The Essence of Christianity/Chapter XVI

The Essence of Christianity by Ludwig Feuerbach
Chapter XVI. The Distinction between Christianity and Heathenism
CHAPTER XVI.


THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN CHRISTIANITY AND HEATHENISM.


Christ is the omnipotence of subjectivity, the heart released from all the bonds and laws of Nature, the soul excluding the world, and concentrated only on itself, the reality of all the heart’s wishes, the Easter festival of the heart, the ascent to heaven of the imagination:—Christ therefore is the distinction of Christianity from Heathenism.

In Christianity, man was concentrated only on himself, he unlinked himself from the chain of sequences in the system of the universe, he made himself a self-sufficing whole, an absolute, extra- and supramundane being. Because he no longer regarded himself as a being immanent in the world, because he severed himself from connexion with it, he felt himself an unlimited being—(for the sole limit of subjectivity is the world, is objectivity),—he had no longer any reason to doubt the truth and validity of his subjective wishes and feelings.

The heathens, on the contrary, not shutting out Nature by retreating within themselves, limited their subjectivity by the contemplation of the world. Highly as the ancients estimated the intelligence, the reason, they were yet liberal and objective enough, theoretically as well as practically to allow that which they distinguished from mind, namely, matter, to live, and even to live eternally; the Christians evinced their theoretical as well as practical intolerance in their belief that they secured the eternity of their subjective life, only by annihilating, as in the doctrine of the destruction of the world, the opposite of subjectivity—Nature. The ancients were free from themselves, but their freedom was that of indifference towards themselves; the Christians were free from Nature, but their freedom was not that of reason, not true freedom, which limits itself by the contemplation of the world, by Nature,—it was the freedom of feeling and imagination, the freedom of miracle. The ancients were so enraptured by the Cosmos, that they lost sight of themselves, suffered themselves to be merged in the whole; the Christians despised the world;—what is the creature compared with the Creator? what are sun, moon, and earth, compared with the human soul?[1] The world passes away, but man, nay, the individual, personal man is eternal. If the Christians severed man from all community with Nature, and hence fell into the extreme of an arrogant fastidiousness, which stigmatized the remotest comparison of man with the brutes as an impious violation of human dignity; the heathens, on the other hand, fell into the opposite extreme, into that spirit of depreciation which abolishes the distinction between man and the brute, or even, as was the case, for example, with Celsus, the opponent of Christianity, degrades man beneath the brute.

But the heathens considered man not only in connexion with the universe; they considered the individual man, in connexion with other men, as member of a commonwealth. They rigorously distinguished the individual from the species, the individual as a part from the race as a whole, and they subordinated the part to the whole. Men pass away, but mankind remains, says a heathen philosopher. “Why wilt thou grieve over the loss of thy daughter?” writes Sulpicius to Cicero. “Great, renowned cities and empires have passed away, and thou behavest thus at the death of an homunculus, a little human being! Where is thy philosophy?” The idea of man as an individual was to the ancients a secondary one, attained through the idea of the species. Though they thought highly of the race, highly of the excellences of mankind, highly and sublimely of the intelligence, they nevertheless thought slightly of the individual. Christianity, on the contrary, cared nothing for the species, and had only the individual in its eye and mind. Christianity—not, certainly, the Christianity of the present day, which has incorporated with itself the culture of heathenism, and has preserved only the name and some general positions of Christianity—is the direct opposite of heathenism, and only when it is regarded as such is it truly comprehended, and untravestied by arbitrary speculative interpretation; it is true so far as its opposite is false, and false so far as its opposite is true. The ancients sacrificed the individual to the species; the Christians sacrificed the species to the individual. Or, heathenism conceived the individual only as a part in distinction from the whole of the species; Christianity, on the contrary, conceived the individual only in immediate, undistinguishable unity with the species.

To Christianity the individual was the object of an immediate Providence, that is, an immediate object of the Divine Being. The heathens believed in a Providence for the individual, only through his relation to the race, through law, through the order of the world, and thus only in a mediate, natural, and not miraculous Providence;[2] but the Christians left out the intermediate process, and placed themselves in immediate connexion with the prescient, all-embracing, universal Being; i.e., they immediately identified the individual with the universal being.

