Enlightenment, Revolution, and Romanticism: The Genesis of Modern German Political Thought, 1790-1800

By Frederick C. Beiser | Go to book overview

6
THE POLITICAL THOUGHT OF F. H. JACOBI

6.1. Jacobi as a Political Philosopher

No history of German political philosophy in the 1790s can afford to ignore Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi ( 1743-1819). Jacobi is best known for his philosophical novels Allwill and Woldemar and for his influential criticisms of the Kantian philosophy. Although his political philosophy has been almost entirely ignored, it cannot be so easily dismissed. For Jacobi was one of the earliest and most outspoken champions of the new liberalism of the 1790s. Before Schiller, Humboldt, and Forster, he defended the doctrine that the state should not promote the welfare, but only protect the rights of its citizens. In the early 1780s, during the high noon of absolutism when Joseph's reforms had begun and Friedrich's reign had reached its zenith, he launched a blistering attack on any attempt by the state to promote the religion, welfare, or morality of its people. An early advocate of the new physiocratic ideas, Jacobi was also among the first to question the prevalent mercantilism of the German states. 1 Freedom of trade was, in his view, the foundation of the liberty of the citizen.

Jacobi is important for more than his early defense of liberalism, however. He was also one of the more penetrating critics of the Revolution in France. Few of his contemporaries made criticisms that are as accurate, acute, and challenging. Without lapsing into the obscurantism of Maistre, he questioned the faith in reason that lies behind enlightened absolutism and revolutionary ideology. For Jacobi, there was little difference between the despotism of Joseph II and that of Robespierre: both were examples of "the tyranny of reason."

Jacobi was also not without influence. Although he was sharply criticized by the early romantics, 2 he later became one of the most important forebears of their political thought. His writings anticipated many of their later themes: the emphasis on emotion as the source of action, the insistence on the role of positive religion in civil life, the criticism of the egoism of civil society, and the faith in the old ethic of loyalty, piety, and honor. Jacobi's role in the formation of the romantic school was as great as that of Möser

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