Sunday, March 20, 2016
David Friedrich Strauss - The Man And His Fate by Albert Schweitzer 1910
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In order to understand Strauss one must love him. He was not the greatest, and not the deepest, of theologians, but he was the most absolutely sincere. His insight and his errors were alike the insight and the errors of a prophet. And he had a prophet's fate. Disappointment and suffering gave his life its consecration. It unrolls itself before us like a tragedy, in which, in the end, the gloom is lightened by the mild radiance which shines forth from the nobility of the sufferer.
Strauss was born in 1808 at Ludwigsburg. His father was a merchant, whose business, however, was unsuccessful, so that his means steadily declined. The boy took his ability from his mother, a good, self-controlled, sensible, pious woman, to whom he raised a monument in his “Memorial of a Good Mother” written in 1858, to be given to his daughter on her confirmation-day.
From 1821 to 1825 he was a pupil at the “lower seminary” at Blaubeuren, along with Friedrich Vischer, Pfizer, Zimmermann, Märklin, and Binder. Among their teachers was Ferdinand Christian Baur, whom they were to meet with again at the university.
His first year at the university was uninteresting, as it was only in the following year that the reorganisation of the theological faculty took place, in consequence of the appointment of Baur. The instruction in the philosophical faculty was almost equally unsatisfactory, so that the friends would have gained little from the two years of philosophical propaedeutic which formed part of the course prescribed for theological students, if they had not combined to prosecute their philosophical studies for themselves. The writings of Hegel began to exercise a powerful influence upon them. For the philosophical faculty, Hegel's philosophy was as yet non-existent.
These student friends were much addicted to poetry. Two journeys which Strauss made along with his fellow-student Binder to Weinsberg to see Justinus Kerner made a deep impression upon him. He had to make a deliberate effort to escape from the dream-world of the “Prophetess of Prevorst.” Some years later, in a Latin note to Binder, he speaks of Weinsberg as “Mecca nostra.”
According to Vischer's picture of him, the tall stripling made an impression of great charm, though he was rather shy except with intimates. He attended lectures with pedantic regularity.
Baur was at that time still immersed in the prolegomena to his system; but Strauss already suspected the direction which the thoughts of his young teacher were to take.
When Strauss and his student friends entered on their duties as clergymen, the others found great difficulty in bringing their theological views into line with the popular beliefs which they were expected to preach. Strauss alone remained free from inner struggles. In a letter to Binder28 of the year 1831, he explains that in his sermons—he was then assistant at Klein-Ingersheim near Ludwigsburg—he did not use “representative notions” (Vorstellungen, used as a philosophical technicality) such as that of the Devil, which the people were already prepared to dispense with; but others which still appeared to be indispensable, such as those of an eschatological character, he merely endeavoured to present in such a way that the “intellectual concept” (Begriff) which lay behind, might so far as possible shine through. “When I consider,” he continues, “how far even in intellectual preaching the expression is inadequate to the true essence of the concept, it does not seem to me to matter much if one goes even a step further. I at least go about the matter without the least scruple, and cannot ascribe this to a mere want of sincerity in myself.”
That is Hegelian logic.
After being for a short time Deputy-professor at Maulbronn, he took his doctor's degree with a dissertation on the restoration of all things, Acts iii. 21.. This work is lost. From his letters it appears that he treated the subject chiefly from the religious-historical point of view.
When Binder took his doctorate with a philosophical thesis on the immortality of the soul, Strauss, in 1832, wrote to him expressing the opinion that the belief in personal immortality could not properly be regarded as a consequence of the Hegelian system, since according to Hegel, it was not the subjective spirit of the individual person, but only the objective Spirit, the self-realising Idea which constantly embodies itself in new creations, to which immortality belongs.
In October 1831 he went to Berlin to hear Hegel and Schleiermacher. On the 14th of November Hegel, whom he had visited shortly before, was carried off by cholera. Strauss heard the news in Schleiermacher's house, from Schleiermacher himself, and is said to have exclaimed, with a certain want of tact, considering who his informant was: “And it was to hear him that I came to Berlin!”
There was no satisfactory basis for a relationship between Schleiermacher and Strauss. They had nothing in common. That did not prevent Strauss's Life of Jesus being sometimes described by opponents of Schleiermacher as a product of the latter's philosophy of religion. Indeed, as late as the 'sixties, Tholuck thought it necessary to defend the memory of the great theologian against this reproach.
