Commentary Magazine

Two Cheers for Hedonism

Four men made the revolution that has transformed the world in the past century: Darwin, Marx, Freud, and Einstein. Two of them, Freud and Einstein, were Jews. (Some friends and many enemies have called Marx a Jew, too, but since he himself made it quite clear that he disagreed, we do not need another Brother Daniel case for a negative ruling.) How could the Jews, a tiny minority, account for half of the most significant names in the intellectual history of modernity? For it is not mere chance, as one might suspect when dealing with a small number like four. The Nobel Prize winners are of the second rank in the universe of those four, but they are in the same universe; and while Jews have not been half of all Nobel Prize winners, yet their share has been strikingly disproportionate.

On the whole, the most persuasive explanation was offered by Thorstein Veblen, in an essay in 1919 on the “Intellectual Pre-eminence of Jews in Modern Europe”: the modern Jewish intellectual was alienated—bilaterally, so to speak. Enlightenment had made the Jewish tradition impossible for him, and the Jewish community too confining; but Gentile society was in no hurry to receive him, and with his unillusioned eyes he saw through its conventions more readily than the Gentile intellectual, who had grown up in them.

It is not a bad theory, but I think it needs to be heated up a few degrees from the low temperature where, as often, Veblen cooled it. His Jewish intellectual wore the mask of a skeptical, objective watcher, but the mask concealed a passionate seer. An exile as much by election as by compulsion, we are told, the Jewish intellectual liked his endless journey; but I agree with those who think that he had had a revelation of journey's end just beyond the horizon, in an edenic recompense for the years of exclusion and a final abolition of all alienation and division, between men and within men. In short, the Jewish intellectual, as a pure type, was a more ardent believer than his grandfather in the imminent coming of the Messiah. The grandfather had believed so long, had said so often in his prayers, “And though he tarry, yet will I await him,” that the waiting had slowly grown less expectant. (He had also inherited institutional defenses against being gulled by impostors.) So while the grandfather trusted in Messiah son of David to redeem him and creation, the grandson trusted even more hotly in Enlightenment, or Science, or History, or Revolution.


For Lewis S. Feuer, who has a chapter on the “Scientific Revolution Among the Jews” in his Scientific Intellectual: The Psychological and Sociological Origins of Modern Science,1 Veblen's answer of alienation to the question about intellectual pre-eminence is wrong—though Veblen is a side issue for him, together with the Jews. Formally his book is a polemic against two accounts of the rise of modern science: the first, originating with Max Weber, which links science, like capitalism, to ascetic Protestantism; and the second, as put forth in Arthur Koestler's Sleepwalkers, which roots the thinking of the founders of modern science in ancient, non-scientific systems, like those of Plato or the Pythagoreans, and in non-rational influences of a Freudian character.

Feuer will have none of this. As he sees it, science—together with all other good things—is the fruit of a hedonist-libertarian spirit, and the great enemy of science is the spirit at the opposite pole, masochist asceticism. Medieval Christianity, with its cult of the Virgin and its horror of the body and sexuality, was death to science, as to all clear thinking and healthy feeling. Since Calvinism was only slightly less masochistic-ascetic, it should not be allowed to take the credit for begetting or nurturing science. An instrumental or utilitarian asceticism, on the other hand, could be a rational preparation for libertarian hedonism: for example (it is Feuer's example), the American pioneers' decision to undergo present hardship in the hope of future ease and prosperity.

His strategy here is a little complicated. He has to narrow the distance between hedonism and asceticism, if only because his scientists were not so hedonistic as all that: Freud's motto, for instance, was travailler comme une bête, “work like a horse.” Enter abstinence, to connect moderate hedonism and instrumental asceticism. But abstinence, to anyone so learned in social science as Professor Feuer, ought to suggest Manchester, not the Northwest Territory. The abstinence of the capitalist, his willingness to abstain from the pleasure of consuming all his income this year in exchange for the deferred pleasure of a dividend or interest next year, is his great moral justification in classical economics. Feuer would not want to say that. Besides, once you start talking about capitalism, Max Weber is back, and the battle of the Protestant ethic—which is by now a weariness of the flesh, anyway—has to be fought all over again. So while Feuer has to bring in abstinence, he wants it to remind us of log cabins, not of dark, satanic mills.

