"Obscure" hardly begins to describe the obscurity of the German-American thinker Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (1888¯1973). Though never a household name, he was admired during his lifetime by W.H. Auden, who wrote a foreword to one of Rosenstock-Huessy’s books; Lewis Mumford; Harvey Cox; and Walter Ong. Before he left Germany in 1933, his intellectual circle included such prominent Jewish thinkers as Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig; Karl Barth was part of the so-called Patmos Group, of which Rosenstock-Huessy was a prominent member.
Since his death, Rosenstock-Huessy has all but vanished from public discussion. His historical studies inspired legal historian Harold Berman and church historian Page Smith, but otherwise his work has left little mark on contemporary thought. A devoutly Christian writer, Rosenstock-Huessy is ignored by theologians, while Buber has remained well-known and Rosenzweig is enjoying something of a Renaissance.
Yet, Rosenstock-Huessy’s work has never been more at home that it should be today. He anticipated a number of postmodern developments. In an essay "The Metabolism of Science," he deconstructs a book title, a set of lab notes, and Faraday’s notebooks with the serious glee we have come to associate with Derrida. He said "Farewell to Descartes" long before Descartes-bashing became the popular sport it is today. Theologians who work, in Fergus Kerr’s phrase, "after Wittgenstein," would find the Sprachdenker Rosenstock-Huessy a useful interlocutor, as would post-liberals who follow George Lindbeck’s "cultural-linguistic" model of doctrine. Rosenstock-Huessy’s historical work is attentive to culture, styles, fashions, festivities, calendars, and plays in ways that anticipate Robert Darnton, Natali Zelmon Davis, and Keith Thomas.
The scope of his life’s work is impressively unclassifiable. He disdained the disciplinary confinements of the modern university, and the disdain shows. He wrote on language, religion and the Bible, calendars, time, and grammar. He published a massive history of the Western revolution and a three-volume Soziologie , as well as a monograph on his academic specialty, medieval German legal history. When he came to America, he took a chair in German language and culture at Harvard, but he could have taught sociology, law, philosophy, comparative religion, or any of a half dozen other disciplines. Harvard didn’t know what to do with him. Since he talked a lot about God, they sent him to the divinity school.
It’s not only the scope that impresses, but the integration. There is a passionate religious impulse behind everything he wrote, and it’s all made immediately, existentially real. But he moves rapidly from the large movements of history down to individual and family experience. He writes in Speech and Reality (1970): "Whoever speaks believes in the unity of mankind. And he believes that the unity of mankind is not produced by physical or political or economic or racial reasons but by our faith in speech. We all believe in the Holy Ghost, the Oneness above and around our particular way of looking at the world. The individual’s greatest freedom has as its corollary the spirit’s greatest necessity. If all men are bound by one truth, then my-truth makes sense. If it does not, I go mad with my freedom."
Leaving aside the question of what this means, or whether it’s true, the mercurial movement of the passage is what first strikes the reader. Is this a statement about the philosophy of language? Or politics? Or theology? Or psychology ("I go mad")? For Rosenstock-Huessy, it’s all of these, but also none.
To take a more extended example: During the modern period, he writes in The Christian Future (1946), people believe that all large organizations are "rational, legal, and mechanical" as well as "logical and systematic." At the center of modern institutions, "there stands a typewriter" (a machine, and specifically a machine for generating plans and reports). Moderns are puzzled by the "perfectly unsystematic, irrational, antilogical" institution, "the poorest organization on earth" but yet "fully alive"¯the family, which to the modern mentality seems a "colorful folly." At the center of the family is not a typewriter but "a bed and a stove"; the "unquenchable illogicality" of the family perturbs planners with a blueprint for the future.
The passion of the planners is commendable, but because their passion is right, their plans must be wrong, because their plans would eliminate passion. Life means vulnerability, the possibility of failures and wounds: "Unless [a man] is willing to call his wounds happiness, he must choose between living frailty and tin-canned orderliness." Rosenstock-Huessy often puts this in explicitly Christian terms: Life is always lived out on the cross, as we are stretched between the obligations of the past and the dreams of the future, between our own desires and the external world that confronts us. Like the family, the Church is a community that calls her wounds happiness, and this shows that she is alive. She is not a system, centered on a typewriter. At the center of the Church is an altar.
