Friedrich Heer

Friedrich Heer (10 April 1916–18 September 1983)

Today is the birthday of German historian Friedrich Heer (10 April 1916–18 September 1983), who was born 116 years ago. Heer mostly wrote about medieval European history, but also wrote some books on contemporary history. He began his The Medieval World: Europe 1100–1350 with a reflection on historical objectivity and the situatedness of the historian in relation to the society whose history he narrates:

“People who can write about Europe from the outside have the advantage of being able to take an objective view. A degree of detachment may even be possible for Englishmen, who from early medieval times have been in the habit of thinking of their country as an alter orhis, a world in itself, distinct from continental Europe. The writer of this sketch of European civilisation between 1100 and 1350 has had no such advantages. This is a book written by a European living in central Europe, where much that was medieval is still contemporary, and this may have been something of a handicap.”

Heer concluded his book Charlemagne and His World with the reflection that the empire of Charlemagne constituted the beginning of the middle ages, a later periodization of the advent of the middle ages than most historians would postulate:

“German historians of the nineteenth century liked to call Charlemagne ‘the Father of Europe’. It is not inappropriate. Charlemagne came to the throne among the ruins of Rome, in the lull before the last eddies of the Germanic migrations; his creation of an empire was the first event of the middle ages.”

In the first chapter of his The Holy Roman Empire, Heer quotes Prince Karl Schwarzenberg…

“Five thousand years measure the flight path of the imperial eagle as he makes his way from the temple towers of Eridu towards the setting sun and the evening mists veiling the future of the atomic age.”

…and then comments on this in a way that both looks forward to the far future while implicitly invoking an historical uniformitarianism that discovers parallels between the distant past and the distant future:

“The post-Copernican era was launched with the first space rockets. In the not so distant future the new Columbus, homo cosmonautus, may be planting pockets of himself and his life-style in some galaxy, just as his forebears once planted colonics first round the Mediterranean and later in the two Americas. This open cosmos presents man with a challenge lie finds hard to bear.”

In the paragraph following this, Heer expands on these challenges in a way that makes the Holy Roman Empire an integral part of history itself, a kind of framework that we are still building upon even as the empire itself is formally defunct:

“The terrors of the irrational, of the empty and unknown, are so immense that they can be mastered only through action, knowledge and experience. In the past, man’s existential affirmation of himself was clothed most readily in military-political forms, forms which with the overthrow of the five-thousand-year order have become all the more perilous. Within the old order man inhabited what the Romans described as an urbs deis hominibusque communis, a household common to gods, men, beasts, all living things. There might be times when this household was in open disorder: it appeared in this light to the Hebrew prophet in Nineveh, to Roman poets and politicians who lived through the unending civil wars which preceded the triumph of Augustus, to Dante and the medieval German mystics, to a Nicholas of Cusa, a Leibniz or a Goethe. As a great sacral-political order the household was continually threatened from within or without, by foreign conquerors, by regicides and renegades, by pretenders to the throne, by rulers who were either too strong or too weak. Yet all these enemies, and especially those who were the order’s bitterest foes, were seeking in their own fashion to renew it; if they seized power it was to re-establish continuity. This could even be said of Napoleon and those who followed him. The conception of the Holy Roman Empire as a unique barrier against the coming of antichrist still had a place in the thought of Bellarmine, one of the most important papal theorizers of the early modern period; more significant still, it is also implicit in the thought of constitutional philosophers and theorists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.”

From the perspective of the philosophy of history, Heer’s most important work is The Intellectual History of Europe, a history of ideas that could fairly be called a philosophical history of Europe. Husserl, whose birthday we noted day before yesterday, didn’t use the phrase “philosophy of history,” but he did use “philosophical history,” and the possibility of a philosophical history has been around at least since Buckle, if not earlier. I do not know of any attempts to define “philosophical history” or to distinguish it from philosophy of history, though presumably philosophical history is a history that emphasizes philosophical themes, perhaps to the exclusion of the more familiar themes of names, dates, and places.

Heer ends this book with a discussion of language that anticipates our contemporary world of sound-bites and talking points:

“The vocabulary of the masses in Europe comprises some thousand words, a few hundred fixed sentences and two dozen favourite phrases and technical formulae. Men are able to express all available sentiments, actions and reactions in the sexual, political, social and economic spheres. The culture-industry has recognized this fact, as have the speakers at international congresses who have worked out a few hundred bits of jargon to enunciate everything to be said about God, the atom, the cell, the transmission of grace, the construction of a bridge, philosophical questions and the building of an electronic tube. The summaries of theological congresses are no different. The apparatus is dominant everywhere, and the plans and the taboos of the group are the determinants.”

Heer’s The Intellectual History of Europe could be considered a spiritual history of the urbs deis hominibusque communis that Heer invoked in The Holy Roman Empire, and this spiritual history ends, like the Holy Roman Empire itself, on a highly ambiguous note.

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