maanantai 18. kesäkuuta 2012

Barthold Heinrich Brockes: Earthly delight in God, consisting of various poems taken from nature and ethics, together with an addendum containing some relevant translations of French fables of Mr. de la Motte (1721)

At the very beginning of my blog I expressly noted that I should avoid works of fiction and poetry, because I felt I would have little to say about such manners. Yet, I also admitted that in some case I surely had to do it, if the thinker in question had written mainly fictional works – no matter how inconsequential the thinker might seem.

Barthold Heinrich Brockes is probably not the most important German thinker of his time. He was educated in the Thomasian school of philosophy, but unlike the other Thomasians we have met so far, he wasn't an ardent enemy of Wolffians. Instead, Brockes could be best described as a thinker of Aufklärung, or German enlightenment, and hence, his inclusion in the blog broadens our view of German philosophical culture in early 18th century.

When one hears of enlightenment, one is bound to think of Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau and others rather radical thinkers, who at least influenced the later revolutionists in France. But the German enlightenment was never so radical and most of the times it was never as critical of church as French enlighteners were. Instead, German enlightenment was all about the education of mankind – and in this case, education was meant to include also moral instruction. We have already seen such tendencies in Wolff, particularly in his insistence that all art must serve the use of upholding morality in state.

Now, the work of Brockes is almost a paradigmatic example of Wolff's suggestion. Brockes was known as a translator, and even the book Irdisches Vergnügen in Gott bestehend in verschiedenen aus der natur und Sitten-Lehre hergenommenen Gedichten, nebst einem Anhange etlicher hieher gehörigen Uebersetzungen von Hrn. de la Motte Französisch. Fabeln contains, as the title says, translations of few French fables. Furthermore, Brockes himself was a poet, and the book I have been reading now is also a book of poetry.

Brockes' place in the history of German literature is far from glorious, which one wouldn't believe from reading the preface that praises the talents of Brockes both as a translator and as a poet. What is interesting is the explanation what makes Brockes a poet among poets. Apparently the author has not only the imagination required for creating dazzling images, but also the understanding required for making his poems well ordered and something more than just incomprehensible mess. This interplay of imagination and understanding was more generally held to be a precondition of good poetry and art. Something similar can be seen even seen in Kant's notion of beauty as caused by the free play of faculties, although there it is more about experiencing than creating beauty.

I shall briefly describe one exemplary piece of this poet-to-be. The poem with the ominous title ”the world” begins with the image of people watching the world, as it were, through the wrong end of the telescope: everything looks much smaller than it really is. For instance, a businessman sees nothing but profits and losses, while a doctor sees nothing else but illness and cures. Even philosopher fairs badly, because he sees nothing else but planets circling around the sun – Brockes is probably thinking of works like Newton's natural philosophy. Among these failed attempts to understand the world, there is one who does it right – the dreamer who sees God in all phenomena of nature.

This exemplary poem shows already Brockes' fascination with nature. Most of his poems simply describe some natural event, like the awakening of animals in spring, thunderstorm or sun. But nature is not described in these poems as an entity deserving an independent account. Instead, the worth of all these events is that they reveal the power of God – the nature is a piece of art and behind this art there must be some artist.

In a sense, Brockes' poetry is nothing more than constant use of teleological argumentation deducing from the perfection of natural objects the existence of their creator. Yet, it is not any arguments, but the sentiment behind this statement that is important. To find perfection in the colour of grass and in rain falling from the sky, and not just any perfection, but a feeling of divine serenity and splendour – this is what Brockes is trying to convey. The enjoyment of nature was even an international phenomenon during 18th century, and in Germany it finally culminated with the pantheistic tendencies of romantic school, in which God and nature were often regarded as opposed, but still related poles.

One may feel that such a pantheistic appreciation of nature is far from theistic delight with nature, yet, at least this underlying feeling of the divinity of natur is shared by both alike. For a pantheist the splendour of nature is a part of the nature, while for a theist the perfection must originate somewhere beyond nature. The official credo at the time was theistic, both in Wolffian and Thomasian schools, latter of which will be my topic next time.

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