Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Utopia and Reform

I want to add a few more comments to my earlier posting ("Intellectuals and Power") on Franco Venturi's book, and in particular Goethe's reason for staying in Weimar. Goethe's interest in working for political reform shows the penetration of ideas within Europe by the 1760s, in which Paris and the circle around the Encyclopedists played a major role. There was, writes Venturi, a "great convergence of those who were ahead of the times, and those who were behind, of those who had shown the way, and those who had tried to follow." A determination to change things was spreading, "however diverse the problems in various parts of Europe were." And it was believed, among these forward thinkers, that they should be the ones to guide society. Thus, I return to quote that led me to look at Venturi in the first place: "Power and philosophy seek each other." By the 1780s, the philosophes in France had "advanced" beyond reform and were instead "preparing for revolution." Not so in Weimar, by which time Goethe had abandoned government service and the revolutionary effects on German lands were still a couple of decades in the future.

Venturi's goal in his book was "to put the problem of the impact of republican tradition on the development of the Enlightenment." The importance of the ancient Roman republic in the symbolism of the French revolutionaries can be seen, for instance, in the paintings of Jacques-Louis David, but there were contemporary republics in Europe that produced lots of ink. One of these was Geneva, and it was this city that formed the centerpiece of Rousseau's ideas in the Social Contract. And here we find a nice link with Bodmer, who was a great fan of Rousseau's ideas and whose dramas of the late 1760s reflect the virtuous republic that Rousseau espoused.

According to Venturi, in turning to Geneva Rousseau envisioned a kind of utopia. To survive as a republic, Geneva would have to go back to the period of its origins, even before the Protestant reformation, because it was there that Geneva "would discover that just division of political power which had been lost in the 16th century under the rule of a few noble families. ... [T]he image of a city in which virtue was rooted in a long tradition never left him."

Bodmer was a professor of Swiss history for nearly 50 years, and during this period he inspired a number of young Swiss for republicanism and against the undemocratic politics of contemporary Zurich. Notable among Bodmer's disciples were Lavater and Henry Fuseli, who went into temporary exile in Germany in 1761 because of their exposure of an unjust magistrate whose family was set on revenge. Moreover, Bodmer's dramas, published in 1768-69, exemplify the corruptions of republics and the choices of virtuous citizens desirous of maintaining ancient privileges of liberty. No doubt because of censorship, they are set in ancient times and bear such titles as Thrasea P├Ątus, Marcus Brutus, Tarquinus Superbus, and Die Tegeaten. As Jesko Reiling points out in his recent study, these dramas were much maligned in their own time, as being too full of ideas and too empty of aesthetic attraction. Bodmer shares with Rousseau a certain humorlessness, and he even went so far as to defend his dramas by saying that the theater as it was developing in the late 18th century, especially its emotionalism, served the goals of absolutism by making citizens unpolitical. Do I hear intimations of Bert Brecht?

Even before David painted his Oath of the Horatii (1784), Fuseli had already drawn on Swiss republican tradition, that of the ancient Swiss Confederacy, in his 1780 painting. (See my earlier post on this.) Bodmer is now receiving much scholarly re-assessment, and his connection with the republican tradition is waiting to be drawn. (Interestingly, Venturi mentions him in the introduction to his Utopia and Reform, along with other neglected German-language thinkers.) The influence of his republicanism can be seen in another work by Bodmer's disciple Fuseli, a defense of Rousseau at the time of the latter's quarrel with Hume.

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