“The True Manuscript in a Bottle” — or, How I Found Theodor Adorno’s “Lost” Translation of the Philosophie der neuen Musik

In the introduction to his 2006 translation of Adorno’s Philosophie der neuen Musik, Robert Hullot-Kentor notes that the book (or, more accurately, the first part of it) had been translated into English twice before: in 1973 by Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Blomster and in 1941 by Adorno himself, who prepared an English version of the Schoenberg portion of the manuscript (which, at that point, was the only part of the text that had been completed). Hullot-Kentor explains that the translation was prepared at the instigation of Dagobert Runes, for publication in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. But, in the end, Runes opted not to publish the text and the manuscript itself seems to have been lost.

Hullot-Kentor finds its disappearance

exceptional since from early on Adorno saved drafts of almost every page he wrote. But if that draft is somewhere, it is not be found in Frankfurt (xxi).

Based on Adorno’s description of the manuscript in a letter to Lowenthal — “I’ve translated the music essay into pidgin English and so fundamentally castrated it that Schoenberg will not be able to be mad about it …” — Hullot-Kentor concludes,

The unrevised draft, then, was a substantially compromised manuscript and it may be just as well that it disappeared, accidentally or not, for its vanishing plausibly spared unavailing arguments over authenticity and precedence of translated statement. But still one would like to know at least how Adorno translated the title. For its translation is, in fact, not obvious ….

But, for better or worse, it turns out that the manuscript was not lost: it has been hiding in New Haven. And Adorno translated the title as Philosophy of Advanced Music.

 Philosophy of Advanced Music (1941), 106, MSS No. 29A, Series XI.A. Miscellaneous Writings by Others, Box 191, Folder 1, Virgil Thomson Papers, Yale Music Library.

Philosophy of Advanced Music (1941), 106, MSS No. 29A, Series XI.A. Miscellaneous Writings by Others, Box 191, Folder 1, Virgil Thomson Papers, Yale Music Library.

This post will discuss the path that led me to my encounter with this supposedly lost manuscript and say a few things about it. A subsequent post will say more about why it wound up in New Haven.

Of Finding Aids and Photographs

In October 2012 I spent some time looking at the Norbert Guterman’s papers at Columbia, in hopes of shedding some light on what had become of another allegedly lost manuscript: the article that Max Horkheimer wrote in response to the “New Failure of Nerve” exchanges in Partisan Review.1 I’d been interested in Guterman for quite some time. Along with Henri Lefebvre, he had been active in various Parisian circles that brought surrealists and Marxists together during the 1920s and had been friends with Max Jacob, André Breton, André Malraux, and Francis Steegmuller. He came to the United States around 1930 and began a career as a translator (which is how I first became aware of him: when I was in graduate school, it seemed that he’d translated a fair number of the books that interested me the most). By the 1940s he was working for the Institute for Social Research where, among other things, he was responsible for putting the Horkheimer lectures that eventually became The Eclipse of Reason into passable English.

I found nothing about Horkheimer’s response to the Partisan Review exchanges in Guterman’s papers, but I did find a handwritten letter from Adorno, dated September 14, 1946 (to the causal reader, it might appear that the year is 1940, but it is written on stationary that gives Adorno’s address as 316 So. Kenter Avenue and Adorno did not leave New York for California until November of 1941.) Since Adorno’s handwriting was sometimes difficult to decipher — and, in any case, I was looking for something else — I was content to skim the letter and jot down a few notes. Fortunately, I also photographed it.

Norbert Guterman Papers, Columbia University, Box 2

Norbert Guterman Papers, Columbia University, Box 2

Here’s the note I took at the time (it consists of extracts from the text along with a few comments in square brackets):

From Adorno (in LA), September 14, 1946

I add the German original of the “Philosophy of the Modern Music” (1940-1941), together with my rough [rough is underlined] (and possibly [word unclear]) draft of a translation. The English, of course, is abominable … If the publication of my essay were being [word unclear], I should like to make some modifications, especially on Stravinsky.

I didn’t get around to looking at the letter again until a few weeks ago, when I was reviewing the notes I took on the Guterman papers.  I began to wonder whether the allegedly lost manuscript might have wound up in Box 7 of Guterman’s papers, which carry the laconic designation “Manuscripts — Translations by Guterman.”

It was only at this point that I took another look at my photograph of the letter and realized that it contained a postscript, which I’d skimmed, but not fully understood (there is a lesson here: the past is a foreign country and when you visit it you should take lots of snapshots; you’re likely to miss things):

P.S. I just find that the most recent copy of the English translation of the “Philosophy of Advanced Music” is left [sic]. The only one which I corrected is in the possession of Mr. Virgil Thomson, music editor of the Herald Tribune. In case a positive decision has been reached with regard to publication, you could certainly obtain this copy from him, by explaining to him the situation. Please forgive the mess.  The copy of the manuscript which I enclose is entirely uncorrected and I do not know whether you can use it at all.

Norbert Guterman Papers, Columbia University, Box 2

Norbert Guterman Papers, Columbia University, Box 2

The letter suggests that there might be at least two surviving copies of Adorno’s translation, though it was conceivable that neither of them would have been in Adorno’s possession when he packed up his papers and returned to Frankfurt. He sent an unrevised version of the text to Guterman in September 1946, which might still be residing in Box 7 of Guterman’s papers at Columbia (if anyone wants to wander over there and take a look, let me know what you find). But since this was an unrevised version of the manuscript, Adorno might not have had a great deal of interest in getting it back. The more significant version would be the revised draft that he sent to the composer and critic Virgil Thomson. So, might the “lost” copy of Adorno’s translation have remained with Thomson?

A quick search revealed that not only had Virgil Thomson’s papers been archived in the Yale Music Library, but that there was an exhaustive online finding aid available. It indicated that a manuscript by Theodor Adorno carrying the title “Philosophy of Advanced Music” resided in Box 191, Folder 1.2

The Text Itself

What, in honor of the institution that has sheltered it for these many years, might be designated as the “Yale Manuscript” is a 108 page typescript, with extensive annotations. Most pages contain corrections, alternate formulations of passages, queries, and requests to (or, perhaps, from?) unknown parties — e.g., “please check against the German” (100) and “please check with English translation of Faust I” (103). There are also a few deletions (some of which involve entire paragraphs) and some additions.

The German text from which Adorno worked appears to have been the version of Philosophie der neuen Musik that he circulated among friends and colleagues in the early 1940s, including Rudolf Kolisch (a typescript of a German version can be found among Kolisch’s papers at Harvard) and Max Horkheimer (who responded enthusiastically to the manuscript when he read it in the summer of 1941).3 This was also the text that Thomas Mann read while working on Doctor Faustus.4 With minor alterations, the German original became the first part (i.e., the section “Schoenberg and Progress”) of the book that — with the addition of a second section on “Stravinsky and the Restoration” — was published as Philosophie der neuen Musik in 1949.

Adorno’s English translation also includes a two-page preface, dated “New York City, September 1941,” which provides a brief account of the genesis of the work, along with an acknowledgement of Adorno’s ongoing collaboration with Horkheimer and of the role that Dagobert Runes played in providing the impetus for publication of a work that had, as Adorno explained, “been written without any thought of publication.” The expression of thanks to Runes, however muted, suggests that, at this point, the text had yet to be rejected. Adorno went on to note, that it was all “the more seemly” for him to acknowledge Runes’ “initiative” in soliciting the manuscript since the author,

is only too well conscious of the provocative features of his attempt. Not only does he enter circumstantially into the most esoteric questions of the technique of composing in a situation in which it must appear almost cynical to devote any time to matters of that kind, he also treats these questions thus as if they were identical with reality in spite of their isolation and exclusiveness.5 Yet perhaps this very absurdity may justify the undertaking. This is only music. What must a world be like in which even questions of contrapunct [sic] give evidence of unbearable contradictions. How thoroughly disturbed must the existence of man be, if impasse and deadlock are still reflected by a realm so far aloof from the sphere of immediate experience, a realm the function of which is supposed just to take away men from the sphere of immediate experience.

Perhaps because Adorno was unable, in English, to do what he was capable of doing in German, his explanation of the aim of this peculiar text is uncharacteristically candid: looking at matters that involve “only music”, he sought to grasp the “unbearable contradictions” that defined an entire social order.

One Passage, Three Translations

In the introduction to his translation Robert Hullot-Kentor observes that Adorno was likely “well aware that his recently acquired English was still inadequate to the task” of translating the German text. I suspect that a close examination of the Yale manuscript (which, I hasten to add, I have neither attempted nor am likely to carry out) will confirm this judgment. Even a limited reading makes it clear that the manuscript that Adorno sent to Virgil Thomson was very much still a work in progress.

For the moment, it may suffice to compare the closing sentences of the German original with the translations by Adorno, Mitchell and Blomster, and Hullot-Kentor.

First, Adorno’s German:

Die Schocks des Unverständlichen, welche die künstlerische Technik im Zeitalter ihrer Sinnlosigkeit austeilt, schlagen um. Sie erhellen die sinnlose Welt. Dem opfert sich die neue Musik. Alle Dunkelheit und Schuld der Welt hat sie auf sich genommen. All ihr Glück hat sie daran, das Unglück zu erkennen; all ihre Schönheit, dem Schein des Schönen sich zu versagen. Keiner will mit ihr etwas zu tun haben, die Individuellen so wenig wie die Kollektiven. Sie verhallt ungehört, ohne Echo. Schießt um die gehörte Musik die Zeit zum strahlenden Kristall zusammen, so fällt die ungehörte in die leere Zeit gleich einer verderblichen Kugel. Auf diese letzte Erfahrung hin, die mechanische Musik stündlich durchmacht, ist die neue Musik spontan angelegt, auf das absolute Vergessensein. Sie ist die wahre Flaschenpost.6

Adorno’s translation:

The shocks of being ununderstandable dealt by artistic technique during the age of their senselessness tilt over. They enlighten the senseless world. Advanced music sacrifices itself for this purpose. It has all its happiness in gaining the cognition of unhappiness. It has all its beauty in renouncing the illusion of beauty. It is liked by nobody, by individualists as little as by collectivists. It resounds [dies away, lingers] (verhallt) unheard, without an echo. If time gleamingly (strahlend) crystallizes around music that has been heard, unheard music falls into the empty time like a pernicious ball (globe) (Kugel). Advanced music aims spontaneously though unconsciously at this last experience which is made hour by hour by mechanical music, the experience of being totally forgotten. Its hope lies with the doom of the world. It is the true manuscript in the bottle.7

 *Philosophy of Advanced Music* (1941), 106, MSS No. 29A, Series XI.A. Miscellaneous Writings by Others, Box 191, Folder 1, Virgil Thomson Papers, Yale Music Library.

*Philosophy of Advanced Music* (1941), 106, MSS No. 29A, Series XI.A. Miscellaneous Writings by Others, Box 191, Folder 1, Virgil Thomson Papers, Yale Music Library.

