The Essence of Christianity/Chapter XVII

The Essence of Christianity by Ludwig Feuerbach
Chapter XVII. The Significance of Voluntary Celibacy and Monachism
CHAPTER XVII.
THE CHRISTIAN SIGNIFICANCE OF VOLUNTARY CELIBACY
AND MONACHISM.


The idea of man as a species, and with it the significance of the life of the species, of humanity as a whole, vanished as Christianity became dominant. Herein we have a new confirmation of the position advanced, that Christianity does not contain within itself the principle of culture. Where man immediately identifies the species with the individual, and posits this identity as his highest being, as God, where the idea of humanity is thus an object to him only as the idea of Godhead, there the need of culture has vanished; man has all in himself, all in his God, consequently he has no need to supply his own deficiencies by others as the representatives of the species, or by the contemplation of the world generally; and this need is alone the spring of culture. The individual man attains his end by himself alone; he attains it in God,—God is himself the attained goal, the realized highest aim of humanity: but God is present to each individual separately. God only is the want of the Christian; others, the human race, the world, are not necessary to him; he has not the inward need of others. God fills to me the place of the species, of my fellow-men; yes, when I turn away from the world, when I am in isolation, I first truly feel my need of God, I first have a lively sense of his presence, I first feel what God is, and what he ought to be to me. It is true that the religious man has need also of fellowship, of edification in common; but this need of others is always in itself something extremely subordinate. The salvation of the soul is the fundamental idea, the main point in Christianity; and this salvation lies only in God, only in the concentration of the mind on Him. Activity for others is required, is a condition of salvation; but the ground of salvation is God, immediate reference in all things to God. And even activity for others has only a religious significance, has reference only to God, as its motive and end, is essentially only an activity for God,—for the glorifying of his name, the spreading abroad of his praise. But God is absolute subjectivity,—subjectivity separated from the world, above the world, set free from matter, severed from the life of the species, and therefore from the distinction of sex. Separation from the world, from matter, from the life of the species, is therefore the essential aim of Christianity.[1] And this aim had its visible, practical realization in Monachism.

It is a self-delusion to attempt to derive monachism from the east. At least, if this derivation is to be accepted, they who maintain it should be consistent enough to derive the opposite tendency of Christendom, not from Christianity, but from the spirit of the western nations, the occidental nature in general. But how, in that case, shall we explain the monastic enthusiasm of the west? Monachism must rather be derived directly from Christianity itself: it was a necessary consequence of the belief in heaven, promised to mankind by Christianity. Where the heavenly life is a truth, the earthly life is a lie; where imagination is all, reality is nothing. To him who believes in an eternal heavenly life, the present life loses its value,—or rather, it has already lost its value: belief in the heavenly life is belief in the worthlessness and nothingness of this life. I cannot represent to myself the future life without longing for it, without casting down a look of compassion or contempt on this pitiable earthly life, and the heavenly life can be no object, no law of faith, without, at the same time, being a law of morality: it must determine my actions,[2] at least if my life is to be in accordance with my faith: I ought not to cleave to the transitory things of this earth. I ought not;—but neither do I wish; for what are all things here below compared with the glory of the heavenly life?[3]

It is true that the quality of that life depends on the quality, the moral condition of this; but morality is itself determined by the faith in eternal life. The morality corresponding to the super-terrestrial life is simply separation from the world, the negation of this life: and the practical attestation of this spiritual separation is the monastic life.[4] Everything must ultimately take an external form, must present itself to the senses. An inward disposition must become an outward practice. The life of the cloister, indeed ascetic life in general, is the heavenly life as it is realized and can be realized here below. If my soul belongs to heaven, ought I, nay, can I belong to the earth with my body? The soul animates the body. But if the soul is in heaven, the body is forsaken, dead, and thus the medium, the organ of connexion between the world and the soul is annihilated. Death, the separation of the soul from the body, at least from this gross, material, sinful body, is the entrance into heaven. But if death is the condition of blessedness and moral perfection, then necessarily mortification is the one law of morality. Moral death is the necessary anticipation of natural death; I say necessary, for it would be the extreme of immorality to attribute the obtaining of heaven to physical death, which is no moral act, but a natural one common to man and the brute. Death must therefore be exalted into a moral, a spontaneous act. “I die daily,” says the apostle, and this dictum Saint Anthony, the founder of monachism,[5] made the theme of his life.

