On the Death of Siegfried Lenz ? ?You have to justify your life?

Siegfried Lenz, one of the great writers of German post-war literature is dead. He died on 7 October 2014, surrounded by his family. He was 88 years old.... more more

GoetheInstitute

12/12/2008

Good readers are cannibals

Kurt Flasch's book "Kampfplätze der Philosophie" strides across the battlefields of philosophy from Augustine to Voltaire. After a weekend spent scribbling furiously in its margins, Arno Widmann was enlightened, exhilarated and hungry for more.

A history of philosophy in controversies. Kurt Flasch, one of leading connoisseurs of Medieval history of philosophy takes us on a twenty-stop tour of people's thoughts about life, the universe and everything from Augustine to Voltaire. He lays it all out before us. It all starts with the debate between St. Augustine and Julian of Eclanum about whether man has the potential for goodness or whether he is sullied at birth by original sin and headed only for hell.

If you spend a weekend in Flasch's seven-mile boots striding through 13 centuries of Occidental reflection, you will understand the impact made by Augustine's option – we are all condemned to sin – and how furiously it was contested over the years. You will also understand – Flasch is most insistent on this – that the debate about whether man is inherently capable of good and evil or whether he is wholly in the grip of evil, resurfaced again and again, to be answered anew in all manner of constellations. And our historian of philosophy is hot on the trail.

The reader will encounter, for example, a passage from Abälard (1079-1142) which Kurt Flasch paraphrases thus: "If the executioners who hammered Jesus onto the cross thought this execution was fulfilling God's will, then they were not only not sinning, they were morally bound to crucify Jesus. When heathens or Jews reject the Christian faith because they don't believe it stems from God, from a moral point of view they are obliged to keep their faith and are therefore beyond reproach.

This attitude won Abälard few friends. It was so plausible that he was accused of "presenting faith as so straightforward that it demanded no effort of the will." Just think of Brecht's "In Praise of Communism": "It makes sense, everyone understands it. It is easy. ... It is not madness, but the end of madness. It is the simplest thing, so hard to achieve."

Flasch's book also has a level of simplicity that is hard to achieve. All you need is curiosity and a bit of patience with your own limitations and hey presto, Flasch has unlocked controversies and texts you were convinced were beyond you. Anselm's proof for the existence of God, for example, the idea that something that cannot conceivably be improved upon, has to exist because otherwise its imperfection would be lacking something essential, no longer seems like a mere sleight of logic thanks to Flasch's explanation. This is because Flasch brings in the objections made by the Benedictine monk Gaunilo and Anselm's subsequent response, and by following the pro and contras of this controversy step by step you understand the thought processes of the adversaries a thousand years after they happened.

Flasch's precise readings are interrupted by thoughts, "about the historical role of polemics" or "praise of mediocre writers" for example. These are not digressions but thoughts which lead to the heart of the sort of history of philosophy which is not interested in systems, big names or eternal questions, but which wants to find out how people in a particular place at a particular time learned about world though thinking and research. And this was done by debating the ideas of the time and the time that went before. Written texts played a key role but they were never set in stone. They were interpreted and applied to individual needs. And Kurt Flasch is an expert at explaining the process. Just read the chapter about Leibniz's critique of Pierre Bayle. Leibniz extends the Augustinian concept of the "city of God" to the entire universe. He sees no other way of defending his view that this is the best of all possible worlds. If you look only at the world of man, Leibniz agrees with Bayle here, you will encounter too much misery and desperation. But you only need to look at the order of the stars to see how brilliantly God constructed everything. This was Leibniz's flight into space.

Flasch retraces these philosophical movements. We follow him as best we can. But he makes us think, too. We drift off and find our own ideas entering the fray. Flasch himself seems to be free of this burden. He keeps his opinions about the ideas and issues to himself. He does not want to tell us was Flasch thinks, but what Berengar of Tours, was Albert the Great and of course what Averroes and Al-Ghazali thought, because without these Muslim thinkers, European history would be unthinkable and indescribable.

At one point Kurt Flasch writes: "The reader of a book will want to know what the author was thinking." This is true for philologists, for historians. But even they will not be satisfied at that. A reader wants to be entertained, wants to learn new things. Even better, he wants to be stimulated. To be stimulated into reading on, researching on, spurred on to a life where knowledge and nescience alternate. "The Battlegrounds of Philosophy" by Kurt Flasch does exactly that. It makes you curious to read Nicholas of Cusa, and it gives you the courage to so do. Flasch showed the reader the buoyant irreverence that led Abälard to compare God with a merchant laying out his gems before his customers who could exercise free will in choosing what they wanted. He encourages you to do the same.

At the end of a weekend spent scribbling notes on twenty controversies with a sharp pencil, this inflamed reader recalled the words of Walter Benjamin, which he read many, many years ago: "Genuine polemics approach a book as lovingly as a cannibal spices a baby."

