Dialogue with Johann Georg Hamann, “the Magus of the North”, and his Aesthetica in nuce.
All this buzz about Creationists, Dawkins, Intelligent Design, Darwin – what is it all about? Even more than 200 centuries ago people were already able to precisely analyse what science and religion are about. Modern science is about logic, structure, and mathematics. It considers everything as determinate. There is barely necessity to mention that this approach has drastic consequences for our view of nature and ourselves.
However, Stephen Wolfram has shown with his cellular automata: determination is no proof for the absence of freedom, since there are determined systems whose behaviour principally cannot be predicted (cf. A New Kinf of Science). So, freedom of nature – to which we human beings belong – won’t be necessarily touched by scientific dead-end determinism.
But how can we understand freedom of nature as well as human freedom? Charles Sanders Peirce tried to demonstrate in his “A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God” that if you meditate on nature you will come, sooner or later, to be convinced that there must be a God. Some idea German thinker Johann Georg Hamann would probably have affirmed. He stated that in nature there is enough evidence for the reality of God. But at the same time he claims, that you really must be some dully ass to see God in nature. This, he claims, is the freedom Christian belief in creation is about: having multiple approaches to nature. Whether they may be scientific, aesthetic, religious, ethical, etc. – they are all an expression of human freedom and the freedom of nature. (Which is to say, as Hilary Putnam puts it, that it is nonsense to speak of such a thing like nature in itself.) This is some kind of view scientistic people – regardless of whether they pretend to be atheists or Christians – will never, and cannot, have. The main reason is, they cannot see, that science is some derived abstraction from everyday life, which in itself is sensual and passionate—which is to say: multifarious. – Such is, what Hamann argues in his Aesthetica in nuce.
The spirit of Selkirk hovers over the scrappy matrices of the primeval eruption of nothing and into the systematic trees taut as loose calender sheets like spiderwebs. Unlike in ruined castles they are countlessly tattered.
“But you perform far greater miracles than ever delighted the gods, with oak-trees and pillars of salt, with petrifications, alchemical transformations and fables, to convince the human race. You make Nature blind, that she might be your guide! Or rather, you have with your Epicureanism put out the light of your own eyes, that you might be taken for prophets who spin your inspirations and expositions out of your own heads. Oh, you would have dominion over Nature, and you bind your own hands and feet with your Stoicism, that you may warble all the more movingly in your Poetic Miscellanies at the diamond fetters of fate.”
In this spider desert of a boomy noon Skelkirk’s ears bleed and his whole body trembles in face of the noise of this glistening death. His head a dangling Whizzzer. Don’t you lose consciousness! Swathe your head with your swans’ wings in silence. Then open your eyes. And what he gets to see is so wonderfully beautiful, his closed lips turn into a effervescent strawberry. Under the sapphire blue sky the dunes breathe gently like ships on the smooth waves of a sleeping sea. Then he watches an eye friendly smiling at him. He sees God. A mirage.
“The opinions of the philosophers are variant readings of Nature, and the precepts of the theologians variants of the Scriptures. The author is the best interpreter of his own words. He may speak through created things and through events – through blood and fire and vapour of smoke, for these constitute the sacramental language.
The Book of Creation contains examples of general concepts which GOD wished to reveal to His creatures through His Creation. The Books of the Covenant contain examples of secret articles which GOD wished to reveal to man through man. The unity of the great Author is mirrored even in the dialect of his works – in all of them a tone of immeasurable height and depth! A proof of the most splendid majesty and of total self-divesting! A miracle of such infinite stillness that makes GOD resemble Nothingness, so that in all conscience one would have to deny His existence, or else be a beast. But at the same time a miracle of such infinite power, which fulfills all in all, that we cannot escape the intensity of His affection!”
He knows the rules of chess. Every match against his friend is different. The squares flicker black, white, white, black…
“All the colors of this most beautiful world grow pale once you extinguish its light, the firstborn of creation. If the belly is your god, then even the hairs on your head are under its guardianship. Every creature will alternately become your sacrifice and your idol. – Subject against its will – but in hope, it groans beneath your yoke or at your vain conduct; it does its best to escape your tyranny, and longs even in the most passionate embrace for that freedom with which the beasts paid Adam homage, when GOD brought them unto man to see what he would call them; for whatsoever man would call them, that was the name thereof.
This analogy of man to the Creator endows all creatures with their substance and their stamp, on which depends fidelity and faith in all nature. The more vividly this idea of the image of the invisible GOD dwells in our heart, the more able we are to see and taste his loving-kindness in creatures, observe it and grasp it with our hands. Every impression of nature in man is not only a memorial but also a warrant of fundamental truth: Who is the Lord. Every reaction of man unto created things is an epistle and seal that we partake of the divine nature, and that we are his offspring.”
In the genius of his shimmering reverie Selkirk dances some sublime Waltz with the sunrise. While the rotating, whirring globe hypnotizes him into the daily routine of his desk in the evenings.
“The senses and passions speak and understand nothing but images. The entire store of human knowledge and happiness consists in images.
If the passions are limbs of dishonour, do they therefore cease to be weapons of virility?
Passion alone gives hands, feet and wings to abstractions and hypotheses, and to pictures and signs gives spirit life, and tongue.
In short, the perfection of the design, the strength of the execution – the conception and birth of new ideas and new expressions – the labour and the rest of the wise man, the consolation and the loathing he finds in them, lie hidden from our senses in the fruitful womb of the passions.
Poetry is the mother-tongue of the human race; even as the garden is older than the ploughed filed, painting than script; as song is more ancient than declamation; parables older than reasoning; barter than trade.
Mythology here! mythology there! Poetry is an imitation of Nature the beautiful – and no doubt the revelations of Nieuwentyt, Newton, and Buffon will be able to replace the lessons of fables on poor taste? – – Obviously the should do so, and they would do so, if they only could. – Why then does it not happen? – Because it is impossible, your poets say.
Nature works through the senses and the passions. But those who maim these instruments, how can they feel? Are crippled sinews fit for movement? – –“
All quotes from Hamann’s Aesthetica in nuce.