Johann Joseph Görres

The originator of the Rheinische Merkur, is one of the first democrats in German history. With words as weapons he passionately fought for freedom and unity of the German nation, for a political system which is predicated on a just order.
In which way the developments of his time - politics, intellectual history and religion - have influenced him is illustrated on these pages.

1 Strong influences

Joseph’s father Moriz Görres was a peasant and winegrower. With a lot of effort he was able to gain wealth as a timber dealer. His childhood was dominated by austerity, work enthusiasm and fear of losing social status. His father enabled him to go to a grammar school. Joseph encountered the theories of progressive thinking and enlightenment in this school run by Jesuits. Reason improves economics, science and well-being of the people. Despite the results of his times Görres didn’t believe in a consistent success. His father’s life as a salesman has left its marks on him. During a lifetime gains and losses must be taken into account – the day of reckoning will come at last. Furthermore there was the influence of a clerically dominated environment: The combination of religion and intellect – a Jesuit attribute – seems to be decisive for Görres. When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth (Ps. 104, 30). Words are the values that convey insight and make it possible to act properly. Görres claims that education and performance are inseparable. The words of knowledge must get through to the head and heart of people. It is not the cold cunning of politics, not the technical refinement that create a new world but the honest interest in people and a prudent and benign involvement of their different concerns. That is how the forces of community are introduced and activated.

2 Church/state

Görres called for the separation of church and state. The clerical segregation from the real state authorities would benefit both of them: In a mixed system religion is opposed to the idea of a civil society and its improvement is hampered. Like- wise the educated people’s acceptance of the Christian message although it embodies freedom. Görres believed that the church would lose its credibility. To avert damage the emancipation of religion must be furthered. If it was dependant to absolutism it would by no means be reckoned as a moral authority. Religion creates public spirit and that’s why there is no efficient community without it. The cohesion in the spirit of charity is necessary to render the dynastic self-interest innocuous. Once it is linked to a ruling system religion is abused and thus becomes «a hiding cloak for avarice and evil passions».The church is culpable if it tolerates disposers who only pursue their personal ambitions for power and not the concerns of all people. The missing attention and the ignorance of the requirement couldn’t be absorbed by the church because of its self-imposed confinement. As a result authority is missing.

3 Common welfare

The mentioned influences caused the development of a socalled theory of welfare, which postulates a synthesis of reason and emotionality as precondition for a successful social and economical change. It was Görres who picked up and enhanced the idea of the Social Contract which was formulated in 1760/61 by Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Rousseau assumed that a rational unity of people who pursue the guaranty of property and security had formed the state. Görres agreed with him, but he amended the model by including the emotional factor: If a single person in a state structure wishes to be connected to others in order to bring about wealth, the «wealth of soul» should be guaranteed at the same time. As a result church was founded. Each one of the two aspects is important to create a solid structure, but they have to be separated: The state authority is not to proceed within an ecclesiastical context and church would only be responsible when it comes to spiritual questions. It should not command people and make someone become its member. The emotional get-together, religion and church, must be exempt from interest in political power. This is the only way the church could guarantee productive impulses (such as approaches and maxims of action) for the society.

4 French occupation

The invasion of the French troops (1794) ended the elector’s regency over the territories to the west of the Rhine (annexation 1801). Görres hoped that a democratic system would be founded which separated religion and state and give a new impetus to both sides. Görres believed that the citizens would be involved in the act of forming a society and thus be able to pursue their own economic and political interests. To him this opportunity was provided by the presence of the French troops. They seemed to be protective to a democratic development. Görres supported the occupation and published writings which solicited support for the occupying force. Unfortunately, he soon realized that his hopes would not be fulfilled. Shortly after that he called the French «thieves and scapegraces» in his publications and claimed an «arrogance of the proud vanquishers». He criticized openly – according to the tradition of enlightenment. The terming of problems is the first step to a solution. Being a little naïve he thought that the French had come in good intentions and would remedy the shortcomings only because of the pressure of the public opinion.

5 Journey to Paris (1799)

When Görres came to Paris, the Revolution has ended with Napoleon’s coup d‘état. Görres who stayed in the city for one year came across a new situation. He was now convinced that the Revolution has failed. Although the improvements of the time – above all the civil code – remained, Görres was not able to detect the spirit of humanity which he had in mind. What he saw instead was rigour, severe discipline and brute force. A general who was shaped by war and convinced by the right of the mighty used the situation to become head of state. According to Görres there were two reasons for the excesses of violence: One of them seemed to be the rejection of Christianity and its morals in the 90s. He emphasized that a society needs values in order to persist, but he did not see any alternative to the traditional ones. Something new could not be created out of nothing. The renunciation of the ethics was the cause of the cruelty of the events and the ferocious- ness. Secondly, Görres recognised onsite that there existed a heterogeneity of the movement: The self-interested ambitions of the ruffian sides had foiled the mutual success. The lack of an entity was definitely connected to the moral decline and the new egoism.

