The History of History 5: The German Invasion

This week’s readings bring our tour of historical writing into the nineteenth century, which saw industrialization and the professionalization of history in universities. Germany, in its configurations as part of the Holy Roman Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia, and the German Empire, was at the forefront of these innovations. The late-nineteenth-century German university system, with seminars and the conferral of Ph.D. degrees, was replicated around the world. Ironically, none of this week’s authors held a doctorate. Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803) was a gentleman historian;[1] Georg Hegel (1770–1831) and Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886) were doctorate-less professors of philosophy and history, respectively.[2] James Kendall Hosmer (1834–1927), the interloping American in this week’s readings, was another professor sans Ph.D.[3] As such, the professionalization of history in Germany and elsewhere accommodated a variety of people. Academics didn’t need as rigid of credentials as they do in 2016.

These four authors reflect the sweeping philosophical ambition of Edward Gibbon — their texts cover immense spans of time and ponder major questions of the human condition. Herder’s Outlines of a History of a Philosophy of Man considers the effects of climate on the development of human civilizations. Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of History question if there is a spirit of history that great leaders (all men, in Hegel’s formulation) bring forth. Ranke’s History of England, Volume I, ponders the effects of Protestantism upon British history. Hosmer’s Short History of Anglo-Saxon Freedom traces the origins of Anglo political freedom (although Hosmer fails miserably at writing a compelling argument). Unlike Gibbon, however, Herder, Hegel, and Hosmer do not rely on many historical incidents to support their claims. Rather, they work within an abstract philosophical model, unleashing immense feats of imagination that are often untethered from the historical record. In this way, the modern reader of Herder, Hegel, and Hosmer sees the porous divisions between history, philosophy, and theology in nineteenth-century nonfiction writing. Leopold von Ranke is the one author who writes like Edward Gibbon, in that Ranke tells a fact-based history and supplies philosophical discussion only when considering the implications of that history. Yet Ranke’s citations pale in comparison to the many footnotes found in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It appears that citing your primary sources, like having certain credentials to teach history in an academic setting, was a variable requirement in the 1800s.

Each of the four historians in this week’s sample exhibits some sort of pronounced cultural bias. In the tradition of John Locke and Immanuel Kant, Herder, Hegel, and Ranke exoticize and objectify non-white peoples. (For review: Locke derived his idea of noble savages enjoying natural freedom from an idealized notion of Native Americans, while Kant placed European Christians above Jews, Africans, etc.) When Herder argues that Nature has produced different people for different climates, he claims that all humans belong to one species, but he describes Greenlanders in a fantastical manner, and he can’t show sympathy for African slaves or Native Americans without saying they are capable of extreme violence. Hegel argues that God has created a Spirit (geist) for history, containing many possibilities, and the heroic men of history turn Spirit into reality. With that said, it is Christians — specifically, German Christians — who are the greatest heroes, according to Hegel. Ranke is able to look beyond Germany, devoting a multi-volume work to the history of England, but Ranke clearly prefers Protestantism to Catholicism, which he believes weakened England. Professor Ranke also includes a few references to barbarians. As for James Hosmer the American, he’s convinced that the Anglo-Saxon people of Britain and America are the greatest and freest in history, so he thinks everyone is inferior by comparison.

By noting the cultural and racial biases of these four authors, I don’t mean to suggest that every idea the authors propose is misguided. Hegel’s vision of the hero striving for glory is powerful, while Ranke’s history, divorced from theology, reflects years of serious scholarship honed in his seminars. At the same time, we have to appreciate that the major writers of the Western canon wrote within particular contexts. They were not perfect sages; rather, they felt loyalties to particular ethnic groups and countries, often demeaning people who lived differently or looked different from them. Reading their narratives today, I see that this week’s four Western authors assume history contains inevitable developments — a belief that harkens back to Aristotle and his argument that all things on Earth have an inherent purpose (teleology). Herder, Hegel, Ranke, and Hosmer are all concerned with exemplary humans, and not so much common people. They write of politics, war, and Christian theology, with only Ranke supplying a serious consideration of culture in his writings on British religions. By focusing on Europe and America, these four authors suggest that the rest of the planet doesn’t have much of a history. When we read the classic Western canon, I think we need to affix a disclaimer or two: Beware; within lie serious doses of Orientalism, Eurocentrism, Christian biases, and — by the way — some passages of literary brilliance. We should remember that: (a) as far as we can prove it, history is not inevitable; (b) even if you believe in inherent purposes or inevitable developments, you can’t bottle them and study them under a microscope; and (c) whole portions of the world, from Daoists and Buddhists to Western writers like Nietzsche and Herman Hesse, believe that history relies on cycles, chaos, or models of time other than linear, neat Aristotelian teleology.

I can’t say I particularly enjoyed reading Hegel, Hosmer, or Herder. Mr. Herder’s bizarre, hyperbolic claims about the power of Nature seem like the rants of a madman. While I have not read Hegel in the original German, I can say that Hegel’s theology makes for exceptionally dense English. Thank goodness I remembered some of Hegel’s major points from when I took a “Theories of Religion” class in 2012. As for Herder, I wasn’t remotely convinced by his claim that the Vikings and Germanic peoples enjoyed a proto-republican form of freedom, and that the British & Americans resurrected this ancient practice. He cites minimal evidence to support his claims, while his love of Anglo culture borders on scientific racism against the rest of the human species. Ranke holds up the best. He states his premises up front, sticks to historical anecdotes even though he rarely uses footnotes, and he adds scholarly analysis to an exciting narrative. Of course, Ranke bashes Catholicism every few pages, so you have to know that going in!

[1] Encyclopædia Brittanica Online, s.v. “Johann Gottfried von Herder,” by Hans Dietrich Irmscher, accessed September 11, 2016, http://bit.ly/2c3WHqo.

[2] David A. Duquette, “Hegel: Social and Political Thought,” in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by James Fieser and Bradley Dowden (n.p., n.d.), accessed September 11, 2016, http://bit.ly/2cBF66X; Encyclopædia Brittanica Online, s.v. “Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel,” by T. Malcom Knox, accessed September 11, 2016, http://bit.ly/2citPbq; Encyclopædia Brittanica Online, s.v. “Leopold von Ranke,” by Rudolf Vierhaus, accessed September 11, 2016, http://bit.ly/2cojxbe.

[3] “Laurie” [pseud.], “James Kendall Hosmer,” Find a Grave.com, August 23, 2005, accessed September 11, 2016, http://bit.ly/2c3Ysnn; Appleton’s Cyclopædia of American Biography, edited by James Grant Wilson and John Fiske, Vol. 3, “Grinnell—Lockwood,” s.v. “Hosmer, George Washington,” 268, Wikisource, CC–BY–SA 3.0, accessed September 11, 2016, http://bit.ly/2cwuW9z.

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