Philosophy

Jordan Peterson: Our “Magus of the North”

What hath Jordan Peterson have in common with a now obscure German Counter Enlightenment philosopher? Johann Georg Hamann was, in his day, an important 18th century philosopher and theologian who is generally credited with being a forerunner to the Counter Enlightenment and an important figure in the formation of modern language theory and criticism. Hamann was known for his witticism and charm, as well as his vicious attacks against those who he saw as depreciating the human experience and condition.

Isaiah Berlin, the great historian of philosophy, described Hamann as “an angry man.” But beneath the fury that was Hamann’s energy, there was a deeply spiritual, sacramental, and “insane” man who lifted up the German people and led Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to call him “the brightest star” in the world. Indeed, even Immanuel Kant credited Hamann with awakening him from his intellectual slumber.

Hamann saw an acidic poison corrupting culture and the very understanding of what it means to be human. For this thunderous figure from the north, the culprit of the acidic poison infecting life was the Anglo-French mechanical rationalists and empiricists. He especially distasted the mechanical rationalists of Britain and France. The war against the imagination, imagery, and symbolism, indeed, the war on language, poetry, and myth, was seen by Hamann as the attempt to suffocate humanity in a prison box of emptiness. Hamann described the materialist project as depreciating humanity to “a stuffed dummy which the howling superstition of our unreason endows with divine attributes.”

Paradox abounds in Hamann’s works and thought. He claimed the self-professed rationalists were themselves superstitions handmaidens of unreason. He claimed that language could never grasp the thing-itself yet turned to language to prove it. Despite it, he considered language as reason and language as an essential aspect of humanity and human nature. Though, more specifically, Hamann applied that essence of universal nature to poetry, “poetry is the mother tongue of humans.”

What puts off many people in studying Hamann is his seemingly mystical and enchanted language which leaves people confused. “Every phenomenon of nature was a word, – the sign, symbol and pledge of a new, mysterious, inexpressible but all the more intimate union, participation and community of divine energies and ideas,” he writes. “Everything the human being heard from the beginning, saw with tis eyes, looked upon and touched with its hands was a living word; for God was the Word.”

The essence of Hamann can be distilled to what he called “höher ist denn als alle Vernunft.” The German can be roughly translated as “that which is above than all reason.” And for Hamann, that which was above all reason was the celestial realm of the image, symbolic, and mythic to which reason, properly understood and embodied, pointed to. According to Hamann, people instinctively and intrinsically understand the fantastical and symbolic because it connects them with the Divine Image; that realm of the white rose lifting humans and calling us to it.

Hamann was the great expositor and defender of the mythic, symbolic, and poetic in an age when it had come under intense scrutiny and mockery. Thomas Hobbes consider those to be interested in mythology, symbolism, and metaphor to be indicative of the grossest superstition. But Hamann understood that the pulsating heart of human creatures needed the symbolic because symbol which is that “city of God” at the top of the mountain is that ambrosial fragrance calling all sons and daughters of the earth to divinization and to become part of the grand drama love, suffering, and pilgrimage.

In severing language from the symbolic, Hamann believed the Enlightenment philosophers had severed humans from the very thing that made them humans. Language can never be the thing-itself, but language is the mediating spirit between humans and God, humans and humans, humans and nature. The language we use to describe fire can never capture the essence of fire. Moreover, the concentration on the rigidity of sentence structure stifles the mind and depreciates it from the imaginative pull to that realm of the mythic, archetypal, and symbolic that even little children grasp. The irony, for Hamann, is that in severing humanity’s birthright to the symbolic and archetypal that all cultures know about, it was turning humans into stuffed lumbering dummies of mere matter in motion.

Language, for Hamann, Reason (the Logos) was the mediating force of anima (life) between humanity and the stars which call us, like Dante, to climb up to it and enter the realm of Love. “If I were as eloquent as Demosthenes, I would do more than repeat one sentence three times: Reason is language – Logos.” To embody the Logos was to embody the mediating principle to become united with what Dante said are “the lovely things the heavens hold.”

Hamann’s entire project was encapsulated by that notion of embodying the Logos to be transformed and transported into the realm of infinity. He saw himself resuscitating the decadent civilization to journey back up the Mountain of Love to the gates that await those who make the journey. According to Hamann, a civilization that is ascendant flourishes in the literary arts and spirituality which all serve as concretized determinate instantiations of the mediating lure of the Spirit. A civilization that is in terminal decline is a civilization in which its language has ceased to function to point to the archetypal, image, and symbolic.

The glory of Athens was preceded by the flourishing of Hesiod, Homer, and Sappho. The ascent of Rome was marked by the golden age of Latin literature with Cicero, Seneca, and the resuscitating efforts of Virgil, Ovid, and Horace. The birth of what Oswald Spengler considered to be Western, or Faustian, civilization was preceded by Beowulf, the Song of Roland, the Poem of the Cid. The ascent of English civilization was preceded by the flourishing of Chaucer, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Spenser, and culminated with the King James Bible. Unsurprisingly, it was after Hamann’s death that Germany truly came to be – though not yet in political form – but in cultural form with the poetry and literature of Novalis, Goethe, Hölderlin, and Schlegel. The Russia that is universal to the world is the Russia that was born from Pushkin, Batyushkov, and Tolstoy. Indeed, the universality of all these civilizations rested in that mother tongue of all humanity.

Jordan Peterson’s defense of the image, the symbolic, and the mythic has merited him much scorn and mockery by the same resigned handmaidens of “howling superstition” of the “stuffed dummy” who tell us that we’re special but insignificant. Mere life, zoe, as the Greeks knew, was not enough. Humans needed a higher calling than to get up and spend the rest of the days sizzling away in leisurely frying pans as St. Augustine did in his youthful days in Carthage. Humans needed to become part of a story. “Man does not live by bread alone.”

Peterson’s attack on simple fixed frameworks for explaining the world is the same attack that Hamann engaged in because it imprisons, most especially, the mind, and makes one blind to all the movement, vitality, and opposing narratives that counter the narrow-minded dogma of mass sloganeering and talking points. The arrogance of the narrow-minded dogmatism of materialist science in Hamann’s time caused him to fly into a rage. Such narrow-minded dogmatism promoted by the handmaidens of uniform materialism is lebensfeindlich – antagonistic to life itself. To embody this “reality” is to become sleep-walking zombies. Just as Hamann wanted to break the spell of soulless materialism, Peterson’s sledgehammer to the public dogmatism enforced onto the masses is to liberate the soul, the mind, the spirit, rather than constrain it; Peterson’s return to the symbolic is the return to the infinitude of the imagination and the inexhaustible abundance of lebensgeister.

When Aristotle said that the lover of myth was also a philosopher, this was because poetry directs the soul – which is universally acknowledged by the philosophers of pagan antiquity and Christianity as the intellect – to the heavens. In this culturally impoverished, metaphysically desecrated, and imaginatively depressed age, it isn’t a surprise that Peterson has thundered down from the north to redirect the eyes which are the window of the soul back to the things that all humans, deep down, have an instinctive understanding of. “Through speech all things are made,” Hamann noted; Peterson has also noted that speech calls order out of chaos – and the God who called form and order to the formless void was the Logos. But that speech came from, and points us to, something above itself.

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Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.

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