In early July 1759, three friends met at an inn called the Windmill outside the German city of Königsberg, for what might be called an “evangelistic” or “counseling” session. Intellectuals all, the three friends had earlier been cobelligerents in the cause of rationalism and the Enlightenment, but one had gone apostate. He had become a Christian of the most fervent and unenlightened sort, and his friends were intent on restoring him to the true fold, Enlightenment, and the good shepherd, Reason.
One of the two evangelists, Johann Christoph Berens, is long forgotten. The other was a thirty–five–year–old philosophy professor who had a few years earlier anonymously published a book on the Natural History and Theory of the Heavens, pushing Newtonian science to the conclusion that all the operations of the world could be reduced to mechanical laws: “Give me matter and I will show you how a world should arise from it.” So wrote the young, and dogmatically slumbering, Immanuel Kant.
The “apostate” was Johann Georg Hamann, until recently a promising Francophile rationalist. Hamann had translated the French economists, read Voltaire and Montesquieu, and defended the merchant classes against their detractors. His outlook changed during a trip to London in 1757, the precise purpose of which is still unknown. In London, Hamann had fallen into what he later described as an “irregular” way of life, been swindled out of his money, and apparently discovered that his London host was involved in a homosexual relationship. Shocked by this revelation, sick and desperate, he moved in with a respectable family in February 1759, closed himself in with his books, including a Bible, and began to read.
According to his later account, over the next few months Hamann read the Old Testament once, the New Testament twice, and then the whole Bible again. In the end, he said, “I forgot all my books in so doing; I was ashamed of ever having compared them with God’s book, of ever having placed them on the same level with it, indeed of ever having preferred another book to it. I found the unity of the divine will in the redemption of Jesus Christ; I recognized my own crimes in the history of the Jewish people; I read the record of my own life, and thanked God for His forbearance with this His people, because nothing but such an example could entitle me to such a hope.”
It was a conversion that turned Hamann into the man described by Isaiah Berlin as the century’s “most passionate, consistent, extreme, and implacable enemy of the Enlightenment,” a “pioneer of antirationalism in every sphere.”
Despite the meeting at the Windmill and a second meeting a few weeks later, Hamann came through the debate unscarred and unmovable. In a letter written to Kant shortly after the meeting, he expressed his bemusement “at [Berens’] choice of a philosopher to try to change my mind,” adding “I look upon the finest logical demonstration the way a sensible girl regards a love letter.” The whole exchange permanently damaged Hamann’s relations with his erstwhile patron Berens, who allegedly threatened violence, but Hamann continued corresponding with Kant for years afterward. Not long after, Kant proposed that the two collaborate on a children’s physics textbook (!), and some years later Kant helped Hamann, frequently unemployed, to obtain a job. Hamann, for his part, wrote an eccentric response to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason whose trenchant insight into the problems of Kantianism has only recently begun to be recognized.
At their initial meeting, Kant had suggested that Hamann should translate some articles from the French Encyclopedia as a kind of therapy. Instead, Hamann wrote the letter to Kant that was to become one of the most famous letters in German intellectual history, and followed with a published response entitled Socratic Memorabilia, dedicated to “the two.” (For what it was worth, “the two” were not impressed, and Hamann suspected that they were behind an attack review published in a Hamburg journal.)
In part, the treatise continued the highly dramatized self–defense begun in Hamann’s letter to Kant. Placing himself in the position of Socrates, he implicitly positioned Kant and Berens as enforcers of orthodoxy, or, worse, as shrewish Xanthippes. A servant of the truth, Hamann knew that he could expect nothing better than “hunger and thirst . . . the gallows and the wheel.” More broadly, the Socratic Memorabilia was Hamann’s effort to turn one of the Enlightenment’s own idols—indeed, the patron saint of the eighteenth century—against the Enlightenment. Some, such as Joseph Priestly, who wrote a treatise on Socrates and Jesus Compared, insisted on the superiority of Jesus. For many, however, Socrates was a weapon to be used against Christianity; like the philosophes themselves, Socrates was a free inquirer standing courageously before, and ultimately crushed beneath, the entrenched forces of intolerance, superstition, and ignorance. This time around, the philosophes hoped, things would turn out differently.
Hamann was as devoted to Socrates as his friends, but his account of Socrates’ life and teaching was very different. For starters, Hamann recognized that Socrates’ philosophical “method” was not that of modern rationalists. Socrates did not intend to offer irrefutable logical demonstrations. Rather, “analogy constituted the soul of his reasoning, and he gave it irony for a body”; later in the treatise Hamann added that Socrates “preferred a mocking and humorous exhibition to a serious investigation.” Critics complained of Socrates’ “allusions, and censured the similes of his oral discourse at one time as being too farfetched and at another time as vulgar,” but such criticisms were wrongheaded.
Hamann discerned a similarity between Socrates’ “poetic” mode of investigation and the parabolic shape of Christian revelation, for, as he wrote elsewhere, “the Scriptures cannot speak with us as human beings otherwise than in parables because all our knowledge is sensory, figurative.” In this introductory comment on Socratic method, Hamann already indicates that he is prepared to view Socrates, as he viewed everything else, Christocentrically. While presenting this theological perspective, Hamann’s aim was to write “about Socrates in a Socratic manner,” that is, with irony, allusion, humor, and, above all, through indirection. His success is indicated by one striking fact: Hamann wrote a treatise presenting a Christological view of Socrates without ever once naming Christ.
