Plough My Account Sign Out
My Account
    View Cart

    Subtotal: $

    painting of Kant and his comrades at the table

    The Conversion of Johann Georg Hamann

    For this German philosopher, conversion did not lead to the cessation of a thoughtful life but enabled and transfigured it.

    By Nicholas Allmaier

    January 31, 2024

    On the thirteenth of March, 1758, Johann Georg Hamann began to read the Bible. A twenty-eight-year-old flâneur, deep in debt and subsisting on a daily meal of only coffee and porridge in a low-rent London apartment, Hamann did not seem a likely candidate to become the thinker whom Goethe would call “the brightest mind of his day” and Kierkegaard would deem “the greatest humorist in the world.” But his encounter with “God, an author,” as he put it, was essential in what scholar John Betz calls “the making of a Christian Socrates.”

    But unlike Socrates, Hamann has been mostly forgotten in our time. This might seem strange given the influence his ideas had over fellow figures in the history of German thought, like Herder, Schelling, and even Hegel, who dedicated an entire manuscript to Hamann’s life and works. Seemingly anyone who read the writing of the “Magus of the North” with care came away with insights – whether into the limitations of reason, the misanthropy of the modern age, or the living, serious contention which premodernity has with the Enlightenment project. And so the cause of his neglect in our time borders on unintelligible – until one tries to read him.

    Hamann’s authorship after his conversion in London is obscure, highly-stylized, and esoteric. Given to pseudonyms, he often attacked friends and enemies alike, writing such that every paragraph, reference, and word served a cryptic but intended meaning. And while his style is seductive, cutting, scandalous, and hilarious – consider his 1775 “Essay of a Sibyl on Marriage,” where he writes in the voice of a frenzied prophetess, accusing the godless erotic conventions of Prussia of being “nothing but caviar of the leviathan” – it could not easily gain attention following the Enlightenment’s transformation of the art of writing except for in the minds of those few readers with eyes to see and ears to hear.

    Prior to conversion, however, Hamann had not found himself. He was among the lukewarm lumières of his time, and his first work was attached to a translation of French political economy he published in 1756. There, he touted the promise of commerce for human life in such a way that would become a point of discomfort or shame in retrospect. From the later standpoint of a soul transfigured by conversion, his past became intelligible only as something which could be made good by grace. He writes about the missteps and wasted time of his early life, praying to God: “Amend what I have spoilt, if it is not too late, and make the next year, which You grant me, so much more blessed. Let all my errors produce what is best for me; let them all now at last serve to make me wise, to warn others, with so much greater force and zeal, against the reefs on which I myself was wrecked.”

    Hamann documented his conversion experience in a private collection of writings which surfaced after his death, now known as the London Writings, recently translated into English by John Kleinig. These works, unlike those of his post-conversion authorship, are written plainly and earnestly, reflecting the experience of a young man undergoing the most radical and important transformation of his life.

    Among the various titles within the London Writings, such as “Thoughts on Church Hymns” and “Biblical Meditations of a Christian,” Hamann’s spiritual autobiography, “Thoughts on the Course of my Life,” reveals the most about who he was before and during his conversion. Critical editors Bayer and Weißborn rightly place it in the same genre as Augustine’s Confessions, and the substantive parallels between the experiences of the two men, separated by so much time and space, are so striking that they point to a perennial character of conversion itself, even or especially for the life of the mind.

    Hamann was born in 1730 in Königsberg. He was baptized and attended the cathedral school in town, not far from where Immanuel Kant received his own pietist education some years prior. By his own account, he enjoyed a fine upbringing under the care of his Christian parents and was naturally curious, sometimes to his own detriment: “Instead of satisfying myself with the pure milk of the gospel, I fell away into another byway with my curiosity and precocious interest in all heresies and errors.” But the strength of his mind was not lost on his parents or his teachers. He showed immense promise as a philologian, a title he would later adapt for his own authorship as a “lover of the Word.” He finished first in his class, and went off to university intending to take a degree in theology.

    In time, however, both his faith and his focus waned: “I drifted around in the forecourts of academic disciplines,” he writes, and his inconstant devotion to his studies quickly coupled with disillusionment over the seemingly hypocritical moral character of the church. Theology, and God with it, seemed less and less relevant: “I forgot the source of every good thing from Whom I could expect and claim all that I lacked, so that with His help I could have overcome every obstacle that lay in my way,” he writes.

    Hamann was confirmed as a Christian during his university days, but his soul continued to atrophy. He writes that he was distracted by a host of new interests ranging from antiquities to the fine arts. He indulged his new and growing passions, only accidentally avoiding the grave sins of lust to which Augustine was subject. Reading Hamann’s confessional account of his early life, one gets the sense that he was disposed to do almost anything so long as it was gratifying to his senses, imagination, and above all his vanity.