But Christianity, it is contended, demanded only a spiritual freedom. True; but what is that spiritual freedom which does not pass into action, which does not attest itself in practice? Or dost thou believe that it only depends on thyself, on thy will, on thy intention, whether thou be free from anything? If so, thou art greatly in error, and hast never experienced what it is to be truly made free. So long as thou art in a given rank, profession, or relation, so long art thou, willingly or not, determined by it. Thy will, thy determination, frees thee only from conscious limitations and impressions, not from the unconscious ones which lie in the nature of the case. Thus we do not feel at home, we are under constraint, so long as we are not locally, physically separated from one with whom we have inwardly broken. External freedom is alone the full truth of spiritual freedom. A man who has really lost spiritual interest in earthly treasures, soon throws them out at window, that his heart may be thoroughly at liberty. What I no longer possess by inclination is a burden to me; so away with it! What affection has let go, the hand no longer holds fast. Only affection gives force to the grasp; only affection makes possession sacred. He who having a wife is as though he had her not, will do better to have no wife at all. To have as though one had not, is to have without the disposition to have, is in truth not to have. And therefore he who says, that one ought to have a thing as though one had it not, merely says in a subtle, covert, cautious way, that one ought not to have it at all. That which I dismiss from my heart is no longer mine,—it is free as air. St. Anthony took the resolution to renounce the world when he had once heard the saying,—“If thou wilt be perfect, go thy way, sell that thou hast and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.” St. Anthony gave the only true interpretation of this text. He went his way, and sold his possessions, and gave the proceeds to the poor. Only thus did he prove his spiritual freedom from the treasures of this world.[6]

Such freedom, such truth, is certainly in contradiction with the Christianity of the present day, according to which the Lord has required only a spiritual freedom, i.e., a freedom which demands no sacrifice, no energy, an illusory, self-deceptive freedom;—a freedom from earthly good, which consists in its possession and enjoyment! For certainly the Lord said, “My yoke is easy.” How harsh, how unreasonable would Christianity be, if it exacted from man the renunciation of earthly riches! Then assuredly Christianity would not be suited to this world. So far from this, Christianity is in the highest degree practical and judicious; it defers the freeing oneself from the wealth and pleasures of this world to the moment of natural death; (monkish mortification is an unchristian suicide)—and allots to our spontaneous activity the acquisition and enjoyment of earthly possessions. Genuine Christians do not indeed doubt the truth of the heavenly life,—God forbid! Therein they still agree with the ancient monks; but they await that life patiently, submissive to the will of God, i.e., to their own selfishness, to the agreeable pursuit of worldly enjoyment.[7] But I turn away with loathing and contempt from modern Christianity, in which the bride of Christ readily acquiesces in polygamy, at least in successive polygamy, and this in the eyes of the true Christian does not essentially differ from contemporaneous polygamy; but yet at the same time—oh! shameful hypocrisy!—swears by the eternal, universally binding, irrefragable, sacred truth of God’s word. I turn back with reverence to the misconceived truth of the chaste monastic cell, where the soul betrothed to heaven did not allow itself to be wooed into faithlessness by a strange, earthly body!

