1835 Heinrich Heine on German Philosophy

Heinrich Heine was born at Duseldorf  in the Holy Roman Empire and died at Paris in France. He lived from 1797-1856 and was part of the Romantic Movement. I ran across this little strange description of German philosophy by him.

Every epoch is a Sphinx, which plunges into the abyss as soon as its problem is solved.  The poet journeyed along the abysses of doubt as free from apprehension as a mule.   Prose miscellanies from Heinrich Heine1876 p. 159

In my articles on German philosophy I blabbed without reserve the secrets of the schools, which, draped in scholastic formulas, were previously known only to the initiated.

My revelations excited the greatest surprise in France, and I remember that leading French thinkers naively confessed to me that they had always believed German philosophy to be a peculiar mystic fog, behind which divinity lay hidden as in a cloud, and that German philosophers were ecstatic seers, filled with piety and the fear of God.

It is not my fault that German philosophy is just the reverse of that which until now we have called piety and fear of God, and that our latest philosophers have proclaimed absolute atheism to be the last word of German philosophy. Relentlessly and with bacchantic recklessness they tore aside the blue curtain from the German heavens, and cried, “Behold! all the gods have flown, and there above sits only an old spinster with leaden hands and sorrowful heart—Necessity.”

Alas! what then sounded so strange is now being preached from all the house-tops in Germany, and the fanatic zeal of many of these propagandists is terrible!

We have now bigoted monks of atheism, grand-inquisitors of infidelity, who would have bound Voltaire to the stake because he was at heart an obstinate deist.

So long as such doctrines remained the secret possession of an intellectual aristocracy, and were discussed in a select coterie-dialect which was incomprehensible to the lackeys in attendance, while we at our philosophical petit-soupers were blaspheming, so long did I continue to be one of the thoughtless free-thinkers, of whom the majority resembled those grand-seigneurs who, shortly before the Revolution, sought by means of the new revolutionary ideas to dispel the tedium of their indolent court-life. But as soon as I saw that the rabble began to discuss the same themes at their unclean symposiums, where instead of wax-candles and chandeliers gleamed tallow-dips and oil-lamps; when I perceived that greasy cobblers and tailors presumed in their blunt mechanics’ speech to deny the existence of God; when atheism began to stink of cheese, brandy, and tobacco—then my eyes were suddenly opened, and that which I had not comprehended through reason, I now learned through my olfactory organs and through my loathing and disgust. Heaven be praised! my atheism was at an end. To be candid, it was perhaps not alone disgust that made the principles of the godless obnoxious to me, and induced me to abandon their ranks.

I was oppressed by a certain worldly apprehension which I could not overcome, for I saw that atheism had entered into a more or less secret compact with the most terribly naked, quite fig-leafless, communistic communism.

My dread of the latter has nothing in common with that of the parvenu, who trembles for his wealth, or with that of well-to-do tradesmen, who fear an interruption of their profitable business. No; that which disquiets me is the secret dread of the artist and scholar, who sees our whole modern civilisation, the laboriously-achieved product of so many centuries of effort, and the fruit of the noblest works of our ancestors, jeopardised by the triumph of communism. Swept along by the resistless current of generous emotions, we may perhaps sacrifice the cause of art and science, even all our own individual interests, for the general welfare of the suffering and oppressed people.

But we can no longer disguise from ourselves what we have to expect when the great, rude masses, which by some are called the people, by others the rabble, and whose legitimate sovereignty was proclaimed long ago, shall obtain actual dominion. The poet, in particular, experiences a mysterious dread in contemplating the advent to power of this uncouth sovereign.

We will gladly sacrifice ourselves for the people, for self-sacrifice constitutes one of our most exquisite enjoyments—the emancipation of the people has been the great task of our lives; we have toiled for it, and in its cause endured indescribable misery, at home as in exile—but the poet’s refined and sensitive nature revolts at every near personal contact with the people, and still more repugnant is the mere thought of its caresses, from which may Heaven preserve us!

A great democrat once remarked that if a king had taken him by the hand, he would immediately have thrust it into the fire to purify it. In the same manner I would say, if the sovereign people vouchsafed to press my hand, I would hasten to wash it. The poor people is not beautiful, but very ugly; only that ugliness simply comes from dirt, and will disappear as soon as we open public baths, in which His Majesty may gratuitously bathe himself.


The Prose Writings of Heinrich Heine by Heinrich Heine

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