As a matter of fact, the plan of the Life of Jesus arose during Strauss's intercourse with Vatke, to whom he felt himself strongly drawn. Moreover, what was first sketched out was not primarily the plan of a Life of Jesus, but that of a history of the ideas of primitive Christianity, intended to serve as a standard by which to judge ecclesiastical dogma. The Life of Jesus was originally designed, it might almost be said, as a mere prologue to this work, the plan of which was subsequently carried out under the title, “Christian Theology in its Historical Development and in its Antagonism with Modern Scientific Knowledge” (published in 1840-1841).
When in the spring of 1832 he returned to Tübingen to take up the position of “Repetent”31 in the theological college (Stift), these plans were laid on the shelf in consequence of his pre-occupation with philosophy, and if things had gone according to Strauss's wishes, they would perhaps never have come to fulfilment. The “Repetents” had the right to lecture upon philosophy. Strauss felt himself called upon to come forward as an apostle of Hegel, and lectured upon Hegel's logic with tremendous success. Zeller, who attended these lectures, records the unforgettable impression which they made on him. Besides championing Hegel, Strauss also lectured upon Plato, and upon the history of modern philosophy. These were three happy semesters.
“In my theology,” he writes in a letter of 1833,32 “philosophy occupies such a predominant position that my theological views can only be worked out to completeness by means of a more thorough study of philosophy, and this course of study I am now going to prosecute uninterruptedly and without concerning myself whether it leads me back to theology or not.” Further on he says: “If I know myself rightly, my position in regard to theology is that what interests me in theology causes offence, and what does not cause offence is indifferent to me. For this reason I have refrained from delivering lectures on theology.”
The philosophical faculty was not altogether pleased at the success of the apostle of Hegel, and wished to have the right of the “Repetents” to lecture on philosophy curtailed. The latter, however, took their stand upon the tradition. Strauss was desired to intermit his lectures until the matter should be settled. He would have liked best to end the situation by entering the philosophical faculty. The other “Repetents,” however, begged him not to do so, but to continue to champion their rights. It is possible also that obstacles were placed in the way of his plan by the philosophical faculty. However that may be, it was in any case not carried through. Strauss was forced back upon theology.
According to Hase, Strauss began his studies for the Life of Jesus by writing a detailed critical review of his (Hase's) text-book. He sent this to Berlin to the Jahrbücher für wissenschaftliche Kritik, which, however, refused it. His resolve to publish first, instead of the general work on the genesis of Christian doctrine, a critical study on the life of Jesus was doubtless determined by Schleiermacher's lectures on this subject. When in Berlin he had procured a copy of a lecture note-book, and the reading of it incited him to opposition.
Considering its character, the work was rapidly produced. He wrote it sitting at the window of the Repetents' room, which looks out upon the gateway-arch. When its two volumes appeared in 1835 the name of the author was wholly unknown, except for some critical studies upon the Gospels. This book, into which he had poured his youthful enthusiasm, rendered him famous in a moment—and utterly destroyed his prospects. Among his opponents the most prominent was Steudel, a member of the theological faculty, who, as president of the Stift, made representations against him to the Ministry, and succeeded in securing his removal from the post of “Repetent.” The hopes which Strauss had placed upon his friends were disappointed. Only two or three at most dared to publish anything in his defence.
He first accepted a transfer to the post of Deputy-professor at Ludwigsburg, but in less than a year he was glad to give it up, and he then returned to Stuttgart. There he lived for several years, busying himself in the preparation of new editions of the Life of Jesus, and in writing answers to the attacks which were made upon him.
Towards the end of the 'thirties he became conscious of a growing impulse towards more positive views. The criticisms of his opponents had made some impression upon him. The second volume of polemics was laid aside. In its place appeared the third edition of the Life of Jesus, 1838-1839, containing a series of amazing concessions. Strauss explains that in consequence of reading de Wette's commentary and Neander's Life of Jesus he had begun to feel some hesitation about his former doubts regarding the genuineness and credibility of the Fourth Gospel. The historic personality of Jesus again began to take on intelligible outlines for him. These inconsistencies he removed in the next edition, acknowledging that he did not know how he could so have temporarily vacillated in his point of view. The matter admits, however, of a psychological explanation. He longed for peace, for he had suffered more than his enemies suspected or his friends knew. The ban of the outlaw lay heavy upon his soul. In this spirit he composed in 1839 the monologues entitled Vergängliches und Bleibendes im Christentum (“Transient and Permanent Elements in Christianity”), which appeared again in the following year under the title Friedliche Blätter (“Leaves of Peace”).
For a moment it seemed as though his rehabilitation would be accomplished. In January 1839 the noble-minded Hitzig succeeded in getting him appointed to the vacant chair of dogmatics in Zurich. But the orthodox and pietist parties protested so vehemently that the Government was obliged to revoke the appointment. Strauss was pensioned off, without ever entering on his office.