The unworldly, supernatural life is essentially also an unmarried life. The celibate lies already, though not in the form of a law, in the inmost nature of Christianity. This is sufficiently declared in the supernatural origin of the Saviour,—a doctrine in which unspotted virginity is hallowed as the saving principle, as the principle of the new, the Christian world. Let not such passages as, “Be fruitful and multiply,” or, “What God has joined together let not man put asunder,” be urged as a sanction of marriage. The first passage relates, as Tertullian and Jerome have already observed, only to the unpeopled earth, not to the earth when filled with men, only to the beginning not to the end of the world, an end which was initiated by the immediate appearance of God upon earth. And the second also refers only to marriage as an institution of the Old Testament. Certain Jews proposed the question whether it were lawful for a man to separate from his wife; and the most appropriate way of dealing with this question was the answer above cited. He who has once concluded a marriage ought to hold it sacred. Marriage is intrinsically an indulgence to the weakness or rather the strength of the flesh, an evil which therefore must be restricted as much as possible. The indissolubleness of marriage is a nimbus, a sacred irradiance, which expresses precisely the opposite of what minds, dazzled and perturbed by its lustre, seek beneath it. Marriage in itself is, in the sense of perfected Christianity, a sin,[8] or rather a weakness, which is permitted and forgiven thee only on condition that thou for ever limitest thyself to a single wife. In short, marriage is hallowed only in the Old Testament, but not in the New. The New Testament knows a higher, a supernatural principle, the mystery of unspotted virginity.[9] “He who can receive it let him receive it.” “The children of this world marry, and are given in marriage: but they which shall be accounted worthy to obtain that world, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage: neither can they die any more: for they are equal unto the angels; and are the children of God, being the children of the resurrection.” Thus in heaven there is no marriage; the principle of sexual love is excluded from heaven as an earthly, worldly principle. But the heavenly life is the true, perfected, eternal life of the Christian. Why then should I, who am destined for heaven, form a tie which is unloosed in my true destination? Why should I, who am potentially a heavenly being, not realize this possibility even here?[10] Marriage is already proscribed from my mind, my heart, since it is expelled from heaven, the essential object of my faith, hope, and life. How can an earthly wife have a place in my heaven-filled heart? How can I divide my heart between God and man?[11] The Christian’s love to God is not an abstract or general love such as the love of truth, of justice, of science; it is a love to a subjective, personal God, and is therefore a subjective, personal love. It is an essential attribute of this love that it is an exclusive, jealous love, for its object is a personal and at the same time the highest being, to whom no other can be compared. “Keep close to Jesus [Jesus Christ is the Christian’s God], in life and in death; trust his faithfulness: he alone can help thee, when all else leaves thee. Thy beloved has this quality, that he will suffer no rival; he alone will have thy heart, will rule alone in thy soul as a king on his throne.”—“What can the world profit thee without Jesus? To be without Christ is the pain of hell; to be with Christ, heavenly sweetness.”—“Thou canst not live without a friend: but if the friendship of Christ is not more than all else to thee, thou wilt be beyond measure sad and disconsolate.”—“Love everything, for Jesus’ sake, but Jesus for his own sake. Jesus Christ alone is worthy to be loved.”—“My God, my love [my heart]: Thou art wholly mine, and I am wholly thine.”—“Love hopes and trusts ever in God, even when God is not gracious to it [or tastes bitter, non sapit]; for we cannot live in love without sorrow. . . . For the sake of the beloved, the loving one must accept all things, even the hard and bitter.”—“My God and my All. . . . In Thy presence everything is sweet to me, in Thy absence everything is distasteful. . . . Without Thee nothing can please me.”—“O when at last will that blessed, longed-for hour appear, when Thou wilt satisfy me wholly, and be all in all to me? So long as this is not granted me, my joy is only fragmentary.”—“When was it well with me without Thee? or when was it ill with me in Thy presence? I will rather be poor for Thy sake, than rich without Thee. I will rather be a pilgrim on earth with Thee, than the possessor of heaven without Thee. Where Thou art is heaven; death and hell where Thou art not. I long only for Thee.”—“Thou canst not serve God and at the same time have thy joys in earthly things: thou must wean thyself from all acquaintances and friends, and sever thy soul from all temporal consolation. Believers in Christ should regard themselves, according to the admonition of the Apostle Peter, only as strangers and pilgrims on the earth.”[12] Thus, love to God as a personal being is a literal, strict, personal, exclusive love. How then can I at once love God and a mortal wife? Do I not thereby place God on the same footing with my wife? No! to a soul which truly loves God, the love of woman is an impossibility, is adultery. “He that is unmarried,” says the apostle Paul, “careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord; but he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife.”

