it was exactly half-past four. Eight times he promenaded up and down, during all seasons; and when the weather was gloomy, or the grey clouds threatened rain, his old servant Lampe was seen plodding anxiously after, with a large umbrella under his arm, like a symbol of Providence.

“What a strange contrast between the outer life of the man and his destructive, world-convulsing thoughts! Had the citizens of Königsberg surmised the whole significance of these thoughts, they would have felt a more profound awe in the presence of this man than in that of an executioner, who merely slays human beings. Robespierre-sketchBut the good people saw in him nothing but a professor of philosophy; and when at the fixed hour he sauntered by, they nodded a friendly greeting, and regulated their watches.

“But if Immanuel Kant, that arch-destroyer in the realms of thought, far surpassed Maximilian Robespierre in terrorism, yet he had certain points of resemblance to the latter that invite a comparison of the two men. In both we find the same inflexible, rigid, prosaic integrity. Then we find in both the same instinct of distrust, — only that the one exercises it against ideas, and names it a critique, while the other applies it to men, and calls it republican virtue. In both, however, the narrow-minded shopkeeper type is markedly manifest. Nature had intended them to weigh out sugar and coffee, but fate willed it otherwise, and into the scales of one it laid a king, into those of the other, a God. And they both weighed correctly.”

heineheinrichSource: Heinrich Heine, History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany (1834), Preface to the Second Edition (1852).

Related: My explanation of Kant’s epistemology in “The Counter-Enlightenment Attack on Reason” [PDF], which is Chapter Two of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault. My discussion of Robespierre’s significance is in Chapter Four, “The Climate of Collectivism” [PDF].

The Department of Great Putdowns

heineheinrichThe satirist, poet, and radical Heinrich Heine described poet Alfred de Musset as “a young man with a great future behind him.”

Ouch. Musset never forgave him.

Heine is known to have fought in at least ten duels in his life. One wonders why.

Heine also said this of Kant, describing his clockwork walks along his street in Koenigsberg — then comparing him to the brutal dictator Robespierre:

kant-silhouette“Truly, if the citizens of Koenigsberg had had any premonition of the full significance of his ideas, they would have felt a far more terrifying dread at the presence of this man than at the sight of an executioner, an executioner who merely executes people. But the good folk saw in him nothing but a professor of philosophy, and as he passed by at his customary hour, they gave him a friendly greeting and perhaps set their watches by him.
“If, however, Immanuel Kant, the arch-destroyer in realm of ideas, far surpassed Maximilian Robespierre in terrorism, yet he possessed many similarities with the latter which invite comparison of the two men. …”


Also to his credit, Heine’s works were among those torched in the Nazi book burnings of 1933.

For the Musset putdown: Franz Liszt: The Virtuoso Years. The Virtuoso Years, 1811-1847, Volume 1, p. 163.
For the Kant/Robespierre comparison: from “Concerning the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany,” in Heinrich Heine, Selected Works, translated by Helen M. Mustard (New York: Random House, 1973).

More of my thoughts on Kant at this page.

Rousseau and the French Revolution

[This excerpt is from Chapter 4 of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault]

Rousseau and the French Revolution

rousseau-ramsay-50x61Rousseau died in 1778 when France was at the height of its Enlightenment. At the time of his death, Rousseau’s writings were well known in France, though he had not exerted the influence that he would when France entered its revolution. It was Rousseau’s followers who prevailed in the French Revolution, especially in its destructive third phase.

The revolution had started with the nobility. Spotting the weakness of the French monarchy, the nobles had succeeded in 1789 in forcing a meeting of the Estates-General, an institution that they usually controlled. Some of the nobles had hoped to enhance the power of the nobility at the expense of the monarchy, and some had hoped to institute Enlightenment reforms.

The nobles, however, were unable to form a unified coalition, and they were no match for the vigor of the liberal and radical delegates. Control of events slipped out of the hands of the nobles, and the Revolution entered a second, more liberal phase. The second phase was dominated by broadly Lockean liberals, and it was they who produced the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.