About that time his mother died. In 1841 he lost his father. When the estate came to be settled up, it was found that his affairs were in a less unsatisfactory condition than had been feared. Strauss was secure against want. The success of his second great work, his “Christian Theology” (published in 1840-41), compensated him for his disappointment at Zurich. In conception it is perhaps even greater than the Life of Jesus; and in depth of thought it is to be classed with the most important contributions to theology. In spite of that it never attracted so much attention as the earlier work. Strauss continued to be known as the author of the Life of Jesus. Any further ground of offence which he might give was regarded as quite subsidiary.
And the book contains matter for offence in no common degree. The point to which Strauss applies his criticism is the way in which the Christian theology which grew out of the ideas of the ancient world has been brought into harmony with the Christianity of rationalism and of speculative philosophy. Either, to use his own expression, both are so finely pulverised in the process—as in the case of Schleiermacher's combination of Spinozism with Christianity—that it needs a sharp eye to rediscover the elements of the mixture; or the two are shaken together like water and oil, in which case the semblance of combination is only maintained so long as the shaking continues. For this crude procedure he desires to substitute a better method, based upon a preliminary historical criticism of dogma, in order that thought may no longer have to deal with the present form of Church theology, but with the ideas which worked as living forces in its formation.
This is brilliantly worked out in detail. The result is not a positive, but a negative Hegelian theology. Religion is not concerned with supra-mundane beings and a divinely glorious future, but with present spiritual realities which appear as “moments” in the eternal being and becoming of Absolute Spirit. At the end of the second volume, where battle is joined on the issue of personal immortality, all these ideas play their part in the struggle. Personal immortality is finally rejected in every form, for the critical reasons which Strauss had already set forth in the letters of 1832. Immortality is not something which stretches out into the future, but simply and solely the present quality of the spirit, its inner universality, its power of rising above everything finite to the Idea. Here the thought of Hegel coincides with that of Schleiermacher. “The saying of Schleiermacher, ‘In the midst of finitude to be one with the Infinite, and to be eternal in a moment,’ is all that modern thought can say about immortality.” But neither Schleiermacher nor Hegel was willing to draw the natural inferences from their ultimate position, or at least they did not give them any prominence.
It is not the application of the mythological explanation to the Gospel history which irrevocably divides Strauss from the theologians, but the question of personal immortality. It would be well for them if they had only to deal with the Strauss of the Life of Jesus, and not with the thinker who posed this question with inexorable trenchancy. They might then face the future more calmly, relieved of the anxiety lest once more Hegel and Schleiermacher might rise up in some pious but critical spirit, not to speak smooth things, but to ask the ultimate questions, and might force theology to fight its battle with Strauss all over again.
At the very time when Strauss was beginning to breathe freely once more, had turned his back upon all attempts at compromise, and reconciled himself to giving up teaching; and when, after settling his father's affairs, he had the certainty of being secure against penury; at that very time he sowed for himself the seeds of a new, immitigable suffering by his marriage with Agnese Schebest, the famous singer.
They were not made for one another. He could not look to her for any sympathy with his plans, and she on her part was repelled by the pedantry of his disposition. Housekeeping difficulties and the trials of a limited income added another element of discord. They removed to Sontheim near Heilbronn with the idea of learning to adapt themselves to one another far from the distractions of the town; but that did not better matters. They lived apart for a time, and after some years they procured a divorce, custody of the children being assigned to the father. The lady took up her residence in Stuttgart, and Strauss paid her an allowance up to her death in 1870.
What he suffered may be read between the lines in the passage in “The Old Faith and the New” where he speaks of the sacredness of marriage and the admissibility of divorce. The wound bled inwardly. His mental powers were disabled. At this time he wrote little. Only in the apologue “Julian the Apostate, or the Romanticist on the throne of the Caesars”—that brilliant satire upon Frederic William IV., written in 1847—is there a flash of the old spirit.