Mitchell and Blomster:

The shocks of incomprehension, emitted by artistic technique in the age of its meaninglessness, undergo a sudden change. They illuminate the meaningless world. Modern music sacrifices itself to this effort. It has taken upon itself all the darkness and guilt of the world. Its fortune lies in the perception of misfortune; all of its beauty is in denying itself the illusion of beauty. No one wishes to become involved with art — individuals as little as collectives. It dies away unheard, without even an echo. If time crystallizes around that music which has been heard, revealing its radiant quintessence, music which has not been heard falls into empty time like an impotent bullet. Modern music spontaneously aims towards this last experience, experienced hourly in mechanical music. Modern music sees absolute oblivion as its goal. It is the surviving message of despair from the shipwrecked.8

Finally, Hullot-Kentor:

The shocks of the incomprehensible — which artistic technique in the age of its meaninglessness dispenses — reverse. They illuminate the meaningless world. New music sacrifices itself to this. It has taken all the darkness and guilt of the world on itself. All its happiness is in the knowledge of unhappiness; all its beauty is in the denial of the semblance of the beautiful. No one, neither individuals nor groups, wants to have anything to do with it. It dies away unheard, without an echo. Around music as it is heard, time springs together in a radiant crystal, while unheard tumbles perniciously through empty time. Towards this latter experience, which mechanical music undergoes hour by hour, new music is spontaneously aimed: towards absolute oblivion. It is the true message in the bottle.9

What is perhaps most immediately obvious is how little help Adorno can provide in the text’s most difficult passages: his solutions are generally no more successful than those who followed him.

His rendering of the verb at the close of the first sentence does manage to capture something that the other translations don’t quite get — the sense that an entire order is being overthrown. Yet “tilt over” misses the violence implicit in umschlagen — but then, so does Mitchell and Blomster’s “undergo a sudden change” and Hullot-Kentor’s concise “reverse.”

There is almost complete unanimity on what to do with second sentence — “Sie erhellen die sinnlose Welt”. The only difference is that where his Anglophone translators — perhaps sensing that “enlighten” has to be reserved for “aufklären” or “erleuchten” — do not follow Adorno in having the shock of the incomprehensible serve the cause of enlightenment (for reasons that should be obvious to readers of this blog, I rather like Adorno’s use of “enlighten” here).

Hullot-Kentor doesn’t clutter “Dem opfert sich die neue Musik” with unnecessary words and translates it as “New music sacrifices itself to this” (one of the many strengths of his translation is that it conveys something of the concision of Adorno’s German). Mitchell and Blomster’s translation echoes Adorno’s in wanting to find a noun to put in place of “this”. And here we also see the diverging ideas about what to do with “neuen Musik”: “advanced music” (Adorno), “modern music” (Mitchell and Blomster, or “new music” (Hullot-Kentor).

The remarkable sentence “Schießt um die gehörte Musik die Zeit zum strahlenden Kristall zusammen, so fällt die ungehörte in die leere Zeit gleich einer verderblichen Kugel” appears (understandably) to have stumped everyone. Hullot-Kentor succeeds in coming up with a sentence that resembles English while preserving something of the otherworldly character of the German: “Around music as it is heard, time springs together in a radiant crystal, while unheard tumbles perniciously through empty time.” But “as it is heard” plays down the contrast between “heard music” and “unheard music” by framing the distinction as temporal — and, perhaps, temporary (i.e., music as it is being heard vs. music that is not now being heard). Might this be a place to steal a trick from Keats and use “heard music”?

The rest of the sentence — “fällt die ungehörte in die leere Zeit gleich einer verderblichen Kugel” — is the sort of thing that drives translators to despair. To begin at the end: every Anglophone reader must struggle (in vain, I suspect) to banish the image of a baked pudding falling through empty time and try to figure out which of the many other things that Kugel designates Adorno might have had in mind [Update: shortly after this post was published, Lesley Chamberlain came up with a convincing account of what Adorno was doing in the sentence — see her comment below]. They can take some solace in the fact that Adorno wasn’t quite sure either: he initially went with “ball”, then added “globe” in parentheses and — apparently to remind himself that there was still work to be done — put the German in as well. Mitchell and Blomster’s “bullet” is an intriguing choice, though it might have been better to use “spent” in place of “impotent.” Like Adorno, Hullot-Kentor concludes that verderblichen can only be “pernicious”, but — having (sensibly) banished Kugel from the text — he is forced to attach the word to the action of tumbling, rather than to whatever it is (ball, globe, bullet, or pudding) that falls through empty time. The problem with “while unheard tumbles perniciously through empty time” is that it sounds uncomfortably close to Chomsky’s “colorless green ideas sleep furiously”: grammatically correct but (depending on one’s taste) either semantically nonsensical, poetic, or metaphysical. Faced with a phrase like this, all translators can do is resist the urge to put a bullet through their own heads.

Unless I’ve missed it, there is nothing in the published German text that corresponds to Adorno’s penultimate sentence, which suggests that either there was a sentence in the text of the original German manuscript that was subsequently cut or that this was one of the additions to the English text.

And finally we come to the last sentence, which contains the now familiar word Flaschenpost. As heirs to a tradition of reading Horkheimer and Adorno, Mitchell and Blomster and Hullot-Kentor know that Adorno is, of course, conjuring up the famous “message in bottle.” But Adorno, at sea in a language that was not yet (and probably could never fully be) his own, translates Post as “manuscript”, leaving the reader with the peculiar image of a “manuscript” stuffed into a bottle and set adrift. But, while strange, the image is strangely appropriate — at least for the peculiar manuscript that closes with it: for here is a manuscript cast off in the closing years of Adorno’s exile in Los Angeles that, somehow or other, washed up among the papers of an American composer and music critic.

I’ll have more to say in a subsequent post about why Adorno sent the manuscript to Virgil Thomson. But readers are on their own in dealing with that tumbling Kugel.


  1. The editors of Horkheimer’s collected works note that parts of the manuscript were later inserted into Horkheimer’s Eclipse of Reason, but have been unable to locate the manuscript itself. At this point, I’m inclined to think that the reason why the manuscript is missing is that it became the second chapter of the Eclipse of Reason. (In other words, the second chapter is the “Hook Paper.” But I won’t try to defend this conclusion here.
  2. For the full citation, see below. The same folder also contains a copy of the Analytical Study of the NBC Musical Appreciation Hour.
  3. See Horkheimer’s letter to Adorno of August 28, 1941 in Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften XVII:146-152.
  4. I’ve discussed this in some detail in “Mephistopheles in Hollywood: Adorno, Mann, and Schoenberg,” in The Cambridge Companion to Adorno, ed. Thomas Huhn (Cambridge University Press, 2004), 148–80.
  5. In the typescript, in place of the word “reality” Adorno had written “in a world which takes as little notice of them as they do of it” — which is enough to suggest that not all of his modifications were for the better.
  6. Theodor Adorno, Philosophie der neuen Musik, in Rolf Tiedemann, ed., Theodor W. Adorno Gesammelte Schriften 12:126.
  7. T. W. Adorno, Philosophy of Advanced Music (1941), 106, MSS No. 29A, Series XI.A. Miscellaneous Writings by Others, Box 191, Folder 1, Virgil Thomson Papers, Yale Music Library.
  8. Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music translated by Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Blomster (New York: Seabury, 1973) 133.
  9. Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophy of New Music, translated, edited, and with an Introduction by Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006) 102.
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Cassirer on Enlightenment in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences – Part III: Into the Archive

Last week was spring break at my university and, breaking with my usual custom of trying to find a warm climate in which to do research, I decided to stay home and make some headway on the pile of overdue articles and reviews that have been accumulating. I did, however, book one trip to the past (which, I hear, is a different country where they do things differently) and managed to spend several hours in the Dwight Macdonald papers at Yale University. My hope was to try to see if I could find out more about Macdonald’s November 1940 meeting with Theodor Adorno — the focus of a conference paper that I hope, at some point to turn into an article. There turned out to be quite a bit of material that helped to flesh out the antagonisms that were developing within the editorial board of Partisan Review at around the time that Macdonald informed Adorno that he would be willing to publish whatever Adorno could give him. Nothing resulted from the meeting and Adorno, in keeping with the Institute’s policy of keeping a low profile, demurred and headed off to Los Angeles to write Dialectic of Enlightenment. I’d hoped that I might be able to find out who accompanied Macdonald to the meeting (Adorno’s letter to Horkheimer reporting on the meeting mentions that Macdonald was accompanied by an “associate” but does not give his name), but — as it turned out — there were no smoking guns to be found.1

There were a couple of hours left between the close of Manuscripts and Archives (which houses the Macdonald papers) and the departure of the train that would take me back to the land of the bean and the cod. Because Yale libraries have different closing times, I was able to pay a brief visit to the Beinecke, which houses Ernst Cassirer’s papers and, during my time there, I was able to examine the holograph of his article on the Enlightenment for the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, a text that I’ve discussed in two earlier posts.2 As I mentioned in the first of those posts, Hampshire College holds the papers for the Encyclopedia itself, including some of the correspondence files with authors. But the likelihood of learning much about Cassirer’s article has been diminished by a lacuna in the files that included correspondence with anyone whose last name begins with C. So, at least until I have some time to spend some time in the lovely Pioneer Valley (is this a great job or what?), the Yale holograph looked like my best chance to learn something more about this odd little text.

As was the case with the Macdonald papers, there were no earth-shattering discoveries here (e.g., no marginalia denouncing Heidegger as a “bootlicking Nazi swine”), but a cursory reading of the scans that I made during my frantic hour or so in the archive did help to narrow down the when the manuscript was written and also contained one surprise about Cassirer’s familiarity with the literature on the Enlightenment.

Regarding the Manuscript

Readers with long memories for arcane facts will recall that my interest in the article stems from the fact that it was completed not only prior to the publication of Cassirer’s Philosophy of the Enlightenment, but also — as far as I could determine — prior to the summer that he spent in Paris doing research on the Enlightenment in the Bibliothèque Nationale. This means that his article in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences was not a précis of the book that he would publish in 1933 on the Enlightenment, but instead was written prior to immersion in French texts from the period. In the second of my two posts, I argued that the relatively early date of composition was reflected in the contrasting treatment of the philosophes in the two works: in contrast to Philosophy of the Enlightenment, French thinkers are noticeably absent from the Encyclopedia article. The Enlightenment presented in the Encyclopedia is largely an English and German affair and it appears to have taken place chiefly in the 17th and early 18th century. The Enlightenment that appears in the Philosophy of the Enlightenment is a Franco-German venture, though the English and Dutch play significant roles as well.

Ernst Cassirer Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University, GEN MSS 98, Box 37, Folder 706

Ernst Cassirer Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University, GEN MSS 98, Box 37, Folder 706

The manuscript in the Beinecke appears to have been Cassirer’s final draft, submitted to the editors for translation, copy-editing, and typesetting and then returned to him when they were finished with it (the volume itself appeared in the fall). There are a few minor corrections in the text itself, presumably made before Cassirer sent the text off, and they — like the rest of the manuscript are written in Cassirer’s clear and legible handwriting (here, clearly, is a world we have lost: my handwriting looks like the scrawls of a child, minus the charm). This appears to be the only copy of the work among the Cassirer papers. We can assume that he reviewed the copyedited version and, perhaps, corrected the final proofs. One hopes that he was compensated for his labors with a copy of the Encyclopedia itself, but this is the only copy of the text that is preserved in his papers. It is not unique in that regard. Box 37 also contains holographs of a number of his more famous articles. It would appear that the copies of his writings that he preserved were the ones that were written in his own hand.