Systems may be eternal, but vulnerability is inherent in life: "He who lives can die. A ‘system’ which never lived may linger on forever." Rosenstock-Huessy is not merely talking about literal death. What distinguishes a living thing from a mechanism is that living things "slough off" the old stages and bring new ones. He points out that the word existence contains this notion of passage from one state to another; it "literally means a getting out of one form and into another." Everywhere "life is never contained in one form but in the slope from the old which is doomed to a new which triumphs over death." Children think life comes before death, but that’s not true. Death¯the death of man and wife to their own independent individuality¯precedes birth. Before a child is born, he says, the love of the parents comes "as the first signal of their individual transiency." When a woman and a man fall in love, they are both getting ready "to abandon ship" as individuals. Loves "allows them to make room for the best of their own body outside of themselves and beyond themselves." Two people who get married acknowledge they are mortal and "open an exit to life, beyond their two corpses."
In a philosophical climate where "bodiliness" and otherness are all the rage, Rosenstock-Huessy’s theories of speech and his attention to somatic life are worthy of attention. In theological terms, he is a thoroughly anti-Gnostic thinker. The body leads the mind; events precede thoughts and reflections about events. Of all the parts of the body, Rosenstock-Huessy noted, the brain alone doesn’t reproduce cells, making it the deadest organ of the body. The pragmatic thrust of his thought was also evident in his life. Early on, he was a prominent young German legal scholar, but he taught adults in church and community settings throughout his life, founded an industrial newspaper, and set up labor camps and Camp William James, the precursor of the Peace Corps, in order to bring intellectuals, farmers, and workers together in combining their energies to pursue a Jamesian vision of the "moral equivalent of war."
He is also a radically anti-rationalist thinker, but was equally hostile to ignorant hostility to science. Science, he says, is really good at studying dead things. Dead things are predictable, and you can do repeatable experiments. Living things are illogical, unsystematic, unpredictable, uncontrollable. Studying dead things is a useful endeavor, and it is one of the great achievements of the West to give space to a sub-community devoted to science and given the right to "systematic error." More broadly, he dismisses the rationalism of the Greeks and of the Enlightenment as an adolescent obsession: "Natural reason is a very special reason sprouting in the unfulfilled mentality between 14 and 25. It is the Reason of the classroom student. Greek philosophy, eighteenth century enlightenment, America common sense or pragmatism, are gigantic superstructures of these uprooted minds and unloved bodies in their in-between age."
Openly orthodox, Rosenstock-Huessy was also a remarkably progressive thinker, embodying what Chesterton, one of Rosenstock-Huessy’s favorite authors, described as the adventure of orthodoxy. This is evident particularly in his meditations on time, and the fundamental temporal orientation of his work. He observed that institutions, ideas, and systems have their day¯and then something new is needed: "Philosophies have their time. It is a misunderstanding to attribute a perennial character to any particular philosophy. Philosophy is the expression of a zeitgeist. Philosophies must be buried at the right time. The Jesuits know that Thomism is dead." He spoke of the world entering a "Johannine" age of history, an age of the Spirit that would move quite differently from the earlier ages of the Church: "each generation has to act differently precisely in order to represent the same thing. Only so can each become a full partner in the process of Making Man."
The progressive remaking of the human race is central to Rosenstock-Huessy’s understanding of Christianity. In The Christian Future , he discusses the "resurrection of the body" in the context of the work of the Spirit, the third article of the creed. In the beginning, God made man in his image, and this means that the whole history is a "process of making Man like God." The new thing in Jesus’ resurrection and the gift of the Spirit of resurrection is that Christ "enables us to participate consciously in this man-making process and to study its laws." Following patristic sources, Rosenstock-Huessy calls this "anthropurgy," comparing the extraction of pure metal from ore with the process of purging the dross to purify and renew humanity.
One of the laws of anthropurgy is the resurrection of the body. For Rosenstock-Huessy, resurrection is about reproduction. Resurrection means not only that new kinds of human beings are made but that they can be reproduced: "A new soul, a fresh originality of the human heart, thereby survives the man or nation in which it came to birth and incarnates itself in a spiritual succession of typical representatives through the ages. For there are definite new phases of human existence never lived before . . . and, if they are genuine, they force themselves upon man’s plasticity with such impressiveness that they don the bodies of later men and women in turn, and shame them into the same time." Luther was an original, the first of a new type of man, but soon there are thousands of "Lutherans." And they really are Lutherans , little Luthers, stamped with the image of their leader!
This is not reincarnation, nor mere repetition of the earlier form of man. Rosenstock-Huessy uses St. Paul’s image of a "natural" seed that rises as a spiritual body to describe how a "new human type" arises when one seed of a new humanity is planted. His own example is St. Francis. Though Francis had no natural children, "Franciscan humanity has flourished ever since, and not only in his Order. The Franciscan way of life, immortally portrayed in The Imitation of Christ , became daily bread for the lives of countless Christians of all denominations, even the most radical Protestants." This even has political import, as the Franciscan way of life spread to the royal houses of Europe¯he mentions the Habsburgs¯and to America. Abraham Lincoln entering conquered Richmond in 1865 on foot without entourage is the political triumph of Franciscan mentality. Ruler and servant become one.
