Scholarly Melancholy in the German Enlightenment, 1760-1800

For early modern physicians, scholars were the poster children for bad health. Hunched over their desks, engrossed in their writings, they easily fell victim to a heady combination of sedentariness, poor hygiene and mental overexertion. Such vices, argued neurologists and humoralists alike, disrupted the natural rhythms of the body to the point of illness. Bestselling medical treatises, such as On the Health of Men of Letters (1766) by the Swiss celebrity physician, Samuel-Auguste Tissot (1728–1797), painted scholarship as a form of neurotic self-destruction: an invitation to everything from gout to hypochondria.

The notion of a specifically intellectual melancholy has long pervaded the Western cultural imagination. Historians have pored over the trope of inspired misery, from the pseudo-Aristotelian Problemata to Renaissance Neoplatonism and the Romantic cult of genius.

                                                 david caspar friedrich wanderer above the sea of fog

This cultural fascination with sickly scholars, which spilled over from medicine into satirical literature and periodical commentary, constitutes a legacy of melancholy far removed from the persistent mythology of creative madness. Yet, the only person to address this discourse in any detail is the literary scholar Anne Vila. Her work foregrounds Tissot and the medical establishment of Montpellier, focusing on their interest in nervous disorders, bodily sensibility and mental overstimulation. Figures in the German-speaking world, such as Johann C. G. Ackermann (1756–1801)—a physician and lecturer who popularised and adapted the work of Tissot—have often been overlooked.

In the German context, the most common explanation for scholarly melancholy was Bewegungsmangel, or lack of exercise. One possible interpretation, therefore, is that the diagnosis constituted a criticism of idleness. Since melancholy was primarily understood as a physiopathology of immoderation, it was imbued with considerable metaphoric potential for signifying perceived social disorder.

Already a key bugbear of Lutheranism, idleness took on fresh significance in the Enlightenment, often invoked in conjunction with—or as a symbol of—pedantry. Against a backdrop of intensifying debate over the social, political and economic utility of learning, both concepts became vehicles for enlightened savants to distinguish themselves from an increasingly unfashionable scholasticism. The charge of idleness was used to call out scholarship for its supposed solipsism, self-indulgence and socially-peripheral pageantry. In other words, it was a catch-cry for policing the utilitarianism of knowledge.

                                                Friedrich von Amerling Writing Scientist 1842

Many critics of scholarly idleness drew upon the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778). Rousseau’s rhetoric may seem ill-suited to a context where scholars were rarely urban aristocrats, unlike the literary elite gracing Parisian salons. Yet perhaps it is precisely the highly institutionalised and distinctively clerical nature of the German Enlightenment—that its champions were teachers and civil servants, often influenced by the cameralist tradition of statecraft—which explains the prevalence of Rousseauian critique. Many writings on scholarly melancholy read like the self-policing of an emerging educated middle-class, moralising on luxury and eager to uphold a bureaucratic ideal of public service. The language of Rousseau supported both of these aims. Critics regularly cited his famous exposition of the vices of modern civilisation in the Discourse on the Sciences and Arts (1750) and the Discourse on Inequality (1755), echoing the bourgeois sentimentalism of his call for a new era of civil virtue.

Significantly, when conforming to this imperative of philanthropy and productivity, intellectual melancholy became more forgivable. A defence of solitary introspection and cynical alienation from society was manifest in the works of three prominent thinkers of late eighteenth-century Germany: Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), Christian Garve (1742–1798), and Johann Georg Zimmermann (1728–1794). Garve and Zimmermann felt that solitude enabled intellectuals to reach their full potential. Kant, especially in his aesthetic philosophy, defended intellectual disillusionment, describing such withdrawal as a sublime self-sufficiency that facilitated critical thoughtfulness toward societal frivolity. Yet, in each case, the social alienation they afforded the scholar was ultimately sociable: a temporary Weltschmerz, or world-weariness, which eventually inspired greater civil contribution in the form of advocacy, reform and philosophy.

                                                Immanuel Kant by Johann Gottlieb Becker

Historians of melancholy increasingly sideline scholarly discourse in favour of uncovering the lived experience of psychological suffering. Yet, by extending the topic beyond cultural history—by examining melancholy, not as a subjective experience, but as a concept wielded in medical, pedagogical and philosophical discourse—we gain valuable insight into the specifically bureaucratic bent of the German Enlightenment.


Ingrid Schreiber is reading for a DPhil in History at Wadham College, Oxford.