Tuesday 27 August 2013

Johann Hamann: The Magus of the North

Johann Georg Hamann (Königsberg, Kingdom of Prussia, 27th August 1730 – Münster, Germany, 21st June 1788) 

Drawing of Johann Hamann

My first, very brief topic here on the Guide was a philosopher and now, a couple of months and many quills later, I'm back where I began with a thinking chap. There are a fair few philosophers of one stripe or another around Covent Garden but they're somewhat dependent on the gin bottle for their thoughts so I shan't be wasting any ink on them!

Born the son of a barber-surgeon and a midwife, Johann Hamann initially studied theology and philosophy before switching to law and then prevaricating between any number of subjects. Unable to settle on one topic he never completed his studies and instead took up a position as governor and tutor to the children of a wealthy family. Further business roles followed and he travelled widely and spent freely until, with his last penny spent, Hamann found himself destitute, his friends deserting him as his coffers dwindled.

In search of a new start the young man devoted himself to religious studies and also to Katharina Berens, the sister of a family friend. Deeply in love with Katharina, he was devastated when her family refused permission for them to marry on the grounds of Hamann's sudden and devout faith and withdrew back to the family home. With the help of his friend, Immanuel Kant, Hamann secured a position as a civil servant and devoted his free time to study and writing under pen names including the Knight of the Rose-Cross and the Magus of the North. Despite his deep religious faith he took up home with a woman and had four children with her, maintaining a happy family household.

Drawing of Johann Hamann

Hamann's writings were always brief; he disliked long-winded exposition and exposed on the philosophical importance of language. He was a critic of the Enlightenment and wrote of the vital importance of religion, believing that faith, not reason, was central to human experience. His writings influenced the later German Sturm und Drang movement and had a profound effect on other thinkers including Kierkegaard and Goethe, who followed his complex theories and developed them in their own work. 

Towards the end of his life Hamann's writings became even deeper and he examined the very foundations of philosophy and humanity, frequently challenging head-on the theories of his contemporaries. In the final months of his life he travelled to Münster at the invitation of Princess Gallitzin to discuss philosophy with her; Hamann died during this trip, leaving behind a wealth of writings that still fascinate today.


Unknown said...

Devoting yourself to religious studies and a young woman! Imagine that! It's really interesting that there was this discussion of faith vs reason at such an early point in history.

Catherine Curzon said...

I was amused by the women/God duel interest too...

Mari Christian said...

I'd never heard of Hamann. So thank you Catherine.

Catherine Curzon said...

A pleasure!