Paulus van Hemert (1756-1825): The Sublime Moralized
Compared to these revolutionary new insights, the atmosphere seemed to remain perfectly calm in the Netherlands. True, the translations of Van Alphen and Van Goens did cause some commotion, but these debates did not lead to fundamental or widespread changes in the cultural landscape: common sense, domestic bliss and virtuousness were more highly thought of than the unsettling genius and spirited idealism of foreign pre-Romantic movements such as the German Sturm und Drang. However, at the end of the eighteenth century things became livelier in the Dutch palaces of culture when a small group of fanatical Kant supporters made themselves heard. The central figure in these circles (in the initial period) was Paulus van Hemert, a theologian and Kantian from the start.
Van Hemert discovered an ethical basis for his rational vision of religion in Kant’s writings. Due to his wife’s deteriorating health, he resigned from his position at the Remonstrant Seminary in Amsterdam in 1796 and moved to Germany, where his wife died a year later. From that moment onwards, Kant became Van Hemert’s great love. He promptly returned to the Netherlands and fanatically began to disseminate this critical philosophy, first with his four-part Beginzels der Kantiaansche Wijsgeerte (Principles of Kantian Philosophy), and subsequently with the Magazyn voor de critische wijsgeerte en de geschiedenis van dezelve (Magazine for Critical Philosophy and its History). He soon gathered a small group of followers, amongst whom the poet-philosopher Johannes Kinker, but an important breakthrough for Kantianism failed to materialize. Van Hemert tried to popularize this new philosophy in the journal Lektuur bij de ontbijt- en theetafel (Reading for the Breakfast and Tea Table), but even that did not to bring the hoped for success. The fact that Van Hemert was nevertheless widely read may be deduced from the many arguments that he became involved in – more than once leading to everyday slanging matches – but he could not convince the public at large. In 1814 he became secretary of the Society for Benevolence and in doing so gave up his philosophical ambitions once and for all. He died on 10 February 1825.
In 1804, however, his enthusiasm for Kant’s philosophy was still very much alive. On 1 February of that year, he delivered his Redevoering over het verhevene (Address Concerning the Sublime) in the select company of the members of the Felix Meritis society in Amsterdam, in the ‘Temple of Enlightenment’ on the Keizersgracht. In this address he emphasizes his belief in ‘’s Menschen voortreffelijken aanleg, zigtbaar vooräl ook in zijne vatbaarheid voor het Verhevene’ (‘Man’s outstanding predisposition, visible above all also in his susceptibility to the Sublime’) as the subtitle of the address reads. Van Hemert begins – of course – almost immediately with Kant, but he takes fully into account the fact that his public is not necessarily entirely familiar with Kant’s complex philosophy.
Although at that time there was no Dutch translation of Burke’s Enquiry, Van Hemert assumes that his audience will have heard at least of what he calls the ‘schrikkelijk verhevene’ (‘the terrible sublime’), a clear reference to Burke’s ‘delightful horror’. Although Van Hemert does not reject this interpretation of the sublime, he emphasizes from the start that fear need not be the only reason for a sublime experience. This is where he sides more clearly with Kant than with Burke. In line with Kantian tradition, he names the too great and the too powerful as the most important sources of the sublime, referring to Kant’s distinction between the mathematical and the dynamic sublime. According to him, man’s outstanding predisposition is found precisely in the way in which he is able to deal with such objects. Whilst animals recoil, humans, being rational, are able to stand at a moral distance. In this experience of the sublime, humans come into contact with the supersensible and, in the wake of his master, Van Hemert emphasizes the moral character of this awareness. However, at the end of his address, he takes a direction that seems less explicitly Kantian. Van Hemert suddenly starts talking about the ‘zedenlijk-verhevene’ (‘moral’ or ‘ethical’ sublime). Seen from the perspective of Kant’s rigid system of thinking, Van Hemert takes a sharp detour: for Kant the sublime is a purely aesthetic concept. Although Van Hemert seems to echo Kant’s statement about his amazement at and respect for the starry heavens above him and the moral law inside him, at the same time he cuts across Kant’s distinction between the ethical and the aesthetic. This is what we would expect: he wants to demonstrate man’s excellent disposition, above all with regard to his susceptibility to the sublime. The shift from the aesthetic to the ethical is a swift one, certainly in an address which admits no systematic exposition.