Monday, May 16, 2016

A Translation of "Über die Natur unsers Geistes" by Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz

On the Nature of Our Spirit1

A Layman’s Sermon on the Text:
“I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh.” (Joel 2:28)
It is not my intention here to involve myself in any metaphysical investigations but merely to specify the most practically useful thing we are capable of doing to keep our spirit in the state of tension that is needful to its happiness.
The more I study myself and reflect on myself, the more I find reason to doubt whether I  am really any kind of autonomous, independent entity, as I nevertheless feel myself ardently wishing to be.  I am hesitant to [regard thought or myself as a product of nature;]1 the notion that all this owes thanks solely to her and the concurrence of contingent causes, that it is all wholly dependent upon her influences and must submit to its destruction in utterly passive compliance with her fiats, has something terrifying—intrinsically annihilating—about it: I do not know how the philosophers can accept this notion so calmly.
And yet it is true!—but my mournful, anxious feeling about it is every bit as true.  I appeal to the entire human race: is it not the very first feeling a human ever has, when still cradle-ridden and in diapers—that he or she is independent?
How then can I be a mere ball of circumstances?  I--?  I go through my life and I find this sad truth confirmed a hundred times over.  Why is it then that when recounting the vicissitudes of my life, I summon up all my wit in the attempt to make these vicissitudes seem the fruits of my own intelligence, of own my agency; whence then comes this anxious feeling in my conscience that says to me, “You have perhaps not contributed as much to all this as you fancy”?—the effort with which I try to overcome these scruples, to forget a thousand tiny incidents in order to cozen myself with the proud thought “You did this, you effected it; it was not effected by nature or by the collision of alien forces.” This pride--what is it? Where does its root lie?
Must this pride not be a hint about the nature of the human soul, a hint that this soul is not an autonomous substance from birth, but that rather within it there is a striving, an urge to work its way up to autonomy, an urge as it were to separate itself from this large mass of interdependent creation and to constitute an entity subsisting for its own sake, an entity that re-associates itself with the mass only to the extent that this is conducive to its autonomy?   May not the magnitude of this urge then be the measure of the magnitude of the spirit—may not this feeling about which people so vehemently declaim, this pride, be the unique kernel of our soul, which in its perpetual process of becoming endeavors to outgrow the world that surrounds it and to bring forth from itself a deity presiding over this world?  Can even the Helvétiuses and all those people who have penetrated so deeply into the influences of the nature that surrounds us deny this feeling, which has made them into everything they have become?
The preeminently independent activity of our soul would appear to be thought: the only thing that human wisdom or experience in its impotence has ever managed to advise those afflicted by misfortune to do is to think and philosophize about the nature of this misfortune—in other words, in a manner of speaking, to place themselves beyond and above their particular circumstances, and to impart to themselves the impetus to independence.  For all the vehemence with which its detractors have inveighed against this consolation recommended by the Stoics, it is in fact not entirely without merit provided that one has enough strength to put it to the test, a strength that can only ever build upon itself.  And the experience of the ages has proved that there are plenty of people whose pride (a beneficent heaven-sent gift) serves as a counterweight to their most dolorous feelings.  Hence this feeling must be not only the most exhilarating and the most agreeable, but also the most indispensable of all those in human nature, because we are in a position to sacrifice all other agreeable feelings to it.
Whence the universal human belief in the value of thought.  Every human being believes that as long as he is thinking, he is beyond and above the reach of whatever he may encounter.  And in point of fact he is—to be sure, he cannot disavow the disagreeable feelings attendant on his condition, but he discovers within himself a force that enables him to maintain a counterweight to them; this feeling flatters him with a sense of his own great worth, such that the more furiously his pangs rage all about him and the greater a deity he becomes in his own eyes, the less the utmost extremity of his fate’s rage is capable of disturbing his inner tranquility.
But here most thinkers or philosophers are generally beset by a curious kind of self-deception.  They believe they have carried their independence as far as it can go once they are capable of withdrawing their attention from the objects that immediately impinge upon them and redirecting it either to themselves or to other things of any old sort.  They believe they have attained real worth if they manage to sedate their soul and lull it to sleep, instead of maintaining a counterweight to disagreeable external impressions by means of their own inner strength.  The feeling of a void in their soul that consequently arises is sufficient punishment to them, and they always have their hands full just helping their ever-sagging pride back up from the ground.  They feel that they cannot withdraw themselves from their disagreeable sensations without inducing a waste and a void in their soul, and this conflict-ridden condition is more harrowing than the disagreeable sensations themselves.
Thinking does not mean going completely numb; it means letting one’s disagreeable sensations rage with all their violence and feeling that one has enough strength to investigate the nature of these sensations and therefore to place oneself above and beyond them.  To juxtapose these sensations with earlier ones and to weigh them against one another, to arrange them and survey them.  Only then can one say that one feels—and once such a struggle has been weathered and survived, a human being, or that human being’s spirit, acquires a solidity that becomes for him or it the guarantor of the eternal duration and indestructibility of his or its existence.  Hence, one is happy only upon attaining the conviction that one has oneself to thank for this happiness.