There remains the problem of Confucian China, hedonistic and unscientific. This he solves by calling China's hedonism authoritarian and placing it below instrumental asceticism.


Formally, intellectually, that is what the book is about, but emotionally—and there is a powerful emotion at work in it—it reads like a rallying cry to the defense of something precious and fragile about to be crushed by brutish enemies. The emotion seems excessive. Can Professor Feuer believe that science is in danger? He says that the superiority of French to English scientists in prestige and pay during Napoleon's years was cause and proof of science's vigor in France and decline in England. By those standards, science and scientists have never had it so good; and we have been told repeatedly that 90 per cent of all the scientists who ever lived are living and working today.

Or has Feuer noted a contraction of the hedonistic libertarian spirit and a boom in masochistic asceticism? There is a lot more hedonistic libertarianism around than there ever was. In Professor Feuer's own university, students have demanded contraceptives on sale at the bookstore and legal marijuana. How hedonistic-libertarian can you get?

Feuer's anxiety for science is not so much that it is being crushed as that it is being betrayed. Science classically was an enterprise that rejoiced, enlarged, and liberated the men who engaged in it, but it has become bureaucratized, and those who do science are increasingly technicians by outlook rather than whole, free men. Science was supposed to bring us healing and ease, and now threatens us with death and destruction—with the consent of most scientists and by the actual will of some. The philosophy of classical modern science was life-affirming and optimistic, but science and its practitioners today tend to be pessimistic. Something, Feuer is saying, has gone dreadfully wrong. His book is a call to science and scientists to return to the old, true ways of the New Philosophy.


We can agree with Feuer that something has gone dreadfully wrong without agreeing about causes or cure. The New Philosophy may have been everything Feuer says it was, but science has to be wertfrei (Weber), devoid of all values that are not generated from within science itself, however much those values may have fostered its birth and growth. I am not sure I fully believe that, but I am sure that Feuer must, with his firmly anti-religious, anti-traditional, and anti-transcendental position. What does it mean, for instance, to say that science should be optimistic and life-affirming? Feuer himself has been a significant critic of the policy that commands Soviet social science—though he doubts that such a thing exists—literature, and philosophy to celebrate “the singing tomorrows” (if we may transpose French Communist cant to Russia). Huygens wrote Descartes about someone who expected science to put an end to “this vexatious custom of dying,” and Feuer cites the hope to show the glad confidence of that dawn when it was bliss to be alive. But what has that to do with science, as opposed to the messianism of which it is a perfect expression? (Behind all prophecies of the death of death stands Isaiah: “He will swallow up death for ever;/And the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from off all faces. . . .”)

André Malraux it was, if I am not mistaken, who said that he stopped being a socialist when it suddenly occurred to him that socialism would not end auto accidents or unrequited love. Evidently he had become one in the first place because he assumed it would. The canonical writings may not have promised that in so many words, but they are resolutely optimistic about the life of man on earth. When Marx (or Engels?) was asked how he could reconcile his vision of an endless glorious future for mankind with the conclusion of science—scientific, not messianic science—that the sun would inevitably burn out and our solar system die, he evasively answered that it was too far in the future for us to worry. Are we to reproach science for its unoptimistic finding that the sun is not immortal, let alone human beings? Is science unfaithful to itself when, faithful to its own method, it reaches unoptimistic conclusions? That is what Feuer almost seems to imply—while making an exception for Freud, whom he honors.

