Béla Hamvas (1897–1968) was the Hungarian writer and philosopher who probably suffered the most from communist dictatorship and censure (1947–1989). During the years of socialism he was allowed to publish only one of his essays in 1964. He began writing philosophical essays in the 1920s. His works appeared in different kinds of newspapers until 1948 when György Lukács a communist commissary (former bourgeois philosopher) took steps to prevent his works to be published. At the same time Hamvas was forced into retirement from his job as a librarian. Thereafter he worked initially as a manual labourer in the countryside, then as an unskilled worker in a power plant. He was never employed in an intellectual capacity again.
Despite knowing that he would not be published, he wrote several great essays and some novels which were published only after the fall of communism. Around thirty volumes of his works have been published to date. All of them have earned the right to belong to the most important books of Hungarian culture. His heritage is a specific phenomenon in our culture because we have only a few metaphysical-spiritual authors who wrote in the horizon of timelessness and universality. It is not a coincidence that in Hungarian literary history we cannot place his works in any trends and cannot compare him to any other Hungarian authors. He has neither predecessors nor successors.
The objective of his writing was not only to build up an artist’s oeuvre, but a personality, a human being as a work of art
Finding a place for him is also difficult on the ground that—in some ways—he was more than a writer and more than a philosopher. The objective of his writing was not only to build up an artist’s oeuvre, but a personality, a human being as a work of art. He wanted to convert teaching into practice; wanted to embody the words. As a result, from the very beginning, he sought the basis for thought that allowed him to see phenomena clearly. He found this ‘basic position’ (one of his keywords) in the sacred books of various religions, especially in the Holy Bible. He also studied the sacred books of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism, Hasidism as well as the Greek and Roman philosophers, medieval mystics, the works of Shakespeare and Dante – the latter two authors were part of Hamvas’s ‘universal tradition’ as he called it. I should note here that Hamvas did not select the elements of different religions arbitrarily like a New Age follower today from a sacral consumer package. Instead, he looked for relationships and connection points in different religions.
In order to know the authors of bygone eras, he was uniquely at home in the literature of his time. He was one of the first to read and review James Joyce’s novels, immediately recognizing the values of Ulysses and called it one of the most important books of all times.
As I mentioned before, Hamvas searched the deep senses of the messages of the sacred books (the tradition) in order to form an intellectual basis for correct thinking. He did not want to construct a philosophical system or create any new ideas, but wanted to restore the basic order of the world in his works and in his life. He followed traditional values, professed traditional world order/value structure – that is why I called him a Hungarian conservative. This is certainly not a political category, since it covers a much larger perspective, nevertheless his thoughts help us navigate the turmoil of today’s life.
‘If I set things right, if everything is in the place, the meaning of the world will be restored,’ he says. ‘Each philosophy is a meaning-restoration experiment.’1
He approached the topic of the ‘basic state’, the ‘world order’ from several pages. Let’s consider some examples: (Translation by Maria Varga)
‘Don’t grave images. Don’t make fetishes. Don’t make principles, doctrines and world views!’ (‘Ne csinálj faragott képeket, ne csinálj bálványokat, ne csinálj elveket, elméleteket, világnézeteket!)2
‘I have not invented anything, so I have nothing to teach. All in all I understood the sacred books and tried to apply them.’ (Nem találtam fel semmit, ezért nincs mit tanítanom. Mindössze a szent könyveket értettem meg, és megkíséreltem azokat alkalmazni)3
‘The content of the sacred books is the starting position. With the word of the alchemists: the Prima Materia. This is the philosophia normalis.’ (A szentkönyvek tartalma az alapállás. Az alkimisták szavával a Prima Materia. Ez a philosophia normalis.)
‘Understanding the Gospel does not mean to understand the teaching of it, but to understand the normal human being’s approach to life.’ (Az evangéliumot megérteni annyi, mint nem a tanítást, hanem a normális ember élettechnikáját megérteni.)4
Ha asks, ‘What is happening today?’ and answers the following: ‘Unspiritual seclusion from wholeness’
All of his subjects have been filtered through the wisdom of thousands of years. Each of his essays opens huge perspectives. We will not need any green ideologies if we read a few of Hamvas’s sentences. Ha asks, ‘What is happening today?’ and answers the following: ‘Unspiritual seclusion from wholeness. Today, life is the only possibility of existence. But life is infinitely narrower than existence. The idea of destruction after death encouraged man to go to the end. Man throws himself at life as the only opportunity so he plunders, squeezes and robs it. These are the causes of impoverishment, corruption, blackout, strife, greed, withering, destruction.’5
Modern man—in order to enjoy life as unabashedly as possible—has rejected Christianity, he says.
‘I hate being a hero or sacred or wise,’ he says. ‘I have a higher need. I would like to be a normal person.’6
What does ‘normal person’ (a further keyword) mean for him? A person who knows the world order, the value structure and follows the rules/norms of it.
He claims that the normal person is placed in the universal order, he/she does not need talent, it can be lived by anyone, it is not superior, not individual, not one-of, not an exception but general and regular. This is the authentic existence that can be learned from the Gospel and the sacred books.
Today when everybody wants to be special, unique, irregular and even requires a gender created for himself/herself/themselves etc., Hamvas’s thoughts provide good lessons (and much help) for us. They give a clear contrast to our world.
Mária Varga, literary historian, teacher, journalist
1 Béla Hamvas, ‘A bor filozófiája’, A bor filozófiája (Budapest: Medio, 2010), 97.
2 Béla Hamvas, ‘Unicornis – Summa Philosophiae Normalis’, Silentium, Titkos jegyzőkönyv, (Budapest: Vigilia, 1987), 196.
3 Hamvas, ‘Unicornis – Summa Philosophiae Normalis’, 208.
4 Hamvas, ‘Unicornis – Summa Philosophiae Normalis’, 207.
5 Béla Hamvas, ‘Levél V. J.-hez’, Patmosz II. (1964–1966), (Életünk szerkesztősége-Magyar Írók Szövetsége, Szombathely, 1992), 193.
6 Béla Hamvas, ‘Unicornis – Summa Philosophiae Normalis’, Silentium, Titkos jegyzőkönyv, (Budapest: Vigilia, 1987), 190.