The true Christian not only feels no need of culture, because this is a worldly principle and opposed to feeling; he has also no need of (natural) love. God supplies to him the want of culture, and in like manner God supplies to him the want of love, of a wife, of a family. The Christian immediately identifies the species with the individual; hence he strips off the difference of sex as a burdensome, accidental adjunct.[13] Man and woman together first constitute the true man, man and woman together are the existence of the race;—for their union is the source of multiplicity, the source of other men. Hence the man who does not deny his manhood, is conscious that he is only a part of a being, which needs another part for the making up of the whole, of true humanity. The Christian, on the contrary, in his excessive, transcendental subjectivity, conceives that he is, by himself, a perfect being. But the sexual instinct runs counter to this view; it is in contradiction with his ideal: the Christian must therefore deny this instinct.

The Christian certainly experienced the need of sexual love, but only as a need in contradiction with his heavenly destination, and merely natural, in the depreciatory, contemptuous sense which this word had in Christianity,—not as a moral, inward need, not, if I may so express myself, as a metaphysical, i.e., an essential need, which man can experience only where he does not separate difference of sex from himself, but on the contrary regards it as belonging to his inmost nature. Hence marriage is not holy in Christianity; at least it is so only apparently, illusively; for the natural principle of marriage, which is the love of the sexes,—however civil marriage may in endless instances contradict this,—is in Christianity an unholy thing, and excluded from heaven.[14] But that which man excludes from heaven, he excludes from his true nature. Heaven is his treasure-casket. Believe not in what he establishes on earth, what he permits and sanctions here: here he must accommodate himself; here many things come athwart him which do not fit into his system; here he shuns thy glance, for he finds himself among strangers who intimidate him. But watch for him when he throws off his incognito, and shows himself in his true dignity, his heavenly state. In heaven he speaks as he thinks; there thou hearest his true opinion. Where his heaven is, there is his heart,—heaven is his heart laid open. Heaven is nothing but the idea of the true, the good, the valid,—of that which ought to be; earth, nothing but the idea of the untrue, the unlawful, of that which ought not to be. The Christian excludes from heaven the life of the species: there the species ceases, there dwell only pure sexless individuals, “spirits;” there absolute subjectivity reigns:—thus the Christian excludes the life of the species from his conception of the true life; he pronounces the principle of marriage sinful, negative; for the sinless, positive life is the heavenly one.[15]