Science is being bureaucratized—Weber would not have been surprised—and has become the handmaiden of war. With science so big, how can it escape bureaucratization? Feuer certainly does not want science small, since for him its wide diffusion is an index of a society's intellectual, moral, and emotional vigor. As for war, just as Randolph Bourne said that war is the health of the state (and condemned the state), so there is a body of scholarship to show that war has been the health of science. Feuer is pleased about the contributions of French scientists to Napoleon's war effort. In principle, what difference is there between the scientists Feuer likes, who worked on cannon and gunpowder for Napoleon, and the scientists he dislikes, who worked on the Bomb?


It cannot be the betrayal of science and scientists that makes Feuer so uneasy, because he must know that there has been no more of it than always. (About the earlier scientists he is indulgent, even when they stole from each other: hedonistic-libertarian boys will be boys.) I think that what makes him uneasy is something he finds it harder to admit than the supposed delinquency of contemporary science. What makes him uneasy is the crisis of hedonistic libertarianism itself. Hedonistic libertarianism is not being overwhelmed from without, it just does not seem to be working out very well.

Ours is a sensate culture, Pitirim Sorokin said. We are fun worshippers, as everyone knows, avid for novelty, impatient with tradition. Put them all together, they spell hedonistic-libertarian. And if the culture in general is h.-l. in a mindless sort of way, the intellectual community and the academy are almost universally h.-l. in full consciousness, by choice and philosophy—one might say by ideology. Now it happens that there is a new, copious regional literature, the novel about the intellectuals and the academy. Does this literature show us the larger, freer, more autonomous, more joyful men and women of the h.-l. promise? Hardly. For the characters in this literature—and, one must assume, for the people in the world from which it is drawn—hedonistic libertarianism may be a philosophy, but more than that it is a condition they cannot help. It is their absurd, their given. Feuer tells us that acedia, a pronounced listlessness, was the prevailing emotional illness of the Christian Middle Ages, bred by their masochistic asceticism. If that is so, why all the acedia—not under that name, of course—in the literature about the h.-l. crowd?

Revenons a nos Juifs. Feuer has difficulties with the Jews. When he is talking of medieval Christian masochistic asceticism, he praises Judaism as healthy and moderately hedonistic. Yet when he turns to the Enlightenment, he holds it to be a revolt against “the masochist asceticism of ghetto Judaism.” Feuer saves himself from the contradiction by saying that this was not inherent in Judaism but had developed “in response to external pressures”:

Spinoza, precursor-rebel against ghetto Jewry and the spokesman for the coming age of the scientific intellectuals, voiced the criticism of the hedonist-libertarian ethic against ghetto masochistic asceticism. “The foundations of their religion,” Spinoza wrote, may have “emasculated their minds” [there is no “may have” about it in Spinoza], but not to such an extent, he hoped, as to preclude their national renaissance. [He did not express a hope, he stated a possibility, “so changeable are human affairs.”] “Effeminare” (“to make feminine”) was the vivid word Spinoza used to characterize the masochism of the ghetto.

“Masochism of the ghetto” is Feuer, not Spinoza. Spinoza does not say the ghetto emasculated the Jews' minds, he says “the foundations of their religion” did that. But the Jews—not Hebrews or Israelites, Jews—had had the same religion when they rose three times between 66 and 132 and threatened mighty Rome; including, in 115-17, the Diaspora Jews of Egypt, Cyrene, and Cyprus. Spinoza, the son of Marranos who had fled to Holland and the relative of others still in the Iberian peninsula, must have known that if the Jews were dejected and subdued, it was not their religion that had made them so, but persecution.

That being so in the 19th as well as the 17th century, why, without further discussion, does Feuer approve of the tendency in the Jewish Enlightenment which led to repudiation of Judaism entirely? If Judaism was intrinsically healthy, why not simply have tried to restore its health? Why visit the sins of the “ghetto”—which, following a now rather old-fashioned Jewish equivalent of the Whig interpretation of history, he tends in any event to exaggerate—upon Judaism as such?