6 Paris: Change of mind

In the aftermath Görres had to draw forceful conclusions from his journey to Paris: The present produced a poor result and the development has to go further. The world cannot change its design immediately so that it has to be assumed that there probably is a «gradual amelioration»: Democracy is not achievable right away. It takes toil and persistency. In spite of this experience he still believed that a rearrangement could be possible. He wanted the focus to be entirely on the «regeneration of the intellectual life» to develop an order which is based on freedom and justice. This order would generate a new thinking so that by acting morally, justly and reasonably a new mentality could be caused. Mankind needs «the perpetual advancement to the ideal of culture and humanity». A change by means of violence does not work. The willingness to stabilize a new system is only possible while people are addressed rationally and emotionally. This thinking derives from Görres’ Jesuit background. In his opinion the best way of conviction was the word. Education and culture create future but it takes time. In consideration of Napoleon’s governance Görres was disillusioned. This led to the end of his political commitment to the Jacobins. He took up a job as a secondary-school teacher in physics in Koblenz.

7 Identification

When Görres pursued his life as a teacher of science he was also dedicated to other academic fields. He was an autodidact who was eager for knowledge. During his leisure time Görres received mediaeval history and old German poetry. The power of emotion, language, music and art would enable to discover the true and good things within oneself and make that someone capable of acting. For Görres it was a metaphysical search. The human being finds to himself and to God whose own image he is said to be. To Görres the different myths were the expression of this search: Even the early mankind beheld the secrets of the divine and maintained it in the purest way. Due to this conviction he analyzed Asian legends and learned Persian and Sanskrit. In 1806 Görres started to lecture philology and philosophy at the University of Heidelberg. It was there where he met Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim. Being influenced by those two romanticists he felt confirmed in his notion that the focus on the intellectual as well as on the mutual conviction creates public spirit. During this era a certain development can be noticed which Görres approved: A part of the educated society turned their attention to romanticism and used the poetry of the German language to set themselves apart from the foreign rule. The intellectuals meanwhile abnegated the «French-rational spirit» which more and more seemed cold and militaristic.

8 A state with soul

Görres was sceptical about France under Napoleon’s rule. The French were not liberators and no proponents of common interests. Instead there was only the consistent pursuance of French concerns. The emperor is said to be strategic, arbitrary and self-interested which does not make any difference to the old despotism. The maintenance of the Napoleonic system could only be granted by fear and terror and hence was controlled by aggression. But the European population was suffering under those acts of war. Napoleon was a restless spirit and following him were millions of roaming ghosts. The restlessness, brutality and renunciation of human values contradict to a system in which economy, religion, decency, science and culture should develop. The state must remain reticent und be built upon stable values to be ensouled.

9 Contra Napoleon

Görres deplored that the continent was corrupted by the continuity of the war. The brutalization started in 1799 in France and has constantly been spread since then. The French system does not internalize the good spirit because it is driven by violence and hence arouses war and suffering. The result is obvious: The aristocracy is impoverished, «scattered [and] abused», the clergy is «humiliated [and] infamized. The financial straits of the cities have increased, the private means are shattered, trade and commerce destroyed, «churchly goods squandered for the most part». Banishment, famine and destruction have become normal to the people all over Europe. The «old decency and ethos were forgotten, youth is […] spoiled by bad education; the public moral poisoned», daughters disgraced. A lot of cities had «makeshift police» and a lot of crime. «All infamous actions that a man’s heart can conceive in its wickedness» were committed. Napoleon is regarded as the result of the reign of terror and at the same time as its climax. In consequence of the reign of terror Napoleon is regarded as its climax. A man of violence who was born by tyranny and who rightly aroused the resistance of the European people. In Görres opinion the battle against Napoleon was legitimate. At the same time he uttered the hope that the fire of violence could be extinguished with fire so that there is a chance for a peaceful and democratic development. If the emperor has no more power, a new time of reason will begin. That is a system which relinquishes a violent implementation of ideas.