An cursory comparison of the German holograph and the English text indicates that there were some changes made in the text during the editing process. Cassirer’s manuscript provided topic headers for the different sections of the article, a practice that the Encyclopedia adopted in certain of its longer articles, but did not follow here. The introductory section of the text also appears to have been pared down a bit. It is possible that other cuts were made, but — since I have other things that need to be done — I’m not inclined to do the work necessary to find out. But a causal reading didn’t turn up any significant changes: the editors seem to have been satisfied with what they got.

The Date of its Composition

I was able to shed some light on my chief concern — the date of the composition of the manuscript — even before looking at the manuscript. Cassirer kept the envelope that was used to return the manuscript to him and that envelope was preserved by the archivists who processed his papers after his death. The envelope, which was sent from the Encyclopedia‘s office in Fayerweather Hall at Columbia University, was postmarked “July 3, 1931″ and mailed to Cassirer at the “Chalet Palü” in the Alpine resort of Pontresina, Switzerland, where it would appear the Cassirers were — as they said in a more leisurely age — “summering.”3


Ernst Cassirer Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University, GEN MSS 98, Box 37, Folder 706

Ernst Cassirer Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University, GEN MSS 98, Box 37, Folder 706

While the envelope tells us when the editors returned Cassirer’s manuscript to him, it still leaves us in the dark as to when he sent it off to them.  It seems reasonable, though, to conjecture that — since it would have to have been translated into English prior to copy-editing — it is unlikely that Cassirer could have sent it off to New York any later than May or June of 1931. Of course, there’s nothing to rule out his having submitted the article considerably earlier than this;  my main interest here is to clarify what was the latest possible date that he could have written the article.   So, even we assume the latest possible submission of the article (and the quickest possible processing of it) this much is certain: Cassirer could only have written the article prior to beginning his work in the Bibliothèque Nationale.

Bibliographical Matters

There was one significant surprise in Cassirer’s text: he was responsible for the bibliography that appears in the printed edition. I’d assumed that it must have been prepared by the editors since it contains a book that I found it unlikely he would have known: John Grier Hibben’s The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1910).

Hibben’s book has intrigued me for some time: it was the first book on the period published in English to include the term “the Enlightenment” in its title and, more generally, the first book in English to treat “the Enlightenment” as something worthy of serious study. Up until that point, English commentators had, for the most part, been content to make unpleasant noises about something called “the Illumination.”

Hibben was a member of the philosophy faculty at Princeton at the time that he wrote the book (he later succeeded Woodrow Wilson as President of the university). He had spent some time studying in Germany and his book was Hegelian in its approach. (So, in a sense was Cassirer’s, though it wore its Hegelianism somewhat less conspicuously). Since it seemed unlikely that Cassirer would have been familiar with an English language study of the Enlightenment by a not particularly famous American philosopher, I assumed that the bibliography for his article was cobbled together by the editors of the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, perhaps with some input from Cassirer regarding German sources. That supposition was reinforced by the presence of a number of other English texts in the bibliography.4 But it is clear from the holograph that it was Cassirer who compiled the bibliography, which means that the author of Die Philosophie der Aufklärung was acquainted with The Philosophy of the Enlightenment.

Ernst Cassirer Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University, GEN MSS 98, Box 37, Folder 706

Ernst Cassirer Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University, GEN MSS 98, Box 37, Folder 706

While it would have been hard for Cassirer not to be aware of the similarity between the title for the book he went on to write and the title of the book Hibben had already written, we should be cautious about making too much of this. For, while Cassirer initially signed a contract to deliver a book entitled Die Philosophie der Aufklärung, once he began work on it, he began to have second thoughts. As Gerald Harung notes in his helpful introduction to the 1998 reprint of the German text, Cassirer informed the philosopher Fritz Medicus (the editor of the series in which the book would appear) that the proposed title did not quite match up with what he found himself writing, which “was concerned not so much with the evolution of individual philosophical systems as with the general movement of ideas.” As an alternative, he proposed that the book appear as Ideengeschichte der Aufklärungszeit [History of Ideas of the Age of Enlightenment]. But he left the decision about the title up to the publisher Paul Siebeck who, in the interest of maintaining consistency in the titles of books in the series, opted to remain with the contracted title.5


  1. For a general discussion of the relationship of members of the Institute for Social Research with the “New York Intellectuals,” see Thomas Wheatland, The Frankfurt School in Exile (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009). 
  2. The manuscript can be found in the Ernst Cassirer Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University, GEN MSS 98, Box 37, Folder 706.  For my earlier posts discussing the text and its origins, see Part 1 and Part 2.
  3. Something called the Chalet Palü still exists in Pontresina.  The one Kant scholar I know who is also a skier informs me that the chalet was likely named after Piz Palü, a 12,800 foot Alpione peak in the Bernina Range, between Switzerland and Italy.  The Wikipedia informs me that the name “Palü” derives from the Latin palus, or “swamp”, which means that the mountain takes its name from the Alpe Palü, a high pasture 4 km to its east (and, I suppose, yet another place to “research”). My informant also notes that the town of Pontresina (or Puntraschigna, depending on who is occupying the territory at the moment) is “(allegedly) a corruption of Pons Sarasina, referring to the Saracen invasion of the tenth century). Some people know a lot of stuff. It’s good to know them.
  4. In addition to Hibben, the bibliography contains a number of other English texts, including W. E. H. Lecky’s two-volume History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Nationalism in Europe (1910), Kingsley Martin, French Liberal Thought in the Eighteenth Century (1929), Leslie Stephen, History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (1902).
  5. Ernst Cassirer, Die Philosophie der Aufklärung, Philosophische Bibliothek ; Bd. 513 (Hamburg: F. Meiner Verlag, 1998) x*.
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Horkheimer, Adorno, and the Los Angeles Times: A Report on Exilforschung in the Age of Digital Accessibility

The first page of the “Real Estate and Industry” section of the Los Angeles Times of Sunday, September 24, 1940 is likely to confuse even those of us who are old enough to be familiar with the conventions for dealing with newspapers printed on paper.  Our eyes will naturally gravitate to the upper right hand corner, where we find a brief account of filings for building permits, which indicate that an explosion of residential building had taken place in the first ten months of the year (enough new housing, we are told, to provide accomodation for “14,108 families or about 49,378 persons”).  But — defying the habits  acquired over the years — my eyes are pulled to the left side of the page, where a larger headline announces that the United States Chamber of Commerce has scheduled a “national construction conference” to consider “the problem of maintaining a substantial volume of private building” even as “construction needed for defense” begins to ramp up.

By September 1940 Germans were occupying France, the Luftwaffe was bombing London, and German Jews were required to wear yellow stars.  The US had begun to provide Great Britain with destroyers in exchange for free leases on naval bases in the Caribbean and Los Angeles’ aircraft industry was expanding production at a fever pitch.  The influx of workers helps to explain all those housing permits and the Chamber of Commerce, which — then as now — had a limitless faith in the sanctity of private enterprise, was concerned that the war effort might threaten the still-fragile economic recovery:

We need private construction work as a sound foundation for the defense program. We need it also as something substantial on which to build our future prosperity when defense constrution is finished or greatly reduced. … Above all we need the continuing support our fiscal economy receives from the taxable income which flows from the creation of permanent, useful structures.

The past, it appears, is not always a foreign country.

However, the true center of attention lies along the zigzag line of photographs of houses that runs down the center of the page.  The line begins with a photograph of a resident reading in the living room of her “Mountain View Cottage” in Santa Anita Village, the “new residential community in Arcadia fronting on Huntington Drive just east of San Marino.” This list of place names — however familiar they may be to current residents of Los Angeles — sounds (at least to one who has spent his days on other end of the continent) like something from the realm of myth (“et in Arcadia ego”, indeed). While the past is not always a foreign country, Los Angeles (at least for me) is.

What brought me to this page is a three paragraph story two-thirds of the way down on the left side of the row of photos entitled “Apartments Bring $60,000.” The article serves up a dog’s breakfast of news items. The first paragraph has to do with apartments going up on S. Los Robles Ave. in Pasadena (the $60,000 items in the title). The second is concerned with some house swapping in Brentwood (Nelson Eddy has purchased a French Normandie residence for $25,000).  And, finally, the last paragraph contains the name that brought me to the page:

A large site in California Riviera was purchased by Prof. Max Horkheimer, formerly of the University of Hamburg [sic], as a site for a residence that will represent an investment of $20,000.  George Oldfield of the Meline organization handled these transactions.

Though we may smile at the article’s confusion of Hamburg and Frankfurt, it is not without a certain historical significance.  This peculiar little item marks the first appearance of words “Max Horkheimer” in the Los Angeles Times.

This semester I’m teaching a seminar on the flight of German exiles from the Third Reich to the US for the first time since 2009. A lot has changed in six years. Back in 2009 our library had a subscription to New York Times historical database, but at that point access to the Los Angeles Times database was only available through an individual subscription and, unless I’m mistaken, searches of the paper were clumsier and less fruitful.

A search for “Max Horkheimer” produces 11 results, beginning with the announcement of Horkheimer’s building plans and ending with a brief review of Zoltan Tar’s book on the Frankfurt School.  Here’s what turns up:

  1. “APARTMENTS BRING $60,000.” Los Angeles Times, Nov 24 1940
  2. “Other 23 — no Title.” Los Angeles Times, May 26 1946.
  3. “TREASURY’S COMIC STRIP SHOW TO OPEN HERE.” Los Angeles Times, Nov 13 1949.
  4. “Other 8 — no Title.” Los Angeles Times, Apr 17 1947.
  5. Blakeslee, Alton L. “Domineering Fathers may Breed Bigots.” Los Angeles Times, Apr 09 1950.
  6. “Lindstrom Gets Final Decree in Divorcing Ingrid.” Los Angeles Times, Nov 09 1951
  7. “Southlander Aids Germany He Once Fled.” Los Angeles Times, Mar 16 1952.
  8. “Horkheimer, West German Teacher, Dies.” Los Angeles Times, Jul 09 1973.
  9. Jacoby, Russell. “Herbert Marcuse: The Philosopher as Perpetual Scandal.” Los Angeles Times, Aug 05 1979.
  10. “Other 172 — no Title.” Los Angeles Times, May 05 1985.
  11. “Now in Paperback.” Los Angeles Times; Jul 14 1985.

Some of these items are more interesting than others. While Russell Jacoby is always worth reading, Horkheimer appears only briefly in his eulogy for Marcuse. The 1973 obituary for Horkheimer is relevant only in documenting what little interest in the Times seems to have had in its former resident:  it was content to run the UPI obit, which would have us believe that Horkheimer spent his entire exile in New York. The items labeled “Other” are rather bizarre: #10 consists of television listings, while #4 and #8 consist of horse-racing charts set in minute typeface (running OCR on these pages reveals that the Havre de Grace racetrack in Maryland had a “Zantzinger-Horkheimer” entrance; I leave to those Dylanologists who have been led to this page by the notorious name “Zantzinger”  to determine whether the man after whom the entrance was named might, indeed, be the infamous William Zantzinger).