The liberals, however, were in their turn no match for the vigor of the most radical members of the Revolution. As the members of the Girondin and Jacobin parties assumed greater power, the Revolution entered its third phase.

marat-j-p-75x94The Jacobin leaders were explicitly disciples of Rousseau. Jean-Paul Marat, who took on a disheveled and unbathed appearance, explained that he did so in order “to live simply and according to the precepts of Rousseau.” Louis de Saint-Just, perhaps the most bloodthirsty of the Jacobins, made his devotion to Rousseau clear in speeches to the National Convention. And speaking for the most radical of the revolutionaries, Maximilien Robespierre expressed the prevailing adoring opinion of the great man: “Rousseau is the one man who, through the loftiness of his soul and the grandeur of his character, showed himself worthy of the role of teacher of mankind.”

Under the Jacobins, the Revolution became more radical and more violent. Now the spokesmen for the general will, and having at their disposal plenty of the “universal compulsory force” that Rousseau had dreamed about with which to combat recalcitrant private wills, the Jacobins found it expedient that many die. The guillotine was busy as the radicals ruthlessly killed nobles, priests, and just about anyone whose politics was suspect. “We must not only punish traitors,” urged Saint-Just, “but all people who are not enthusiastic.” The nation had plunged into a brutal civil war, and in an enormously symbolic act, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were executed in 1793. That only made things worse, and all of France declined into the Reign of Terror.

robespierre-78x75The Terror ended with the arrest and execution of Robespierre in 1794, but it was too late for France. Its energies were dissipated, the nation was exhausted, and a power vacuum emerged that Napoleon Bonaparte would fill.

The story of the Counter-Enlightenment then shifts to the German states. Among German intellectuals, there had been some early sympathy for the French Revolution. German intellectuals were not ignorant of the Enlightenment in England and France. Several were attracted by Enlightenment themes, and in the mid-1700s Frederick the Great had attracted to Berlin several Enlightenment-minded scientists and other intellectuals. Berlin for a while was a hotbed of French and English influences.

For the most part, however, the Enlightenment had made a few inroads among intellectuals in the German states. Politically and economically, Germany was a set of feudal states. Serfdom would not be abolished until the nineteenth century. The majority of the population was uneducated and agrarian. Most were deeply religious, dominantly Lutheran. Unthinking obedience to God and to one’s feudal lord had been ingrained for centuries. This was especially true in Prussia, whose people Gotthold Lessing called “the most servile in Europe.”

So among the Germans the reports of the Terror of the French Revolution caused horror: They killed their king and queen. They hunted down priests, cut off their heads, and paraded up and down the streets of Paris with the heads stuck on the ends of pikes.

Yet the lesson most German intellectuals took from the Revolution was not that Rousseauian philosophy was the culprit. To most, the culprit was clearly the Enlightenment philosophy. The Enlightenment was anti-feudal, they noted, and the Revolution was a practical demonstration of what that means—the wholesale slaughtering of one’s sovereign lords and ladies. The Enlightenment was anti-religion, they noted, and the Revolution is a practical demonstration of what that means—killing holy men and burning down churches.

But from the German perspective, the situation became worse, for out of the power vacuum in France arose Napoleon.

bonaparte-dabos-apsley-house-75x98Napoleon was also provided an opportunity by a weakened feudal Europe. Europe’s hundreds of small dynastic units were no match for Napoleon’s new military tactics and his sheer audacity. Napoleon ran roughshod over old feudal Europe, swept into the German states, defeated the Prussians in 1806, and proceeded to change everything.

From the perspective of the Germans, Napoleon was not only a foreign conqueror, he was a product of the Enlightenment. Where he conquered and ruled, he extended equality before the law, opened government offices to the middle class, and guaranteed private property. On matters of religion, he destroyed the ghettoes, gave Jews freedom of religion, and gave them the right to own land and practice all trades. He opened secular public schools, and modernized Europe’s transportation network.

