The Clandestine Source of Modernity Radical Early Enlightenment in Germany 1680-1720
Moderne aus dem Untergrund. Radikale Frühaufklärung in Deutschland 1680-1720 (Hamburg: Meiner, 2002).
514 pp. 58 Euro.
rule  Reviews  rule
Friedrich Niewöhner in
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung,
8.7.2002, p. 39.

Radicals in intellectual service. Underground: Martin Mulsow gives a new interpretation of the Early Enlightenment


[...] Mulsow's indifferentist and eclectic thinkers at the margins of the Early Enlightenment cannot be found in any philosophical dictionary. In painstaking microscopical work, Mulsow is able to dismantle pseudonyms and anonyms and to identify authors. In remote locations he uncovers treatises, which are completely forgotten today and which sometimes exist only in manuscript version.

Mulsow is the learned detective among the historians of philosophy. The story which he is well-equipped to tell is breathtaking. Since the author knows to write a story, he has a feeling for these situations, in which his texts were created: playful utterances of doubt in circles of friends, ironic and mocking discourses among students and young scholars are often departure points for what would later, step by step and almost unrecognised, become sincere conviction and a firm philosophical position. These positions then have been described as the theses of radical Enlightenment thinkers. Mulsow's discovery of these pragmatic aspects of the emergence of bold theses of dissenters against church orthodoxy and Christian Platonism equally provided new impulses for future research. [...]

Mulsow's book corrects the prevailing image of the Enlightenment, because it shows - although it may have been forgotten - what was part of it as well. In fact, this period of departure into modernity becomes quite appealing, once we read how these men experimented and tinkered with new ideas, how they tried new possibilities of religious criticism and how small groups on the margins of European politics displayed the courage to dispel orthodoxy and its sanctified traditions spontaneously and without any system into the chaos of the night still before the age of critique. It was the beginning of what is now called tolerance.


Kurt Flasch in
Süddeutsche Zeitung
Sunken continent of two hundred writings. A Sherlock Holmes of modern history of philosophy, Martin Mulsow discoveres the radical early Enlightenment in Germany

[...] Martin Mulsow [...] researches in archives and libraries. He ventures through the decades of gradual restoration after the destruction of the Thirty Years War and he directs us to rare Latin manuscripts, which were distributed clandestinely, and which are therefore called "Clandestina" (clandestine texts). He identifies authors' initials, he reconstructs correspondences and teacher-student relations. He interprets intellectual history as a process of communication.

For him, the period between 1680 and 1720 is not confined to the big names, sc. to Leibniz and the debates around Spinoza. He uncovers forgotten thinkers and corrects our picture of the intellectual landscape in Germany. We had learned that while in France there were radical intellectuals of the Enlightenment, in Germany the boundaries had been different: there, only "moderate" intellectuals stood against orthodox theologians. They are called "moderate" because they did not write anti-theologically, but rather pursued a policy of well measured reform of the humanities and sciences. They were neither sceptics nor epicureans, they avoided naturalism and even more so atheism. They were sociable, thus they were appreciated and received a place in our histories of philosophy.

In seven case studies, however, Mulsow corrects this harmonized picture of German intellectual history. He discovers a number of texts that have become rare: letters, articles, printed and manuscript treatises by German authors, whom he labels as "radical thinkers of the early Enlightenment". He looks for the rebels, the sceptic and the mischievous, the suppressed and the persecuted, early doubters and isolated atheists, who have not been included into the Walhalla of Great Thinkers, because they travelled far from the mainstream. He calls his method a "philosophical micro history". I call him the Sherlock Holmes of modern history of philosophy. [...]

Mulsow goes into detail. He doesn't talk about Pufendorf or Thomasius, nor about Leibniz. He looks for the hidden scenery, but he doesn't get lost in particulars. He shows networks; he creates a mosaic out of small pieces; he displays the "personal and intellectual interconnections of the radical early Enlightenment in Germany". They serve him to apply some "theories of medium scope". [...]

In his new book, he draws an overall picture of early radicalisation. In doing so, he provides a history of critique of religion during the early enlightenment. Admiringly, he connects single disciplines and demonstrates unexpected mutual impact between oriental studies and science, Bible exegesis and history, and above all between jurisprudence and philosophy. With close conceptual differentiation he opens up a wealth of new material. He is aware of the pragmatic status of utterances; he takes irony and mocking in old texts into account. He knows about writing under the circumstances of censorship. The process Mulsow describes occurred in Protestant Germany, but freedom of thought was by no means better among Lutherans than it was the case in Rome. The main protagonists in Germany maintained a lively international intellectual exchange, mainly with England and the Netherlands. Mulsow follows these connections and takes international research into account. [...]

The impact of innovation in late seventeenth century has already been recognized by Paul Hazard, in his famous book on the crisis of the European Mind. Italian scholars like Tullio Gregory followed him, and today there are a good number of English and American studies. But the significance of Mulsow's monumental work lies in the fact that he connects several hitherto unconnected currents of research: the history of ideas of Enlightenment philosophy, the archival registration of clandestine texts, and the analysis of communication structures in the European Republic of Letters. Mulsow does not overemphasize his results: there was a radical Enlightenment in Germany, but it occurred "only as a marginal phenomenon of persecuted thinkers and probably a greater number of extremist students."

