a collaborative genealogy of spirituality


by Amy Hollywood

Emergent Eyes by <a href=''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.

All of this marks the negative light in which Hume, like most of his enlightened peers, saw claims to direct divine inspiration, prophetic states, or rapturous trances. To be an enthusiast was decidedly not a good thing.

Even those among the religious who claimed to experience God in some direct way carefully demarcated themselves from the enthusiasts–or at least from the wrong kind of enthusiasts. Hume’s contemporary, John Wesley, argued that if enthusiasm was taken to mean “a divine impulse or impression, superior to all the natural faculties,” which for a brief time suspends reason and the other senses, then:

both the Prophets of old, and the Apostles, were proper enthusiasts; being, at divers times, so filled with the Spirit, and so influenced by Him who dwelt in their hearts, that the exercise of their own reason, their senses, and all their natural faculties, being suspended, they were wholly actuated by the power of God, and “spake” only “as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.”

But this, Wesley notes, is not what most of his contemporaries meant by enthusiasm. Instead, they meant by it a kind of madness, a specifically religious madness, in which the sound mind preserved by true religion was destroyed. The enthusiast, for Wesley, is the person who believes he has grace when he does not, or who understands herself to be a Christian when she is not. Enthusiasm is a kind of self-deception against which Wesley must warn those to whom he preaches. For Wesley the criteria for distinguishing between what we might call true and false enthusiasm, or between true religion and enthusiasm, are themselves spiritual. They are available only to those who have experienced God in their hearts. In the words of the historian Ann Taves, for Wesley, “if one could not see the distinction, one by definition had not had the experience.”

This emphasis on spiritual knowledge and the sort of circular reasoning to which it seemed to give rise is precisely the kind of thing against which Hume and his enlightenment colleagues argued. So it is somewhat surprising that in Hume’s essay on “Superstition and Enthusiasm,” enthusiasm doesn’t come off too badly. For Hume, remember, enthusiasm is generated by an elevation of spirits. Superstition, on the other hand, is the result of “certain unaccountable terrors and apprehensions, proceeding either from the unhappy situation of private or public affairs, from ill health, from a gloomy or melancholy disposition, or from the concurrence of these circumstances.” Hume here reverses many earlier accounts of enthusiasm, for sixteenth and seventeenth century critics of enthusiasm routinely associated it with melancholy. That Hume does not is, we will see, a part of the story I am interested in here.

So Hume goes on to explain that although his “first reflection is, that religions, which partake of enthusiasm are, on their first rise, much more furious and violent than those which partake of superstition,” he goes on to argue that over time, such religions become “much more gentle and moderate.” In their boldness and resoluteness, enthusiasts refuse to be beholden to others—and in particular to priests. They have “contempt of forms, traditions, and authorities” that Hume seems positively to admire. The superstitious, on the other hand, in the intensity of their fearful melancholy, turn to others for guidance, giving themselves over willingly to the authority of priests and religious institutions.

And so while in the first flush of excitement, the enthusiast leaves reason behind, after this infusion cools, she remains unwilling to serve any religious master and might then become a freethinker. Because it enables the believer to hold herself solely accountable to the divine, enthusiasm is as resistant to the mediations of a priest or ecclesiastical institution as “reason and philosophy.” Unlike the superstitious person, whose terrors and apprehensions enslave him to religious authorities, the enthusiast’s independence lasts long after his rapturous visions have dissipated. Enthusiasm, then, is a friend to civil liberty; just as the enthusiast demands his right freely to experience God himself, so also he demands civil liberty.

Hume is here, of course, rewriting the history of English sectarianism and simultaneously marking his solidarity with the anticlerical spirit of the French philosophes. But we are on our way to the more thoroughgoing re-evaluation of enthusiasm that will occur in England and in Germany during the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century. We have seen the beginning of the movement in England, although in very divergent sites. On the one hand, Hume sees in the English sectarian spirit demands for independence from external authorities. On the other, Wesley suggests that enthusiasm, rightly understood, is true religion. At the turn of the 18th century, English literary critics begin to argue for what John Dennis calls “poetic Enthusiasm.” Although for Dennis, poetic enthusiasm remains deeply religious, the slide from God to nature as the site of enthusiastic poetic rapture will occur very soon after.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, as Anthony J. La Vopa has demonstrated, a host of German philosophers, poets, and critics also attempted to deploy the distinction between Schwärmerei and Enthusiasmus in order to allow for a revaluation of the latter. In the process, Enthusiasmus would be deprived of much of its religious content. It would become, instead, a site of human imagination and the animating force behind human creative projects. Yet for the philosopher Immanuel Kant, at least, the sticky relationship between Schwärmerei and Enthusiasmus will be very hard to shake. This is the reason, perhaps, for the three terms available in German, for there are places in Kant’s work, particularly in the Critique of the Power of Judgment, where English erupts into his German—hence Kant’s Enthusiasm.

This is a story to be continued–and to be set beside another project in linguistic genealogy, one that examines the terms mysticism, mystical, and mystic as they continue to capture the strong spirits and an individual’s pursuit of them.