Images of Enlightenment: The Lamp and the Sun

This is the time of year when — at least in the northern hemisphere — the days grow sadlight-1shorter and nights grow longer. Since I am prone to a mild case of seasonal affective disorder, I respond to the change by dragging a high intensity light out of the closet and zapping myself with it in the morning. This year the encroaching darkness and attendant sense of gloom has been enhanced by the decision of my fellow citizens to see what would happen if the highest political office in nation was bestowed upon a racist sexual predator with a limited attention span, a casual relationship with the truth, and what would appear to be a rather well-developed narcissistic personality disorder. I doubt this experiment will turn out well.

So, I thought I’d supplement my daily inoculation with high-intensity light with a few thoughts on a more pleasant topic: eighteenth century allegorical frontispieces (feeling happier yet? Stay with me). Back in the summer of 2014, inspired in part by spending some time working through Hans Blumenberg’s discussion of the metaphor of light as truth, I posted a discussion of a few examples of the genre and followed it with a closer look at two of the great James Gillray’s works: “A Peep into the Cave of Jacobinism” (an engraving he executed for the Anti-Jacobin Review) and “Smelling Out a Rat”, his contribution to the flurry of prints that greeted the publication of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. I later pulled some of this material together for an article for the journal Diametros.

In hopes of dispelling at least some of the darkness, I thought I’d devote this post to a couple of other engravings that, while nowhere near as engaging as Gillray’s work (an impossibly high standard to match) are not without some interest: Egid Verhelst’s engravings for Friedrich Carl von Moser’s Neues Patriotisches Archiv für Deutschland. While Gillray portrayed the struggle between Jacobins and their opponents as a contest between darkness and light in which the ultimate victory of what he (or, at least his employers) took to be the forces of light would appear to have been a foregone conclusion (Magna est veritas et prævalebit and all that), Verhelst’s are considerably more restrained and engimatic and, for that reason, perhaps more appropriate for the unsettled times into which we seem to be sailing.

Moser and Verhelst

While Friedrich Carl von Moser (1723-1798) was fairly well-known in his own day, he is not a figure who looms large in current discussions of the Enlightenment. I included two of his friedrich_karl_von_moser_1723-1798pieces in my What is Enlightenment? collection, though searches on the web suggest that Anglophone scholars have had little interest in him. He had a lengthy career as a civil servant who (aside from a stint at the court of Joseph II Vienna) spent most of his time in the smaller German courts (including service at the beginning and end of his life at Darmstadt). At the same time he managed to make a name for himself as a writer with a series of works on statecraft and politics (e.g., his 1759 Lord and Servant and a Montesquieu-inspired contribution to exchanges on the nature of the “German national spirit” dating from 1765).1 His admirers included Hamann and Herder and it is possible that Goethe drew on some of his works during the writing of Götz von Berlichingen.2

Moser was the editor of the Patriotisches Archiv für Deutschland (1784-1792) and its successor, the Neues Patriotisches Archiv (1792-94). In the preface to the latter, Moser characterized the journal as focusing on issues in “political morality” and history and as aiming to combine the “good old with the good new”, with the criteria for the “good” defined by Christian belief and a commitment to a hierarchically ordered corporative social order.3  Verhelst (1742-1818) was responsible for the images that appeared in both journals. Those in the Patriotisches Archiv tended (with a few exceptions) to be portraits (including a few of Moser), while the two that appeared in the Neues Patriotisches Archiv were allegorical. I’ve found very little information about Verheist. The laconic entry him in the Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie (which dates from 1895) tells us that he was born in Ausburg, held an academic position at Mannheim, died in Munich and was best known for his portraits, quite a few of which can be found online.4

The two engravings for the Neues Patriotisches Archiv do not turn up in perfunctory searches, but since both volumes of the Neues Patriotisches Archiv are available on the Haithi Trust site, it is easy enough to track them down. The engraving for the first volume — an image of an oil lamp, resting on a small hill and illuminating the surrounding darkness — took its inspiration from Moser’s Preface to the volume, which likened his launching of the new journal to a replenishing of the oil in his lamp and proclaimed the motto which appears beneath the lamp: “To Illuminate, Not Ignite”.

The engraving for the second volume is much stranger. In the foreground a night watchman with a lantern at his side turns surveys the empty street of a town. On the horizon, at an indeterminate distance beyond the orderly row of houses, a massive conflagration rages.

