German Philhellenism and the Making of Western Humanism

Presented at ‘The Making of the Humanities VI’, the sixth annual conference of the Society for the History of the Humanities, Somerville College, University of Oxford, 29 September 2017.

Western Hellenism in general, and German philhellenism in particular, have arguably had a formative influence on the development of many key disciplines in the humanities, from art history to philosophy, from literary criticism to Altertumswissenschaft. Whether inspired by Winckelmann’s Schwärmerei for the aesthetic perfection and educational potential of Greek art, by Goethe’s manifesto that ‘Every man should be Greek in his own way – but he should be Greek!’, by the meticulous Quellenkritik of a new generation of classical scholars such as F.A. Wolf, or by Wilhelm von Humboldt’s Greek-inspired ideal of Bildung, philhellenic ideas often tended to dominate the cultural construction of knowledge in Germany (and beyond) from the eighteenth century onwards. Even when other paradigms, such as orientalist or völkisch approaches, began to come to the fore during the nineteenth century, these were often justified within this traditional framework.

Building on recent research by scholars such as Katherine Harloe, Daniel Orrells, and Suzanne Marchand, this paper aims to provide both a synthesis and a refinement of current trends in the literature on German philhellenism. Above all, it highlights the contribution which this phenomenon made not only to individual humanities disciplines, but also to more holistic conceptions of humanism and the worth of classically-inspired pedagogical ideals. This synoptic approach also allows for depiction of the gradual perversion and racialisation of German philhellenism, culminating in its all-encompassing ‘Aryanisation’ by the Nazi regime, and ultimately leading to its downfall as a paradigm in the postwar period.

An article based on this paper has now been published in The Historical Journal.