But the idea of deity coincides with the idea of humanity. All divine attributes, all the attributes which make God God, are attributes of the species—attributes which in the individual are limited, but the limits of which are abolished in the essence of the species, and even in its existence, in so far as it has its complete existence only in all men taken together. My knowledge, my will, is limited; but my limit is not the limit of another man, to say nothing of mankind; what is difficult to me is easy to another; what is impossible, inconceivable, to one age, is to the coming age conceivable and possible. My life is bound to a limited time; not so the life of humanity. The history of mankind consists of nothing else than a continuous and progressive conquest of limits, which at a given time pass for the limits of humanity, and therefore for absolute insurmountable limits. But the future always unveils the fact, that the alleged limits of the species were only limits of individuals. The most striking proofs of this are presented by the history of philosophy and of physical science. It would be highly interesting and instructive to write a history of the sciences entirely from this point of view, in order to exhibit in all its vanity the presumptuous notion of the individual that he can set limits to his race. Thus the species is unlimited; the individual alone limited.

But the sense of limitation is painful, and hence the individual frees himself from it by the contemplation of the perfect Being; in this contemplation he possesses what otherwise is wanting to him. With the Christians God is nothing else than the immediate unity of species and individuality, of the universal and individual being. God is the idea of the species as an individual—the idea or essence of the species, which as a species, as universal being, as the totality of all perfections, of all attributes or realities, freed from all the limits which exist in the consciousness and feeling of the individual, is at the same time again an individual, personal being. Ipse suum esse est. Essence and existence are in God identical; which means nothing else than that he is the idea, the essence of the species, conceived immediately as an existence, an individual. The highest idea on the stand-point of religion is: God does not love, he is himself love; he does not live, he is life; he is not just, but justice itself; not a person, but personality itself,—the species, the idea, as immediately a concrete existence.[3]

Because of this immediate unity of the species with individuality, this concentration of all that is universal and real in one personal being, God is a deeply moving object, enrapturing to the imagination; whereas, the idea of humanity has little power over the feelings, because humanity is only an abstraction; and the reality which presents itself to us in distinction from this abstraction, is the multitude of separate, limited individuals. In God, on the contrary, feeling has immediate satisfaction, because here all is embraced in one, i.e., because here the species has an immediate existence,—is an individuality. God is love, is justice, as itself a subject; he is the perfect universal being as one being, the infinite extension of the species as an all-comprehending unity. But God is only man’s intuition of his own nature; thus the Christians are distinguished from the heathens in this, that they immediately identify the individual with the species—that with them the individual has the significance of the species, the individual by himself is held to be the perfect representative of the species—that they deify the human individual, make him the absolute being.

Especially characteristic is the difference between Christianity and Heathenism concerning the relation of the individual to the intelligence, to the understanding, to the νους. The Christians individualized the understanding, the heathens made it a universal essence. To the heathens, the understanding, the intelligence, was the essence of man; to the Christians, it was only a part of themselves. To the heathens therefore only the intelligence, the species, to the Christians the individual, was immortal, i.e. divine. Hence follows the further difference between heathen and Christian philosophy.

The most unequivocal expression, the characteristic symbol of this immediate identity of the species and individuality in Christianity, is Christ, the real God of the Christians. Christ is the ideal of humanity become existent, the compendium of all moral and divine perfections to the exclusion of all that is negative; pure, heavenly, sinless man, the typical man, the Adam Kadmon; not regarded as the totality of the species, of mankind, but immediately as one individual, one person. Christ, i.e., the Christian, religious Christ, is therefore not the central, but the terminal point of history. The Christians expected the end of the world, the close of history. In the Bible, Christ himself, in spite of all the falsities and sophisms of our exegetists, clearly prophesies the speedy end of the world. History rests only on the distinction of the individual from the race. Where this distinction ceases, history ceases; the very soul of history is extinct. Nothing remains to man but the contemplation and appropriation of this realized Ideal, and the spirit of proselytism, which seeks to extend the prevalence of a fixed belief,—the preaching that God has appeared, and that the end of the world is at hand.

Since the immediate identity of the species and the individual oversteps the limits of reason and Nature, it followed of course that this universal, ideal individual was declared to be a transcendent, supernatural, heavenly being. It is therefore a perversity to attempt to deduce from reason the immediate identity of the species and individual, for it is only the imagination which effects this identity, the imagination to which nothing is impossible, and which is also the creator of miracles; for the greatest of miracles is the being who while he is an individual is at the same time the ideal, the species, humanity in the fulness of its perfection and infinity, i.e., the Godhead. Hence it is also a perversity to adhere to the biblical or dogmatic Christ, and yet to thrust aside miracles. If the principle be retained, wherefore deny its necessary consequences?