    After Hamann’s conversion, his past became intelligible only as something which could be made good by grace.

    This intemperance soon turned him toward acquisitiveness. He left the university without a degree and, as his mother wept watching him leave Königsberg, set out to make a salary to support his increasingly refined tastes. He first tried a career as a tutor. Entering into a private home, he led an “unsociable, odd way of living,” marked by intellectual hubris and melancholy. In short time he was dismissed by the baroness of the home over letters he penned to “arouse her conscience” concerning her children’s education. Hamann was apparently always a polemicist.

    New opportunities came and went, but they could not keep pace with Hamann’s prodigality or God’s providence. Sinking further into indolence, he grew in friendship with the wealthy Enlightener Johann Christoph Berens, who took him under his financial and professional wing. Berens’ role in Hamann’s life would be a fateful and illustrative one. The refined intellectual and spiritual currents of the time abhorred religious sincerity or enthusiasm, and Hamann’s conversion would come with both risk and loss. Shortly after his return from London, Berens shot down Hamann’s potential marriage to his sister, Catharina Berens, and attempted to save Hamann from faith with the help of his friend Kant. Their project of disenchantment never succeeded, and Hamann’s authorship took on an adversarial tone against them in its first work, the Socratic Memorabilia.

    painting of Kant and his comrades at the table

    Emil Doerstling, Kant and his comrades at the table, Painting, 1892–1893. Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo.

    But before Hamann would become a crusader against the Enlightenment, he had to experience the loss of almost all that he had: he learned that his mother was near death. Berens paid for him to temporarily return to Königsberg on the condition that he would begin work for the Berens’ family business soon after. Hamann set out to reach his mother on the Nativity of John the Baptist. He writes: “For twenty weeks God, my dear God, permitted my now deceased mother to wait for me, before He took her to Himself.”

    He arrived home just after she had taken a final turn for the worst. The meeting was not easy. She condemned him for sounding too much like a youth rather than a man. For his part, he could hardly think of anything but his new and myriad “other distractions,” temptations as undeniable as they were shameful for him. “She admitted that there was nothing more in the world for her to enjoy,” he writes, echoing Monica’s final words to Augustine, and “when I saw her die – with much emotion and many reflections on death – I saw the death of a Christian.”

    Hamann mourned his mother “with unspeakable sorrow.” But “comfort in the world” called him back almost immediately. He set out next for London on the pretense of a business trip in the Berens’ interest. The reason for the trip is unclear, and scholars suggest that it may have been connected to a potential trade negotiation involving the Baltic ports, England, and Russia, given the advent of the Seven Years’ War. When he arrived in England in April of 1757, he had some days to prepare for the work he was tasked to undertake. In that time he attempted to see a purported healer to cure his stutter, an extension of a larger endeavor to strike out on a new – and lucrative – path in life. The healer failed: “So I had to begin my business with my old tongue and my old heart.”

    If his business in London really was concerned with international trade, unforeseen shifts in political loyalties rendered the endeavor fruitless, and Hamann was all but laughed out of the room at his first meeting: “When I disclosed the nature of my business to the people I was directed to meet, they were astonished at the seriousness of my proposals, even more at how they were pursued, and perhaps, most of all, at the choice of the person who had been entrusted with them.”

    Without any direction or purpose, he turned again to his diversions: “I was close to despair, and I tried to ward it off and suppress it with mere distractions. Blindness, frenzy, even sacrilege seemed to be the only remedy for me…. God knows what I would not have considered in order to pay off my debts and be free once again to embark in a new folly.” He moved residences once a month, entered into friendship with deceivers, and sought out new avenues to fortune wherever they might appear.

    Far from confusing us, conversion is that which makes the world more fully intelligible.

    By providence, none would arise. In staggering debt, friendless, and alternating between self-contempt and despair, Hamann moved into an apartment rented by a young couple on Marlborough Street. He contemplated falling deeper into poverty, even becoming a beggar, and was reducing to giving his watch to his landlord to make rent. Imprudently, he added to the collection of books which he had hardly touched, purchasing a King James Bible. Resigned to do nothing but sit quietly in his room and read those books which seemed “poor comforters, these friends that I thought I could not do without,” Hamann arrived at the lowest point of his life.

    At the height of this desperation, he returned to the God he had betrayed: “In the tumult of all my passions, which so overwhelmed me that I often could hardly breathe, I kept on praying to God for a friend … that I could no longer envisage…. A friend who could give me a key to my heart, the thread that would lead me out of my labyrinth.”

