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  • Introduction: Genres of Obedience
  • Elystan Griffiths and Martin Wagner

T. J. Reed offers a still-useful generalization about the European variants of Enlightenment when he observes that whereas the French lumières preferred “den Frontalangriff,” the German Enlightenment “hat die Mauern eher langsam, dafür aber mindestens ebenso gründlich untergraben” (Mehr Licht 16). While debates on the tenability of Reed’s stark contrast continue (similar to those over Jonathan Israel’s distinction between radical and moderate Enlightenment, and its applicability to the German context; see most recently Niekerk), a number of factors may indeed have shaped the preferences of the German Enlightenment for the preservation of order over immediate and radical change. Notably, there were lively debates in Germany about the extent to which enlightenment could safely or usefully be disseminated to all parts of society, with thinkers such as Moses Mendelssohn raising the concern that the enlightenment of the mass of the population might conflict with their role as citizens within the structure of the state. Among German enlightened thinkers, a majority supported a “relative enlightenment” (Whaley 109), which envisaged that the mass of the population would be enlightened only so as to enable them to better perform their role within the social structure. Full participation in the process of enlightenment would be reserved for a cadre of educated individuals, the so-called gebildete Stände, which cut across social divides to encompass both nobles and non-nobles and took in state functionaries and many Protestant clergy (Whaley 110–12). It should be recalled here also that the structural interconnection between the different classes and state power was particularly pronounced in Germany. As Norbert Elias observes, especially the German intellectual class tended to be more intimately bound up with the state machinery, serving in a bureaucracy that made absolutism function, while being excluded from power (1: 7–10, 23–24). Compared to other European countries, a higher proportion of the German middle class either were employed as bureaucrats or were in some sense dependent on the state, and, perhaps as a result of these close connections between middle-class bureaucrats and absolutist rulers, there was a stronger sense that the reform ethos of enlightened monarchs made revolution unnecessary within Germany (Kocka 25–26, 52–53). Arguably, these connections still had an impact in the nineteenth century, when German and Austrian liberals hoped for the realization of their political goals through—and not against—their monarchies. [End Page 85]

The great degree of alignment among enlightened thinkers in Germany, the state, and the church (particularly the Protestant church) produced conditions in which the relationship between order and freedom, or obedience and agency, became an acutely important question. It is at the heart of one of the defining essays of the German Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant’s “Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?,” which appeared in the December 1784 issue of the Berlinische Monatsschrift. The essay is a rallying cry for the intellectual freedom of mature, rational agents in the public sphere, as Kant decries the human tendency to allow “Vormünder” (35) to exercise control over the thoughts of the population and urges all those who possess sufficient understanding to learn to exercise it autonomously. At the same time, Kant, characteristically perhaps of the German variant of Enlightenment, does not conceive of the process of enlightenment as the work of individual agents, but rather as a necessarily social process embracing the whole public sphere. Individuals are unlikely to become enlightened by themselves, Kant observes, but as a collective enterprise pursued in freedom, the success of enlightenment is guaranteed.

Moreover, Kant’s radicalism in opening up participation in the Enlightenment theoretically to all members of society is tempered by pragmatism, as he acknowledges the interdependence of obedience and agency:

Nun höre ich aber von allen Seiten rufen: räsonnirt nicht! Der Offizier sagt: räsonnirt nicht, sondern exercirt! Der Finanzrath: räsonnirt nicht, sondern bezahlt! Der Geistliche: räsonnirt nicht, sondern glaubt! (Nur ein einziger Herr in der Welt sagt: räsonnirt, so viel ihr wollt, und worüber ihr wollt; aber gehorcht!)

(36–37, emphasis in the original)

The “einziger Herr” whom Kant imagines in this text is...


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