The total absence of the idea of the species in Christianity is especially observable in its characteristic doctrine of the universal sinfulness of men. For there lies at the foundation of this doctrine the demand that the individual shall not be an individual, a demand which again is based on the presupposition that the individual by himself is a perfect being, is by himself the adequate presentation or existence of the species.[4] Here is entirely wanting the objective perception, the consciousness, that the thou belongs to the perfection of the I, that men are required to constitute humanity, that only men taken together are what man should and can be. All men are sinners. Granted: but they are not all sinners in the same way; on the contrary, there exists a great and essential difference between them. One man is inclined to falsehood, another is not; he would rather give up his life than break his word or tell a lie; the third has a propensity to intoxication, the fourth to licentiousness; while the fifth, whether by favour of Nature, or from the energy of his character, exhibits none of these vices. Thus, in the moral as well as the physical and intellectual elements, men compensate for each other, so that taken as a whole they are as they should be, they present the perfect man.

Hence intercourse ameliorates and elevates; involuntarily and without disguise, man is different in intercourse from what he is when alone. Love especially works wonders, and the love of the sexes most of all. Man and woman are the complement of each other, and thus united they first present the species, the perfect man.[5] Without species, love is inconceivable. Love is nothing else than the self-consciousness of the species as evolved within the difference of sex. In love, the reality of the species, which otherwise is only a thing of reason, an object of mere thought, becomes a matter of feeling, a truth of feeling; for in love, man declares himself unsatisfied in his individuality taken by itself, he postulates the existence of another as a need of the heart; he reckons another as part of his own being; he declares the life which he has through love to be the truly human life, corresponding to the idea of man, i.e., of the species. The individual is defective, imperfect, weak, needy; but love is strong, perfect, contented, free from wants, self-sufficing, infinite; because in it the self-consciousness of the individuality is the mysterious self-consciousness of the perfection of the race. But this result of love is produced by friendship also, at least where it is intense, where it is a religion,[6] as it was with the ancients. Friends compensate for each other; friendship is a means of virtue, and more: it is itself virtue, dependent however on participation. Friendship can only exist between the virtuous, as the ancients said. But it cannot be based on perfect similarity; on the contrary, it requires diversity, for friendship rests on a desire for self-completion. One friend obtains through the other what he does not himself possess. The virtues of the one atone for the failings of the other. Friend justifies friend before God. However faulty a man may be, it is a proof that there is a germ of good in him if he has worthy men for his friends. If I cannot be myself perfect, I yet at least love virtue, perfection in others. If therefore I am called to account for any sins, weaknesses and faults, I interpose as advocates, as mediators, the virtues of my friend. How barbarous, how unreasonable would it be to condemn me for sins which I doubtless have committed, but which I have myself condemned, in loving my friends, who are free from these sins!

But if friendship and love, which themselves are only subjective realizations of the species, make out of singly imperfect beings an at least relatively perfect whole, how much more do the sins and failings of individuals vanish in the species itself, which has its adequate existence only in the sum total of mankind, and is therefore only an object of reason! Hence the lamentation over sin is found only where the human individual regards himself in his individuality as a perfect, complete being, not needing others for the realization of the species, of the perfect man; where instead of the consciousness of the species has been substituted the exclusive self-consciousness of the individual; where the individual does not recognise himself as a part of mankind, but identifies himself with the species, and for this reason makes his own sins, limits and weaknesses, the sins, limits and weaknesses of mankind in general. Nevertheless man cannot lose the consciousness of the species, for his self-consciousness is essentially united to his consciousness of another than himself. Where therefore the species is not an object to him as a species, it will be an object to him as God. He supplies the absence of the idea of the species by the idea of God, as the being who is free from the limits and wants which oppress the individual, and, in his opinion (since he identifies the species with the individual), the species itself. But this perfect being, free from the limits of the individual, is nothing else than the species, which reveals the infinitude of its nature in this, that it is realized in infinitely numerous and various individuals. If all men were absolutely alike, there would then certainly be no distinction between the race and the individual. But in that case the existence of many men would be a pure superfluity; a single man would have achieved the ends of the species. In the one who enjoyed the happiness of existence, all would have had their complete substitute.