Rosenstock-Huessy also develops a kind of Trinitarian historiography and anthropology. He links the articles of the creed¯which moves from Father, Son, to Spirit¯with three millennia of church history. During the first millennium, the Church concerned with being body of Christ (Son); the second concentrated on restoring creation to its Creator, since after men restored to God, they could begin to purge the world of ungodliness (Father); the next millennium will be the age of the Spirit, which will concentrate on "revealing God in society" (Spirit).
Trinitarian patterns also shaped the development of Western individualism. He points out that the original meanings of the word individuum is "what cannot be subdivided" and is specifically used of the Trinity. Peace treaties from 800 to 1815 were concluded in nominee individuae Trinitatis . Applied to human existence, the word meant that the "individual" was made in the image of the individua trinitas : "Man, between 1500 and 1900, could be called an individuum because he participated both in God’s qualities and in the world’s qualities as well. In the middle between the atom and the Trinity, he boasted of ‘individuality.’ This individuum of the Renaissance boasted loudly in the fact of the whole world: ‘I am unbreakable! I am impregnable!’ And Renaissance Man intimidated the powers that be so that they honored his divine triune likeness to the Individua Trinitas !" As a result, "Genius has been given his berth, through patents, copyrights and many other individualistic laws"; and as the image of the Trinity, he "cannot move in any one field without moving at the same time in all others. If our mode of prayer changes, our modes of thinking cannot help changing also."
Rosenstock-Huessy is worth reading for how he writes. He interacts very little with other scholars, and this makes him look sui generis , which in some respects he certainly is. But he also claims that he virtually memorized Chesterton’s Heretics and Orthodoxy , and his reading is evident in the sharp and witty aphorisms that punctuate his work:
"We ourselves never ignite the light of reason; it is kindled in us."
"Things are predictable because they do not speak. He who speaks is unpredictable."
"Only the word makes what has happened into history."
"Without speech man would have no time, but merely be immersed in time. Animals are time’s toys. Men conquered time when they began to speak."
"God’s mind is just as much a metaphor as His elbow. Our mind is not nearer to God than our body."
"Modesty is the veil under which life can change."
"What we know of ourselves is what is dead in us."
"The future does not consist of the extension of existing trends, nor of ideological opposition to them. The future must be created."
Rosenstock-Huessy is intriguingly paradoxical, counterintuitive, often apparently and flagrantly wrong-headed. On the one hand, he’s a profoundly Christian thinker. He says that the cross is at the center of human history, and he develops his entire view of human experience, history, society, and speech around the notion of a "Cross of Reality," which describes human life stretched in agony between past and future, inside and outside. He links this universal cross with the specific event of Jesus’ death on the cross, arguing that Jesus makes a permanent difference in history.
Yet he also says things that few Christian thinkers would dare to utter. Such as: "the power to speak is God because it unites us with all men and makes us the judges of the whole world." And "polytheism is a thousand times truer than deism or atheism." Near the end of Out of Revolution (1938), he suggests an addition to the creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel: "We might conceive of a pendant to this picture; the end of creation, in which all the spirits that had accompanied the Creator should have left him and descended to man, keeping, strengthening, enlarging his being into the divine. In this picture God would be alone, while Adam would have all the Elohim around him as his companions." Against the near-universal conflation of biblical and Platonic motifs in Western theology, he seems to favor the gods of Homer: "Plato’s ideas are abstract gods. Philosophy is reduced and therefore neutralized truth from Parmenides to Hegel. Only the whole of language together is true. But the Greeks began to say: ‘Being’ and ‘I am that I am’ (which is not in the Bible, but in its Greek translation), and there the academic world of ideals began. ‘I am’ together with ‘I was not’ is meaningful. But ‘I am that I am’ is idiocy."
Rosenstock-Huessy would not be surprised that his work has fallen into comparative obscurity. "A seed must fall into the ground and die," Jesus said, "if it will bear fruit." Rosenstock-Huessy believed that this described a universal principle of history: Human beings bear fruit only in dying, and creative speech bears fruit only after germinating in the ground for a time. He would not be surprised that his work has been laid in an unmarked grave. But he doubtless died in hope that the stone would someday be removed.
Peter Leithart is a professor of theology and literature at New Saint Andrews College and pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho. He is also the author of many books, including Deep Comedy: Trinity, Tragedy, and Hope in Western Literature and 1 & 2 Kings: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible .