adorno: latter-day Melanchthon


Throughout his productive life, Adorno sought to mobilize the powers of aesthetic negation against the hypocrisies of bourgeois rectitude. In this respect, his studies during the early ’20s with the Vienna School’s Alban Berg proved to be of lasting value. Like his teacher Schoenberg, Berg was an exponent of atonality. In Adorno’s view, dissonance alone, and not pleasing harmony, gave the lie to modern society’s illusions of fulfillment and wholeness. It is no small irony, then, to observe that on his return to Germany, Adorno became a vigorous advocate of Enlightenment. These were the values that, during their twelve-year reign of terror, the Nazis had destroyed. (Goebbels once ob­­served that with Hitler’s accession to power, the year 1789 had been effaced from history.) In pathbreaking essays such as “Education Toward Maturity and Responsibility” and “Education After Auschwitz,” Adorno repeatedly advocated the Kantian precept of moral autonomy. He realized that only by nurturing the values of autonomous citizenship could one effectively guard against the dangers of a totalitarian relapse: “The single genuine power standing against the principle of Auschwitz is autonomy, if I might use the Kantian expression: the power of reflection, of self-determination, of not cooperating.” In his conduct and activities as a critical intellectual, Adorno, to his credit, realized that Nazism’s success in Germany was the result of failed, rather than excessive, Enlightenment. Only by reversing the standpoint of Dialectic of Enlightenment—i.e., the radical Nietzschean critique of Enlightenment that the book embraced—did Adorno succeed during the ’50s and ’60s in becoming a latter-day Melancthon: a Praeceptor Germaniae.

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