Karl Löwith says that he has become "the position of the times where we all stand – consciously or unconsciously". 2004 marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of the pioneer of modernism.
Ludwig Feuerbach was born in Landshut on 28 July 1804. He grew up in a liberal family environment, which was permeated by Enlightenment ideas. His father, for example, was a respected lawyer who wrote Germany's first criminal code, taking into account the modern jurisdiction brought into being by the French Revolution. The brothers of the future pioneer of so-called materialism were both involved in secret student fraternities opposed to the authority of the state and the church.
Thus, Ludwig Feuerbach grew up surrounded by the spirit of the Enlightenment, and it was to guide his philosophical work. In the early 19th century, however, everyday life by no means yet reflected Enlightenment thought; quite the reverse was the case. After the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, the German states aimed to nip any revolutionary ideas in the bud, in order to prevent upheavals of the kind that had taken place in France. In 1819, the "Karlsbad Decrees" were passed, suppressing liberal movements in Germany through strict control of the universities and press censorship.
From religion to idealism to sensuous anthropologyIn this age of political and theological reactionism, Ludwig Feuerbach took up studies of Protestant theology in Heidelberg in 1832, although he had been baptised a Catholic. He soon became weary of religion, however. A year later, he gave up studying theology and went to Berlin, where he attended lectures by Friedrich Schleiermacher and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.
Feuerbach accepted the philosophy of the absolute intellect, but left Berlin a year later to study botany, anatomy and physiology in Erlangen. Although he was beginning to detach himself from Hegel, whose absolutist idealism increasingly seemed to him to be a theology in disguise, his doctoral thesis of 1828 was still very much written in the spirit of idealism. He became a university lecturer in Erlangen at the age of 25 and lived a reclusive life in Nuremberg. In a letter of this period, Feuerbach wrote: "A quiet apartment, surrounded by nature, such as my present one, with a glass of water in the morning, a moderate meal at noon, a tankard of ale in the evening and if anything, a radish: were I always to have all these things, I would never wish more from the earth or on it."
Things were not to remain so quiet, however. In 1830, his Thoughts on Death and Immortality was published anonymously, and was immediately banned by the authorities. Feuerbach was soon identified as the author, in spite of all his precautions. In this work, he denied the immortality of the soul and attempted to disprove the Christian hope that the soul was immortal. "It is rumoured that I am an abominable free spirit, an atheist, yes, more, the anti-Christ incarnate," he wrote in a letter to his sister. The book cost him his university career.
In the next few years, Ludwig Feuerbach was forced to take jobs of all kinds to keep his head above water. He became a grammar school teacher, Master of the Household, librarian, editor and freelance writer, before falling in love with the daughter of a porcelain manufacturer, Berta Löw, whom he married in 1837. He moved to Bruckberg Castle near Ansbach with his wife. Thanks to her wealth, he was able to assume the life of an independent scholar for a number of years. He wrote his magnum opus, which was to make him famous, The Essence of Christianity, which was published in 1841.
Homo Homini Deus – Man's God is manIn this work, Feuerbach shows that God is no more than a mere projection of man. Thus, religion is no more than the self-worship of human beings who create God in line with their own wishes, projecting human qualities onto him. "Knowledge about God is man's knowledge of himself, of his own essence." Feuerbach by no means attempted to abolish religion, but simply to detach it from its relation to God. Religion as a human attitude remains a service to higher values. Of course, these are no longer of a theological, but of an anthropological nature. Man as a species takes the place of a divinity, and education takes the place of ritual. Instead of worrying about the hereafter, one should rather devote thought to the future of humanity.
Thus, philosophy no longer depends on a divine principle or an absolute being, but on man. Man is not primarily an animal endowed with reason, as philosophical tradition would have it; reason tends towards unholy speculation, something Hegel had shown him. Rather, what primarily distinguishes man is his sensuousness, which becomes the place of truth. Man's experience as a heteronomous being is what makes him act again and again beyond the reality defined by the senses. Feuerbach considered it to be incorrect to give a religious interpretation to this sense of dependence, however. Man does not depend on God, but on nature, and is subject to nature's laws.
A pioneer of materialismFor many of Ludwig Feuerbach's contemporaries, his writings had an incredibly liberating effect. The later so-called materialists in particular received Feuerbach's main work, The Essence of Christianity with great enthusiasm. Friedrich Engels, for example wrote retrospectively, "... then came Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity. With one blow, it pulverised the contradiction, in that without circumlocutions, it placed materialism on the throne again. Nature exists independently of all philosophy. It is the foundation upon which we human beings, ourselves products of nature, have grown up.... The spell was broken; the 'system' was exploded and cast aside.... One must oneself have experienced the liberating effect of this book to get an idea of it." Feuerbach not only had a pioneering role in the rise of materialism, but may also be regarded as a ground-breaker for Nietzsche and – in the field of literature – for naturalism.
Ludwig Feuerbach did not live to see the success of his thought. Although many people came to visit him up at the castle following publication of The Essence of Christianity, and some even wanted to make him the leader of a revolutionary movement – revolution broke out in Germany, too, in 1849 - Feuerbach was not made for public life. He preferred to remain a private scholar in his castle. The political situation also led to the bankruptcy of the porcelain company in which Feuerbach had invested all his money. In the end, Feuerbach had to struggle to survive on assistance from foundations, public collections and donations from friends. He died in 1872, impoverished and forgotten.