But in spite of his antipathy to the romantic disposition of the King of Prussia he entered the lists in 1848 on behalf of the efforts of the smaller German states to form a united Germany, apart from Austria, under the hegemony of Prussia. He did not suffer his political acumen to be blunted either by personal antipathies or by particularism. The citizens of Ludwigsburg wished to have him as their representative in the Frankfort parliament, but the rural population, who were pietistic in sympathies, defeated his candidature. Instead, his native town sent him to the Würtemberg Chamber of Deputies. But here his philistinism came to the fore again. The phrase-mongering revolutionary party in the chamber disgusted him. He saw himself more and more forced to the “right,” and was obliged to act politically with men whose reactionary sympathies he was far from sharing. His constituents, meanwhile, were thoroughly discontented with his attitude. In the end the position became intolerable. It was also painful to him to have to reside in Stuttgart, where he could not avoid meeting the woman who had brought so much misery into his life. Further—he himself mentions this point in his memoirs—he had no practice in speaking without manuscript, and cut a poor figure as a debater. Then came the “Blum Case.” Robert Blum, a revolutionary, had been shot by court martial in Vienna. The Würtemberg Chamber desired to vote a public celebration of his funeral. Strauss did not think there was any ground for making a hero of this agitator, merely because he had been shot, and was not inclined to blame the Austrian Government very severely for meting out summary justice to a disturber of the peace. His attitude brought on him a vote of censure from his constituents. When, subsequently, the President of the Chamber called him to order for asserting that a previous speaker had “concealed by sleight of hand” (wegeskamotiert, “juggled away”) an important point in the debate, he refused to accept the vote of censure, resigned his membership, and ceased to attend the diets. As he himself put it, he “jumped out of the boat.” Then began a period of restless wandering, during which he beguiled his time with literary work. He wrote, inter alia, upon Lessing, Hutten, and Reimarus, rediscovering the last-named for his fellow-countrymen.
At the end of the 'sixties he returned once more to theology. His “Life of Jesus adapted for the German People” appeared in 1864. In the preface he refers to Renan, and freely acknowledges the great merits of his work.
The Prusso-Austrian war placed him in a difficult position. His historical insight made it impossible for him to share the particularism of his friends; on the contrary, he recognised that the way was now being prepared for the realisation of his dream of 1848—an alliance of the smaller German States under the hegemony of Prussia. As he made no secret of his opinions, he had the bitter experience of receiving the cold shoulder from men who had hitherto loyally stood by him.
In the year 1870 it was granted to him to become the spokesman of the German people; through a publication on Voltaire which had appeared not long before he had become acquainted with Renan. In a letter to Strauss, written after the first battles, Renan made a passing allusion to these great events. Strauss seized the opportunity to explain to him, in a vigorous “open letter” of the 12th of August, Germany's reason and justification for going to war. Receiving an answer from Renan, he then, in a second letter, of the 29th of September, took occasion to defend Germany's right to demand the cession of Alsace, not on the ground of its having formerly been German territory, but for the defence of her natural frontiers. The resounding echo evoked by these words, inspired, as they were, by the enthusiasm of the moment, compensated him for much of the obloquy which he had had to bear.
His last work, “The Old Faith and the New,” appeared in 1872. Once more, as in the work on theology published in 1840-1841, he puts to himself the question, What is there of permanence in this artificial compound of theology and philosophy, faith and thought? But he puts the question with a certain bitterness, and shows himself too much under the influence of Darwinism, by which his mind was at that time dominated. The Hegelian system of thought, which served as a firm basis for the work of 1840, has fallen in ruins. Strauss is alone with his own thoughts, endeavouring to raise himself above the new scientific world-view. His powers of thought, never, for all his critical acumen, strong on the creative side, and now impaired by age, were unequal to the task. There is no force and no greatness in the book.
To the question, “Are we still Christians?” he answers, “No.” But to his second question, “Have we still a religion?” he is prepared to give an affirmative answer, if the assumption is granted that the feeling of dependence, of self-surrender, of inner freedom, which has sprung from the pantheistic world-view, can be called religion. But instead of developing the idea of this deep inner freedom, and presenting religion in the form in which he had experienced it, he believes himself obliged to offer some new construction based upon Darwinism, and sets himself to answer the two questions, “How are we to understand the world?” and “How are we to regulate our lives?”—the form of the latter is somewhat lacking in distinction—in a quite impersonal way. It is only the schoolmaster and pedant in him—who was always at the elbow of the thinker even in his greatest works—that finds expression here.
It was a dead book, in spite of the many editions which it went through, and the battle which raged over it was, like the fiercest of the Homeric battles, a combat over the dead.
The theologians declared Strauss bankrupt, and felt themselves rich because they had made sure of not being ruined by a similar unimaginative honesty. Friedrich Nietzsche, from the height of his would-be Schopenhauerian pessimism, mocked at the fallen hero.
Before the year was out Strauss began to suffer from an internal ulcer. For many months he bore his sufferings with quiet resignation and inner serenity, until on the 8th of February 1874, in his native town of Ludwigsburg, death set him free.
A few weeks earlier, on the 29th of December 1873, his sufferings and his thoughts received illuminating expression in the following poignant verses:—
He to whom my plaint is
Knows I shed no tear;
She to whom I say this
Feels I have no fear.
Time has come for fading,
Like a glimmering ray,
Or a sense-evading
Strain that floats away.
May, though fainter, dimmer,
Only, clear and pure,
To the last the glimmer
And the strain endure.