Emergent Eyes by <a href='http://www.columbia.edu/cu/religion/student-data/Cara-Singer/student.html'target='_blank'>Cara Singer</a>
Emergent Eyes by Cara Singer

In German, there are two words—three even. Enthusiasmus, like the English enthusiasm, is rooted in the Greek “en theos,” to have the god within, to be inspired by god or the gods. But Enthusiasmus was inadequate to contain the sixteenth-century German reformer Martin Luther’s rage against those who purported to receive direct divine inspiration. For them, he coined the term Schwärmer, from the verb schwärmen, to swarm, as in the swarming of bees. The Schwärmer were those, like the so-called Zwickau prophets, Nicholas Storch, Thomas Drechsel, and Marcus Thomas Stübner, who claimed to have direct revelations from the Holy Spirit, or Thomas Müntzer, who insisted that direct revelation and prophecy continued to occur in history. For Müntzer religious radicalism and political radicalism went hand in hand; the new prophecies and apocalyptic revelations he proclaimed called for the re-ordering of society, and not just of the church. In denouncing Müntzer, the Zwickau prophets, and others as Schwärmer, Luther rejected not only claims to continuing revelation, but also the forms of religious and political agitation to which he believed such claims gave rise. To be a Schwärmer, most often translated as enthusiast or fanatic, was to be ungovernable by either human or God.

But if Luther called his inspirited enemies Schwärmer when the word Enthusiast was available to him, is it a mistake to conflate the two terms? Why assume that the German Schwärmerei and Enthusiasmus, as substantives denoting the state of the Schwärmer or Enthusiast, are the same? In the years after Luther, during which the use of Schwärmerei and Schwärmer as invectives spread throughout German-speaking lands, the terms were often used interchangeably with Enthusiasmus and Enthusiast–and both sets of terms were used to translate the English-language enthusiasm and enthusiast. This is likely in part because the Anabaptists, whom many contemporaries saw as the direct descendents of the Schwärmer against whom Luther inveighed, were described in 1560 by Heinrich Bullinger as Enthusiastae and Extatici, the Latinate forms of originally Greek terms erupting into his German text. As an international language of the elites, Latin was likely the means through which a certain kind of religious and political refusal was transmitted across a range of European vernaculars.

What is likely most striking to modern English-language speakers is the exclusively negative connotations of the terms Enthusiasmus and Schwärmerei in early modern German sources, an intonation that continues through the early modern period and into the Enlightenment, when an increasingly heterogeneous set of thinkers and practices are so named–and so dismissed. To take just one famous example, one that provides further evidence for the close links between the German term Schwärmerei and the English enthusiasm, in his essay “Superstition and Enthusiasm” (1741), the philosopher David Hume argues that enthusiasm is a disorder of the imagination, “an unaccountable elevation and presumption, proceeding from prosperous success, from luxuriant health, from strong spirits, or from bold and confident disposition.” When the essay was translated into German in 1756, its title was given as “Von dem Uberglauben, und der Enthusiasteren.” Throughout the body of the essay itself, enthusiasm is translated as both Schwarmeren and Enthusiasteren. Forms derived from Schwärmer, moreover, appear in places where Hume does not write specifically of enthusiasm; hence Hume’s “fanatic madman” becomes “der schwarmerische Narr.”

In the “strong spirits” that gave rise to enthusiasm, Hume argued, the imagination is given free reign, giving rise to “raptures, transports, and surprising flights of fancy.” The enfettered person may eventually take leave of all of her faculties and attribute her own fancies “to the immediate inspiration of the Divine Being who is the object of devotion.” It is just here that the danger of enthusiasm lies, for if left unchecked:

the inspired person comes to regard himself as the chief favorite of the Divinity; and when this frenzy once takes place, which is the summit of enthusiasm, every whimsy is consecrated: human reason, and even morality are rejected as fallacious guides: and the fanatic madman delivers himself over, blindly, and without reserve, to the supposed illapses of the spirit, and to inspirations from above.

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