Enlightenment Underground

Radical Germany, 1680-1720

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Martin Mulsow
H. C. Erik Midelfort
Studies in Early Modern German History
  • Chalottesville, VA: 
    University of Virginia Press
    , November
     464 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Historical research on the European Enlightenment is no longer limited to a narrow canon of often-anthologized philosophers. The expansion of our attention to those who wrote from the margins and whose contributions become apparent only in the aggregate is possible, in large part, due to the work of scholars such as Margaret Jacob, Richard Popkin, and more recently Jonathan Israel, who has proposed an ambitious narrative of modern theories of freedom grounded in anti-clerical and Spinozistic sources. Martin Mulsow has also been a part of this scholarly conversation and made significant contributions through edited volumes and critical editions. Enlightenment Underground is the translation of his 2002 Habilitationsschrift, and his first monographic study available to Anglophone readers.

Mulsow describes his approach as philosophical microhistory. Each chapter focuses on a particular aspect of radical thought and a relevant text, for example Jewish anti-Christian polemic and the untitled, anonymous Portuguese manuscript, obtained by Mathurin La Croze in 1709. The author of the Liber blasphemus was suspected at the time to be Orobio de Castro, but Mulsow identifies the author as Orobio’s teacher, Moses Raphael D'Aguilar, based on a comparison with a manuscript in the Ets Haim Collection in Amsterdam. D’Aguilar’s text was originally written in refutation of a summary of Christian tenets written by a Jewish convert to Christianity. In Berlin, the text had a furtive existence in La Croze’s possession; La Croze was interested in translating it, but such a potentially harmful book could not simply be presented to the public without an accompanying refutation. While La Croze worked on a translation that was never finished, the Socinian Samuel Crell obtained a copy of the original and made use of it in a book on the Johannine Prologue. It is in this way that a clandestine text spread from cautious antiquarian hands to other collectors and heterodox writers.

These investigations could be fairly described, not simply as microhistory, but also as Konstellationsforschung, or an analysis of the networks or “constellations” which defined an intellectual milieu. La Croze, in Berlin, was a librarian and Huguenot expatriate who corresponded with a network of scholars about the identity of the manuscript and faced difficult decisions about whether to translate and how to refute the text. As Mulsow points out in his introduction, such stories are difficult to establish because they are not well documented as a clear part of any Republic of Letters. Anonymity, and the threat of censure, prevent clear and reliable communication. But significant transmissions of texts were occurring just under the surface of public discourse.

In chapter two, Mulsow moves to Socinian networks in England, and here a slight criticism should be registered. He suggests, implausibly, that John Spencer, a Hebraist and master of Corpus Christi College at Cambridge, was a rationalist and a Socinian. As a microhistory of radical thought in England the chapter is helpful, but it pursues a rather elusive lynchpin in the heterodoxy of Spencer, based largely on charges of rationalism that aren’t very well explained. The idea that God “was not some incomprehensible arbitrary ruler but a wise and reasonable one, whose decrees were grounded in reason” (66) is not particularly rationalist but simply orthodox Christianity, and Mulsow recognizes this. Yet by the end of the chapter, the reasonableness of Christianity compounds into suspicions of rationalist anti-trinitarianism, without much to substantiate this suspicion except for damning networks of communication. For a helpful and more extensive critique of Muslow on Spencer’s beliefs, see Dimitri Levitin’s essay, “John Spencer’s De legibus Hebraeorum (1683–85) and ‘enlightened’ sacred history: a new interpretation” (Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 76 [2013], 49-92).

Muslow’s studies are probably better understood as emphasizing the “underground,” or “clandestine,” aspects of the European Enlightenment rather than its radicalism, per se. This is not to deny that radical thought is a central theme for Mulsow—indeed, radicalism (or at least non-orthodoxy) is often the reason why the authors and texts that Muslow discusses are forced to resort to anonymity, literary burlesque, or Nicodemism in the first place. But sometimes radicalism is not the cause of a work’s low profile, as when Daniel Georg Morhof simply leaves off in the writing of his political-theological treatise because he dies (124). Even when a writer is both clandestine and radical, this is not necessarily the most interesting point that Muslow ends up making about them.

The ironic history behind the writing of De tribus impostoribus is a good example of this situation. The work criticizes Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad as charlatans and so is surely radical in content, but its writing and distribution reveals as much about the social history of early eighteenth-century German universities and book collectors as it does about the development of early modern criticisms of religious authority. The blasphemous treatise existed openly for centuries in the cultural imagination of Christian Europe, and the fact that a version of it was written and deposited in the library of Johann Friedrich Mayer under conditions of rumor and intentions of refutation is not necessarily the most significant aspect of the text’s sordid history. It is a welcome demonstration of the complexities involved in treating religious orthodoxy as an object of humor and critique.

The subdued nature of Mulsow’s claims is also preferable to an artificial story of philosophical unity within the radical fringes of the Republic of Letters. Mulsow demonstrates how anonymity and unclear authorial intentions make a single program of radical Enlightenment impossible to get off the ground. If anything, what binds the characters in this story more than anything else is an insatiable antiquarianism which kept these texts preserved and distributed. Influence trickles up, however, and “the radical and moderate Enlightenments were not two incommensurable movements because they were mutually dependent on each other, woven together in many ways” (206). Whether through Gotthold Lessing’s reading of the Ineptus Religiosus as satirical, or an orthodox but pessimistic view of sinful humanity turned into an anti-humanist criticism of church and state, Christian Germany and Radical Enlightenment were constantly and unexpectedly intertwining.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Evan Kuehn is theological librarian at the Rolfing Library, Trinity International University.

Date of Review: 
May 5, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Martin Mulsow is Professor of History at the University of Erfurt (Germany) and Director of the Research Center for Cultural and Social Scientific Studies in Gotha. He has been awarded many prizes for his scholarship, including the Premio internazionale de storia della filosofia Luigi de Franco for the best book on Renaissance philosophy (1999) and the Prize of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences (2011).

H. C. Erik Midelfort, Julian Bishko Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Virginia, is the author of works on witchcraft, madness, and exorcism and the translator of several books, including Rainer Decker's Witchcraft and the Papacy: An Account Drawing on the Formerly Secret Records of the Roman Inquisition (Virginia).



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