Why Study Rosenstock-Huessy

Why Study Rosenstock-Huessy January 16, 2007

Following are some notes from a lecture on Rosenstock-Huessy, the first session of a class on his work.

The scope of his life work is amazing. He wrote on language, religion and the Bible, calendars, time, grammar, a massive and detailed history of the Western world, but he was trained in law and taught the history of law in Germany universities. He’s unclassifiable. When he came to America, he was qualified to teach in several different positions at the college level, at Harvard. He took a chair in German language and culture at Harvard, but he could have taught sociology, law, philosophy, comparative religion. They didn’t know what to do with him, and since he talked a lot about God, he was sent to the divinity school.


He not only a wide variety of different topics and subjects, but they were all all mashed together. He doesn’t treat these things as separable; the integration of his mind is astonishing. There is always a passionate religious impulse behind everything, and it’s all made immediately, existentially real. But he moves rapidly from the large movements of history down to individual and family experience. For instance, he says in Speech and Reality, “Whoever speaks believes in the unity of mankind. And he believes that the unity of mankind is not produced by physical or political or economic or racial reasons but by our faith in speech. We all believe in the Holy Ghost, the Oneness above and around our particular way of looking at the world. The individual’s greatest freedom has as its corollary the spirit’s greatest necessity. If all men are bound by one truth, then my-truth makes sense. If it does not, I go mad with my freedom.” Is this a statement about the philosophy of language? Or politics (freedom and the unity of mankind)? Or theology (“We all believe in the Holy Ghost”)? Or psychology (“I go mad”)?

To take a more extended example: In the modern period, he writes in The Christian Future, people believe that all large organizations are “rational, legal, and mechanical” as well as “logical and systematic”: “And in their center, there stands a typewriter” (both a machine, and a machine for generating plans and reports). This is why moderns are offended by the “perfectly unsystematic, irrational, antilogical” institution, “the poorest organization on earth” but yet “fully alive” – the family, a “colorful folly.” At the center of the family is not a typewriter but “a bed and a stove”; the “unquenchable illogicality” of the family perturbs planners and everyone with a blueprint for the future.

The passion of the planners is commendable, but because their passion is right, their plans must be wrong, because their plans would eliminate passion. Life means vulnerability, the possibility of failures and wounds: “Unless [a man] is willing to call his wounds happiness, he must choose between living frailty and tin-canned orderliness.” Like the family, the church is a community that calls her wounds happiness, and this shows that she is alive. She is not a system, centered on a typewriter; at the center of the church is an altar.

Vulnerability is essential to life: “He who lives can die. A ‘system’ which never lived my linger on forever.” And not only death as the end of life: What distinguishes a living thing from a mechanism is that living things “slough off” the old stages and bring news ones. Rosenstock-Huessy points out that the word “existence” has this notion of passage from one state to another built into it: it “literally means a getting out of one form and into another.” Everywhere, “life is never contained in one form but in the slope from the old which is doomed to a new which triumphs over death.” Children think life comes before death, but that’s not true. Death precedes birth. Before a child is born, he says, the love of the parents comes “as the first signal of their individual transiency.” When a woman and a man fall in love, they are both getting ready “to abandon ship” as individuals. Loves “allows them to make room for the best of their own body outside of themselves and beyond themselves.” Two people who get married acknowledge they are mortal, and “open an exit to life, beyond their two corpses.”

The church likewise is living from death to birth. Struggle follows struggle, as the old is sloughed off. He points to the fact that the “Eastern Churches have gone over to the attack,” advancing against the West, reproaching Western Christendom. This is a “revolution” in a literal sense: Western churches gave assistance to the Eastern after WW 1, and now the roles are reversed. More, it is a kind of resurrection: “The museum piece ‘Eastern Church’ seemed petrified. If anybody, forty years ago, had told us that soon Rome would not be attacked by modernists or atheists but by the Greek Orthodox, we would have laughed. Nearly always the events of today which we ridicule are the serious events of tomorrow.”

So, where have we come? In a few pages, he has been talking about modern bureaucratic planning, the family, the church, love, suffering, vulnerability, birth and death, old and new, progress and petrifaction, and ends with the revival of Eastern Christianity.

