The Scholar Lays Intellectual Siege to the Zeitgeist
Ten years of rabbinical study, finally completed, would now be put aside for nearly a decade. My father had plenty of time, during his two years in prison, to further his intellectual insights into contemporary philosophy. Upon his release, he returned to Austria and pondered what the future had in store.
He penned his thoughts in a series of three essays on the position of Judaism as the naysayer of civilization, especially in contrast to the popular intellectual trends of his day: the economic determinism of Marxism; the genetic determinism of Nazi racism; the cultural determinism of fascism; the psychological determinism in the schools of depth psychology espoused by Freud and Jung. In the second and third essays, he attacks the enthronement of instinctual drives in neo-Romanticism as expressed by D. H. Lawrence and Nietzsche, and he culminates his writings by examining the nihilism inherent in national socialism—specifically, Nazism.
The title of the series in German is “Mut Zum Geist,” which translates as “The Courage of the Spirit” as I have phrased it, but more accurately, “Courage to or for the Spirit.” The word Geist has greater implications than the English word spirit, which has only religious connotations. In German, it encompasses the whole realm of the mind, whether individually or collectively for humanity, or of an underlying mind of the universe. It requires courage to face Geist—the realm of values and ideals. Quite appropriately, this phrase appears later in the writings of Viktor Frankl, also a Holocaust survivor and the father of Logotherapy, who emphasized the centrality of meaning in life and the need for moral courage. It stands in contrast to the triumph of the will as hailed by moviemaker Leni Reifenstahl in her propaganda film Triumph des Willens, or Triumph of the Will, which reveals her adoration of Hitler. She was a devotee of Hitler’s from the moment she read Mein Kampf. The title of her film was Hitler’s idea, and the film was based on one of the early Nuremberg rallies.
My father’s essays appeared in the Judiche Presszentrale Zurich, the main Jewish newspaper of Zurich. For many years, I have had the first essay in my possession. The librarian of the Zurich Jewish Community, Dr. Yvonne Domhardt, sent me copies of the other two essays my father published.
Following pages contain the complete essay translated into English. I thank Professor Michal Bodeman of the University of Toronto for his clarifications.
The Courage of the Spirit
Dr. Wilhelm Weinberg (Vienna)
Zurich, June 18, 1937
Under this rubric, we shall be presenting a series of essays. The author brings our attention to the nihilistic-destructive developments in our times against all that is spiritual [Geistige] and seeks to reach a position whereby the Jew must stand in opposition. The title provides the underlying theme of the essays. The first essay bears the subtitle “Under the Sign of Fatalism.” In this essay, he examines a cross section of the key themes of contemporary thought.
Under the Sign of Fatalism
The Jewish Messiah idea implies a systematic plan and consciousness in the totality of the direction of humanity and in its cultural formation. Our contemporary stream of thought has no room for such a concept nor, indeed, for an idea of a conscious will nor for an idea guiding universal developments
It has been an accepted thesis for decades within all trends of our culture that all events occur independently of human will. Little and rarely does anything result from conscious thought. Like the apparition that vanishes at the toll of the bell to usher in a new day, so all the values and ideals of mankind melt away, overpowered with unpitying might by the merciless hand of economic, biological, and historical Ananke (fate). A Moses must once again smash the Tablets of the Law, the central element of the Torah, for the Torah implies guidance, the pull of an absolute ground of meaning, and is as such in opposition to determinism.
The first to dethrone human will as the critical factor of history is economic theory, which utilizes the most scientific of tools. Karl Marx proved that human life is not determined by will and resolution but by the blind law of the deterministic power of economics, which allows no resistance by any other force. Historic development, according to Marx, is determined by the economic condition, that is, that the path of a given society is set by the manner of production and the exchange of goods. People do not shape their historic societal life through reason and free choice. It is just the opposite. “The means of production of vital necessities absolutely controls the social, political, and intellectual life-process. It is not human consciousness that determines existence, but, on the contrary, it is the historical existence which determines the human consciousness.”