There are lessons to be learned from items #6 and #3 about the need to check even unpromising headlines. What ProQuest picks up in both cases seems, initially, unrelated to Horkheimer. The headline for item #6 takes us to an article where we find that “Ingrid” refers to Ingrid Bergman and “Lindstrom” to her first husband, the LA brain surgeon Peter Lindstrom and informs us that (in the argot of the day) “California-wise [emphasis mine, baby!] Ingrid Bergman, Swedish screen actress, yesterday became free to wed Roberto Rossellini, Italian film director”.1 It is followed by a second story on the sale of Israel Bonds, and — at the very bottom of the page — an Associate Press report stating that “Dr. Max Horkheimer, a German-born Jew who became an American citizen, has been elected rector of Frankurt University …” And while the main story in item #3 is a report on an exhibit devoted to “20,000 Years of Comics” at the Los Angeles Public Library that, for reasons that escape me, was sponsored by the Treasury Department (OK, sometimes the past is a foreign country after all), it surrounds a brief notice reporting that Rabbi Edgar Magnin, President of the Los Angeles College of Jewish Studies has announced the appointment of Fred Herzberg to the faculty as a replacement for “Dr. Max Horkheimer who will leave this week with Dr. Theodore Arno [sic] to lecture at the University of Frankfurt, Germany.”

The two remaining articles are more substantial. “Domineering Fathers May Breed Bigots” is an article by the Associated Press’s “Science Reporter” that carries a New York dateline and discusses  “Studies in Prejudice,” the Institute’s major American research project. The article focuses on the findings of The Authoritarian Personality and consists, for the most part, of extended quotations from Horkheimer’s co-editor (and, in his eyes, nemesis), Samuel H. Flowerman. In contrast, a September 21, 1951 article, written by the Times correspondent William S. Barton reporting on Adorno’s presentation to the Hacker Foundation, featured extended quotations from Adorno. As might be expected, most of what the article quotes consists of Adorno’s summary of the argument of The Authoritarian Personality (a book that, the article informed readers, “has created wide discussion among sociologists”). But towards its close the article take a strange turn, with Adorno noting that, in contrast to England, in West Germany,

virtually anything you want to eat, including oranges and grapefruit, are abundantly available ….

“You don’t see any underfed people in Frankfort,” the sociologist said, “and even the poor seem well fed. The women certainly are much plumper than in the United States. Some people think they are too plump. Coffee is the only thing in the food line that is hard to get.

Adorno briefly turns to matters of greater import:

“The Germans feel sure Russia isn’t ready to wage war. That may be one reason why there is much less fear of war in the danger zone of Germany than here in California. Germans don’t seem to worry about A-bombs.

But, he ends the interview on a familiar note:

A large group of the population has gone through so much that it has stopped worrying and is concentrating on what is now a widespread self-indulgence. We feel they eat too much.”

Only slightly less peculiar than Adorno’s apparent obsession with food (did the interview intrude on his dinner plans?) is Barton’s presentation of Adorno, who is described as an “internationally known sociologist and philosopher” who “has taught American ideals for two years at the University of Frankfort.”

A native of Germany, Dr. Adorno is a naturalized American citizen and first came to this country in 1938 when ejected by Hitler.

Strangely, the fact that Adorno spent large parts of the 1940s in Santa Monica goes unmentioned.

As far as I can tell, the only time that the Los Angeles Times noted that either Horkheimer or Adorno resided  in Los Angeles occurs in the March 16, 1952 article (item #7 above). Once again, the article is a wire service report (this time from Reuters). It carries a Frankfurt dateline and begins,

Prof. Max Horkheimer, the Jewish citizen of the United States who was recently appointed rector of Frankfurt University, hopes eventually to return to his home at Pacific Palisades. But first he wants to finish the job he has taken on here of teaching German students philosophy and sociology.

The article proceeds to recount Horkheimer’s departure from Frankfurt in 1933 and notes that he is “immensely proud of his United States citizenship and the esteem which he won by 15 years’ work in the United States.” It reports that

Although he fled from the Nazi regime, he has no hatred for the German people. On the contrary, he wants to help the best of them to find their way in a democratic world and to think for themselves, free from the poison of Nazi doctrines.

But while it mentions Horkheimer’s work at Columbia, the article offers no explanation why a scholar associated with a New York university would have a home in Pacific Palisades. The headline, which bestowed the now-archaic title of “Southlander” on this former resident of Los Angeles, was obviously the work of the Los Angeles Times.

And that, with one significant omission, is all that the Los Angeles Times has to say about the members of the Institute for Social Research who, abandoning New York, found refuge in Los Angeles.  I will have more to say about that omission in a subsequent post.



  1. And here is a good a place as any to confess that a decade or so ago, having failed to discharge my obligations to the institution that employs me by having lunch with parents of prospective Boston University students, I ran into a colleague who — having done what I did not opt to do — reported “You’ll never guess who I had lunch with:  Isabella Rosellini.” 
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Cassirer on Enlightenment in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (Part 2)

Back in October, I posted the first part of a discussion of Ernst Cassirer’s account of the Enlightenment in the first edition of the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences.  That post was concerned chiefly with trying to make sense of why and how Cassirer came to write the article in the first place, but had little to say about the actual content of the article itself. That will be the task of this post.

But since it has been a while, let me summarize the main reason for focusing on this Encyclopediapeculiar little article at all. As discussed in the previous installment, Cassirer wrote the article sometime between 1927 (when the economist Edwin R. A. Seligman began soliciting contributions to the encyclopedia from European scholars) and September 1931 (the publication date listed on the volume in which Cassirer’s article appeared). This means that it is safe to assume that the article was finished sometime prior to the summer of 1931, which (according to Toni Cassirer’s memoir) Cassirer spent in Paris at the Bibliothètique Nationale working on what would become The Philosophy of the Enlightenment. While it remains unclear when Cassirer received the invitation to collaborate on the Encyclopedia and or how much progress he had made on his book prior to his visit from Paris, it would appear that his brief article for the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences may have served as a preliminary sketch of the argument that he proceeded to develop, at greater length and in greater depth, in the book he completed in the autumn of 1932.

Having summarized the case that I made back in October for taking a closer look at Cassirer’s article, the rest of this post will (finally!) get around to discussing the article itself.

Cassirer, Kant, and Enlightenment

Cassirer began his article by quoting the opening paragraph of Kant’s 1784 answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?” This gesture, of course, is hardly unique. As I’ve discussed in earlier posts, by the first decades of the twentieth century, the invocation of the beginning (and typically nothing else) of Kant’s attempt to explain the process that he and his contemporaries called “enlightenment” had become a handy way of characterizing the historical period that came to be known as “the Enlightenment.” Since I have also spent a fair amount of time, both on this blog and elsewhere, attempting to explain why what Kant was doing was not at all what those who typically quote him are trying to do, I will avoid spending more time on it here.1

It may be enough simply to quote what Cassirer’s own discussion:

This famous passage … characterizes most clearly the decisive intellectual tendency as well as the historical character and mission of the philosophy of enlightenment. To the view of the world which derived its strength from a belief in divine revelation and which was mainly supported by the powers of authority and tradition, enlightenment opposed another which rested on reason and the powers of understanding. The basic idea underlying all the tendencies of the enlightenment was the conviction that human understanding is capable, by its own power and without any recourse to supernatural assistance, of comprehending the system of the world and that this new way of understanding the world will lead to a new way of mastering it. Enlightenment sought to gain universal recognition for this principle in the natural and intellectual sciences, in physics and ethics, in the philosophies of religion, history, law and politics (547).

There is little here that is likely to strike present-day readers as particularly unusual (aside, perhaps, from the consistent appearance of “enlightenment” in lower case). There is also much that anticipates the Preface to The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, beginning with Cassirer’s imparting of agency to that peculiar entity dubbed “enlightenment.”  Enlightenment, we are told, has an “intellectual tendency,” a “character,” and a “mission.” It seeks “to gain universal recognition” for its principles and it is concerned with securing — against the rival claims of faith and tradition — the sovereignty of human understanding. If the argument and its imagery seems unexceptional, it is because what we find here is a précis of the argument of The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, delivered in remarkably condensed form.

With this prologue out of the way, Cassirer gets down to work:

Historically speaking, one understands by enlightenment primarily the development undergone by this principle during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in England, France, and Germany. But although the main ideas of enlightenment reached their complete development and their final victory in the intellectual movement of these two centuries, their roots lie deeper in the past.

Once again, there is little here that will be unfamiliar to readers of The Philosophy of the Enlightenment: the period we know as the Enlightenment turns out to be the culmination of a process of “enlightenment” that reaches back into the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Those who assume that Cassirer’s launching of this paragraph with the phrase “Historically speaking …” sets the stage for a discussion. later in the article, of what the Germans like to call a “systematic” — as opposed to “historical” — account of the Enlightenment will be disappointed. What follows is a narrative that traces the spread of the set of ideas sketched in the second paragraph across the domains of the natural sciences, political and social theory, and religion. While this narrative would appear to be cast in the form of a history of the development of “the Enlightenment,” it is a history of a rather peculiar sort: a history with a systematic intent.  In other words, we learn what the Enlightenment is by watching how it develops.

There are, once again parallels to the argument of The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, which — after its opening discussion of the “Geist der Aufklärung” proceeds to trace the progress of this “spirit” through the domains of “nature and natural science,” psychology and epistemology,” “religion,” “the historical world,” “law, state, and society,” and “aesthetics.” Cassirer’s passing reference to Hegel’s Phenomenology in the Preface to The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (viii) goes a long way towards capturing what he was attempting to pull off:

Such a presentation of philosophical doctrines and systems endeavors as it were to give a “phenomenology of the philosophic spirit”; it is an attempt to show how this spirit, struggling with purely objective problems, achieves clarity and depth in its understanding of its own nature and destiny, and of its own fundamental character and missions. (vi).

The major differences between the general approach taken in Cassirer’s 1931 article and his 1933 book reside, first, in the ordering of the sections and, second, in his addition of a lengthy and important account of aesthetics at the close of the book. But there are also a few other, less immediately apparent, differences, both in what Cassirer includes and in what he excludes.

Extending the Enlightenment

Let’s begin with a consideration of what the article includes. Here is list of works either mentioned or alluded to in Cassirer’s 1931 article:

  • Nicholas of Cusa, De pace fidei (1490)
  • Pomponazzi, De immortalitate animae (1516)
  • Bodin, Colloquium heptaplomeres (1588)
  • Charron, De la sagesse (1601)
  • Bacon, De Interpretatione Naturae (1603)
  • Althusius, Politica methodice digesta (1603)
  • Herbert of Cherbury, De veritate (1624)
  • Grotius, De jure belli ac pacis (1625)
  • Hobbes, Leviathan (1651)
  • Diderot & D’Alembert, Encyclopédie (1751-1772)
  • Rousseau, Contrat social (1762)
  • Lessing, Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts (1780)
  • Kant, “Was is Aufklärung?” (1784)
  • Kant, Kritik der praktische Vernunft (1788)
  • Kant, Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der blossen Vernunft (1793)

Both Kant (whose article on enlightenment opens Cassirer’s discussion) and Charron (who appears at the close of the article) are quoted at some length, the rest of these texts are mentioned, sometimes in passing, a few at somewhat greater length. Leviathan is not explicitly cited, though Hobbes is discussed at some length. Likewise, Diderot and D’Alembert’s efforts are alluded to, though the actual title of their work does not appear.

What is perhaps most striking about this list is how few eighteenth century texts appear on it: of the fifteen works discussed or mentioned, only six appeared in the eighteenth century and, of those six, three were written by Kant. Equally peculiar is proliferation of texts from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (eight of the fifteen on the list) and the fact that, with the exception of Leviathan (which slips in under the wire) all of the seventeenth century works mentioned come from the first half of the century.

