Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Essence of Christianity [Amazon, Bookshop, Local Library, Feuerbach Internet Archive] by Ludwig Feuerbach, trans George Eliot, introduction Karl Barth, foreword Richard Niebuhr, part of the Great Books in Philosophy Series.
When Ludwig Feuerbach declared “Anthropology” to be “the secret of Christian Theology,” he was not referring to (the not-yet-invented) cultural anthropology, but to a study-of-the-human combining disciplinary features we would now probably class with psychology and philosophy. This equation is the central thesis of his most famous work, The Essence of Christianity.
The body of the book is divided into two parts. The first and longer part focuses on retrieving philosophical truths from the morass of Christian belief, and thus accounting for the empirical success of Christianity. The second part is intent on exposing the falsity and incoherence of Christian teachings, abominating “Christian sophistry,” and rejecting the enterprise of speculative theology. I suppose that that sequence was the one most rhetorically appropriate to Feuerbach’s own 19th-century audience. He could soften them up with approbations of “the essence of” Christianity (albeit from his unusual perspective) before condemning its visible intellectual superstructure. It might be more useful for many readers today to consider the parts in the reverse sequence: Feuerbach thus points the way to an esoteric understanding of traditional Christianity that opens onto a neo-Christian perspective in which genuine religious sentiment can be divorced from theological obfuscation.
A long appendix to the work is made up of “Explanations–Remarks–Illustrative Citations.” These add few if any new ideas, and much of the text is untranslated Latin in my copy of the George Eliot translation. There are some other difficult features of the Eliot translation. She uses “negativing” where we would now say “negating,” and “subjectivism/objectivism” where we might have “subjectivity/objectivity.” Probably the greatest consequence for today’s reader comes from her choice to use “thou” and “thee” to maintain the du (dich, dir) of informal second-person pronouns in German. But, mostly on account of the King James Bible being the contemporary Anglophone’s main site of exposure to those archaic pronouns, they are now psychologically charged with authority and formality, rather than intimacy and approachability.
I have found Feuerbach’s later writings somewhat more congenial and useful to my own positive philosophy of religion, but I am grateful for his climactic discourse here on the contradiction between faith and love, in which he declares himself a partisan of the latter. And while by “love” he does mean a general goodwill and sense of human care, this sense expressly includes sexual love. Feuerbach anathematizes Christian prescriptions for celibacy, and defends the principle of sexual pleasure, as well as the nobility of the generative process. “All the glory of Nature, all its power, all its wisdom and profundity, concentrates and individualises itself in the distinction of sex. Why then dost thou shrink from naming the nature of God by its true name?” (78)
Another feature of this book that I found valuable is Feuerbach’s reflections on the Christian sacraments. “Even the Protestant — not indeed in words, but in truth — transforms God into an external thing, since he subjects Him to himself as an object of sensational enjoyment” (199). He emphasizes that the pleasure taken in eating and drinking is declared to be holy by means of the Eucharist, and that the real power of a sacramental bath — as contrasted with its perverted, imaginary effect in Christian doctrine — is to unite the baptisand with Nature and the world.
In a footnote to the first part, recognizing that orthodox interpreters will view his readings of traditional Christian ideas as “atrocious, impious, diabolical,” Feuerbach declares: “I would rather be a devil in alliance with truth, than an angel in alliance with falsehood” (155). The party of the devils is fortunate to have him.