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SOCRATES AND THE JEWS

HELLENISM AND HEBRAISM FROM MOSES MENDELSSOHN TO SIGMUND FREUD

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By Miriam Leonard

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The Montréal Review, November 2012

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 "Socrates and the Jews: Hellenism and Hebraism from Moses Mendelssohn to Sigmund Freud" by Miriam Leonard (University Of Chicago Press, 2012)

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"Socrates and the Jews  is a triumph of critical scholarship. With this book, Leonard throws new light on the troubled inheritance of the Enlightenment, which bequeathed to modernity a series of ways of working through its own contorted rupture from the past. No one who reads this study will ever again be able to think of the category 'Greek'-that prototype and anti-type of modernity-without simultaneously calling to mind its inextricable but neglected congener, 'Jew.'"

--James Porter, University of California, Irvine

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"What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" This famous cry of the early Christian Tertullian was answered in the nineteenth century with a resounding response of "Everything!". One of the most urgent cultural questions of the age was how the glories of the classical world could be reconciled with the Bible. Classics dominated the education system, above all in Germany, where the celebrated tyranny of Greece over the German imagination exerted itself in the arts, in politics and in philosophy. Christianity, nevertheless, dominated spiritual life even as it was the source of the most difficult conflicts of the period. Debates flourished between Christians and Christians, between Christians and Jews, and between the religious and the secular. If Christianity had emerged in the classical world and in self-conscious and violent opposition to it, how could the Bible and the Classics be equally privileged without giving rise to deep tensions? It is this anxiety at the heart of Christian Europe that explains why Judaism was to play a fundamental role in defining the contours of modern philhellenism. The arguments took many forms: perhaps most famously, Matthew Arnold put the opposition between "Hebrew and Hellene" at the centre of his analysis of modernity. Meanwhile the scholarly and philological categorisation of Indo-European and Semitic languages provided a framework for wider debates about aesthetics, political structures and religious history.

The publication of Winckelmann's Reflections on the Imitation of Greek Masterpieces in Painting and Sculpture in 1755 inaugurated the period of 'modern' Hellenism and set the scene for a Grecophilia that would hold the German intelligentsia in its grip for well over a century. This literary-aesthetic yearning for Greece and the development of a rigorous philological method took place against the background of violent changes in the political landscape of Europe. The French Revolution and the Enlightenment philosophies which had inspired it gave rise to a new sense of what it was to be a subject and a citizen in history. This new modernity defined itself in dialogue with antiquity. From Hegel to Marx, it was against the citizens of the past that the progress of the modern subject was constantly measured. The classical cultures of Greece and Rome were not, however, the only historical societies which offered themselves up for comparison. The ancient world, so central to the Enlightenment, in fact, bifurcated into two competing traditions: Athens and Jerusalem came to represent two alternative narratives of European identity. This opposition between Greeks and Jews increasingly structured the reception of the classical world in the long nineteenth century as the Jew came to represent the limits of Enlightenment thought and its idealisation of classical Greece.

Scholars have noted the striking prominence of discussions of Judaism in Enlightenment and Idealist philosophy. From Mendelssohn and Kant to Fichte and Hegel, the figure of the 'Jew' is often articulated as a problem for the universalist precepts of philosophy. However, the discussion of Judaism should be brought into relation with the role of Hellenism in the Enlightenment. The German-Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn provides a fascinating example. Known to his contemporaries as the 'German Socrates', Mendelssohn was not only a major figure in the fight for Jewish emancipation, but also an important philosophical interlocutor of Kant. Mendelssohn's assimilation to the figure of Socrates is both a symptom of the growing "Hellenisation" of Judaism at this time and part of a much broader Enlightenment debate about the rationality of religion where Athens and Jerusalem provide competing models of reason and ethical community.

If the figure of Mendelssohn threatens to confound the binary of Greeks and Jews, Hegel's narrative of world-historical progress explicitly sets the 'Hebraic' and 'Hellenic' worlds in opposition. So Hegel summarises the role of Judaism in his Philosophy of History: "On the whole Jewish history exhibits grand features of character; but it is disfigured by an exclusive bearing (sanctioned in its religion), toward the genius of other nations ...by want of culture generally, and by the superstition arising from the idea of the high value of their peculiar nationality" (Hegel 1991, 197). Moreover, for Hegel, the 'Hebraic' and 'Hellenic' are understood precisely against the background of a plurality of global traditions. The Hebraic tradition is for Hegel steeped in an Oriental spirit which must be overcome. As Suzanne Marchand and Anthony Grafton point out: "Hegel, it should be remembered, in creating a dialectics of world history, gave Greece and the Orient not just different but antithetical "spirits" evident in every aspect of cultural development, from the arts to religion, politics, and social organization" (Marchand/Grafton 1997, 14). Hegel's contrast between the aesthetic, political and ethical predispositions of the Greek and Hebraic spirit is summed up in his early writings on Christianity: "The tragedy of the Jewish people is no Greek tragedy". The influence of Hegel's philosophy on historical thinking throughout the nineteenth century was profound. Both Hegel's dialectical method and his pronouncements on the "spirit" of the Orient found their way into a very wide range of different discourses. Hegel's work, then, provided the philosophical framework for the historical study of competing cultures.

During the course of the nineteenth century, Hegel's antithesis paradoxically develops along two diametrically opposed lines. On the one hand, the Greek/Jew distinction was concretised in scholarly traditions which in, the wake of the writings of Ernest Renan, saw the opposition between Indo-European and Semitic cultures as a key to understanding the historical organisation of mankind. On the other hand, there is a move towards abstraction and metaphorisation. Matthew Arnold's essay on 'Hellenism and Hebraism' in Culture and Anarchy is the classic example of this tendency. Arnold turned Greeks and Jews into sound-bites of contemporary cultural criticism completely removed from their historical referents. He saw his project as an extension of Heinrich Heine's psychological character types of Hebrew and Hellene - a categorisation which was so far removed from ethnic corollaries that Heine could identify Hellenic and Hebraic tendencies in the same person regardless of his geographical or historical location. And yet, others have seen in Arnold's racialisation of the terms of cultural criticism a worrying development. Despite Arnold's desire to obfuscate the historical situation of the Jews of his time, the urgencies of the 'Jewish question' remain an uncanny presence in discussions of Hellenism and Hebraism. From Marx to Freud, the aspirations of the modern subject inevitably become enmeshed in the question of anti-Semitism.

From the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth century the Greek/Jew opposition became a key to understanding debates about reason, Enlightenment and competing notions of ethical and political subjectivity. Conceptualisations of Hellenism in this period were also deeply implicated in discussions about secularism. For Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche an appeal to the classical world formed an integral part of their critique of the Protestant state. While both figures have been instrumental in moving away from the Christian worldview, they share a much contested and ambivalent role in the development of modern anti-Semitism. As the examples of Marx and Nietzsche show, the antithesis between Greeks and Jews during the long nineteenth century played a crucial role in the shift from Christian anti-Judaism to secular anti-Semitism. Where the Enlightenment conflict between Athens and Jerusalem, like its predecessor in antiquity, was more concerned with reconciling philosophy and Christianity, in the age of the radical critique of religion it came to provide a script for secular modernity.

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Miriam Leonard is professor of Greek literature and its reception at University College London. She is the author of Athens in Paris and How to Read Ancient Philosophy.

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