The beneath the engraving motto reads: “I do my part.”

In the confident frontispiece that Gillray executed for the inaugural issue of the Anti-Jacobin Review, the torch that the allegorical figure of Truth holds aloft both enlightens and ignites: the rays of light that stream into the cave cause the seditious pamphlets to burst into flames.   But in Verhelst’s engravings , fire is something that must be carefully contained, lest it inflame rather than enlighten. The consequences of a flame that escapes the confines of the lantern is apparent from the inferno raging on the horizon. And while the starry sky above still offers (as it had in Plato’s allegory) a means of orientation, the stars are already being obscured by the clouds that pour from a conflagration that — begun in Paris — now threatens to consume the world.

The Fire and the Sun

The contrast between Gillray and Velhelst serves as a reminder that images of light and fire work in different ways: while fire appears as both scourge (for the wicked) and menace (even for the righteous), representations of light have tended to be unproblematically affirmative. To pick one of the many possible examples, the image entitled “Enlightenment” executed by the famous Berlin engraver Daniel Chodowiecki in the Göttinger Tachenkalender for 1792 depicts the morning sun rising over the hills behind a small village.

Chodowiecki went on to explain that, since “enlightenment” was a relatively recent achievement, there was no generally accepted allegorical representation for this “highest work of reason.” Making the case for his use of the image of the rising sun, he noted that — though it might occasionally be concealed by the fog arising from “swamps, censers, and burnt offerings” — as it makes it steady ascent it inevitably drive away the morning fog that obscures it.5

In a brief article in the Teutsche Merkur written shortly before the storming of the Bastille, Christoph Martin Wieland quipped that — with the exception of “a single laudable and communally useful activity” — there was nothing that honest people could do in the darkness except sleep. Only those who had an interest in concealing their schemes had anything to fear “when it becomes brighter in the minds of men …” and there was, he insisted, every reason to be suspicious of their calls for limits on the spread of enlightenment. The enemies of enlightenment could be counted on to “do everything they can to obstruct, to nail shut, and to stop up all openings, windows, and crevices through which light can come into the world” were biding their time, waiting for the chance to “smash the lanterns which provide us and others with some light to see.”6

But while light — at least outside the bedroom — was an unmixed blessing, eighteenth-century city dwellers would have been well aware of the potential dangers of oil-lamps and fires. And if the natural ascent of the sun into the heavens was always a blessing (and I’m looking forward to the days when it rises higher and lingers longer), Verhelst’s engravings served as a reminder that the fires that had been brought into cities to illuminate the darkness need to be used with care — which was precisely the message that Moser wished to convey.Sun

  1. For a discussion of the latter, see Nicholas Vazsonyi, “Montesquieu, Friedrich Carl von Moser, and the ‘National Spirit Debate’ in Germany, 1765-1767,” German Studies Review 22:2 (1999): 225.
  2. Detlev W. Schumann, “Goethe and Friedrich Carl von Moser: A Contribution to the Study of ‘Götz von Berlichingen,’” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 53:1 (1954): 1–22. I should caution that I am not a Goethe scholar and I have no idea whether the arguments of this old article have held up. 
  3. Friedrich Carl von Moser, “Vorrede,” Neues Patriotisches Archiv für Deutschland, Vol 1 (1792), iii. 
  4. Fourteen are available via the Wikipedia
  5. Quoted in Ulrich Im Hof, “Enlightenment – Lumieres – Illuminismo – Aufklaerung:  Die ’Ausbreitung Eines Besseren Lichts Im Zeitalter Der Vernunft,” in “Und Es Ward Licht”: Zur Kulturgeschichte Des Lichts, ed. Maja Svilar, Universität Bern: Kulturhistorische Vorlesungen 1981/82 (Berlin: Peter Lang, 1983), 115–35, 115-6. 
  6. Christoph Marin Wieland, “A Couple Gold Nuggets, from the … Wastepaper, or Six Answers to Six Questions,” in  James Schmidt, ed., What Is Enlightenment?: Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996) 80-81.  I suppose this is as good a place as any to explain that the ellipsis in the title appears in German original.  From the context, it is clear that the German word that Wieland has removed might best be translated as “shitty.”   

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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2 Responses to Images of Enlightenment: The Lamp and the Sun

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  2. Pingback: What We’re Reading: Nov. 14-19 | JHIBlog

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