Napoleon outraged many powerful forces in doing so. He abolished guilds. He angered the clergy by abolishing church courts, tithes, monasteries, convents, ecclesiastical states, and he seized much church property. He angered the nobles by abolishing feudal estates and feudal dues, by breaking up large estates, and generally by lessening the power of the nobles over the peasantry. He functioned, in effect from the Enlightenment perspective, as a benevolent dictator, as one who embraced many of the modern ideals but who used the full force of government to impose them.

His dictatorial impositions went further. He enacted censorship wherever he went, conscripted subjugated peoples to fight foreign battles, and taxed subjugated peoples to finance France.

So now most German intellectuals faced a serious crisis. The Enlightenment, as they saw it, was not merely a foreign disaster across the Rhine—it was a dictatorial presence ruling Germany in the person of Napoleon Bonaparte. How, wondered every German, did Napoleon win? What did the Germans do wrong? What was to be done?

kant_50x64The poet Johann Hölderlin, Hegel’s roommate in college, declared: “Kant is the Moses of our nation.” For the story of how the now-dead Kant was to lead Germany out of bondage, we return to Königsberg.

[This is an excerpt from Stephen Hicks’s Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Scholargy Publishing, 2004, 2011). The full book is available in hardcover or e-book at Amazon.com. See also the Explaining Postmodernism page.]

The Climate of Collectivism: Chapter 4 of Explaining Postmodernism

ep_50x78At the Explaining Postmodernism page, Chapter Four of my book is now available online. This chapter chronicles the rise of Counter-Enlightenment, collectivized social and political thought on the European continent, from Rousseau and Kant in the eighteenth century, through Fichte and Hegel in the nineteenth (Marx is treated separately in Chapter 5), setting the stage for the great battle between Right and Left versions of collectivism early in the twentieth century.

Here are the chapter’s sections and page numbers:

Chapter Four: The Climate of Collectivism [pdf]

From postmodern epistemology to postmodern politics 84
The argument of the next three chapters 86
Responding to socialism’s crisis of theory and evidence 89
Back to Rousseau 91
Rousseau’s Counter-Enlightenment 92
Rousseau’s collectivism and statism 96
Rousseau and the French Revolution 100
Counter-Enlightenment Politics: Right and Left collectivism 104
Kant on collectivism and war 106
Herder on multicultural relativism 110
Fichte on education as socialization 113
Hegel on worshipping the state 120
From Hegel to the twentieth century 124
Right versus Left collectivism in the twentieth century 126
The Rise of National Socialism: Who are the real socialists? 131

[This is an excerpt from Stephen Hicks’s Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Scholargy Publishing, 2004, 2011). The full book is available in hardcover or e-book at Amazon.com. See also the Explaining Postmodernism page.]

Worth Reading for May 2006

5/31 Two recent takes on contemporary intellectual culture: In the Chronicle, Michael Kimmel reviews several trendy novels in the “lad lit” genre, describing that genre as “a sort of anti-bildungsroman, in which a sardonic, clever, unapologetic slacker refuses to grow up, get a meaningful job, commit to relationships, or find any meaning in life.” And Julian Baggini argues that, philosophically, the “comic cartoon [is] the form best suited to illuminate our age”: “To speak truthfully and insightfully today you must have a sense of the absurdity of human life and endeavour. Past attempts to construct grand and noble theories about human history and destiny have collapsed.” (Both via Arts & Letters Daily.)

5/30 Is Darwinian conservatism an oxymoron? James Seaton reviews Larry Arnhart’s recent book. And here is a review of leftist Todd Gitlin’s new book on how postmodernism gutted the Left. Exactly. (Though it had already suffered a brain-stroke, as I have argued, by the time it turned to desperate pomo measures.)

5/27 Has Ragnar shrugged? And here is an inspiring profile of Ken Iverson, a twentieth-century business hero.

5/26 Sally Satel on organ donation and the kindness of strangers. (Thanks to Roy for the link.) Here is the latest in human longevity research. And 91-year-old Cliff Garl will be forever young.