Footnotes

  1. “The life for God is not this natural life, which is subject to decay. . . . Ought we not then to sigh after future things, and be averse to all these temporal things? . . . Wherefore we should find consolation in heartily despising this life and this world, and from our hearts sigh for and desire the future honour and glory of eternal life.”—Luther (Th. i. s. 466, 467).
  2. “Eo dirigendus est spiritus, quo aliquando est iturus.”—Meditat. Sacrae Joh. Gerhardi. Med. 46.
  3. “Affectanti coelestia, terrena non sapiunt. Æternis inhianti, fastidio sunt transitoria.”—Bernard. (Epist. Ex Persona Heliae Monachi ad Parentes). “Nihil nostra refert in hoc ævo, nisi de eo quam celeriter excedere.”—Tertullian (Apol. adv. Gentes, c. 41). “Wherefore a Christian man should rather be advised to bear sickness with patience, yea, even to desire that death should come,—the sooner the better. For, as St. Cyprian says, nothing is more for the advantage of a Christian, than soon to die. But we rather listen to the pagan Juvenal, when he says: ‘Orandum est ut sit mens sana in corpore sano.’”—Luther (Th. iv. s. 15).
  4. “Ille perfectus est qui mente et corpore a seculo est elongatus.”—De Modo bene Vivendi ad Sororem, s. vii (Among the spurious writings of St. Bernard.)
  5. On this subject see “Hieronymus, de Vita Pauli primi Eremitæ.”
  6. Naturally, Christianity had only such power when, as Jerome writes to Demetrius, Domini nostri adhuc calebat cruor et fervebat recens in credentibus fides. See also on this subject G. Arnold.—Von der ersten Christen Genügsamkeit u. Verschmähung alles Eigennutzes, 1. c. B. iv. c. 12, §7—§16.
  7. How far otherwise the ancient Christians! “Difficile, imo impossibile est, ut et praesentibus quis et futuris fruatur bonis.”—Hieronymus (Epist. Juliano). “Delicatus es, frater, si et hic vis gaudere cum seculo et postea regnare cum Christo.”—Ib. (Epist. ad Heliodorum). “Ye wish to have both God and the creature together, and that is impossible. Joy in God and joy in the creature cannot subsist together.”—Tauler (ed. c. p. 334). But they were abstract Christians. And we live now in the age of conciliation. Yes, truly!
  8. “Perfectum autem esse nolle delinquere est.”—Hieronymus (Epist. ad Heliodorum de laude Vitae solit.). Let me observe once for all that I interpret the biblical passages concerning marriage in the sense in which they have been interpreted by the history of Christianity.
  9. “The marriage state is nothing new or unwonted, and is lauded and held good even by heathens according to the judgment of reason.”—Luther (Th. ii. p. 377a).
  10. “Praesumendum est hos qui intra paradisum recipi volunt debere cessare ab ea re, aqua paradisus intactus est.”—Tertullian (de Exhort, cast. c. 13). “Coelibatus angelorum est imitatio.”—Jo. Damasceni (Orthod. Fidei, 1. iv. c 25).
  11. “Quae non nubit, soli Deo dat operam et ejus cura non dividitur; pudica autem, quae nupsit, vitam cum Deo et cum marito dividit.”—Clemens Alex. (Paedag. 1. ii.).
  12. Thomas à Kempis de Imit. (1. ii. c. 7, c. 8, 1. iii. c. 5, c. 34, c. 53, c. 59). “Felix illa conscientia et beata virginitas, in cujus corde praeter amorem Christi . . . . nullus alius versatur amor.”—Hieronymus (Demetriadi , Virgini Deo consecratae).
  13. “Divisa est . . . . mulier et virgo. Vide quantae felicitatis sit, quae et nomen sexus amiserit. Virgo jam mulier non vocatur.”—Hieronymus (adv. Helvidium de perpet. Virg. p. 14. T. ii. Erasmus).
  14. This may be expressed as follows: Marriage has in Christianity only a moral, no religious significance, no religious principle and exemplar. It is otherwise with the Greeks, where, for example, “Zeus and Here are the great archetype of every marriage” (Creuzer, Symbol.); with the ancient Parsees, where procreation, as “the multiplication of the human race, is the diminution of the empire of Ahriman,” and thus a religious act and duty (Zend-Avesta); with the Hindoos, where the son is the regenerated father. Among the Hindoos no regenerate man could assume the rank of a Sanyassi, that is, of an anchorite absorbed in God, if he had not previously paid three debts, one of which was that he had had a legitimate son. Amongst the Christians on the contrary, at least the Catholics, it was a true festival of religious rejoicing when betrothed or even married persons—supposing that it happened with mutual consent—renounced the married state and sacrificed conjugal to religious love.
  15. Inasmuch as the religious consciousness restores everything which it begins by abolishing, and the future life is ultimately nothing else than the present life re-established, it follows that sex must be re-established. “Erunt . . . . similes angelorum. Ergo homines non desinent . . . ut apostolus apostolus sit et Maria Maria.”—Hieronymus (ad Theodorain Viduam). But as the body in the other world is an incorporeal body, so necessarily the sex there is one without difference, i.e., a sexless sex.