The Essence of Christianity (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

Overview

"[T]he truth of our time." -- David Friedrich Strauss

The Essence of Christianity is the most significant critique of the Christian religion published in the nineteenth century. The work made Feuerbach a major public figure, admired by some, unpopular with others, but neglected by few. The impact of the book was enormous; it exposed with systematic order, passionate style, and often radical illustrations the weaknesses of contemporary religious thought and philosophy. It upset the entire dominant German ...
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The Essence of Christianity (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview

"[T]he truth of our time." -- David Friedrich Strauss

The Essence of Christianity is the most significant critique of the Christian religion published in the nineteenth century. The work made Feuerbach a major public figure, admired by some, unpopular with others, but neglected by few. The impact of the book was enormous; it exposed with systematic order, passionate style, and often radical illustrations the weaknesses of contemporary religious thought and philosophy. It upset the entire dominant German philosophical tradition and assumed the lead in the historical critique of religious thought.
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Meet the Author

Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach was born at Landshut, Bavaria, on July 28, 1804, the same year Napoleon was crowned emperor of France. The son of a distinguished German family, he was recognized as both a theologian and philosopher, but the radical nature of his writings barred him from receiving a tenured university post. Academic limitations, political constraints, and financial misfortune forced him into an isolated and impoverished life, and he died after a lingering illness on September 13, 1872.
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Introduction

The Essence of Christianity by Ludwig Feuerbach is the most significant critique of the Christian religion published in the nineteenth century. This challenging work immediately made its author a major public figure in German thought, admired by some, unpopular with others, but neglected by few. The impact of the book was enormous; it exposed with systematic order, passionate style, and often radical illustrations the weaknesses of contemporary religious thought and philosophy, thereby upsetting the entire dominant German philosophical tradition and assuming the lead in the historical critique of religious thought and Christian theology.

The life and times of Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach reflect the extremes of his literary achievement. Feuerbach was born at Landshut, Bavaria, on July 28, 1804, the same year Napoleon was crowned emperor of France. The son of a distinguished German family, he was recognized as both a theologian and philosopher. Feuerbach's first books established his reputation as a rising young Hegelian scholar. The publication of The Essence of Christianity, however, marked Feuerbach's public break with the predominant German idealist philosophy. The radical nature of his writings barred him from receiving a tenured university post. Academic limitations, political constraints, and financial misfortune forced him to give up teaching for the secluded life of a private scholar. Isolated and impoverished, Feuerbach moved to Rechenberg, a small town near Nuremberg, in 1860. He published little near the end of his life and died after a lingering illness on September 13, 1872.

Feuerbach received his academic training first in theologyat the University of Heidelberg under Friedrich Schleiermacher and then in philosophy at the University of Berlin under G. W. F. Hegel. In 1828 he earned his doctoral degree in philosophy and assumed a private teaching position at the University of Erlangen, where he lectured on the history of modern philosophy, logic, and metaphysics until 1835. He married in 1837 and moved to the remote castle at Bruckberg, where he remained until 1860 and wrote most of his important philosophical works. During the 1840s, at the height of his influence, Feuerbach became enthusiastic about the political and economic revolts that were taking place in Europe and decided to attend the Frankfurt Assembly as an observer. However, disappointed by the failure of the Assembly and the political reaction to it, he soon withdrew from the political scene. Near the end of the decade, Feuerbach gave a series of lectures on the essence of religion at the University of Heidelberg, but by the 1850s, he was no longer a dominant philosophical figure in Germany. It was his literary achievement that would outlive Feuerbach and elevate him into a significant figure in the history of the interpretation of religion.

The Essence of Christianity is by far Feuerbach's most popular work. It was first published in German in 1841; a second edition appeared only two years later with an important preface by Feuerbach, and a third edition was published in 1849. The book was read with widespread and unmatched enthusiasm. Karl Marx attributed more weight to Feuerbach's writing than to "the whole present German literature thrown together." David Friedrich Strauss wrote that The Essence of Christianity "was the truth of our time." Friedrich Engels described the immediate effect of the book as refreshing, extravagant, and liberating, and exclaimed: "We were all momentarily Feuerbachians." The book has also appeared in numerous translations. The second German edition was translated into English in 1854 by novelist, translator, and religious writer George Eliot (the pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans). A later edition underlined the growing importance of the work by adding to the text a foreword by H. Richard Niebuhr and an introductory essay by Karl Barth, who described Feuerbach as the inevitable consequence of Luther and Schleiermacher and considered him the most significant representative of nineteenth-century subjectivist theology.