Even ideals are mere reflections of the condition of production. This dethroning of the will as one of the consequential factors of history leads, therefore, to this fatalism: the Marxist theory of impoverishment, whereby a few will always be wealthier, others always poorer, and whereby the collective middle and artisan classes are unalterably driven to destruction. Assuredly, after the prophesied apocalyptic collapse of society there will follow a new and better organized one. This too will not be the consequence of human will and its aspiration to justice; rather it will be the consequential development of the modes of production independent of our will.
(To prevent any misconceptions: We have presented Marxism in its mechanistic formulation. It is known that in Leninism it has found an activist interpretation. This is based on a statement by Marx: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. It is up to you, however, to change it.”)
Following the economic fatalism, there is the biological one, based on entirely different presumptions: the teaching of racism, the teaching of the inequality and immutability of the human races. Hereby fatalism is presented in its unadulterated form. Beforehand, it was God who arbitrarily distributed the destinies and who predestined one man to sainthood, the other to damnation. Today, it is hereditary blood. There are talented and untalented races. Only one race is called to take its place at the weaving loom of culture, the Aryan race, and in particular, the German. The others are condemned to unfruitfulness. “Had it not been for the Germans, mankind would have sunk into eternal night” (Chamberlain). [Note: This is referring to Houston Chamberlain, the theoretician of racism who anointed Hitler as the savior of humanity.]
The worthlessness of the other races is as unchangeable as a mathematical proof and as eternal as the law that regulates the path of our planets. This is the will of destiny, and it cannot be changed by any human activity.
There can be no further development of the ungifted races since the hereditary characteristics have not changed over the centuries. “The environment cannot change [the] particular variations of the races” (Eugen Fischer). [Note: Fischer was Hitler’s primary scientist on eugenics and race.] The course of human history is independent of human will. The driving force of historical-social world events is to be found only in the struggle of the higher races against the lower races. Family, religion, and state are only manifestations of blood. There cannot be a concept of humanity as the encompassing unity of all races; so, too, there can be no universally binding human cultural value. The worth of any given value is tied to blood and skull measurements and is therefore altogether relative.
One must end this chapter on the race problem with a Jewish answer. “I call upon heaven and earth as witness, that whether one is Jew or heathen, man or woman, free or slave, the Holy Spirit rests upon each one in accord with his merits” (Tana d’bei Eliyahu, Ch. 8).
From the perspective of the study of intellectual developments, Spengler introduced fatalism into the perspective of his theory of the formation of culture. [Note: Oswald Spengler was a theoretician of the primacy of German civilization; however, he rejected Nazism.] In his analysis, culture is self-sustaining, independent of human willful influence, and free from any goal orientation. “Cultures flourish, and people are transformed in their geographic locales into a folk. They are not the shapers of but [are] shaped by this culture.” Its development is intrinsically bound by law: like all living beings, cultures have their childhood and their blossoming, following which, without any hope, comes their dissolution. They are as bubbles of soap shaped by the straw in the mouth of a child; radiantly and iridescently, they float up, linger awhile, and vanish into nothingness. Likewise, cultures sprout forth from the branch of the Spenglerian deity of Fate into a meaningless existence, and after a brief blossoming disappear just as meaninglessly and without a trace.
Spengler does not recognize humankind. There are only isolated cultures between which no concept provides a bridge of understanding. The members of one cultural circle can never comprehend the members of another cultural circle. Humankind as a whole has no unifying idea, no plan, no goal, no evolution.
The total gruesomeness of such an organic fatalism has been thought through to its historical conclusion by Spengler: everything happens the way it must—as a blind Fate has willed it. Unda fert nec regitur: the stream carries humankind, not allowing any steering of the course. [Note: “One can ride the wave, but not make it” was a favorite quote of the Iron Chancellor Bismarck, the father of what is often termed the Second Reich.]
It is beyond the perspectives of this brief essay to prove that all realms of knowledge are branded by the paralyzing tidal wave of fatalism, or to delineate the ways that they confine the room for play of the human spirit and will.