This accounting is only slightly skewed by my having listed the titles of works, as opposed to the proliferation of authors invoked in the course of Cassirer’s article. In the interest of completeness, here is a list of every author Cassirer mentions, arranged by date of birth:

  • Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464)
  • Pietro Pomponazzi (1462-1525)
  • Jean Bodin (1530-1596)
  • Francis Bacon (1561-1626)
  • Althusius (1563-1638)
  • Galileo (1564-1642)
  • Kepler (1571-1630)
  • Grotius (1583-1645)
  • Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648)
  • John Hales (1584-1656)
  • Hobbes (1588-1679)
  • Descartes (1596-1650)
  • William Chillingworth (1602-1644)
  • Benjamin Whichcote (1609-1683)
  • Henry More (1614-1687)
  • Ralph Cudworth (1617-1688)
  • John Smith (1618-1652)
  • Spinoza (1632-1677)
  • Pufendorf (1632-1694)
  • Leibniz (1646-1716)
  • John Toland (1670-1722)
  • Anthony Collins (1676-1729)
  • Christian Wolff (1679-1754)
  • Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768)
  • Voltaire (1694-1778)
  • Johann Friedrich Wilhelm Jerusalem (1709-1789)
  • Rousseau (1712-1778)
  • Diderot (1713-1784)
  • Johann Joachim Spalding (1714-1804)
  • D’Alembert (1717-1783)
  • Kant (1724-1804)
  • Johann Salomo Semler (1725-1791)
  • Lessing (1729-1781)

Looking over this list of thirty-three names we find only fourteen authors who were born after 1646. Again, a few caveats are in order. At certain points in the text (e.g., the cluster of English Platonists and German neologists who turn up in the discussion of religion on page 551), Cassirer winds up invoking quite a few names, but does not spend much time discussing them. Nevertheless, the names he tends to invoke are those of thinkers who, as in the case of the titles of books, we would be hard-pressed to see as thinkers associated with what we tend to regard as “the Enlightenment.” For though we have become accustomed, in recent decades, to attempts to trace the seventeenth century origins of the Enlightenment (indeed, the one point on which Jonathan Israel and his critics can agree is that efforts at enlightenment reach further back into the seventeenth century than had previously been realized), what is perhaps most puzzling about Cassirer’s treatment of the period is the amount of attention given to thinkers and texts conventionally associated with the Renaissance.

But, if we think about it, this should not be puzzling at all. As I mentioned in my first post, prior to the publication of The Philosophy of the Enlightenment Cassirer’s forays into the history of ideas had been concerned with the Renaissance (e.g., his 1927 Individuum und Kosmos in der Philosophie der Renaissance), with English Platonism (his 1932 Die Platonische Renaissance in England und die Schule von Cambridge), and with late eighteenth-century German idealism. We might see Cassirer, then, as approaching the Enlightenment from two different directions.  It has long been obvious (and, indeed, in some cases over-emphasized) that he viewed Kant as the culmination of enlightenment thought and was concerned with tearing down the wall that earlier generations of scholars had constructed separating “the Enlightenment” from Goethe, Schiller, Hölderlin, and Hegel. And, as he stressed in the Preface to The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, he viewed the Enlightenment as the culmination of an effort that had begun in the Renaissance. What is, however, somewhat less obvious — and what his 1931 article helps us to see — is how little he appears to have known about French eighteenth-century thought prior to his studies in the Bibliothètique Nationale during the summer of 1931.

Where are the French?

What is perhaps most striking about the lists of works and names that I’ve (admittedly, somewhat tediously) assembled is what is missing: the French Enlightenment. The list of thirty-three names includes twelve German, ten English, two Italian, two Dutch, one Irish, and six French writers. If we remove the two seventeenth century French thinkers from the list (Bodin and Descartes) from the list, Cassirer’s French Enlightenment consists of only four thinkers: Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, and D’Alembert. If we turn our attention to the texts Cassirer discusses, the neglect of the French Enlightenment is even more striking: the only works from the French Enlightenment mentioned in the article are the Encyclopédie and Rousseau’s Social Contract.

To appreciate what is missing from the article, we need only turn to The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, where Condillac, Condorcet, Dubos, Fontenelle, Lamettrie, Montesquieu, and others join the quartet of thinkers mentioned in the article and the number of works discussed expands significantly. Of course, part of the explanation for the differences between the article that appeared in September 1931 in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences and the book that appeared at the end of 1932 has to do with the constraints under which authors of encyclopedia articles necessarily have to operate. But while this may explain why Cassirer may have had to curtail his discussion of the French Enlightenment, it does little to clarify the rationale behind his devoting what little space he had to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century thinkers who — while perhaps laying the groundwork for the Enlightenment — would appear to have a lesser claim on his attention in an article intended to provide readers with an overview of the Enlightenment itself.

We can, then, better understand what is going on in Cassirer’s contribution to the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences if we think of it not as a précis of the argument he would eventually elaborate in The Philosophy of the Enlightenment than as a first reconnoitering of a terrain that he would map, in greater detail, during the summer of 1931 in the Bibliothètique Nationale. It is important to remember that it was only with the publication of The Philosophy of the Enlightenment that Cassirer became recognized as a scholar of the Enlightenment. Prior to its publication, he was a leading figure in neo-Kantian philosophy and — with the publication of the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms — a major influence beyond the immediate domain of German philosophy. His work on Renaissance philosophy had begun to establish him as an important figure within the history of ideas.  But while — in retrospect — it might be obvious that the broader research program he was pursuing pointed him in the direction of the Enlightenment, it was not until the summer of 1931 that he began to devote himself to an intensive study of a literature that he may have known about but which — prior to his studies in the Bibliothètique Nationale — he did not really know. Hence the significance of his peculiar contribution to the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences: it helps us to see how Ernst Cassirer conceived of the Enlightenment before he had the opportunity to spend much time studying it.

Melody and Counterpoint

Perhaps the most important contribution of The Philosophy of the Enlightenment was its conviction that the Enlightenment must be understood as a European movement. In that respect, Cassirer’s account of the Enlightenment was — as Johnson Kent Wright has emphasized in what is perhaps the best discussion we have of Cassirer’s book — of a piece with his insistence that the founding principles of the Weimar constitution could traced to “an interlocking set of German, English, and French thinkers — Leibniz, Wolff, Blackstone, Rousseau, and Kant ….”2 As Wright goes on to argue, the overall message of The Philosophy of the Enlightenment was much the same:

… far from attributing a single, stable outlook to the Enlightenment, Cassirer instead produced an elaborate description of what was essentially the French version of it, caught in a long moment of disequilibrium — in transition, that is, from the reign of the ‘esprit de système’ to that of the ‘esprit systématique.’… It was the essential ‘task’ of the Enlightenment as a whole, Cassirer insisted, to bridge the gap between the ‘analytic’ outlook of the one and the ‘synthetic’ project of the other — to combine, as it were, a French melody and a German counterpoint (90).

It would be hard to come up with a more apt characterization of what Cassirer achieved, but — if the argument I have been developing in these posts has any merit — there is no reason to assume that this particular way of framing the discussion was clear to Cassirer before he began his work in the Bibliothètique Nationale during the summer of 1931.

In his 1931 article Cassirer noted that the fundamental method of the Enlightenment involves a combination of “analysis” and “synthesis.” But, at this point, the architect of this combination of “resolutive” and “compositive” approaches was neither French nor German. Instead, Cassirer traced its roots to Galileo. As Wright argues, the great theme of that animates Cassirer’s book on the Enlightenment is the tension between “esprit de système” and the “esprit systématique” that Cassirer elaborated in his opening chapter on the “Mind of the Enlightenment”.  In elaborating this tension, Cassirer took his point of departure from d’Alembert’s  Elements of Philosophy.

Wright’s characterization of overall dynamic of The Philosophy of the Enlightenment as “a French melody with a German counterpoint” is an elegant way of capturing what Cassirer was able to achieve in his book. But if play the book off against his article in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences we may begin to wonder if, perhaps, the “counter-point” preceded the melody. The 1931 article opened with an extended quotation from Kant’s answer to the question “What is Enlightenment” and then went on to trace how the “spirit of the Enlightenment” proceeded to spread from one intellectual domain to another. His 1933 book opened with an extended series of quotations from D’Alembert, but went on to trace a narrative that — as had been the case in 1931 — traced the unfolding of an idea that, from the start, had been defined as “European.”

Near the start of the 1931 article Cassirer argued that the Enlightenment “represented only the continuation and consistent development of certain tendencies in the European mind …” (547). Because the Enlightenment (at least as Cassirer understood it) was essentially “European,” he seems to have had few reservations about offering an account of it that, from its earliest formulation, rejected the conventional notion that it was something that spread (either as a blessed liberation or as a fatal disease) to the rest of Europe from France. For that reason, it is likely that when he entered the Bibliothètique Nationale in the summer of 1931, he already knew what he was going to find there. All that remained was to fill out the details.

And here, perhaps, lies the origin of both the greatness and the failings of The Philosophy of the Enlightenment.


  1. For a general discussion of these matters, see my article, “Misunderstanding the Question: `What Is Enlightenment?’: Venturi, Habermas, and Foucault,” History of European Ideas 37:1 (2011): 43–52.
  2. Johnson Kent Wright, “‘A Bright Clear Mirror’: Cassirer’s The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, in Keith Michael Baker and Peter Hanns Reill, eds. What’s Left of Enlightenment? : A Postmodern Question (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2001) 81.
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The 1914 Christmas Truces as History and Memory

Over the last several weeks, the British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s has been running an advertisement on television and in movie theaters in which, over the course of its three minutes and twenty seconds, the essential fragments of what has become the cultural memory of the 1914 Christmas truce pass in rapid succession. It opens with the words “Christmas Eve 1914” and images of soldiers huddled in trenches receiving mail as snow sainsburys_-_christmas_is_for_sharing_2falls through the darkness and artillery shells rumble in the distance. A young British soldier who has been contemplating his grim Christmas ration — a coarse brown biscuit — receives a package from the home-front: a large chocolate bar, wrapped in blue and gold, with an accompanying picture of his sweetheart. As a smile spreads across his face, he hears  German voices in distance singing the words “schlaf in himmlischer Ruh.”  The camera pans back and forth between the German and English trenches, catching the uplifted faces of soldiers, joining their voices in “Silent Night/Stille Nacht and looking at their comrades quizzically.

The landscape begins to brighten (the sun rises  rapidly on this Western Front) as the camera catches a tiny robin sitting on the barbed wire. The Tommy summons hiscourage, wrings his hands, and makes his move. Removing his hat and raising his hand, he climbs out of the trench. There is a quick cut to the German side, as the troops scramble for weapons, take their positions, and — with growing amazement — contemplate the unarmed figure advancing towards them over the brighting landscape. An unarmedScreenshot 2014-12-21 10.37.49German soldier reciprocates and, followed by troops from either side, the two enemies meet (shortly before the two-minute mark) in a lightly frosted no-man’s land.  Jim (the Tommy) and Otto (a German) shake hands, introduce themselves, and as Jim shows Otto a Screenshot 2014-12-21 10.38.40picture of his sweetheart, a football match breaks out, accompanied by swelling orchestral strings.  In the goal, Otto blocks one kick, but the persistent Jim eventually scores — exactly at the moment when the rumble of artillery is heard again.  As the troops bid each other farewell and return to their trenches, Jim and Otto meet one last time and exchange Christmas greetings.