10 A vision of Europe

Görres argued that there had to be such stable self-contained political building systems everywhere in Europe. After the downfall of Napoleon the establishment of a new, ballanced Europe would be possible. All people of Europe had to search for their character and a just relationship to their neighbors. The torn Germany had to act as an example during this process. If it is not this role-model, hatred, violence and unreasonableness would reign the state. One day the people would – comparable to what happened in France – cross the borders and throw down «the decayed buildings of Europe to the border of Asia». It is the duty of the nations to search truth and reality within their structure, to keep history and poetry alive so that consequently the power of intellectuality and philanthropy can be revealed. That is the best way to establish a just order which embraces reason and ethics. Görres envisioned a European republic in which the different peoples live together peacefully on the basis of ethics and privities. This Europe is not characterized by devastation but by wealth. This change would be possible, if enlightened governments came into power all over the continent. It is the «duty of every world citizen to support a government that strives after enlightenment.» Thoughts are boundless and the «stream of enlightenment» is able to flow from one country into another: «Publicity is the powerful instrument which sets the realm of the mind in motion.»

11 Society of consensus

The will of a state to open up to the ample world of ideas could ensure the freedom of thinking which leads to the possibility that the single members of the society can bring their interests to bear. All “tensions and differences when it comes to people and institutions” will be “worshipped and approved”, if the position is argued respectably, on a basis of “truth and justice”. Considerateness, non-violence and a sophisticated dialogue are necessary to find a solution for the controversies. Görres found out that a consensus is more beneficial than the undamped collision of contrasts. Without it the state would lose its power. Divergencies could take root and set – just like abscesses that spread in a body.

12 Reformation of traditions

When it comes to the establishment of mechanisms that rule the social co-existence, the spirit of the community must be taken into account to make the change useful for the whole society. One element of this spirituality is tradition: Solidarity, understanding and fraternalism are old values from which new ideas can be drawn. Contemporary reforms should base upon those premises. They already could have been found in the past. A system has been trustfully established which perished in the course of time:

Görres thought that the existence of estates is not generally bad. He believed that feudalism was based on a democratic principle: The ancestors of the now ruling sovereigns were legitimated from below. Warriors and intellectuals were exempted from agricultural work because of their skills. In return they were in charge of controlling the social system.

13 Achievement principle

To Görres the feudal system was the basic principle of his reform. On the one hand he thus wanted to allay the resistance in the years of Restoration and on the other hand he envisioned a good starting point in the traditional social system. The system is appropriate to be democratized as long as the achievement principle is important for a position and not inheritance. The «idea of everyone’s equality before God was carried into the world» by Christianity – but this does not mean that all of their characteristics and talents were neglected. They are God’s will. The different groups of the society must not give in to a state of dissolution. Their features have to be employed beneficially for the common good instead. Thus Görres agreed to keep the nobility as a social group as long as its attributes were redefined. He thought of them as members of the intellectual elite and did not want birth to be decisive when it comes to social affiliation. «Those who are in need for more recognition have to accomplish more.» The social groups were entirely reinterpreted into classes according to profession. This was tantamount to a gradual further development. This modification was to avoid the destruction of a functional system in such way as to avoid wasting substance in the process of democratization. In the end a classification is inevitable. They are rational and legitimate associations of people with the same disposition and goals.

14 Parliamentarianism

How was Görres to create a dialogue between social groups and find a compromise when they are based on history and tradition and have a rooted cultural treasure (poetry and Christianity). This analysis clearly embodies a German national state. Görres was fond of this solution, but he was worried that this aim was too radical in the age of Restoration. First of all he wanted an answer to the single state – a model which later could be applied to the whole country. The local lord was retained in his concept, but Görres did not mention the actual extent of his power. He vaguely hinted that the local lord could continue to embody, represent and emotionalize the tradition. Considering the future parliament, he took up the idea of the mediaeval model, which subdivided the society into labarotes, bellatores and oratores. These classes that were defined as profession classes, were to elect delegates according to their number of members. The state parliaments could one day send delegates from their own ranks to an all-German parliament. The federal state could be represented by an emperor, but the extent of his power when it comes to the executive authority once more is not specified.

15 Epilogue

In the aftermath of the Revolution and the expansion under Napoleon the French terror regime confirmed Görres’ conviction that a democratization of Europe is not possible while people are kept from their Christian and national roots. The return to the heritage of the past is necessary to create the future. A publicity which has its inspiration in Christianity was to launch the reanimation of the spiritual discourse even in the age of restoration. Despite the results of the Congress of Vienna Görres did not lose hope that Germany can be changed. Due to his experiences in France he wanted to avoid any escalation and radicalness. The issue of spirituality resembles a big stream that runs through history. Like the water it is always in motion. It has to flow unhurriedly. If it is too fast, the water will leave its right path. If it is forcibly dammed up, the dam will be damaged and a violent outbreak will be the consequence. He warned the youth not to overdo and hoped that the «matter» won’t be carried «to the extreme». The German people shall recollect their history and culture and search themselves and the good spirit and afterwards create the society according to the demands of the time. From this point of view Görres’ later dedication to Catholicism does not mean in any way a renunciation of his juvenile visions.

Excursus 15a


Excursus 15b