Nevertheless, the criticism of The Essence of Christianity was just as vocal as its positive reception. Feuerbach's immediate influence lasted from the middle of the 1830s to the late 1840s, and during this time, criticism came from theologians and philosophers, theists and atheists alike, and most of them members of the Hegelian school. Scholars most often attacked his theological focus, his view of history, his method of religious critique and his extravagant literary style. Feuerbach was charged with being anti-Hegelian, exhibiting a contradictory relationship to religion, being partial to the deconstruction of Christianity and Christian theology, and proposing a purely subjectivist philosophy. He was accused of a materialistic worldview, logical mistakes, careless terminology, and aphoristic style. Yet the manifold criticism only underlined the significance attributed to Feuerbach's work in his time. Condemned by an orthodox majority and embraced by a progressive minority, critics and supporters of Feuerbach alike acknowledged his efforts in The Essence of Christianity to uncover the true situation of religion.

Feuerbach's response to his critics in the preface to the second edition of the book and in the 1843 publication "Toward the Appraisal of the Work Essence of Christianity" reveals that the immediate excitement about the book is best understood in light of Feuerbach's embrace of the Enlightenment critique of religion and his extraordinary response to the prevalent Hegelian philosophy. Feuerbach understood the Enlightenment as an extended process which continued into his own time and even extended as a "new philosophy" into the future. Although he consequently viewed himself as part of the new Enlightenment process, Feuerbach nevertheless began to gradually place himself in opposition to the established philosophical tradition of his time. The break with this tradition became most apparent with the publication of his Critique of Hegelian Philosophy in 1839. Hegel's thought constituted for Feuerbach the end of modern philosophy of the Enlightenment. Whereas the young Feuerbach had been a student and enthusiastic disciple of Hegel, the occupation with Enlightenment thought had produced in Feuerbach a growing skepticism toward all professional, speculative, and systematic philosophy and finally resulted in his public break with Hegelian idealism by the end of the 1830s.

Feuerbach's gradual break with Hegelian philosophy echoed his own journey to find his identity as a scholar in a time of philosophical upheaval. Speculative philosophy was moving toward a fundamental crisis. Feuerbach's early writings portray this development; his books on Leibniz (1837) and Bayle (1838) prepared the way for his Critique of Hegelian Philosophy and began to unveil a program that conceived of religion in contrast to Christian theology and speculative philosophy. Two significant concerns governed this program: the relationship of spirit and nature, and the relationship of faith and science. Feuerbach began to view theology as a contradiction to speculative scientific method, and with this step he also realized his own break with the dominant structure of scientific knowledge.

Feuerbach's critique of speculative philosophy focused particularly on the claim that knowledge was attainable without any presuppositions. Such a premise denied, in his view, any relationship between knowledge and human experience. In response, he highlighted the importance of the human subject, thereby initiating an unprecedented reversal of Hegelian philosophy. At the center of this reversal stood, in particular, the Hegelian dialectic of consciousness, that is to say, the process of human self-perception and the formation of religious concepts. Hegel distinguished in human consciousness between the person as a conscious subject and the object of which that person is conscious. In the process of consciousness the subject acknowledges an object as its "other" by projecting its own consciousness onto the object and comprehending the other in this way as consciousness itself originating from, but now external to, oneself. Feuerbach rejected the usefulness of this dialectic process for two significant and seemingly contradictory reasons. First, consciousness required in his view a real and existential, not just projected and extended, duality between subject and object. Second, no such duality between the subject and object of consciousness could be established in the field of religion. These two insights form the immediate basis for the development of Feuerbach's thought in The Essence of Christianity.

Feuerbach's first declaration proposed a real and existential duality between the subject and the object of human consciousness. As long as the process of human consciousness was based on the projection of one's own consciousness onto an object, as Hegel had proposed, consciousness remained for Feuerbach nothing more than the expression of self-contemplation, self-love, self-verification, and self-affirmation. Instead, he proposed that the consciousness of the human self develops not in abstract isolation but in the concrete encounter of a person with another, a "thou" that exists in itself and not merely as the projection of one's own ideas. Only a real "thou" fulfills the essential need of the human "I" for duality, community, and real, completed self-consciousness. In the encounter between the I and thou, the human person attains consciousness of itself as being both an individual distinct from the other and a member of the same species. This manifestly anthropological approach distinguished Feuerbach sharply from the perspective of speculative philosophy.