5/25 Fascinating: What physicists think happened the first few microseconds after the Big Bang. And how much progress have we made toward strong artificial intelligence? Jeff Hawkins summarizes. (Thanks to Jim H-N. for the link.)

5/24 Harry Binswanger makes a strong moral and practical case for open immigration. (Via Not PC.) And Russell Roberts identifies some further cultural and political components of a full solution to the issues that immigration raises.

5/23 Michael Barone has more good world-economic news. (Via Rich Karlgaard.)

5/22 New record-high life-expectancy statistics in the U.S. (Thanks to Virginia for the link.) And the Bureau of Labor Statistics has average hourly and weekly earnings for American workers.

5/19 Here are five fascinating numbers. And worth browsing is this History of Mathematics Archive.

5/18 Why the rich need a tax break. For more data see also this government report.

5/17 Improving the fruits of the Enlightenment: Gadgets then and now. And here comes the Six-Billion-Dollar Man. And here is a website devoted to one of the mathematical and political giants of the Enlightenment: the Marquis de Condorcet.

5/16 Do not miss the excellent underwater photographs from the sunken city of Alexandria. (Via Arts & Letters Daily.) And here is a series of
lovely images of planet Earth.

5/15 The always-worth-reading George Reisman enlightens us about price gouging. Professor Bainbridge has an intriguing hypothesis about union leaders’ arguments about CEO pay. And Roy Poses reports on out-of control conflicts of interest in the University of California system.

5/13 Should we privatize peace efforts in, e.g., Darfur? Rebecca Ulam Weiner weighs the issues of efficiency, cost, and accountability. Shelby Steele wonders why, since World War II, the West fights its wars so delicately. And Andrew Klavan believes that to get the job done we should draft Hollywood.

5/12 Neil Parille’s new web blog has an admirable goal: “Its aim is to discuss Objectivism free from the name calling and hoopla too often associated with the discussion of Rand and Objectivism on the web.” The Objective Reference Center has a good selection of texts by Ayn Rand available online. And this just in: Kathy Sierra has advice Objectivists could profitably adapt to philosophy.

5/11 The home decoration dictators are coming to your neighborhood. (Via Philosophy 101.) And now that the health police have put Big Tobacco on the defensive, it’s time to take on Big Ice Cream.

5/10 Philosopher Lester Hunt explains why he is against multi-culturalism. And here is an immigrant-group success story—twice.

5/9 Humberto Fontova rips into the historically-uninformed critics of The Lost City: Andy Garcia’s movie about Cuba. (Thanks to Brent for the link.) Which also raises an interesting question: How much is Fidel Castro worth? And “Protagoras” asks another: Why do some find it so hard to learn from history?

5/8 Grant McCracken asks: How do we measure how creative a culture is? And Jeff Cornwall has advice to entrepreneurs about failure on the highway to success.

5/6 Is the evolution of the eye irreducibly complex? In this four-minute video, Swedish scientist Dan-Eric Nilsson demonstrates one possible straightforward evolutionary path. And some actual—as opposed to mythical—intelligent design: This is one Clever design for a car.

5/5 A new tutorial by artist Michael Newberry: Rhythm in painting.

5/4 Superstar teacher John Taylor Gatto is working on an ambitious documentary project about American education: “The Fourth Purpose”. (Thanks to Jim for the link.)

5/3 A website devoted to the great Romantic novelist Victor Hugo. Interesting and new to me was this account of Carl August Hagburg’s visits with Hugo in 1836.

5/2 A new book on one of the architects of the Reign of Terror: Maximilien Robespierre. And for something more uplifting, Ken Gregg has a post on a vigorous and fascinating Pole who embraced Enlightenment ideals: Tadeusz Kosciuszko was recruited by Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane, became a great friend of Thomas Jefferson and a hero of the Revolutionary war.

5/1 Logic and economics: Don Boudreaux has a good example illustrating why ad hominem is an invalid argument tactic. And he has a further post illustrating why tu quoque is a perfectly understandable reaction.