A special appeal gets this book through its deciphering of deputizing debates. The period around 1700 discussed historical and philological questions, when people in fact wanted to clarify contemporary problems. [...]

Another advantage of this book is its being conscious of the methods that it uses. Methodological reflection always follows the historical information. [...]

Mulsow has written a fresh and learned book. It has all chances to be this year's best German book in intellectual history.


John Christian Laursen in
Journal of the History of Philosophy 41 (2003) pp. 419 f.

This is a marvelous, detailed, textured study of a large number of minor works and minor figures that developed and transmitted many of the elements of modern philosophy in early modern Germany. Many of the texts were written in Latin, and only some were published. One should not teach the philosophy of the Enlightenment from Hazard or Cassirer without attention to these figures, whom they did not know. Now we know where our heroes like Lessing, Hume, and Kant got many of their fundamental ideas.

Martin Mulsow ends this book with ten theses. The first holds that most of the authors discussed were radicalized in a multi-layered process, not simply from the reading of Hobbes, Spinoza, Bayle, or Toland. For example, one could take the role of an opponent in an academic disputation, and bit by bit begin to believe one's unorthodox role. Or one could be provoked by ultra-orthodox opponents to explore the opposite of what they believed. Some authors evolved into and out of radical positions over the course of their lives.

Further theses contend that small, trusted circles of friends were often the enabling condition in which unorthodox views were first expressed and then hammered out. Irony, satire, paradox, and ambivalence played key roles. It is often difficult to tell whether some of these texts were serious or intended as jokes, and perhaps the authors did not always know themselves. Some radical ideas were spread simply by curious erudites who assembled collections and bibliographies of radical manuscripts and texts without believing them.

Mulsow shows how people wrote on controversial topics in coded scholarly language. Spinozism was discussed under the rubrics of Platonism and Stoicism; the sovereignty of the people was considered in terms of the lex regia; and Biblical criticism became code for the physicians' rejection of the materiality of the soul. Thus philosophical discourse can be found where one might least expect it in legal, philological, historical, and scientific debates. The numerous case studies that the author assembles amount to philosophical microhistory.

Substantial chapters deal with various aspects of the intellectual stew that emerged from the bubbling pot of Jews and Socinians and other Christian sects that were semi-tolerated in the Netherlands. Unlike any construction of moderate and radical positions as opposed and at odds, Mulsow shows how they were often intertwined. The destruction of Christian Platonism, the paradoxical development of Enlightenment ideas out of anti-humanism, and the uses of so-called eclecticism in philosophy made possible the assembly of modern philosophical positions.

In yet another paradox, many of these writers belong to what has been called the "conservative Enlightenment", intending only to temporize and draw the teeth of the political and philosophical radicals, and yet their writings systematized and transmitted the ideas of the radicals, opening the way to further radicality. It is a perennial weakness of the skeptics and proto-liberals like Gundling that they defended freedom of thought and libertas philosophandi even where it would undermine the ideas and institutions in which they believed.

Most of the philosophically radical positions began as critique of theological positions, and this is one reason why it is ever more apparent that one cannot understand the rise of modern philosophy without a close acquaintance with early modern theology. None of the early modern philosophers we are trying to understand was ignorant of the many levels of theological debate. There are numerous connections to later times: for example, a seventeenth-century debate over political theology anticipated Carl Schmitt's twentieth-century rediscovery of this topos.

Mulsow places the Enlightened ideas of Locke and Newton in the context of their basis in the theology of anti-Trinitarian Socinians and Arians such as Samuel Crell. This was as important to many who radicalized it as the Spinozism credited with spawning the radical Enlightenment by others.

Along the way, Mulsow identifies the authors of several previously unidentified anonymous pieces. Moses d'Aguilar is the author of the Jewish anti-Christian manuscript, Judaeus Lusitanus. J. J. Müller the author of the Latin Three Impostors; Jacques Souverain the Huguenot author of Le Platonisme devoilée; and Mulsow suspects Johann Salvius of being the author of Ineptus religiosus, which Lessing sought to vindicate in the mid-eighteenth century.

Mulsow's final thesis is that the older picture of a few giants of Enlightenment philosophy standing alone, seeing clearly, and bravely forging new and liberated ideals must be supplemented by an appreciation of the role of larger numbers of thinkers with divided loyalties, nagging doubts and self-doubts, caught up by irony and paradox, who nevertheless provided the texts that the Lessings and the Holbachs forged into modernity.

