Möser, Justus

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Möser, Justus (1720-1794): German Administrator and Writer.

Justus Möser was a writer and administrator who worked on the practical realization of the aims of enlightenment. Opposing one-sided rationalism, he wanted to make useful and practical contributions to the everyday lives of ordinary people without disregarding their regional traditions.

He studied law in Jena and Göttingen (1741-43). Following the familiy tradition, he then held different administrative positions in the prince-bishopric of Osnabrück, as secretary, advocatus patriae (state attorney), syndic, justiciarius (chief justice). Since 1763, he was in fact the head of the state’s administration in the absence of the prince-bishop. In this capacity, he was able to combine administration with practical enlightenment, which he documented in numerous articles and books. Today, he is mainly remembered as the author of different moralistic weekly papers based on the English example (e.g. the Spectator). These texts were collected as the Patriotic Phantasies (4 vols, 1774-86). They present a curious mixture of new and old-fashioned ideas, such as liberal economic policies (e.g. free trade in grain), but also draconic corporal punishment for criminals. Möser was careful when it came to modern ideas which might have been fashionable for a while, but not really useful. He rather trusted the people’s centuries-old knowledge, tried to find the reason behind traditions and then defended them as maybe surrounded by folk superstition, but fundamentally good ideas. The most famous example is his defence of the Westphalian farmer’s house, where people and animals lived under the same roof. Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de criticized this practice as barbarian, but Möser showed how this architecture was functional in every detail.

Möser’s contribution to literature consists of several plays, most notably Arminius, which deals with the Germanic hero Hermann. Goethe, Johann Wolfgang’s early drama Götz von Berlichingen was influenced by Möser, although not by his literary production, but rather by his historical writing, especially by an essay about the medieval rule of force. In general, Möser valued the middle ages as a period of individual freedom and de-centralized structures, which he regarded as a positive contrast to the absolutistic state of his own time. This historicism stands in clear contrast to the enlightened historiography which postulated constant progress, with the present time as the highest point in civilisation. In his Osnabrück History, Möser sought a historical explanation in the social and economic development of his region. He rejected the usual focus on a succession of secular or ecclesiastical rulers. Möser’s main interest lay with the Estates, especially the nobility, thus creating a distinct non-absolutist perspective. He wanted to preserve the corporatist order because the only alternative he could see was an absolute monarchy, which made all the subjects equal, but not free, whereas the clear structure of the corporate state gave everybody certain rights and privileges.

In general, Möser’s views place him in the context of conservative or corporatist enlightenment, a typically bourgeois position voicing itself by way of magazine articles and taking a stance against the unchecked power of the absolute monarch, while accepting the limited scope for reform within the complex German system of corporative law.

Further Reading:

J. B. Knudsen, Justus Möser and the German Enlightenment, 1986.

Sibylle Plassman