We need, however, to examine depth psychology [another term for psychoanalysis]. We are cast down by the fatalism of Marx’s modes of production, by hereditary blood racial teachings, by Spengler’s organic culture. Likewise, we are cast down by depth psychology, which evolved out of medicine. This is the fatalism of the subconscious, be it of the individual according to Freud or the collective according to Jung. According to Freud, the function of conscious thought in human endeavor is limited. Past events are forcefully drowned into the subconscious, which functions despite a controlling censor and forms our lives. Freud’s individual subconscious is supplemented by Jung with a collective subconscious, which stems from prehistoric strata in the evolution of our souls. This determines our mental bearing. In contrast with this un- and sub- consciousness, our conscious knowledge is of little bearing. It is not the super-conscious, but the sub-conscious that has the power to shape the destiny of people and to give direction to the tendencies of one’s life-formation.
Indeed, the trap of fatalism is so varied and tightly wound that it leaves absolutely no room for action on the part of human will and consciousness.
We draw the bottom line: All these intellectual circles cut right to the quick, and make cruel sport of ideological and activist factors and disprove the conventional lies. The word ideology is needed only as a contemptuous taste, as Napoleon used it, only in passing. In such an intellectual world, there is no room for a phenomenon such as Judaism with its teleology based on an absolute ground of meaning.
Judaism’s theory of history is activist; the Jewish ethos is a willful ethos; the Jewish religion is outspokenly a religion of will. The originality of Judaism rests primarily on the point that the Bible, for the first time, inquired into the question of the sense and inner unity of all human history and conceived of the individual events of history as steps up to a meaningful and powerful world goal. In contrast to nature, history, for us, is not a constant alternation, constantly in flux, up and down in a mindless fashion. The spirit drives history in its development to ever-higher forms to an ethical humane elevation of human society, despite recurring setbacks. We do not deny the law of reality, which researchers have made clear, but over and above this, there is a law of the ideal; over and above the factual, there is the truth.
Goethe said, “The whole world lies before us as a rock quarry before the master mason who earns his name only when he puts this happenstance mass together with the greatest economy, purposefulness, and resoluteness in accord with his personal original vision.” With these words, Goethe posited the zeal for life of the man committed to action in direct contrast to the fatalist who sees the world as a wave that carries man aimlessly without purpose and without allowing him any means of steering.
No! Humanity is not the disturbed dream of some sleeping deity, and [it is] no mad chaos wildly swirled about by a happenstance. God created the world according to plan. As a perceptive statement of the Midrash says, “He consulted the Torah before He began to create.” The duty of humanity in this world is prescribed in these brave words by an ancient Jewish philosophy of history: “Man is called upon to be God’s co-worker in the act of creation” (Mechilta, Exodus 18:13).
My father was ahead of his time in his astute summation of societal trends and flawed belief systems. The same philosophical, spiritual, and moral challenges face us today. Nazism has been crushed, racism has been shamed out of the living rooms of decent people, communism has fallen, and Freudianism no longer dominates therapy.
However, new challenges to the human soul arise as we advance technologically and become a more global society. Do our genes define us? Is our behavior controlled by hormones in the brain? Are we constrained by our social class, never to move upward? Is some quark playing dice with our universe?
As I read my father’s essay, I recognize that it is up to us to act as God’s co-workers in the act of creation.
Courage of the Spirit:
On the Cult of Naturalism
In a follow-up to his first essay published in the Zurich newspaper, my father took up the cudgel against the neo-Romantic spirit of thought, which proliferated as a form of rebellion against the Reine Vernunft, the Pure Reason of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
The new Zeitgeist emphasized emotion, experience, or will against straight logic as opposed to the ideal or the intellectual, the realm of the mind (as expressed by the term Geist, translated here as Spirit).
While acknowledging the excesses of absolute rationality, he warns of the destructiveness inherent in the unrestrained adoration of the instinctual forces deep within the human soul. This line of reasoning led from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil to the horror of Riefenstahl’s paean to the embodiment of power in Triumph of the Will.
Not only would six million Jews lose their lives, but tens of millions around the world would fall victim to the unbridled power of human savagery.
My father’s second and third essays present the only solution: the application of Chochmah, the wisdom approach of classic Jewish thought, which seeks a fusion of these two dichotomies in human existence.