Back in the German trench, Otto reaches into his coat and finds the chocolate bar that Jim dropped into his pocket when he retrieved it from the playing field. Back in the English trench, Jim opens his mess tin and pulls out that wretched brown biscuit while a smile crosses his face.  It’s time for the punchline.  Against the background of flying birds, the words “Christmas is for sharing” appear, followed by “Sainsbury’s” and (either as exorcism or imprimatur)  “Made in partnership with The Royal British Legion.”

It should come as no surprise that the true star of this history lesson, that magical blue and gold candy bar, is available for purchase at Sainsbury’s for £1, with “all profits” donated to the Royal British Legion (only the Scrooges among us will wonder whether the salaries of Sainsbury’s executives are included in the costs of producing this massive hunk of chocolate).

History, Memory, and “Creative Interpretation”

The reception of the ad has, perhaps predictably, been mixed.

Upon its premiered ADWEEK praised the handiwork of the creative team at AMV BBDO as “stunning … rich and evocative and entirely believable.” An additional video, released at the same time, featured interviews with British military historians, who testified to the care that the director Ringan Ledwidge had put into getting the historical details right. Alert readers might have wondered whether there was a certain tension in ADWEEK’s characterizing of the ad’s treatment of those events from a century ago as both historically authentic and as a “creative interpretation.”

The readers of The Guardian were a good deal less enthusiastic. One suggested that next Christmas Sainsbury might consider a heart-warming advertisement in which the baby Jesus escapes the slaughter of the innocents when one of Herod’s henchmen is distracted by the box of mince pies in his crib.  A subsequent opinion piece by Ally Fogg opened with a nod to Wilfred Owen:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Not only the monstrous anger of the guns nor the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle, but now an epic four-minute, eye-wateringly expensive commercial for a supermarket chain.

Fogg conceded that the ad was “on its own terms, a masterpiece.”

The cinematography is breathtaking. Without saying a word, the young cast conveys a startling array of emotional depth within a few short minutes. The simple narrative, built around the near-mythical Christmas truce between the trenches of 1914, has just the right blend of poignancy and sentimentality to bring a tear to the most cynical eye.

But he rightly refused to take the ad on its own (or should we say Sainsbury’s?) terms.

Exploiting the first world war for commercial gain is tasteless. This, however, is not what disturbs me most. The really upsetting details are the stunning shot of the robin on the wire, the actors’ trembles as they cautiously emerge from the trenches, half expecting a sniper’s bullet, the flicker of understanding in the eyes as the young soldiers reach into their pockets at the end. The film-makers here have done something to the first world war which is perhaps the most dangerous and disrespectful act of all: they have made it beautiful.

My only quibble with Fogg’s criticism would be that the undeniable artistry of this commercial is of a piece with its exploitation of the memory of Great War for commercial
gain. By the time we reach the closing shot of Jim contemplating his biscuit, history is well its the way to becoming myth and, if the creative staff of AMV BBDO have done their job Screenshot 2014-12-21 10.46.12properly (and there is nothing in the ad to suggest that they haven’t), we have been properly prepared for yet another orgy of consumption. As the man who coined the word Kulturindustrie once observed: “Advertising is psychoanalysis in reverse”  — which suggests that, if we are to understand what is going here,  we need to follow Adorno’s advice and trace, not the path of resistance, but instead inquire into what it is about this ad that — despite our efforts at resistance — remains so attractive.

The concern for “historical accuracy” that —  if we believe the promotional material that surrounds AMV BBDO’s “creative interpretation” —  is so central to this undertaking seems to have been limited to getting the costumes right.  Pitched to a British audience, the ad has a Tommy initiate the truce: the accounts that have been passed down in letters from the front are consistent in reporting that the initiate came from the other side. With the prospect of an early victory frustrated and their advance stalled in French territory, German troops were bent on celebrating Christmas as best they could and were aided in the endeavor by the shipment of Christmas trees to the front. Perhaps leery of a historical record that would appear to border on kitsch, the creative team at AMV BBDO opted not to open with a panning shot of the lighted Christmas trees that unexpectedly began to crop up on German ramparts.

The football game has always seemed a bit suspect. There are a few first-hand reports of contests of some sort taking place, but it is hard to see how soccer balls could have been abundant in the trenches (and even less likely that troops were being supplied with them for Christmas) and harder still to imagine how the pockmarked expanse of no-man’s land could have been magically transformed into level playing field that we see in Sainsbury’s advertisement. Nor is any mention of the fact that, as the troops climbed out of their trenches, they would have come across the bodies of comrades and enemies that, in some cases, had been lying exposed for two months.

Nor, it appears, did the Christmas truces always commence on Christmas Eve.  A December 20 letter offered this account of how they began in one area:

Some Germans came out and held up their hands and began to take in some of our wounded and so we ourselves immediately got out of the trenches and began bringing in our wounded also. The Germans then beckoned to us and a lot of us went over and talked to them and they helped us to bury our dead. This lasted the whole morning and I talked to several of them and I must say they seemed extraordinarily fine men. … It seemed too ironical for words.1

Corpses and candy bars do not mix, but in would appear that at least one of the central activities during the Christmas true involved the burying of bodies.

Celebrity and Secrecy

What is perhaps the most significant part of the ADWEEK discussion of Sainsbury’s advertisement is easily overlooked: its use of the phrase “famous 1914 Christmas Truce.” Unless Google is leading us astray, this may mark the first time that anyone has characterized the Christmas truce as “famous”.

It is not as if the broad outlines of the Christmas truces are unfamiliar. Over the last half-century they have loomed ever larger in the memory of World War I. They routinely appear (if only in passing) in general histories of the war (see, for example, Martin Gilbert’s 2002 survey) and play a pivotal role in Modris Eksteins’ Rites of Spring.2  In 1984 Malcolm Brown (a military historian associated with the Imperial War Museum) and Shirley Seaton (a researcher associated with the BBC) produced a well-documented account of the truce drawing based on the then-available archives.3 It was followed in 2002 by the American historian Stanley Weintraub’s account, which incorporated additional materials from German and French sources.4

Oh-What-a-Lovely-War-PosterThe truces have long figured in popular culture.  They turn up in Joan Littlewood’s sardonic 1963 revue “Oh What a Lovely War” and, three years later, were twisted into “Snoopy’s Christmas”, the Royal Guardsmen’s (now mercifully forgotten) seasonal hit. The folksinger John McCutcheon’s 1984 song “Christmas in the Trenches” has gone on to become a staple of public radio Christmas playlists;  his 2006 book of the same title is but one example of an ever-growing children’s literature on the topic. It is possible for those so inclined to purchase a DVD on which Walter Cronkite narrates the story of the Christmas truce (and then proceeds to lead the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in a performance of the Hallelujah Chorus). Christian Carion’s 2005 film Joyeux Noël — which was met with a number of award nominations and mixed reviews — and has been recently recast as a Pulitzer Prize winning opera. Finally, with the advent of initiatives aimed at collecting and archiving letters, journals, and recollections of the war (for example, the European Union’s Europeana 1914-1918), accounts of the truce — admittedly, of varying value — are now widely available on the web.

One feature of these accounts bears noting: though the Christmas Truce may have become “famous”, there is a repeated tendency for those who talk about it to act as if it isn’t.5 Brown and Seaton opened their 1984 account with a summary of the conventional wisdom:

The Christmas true of 1914 did not take place. It could not have happened in so brutal and savage a war. It was a myth of the time, like the story of the Angels of Mons. Or if anything of the kind occurred it was some minor incident blown up out of all proportion, natural fodder for sentimentalists and the pacifists of later generations (ix).

Over a decade and a half later, Weintraub began his study with a similar move, suggesting that the Christmas truces differed from the legend of the Angels of Mons and the appearance of Cossack troops at English railway stations only because they were the one Great War myth that turned out to be true.

While it is clear that historians have long been aware of the truces, it would seem that they have had difficulties knowing what to make of them.  Military historians have stressed that truces of this sort are not unusual — they have occurred in earlier wars and, while they may not have been as extensive as the 1914 truces, this is because few earlier wars were as extensive as the Great War.  Further, as Tony Ashworth argued in an influential account account of the “live and let live system” that evolved on the Western front, combatants had every reason to work out arrangements to manage the novel circumstances of protracted trench warfare.6  In contrast, those historians who have attempted to fit the truces into larger narratives are faced with the problem of whether, in the end, they really mattered.

That difficulty can be seen in the earliest accounts of the truces.  There is an extensive discussion of them in the fourth volume of the massive series of volumes on The History of the War published by the Times of London (that the series had reached a fourth volume by 1915 suggests something of the ambitiousness of the series). It stressed that the initiative came from the German side (and notes the appearance of Christmas trees on the German parapets) and covers the various arrangements made for the burial of the dead and the subsequent fraternization between forces. It suggested that “This wonderful Christmas outburst is a text from which many morals might be preached, and the reader will doubtless draw his own,” but rightly observed that “similar rapprochements are not unknown in the history of war” (IV:225). It went on to draw distinctions between the conduct of Saxons and Bavarians and that of Prussian forces and speculated that, perhaps, the German hatred of England was a Prussian project into which the Bavarians and Saxons had been recruited. It concluded as follows:

At any rate, it was necessary to remember that, among brave men, fighting each other for their respective countries according to the rules of war, there does, after, or between the outbursts of martial fury, grow up a sense of mutual respect, which is apt to evolve even such friendliness as will at times make the combatants unconsciously regard themselves as almost comrades in arms. Had the German Army carried on its invasion with less brutality, and its warlike operations with less unfairness and devilry, such feelings would have grown more luxuriantly among the soldiers of the allies who fought to withstand the invasion (IV:228-229).

Each volume of the Times history contained an index and the index for Volume IV included an entry from the fraternization of troops over Christmas.  Volume XXII, published in 1921, contained a comprehensive index for the entire series.  It contained no reference to the event. Presumably, the editors had concluded that, in the end, it didn’t warrant notice.

Later historians have had no better luck in figuring out how to situate the Christmas Truces into their narratives. Brown and Seaton, persuaded that they were chronicling an event that had been ignored, were content to note that, in fact, there had been a Christmas Truce but that it was never repeated. Eksteins saw the failure of the truces to hold as marking the point when the old Europe died and the modern age began. And Weintraub closed his discussion with nineteen pages of what he described as “frivolous” speculations about how history might have been different had the truce held — e.g.,Lenin and Hitler would have gone on to lead obscure lives, America would have shunned Europe and set its eyes on the Pacific, the development of military technology would have languished, Germany would have emerged as a center of culture and science.  In the absence of any agreement of what significance the truces might have had, it is perhaps understandable that those who write about them have little to say other than that they, in fact, took place.

A Concluding Kantian Postscript

In 1798 Immanuel Kant’s Conflict of the Faculties raised, once again, the “old question” of whether the human race was progressing. He considered the alternative narratives that had been employed by those who seek to prophesy what lies ahead — a “terroristic” march into an ever-worsening condition, “eudaemonistic” progress to a state of perfection, or an “abderitic” path of progress and regress that would cast the human race in the role of Sisyphus. And, having considered these accounts, he concluded that they were looking for signs of moral progress in the wrong place. Repeating the “Copernican” turn that he had executed at the start of the Critique of Pure Reason he argued that the sign to which we should attend lies within us — in that “wishful participation, bordering on enthusiasm” with which Europeans greeted the news of the fall of the Bastille. No matter what course the revolution might take (and Kant, in 1798, had few illusions about the course it had taken) that enthusiasm was “an event that could never be forgotten.” It testified to a desire for a world where governments might, at long last, treat their citizens with the dignity and respect that this their birthright.

