Tuesday, August 20, 2013

toward a new thought

Hermann Hesse was born in the Black Forest. His books are unusual. Johann Reuchlin (1455 - 1522) was also born in the Black Forest -- spirits in the air, tales of old trees, auras of the fantastic. Thus primed, young Reuchlin goes off into the wider world to become a scholar.

I read an article in Haaretz that set me to wondering and thinking about this fellow Reuchlin. For me, his life was fascinating (Reuchlin at Wikipedia). Reuchlin's life as a Christian also set me to contemplating the historical milieu and predicament of Jews in 15th- and 16th-century Europe (the Germanic regions especially). The way Jews were treated casts the whole of Christendom into an unflattering, even malevolent light. Anti-Semitism, flourishing toxically back then, persists today as a general cultural pox, continues to erupt as mini-plagues of idiots.

Reuchlin's scholarly adventure began with a focus on Greek (philology and philosophy). Later, his thought branched out to a focus on Hebrew (philology and philosophy).

That is interesting.

A kind of fusion occurred in Reuchin's head. From the Greeks, he followed the misty trail of the Neo-Platonists into Gnostic precincts of thinking. That dovetailed nicely with the Jewish Cabala. From the weirdness of the Black Forest to peculiar Greek and Jewish glimpses into reality.

Here's how it happened and what happened next.

While on a sojourn to Italy, Reuchlin met and was influenced by Pico della Mirandola, who provided him intellectual entry to the Jewish Cabala.  That interest led our scholar to a long involvement with the Hebrew language and with Jewish culture in general. Against the pressures of Rome -- to burn all Jewish books in Christendom except the Jewish Bible -- Reuchlin stood opposed. For him, free inquiry implied that all texts are sacrosanct. Reuchlin got into a lot of trouble over that. Historians since then have examined that episode as having three important results: exposing the virulence of anti-Semitism in Europe; developing the free mission of humanist scholars; auguring the Reformation.

Mulling over all this stuff, I think Reuchlin contributed indirectly to later proto-Enlightenment and Enlightenment ideas about dissent, about questioning forms of absolutism and monarchical authority. And I think his view of scholarly freedom stems directly from his studies of rabbinical Talmudic commentary. That's a distinctive aspect of Jewish culture -- argument with authority. God as something other than transcendent celestial Caesar. God as something more like a cantankerous uncle who can be interrogated, even occasionally scolded. 

Or as Reuchlin himself wrote about Hebrew: 
In this divine language, God speaks with men, and men with angels, face to face, as one friend converses with another.

So, I'm struck by how our man Reuchlin improvised his way onto paths of subtler, deeper thinking. His experiences led to a coalescence of impressions toward a new thought: beyond the taken-for-granted and the imperious lie wonders concealed in time and language.

Reuchlin remained a Christian, but I suspect his belief became a somewhat eccentric version.

Johann Reuchlin



  1. Durant reports that Reuchlin, as the dissenting member of a panel charged with burning all Jewish books except the Jewish Bible, divided Jewish writings into seven categories. One of these was literature that openly attacked Christianity. Apparently Reuchlin went with the majority on that bunch of books and agreed they ought to be burnt.

  2. I'm not really defending him on that, but those books attacking Christianity were just a tiny few of the Jewish books being considered for destruction. Given the context of the times, Reuchlin's actions were still exceptional and permissive.