The following pages contain a complete transcript of these two essays.
The Cult of Naturalism
Jüdische Presszentralle Zürich
(Jewish Central Press of Zurich)
15 Oktober 1937 No. 962 of 15th October 1937, page 1-2 Mut zum Geist - Courage of the Spirit
By Dr. Wilhelm Weinberg, Vienna
Every person, insofar as he has attained a certain intellectual maturity, relives his own expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the land of innocent non-spirituality. The question is whether that Biblical narrator, who told us of the expulsion of the first human couple from Paradise, was correct in his interpretation that the plucking of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge inevitably brought on Death and whether in truth the Tree of Knowledge is the origin of all ills. Judaism has answered this in the negative, and there can be no doubt that the story of the Garden of Eden has come to us from a non-Israelite source.
In contrast, a chain of leading contemporary thinkers has affirmed this view. This is clear from the title of an essay by the Zurich psychologist Ludwig Klages, “The Spirit as Adversary of the Psyche,” one of his best-known works. With this title, the intention is soon made clear: Spirit is in opposition to life; it is the onset of disease, a mistake; it is a danger to life. This tendency is also evident in the title of an essay by the Jewish philosopher Theodor Lessing, whose life ended tragically. “Destruction of the Earth by the Spirit” is how he titles this essay, in which he examines the role of consciousness in the development of the world and comes to the conclusion that it has been disastrous in all ages.
Back to our point: for him (Klages), body and soul are inseparably connected poles of the living cell. A wedge now is being driven between body and soul by the spirit, with the intent to split them apart, to remove the soul from the body and the body from the soul, so that ultimately all life is killed. Hence, there develops a struggle against science; against all that is the product of consciousness; against intellectualism, rationalism, and all movements that derive from these—the natural—all that is the historic and social life that underlies the spiritual. Klages himself establishes a main point, that the phenomenon of morality, the product of the intellect, is the result of bad blood.
The spirit is dethroned as a despot that has annihilated the best values of life. But what has been placed in its stead? The elemental, the natural instinct: blood and earth earn the highest devotion and are elevated to the level of a categorical imperative. Back to guiltless unspirituality, to the world of dumb, instinct-driven life, that calling is the promise of the salvation of all culture.
“My great religion,” so writes the priest of basic instincts, the English author D. H. Lawrence, author of the renowned work The Dark God, “is a belief in the blood, as the flesh being wiser than the intellect. We can go wrong in our minds, but what our blood feels and believes and says is always true.” [Author’s note: I have not found a work with that title or its equivalent in English. This phrase appears in Lawrence’s Kangaroo, and is a theme in his writings. Although probably best known for his racy Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Lawrence detested democracy and was a hero to fascists, even to this day. We fail miserably to understand the nature of Nazism and fascism when we think of them as merely the redoubt of the ignorant rabble. These ideologies have drawn some of the finest intellects of the twentieth century.]
If the word idolatry means more than a simple formal term—more than merely the shaping of molten, hewn, or painted images of a religion and its worship—then the flesh-and-nature worship that goes hand in hand with enmity of the spiritual of our modern idol worship, Abodah Zarah in Hebrew, is the purest water.
As Jews, we flee from the unpleasant, from the suggestion of succumbing to the environment of inherent historical factors such as race, nationality, geographical conditions, the influence of the historic environment. This is reduced to one concept: to favor the natural growth of life to the detriment of the absolute spirit. Although this is humanly understandable, it does not change the fact that it is driven by idolatry. It is a fall from the spiritual when Jews elevate this dynamic recklessness, which life in its full lustfulness endeavors to impose, to the level of divine legislation. Races, peoplehood, climate, and heredity are all facts that cannot be denied. But may one derive any authority in the ideal sense from mere facts? They come to serious implications. Does there not lie in the autonomy of the factual the danger of the demonic? Is the intellect with its a priori forms, as Nietzsche and Schopenhauer claimed, truly imposed over the surface of life? Are feeling and intuition, as per Bergson, the only guide to the truth? Can the “existence of the growth of life occur devoid of thought” as Spengler intended? Furthermore, is the flesh truly wiser than the spirit as Lawrence claimed?