*

Kurt Flasch: "Kampfplätze der Philosophie"
Verlag Vittorio Klostermann
2008, 362 pages, 34 euro.

This article originally appeared in German in the Frankfurter Rundschau.

Arno Widmann is the feuilleton editor of the Frankfurter Rundschau.

Translation:lp

Get the signandsight newsletter for regular updates on feature articles.
signandsight.com - let's talk european.

 
More articles

From pasta to pyrotechnics

Monday 25 July, 2011

We should be playing more and working less, according to philosopher and author Byung-Chul Han. He argues from the standpoint of Asian thinking yet is firmly rooted in the Western tradition. Ronald Düker visits Byung-Chul Han at the University of Arts and Design in Karlsruhe to find out how to make our minds more supple.
read more

The Freudian romance

Thursday 9 June 2011

TeaserPicSelf-analysis and great romantic literature: Sigmund Freud was separated from his bride Martha Bernays for four years. Almost entirely kept under lock and key until the early 2000s, the first volume of their correspondence, the approximately 1,500 letters of the so-called "bridal letters" has now just been published for the first time. The first of five planned volumes is discussed by Jean Bollack.
read more

The barb of variety

Tuesday 25 May, 2011

Josef H. Reichholf's large-scale study on the origin of beauty that has just been published in German describes evolution as a kaleidoscope of possibilities and productive wastefulness that relativises all mechanics of necessity. The more complex organisms become, the more they liberate themselves from external living conditions and allow the attraction of beauty to play out its anarchic game. By Horst Bredekamp. Image courtesy Jörg Hempel.
read more

Save Benjamin from his fans!

Monday 11 October, 2010

TeaserPicWalter Benjamin took his life seventy years ago. Today the cult of Benjamin has turned him into kitsch and his almost entirely false theories into intellectual blancmange. Author Stephan Wackwitz picks apart the legend of a saint whose work should be read as Romantic literature.

read more

Chalk and the abyss

Wednesday May 19, 2010

As rector of the Albert Ludwig University in the winter of 1933/34, Martin Heidegger gave a seminar which was said to contain decisive evidence of the total identification of his teachings with the principles of Hitlerism. Now, thanks to his son Hermann Heidegger, the secret transcripts of this seminar "On the Essence and Concepts of Nature, History and the State" have been published for the first time. By Alexander Kissler
read more

The attack of the 13th fairy

Wednesday 9 February, 2010

Filmmaker and writer Alexander Kluge is no optimist, but he knows ways out of the present. Freitag magazine engages him in a conversation about the World Wide Web, dragonflies, the belief in better human beings and why he likes "gardener" as a job description.
read more

The origin of the world

Thursday 18 June, 2009

TeaserPicMithu M. Sanyal, a self-proclaimed "provocative feminist", has written a cultural history of the vulva. Richly illustrated and packed with knowledgeable synopses, it has directed the media spotlight into a symbolic and semantic void. By Ulrike Baureithel
read more

Mohammed on the "straight path"

Tuesday 8 April, 2008

Did the Prophet Mohammed only become a power-conscious religious politician in Medina, where he emigrated from Mecca in 622? Author of a new Mohammed biography, Tilman Nagel has found much to indicate the absence of any genuine break in the evolution of this religious founder.


read more

A new cosmopolitanism is in the air

Wednesday 21 November, 2007

The global power of capital has no need for military force. And it is nigh on boundless. Sociologist Ulrich Beck presents seven theses for a better world.
read more

Banished to the banlieues

Wednesday 14 November, 2007

The Parisian social sciences institutes are being turfed out of their ancestral homes in the city's most desirable arrondissements and relocated to Aubervilliers. A bitter pill, but also a chance to turn theory into practice. By Wolf Lepenies
read more

Children of the sun

Wednesday 12 September, 2007

All light-generating substances, as well as the oxygen they consume, stem ultimately from trapped solar energy. The pulsing points of light in the depths of our oceans are distant offspring of the sunlight. Biochemist Gottfried Schatz follows light across time and space, from the Big Bang to the ocean floor.

read more

"The time for philosophising is over"

Monday 20 August, 2007

Ernst Tugendhat, philosopher and critic of German pseudo-profundity, talks to Ulrike Herrmann about the fear of death, Heidegger, anti-Semitism and unfounded speculations in brain research.

read more

Dumber in English

Thursday July 12, 2007

Is German academic language dying in the face of the dominant Anglo-Saxon? Well, revive it! Biophysicist and author Stefan Klein doesn't think German scholars should try to impress the world with mediocre English. He makes a case for the mother tongue, proposing incentives such as prizes for the best scientific texts. After all, everyone craves rewards.

read more

Philosopher, poet and friend

Tuesday 12 June, 2007

The American thinker Richard Rorty passed away on Friday at his home in California. German philosopher Jürgen Habermas tells what makes Rorty unique among intellectuals, and what binds Rorty, orchids, and justice on earth.

read more