Heinrich Heine’s History of Philosophy and Religion in Germanyfootnote1 was written for the express purpose of explaining the German mind to the French public of his day. Never has a more extraordinary book sailed into the world under a more ordinary and discouraging title; yet for sheer literary panache, for indulgence in bizarre anecdotes, red herrings and historical snapjudgments, as well as for a display of intellectual wit and vigour, the book has few equals. Heine first wrote it in the early 1830s, at a time when his poetry was most fully inspired by his pantheistic views; and he republished it, with some additions but no substantial changes, in 1852, after that much-vaunted conversion to a Christian-Judaeic theism which he traces out in his Last Poems. The very circumstances of its publication surround the book with an ironical aura. As in some of Nietzsche’s and Thomas Mann’s writings, the autobiographical interest—the “ecce homo” undertone—is sustained by a confession to the irony of a changed point of view. But (we may ask) is it likely that the author’s spiritual adventures will affect the argument of a book that purports to deal with so austere a subject as that indicated by its prosy title? No question could be wider of the mark. Heine had neither the scholarly equipment nor the detachment to write anything that a respectable historian would wish to put his name to. Is the whole thing then a huge and heavy “Germanic” joke, carried on over a hundred and eighty pages of quite exacting reasoning? This is somewhat closer to the point, except that, far from being in the least heavy, the “Germanic” joke is as subtle and light as an early hock. But, if it is a joke, could it possibly repay the prolonged mental effort of understanding it? Another piece of irony: the joke of the joke is that so much of it is true, that more truth and good sense is said here, by way of brilliant insights, about certain important aspects of the German mind, than in any other single book.

Yet even here the paradoxes are not over. Heine’s History was first written in French, for the Paris public of his long exile, a sort of intellectual Baedeker for contemporary France, as an antidote, incidentally, to Mme. de Staël’s De l’Allemagne. Wherever, in his account of German religious and philosophical thought from the days of the Germanic gods to Hegel, Heine runs out of sources or knowledge, wherever he gets bored, there he makes a little curtsy to the French public, briefly remarks that such-and-such a phase in the aforesaid story is unlikely to be of much interest to them, and elegantly by-passes the point at issue. But wherever he feels within sight of his main theme, of that most personal and intimate concern which preys on his mind, there the French public goes hang and he sets to with a closeness and regard for detail, and an animus, that have no precedent in German nineteenth-century prose; only Nietzsche’s essays have a comparable vigour.

Heine’s subject, it so happens, is a part of Bertrand Russell’s as he describes it in the preface to his History of Western Philosophy:

“Philosophers are both effects and causes: effects of their social circumstances and of the politics and institutions of their time; causes (if they are fortunate) of beliefs which mould the politics and institutions of later ages . . . I have tried to exhibit each philosopher, as far as truth permits, as an outcome of his milieu . . .”

In the book itself Russell hardly ever comes back to the intention avowed in the Preface, contenting himself with an occasional aside on the nature of Athenian democracy or on the iniquities of clerical censorship. The idea of “philosophers as causes” is no sooner mentioned (and parenthetically queried) than it is dropped again; and by the time Russell comes to reiterate the argument (“I have tried . . .”), he is only concerned with “effects”. To the Whig heir of the empirical and nominalist tradition the idea that “ideas” are the causes of “history” has a certain formal plausibility (“if ‘effects’, why not ‘causes’?”), but it has no more than that.

Heine on the other hand does precisely what Bertrand Russell says he is going to do. He calls his history “sozial”, but the word has little to do with the “scientific” enquiries of present-day sociology. His criterion of inclusion and omission is determined by his intuitive understanding of—his poetic feeling for—the character of the country to which, in spite of all, he belongs. He writes no encyclopaedic work. The obscure mystic Johannes Tauler, Frederick the Great and Karl Philipp Moritz (who in the 1780s wrote the first German psychological autobiography), Lessing, and the “poor old Berlin bookseller Nikolai” have as proper a place in this history as have Luther, Leibnitz, Kant and Schelling. His account is “sozial”: given the loose national and geographical entity of Germany, given her even looser social whole, given finally her linguistic cohesion and all that follows from that, Heine sets out to describe what to him is the main intellectual and spiritual conflict that has shaped her ethos, her Weltanschauung, and thus her history. Germanic paganism and Roman Catholicism, Luther’s protest, the eighteenth-century philosophic movement, and the Naturphilosophie of his own day represent the five phases of this account. Each of these he sees as a stage of one great conflict, of a millennial disputation that moulds the German national consciousness.