We follow Maimonides and not Lawrence’s “dark god.” In his discussion of false prophets who seek to prove their calling by creating some miracle states, “The eyes of the spirit, which permeates the law, is keener than the deceptive eye of the flesh which sees the miracle.”
Jews have always disdained to howl with the wolves. They had the courage, even in danger, to be “a lamb among seventy wolves.” Did not people boast until recently that they are the sober man among drunkards? This has changed thoroughly. Jews are also eagerly involved in the iconoclasm against everything that is an expression of its critical spirit, and passionately take a stand against intellectualism and rationalism. It should be noted incidentally, not without its own appeal, that in this context the term “intellectual” shows up with a dismissive tone for the first time in the Dreyfus affair. It seems tragic therefore when Jews join in this howling against intellectualism. We too have our neo-Romantics who passionately take sides with the unconsciously driven feud that all that is individually different is historically conditioned, bound in time and space, in a word, that is and ought to preface all need it not finally be in the strongest terms to recall that in the value construct of Judaism, the spiritual and godlike is stressed much more than the sensual and animalistic! Life requires review by the much maligned intellect, that the will to live under the normalization by the conscious, “Thou shalt,” is one of the characteristic dicta that Judaism presents to humanity, to express thereby that what is of nature requires conquest and organization of the moral.
The Enlightenment has ignored the fact of the carnal nature of humanity and its innate soul and thereby removed it from the natural and historical foundations of life. This was the excess surge of what was in itself a rational principle, and we do not deny the danger of emptying our collective culture of its soul, which has occurred. However, these biases were corrected long ago; indeed, to borrow an expression of the late fearless Jewish psychologist Alfred Adler, [they were] overcompensated, and it is now time to oppose the neo-Romanticism with a Neo-Enlightenment. [Author’s note: Adler, known for his concept of the inferiority complex, was one of the guiding figures of the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement in Vienna, of which my father had been a member in his younger years.]
No. 963 of 22nd October 1937, p. 9
We are very far from ignoring the instinct-driven life and pretending as if it did not exist. With such an attitude toward the natural element—a spiritualism of a one-sided concept of the mind that ignores the dark forces of the drives—the instinctual and demonic must have its bitter revenge at the end. Neo-Romanticism is proof in our time. We are witnessing how the repressed dark waters of the instinctual life, in spite of the regulatory commission which Enlightenment imposed, have suddenly broken through the dams of the subconscious mind and flooded the whole of our consciousness. Nietzsche was its first victim and ended in mental derangement, and the German people as a whole were her second victim, which has ended in National Socialism. The one-sidedness of the Enlightenment has been avenged bitterly, and we are careful not to fall back into it.
Within the Jewish spiritual world there exists alongside the one direction of spiritualistic prophecy another direction that is known under the name Chochmah, wisdom. It is known and has made its imprint in many writings and various expressions. Its first beginnings go back to, significantly, the time when the Jews came in contact with the nature-loving spirit of Hellas. This Chochmah knows the bond that exists in all of life is of two distinct halves, the animal-biological and the higher spiritual world, which lie in a constant struggle against each other; she [Chochmah] knows that we must also reckon with the reality of the animalistic. She affirms life. The body is to be preserved and maintained, and not be tormented by asceticism. But she never forgets that this reality is only an infinitely malleable matter, a formless mass out of which she will shape her work. She makes use of nature as the miller makes use of the torrential power of the waterfall; she knows of its demonic nature and transforms it by making concessions into the service of a higher world. The Chochmah shows us the possibility of steering and shaping the instinctual drives and its transformation into a dedicated significant, higher entity. Whoever has impartially studied the history of humanity will admit that this steering of the drives remains the basic requirement of every cultural achievement. The first and last resort for us remains the spirit and not the “dark gods.”
I know it! Yes! Drive—hollow, unruly, wild
Drives, swirls of this life-wheel—but over it
Lights the stars and proceeds to that which is bidden!
~Richard Beer-Hoffman, “The Young David”