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Journal of the History of Ideas 63.3 (2002) 483-500

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Greek Origins and Organic Metaphors:
Ideals of Cultural Autonomy in Neohumanist Germany from Winckelmann to Curtius

Brian Vick

That the educated classes of late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Germany were increasingly captivated by images of both nationality and Greek antiquity is a fact long noted and long puzzled over. This seemingly strange confluence of cultural tendencies does, however, help explain why studying the drawn-out debates among German neohumanist scholars on the cultural origins of the Greeks ultimately offers a fresh perspective on certain problems of German national identity—in this case, on the ambivalent relationship to things foreign in that period of German history.

Scholarly attention has recently been drawn to this question as part of the conflict over Martin Bernal's Black Athena, the first volume of which argued that nineteenth-century German classicists' denial of an Egyptian contribution to early Greek cultural development revealed their xenophobic tendencies. While Bernal pointed to racism as the prime motive for this repudiation of African and later of Semitic influence on the Greeks, he also invoked several of the other "-isms" that have proven so fruitful yet confusing for efforts to understand the intellectual and cultural climate of late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Germany: romanticism, historicism, organicism, and of course neohumanism. 1 [End Page 483]

The present essay is not intended to be another of the past decade's many responses to Bernal. Attention must be paid to that discussion, but it is important to recognize the extent to which this debate reflects a much broader disagreement about German attitudes in the romantic and nationalist eras. Some scholars portray the more cosmopolitan side of the romantic inheritance and stress its continued fascination with foreign literatures and cultures. Others, however, seem more like Bernal in citing the historicist turn to nature and nationality either to illustrate or to explain an alleged German xenophobia and hypersensitivity to issues of ethnic and cultural purity. 2

It is to this wider question of the cultural legacy of German classicism and romanticism, historicism and organicism, that I would like to direct attention in this essay. Rather than invoking these "-isms" in an effort to explain the various positions taken in the debate about Greek origins, I hope to reverse the process and examine the relevant texts in an effort to clarify the broader implications of these issues of cultural purity and cultural borrowing, from the time of Winckelmann's first assertion of Greek originality through the rise of new kinds of nationalism and racism in the Wilhelmine era. 3 I shall show that belief in the importance of Greek civilization's Asian and even Egyptian cultural heritage remained strong for decades, even after Karl Otfried Müller's seemingly definitive rejection of such a connection in the 1820s. Moreover, most of the figures engaged on both sides of the debate made remarkably similar use of historicizing organic metaphors to help reconcile the twin values of national autonomy and cultural transmission, both so central to the self-conception and national identity of the German Bildungsbürgertum in this period. Continuity and connection with the environment, not purity and isolation from it, were the hallmarks of such organicist thinking across a wide spectrum of romantic, neohumanist, and idealist commentators. Only in the second half of the nineteenth century, with the passing of romantic values, the transformation of historicism into historicist positivism, and the development of new meanings attached to images of biology and race, would this situation slowly begin to change.

The Greeks, History, and Culture: Foundational Perspectives

Many of the considerations central to discussions about the origins of the Greeks and about the role of cultural mixing generally can be seen in the debate's [End Page 484] two most important early statements, the denial of Egyptian influence by Johann Joachim Winckelmann in his History of Ancient Art of 1764 and the successive sharp critiques of this view by an otherwise admiring Johann Gottfried...


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