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Berger, Thomas. Der Humanitatsgedanke in der Literatur der deutschen Spataufklarung.

Berger, Thomas. Der Humanitatsgedanke in der Literatur der deutschen Spataufklarung. Heidelberg: Universitatsverlag Winter, 2008. 436 pp. 73.00 [euro] hardcover.

Thomas Berger asserts that the Humanitatsgedanke has been misunderstood owing to an aura of sanctity that developed around it in the 19th century, which in turn contributed to the denigration of Weimar Classicism (4). He claims that methods of intellectual history used to situate the idea of humanity in the late German Enlightenment have been faulty (19). His book was inspired by Julien Benda's La Trahison des Clercs (1927) and the cynical attitude of more recent intellectuals concerning concepts such as Humanitat, Freiheit, Menschenrechte, or Bildung (10). Berger proposes that a text-immanent and hermeneutic approach is needed to discern that the Enlightenment tendencies in "der deutschen 'Klassik'" are engaged with the idea of humanity (8). He wants to reclaim an important aspect of this literature that nests in the anthropological vision of "den ganzen Menschen," and attempt to restore the "inneres Leben" of literature as opposed to seeing literary figures as merely representatives of ideas (9). He sets out to interpret major works by Lessing, Goethe, Schiller, Herder, and Wilhelm von Humboldt and demonstrate that these thinkers were not apolitical, but that their public communication constituted a form of political praxis (56).

Berger argues through Ernst und Falk (1778) that Lessing viewed Freemasonry as a useful vehicle to foster humanistic ideas, similar to the way he saw Christianity in Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts (1780; 91-92). Lessing found in the Masonic ritual a metaphor for how society could progress through pedagogic means. Lessing maintained contra Wieland that "secrets" ought to be allowed in society (170). Despite his criticism of institutions, Lessing recognized "dass sich die 'burgerliche Gesellschaft' nurmittels Institutionen konstituieren kann" (30-31). This powerful insight highlights that Lessing understood the value of what Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus have called "mediating structures," voluntary associations essential to any democracy that provide individuals an opportunity to organize and prevent the State from occupying all social space.

Through Nathan der Weise (1779) Berger shows that uncompromising idealism cannot create a community--Nathan is a trader who bargains and negotiates--as both the templar and dervish are absent from the final scene in which a new kind of family has been created, where "gemeinsame Gesinnung wichtiger als die Blutverwandschaft [ist]" (127). Berger's close reading throws into relief how "Kopf," "Herz," "Vernunft," and "Gefuhl" are kept in dynamic balance (155) and reveals the parable of the ring to be more about good deeds and developing moral autonomy than about tolerance (114-20).

Berger acknowledges the important work of Wolfdietrich Rasch and T. J. Reed who brought Goethe's Iphigenie (1779, 1786) into the orbit of the Enlightenment (173). This critical stance evaluates belief from the perspective of either the 18th-century audience, which took the Greek gods to be symbolic as opposed to real, or from Goethe, who allows humans' solutions to the dramatic conflicts.

Berger views belief from the perspective of the characters in the drama ("inneres Leben") who actively seek the will of the gods. Iphigenia recognizes that she must work out the will of the gods ethically, and that divine will cannot contradict human reason. Berger holds that this is what makes Iphigenie so appealing to a spectrum of readers, from believer to atheist (195). Literary scholars unproductively apply the Kantian imperative to Iphigenia: she must not, under any circumstances, lie. Her impossible situation reflects the complexity of many human predicaments and the realistic approach of Weimar Classicism (192-208).

Berger posits that Herder's "Humanitatsideal" was influenced by Winckelmann's aesthetic and unified the good, true, and beautiful in each culture (240). Schiller's Uber die asthetische Erziehung des Menschen (1795) is similar in its aim to balance "Vernunft" and "Sinnlichkeit" in "Spiel" (252), to train and educate the passions in what Berger aptly calls "Gefuhlserziehung" (257). Berger's account would benefit by locating Schiller in the wider philosophical discourse, for this is a significant break from Hume's instrumental use of reason to serve the passions.

Wilhelm Tell (1804) is a "Humanitatsdrama" and contributes a positive answer to the question Berger finds posed in Schiller's Don Karlos (1788): can a new vision of humanity replace older political orders without resorting to power politics (275)? Berger considers how the motifs of the "arm" and "hand" in Tell inform concepts of autonomy and community (301). The integration of "Vernunft" and "Herz," as well as the rising sun, signal the new societal relationship inaugurated by the Rutli oath.

Berger concludes by arguing that Wilhelm von Humboldt's writings build on Goethe's concern for practical applications of pedagogy in the realm of "Bildung." Berger's rehabilitated Humanitatsgedanke is not only central to Weimar Classicism and the late German Enlightenment, but emerges as a dynamic blend of reason and emotion, realistic and practical, community-oriented, committed to intermediary institutions, focused on good deeds, highly pedagogical and deeply ethical.


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Author:Kerry, Paul E.
Publication:The German Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2010
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