Perhaps there is something to be learned from Kant about how we might make sense of the peculiar way in which the Christmas truce haunts modern memory. That those who speak of it tend to treat it as if it were a secret possessing a significance neglected by others is of a piece with the season — a time marked by an ever-encroaching darkness that, miraculously, begins to move back towards the light. Those who look to it as a sign of a moment when the darkness — however briefly — began to lift are treading on familiar ground. “The past,” Walter Benjamin wrote, “carries with it a secret index by which it is referred to redemption.” If the history of the last hundred years has been a nightmare from which we are struggling to awake, this peculiar sign from a century ago — no matter how degraded by kitsch and commerce — might remain something worth remembering.

Screenshot 2014-12-22 10.20.42


  1. Quoted from Malcolm Brown, The Christmas Truce (London: Leo Cooper in association with Secker & Warburg ; New York, 1984) 52.
  2. Modris Eksteins, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000) 95-135.
  3. Malcolm Brown, The Christmas Truce (London: Leo Cooper in association with Secker & Warburg ; New York, 1984).
  4. Stanley Weintraub, Silent Night : The the Story of the World War I Christmas Truce (New York: Plume Books, 2002).
  5. As late as 2005, a reviewer in the Journal of Military History (69:2 582-3) found it worth praising a book that he otherwise panned for having “conclusively” provide that “the strange occurrence” did indeed occur — as if, in 2005, there was still a need to prove this.
  6. Tony Ashworth, Trench Warfare, 1914-1918: The Live and Let Live System (New York, N.Y: Holmes & Meier, 1980).
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Friedrich Gedike on the Origin of Christmas Gifts (1784)

The Berlinische Monatsschrift is best known as the place of publication of Immanuel Kant’s answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?” Readers of this blog are likely to know it as well as the place where the question that Kant sought to answer was initially posed and where, a few months before Kant offered his answer, Moses Mendelssohn published his. It was a journal that, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, had close ties with the so-called “Wednesday Society,” a group of well-placed “friends of enlightenment” that met in secret to consider what might be done to advance the cause of enlightenment, both in Berlin and elsewhere.1 Those efforts were reflected in the Berlinische Monatsschrift in a variety of articles that examined the various prejudices that still reigned in Prussia despite the efforts of its enlightened monarch and his bureaucracy, a number of whom were members of the Wednesday Society. One example of these efforts was Friedrich Gedike’s 1784 discussion of the origins of the custom of giving gifts at Christmas.

Friedrich Gedike

Friedrich Gedike

Gedike was — along with Johann Erich Biester — a co-editor of the Berlinische Monatsschrift. His career, as Anthony La Vopa and has discussed, was defined by an enthusiasm for the then novel discipline of pedagogy and by a faith that it might provide a means for social reform.2 He studied theology and classical philosophy at the University of Frankfurt/Oder, went on to become a gymnasium director and, around the time of the publication of this article, began a career within the Prussian bureaucracy as an advisor on educational reforms.

His essay on the history of Christmas gifts is consistent with the broader strategy adopted by the Berlinische Monatsschrift as a way to advance the cause of public enlightenment. As Gedike explained in a postscript to an article by the philosopher Johann August Eberhard (which offered a detailed discussion of the origins of superstitions surrounding the “white woman” as an omen of death), the surest means of attacking superstition lay — not in ridiculing it — but rather in tracing its history.3 Gedike’s article on the custom of gift-giving at Christmas, which drew copiously from his acquaintence with Greek and Latin texts, did much the same.

The translation offered here is yet another of the texts from the Berlinische Monatsschrift that first appeared in English in the pages of The German Museum, a journal that (as previously discussed on this blog) attempted, at the dawn of the nineteenth century, to acquaint British readers with the German enlightenment. The initials “M. G.” stand at the close of the translation, indicating that the translator was Maria Geisweiler, the name that Countess Maria von Schulenburg adopted after her marriage to the émigré bookseller and publisher Constantine Geisweiler, one of the three editors of the journal. As I noted in an earlier post, Maria enjoyed some success as a translator with her efforts on behalf of the playwright Kotzebue.

I’ve known about Gedike’s article on Christmas gifts since becoming interested in the Berlinische Monatsschrift back at the end of the last millenium and first encountered the translation during my initial foray into the German Museum in the early years of this one. I confess that I find it difficult to know what to make of this text and even more difficult to understand the motivations of its author. Gedike’s display of erudition is so disproportionate to the object of his critique that it may be hard for present-day readers to decide whether he is a pedant or a prankster and the closing footnote, with its denunciation of Christmas carols as exercise in blasphemy, is likely to serve — if nothing else — as a reminder that the past is, indeed, a very different country.

But if Gedike is hard on Christmas carols, his account of the Saturnalia is tinged with a sense that are some illusions worth preserving:

The Saturnalia were an emblem of the golden age, when no distinction of rank divided man from man, while as yet perfect equality and freedom reigned among mankind, and there existed neither master nor slave: a delightful dream, the idea of which was well worth a seven days feast!

His invocation of that dream is immediately followed by a bitter passage on the short-sightedness of those “modern historians” who maintain

that the abolition of slavery is one of the effects of christianity, without recollecting, that there are Christian nations, who in America and the West-Indies use their slaves with greater barbarity and cruelty than the Romans and Greeks did theirs.

Gedike, a poor child from the provinces who managed to make a career for himself in Berlin thanks to the patronage networks that La Vopa has traced, remains loyal to the dream of a better world.  After noting how the early Christian’s hope that a new golden age might have begun with the birth of the Christ gave way to a dream of His “future second appearance,” he considers what dreams slaves might habor:

Whether, when the farce of the Saturnalia was over, the Roman slaves comforted themselves in like manner with a future golden age, I know not; but I really could wish the present negro slaves just such a delightful dream, to comfort them under the cruelty of their christian oppressors.

So, let me offer the transcription that follows as a seasonal gift to the readers of this blog, along with best wishes for the coming year. It has been hastily done and no doubt contains many errors (particularly in the references, which employ a style that is now rather alien), which I hope readers will point out. Lacking the necessary fonts, I’ve deleted a few Greek quotations and cut one lengthy Latin one, but I’ve tried to preserve as much of Gedike’s apparatus as possible — it is very much part of the style of the piece.

  1. See my introduction to James Schmidt, ed., What Is Enlightenment?: Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996) and, more recently, James Schmidt, “Misunderstanding the Question: `What Is Enlightenment?’: Venturi, Habermas, and Foucault,” History of European Ideas 37:1 ( 2011): 43–52.
  2. See Anthony J. La Vopa, “The Politics of Enlightenment: Friedrich Gedike and German Professional Ideology,” The Journal of Modern History 62:1 (1990): 34–56 and, more generally, LaVopa, Grace, Talent, and Merit : Poor Students, Clerical Careers, and Professional Ideology in Eighteenth-Century Germany (Cambridge University Press, 1988).
  3. See Gedike, “Nachtrag zu der Legende von der weissen Frau,” Berlinische Monatsschrift, I (1783).

Gedike Article



MANY really surprising and singular customs have lost with us their particularity and oddness; from having been accustomed to them since our earliest infancy, their familiarity prevents us from seeing them in the same light as a stranger naturally must. In the history of travels into distant countries, the description of the customs and manners of an unknown nation has ever been the most interesting and entertaining to every reader. But it seldom strikes us, that we have ourselves a number of customs, both in religious and civil life, which in the same degree, or even more, raise the curiosity and astonishment of other nations, and other times. To trace the origin of such customs, however insignificant they may at first view appear, is perhaps not always a gratuitous amusement, an idle speculation, or useless curiosity; I am on the contrary convinced, that researches of this kind are often productive to a reflecting mind of results wholly unexpected, and lead to explanations that reflect light on a number of other ideas.

The custom of Christmas-gifts is as old as it is universal. It is generally accounted for, from the custom of presenting small gifts in the name of a new born child, to those children of a more advanced age, that brotherly love may from their earliest infancy grow up with them, perhaps much earlier than it otherwise might, and thus entwine them closer to each other. It is also imagined, the custom of Christmas gifts among christians originated with the pious idea of accustoming children from an early period to the love of Christ.

At present I will not say more of the propriety or impropriety of this pedantic or religious trifling, than that it appears to me an humiliation to human nature, to employ such pitiful tricks to draw forth the proper feelings and sentiments of the heart, and use children from so early an age to the selfish ideas of having their affections bought with gifts.

Still more insufficient is the derivation of this custom from the gifts, which the wise men of the east are said to have presented to the new born Messiah.

Without at present enquiring, whether the whole of this tradition, which has puzzled both geographers and astronomers, is an historical fact, or, as many criticising theologists themselves believe, a pious fable, it cannot be conceived that the gifts which those wise men brought to the new, born king of the Jews, according to the manners of the east, as a mark of their submission and homage, could be the foundation of gifts which afterwards, at the anniversary of his birth, should be made to children and other persons, as it were, from and in the name of Jesus Christ.

When I maintain that this custom is neither more nor less than the remains of a Heathen or Roman institution called Saturnalia, under another name, this can only appear unaccountable and wonderful to those who, unacquainted with antiquity, arc not aware how many customs in our civil, our judicial, and particularly our religious constitution, arc derived as an inheritance from this source. Many ideas unknown to pure original Christianity, have been borrowed from the Roman and Greek religions, but more particularly from the religious philosophy of the Alexandrian school, and incorporated with the theological system of Christianity. How much easier then to inherit customs that have become habitual, and of which sensual beings generally find it much harder to be divested, than of mere ideas. In fact, there appear numberless extraordinary similitudes between the festivity of the Roman Saturnalia, and our Christmas holidays; similitudes which appear even in the smallest trifles. The Saturnalia of the Romans happened exactly at the same time, and their rejoicings continued seven days, namely, from the 17th to the 24th of December.1 In the beginning, the Christmas holidays lasted the same number of days, but in process of time were reduced to four, and at length, probably in the eleventh century, to three.2 At the Saturnalia were distributed all kinds of small gifts, particularly to the slaves, and at no time were so much pains taken to behave in a mild and friendly manner to the household, and to procure them a couple of happy days at least during the year. During this feast they enjoyed a certain degree of liberty, and were excused from all labour. Just so did the primitive Christians conduct themselves towards their slaves during the Christmas holidays (Constitut. Apostol. 1. S. C. 33.) and to this day the common people never rejoice so much on any day during the year as at Christmas. Among the presents that were made was generally a wax candle,3 till now a customary appendage every where to the Christmas gifts for children and the lower classes. It was a custom at this feast to eat honey, as an emblem of the golden age, at which time we are told rivulets of milk and honey existed,4 and also because they considered Saturn as the discoverer of the honeycomb.5 In many provinces this custom is still strictly observed at Christmas; at which time an extraordinary quantity of the honey or pepper-cakes are made and sold. In like manner we are told by Lucian (Sat. c. 13.) that at the Saturnalia the bakers of cakes were fully employed. During the last days of this feast was a public fair (Sigillaria) where all kinds of toys and images, chiefly of wax (Sigilla) were sold for small presents,6 precisely as at our Christmas fair. At the time of the Saturnalia, not only holidays were enjoyed at every school,7 but at all the public offices,8 as during our Christmas. The holidays at the public offices were ordained by the Emperor Theodosius (Cod, Theo. C. b. c. de feriis) and afterwards confirmed by Valentinian, as also by the Greek Emperor, Emanuel Comnenus, and still later, not only by the canon law, but likewise by the ordinances of the imperial chamber.9 Still more striking is the similitude between these two feasts, when we take notice of the manner in which the middle ages kept Christmas. The famous fool’s feast, which, notwithstanding all the prohibitions of it by regents, councils, and popes, prevailed till towards the close of the 16th century,10 and of which some remains, even among the protestants, though principally in catholic countries, still exist,11 was commonly kept in the Christmas holidays, or at least it always fell between Christmas and Epiphany. The excesses and extravagancies which then took place much resembled those which prevailed at the Saturnalia. As at this the slaves acted the part of the master, and the master for this short time, even condescended to obey his slaves; so, at the fool’s feast, bishops laid aside their dignity, and let themselves down to a level with their dependents. And as at the Saturnalia a king of the feast was chosen by lot,12 so, from among the inferior servants of the church, a fool-bishop, and even a fool-pope, were chosen, who mimicked all the religious functions of a bishop.13 The mummery dances, pranks, tricks, and extravagancies, which went on at this feast, answer exactly to those of the Saturnalia, at which all sorts of folly and excess were equally privileged, as appears from Lucian.