    Hamann, weak in faith, received an answer to this prayer: “Praise God! I found this friend in my heart, who crept in just when I most felt its emptiness, darkness, and desolation.” In an allusion to Genesis 1:2, Hamann compares his own heart to the barren scene at the outset of creation. The Spirit entered in, permitting and prompting Hamann to undergo “a new beginning” – a re-creation of himself through reading the Bible “with more attention, in a more orderly way, and with more hunger.”

    He first focused upon Exodus, writing, “I recognized my own offenses in the history of the Jewish people.” The books of Moses, far from being only history and law, were typologically and providentially written about him and his sin: “I read the story of my own life and thanked God for His forbearance with His people, because nothing but such an example could justify a similar hope for me.”

    On the 31st of March, while reading the fifth chapter of Deuteronomy, he “fell into a deep meditation” on the story of Cain and Abel. The words of God to Cain about the earth, open to receive Abel’s blood, ran through his mind: “I felt my heart thump, I heard a voice groaning and wailing in the depths like the voice of blood, like the voice of a murdered brother, who wanted to avenge his blood…. It said that this was what made Cain restless and unable to escape. At once I felt my heart flowing, it poured itself out in tears, and I could no longer – I could no longer hide from God that I was the killer of my brother, the murderer of His only begotten Son.”

    With this admission to God, a “here I am, Lord” in full awareness of his own sin, Hamann felt “more at rest than ever before.” His memory of earthly debts seemed incomparable to his newfound sense of those of his spirit, and the forgiveness of the latter more desirable and wondrous than any which could be done for the former. He concludes his spiritual autobiography by confessing his now sincere faith, and praying for his work from that point forward to receive the blessing of God.

    In 1759, a year following this profound transfiguration of his mind and heart, Hamann began his authorship by publishing the Socratic Memorabilia. The Memorabilia is, in its private intention, a response to the effort by Berens and Kant to pour cold water on his newfound faith. Publicly, it is a paradigmatic apology for faith in a time when reason did not understand itself.

    The Memorabilia emphasizes the continuity of Socrates’ philosophizing with faith not least on the point of Socrates’ self-knowledge. Whereas the rationalist Enlighteners might make a hero of Socrates in order “to be better able to mock the carpenter’s son,” Socrates understood himself as ignorant and had recourse to a daimon. “If they do seriously believe in Socrates; then his sayings are testimonies against them,” Hamann writes, pointing to the inability of Enlightenment thinkers to move beyond the Athenian sophists and gentlemen who ultimately responded to Socrates’ project of self-understanding with a death sentence.

    It is no coincidence that this work followed the London Writings, where Hamann begins his confessional autobiography by augmenting Psalm 94: “In the multitude of my thoughts within me (and about myself) thy comforts delight my soul.” Self-knowledge is the philosophical problem that Hamann could not solve by his own power. The Memorabilia is, perhaps at its core, a testament to the indissolubility of this problem absent grace, from which Hamann’s portrait of Socrates does not abstract. Perhaps shockingly, he concludes the Memorabilia by asking: “Whoever will not tolerate Socrates among the prophets must be asked: Who is the father of the prophets? and whether our God has not named himself as and shown himself to be a God of the heathen?”

    This alliance of different premodern types over and against modern rationalistic hubris would become a hallmark for Hamann’s thinking which attracted the attention, consternation, and more than occasional admiration of his contemporaries. And the utility of this thinking is also available to us in reflecting on Hamann’s likeness to Augustine. Both men understood themselves through conversion, both in their prior follies and their task of not only living but thinking in light of the truth they had come to know. We learn that conversion does not lead to the cessation of a thoughtful life but enables and transfigures it, drawing on the radically particular material of one’s story which might otherwise seem a merely private obstacle to understanding oneself and others. Reading Augustine and Hamann side by side may reveal that conversion, far from confusing us, is that which makes the world more fully intelligible.

    Whether Hamann was ever understood by others in his day is unclear or even unlikely, but his conversion was first and foremost about himself and his relationship to God, and his authorship followed as a warning against pitfalls to which he was subject and an invitation to the transformation of soul which he underwent. In a word, God can make good on the debts we accrue at his, and our own, expense. Hamann writes: “Our religion is arranged so completely to meet our needs, weaknesses, and deficiencies that these are all transformed into blessings and things of beauty – all against our will as unconverted people – they are all transformed.”

    Contributed By NicholasAllmaier2 Nicholas Allmaier

    Nicholas Allmaier is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Tulane University in New Orleans.

    Learn More
    You have ${x} free ${w} remaining. This is your last free article this month. We hope you've enjoyed your free articles. This article is reserved for subscribers.

      Already a subscriber? Sign in

    Try 3 months of unlimited access. Start your FREE TRIAL today. Cancel anytime.

    Start free trial now