Feuerbach's second critique of Hegelian philosophy developed as a consequence of the first. He had concluded that human consciousness required a real, existing object, but when he considered religion, he found that the object to which a subject essentially and necessarily relates appeared to be nothing other than this subject's own objective nature. In other words, Feuerbach proposed that in religious thought the subject and object of consciousness coincide. Religion is the relation of the human person to human nature and, as a consequence, a product of the human imagination. God thereby becomes a mere projection of the human species. Already in his work on Bayle, Feuerbach described religion as an essential expression of the human spirit, namely, the spirit of the people. Significantly, however, most people were generally ignorant of their religious consciousness and, as a result, of their own religious identity.

Despite the often critical reception of The Essence of Christianity, the general audience acknowledged the importance of Feuerbach's concerns as going beyond a mere critique of Hegelian idealism. In the first place, Feuerbach intended to understand the true nature of God. Furthermore, he was passionate about uncovering the origin of religion and the development of religious concepts. And, finally, he had set out to discover the true nature of humanity. Feuerbach himself recalled the development of his deliberations with the often quoted summary, "God was my first thought, reason my second, the human being my third and last." Remarkably, however, he came to the realization that one could comprehend the true nature of religion only if one had first come to a true understanding of the nature of humanity. Ultimately, The Essence of Christianity formed a bridge across which Feuerbach reached out to an anthropologically grounded theology.

Theology, as Feuerbach noted in a later commentary on The Essence of Christianity, is not formed by the compendium of religious doctrines but by simple acts of the human subject. Feuerbach intended, to use his own words, "the awakening of religion to self-consciousness." At the beginning of this effort, however, stood not the understanding of the abstract concept of religion but the discovery of the concrete development of human self-consciousness. Hence Feuerbach initially considered the commendatory phrase "Know Thyself" as a title for the book until settling on the more descriptive designation "The Essence of Christianity." Although he wrote the text in the style of a political pamphlet, the book's intended audience was not only the speculative philosopher or the academic theologian but the common religious person. Feuerbach was determined to write his work in a comprehensible manner and lively, thought-provoking style. The English reader will find in the translation of the second German edition a revised text of the original with more speculative flavor than the first edition. In the foreword to that edition, Feuerbach remarked poignantly that "the object of this work is to demonstrate that the supernatural mysteries of religion are based on fairly simple, natural truths." He sought to display a balance between the popular and speculative, the pathological and therapeutic, the physiological and practical. And he viewed his own role as that of an observer, listener, discoverer, and interpreter, rather than that of an inventor, initiator, or speculator. Most important, however, Feuerbach considered not only the content of his work but his entire method and style to be in "absolute contradiction" to the manner of speculative thought and abstract philosophy. The sensational reception of The Essence of Christianity was in large measure the result of an unanticipated thesis packaged in an unprecedented form and wrapped in an often startling rhetoric.

Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity remains one of the most influential works of the post-Hegelian era. It is the product of both the influence of Enlightenment philosophers on the development of Feuerbach's thought (most notably Bacon, Bayle, Descartes, Leibniz, Rousseau, and Spinoza), as well as Feuerbach's interaction with and response to contemporary thinkers (including Fichte, Hegel, Kant, Schelling, Schleiermacher, and Schopenhauer). The book influenced not only revolutionary thinkers such as Marx, Engels, Ruge, Bauer, Stirner and Strauss, but echoes of Feuerbach's thought are also found throughout the works of Nietzsche, Freud, Sartre, Marcel, Buber, Barth, and others. The fundamental notions of The Essence of Christianity have entered into subsequent philosophical thought, above all in their critique of Christian theology and as a key to understanding the relation of the self to the other.

The twentieth century has seen a widespread rediscovery and revival of Feuerbach's thought. A number of English studies have appeared since William Chamberlain's Heaven Wasn't His Destination in 1941, among them Eugene Kamenka's Philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach (1970), Marx Wartofsky's Feuerbach (1977), Charles Wilson's Feuerbach and the Search for Otherness (1989), and Van Harvey's Feuerbach and the Interpretation of Religion (1995). These and other studies invite us to go beyond a reading of The Essence of Christianity and to consider Feuerbach's other writings in which many of the themes of this popular work are further developed. A more comprehensive picture of Feuerbach's critique of religion is gained from a reading of his book The Essence of Religion, a sequel to The Essence of Christianity published in 1851; the Lectures on the Essence of Religion, a collection of the Heidelberg lectures of 1848-49; and The Theogony, a large, late work published in 1857. Whether we embrace or reject Feuerbach's fundamental propositions, those who accept the invitation to engage in dialogue with his thinking will discover that his often surprising, passionate, and penetrating insights still have much to say about the nature of religion, the theological imagination and, most of all, about the essence of Christianity.

Wolfgang Vondeyis adjunct assistant professor of theology at Boston College. He holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Marquette University, and his areas of expertise include post-Reformation Christian thought and philosophy.
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