When he is denying that Sir Isaac Newton was a Calvinist, or even a trinitarian, he shows him to have been instead a follower of Maimonides. The Maimonidean-Jewish philosophy, according to Feuer, was favorable to science, while Calvinism was not. Then why is he so pleased with all those yeshivah students who went overnight from Talmud to atheism?

. . . there was among the Jewish scientists the phenomenon which we can call the “vigor of skipped stages” [like Trotsky's “law of combined development”?]. . . . Orthodox [Jewish] religion was hopelessly more intellectually irrelevant than the various Protestant compromises. The Jewish scientists usually became freethinkers and agnostics; they did not pause in a metaphysical stage.

Poor, pre-Comtean, unscientific Isaac Newton, to have paused in a metaphysical stage! If Maimonides was good enough for Newton, how can Feuer say that “Orthodox religion was hopelessly . . . intellectually irrelevant”? To be sure, the Judaism of Ashkenaz subordinated the philosophical Maimonides. But again, that was a historically conditioned circumstance, which in principle could have been corrected, and then those new scientists—or, more broadly, the new Enlightened—might have been Jewish and scientific, as Newton had been Christian and scientific. That the possibility did not even suggest itself to most of them (or to Feuer); that so few thought of creating Jewish compromises which would be as reasonably adequate as “the various Protestant compromises”—this must mean something. They were not engaged in an intellectual movement as such, and not in an emotional turn from asceticism to hedonism, but in a new messianism. Its hymn, more eschatological than political, was to be the Internationale: “C'est la lutte finale” (“it is the final struggle”) and “du passé faisons table rase” (“let us wipe clean the slate of the past”).

Spinoza's contemporary, Shabbethai Zevi, called himself a messiah and ended by leading his followers into apostasy. What happened, later, to the messianists of Enlightenment and science? Some of them, tired of waiting for the latter days, apostatized, too. The Reason that had led them to reject Judaism was flexible enough to allow them to embrace Christianity—though a less accommodating Reason might have been expected to find Christianity, which to all the dogmas of Judaism adds many peculiarly its own, the more unreasonable.

The paradigm of all this is the history of the Mendelssohn family. Of Moses Mendelssohn, second only to Spinoza in pathfinding for Jewish modernity, his biographer Steinheim wrote that he “despised apostasy as dishonorable, though he would gladly have joined his friend Lessing in a society where there were neither Jews nor Christians.” His son Abraham was less stubborn about honor, perhaps because he lived to be disillusioned by the Revolution's ebb. To maintain a posture of honor long after Lessing's society had failed to arrive—that was too great a strain. So Abraham made the decision that he justified to his son Felix, the composer, in this fashion:

. . . my father . . . did not want to be a Christian . . . . as long as it was permitted by the [Napoleonic] government [of occupation] under which we lived, I reared you without religion in any form. I wanted you to profess whatever your convictions might favor or, if you prefer, whatever expediency might dictate. But it was not so to be. . . . Naturally, when you consider the scant value I placed on any form in particular, I felt no urge to choose the form known as Judaism. . . . Therefore I reared you as Christians, Christianity being the . . . form . . . most accepted by the majority of civilized people. Eventually, I myself adopted Christianity, because I felt it my duty to do for myself that which I recognized as best for you. . . .

Feuer, too, is gentle and understanding of the meshummadim:

. . . the enlightenment in Germany was followed quickly by the conversion of many middle-class Jewish families to Christianity. . . . [The mathematician] Leopold Kronecker—liberal in his youth [of course!], later successful in business, a cynical realist in politics—embraced Christianity in his last years. . . .

The large number of converts . . ., among the German groups especially, testified to an increasing identification with German liberal culture.

What he means, or should mean, is that they grew cynical about honor and about the dream of an imminent day of judgment when the infâme would be écrasé. He should not confuse the Christianity they entered with liberalism. It was German Lutheranism. And Kronecker did not need to be converted to do mathematics—at sixty the bulk of his work was behind him—he needed it to be a professor. Yet he is offered to us, this man whose vanity and ambition were so paltry that he longed only to be called Herr Professor, as an exemplar of hedonistic-libertarian virtue! Spinoza had refused both invitations, to become a Christian and to become a professor.

