What the Germans Did


No, not that.

Although I sometimes dwell on failures of the human spirit, my thoughts today are more of a homily, in praise of several Germans who helped create the magnificent idea of the autonomous individual, worthy of dignity and capable of self-respect. They are giants in the history of ideas. Their mark on us is so indelible–they are so much a part of who we liberal democrats are–that their particular contributions to our identity likely escape our notice.

In America we tend to believe we are born fully equipped for liberal democracy. Not so. We are who we are, at our most Emersonian self-reliant, in large part because of the man-made ideas and institutions of a handful of Germans.

Martin Luther stands tallest among these heroes, for awakening the idea of individual conscience. While Luther was preceded in this by Jan Hus and John Wycliffe, it was his revolt against the Catholic Church that stuck. He was the one who defeated (or at least made it possible to escape) the Church’s claim that it alone could proffer moral instruction. By insisting instead that the individual must seek his own understanding of the gospel message without consulting a professional (and corrupt) clergy, Luther laid the foundation for the wide-ranging intellectual autonomy we take for granted today. He is, so to speak, the ur-author of that part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that lays out our religious freedoms. If you think you can, and ought to think for yourself, thank Luther. He could have burned at the stake for saying what he said when the going was tough. (Hus did in fact burn for saying much the same thing in 1417 that Luther would say 100 years later.) But he pressed forward, at great risk.

martin luther
Martin Luther (image: Tagesspiegel)

Power is created not just by ideas, but also by implements. (This observation belongs to Hannah Arendt, another German genius but not one of today’s subjects.) What gave Luther’s idea legs was Gutenberg‘s printing press, which turned out scads of Bibles (in Luther’s translation to the vernacular), to be read by the increasingly literate masses. Once the Bible became a popular book rather than an imposing collection of priestly esoterica, the reader displaced the expositor as the focal point of textual instruction. This would eventually marginalize the clergy altogether and cement the individual in the role as captain of his own soul. If you feel lucky not to have a corps of professional bullies using a book of secret doctrines to police your thoughts, you might nod in gratitude to Gutenberg’s memory. He printed the books so you could just read them for yourself.

After the priests fell, it was the turn of the Bible itself, and with it, the very idea of supernaturally-inspired texts. Beginning in the late 18th century, a handful of German scholars spurred by the work of Johann Gottfried Eichorn (on the Old Testament) and Friederich Schleiermacher (on the New) began to examine the Bible critically to work out its authorship and composition. The movement they founded, the Tübingen School, would effectively deflate the idea that the Bible was divine in origin. On inspection it turned out to be a thoroughly human book, assembled from Jewish myth and folktales and from Christian epistles written second- or thirdhand, decades or centuries after the life of Jesus (and inspired by several contemporary resurrection myths and mystery rites). Contradictions and outrages abounded in its texts but were no longer embarrassing, man-made as they were. Some variants of the Tübingen School’s conclusions are now accepted almost everywhere in the literate world except for rural parts of the United States. The Bible, of course, remains a source of inspiration, but any literate reader knows that what wisdom it contains is man-made and must be got at through skeptical inquiry. Although people tend to apply the principle selectively, almost everyone today believes that holy books are not.

Luther’s revolt and Gutenberg’s printing press put the humble reader at the center of the reading experience. The Tübingen School’s debasing of the Bible left the reader without the divine guarantee that what he was reading was true, beneficent, or even useful. This left the individual without the guiding hand of God. While the unmasking of God as the joint creation of power-seeking men and credulous serfs would eventually prove an empowering development, it was disorienting at first. Hadn’t mankind always stood in need of a higher law, an explanation of his origin, and promise of his ultimate destiny? How would he get by without the firm, divine assurance that such things existed? More than anyone else, Friederich Nietzsche, embraced the epochal challenge posed by the death of God. If you feel life remains worth living despite the wholesale displacement of sacred myths from everyday life (and we do seem to keep entirely busy chasing worthwhile things that cannot be stored up as treasure in heaven) you owe Nietzsche a debt for having stared this unsettling fact in the face and for showing that man stands on his own two feet. Humans have dignity despite lacking sacred or magical stories to explain its origin.

Human dignity is very nice, of course, but does it get us through the night? Not on its own, obviously; love, beauty, folly and curiosity play large roles here. But my little essay is not about how Germans uncovered the whole meaning of life, but how they helped equip us to be liberal democrats, which is also pretty great. Nietzsche, once we get past his Sturm und Drang, does a wonderful thing for us in this regard: he focuses our minds on the here and now. Rather than trying to make our way along a pilgrim’s progress toward a fairytale heaven, why not do something instead for the crying shames we witness right in front of our noses among the human animals (many of them unhappy) roaming the surface of the earth? While it would be wrong to attribute the progressive spirit to any single individual, it was Karl Marx more than anyone else who focused this impulse on the plight of those left farthest behind by society’s successes. Those made wealthy by economic growth have a stake in the improvement of those impoverished or marginalized by it. (If you are paying attention, you will note this is more or less how Jesus would have us order our moral priorities, at least as far as the Sermon on the Mount can be taken as a guide. The last shall be first, and that sort of thing.)

Anyone who cares about gaps in a developed society–income gaps, education gaps, health gaps, etc.–and believes that the groups on both sides of such inequalities, but especially the “upper” group, have obligations to close the gaps–is thinking in Marxian terms.

Everything I have written here is potted and oversimplified, but then again, much of what we believe about the human situation has far less going for it than that. Better to take a foreshortened view of great thinkers who have helped make us who we are than to believe our best characteristics just fell on us from heaven or grew out of World Spirit. A handful of Germans helped make us liberal democrats. We are, thanks to them, our own law-givers, capable of acknowledging our fellow man’s dignity, and obliged by our means to reduce the suffering around us.


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