Visiting Jerusalem, A History Boy, 24/01/2017

I’ve been reading Jerusalem by Moses Mendelssohn over the last week or so. It’s one of those books that I read and think, “I wish I had read this years earlier!” There are quite a few reasons behind that.

One lies in my immediate reaction to the book’s ideas. For instance, he takes a refreshing view on the old social contract concept. Writing in the 1780s, Mendelssohn describes the “state of nature” as a society where all people are free and no one has authority over anyone.

Hobbes described this as a state of perpetual paranoia and war – violence is humanity’s primary social essence. Rousseau as an eden of sensual delights – the violence is gone, but the ego remains. Mendelssohn: It’s a society where no one has the right to tell me how I can help my neighbours and fellows – the natural drive of humanity is benevolence.

One of many, many Jerusalems that exist.
How utterly refreshing.

Also, how utterly Jewish. As I’ve learned more about many of that religious tradition’s ethical and moral ideas, what I love most is that a fundamental Jewish value is benevolence.

Actually, it’s more than a value – it’s an ontological principle about humanity. Right from the primal, most basic level of understanding what humanity is, the Jewish principle is that we are benevolent creatures. And we only become evil through bad education and bad role models.

As Mendelssohn puts it, because we fundamentally desire that others be benevolent to us, we ourselves are naturally benevolent.

And as I reflected on this idea, I thought to myself – “Why didn’t I read any Mendelssohn when I was studying this philosophy?”

I did my undergrad philosophy degree at Memorial, and I worked with a lot of folks who specialized in 1700-1800s German thought. Mendelssohn was a contemporary of Immanuel Kant, and a famous public intellectual of the period.

Yet he was never part of the course materials, never part of the official chronologies.

In all fairness, if we’re talking about historical influence on the major themes of the period’s German philosophy, it’s reasonable to put Mendelssohn to the side. Mendelssohn’s political philosophy in Jerusalem – his most famous book – is unabashedly Jewish.

Jewish influence was simply not considered as legitimate a form of
thinking in 1700s Germany. Mendelssohn had to deal all his life
with the constant obnoxious pestering of other famous intellectuals
trying to convert him to Christianity. It makes me think that public
opposition to Judaism – in all corners of Christian Germany – was
a major reason why Mendelssohn's thought constitutes an alternate
history of philosophy. Concepts that we have to dig for.
Its ontology is quite secular – deist at best about the question of God’s existence. But the book’s ethics and moral investigations are blatantly and inescapably Jewish. With Jerusalem, you can see Mendelssohn bringing the Jewish tradition of morality and political thinking into the deist context of late 1700s Germany.

In that mission, it was a failure. Kant’s own thinking remained supremely influential on subsequent philosophy in the German countries. Johann Fichte brought to Kant’s models of how knowledge worked a new grounding in experience that overcame a lot of “thing-in-itself” issues, and anticipated a lot of ideas in phenomenology.*

* I wrote my undergraduate honours thesis on this, and I’m still quite proud of what I did.

Then he became a rabid German nationalist. Hegel made the core concepts of Christianity into a framework that functioned as the scaffolding of highest human reason.

A Jew bringing Jewish ideas into the context of metaphysics was not welcome. No matter the real quality of his ideas.

As I plan out the structure and historical influences of Utopias, there are two interesting strains where I’ll draw for its core concepts. Regarding the explicitly political stuff, it will be a continuation of what I call – for lack of an academic consensus term – radical democracy.

That’s a materialist approach to politics that picks up from the rejection of marxism found in the work of Chantal Mouffe, Ernesto Laclau, and Antonio Negri – screw the dialectical historicism to embrace the contingency of politics and people power from the smallest possible scales on up.

They and the more ontologically-focussed writers of the tradition like Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari draw deep inspiration from Spinoza. Spinoza, parallel to Mendelssohn, was bringing many ideas from the Jewish tradition into the philosophical mainstream of his own time.

Radical democracy – its snaking path of conceptual development through those French and Italian writer-activists, Althusser, Gramsci, Marx, Machiavelli, Spinoza – is an alternate tradition that wriggles underneath the mainstream schools that dominate the history students typically learn.

That history isn’t only pragmatist, materialist, focussed on people power and the dignity of the poor. It’s also Jewish.

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