The German apostates did not even have the excuse of some of the Russians, that through baptism they could help the Jews. I am thinking above all of the banker and economist Ivan Bloch and the scholar Daniel Chwolson, especially Chwolson. (He is said to have been asked, after his conversion, why he had done it, and to have answered that he had done it from conviction. “Conviction?”—“Yes, I was convinced that it was better to be a professor in St. Petersburg than a melammed [an infants' teacher] in Eyshishok.”) Chwolson's help to the Jews included scholarship about the crucifixion and a refutation of the blood libel.

No doubt it was a fine thing to be a professor in St. Petersburg, but was it the finest? A German contemporary of Chwolson's, Seligmann Baer, lived out his days as, precisely, a melammed, though he was a leading authority on the Masorah and though his Seder 'Avodat Yisrael remains the best critical edition of the Jewish prayer book we have. Chwolson and Baer were born in 1819 and 1824, respectively. Arnold Ehrlich, born in 1848, is still cited for his sensitive notes on biblical Hebrew. Having immigrated to the United States, Ehrlich, too, was a melammed—after graduating from an earlier job, rolling barrels. The scholars Baer and Ehrlich have stood up better than Chwolson and, though I know nothing of mathematics and incomparables should not be compared, probably not worse than Kronecker. The men Baer and Ehrlich earn our admiration as Chwolson and especially Kronecker cannot.


Why, then, does Feuer burden himself with a Kronecker? Here we return, finally, to Veblen. The conversions, the “identification with German liberal culture,” are to refute alienation, which has a nasty, ascetic ring to it. Identification is the opposite of alienation, and those 19th-century Jews, with or without conversion, were identified (he says). He forgets that he has earlier complimented Einstein—invoking also Newton, Freud, and Darwin—for not seeking identification:

I [Einstein] have never belonged wholeheartedly to any country or state, to my circle of friends, or even to my own family. . . . I do not regret being cut off from the understanding and sympathy of other men. . . . I am compensated for it in being rendered independent of the customs, opinions, and prejudices of others. . . .

Feuer quotes Cecil Roth:

It was unnecessary for the Italian Jews, as it was for some of their coreligionists beyond the Alps, to become assimilated to the ruling culture. . . . Their Italianitô was already so complete that the period of transition was reduced to almost nothing. . . .

Then he says this about Emile Durkheim:

Durkheim, the scion of a rabbinical family, was the first to teach sociology in France. . . . [In the 1920's Friedrich Gundolf—born Gundelfinger—a friend of Stefan George's, was curious to know what sociology was all about, so he attended a sociological congress in Berlin. Afterward he said, “Now I know what sociology is. Sociology is a Jewish sect.”] Yet [Durkheim,] this student of “anomie,” of alienation, was himself a person who experienced a fullness of identification with French life. . . . Despite the anti-Semitism of the Dreyfus years, “he was a soulful French patriot.” . . . In his words, “La Patrie, la Révolution française, Jeanne d'Arc. . . are sacred to us, and we will allow no one to touch them.”

For one who acknowledges his intellectual debt to Marx and Freud, Feuer is surprisingly ready to take things at their face value. The Italianita of the Italian Jews and the Frenchness of a Jew like Durkheim (or the great historian Marc Bloch, who was also to speak of reverent love for both the French Revolution and Joan of Arc as the indispensable element in really being French) were complete—to a point. What that point was we can infer from Durkheim and Bloch's recognition of Joan of Arc. The Gentile Voltaire had been far less respectful of Joan than these two Jews, but between his time and theirs it had been firmly decided that no true Frenchman could approve the Enlightenment's ribald skepticism about her.

Later another French sociologist, the Protestant André Siegfried (no friend of the Jews), called the village curé part of the domestic furniture of France. You could be clerical or anti-clerical, that had nothing to do with whether the curé belonged to you. What you could not be was Protestant. So that a Protestant, when he was honest with himself, felt like an outsider. And yet the Protestants have deep roots in France and can recall glorious victories and defeats almost as glorious. When one of their elite left, it was not for a professor's chair. It was for a king's throne.

All the more must a Jew have felt like an outsider. He could associate himself easily enough with the French Revolution; but St. Joan? Charles VII, whom she caused to be consecrated in Rheims Cathedral—where all French kings were consecrated, in honor of St. Remigius, bishop of Rheims, who baptized Clovis—was the ancestor of Their Most Christian Majesties and the descendant of St. Louis, who burned the Talmud, and Philip the Fair, who banished the Jews. After all, Durkheim was a rabbi's son. How could he not feel alienated, for instance, during the bad years of the affaire? Dreyfus wanted to identify, too. He, too, was a patriot (or jingo), of whom they said that if he had not been Dreyfus, he would have been anti-Dreyfusard. With those people, even in more quiet times it was a matter of so-near-and-yet-so-far, and perhaps that is the hardest alienation. Either they were at war with themselves for not being able to relate simply to Joan of Arc, or with her for standing between them and the identification they could never fully claim.

Across the Rhine la patrie was das Vaterland, and the German Jews of their outlook matched them in asserting an identification that was more wish than reality. Otherwise there is no accounting for the things that some allowed themselves to say: e.g., Ludwig Geiger, whose father, Abraham, was a far more distinguished rabbi and scholar than Durkheim's. When a German Jewish relief committee was collecting money for the victims of pogroms in Russia, Ludwig raged. How dared they send all that money out of Germany? Could they find no German fellow-nationals who needed help?


Feuer does not mention Bernard Berenson, whose beautiful vulgarity can teach us much. The Italianita of the Italian Jews, the Frenchness of Durkheim and Bloch? Berenson knew that in Boston he had to be an Episcopalian and in Italy a Catholic. From Italy he once wrote his future wife:

[The art historian Gustavo Frizzoni] is a trifle obtuse and I hope you won't think I am too intolerant, but I am sure it is due to his being a Protestant. I simply can't tell you how indecent it seems to me for an Italian to be a Protestant.

In John Milton's eyes the Italian Protestants had been slaughtered saints; in Berenson's, they were indecent, “a branch that has been hacked off from its parent trunk.” Italian Protestants evidently reminded him of the Jews. What right had they to persist, and by their persistence reproach him for his life? Berenson was as good a hedonist-libertarian as Kronecker. Not for them minority stubbornness. If dis victrix placuit causa, victa Catoni, then Cato was not merely a fool for refusing to favor the winner, he was downright immoral.

Durkheim was born in 1858, the philosophers Henri Bergson and Edmund Husserl—who do not figure in Feuer's book—in 1859. The German Jew Husserl, h.-l. and irreligious, became a Lutheran because, like Kronecker, he wanted to be a professor—though Hermann Cohen could be a philosopher and a professor and a very good Jew, and though in any case it is unnecessary to be a professor to do philosophy. (Husserl is said to have later regretted his conversion.) The French Jew Bergson, greatly attracted to Catholicism, refused baptism because he would not turn his back on his people in their danger. (He was attracted to Catholicism, a Jew likes to assume, because his was an anima naturaliter religiosa and the religion that French culture presented to him was Catholicism. The Judaism that he knew, the Judaism of his milieu, was respectable and quite, quite dead. It was from a similar Judaism, in Germany, that Franz Rosenzweig almost went over to Lutheranism, for religious and not careerist reasons.) I do not know who is the better philosopher of the two, Bergson or Husserl, but I know whom we cannot help regarding as the better man. Does hedonistic libertarianism nevertheless prefer Husserl? So much the worse for it.


1 Basic Books. Reviewed by John Maddox in the February 1964 COMMENTARY

About the Author

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.