Even in the design and meaning of these feasts, there appear between them a similarity, which argues greatly for the retention of the customs of the Saturnalia lay the Christians. The Saturnalia were an emblem of the golden age, when no distinction of rank divided man from man, while as yet perfect equality and freedom reigned among mankind, and there existed neither master nor slave: a delightful dream, the idea of which was well worth a seven days feast!

From the infancy of the church, the birth of Christ was regarded as the beginning of a new golden age, of which the poetical passages of the Hebrew poets, were considered as prophecies. Jesus Christ was expected to have restored this state of innocence in Paradise; (which really, some few modifications excepted, is at the bottom one and the same with the golden saturnal age of the Greeks and Romans, and at best an enchanting political dream;) and as it could not be proved, that through christianity personal slavery was abolished, (notwithstanding—though curious enough !—many modern historians assert, that the abolition of slavery is one of the effects of christianity, without recollecting, that there are Christian nations, who in America and the West-Indies use their slaves with greater barbarity and cruelty than the Romans and Greeks did theirs)—they assisted themselves with the idea of a religious slavery: for the allegorizing mystics transferred all the connexions and situations of civil life into religion, and in fact, the idea of a religious slavery may be more easily understood than that of spiritual conception, spiritual marriages, spiritual births and new births, spiritual deaths, and so forth.

At last, as it was perceived, that this new golden age would not yet quite succeed, they dreamt of a future second appearance of Christ, and a kingdom of a thousand years, where the golden age, or the state of innocence, should again flourish in all its purity and beauty.

Whether, when the farce of the Saturnalia was over, the Roman slaves comforted themselves in like manner with a future golden age, I know not; but I really could wish the present negro slaves just such a delightful dream, to comfort them under the cruelty of their christian oppressors.

The mystical similarity of these festivals, first gave rise to the celebration of Christmas at the time of the Saturnalia; though I suspect, that in order to prevent these two feasts from being considered as one and the same, they made their Christmas to begin just on the day when the Saturnalia ended: The common idea that the 25th of December was the true birthday of Christ is perfectly ridiculous: for it is a well known fact, that the real birthday of the divine founder of our religion is entirely uncertain;14 many centuries, at least the two first, passed over without this feast being kept, and it appears to have been first instituted in the third century. The eastern church, in whose vicinity no Saturnalia were kept, celebrated their Christmas on the 6th of January,15 and until the time of St. Chrysostom, who lived at the end of the fourth century, only the Western church kept it on the 25th of December, at which period the eastern church also conformed to that day.16 Should any one deem it unaccountable that the primitive christians should reconcile the adoption of a heathen feast with the mere alteration of a name, he must be ignorant how much the majority of mankind are attached to old customs. It appears even from the New Testament, how difficult it was to the converted Jews, and even to the apostles themselves, entirely to lay aside their Jewish ceremonies and rituals; could it then be less difficult for those heathens who embraced christianity, to deprive themselves of all their old religious customs? this we often witness in our own days, in the newly established Christian communities in Asia and America, instituted by missionaries, whether from among the Jesuits, or from the pupils of the orphan-house at Halle. These converts retain their old ideas and customs, or at least one half of them, and unite them with the new faith they adopt as well as they can. — Just so the old Christians. The bishops too even then understood as well, as did the Jesuits in modern times, the great art, to be all and every thing, and even advantageously to turn to their own pious views the prejudices and abuses of their heathen contemporaries; they therefore gladly overlooked the attachment of their converts to their old customs and prejudices, and were often satisfied, merely to substitute a new name for an old one.

Even Constantine, by the flattering priests falsely stiled the great,who (as even appears from his fawning flatterer Eusebius,) was as intolerant against the followers of the heathen religion, or even more so, than many of his predecessors had been against the Christians, yet, according to Eusebius himself, adopted it as a maxim, to make the Christian religion palatable to the heathens by transferring all the pomp and shew of the latter to the former, and hence it was that the whole ritual of the Roman-heathen religion passed over to the Roman-christian, in which there still exist many improper customs.17 And thus even we protestants conform to many church customs, innocent in themselves, after the example of the old Roman and Greek religions.18

It is also not merely a bold and uncertain supposition, that the Christians in the first century, before the introduction of the proper festival of Christmas, kept the Roman Saturnalia, but a fact established by the testimony of the fathers, and especially Tertullian. And though at the same time Tertullian (in his book on idolatry) exclaims with energetical eagerness, against the attachments of the new Christians to their old feasts and customs, and principally to the Saturnalia;19 yet his zeal seems to have been as fruitless as was in the middle ages the zeal of so many sensible clergyman against the fool’s feast and asses’ feast, with other customs, scarcely less shameful than absurd.

Should any one infer from what has been here said, that I consider the feast of Christmas as needless and superfluous, he will do me a very great injustice. Mankind owe too many obligations to the amiable founder of the Christian not to be bound to eternalize the remembrance of this beneficent and philanthropic ambassador of Providence; and though his birthday is so entirely uncertain that even the greatest of chronologers, Scaliger20 himself confesses, God alone could know it, yet the birthday acknowledged and established by so many ancient traditions and customs, must to every believer of our holy religion certainly appear far more sacred than was the birthday of Socrates and Plato to the scholars and followers of those Athenian philosophers, many centuries after their death,21 thus much, however, is certain, and must ever remain so, that never was the memory of a great man, since the earliest times, disgraced with so much folly, absurdity, and in some measure shameful abuses, as the birth of Christ; and whoever is not sufficiently convinced of it, need but peruse a few of the hymns in the old Porster, or any other similar hymn-books, to perceive with astonishment and indignation, to what humiliating misrepresentations of the deity, and of sound reason, this feast has given rise22 and that; to obtain due reverence from every Christian, it requires not the aid of mystical nonsense.

M. G.

  1. Originally only one day , to which two were added by Julius Cesar, two more by Caligula, and to these five were joined the two days of the feast of Sigillaria. Yet Macrobius, who relates these circumstances very minutely, says (Saturn, I. i. c. 10) Apud veteres jam opinio fuit, septem diebus peragi Saturnalia; si opinio vocanda est, quae idoneis firmetur auctoribus [I have omitted an additional quote, in Greek, from Lucian’s Saturnalia]
  2. S. Wildvogellii Chronoscopia legalis p. 286.
  3. Macrob. Sat. ii. 7. Inde mos per Satuntalia missitandis cereis coepit. Alii cereos non ob aliud mitti putant, quam quod hoc principe a tenebrosa vita quasi ad lucem editi sumus.
  4. In Lucian (Saturn. c. 7.) [I have omitted another quotation, in Greek from Lucian].
  5. Macrob. (Saturn. c. 7) Placentas mutuo missitant, meus & fructuum repertorum Saturnum affirmantes
  6. Macrob. (Saturn. c. 10, 11.) Suetoen in Claud. c. 5. Spatian. Anton. Casae r. Id. in Adrian, c. 17.
  7. Plin Ep. 6. 7. Tu in schota revocas, ego adhuc Saturnalia extendo. Martial, 5. epigr. 84.
  8. Martial, C. 7. Ep. 28. 7.
  9. S. Wildvogelii Chronoscopia legalia, p. 279, 298.
  10. Du Fresne Glossar. V. Kalendae
  11. For example, the usual disguises on Christmas nights, as angels, shepherds, &c. &c. and the visits which the Christmas-child, and the servant Ruprecht, make in houses where there are children; a custom which in our part of the world, particularly in the country (and even in Berlin itself), is still very prevalent.
  12. Lucian. Saturn, c. 2 and 4
  13. In the midst of the festivity of the Saturnalia fell the feast of Lares, see Macrob. Sat. c. 10. Xi. Kal. lan. viz. the 22 dez. At this feast the slaves represented the high priest (Dionys. Hal. 1. iv. p. m. 219) exactly as did the under servants of the church at the fool’s feast. Also at the Saturnalia, the slaves put on their masters’ clothes. Dio Cass. l. 60. p. 957. (de. Reim).
  14. Clemens Alexandr. an historian of the second century, Strom. I. p. m. 340, gives an account of the very contradictory opinions which prevailed on this subject, even in his time.
  15. S. Bingham Origines ecclesiast. vol. 9. p. 67, seq.
  16. Chrysost. Homil. 31 de natali Christi.
  17. In the year 1780, Sir William Hamilton saw at Isagna in Abruzzo waxen priapi offered to Sr. Cosmus, under the modest name of great toes. s. Göttingen Taschenbuch, 1784, S. 47. f.
  18. Only to mention one example,— Why in our churches are our altars always placed towards the east? For no other reason, but because this was a sacred custom among the Romans. s. Vitrov. L. iv. c. 5
  19. Tema dc Idolatr. c. 13. [I have omitted a lengthy Latin quotation from Tertullian] By the bye, I would observe, that, had the real feast of Christmas been kept to early as she time of Tertullian, he would certainly have mentioned it here.
  20. De emendat. temp. p. 545.
  21. Plut. Symp. 8.. 1. Porphyr. in vita Plot.
  22. I appeal to the free and sound reason of mankind, if it is not real blasphemy to sing, “Little boy, great God,” (Kleiner Knabe, grosser Gott.) s. Porst Gesangb. Nr. 41, v. 1 (or Nr. 37. v. 2), “Almighty God became quite a little child,” (der little child,” (der allerhöchseter Gott wird ein kleines kind) — Great God! How is it possible, that even clergymen should not only suffer such blasphemies — but consider them as honouring the Deity, and maintain and defend them with pious zeal and religious calumny against those who think otherwise!!!
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Dan Edelstein on Enlightenment Scholarship and Dirty Quantification

While I continue to dig my way out my various other obligations, readers should check out Dan Edelstein’s “Enlightenment Scholarship by the Numbers: dfr.jstor.org, Dirty Quantification, and the Future of the Lit Review”, now available at Republics of Letters.  Smart stuff here!

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