On Christmas Eve 2017, we received, right out of the blue, a dinner invitation from Dr. Wolfgang Plenio, north Germany’s last great humanist and philosopher. In 1973, Wolfgang was my Latin tutor in secondary school, and since then we have stayed in close touch. One of our most rewarding times together was in 1999, when he and my father flew from Germany to spend three weeks in Northfield. On that occasion he proved to be equally impressed by the Americans he met, by the excellent music programs at both St. Olaf and Carleton College, and by the “Deutsches Fest” at Carleton College, at which he presented awards to the student prizewinners in various categories.
While Germany and America both have roots in eighteenth-century Enlightenment, the “new” country of the United States has focused in its educational system more on the history of its own democratic development. By contrast, Wolfgang Plenio had the misfortune of growing up in a Germany in which the country’s long classical humanistic tradition was threatened by the ideology of Nazism. In spite of this, Wolfgang never lost his faith in mankind. A few excerpts from his body of thought, drawn from our correspondence over the years, follow below.
Dr. Wolfgang Plenio:
1. Humanism as educational ideal
Europe is culturally based on humanism, Cicero’s notion of humanitas. Petrarch (“I am a Ciceronian”) can be considered the father of early Renaissance humanism, which continued into the period of the Reformation. The cosmopolitan central figure of the time was Erasmus of Rotterdam, who argued with Martin Luther around 1525 on the subject of the freedom or bondage of the will.
This so-called classical humanism of the sixteenth century became the cradle of the humanistic schools in Germany, which correspond roughly to American liberal arts colleges. Modern humanism grew out of the eighteenth-century body of thought of the Humboldt brothers, Lessing, Schlegel, and Goethe, among others.
Following numerous variations (Karl Marx, socialism), this modern humanism as established by Humboldt experienced a revival as a third-stage humanism under the leadership of Werner Jaeger, whose standard work “Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture” is based on Plato’s concept of education.
The attempt at establishing a German parliament in 1848 (in Frankfurt’s Paulskirche) played an essential role in the emergence of a new Europe. Fundamental to this concept were Immanuel Kant’s idea of man as a citizen of the world (1784) and his notion of an everlasting peace among nations.
2.The expansion of life’s fundamental questions
The truth inherent in religions is the experience of the reality of “God,” of the “dignity of man,” the equality of all people before God, irrespective of all historically developed barriers.
What is necessary today, beyond all differences in religious beliefs, is to overcome the cutthroat egomania and striving for power of every individual, and finally to recognize the needs of our fellow man, rather than viewing him as a non-believer, a renegade, an enemy.
Do we in the West really live in a democracy, or is it in actuality a plutocracy—a chaos of information without orientation, a labyrinthine soap bubble, sparkling in many colors, of our ignorant imaginings and life-threatening illusions?
As long as man strives, he goes astray, as Goethe’s Faust recognized. The well-known philosopher of perception, George Berkeley, expressed a modern idea in his thesis esse est percipi (existence means being perceived) and was a prophet of today’s fashionable mentality: anyone who is not in Facebook doesn’t exist.
Man is nothing but a shadow—the dream of a shadow, according to Pindar; or in “Macbeth”: a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
3. Reflections on Ian Barbour’s “Balance between Faith and Science” (New York Times Obituary, January 12, 2014)
The “scientific” rational explanation of the universe that we have appropriated has missed the mark, just as much as any “merely” religious faith in a traditional or illusory “God.” Every “God” imagined by man is nothing but a man-made miniature god.
Nonetheless, for Voltaire, who thought the situation through, the following maxim is valid: If God didn’t exist, he would have to be invented (for the sake of man).
The peace of God must be on a higher level than any—powerless—human reasoning, which is incapable of “hearing” the voice of God in the innermost depths of the world. To do this, the modern “multicultural” person must learn how to hear again, as Heraclitus did when listening to the harmony of opposites. There can be no point without a counterpoint!
Our cultural history is, according to one’s viewpoint, the history of religion or philosophy. One without the other would be one-sided, that is, diminished.
PS, from our Christmas card of 2014: Hamlet’s remark that the world is out of joint presupposes the existence of interlocking joints—which in today’s general madness are no longer recognizable. Our supposedly civilized humanity has become mentally ill and is scarcely curable, either physically or psychically, if we continue to adhere to the symptoms that dominate the world. We think that we see the “tip of the iceberg,” without really knowing what that really is. “Everything has always turned out well” (so it will this time too).
All one can do is hope or, as some think, pray.
In spite of this, we greet every little daisy alongside our path through life with joy. Go forth and do likewise! In the spirit of reason and confidence, based on our belief in the good, we send this from the old world to the new.
PS: 2010, Dr. Plenio's "round birthday", we had the pleasure of delivering a Latin Laudatio, which was published by our local German Newspaper, Flensburger Tageblatt.