Doubtless the essence of man is one; but this essence is infinite; its real existence is therefore an infinite, reciprocally compensating variety, which reveals the riches of this essence. Unity in essence is multiplicity in existence. Between me and another human being—and this other is the representative of the species, even though he is only one, for he supplies to me the want of many others, has for me a universal significance, is the deputy of mankind, in whose name he speaks to me, an isolated individual, so that, when united only with one, I have a participated, a human life;—between me and another human being there is an essential, qualitative distinction. The other is my thou,—the relation being reciprocal,—my alter ego, man objective to me, the revelation of my own nature, the eye seeing itself. In another I first have the consciousness of humanity; through him I first learn, I first feel, that I am a man: in my love for him it is first clear to me that he belongs to me and I to him, that we two cannot be without each other, that only community constitutes humanity. But morally, also, there is a qualitative, critical distinction between the I and thou. My fellow-man is my objective conscience; he makes my failings a reproach to me, even when he does not expressly mention them, he is my personified feeling of shame. The consciousness of the moral law, of right, of propriety, of truth itself, is indissolubly united with my consciousness of another than myself. That is true in which another agrees with me,—agreement is the first criterion of truth; but only because the species is the ultimate measure of truth. That which I think only according to the standard of my individuality, is not binding on another, it can be conceived otherwise, it is an accidental, merely subjective view. But that which I think according to the standard of the species, I think as man in general only can think, and consequently as every individual must think if he thinks normally, in accordance with law, and therefore truly. That is true which agrees with the nature of the species, that is false which contradicts it. There is no other rule of truth. But my fellow-man is to me the representative of the species, the substitute of the rest, nay his judgment may be of more authority with me than the judgment of the innumerable multitude. Let the fanatic make disciples as the sand on the sea-shore; the sand is still sand; mine be the pearl—a judicious friend. The agreement of others is therefore my criterion of the normalness, the universality, the truth of my thoughts. I cannot so abstract myself from myself as to judge myself with perfect freedom and disinterestedness; but another has an impartial judgment; through him I correct, complete, extend my own judgment, my own taste, my own knowledge. In short, there is a qualitative, critical difference between men. But Christianity extinguishes this qualitative distinction; it sets the same stamp on all men alike, and regards them as one and the same individual, because it knows no distinction between the species and the individual: it has one and the same means of salvation for all men, it sees one and the same original sin in all.

Because Christianity thus, from exaggerated subjectivity, knows nothing of the species, in which alone lies the redemption, the justification, the reconciliation and cure of the sins and deficiencies of the individual, it needed a supernatural and peculiar, nay a personal, subjective aid in order to overcome sin. If I alone am the species, if no other, that is, no qualitatively different men exist, or, which is the same thing, if there is no distinction between me and others, if we are all perfectly alike, if my sins are not neutralized by the opposite qualities of other men: then assuredly my sin is a blot of shame which cries up to heaven; a revolting horror which can be exterminated only by extraordinary, superhuman, miraculous means. Happily, however, there is a natural reconciliation. My fellow-man is per se, the mediator between me and the sacred idea of the species. Homo homini Deus est. My sin is made to shrink within its limits, is thrust back into its nothingness, by the fact that it is only mine, and not that of my fellows.


Footnotes

  1. “How much better is it that I should lose the whole world than that I should lose God, who created the world, and can create innumerable worlds, who is better than a hundred thousand, than innumerable worlds? For what sort of a comparison is that of the temporal with the eternal? . . . One soul is better than the whole world.”—Luther (T. xix. p. 21).
  2. It is true that the heathen philosophers also, as Plato, Socrates, the Stoics (see e.g. J. Lipsius, Physiol. Stoic. 1. i. diss. xi.), believed that the divine providence extended not merely to the general, but also to the particular, the individual; but they identified providence with Nature, law, necessity. The Stoics, who were the orthodox speculatists of heathenism, did indeed believe in miracles wrought by providence (Cic. de Nat. Deor. 1. ii. and de Divinat. 1. i.); but their miracles had no such supranaturalistic significance as those of Christianity, though they also appealed to the supranaturalistic axiom: “Nihil est quod Deus efficere non possit.”
  3. “Dicimur amare et Deus; dicimar nosse et Deus. Et multa in hunc modum. Sed Deus amat ut charitas, novit ut veritas, etc.”—Bernard, (de Consider. 1. v.).
  4. It is true that in one sense the individual is the absolute—in the phraseology of Leibnitz, the mirror of the universe, of the infinite. But in so far as there are many individuals, each is only a single, and, as such, a finite mirror of the infinite. It is true also, in opposition to the abstraction of a sinless man, that each individual regarded in himself is perfect, and only by comparison imperfect, for each is what alone he can be.
  5. With the Hindoos (Inst. of Menu) he alone is “a perfect man who consists of three united persons, his wife, himself, and his son. For man and wife, and father and son, are one.” The Adam of the Old Testament also is incomplete without woman; he feels his need of her. But the Adam of the New Testament, the Christian, heavenly Adam, the Adam who is constituted with a view to the destruction of this world, has no longer any sexual impulses or functions.
  6. “Hæ sane vires amicitiæ mortis contemptum ingenerare . . . potuerunt: quibus pene tantum venerationis, quantum Deorum immortalium ceremoniis debetur. Illis enim publica salus, his privata continetur.”—Valerius Max. 1. iv. c. 7.