May 19, 2011
In 1856, a Prussian immigrant named Henry Conrad Brokmeyer retreated deep into the Missouri woods with a gun, a dog and a copy of “Science of Logic,” a philosophical text by Georg Hegel. Alone with Hegel’s thoughts over the next two years, Brokmeyer became convinced that this abstruse work by a German 25 years dead could save the nation from the very divisions about to lead it into civil war. It didn’t, of course, and Missouri, a border state, would not escape a gruesome guerrilla war. But a decade later, Brokmeyer and a friend named William Torrey Harris convinced the elite of St. Louis that Hegel’s work was central to the recovery of their country, their city and their own lives. The Civil War, Brokmeyer said, was part of a dialectical process. In what turned out to be one of the oddest episodes in the history of American thought, a group of men known as the St. Louis Hegelians declared that the direction of history led to eastern Missouri.
Brokmeyer sold a warped Hegelianism just flattering enough to believe: History had a direction. That direction was west, from Europe to the United States. History would unfold in the direction of a world-historical city, culminating in a flowering of freedom under a rational state. While Hegel had assumed Europe to be the place to which all of history pointed — when he said “west,” he meant from Asia to Europe — Brokmeyer said history would keep on rolling across the Atlantic, toward the biggest American city west of the Mississippi: St. Louis.
Brokmeyer had left Prussia for the United States in 1844. He arrived penniless, unable to speak English, and not yet 17. Within a decade he had charmed his way into Brown University, where he discovered Hegel. Brokmeyer shared the earnestness of academia but had none of the patience for a Catholic course of study; he had already found his formula and sought merely to drape each new bit of knowledge on this Hegelian skeleton. Two years later, Brokmeyer left Brown without a degree. “I am my own university!” he told the dean, and headed where Hegel seemed to be pointing: the great city at the far end of a young country.
He and Harris, a Yale dropout whom Brokmeyer met at an informal discussion group, founded the St. Louis Philosophical Society in 1866 with 51 charter members. The society’s dues funded Brokmeyer’s work: a word-for-word translation of Hegel’s “Science of Logic” that he struggled with for most of his life. The society discussed Hegel and Faust, Hegel and Andrew Johnson, Hegel and recent advances in chemistry. The St. Louis Philosophical Society launched the most important philosophical journal in the country: Speculative Philosophy. Here and elsewhere, members of the society criticized institutions they thought irrational — such as slavery — and supported those institutions they thought central to the development of a more rational population, such as public education.
The St. Louis Hegelians were an elite bunch. The celebrated newspaperman Joseph Pulitzer came to meetings; Harris would later become the U.S. commissioner of education. So worshipped was Brokmeyer by everyone who chose to write about him that it can be hard to wade through the folds of encomia to discern the shape of the man himself. When Brokmeyer deigned to speak, gushed society member Denton Snider, “he could make all the fettered nomenclature of Hegel’s Philosophy dance freely in its heaviest chains.”
Hegel’s progressive unfolding thrived on conflict, what Hegel’s popularizers (but rarely Hegel himself) referred to as “thesis and antithesis.” Hegel stuck to lofty abstractions like Being (thesis), Nothing (antithesis) and Becoming (synthesis.) Henry Brokmeyer, not so much. His unimpeachably practical list of theses and antitheses encompassed nearly every aspect of American life: religion vs. science, abolitionism vs. slavery, St. Louis vs. Chicago.
Nothing could touch Brokmeyer for as long as St. Louis thrived. In 1871, when a massive fire turned Chicago into a pile of metropolitan ash,
Brokmeyer failed to hide his schadenfreude. “Chicago was the completely negative city of our West and indeed of our time,” Brokmeyer told the group, “and now she has carried out her principle of negation to its final universal consequence; she has simply negated herself.”
Brokmeyer was making bolder and bolder predictions about his adopted city, and St. Louis rose to meet them. The city’s harbor was second only to New York. Already, between 1820 and 1860, the population had grown seven times over. Meanwhile, he spent the latter years of the decade as Missouri’s lieutenant governor.
And then came 1880. Disaster struck the Hegelians in the form of two numbers: 350,000 and 503,000. The first, according to the U.S. Census of 1880, was the estimated population of St. Louis. The latter was the estimated population of Chicago. “A gloom then settled into our very souls,” reported Snider, “as if we were listening to the crack of doom.”
Brokmeyer thought the whole thing was a scam; the Census takers were corrupt, incompetent, Washington bureaucrats; would the businessmen of Chicago stop at nothing to promote their decaying metropolis? The city hired a mathematician from Washington University and tasked him with finding fault with the census arithmetic. But according to the mathematician, there was no fault to find.
Eventually Brokmeyer fled west, and as society members left to pursue their own ends, the movement crumbled just as surely as Chicago had burned. Harris defected to the East and took up with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendentalists. There were rumors about where Brokmeyer had gone; it was said he was conducting a Hegel-focused kindergarten class for the Creek Indians in the wilds of the Oklahoma territory. He assured his friends he was still alive by sending intricately whittled walking sticks to their St. Louis addresses. Brokmeyer died at 80, and with his last words gave directions on the care of the translation he’d labored over all his life.
“Just leave it in the attic,” he told his family, “for vermin.”