In contrast to the hubris of modern systematizers who want to get the heavens into their heads, Socrates surpassed all other Greeks in wisdom because “he had advanced further in self–knowledge than they, and knew that he knew nothing.” In Socrates’ profession of ignorance, Hamann detected a hint of Paul’s later statement that “if anyone thinks that he knows anything, he does not yet know as he ought to know” (1 Corinthians 8:2–3). Socrates was an ancient evangelist who urged Athenians to turn “away from the idol–altars of their pious and politically shrewd priests to the worship of an unknown God.” Socrates’ “impetuosity” in debate with sophists and priests “compelled him to pull out his hair sometimes in the marketplace and to act as if beside himself.” That “beside himself” echoes the charge made against Jesus, but Hamann makes the analogy more explicit by adding, “Was not the teacher of mankind, gentle and lowly in heart, forced to utter one denunciation after the other of the scribes and pious ones among his people?” If anyone would deny Socrates a place among the prophets, he “must be asked who the Father of Prophets is and whether our God has not called Himself and shown Himself to be a God of the Gentiles.”
Hamann finds a foreshadowing of Christ in Socrates’ notorious ugliness. Greeks, like the Jews of Jesus’ day, were “offended that the fairest of the sons of men was promised to them as a redeemer, and that a man of sorrows, full of wounds and stripes, should be the hero of their expectations.” Even the Spirit is evident in the life of Socrates. In an oblique reference to the Spirit’s role in the conception of Jesus, Hamann compares the spirit or genius that inspired Socrates to the “wind” that allowed “the womb of a pure virgin” to become fruitful.
Most of all, Socrates’ relentless pursuit of truth and irritating habit of pointing out the ignorance of others led to his death, and in this he foreshadowed the life and death of Jesus. And this made it perfectly obvious that when God became man he “would not escape from the world as well as a Socrates, but would die a more ignominious and cruel death” even than Saint Louis, “the most Christian king.” Accepting the hemlock rather than submitting to exile, Socrates proved that he shared both the mission and the “final destiny of the prophets and the righteous.” Far from being an eighteenth–century rationalist, Hamann argued, Socrates was virtually a Christian believer, a prophet, even a type of Christ.
In this, Hamann was following an ancient tradition in the Church. Already in the second century, Justin the Martyr was struck by the similarities between Socrates and Jesus. When the world was full of demonic myths, “Socrates endeavored, by true reason and examination, to bring these things to light,” only to be condemned “as an atheist and a profane person.” To be sure, Justin notes many differences between Jesus and Socrates. While Socrates died for exhorting men to become acquainted with the unknown God, “no one trusted in Socrates so as to die for this doctrine.” While Socrates taught philosophers and scholars, Christ’s philosophy is known among “artisans and people entirely uneducated.” Despite these differences, Justin argued that the same Logos that was at work in Socrates took flesh in Jesus, who also condemned the demons and met with the same fate. This meant for Justin that Socrates was a pagan foreshadowing of Jesus. Long before the Logos became incarnate, it was clear from the experience of Socrates and others that the demons would not put up with anyone devoted to “a reasonable and earnest life.”
For the Church fathers and Hamann, this typological understanding of Socrates was of a piece with a biblically centered philosophy of history. At his own conversion, Hamann discovered that the Bible was telling the story of his life, and he believed that this principle could be universalized not only to every individual soul but to the history of man. Thus, he could write of Peter the Great’s building projects by comparison to “Noah or the Galilean . . . [who] became a carpenter in order to be the god of his people.” Berlin puts the point well: for Hamann, “the Bible was a great universal allegory, a similitude of that which was occurring everywhere and at every instant.”
Christianity’s relation to the classical culture in which it first took root is a perennial problem. To what extent can the classical heritage be embraced, and to what extent must it be simply challenged and rejected? Certain parameters of the answer are self–evident. Tertullian dismissed Athens with what he thought was a rhetorical question: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” But if there is no relation at all, how can Christ be a universal savior and the gospel a universal message? On the other hand, the efforts of ancient Christians to canonize Socrates are profoundly disturbing. But between rejection and canonization there is, shall we say, plenty of room for experiment.
Hamann’s formulation of this project may be overly obscure at times, yet in several respects he offers a pathway, and an illuminating one. He knew that if Jesus is truly the center of history, the one in whom all things hold together, then the question of Socrates and Jesus was unavoidable. He understood that if Athens has nothing to do with Jerusalem, then the story of Jerusalem is just one story among others, rather than the master story of man. He followed the patristic writers in recognizing that a typological reading of Scripture provided a map of history that could be applied beyond the biblical history itself. And he realized that the cross can stretch out to overshadow the four corners of the universe only if it encompasses the hemlock, and that the cross is properly honored only if the story of the hemlock is seen as an episode in the story of the cross.
Peter J. Leithart teaches theology and literature at New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho.