François Hemsterhuis (December 27, 1721 – July 7, 1790), was a Dutch philosopher on aesthetics and moral philosophy. Sometimes referred to as the "Dutch Socrates," Hemsterhuis was one of the first Dutch thinkers to respond to the ideas of the Enlightenment, taking the role of a pioneer for Romanticism in the Netherlands. His most valuable contributions were in aesthetics, and the general analysis of feeling. His books were all published and distributed privately, and never offered for sale. Hemsterhuis is famous for his definition of beauty as “that which gives us the largest number of ideas in the shortest space of time.”
Failing to obtain a professorship, he served as secretary to the state council of the United Provinces for most of his career. His numerous dialogues and essays on moral philosophy brought him into contact with many distinguished persons including Goethe, Herder, and especially Jacobi, and Princess Amalia von Gallitzin, a life-long friend who encouraged the translation of his works into German. Hemsterhuis' ideas influenced some of the greatest German thinkers, including Kant, Novalis, Schlegel, and Schiller.
François Hemsterhuis was born December 27, 1721 at Franeker in the Netherlands, the son of Tiberius Hemsterhuis, a famous philologist and founder of the Dutch school of criticism. He was educated at the University of Leiden, where he studied Plato. Failing to obtain a professorship, he entered the service of the state, and for many years acted as secretary to the state council of the United Provinces. During his career, he wrote a number of essays and dialogues on moral philosophy. He died at the Hague on July 7, 1790.
Francois Hemsterhuis was one of the first Dutch thinkers to respond to the ideas of the Enlightenment, taking the role of a pioneer for Romanticism in the Netherlands. His most valuable contributions were in aesthetics, and the general analysis of feeling. Hemsterhuis was sometimes referred to as the "Dutch Socrates," and his philosophy has been characterized as Socratic in content and Platonic in form. Its foundation was the desire for self-knowledge and truth, untrammeled by the rigid bonds of any particular system.
Hemsterhuis was an aesthete who expended as much care on the design of his works as he did on their composition. His works, all of which were written in French, were privately printed and distributed; it has not yet been determined whether Hemsterhuis offered any of his works for sale. He exhibited a profound knowledge of classical Greek philosophy. His writings on moral philosophy brought him into contact with many distinguished persons including Goethe, Herder, and especially Jacobi, with whom he had much in common. Both were idealists, and their works, although distinguished by elegance of form and refined sentiment, suffer from a similar lack of arrangement. Princess Amalia von Gallitzin, a life-long friend, contributed to his reputation among German intellectuals and encouraged the translation of many of his works into German. (Jacobi's German translation of Alexis was published later in the same year that the original was published in French.) Hemsterhuis' ideas influenced some of the greatest German thinkers, including Kant, Novalis, Schlegel, and Schiller.
La beauté ne consiste-t-elle pas dans le nombre des idées, et le peu de temps requis pour les lier ensemble ou pour les composer; ou bien dans la faclité, avec laquelle l’intellect peut embrasser un total quelconque? Alexis, H 18; p. 24, lines 20 -24
Does not beauty consist of that which gives us the largest number of ideas in the shortest space of time?
Ainsi, lorsque plusiers idées qui ont entre elles les rapports les plus directs et les plus sensibles, sont le plus près d’une coëxistence absolue, l’intellect verra le vrai, le beau, at le sublime le plus riche que ses idées lui pourront fournir. Alexis, H 126; p. 26, l 8-12
Thus, when several ideas which share among themselves the most direct and most significant rapport, are the closest they can be to an absolute coexistence, the intellect will see the richest truth and beauty and sublimity with which its ideas can provide it.
His most important works are:
- Lettre sur la sculpture (1769), in which occurs the well-known definition of the beautiful as "that which gives us the greatest number of ideas in the shortest space of time"
- its continuation, Lettre fur les désirs (1770)
- Lettre sur l'homme et ses rapports (1772), in which the "moral organ" and the theory of knowledge are discussed
- Sopyle (1778), a dialogue on the relation between the soul and the body, and also an attack on materialism
- Aristée (1779), the "theodicy" of Hemsterhuis, discussing the existence of God and his relation to man
- Simon (1787), on the four faculties of the soul, which are the will, the imagination, the moral principle (which is both passive and active)
- Alexis (1787), a philosophical dialogue intended to demonstrate the theory that there are three golden ages, the last of which is life after death.
- Lettre sur l'athéisme (1787).
The best collected edition of his works is by PS Meijboom (1846-1850); see also SA Gronemann, F. Hemsterhuis, de Nederlandische Wijsgeer (Utrecht, 1867); E Grucker, François Hemsterhuis, sa vie et ses œuvres (Paris, 1866); E Meyer, Der Philosoph Franz Hemsterhuis (Breslau, 1893), with bibliographical notice.
Pour l’âge d’or de l’homme apres cette vie, ses jouissances y seront plus intimes, plus cohérentes; et toutes ses connoissances s’y confondront, comme les couleurs de l’Iris se confondent au foyer d’un crystal, et ne forment ensemble qu,une lumier pure, parfait image de l’astre brilliant qui les porta dans son sein. Alexis, H 152, p. 131 10-15
As for the golden age of man in the afterlife, his pleasures will be more intimate, more coherent; and all of his understandings will merge together as the colors of the iris merge in the heart of a crystal, and together form only the purest light, the perfect image of a brilliant star which holds them in its center.
- Conger, Syndy M., and Julie Candler Hayes. 1998. Studies in eighteenth-century culture. v. 26. Baltimore: Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press for The American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. ISBN 0801856272 ISBN 9780801856273
- Hemsterhuis, François, Denis Diderot, and Georges May. 1964. Lettre sur l'homme et ses rapports, avec le commentaire inédit de Diderot. Yale Romanic studies, 2d ser., v. 12. New Haven: Yale University Press.
- Hemsterhuis, François, and L. S. P. Meyboom. 1972. Oeuvres philosophiques. Hildesheim: G. Olms. ISBN 3487045141 ISBN 9783487045146
- Hemsterhuis, François, and Michael John Petry. 2001. Wijsgerige werken. Budel: Damon. ISBN 9055732281 ISBN 9789055732289 ISBN 906171916X ISBN 9789061719168
- Melica, Claudia. 2005. Hemsterhuis: a European philosopher rediscovered. Biblioteca europea, 35. Napoli: Vivarium. ISBN 8885239986 ISBN 9788885239982
- Moenkemeyer, Heinz. 1975. François Hemsterhuis. Boston: Twayne Publishers. ISBN 0805724192 ISBN 9780805724196.
- This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
All links retrieved April 25, 2017.
General Philosophy Sources
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- Paideia Project Online.
- Project Gutenberg.
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