It’s not just the range and the integration, but the particular emphases that emerge from his work. He is a thoroughly anti-gnostic thinker, and in being so thoroughly anti-gnostic, he helps to expose residual Gnosticism in lots of places. We think that “ideas have consequences,” that the mind leads us to certain kinds of action. Rosenstock-huessy says that the opposite is true. The body leads the mind; events precede thoughts and reflections about events. Of all the parts of the body, it’s the brain whose cells don’t reproduce. Rosenstock-Huessy not only developed a anti-gnostic body of writing, but incarnated his anti-gnosticism in life. Early on, he was a prominent young German scholar, but he taught adults in many church and community settings, founded an industrial newspaper, set up labor camps and Camp William James, the precursor of the Peace Corps, in order to bring intellectuals, farmers, and workers together in combining their energies to pursue a “moral equivalent of war.”

He is also a radically anti-rationaist thinker. Science, he says, is really good at studying dead things. Dead things are predictable, and you can do repeatable experiments; but living things are illogical, unsystematic, unpredictable, uncontrollable. He dismisses the rationalism of the Greeks and of the Enlightenment as an adolescent obsession: “Natural reason is a very special reason sprouting in the unfulfilled mentality between 14 and 25. It is the Reason of the classroom student. Greek philosophy, eighteenth century enlightenment, America common sense or pragmatism, are gigantic superstructures of these uprooted minds and unloved bodies in their in-between age.”

Rosenstock-Huess, without every using the term, is a profoundly postmillennial thinker. This is evident particularly in his future orientation, and in his recognition that institutions, ideas, systems, have their day and then something new is needed: “Philosophies have their time. It is a misunderstanding to attribute a perennial character to any particular philosophy. Philosophy is the expression of a zeitgeist. Philosophies must be buried at the right time. The Jesuits know that Thomism is dead.” He spoke of the world entering a “Johannine” age of history, an age of the spirit that would move quite differently from the earlier ages of the church: “each generation h
as to act differently precisely in order to represent the same thing. Only so can each become a full partner in the process of Making Man.”

To take a more extended example: In The Christian Future, he discusses the “resurrection of the body” in the context of the work of the Spirit, the third article of the creed. God said that He was making man in His image: and this means that the whole history is a “process of making Man like God”; the new thing in the resurrection and the gift of the Spirit of resurrection is that Christ “enables us to participate consciously in this man-making process and to study its laws. Following patristic sources, Rosenstock-Huessy calls this “anthropurgy,” comparing the extraction of pure metal from ore, with the process of purifying and renewing humanity.

One of these laws of making man is the resurrection of the body. For Rosenstock-Huessy, this means that new kinds of human beings not only exist but can be reproduced: “A new soul, a fresh originality of the human heart, thereby survives the man or nation in which it came to birth and incarnates itself in a spiritual succession of typical representatives through the ages. For there are definite new phases of human existent never lived before . . . and, if they are genuine, they force themselves upon man’s plasticity with such impressiveness that they don the bodies of later men and women in turn, and shame them into the same time.” After Luther, then, many people bear the stamp of Luther. Luther was the first, an original, a new type of man, but soon there are thousands of “Lutherans.” And they really are LUTHERANS, little Luthers, stamped with the image of their leader!

This is not reincarnation, nor mere repetition of the earlier form of man. Rosenstock-Huessy uses Paul’s image of a “natural” seed that rises as a spiritual body to describe how a “new human type” arises when one seed of a new humanity is planted. His own example is St. Francis. Though Francis had no natural children, “Franciscan humanity has flourished ever since, and not only in his Order. The Franciscan way of life, immortally portrayed in The Imitation of Christ, became daily bread for the lives of countless Christians of all denominations, even the most radical Protestants.” This even had political import, as the Franciscan way of life spread to the royal houses of Europe – he mentions the Habsburgs – and to America: Abraham Lincoln entering conquered Richmond in 1865 on foot without entourage is the political triumph of Franciscan mentality; ruler and servant become one.

The resurrection of the body is also evident in the way that every ancient type of humanity was reborn in Christianity: “Anticipating a Last Judgment over our corruptible flesh, they have come into the flesh out of the Spirit, achieving a tempestuous resurrection from the dead in the name of the new life.” Chaldean astrologers come back as modern astronomers, alchemists as chemists, ancient physicians as doctors.