rule  Contents  rule
  1. Introduction: Radicalism as a problem for research
    1. Distinct fields of research: clandestine literature, early German enlightenment, and history of scholarship (2)
    2. Problems of a monographic account in the history of ideas (8)
    3. Period of eclecticism and conservative enlightenment (13)
    4. The language of scholarship (18)
    5. Plurality: Theories of medium scope (20)
    6. Contingency, irony, and non-intended consequences: On the pragmatics of philosophical utterances (23)
    7. Synergetic effects: disciplines, debates, European perceptions (25)
    8. Philosophical microhistory (27)
    9. The problem of singling out a corpus of sources (32)
    10. On the structure of this work (37)
  2. Ambiguities of Scholarship: A Jewish anti-Christian Manuscript and its Journey through the German Early Enlightenment
    1. Jewish clandestine texts and the German enlightenment (41)
    2. Jaquelot's activities. Huguenots, Arminians, and Socinians (45)
    3. Looking for the author: La Croze, Unger, and Wolf (51)
    4. D'Aguilar's text (63)
    5. Samuel Crell and the Judaeus Lusitanus (68)
    6. The road towards an atheist enlightenment (75)
  3. Socinian Enlightenment. Samuel Crell's European Networks
    1. Samuel Crell (85)
    2. A private communication (86)
    3. John Locke's notebooks and Arminian enlightenment (93)
    4. Jews and Socinians (96)
    5. A journey into the trinitarian controversy in England (99)
    6. John Spencer and Isaac Newton: A hypothesis (107)
  4. Atheism in the Heart of Orthodoxy? On the Genesis and Early Dissemination of Johann Joachim Müller's De tribus impostoribus (1688)
    1. Johann Joachim Müller on his way to Kiel (116)
    2. Idolatry, superstition, sacrifice: the history of the corruption of primeval religion (123)
    3. The problem of "fides" in De tribus impostoribus (131)
    4. An English parallel: Oriental studies, politics, and history in Henry Stubbe (138)
    5. Pastores sive Impastores (140)
    6. A student in the heart od darkness (143)
    7. Investigations from Rostock (148)
    8. Silent insiders (151)
    9. Again: the road to an atheist enlightenment (158)
  5. Political Theology: On Reason of State, Historical Pyrrhonism, and Critique of Religion
    1. Secularization and political theology (161)
    2. The Divine and the impenetrable in the disciplines: Daniel Georg Morhof (165)
    3. The theology of the pagans and the politics of absolutism (173)
    4. Fatum politicum, political idolatry, and earliest wisdom (181)
    5. Cimbrian pagans and taumathurgic kings (190)
    6. The beginning of the end of the Divine in politics (194)
    7. Against Divine law in particular, and against Morhof in general: Johann Friedrich Kayser (204)
    8. Political religion in Daniel Clasen (215)
    9. Politics, religion, and skepticism: Friedrich Wilhelm Bierling (223)
    10. Politics, religion, and radical skepticism: the clandestine Symbolum sapientiae (231)
    11. Skepticism and esotericism: Johann Georg Wachter (241)
    12. Political theology as excuse? (247)
    13. Summary: the controversy over the "divinum" - birth of the enlightenment from the spirit of anti-humanism? (254)
  6. The Destruction of Christian Platonism: Souverain's Platonisme devoilé (1700) and Gundling's Plato atheus (1713)
    1. Le Platonisme devoilé (261)
    2. Tolerance, Logos-Christology, and Arminian Enlightenment (267)
    3. The trinitarian debates in England after George Bull (271)
    4. 4. The complex genesis of antiplatonism (276)
    5. The labyrinth of subordinatianism (280)
    6. Gundling and Souverain (288)
    7. In the footsteps of Jacob Thomasius and Pierre Bayle (291)
    8. Platonism of the Church Fathers, Spinozism, and Plato's atheism (299)
  7. Gundling and Buddeus: Skeptical versus Conservative Enlightenment
    1. A Dialogue in the kingdom of the dead (309)
    2. Adam the pedant and Adam the farmer (315)
    3. Natural law, the Fall, and the philosophy of the Hebrews (324)
    4. Budde's doctrine of will and intellect, and the structure of conservative enlightenment (330)
    5. Excursus: Conservative enlightenment in Johann Lorenz Mosheim (337)
    6. Theological skepticism and natural law in Gundling: the controversy over Hobbes' "God's body" (341)
    7. On the road to a critical history of philosophy (348)
  8. Eclecticism and Indifferentism: The tradition of "religio prudentum" from Ineptus religiosus (1652) to Religio eclectica (1702)
    1. The Ineptus religiosus and its significance (355)
    2. Antipedantism, heroism, and eclectical religion: on the structure of the text (364)
    3. Johann Balthasar Schupp and his circle (375)
    4. Resistance against the authorities (380)
    5. Erasmus' Moriae Encomion and the ironic and burlesque technique of the Ineptus religiosus (384)
    6. Arminians, Socinians, Jews: the culture of eclecticism in the Netherlands (390)
    7. The manuscript distribution and Lessing's partial translation (396)
    8. Lutherian orthodoxy's combat against religio prudentum (409)
    9. Religio prudentum and political religion (416)
    10. Pietism, early enlightenment, and indifferentism: the young Jacob Friedrich Ludovici (423)
    11. Irony lost: eclecticism and religio prudentum in Johann Christian Behmer (426)
    12. Epilogue: Eclecticism and distance: Theodor Ludwig Lau and the paths to high enlightenment (432)

Summary (439)