It is thus, I am inclined to say, that the soul shapes itself and in so doing also shapes its future condition.  Thus does it acquire knowledge of its own relation to things—and concurrently discover the utility and applicability of these things to the improvement of its external condition.  Thus does it isolate itself from the mechanically active multitude of created beings and become a creator in its own right, thus does it involve itself in the world only in so far as it deems this serviceable to its intentions; as its strength grows, so does its voluntary participation in the world, its proportional involvement therein, its subsequent radius of creativity and efficacy.  Thus all our autonomy, all our existence, is founded upon the multitude, the circumference, the truth, of our feelings and experiences, and upon the strength with which we have endured them, in other words, thought about them, or, what amounts to the same thing, become conscious of them.
But our independence is even more evident in our acts than in our thoughts, for whereas in thinking I accept my situation, my relation to things, and my feelings as they are, in acting I change them to suit my pleasure.  Therefore, if I am to become completely autonomous I must perform a great many acts, which means frequently changing my sensations and experiences.  When these acts have been performed in accordance with certain laws of universal harmony, we term them good; in the opposite case, we say that they are evil.  But this harmony is easier to feel than to define.  For whose intellect is sufficiently pregnant—and what kind of path must it have followed—to attain it?  Evil acts are immediately recognizable as such in virtue of the distressing feelings that they occasion, feelings which, although he can prevent them from assuming a distinct form, a human being cannot eradicate completely.
Christ lived according to a plan to become a universal legislator; he lived in order to suffer and to die.  His feelings must have been inexpressible; he had placed himself at a vantage point from which he could concentrate the misery of an entire world on himself and see through it.  But only a deity could do such a thing--
He acted; he changed his position, but while moving ever deeper downwards, until he finally reached the deepest place of all—ignominious death.  He felt everything tender that is perceivable by human nature in an intense reverence of men, the purest feminine love, the most perfect divine grace, the grace with which he was conjoined—but he also felt all the frightening and horrifying things of which human nature can have an inkling in ingratitude, neglect, the fiercest hatred, envy, and a vengefulness directed at an entire world outside himself, a vengefulness that was never sated by death, but wished to plunder life after death, the reverential memento of the hereafter—I cannot limn this nightmarish picture; the paintbrush is unsteady in my trembling hands, and my eyes are failing me.
That is the picture that we see; I must disclose to you a different one, a picture that can become visible only to the eye of an angel.  That was the suffering human individual; I must show you the suffering deity.  He whose gaze permeated the most secret recesses of every human heart and then took up their misery and sheltered it in its bosom.  Whose divine commiseration penetrated the entire fabric of every human soul and raged and feared with the Pharisees, repined and despaired with Iscariot.  And how poorly the exegetes understand the story of the passion and the meaning and the pathos of the words: but one of you is a devil!  Jesus Christ how unrecognized is thy divine form among men, the form of a lowly, despised, downtrodden menial—a deity could never manifest himself in any other form.
A servant to all—and yet a man betrayed—and yet sympathetic to his betrayer—so much so that this sympathy constituted the greatest of his sufferings.
Then to maintain his autonomy, in the midst of death itself, which rounds out everything in ignominy, to cry out with the serenest defiance: It is finished—and so into thine hands I commend my spirit.
Lord, would that thou might never again expose us to such trials; they exceed our human powers.  Our pride, our pride, the only good that thou hast given us that we might bring ourselves near to thee by our own efforts—we cannot sacrifice it so utterly, at the very least we would cry out for the hereafter.  All martyrs have died illustrious deaths; Christ alone died an opprobrious one.   To die convicted as a seducer, as a rebel who gave every outward sign of actually being one, without being able to offer a plea in his own defense, without being able to champion his exalted future destiny—this could be done only by a human being thoroughly imbued with divinity, that divinity that needs no champion and that we champion only for the sake of increasing our own happiness.     
At the same time he wished to give us a symbol, a symbol composed of all the qualities of a perfect human being and demonstrating to us that such a paragon can grow and endure only by feeling every conceivable sort of misery and commiseration.  For his resurrection and ascension were but sequels of that same plan of suffering and acting.
The most exalted of all afflictions one can suffer is contempt.  No mortal man or woman’s suffering can exceed the suffering of Christ when he was hauled into confinement and punished as a public menace even while his head was valued at a mere thirty pieces of silver.  To be taken not on the feast day, but rather in total silence and as if not a cur or cockerel thought the event worth crowing about.  To be snuffed out like some creeping weed though a deity who discerned within himself the power and a calling to bring about revolutions throughout the earth.  Thus was his lot from the beginning under King Herod, and thus was his lot throughout his life, and such is the fate of all the righteous.  A villain at least enjoys the satisfaction of being talked about; even if he ends his life in disgrace and dishonor, he knows that numerous people dread him and are summoning up everything they have to oppose him, whereas Christ struck the Pharisees as worthy of only the most trifling expenditure—and his own friend and disciple, and hence his adorer, betrayed him for this pittance.  Bethink yourselves of the heart that was compelled to feel this.


  1. Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz (born 1751, died 1792), Über die Natur unsers Geistes (Lenz, Werke und Briefe, ed. Sigrid Damm, 1st edn, 3 vols (Frankfurt/Main: Insel Verlag, 2005), ii, pp. 619-624).
  2. In German: Ich weiß nicht der Gedanke ein Produkt der Natur zu sein,... allows an ambiguity in reading: thought could be the product of nature, but the self, the ‘I’ as well. The latter version was chosen as it makes more sense in the context of the next paragraphs. [This note is by flowerville, whom I thank for pointing me to Lenz’s wonderful sermon and advising me extensively on its translation.]

Translation  Copyright ©2016 by Douglas Robertson

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