He summarizes by saying that “the story of man since Christ has been the application of the Athanasian Creed to everyday life.”

Rosenstock-Huessy also has striking things to say about the Trinity. He links the articles of the creed – which move from Father, Son, to Spirit – with three epochs of future history: Redemption (Son) first, then Creation (Father), and then revelation (Spirit). During the first millennium, the church concerned with being body of Christ; the second concentrated on restoring creation to its Creator, since after men restored to God, they could begin to purge the world of ungodliness; the next millennium will be the age of the Spirit, which will concentrate on “revealing God in society.”

He points out historically that the word “individuum” means “what cannot be subdivided,” and is specifically used of the Trinity. Peace treaties from 800-1815 were concluded “in nominee individuae Trinitatis.” When applied to man, the word meant that man was made in the image of the individua trinitas: “Man, between 1500 and 1900, could be called an individuum because he participated both in God’s qualities and in the world’s qualities as well. In the middle between the atom and the Trinity, he boasted of ‘individuality.’ This individuum of the Renaissance boasted loudly in the fact of the whole world: ‘I am unbreakable! I am impregnable!’ And Renaissance Man intimidated the powers that be so that they honored his divine triune likeness to the Individua Trinitas!” As a result, “Genius has been given his berth, through patents, copyrights and many other individualistic laws”; and as the image of the Trinity, he “cannot move in any one field without moving at the same time in all others. If our mode of prayer changes, our modes of thinking cannot help changing also.”

Rosenstock-Huessy is also worth reading for how he writes. He interacts very little with other scholars, and this makes him look sui generis, which in some respects he certainly is. But he also claims that he virtually memorized Chesterton’s Heretics and Orthodoxy virtually memorized, and this shows in the pungent, aphoristic way that he writes:

-“Whoever speaks blazes up. Whoever blazes up speaks.”
-“we ourselves never ignite the light of reason; it is kindled in us.”
-“Things are predictable because they do not speak. He who speaks is unpredictable.”
-“The devil is the speaker who does not stand behind and is not overtaken by his word.”
-“Only the word makes what has happened into history.”
-“Without speech man would have no time, but merely be immersed in time. Animals are time’s toys. Men conquered time when they began to speak.”
-“The Living God cannot be met on the level of natural reason because by definition He crosses our path in the midst of life, long after we have tried to think the world into a system.”
-“God’s mind is just as much a metaphor as His elbow. Our mind is not nearer to God than our body.”
-“Modesty is the veil under which life can change.”
-“What we know of ourselves is what is dead in us.”
-“No youthful nation including America has ever settled vital questions by discussion. Against class hatred, sacrifices along can help, sacrificed of a completely irrational character, which cannot be discussed beforehand but must impress themselves by their symbolic potency.”
-“The future does not consist of the extension of existing trends, nor of ideological opposition to them. The future must be created.”

Finally, Rosenstock-Huessy is intriguingly paradoxical, counterintuitive, apparently wrong. On the one hand, he’s a profoundly Christian thinker. He says that the cross is at the center of human history, and he develops his entire view of human experience, history, society, and speech around the notion of a “cross of reality,” which he wants to link with the specific event of Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus makes a permanent difference in history, such that history is a series of deaths and resurrections and human development, collectively and individually, is only through suffering.

Yet he also says things that few Christians would agree with at first hearing. For instance, “the power to speak is God because it unites us with all men and makes us the judges of the whole world.” And “Polytheism is a thousand times truer than deism or atheism.” Near the end of Out of Revolution, he suggests an addition to the creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel: “We might conceive of a pendant to this picture; the end of creation, in which all the spir
its that had accompanied the Creator should have left him and descended to man, keeping, strengthening, enlarging his being into the divine. In this picture God would be alone, while Adam would have all the Elohim around him as his companions.” He contrasts the platonic notion of Being to the gods: “Plato’s ideas are abstract gods. Philosophy is reduced and therefore neutralized truth from Parmenides to Hegel. Only the whole of language together is true. But the Greeks began to say: ‘Being’ and ‘I am that I am’ (which is not in the Bible, but in its Greek translation), and there the academic world of ideals began. ‘I am’ together with ‘I was not’ is meaningful. But ‘I am that I am’ is idiocy.”


Browse Our Archives

Close Ad