Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Reimarus, Hermann Samuel

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Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition
Reimarus, Hermann Samuel
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REIMARUS, Hermann Samuel (1694-1768), known to history chiefly as the author of the Wolfenbüttel Fragments, was born at Hamburg, December 22, 1694. His father, the son of a clergyman and married into a patrician family of that city, was one of the masters in the Johanneum college, a good scholar and excellent teacher. Until his twelfth year the son received his education almost entirely from his father. He passed from his father's tuition into the class of the famous scholar Johann Albrecht Fabricius, whose son-in-law he subsequently became. In his twentieth year he entered the university of Jena, where he studied theology, ancient languages, and philosophy. After making a tour in Holland and England (1720), he became privat-docent in the university of Wittenberg; and in 1723 he accepted the post of rector of the high, school at Wismar in Mecklenburg, which he exchanged four years afterwards for that of professor of Hebrew and Oriental languages in the high school of his native city. This post he held till his death, though offers of more lucrative and distinguished positions were at various times made to him. His professional duties were but light, and he employed his ample leisure in the study of philology, mathematics, philosophy, history, political economy, natural science, and natural history, for which he made expensive collections. Philosophy and theology, however, became with his advancing years the chief subjects of pursuit. From 1744 to 1768 he had in hand the theological work from which Lessing published the notorious Fragments in 1774-78. Reimarus was held by his contemporaries in the highest esteem as a scholar, a thinker, an author, and a man. His house was the centre of the highest culture of Hamburg, and a monument of his influence in that city still remains in the Haus der patriotischen Gesellschaft, where the learned and artistic societies partly founded by him still meet. His wife bore him seven children, three only of whom lived to grow up, namely his only surviving son — the distinguished physician Johann Albrecht Heinrich — and two daughters, one of them being Elise, Lessing's friend and correspondent. Ten days before his death he invited a select number of friends to dine with him, and, with his wonted cheerfulness and amiability, declared to them solemnly that this was his farewell meal with them. Three days after he was taken seriously ill, and died March 1, 1768.

Reimarus's reputation as a classical and historical scholar rests on the valuable edition of Dio Cassius (1750-52) which he prepared from the materials collected by his father-in-law, J. A. Fabricius. In the department of philosophy he published a work on logic (Vernunftlehre als Anweisung zum richtigen Gebrauche der Vernunft, 1756, fifth edition 1790), and two very popular books bearing on the great religious questions of the day. The first of these works was a collection of essays on the principal truths of natural religion (Abhandlungen von den vornehmsten Wahrheiten der natürlichen Religion, 1754, 6th ed. 1791); the second (Betrachtungen über die Kunsttriebe der Thiere, 1762, 4th ed. 1798) dealt with one particular branch of the same subject. In these works he appears as a powerful opponent of French materialism and Spinoza's pantheism, a zealous teleologist and able wielder of the argument from design. His philosophical position is essentially that of Christian Wolff. But it is the work (carefully kept back during his lifetime, strangely enough) from which Lessing published certain chapters after the author's death with which his name is most widely associated. Lessing's relation to this work has been stated in the article Lessing. Its title in the MS. is Apologie oder Schutzschrift für die vernünftigen Verehrer Gottes. The original MS. is in the Hamburg town library; a copy was made for the university library of Göttingen, 1814, and other copies are known to exist. In addition to the seven fragments published by Lessing, a second portion of the work was issued in 1787 by C. A. E. Schmidt (a pseudonym), under the title Uebrige noch ungedruckte Werke des Wolfenbüttelschen Fragmentisten, and a further portion by D. W. Klose in Niedner's Zeitschrift für historische Theologie, 1850-52. Two of the five books of the first part and the whole of the second part, as well as appendices on the canon, remain still, and will probably always remain, unprinted. But D. F. Strauss has given an exhaustive analysis of the whole work in his book on Reimarus.

The standpoint of Reimarus in his Apologie is that of pure naturalistic deism. Miracles and mysteries are denied, and natural religion is put forward as the absolute contradiction of revealed. The essential truths of the former are the existence of a wise and good Creator and the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. These truths are discoverable by reason, and are such as can constitute the basis of a universal and rational religion. A revealed religion could never obtain universality, as it could never be made intelligible and credible to all men. Even supposing its possibility, the Bible does not present such a revelation. It abounds in error as to matters of fact, contradicts human experience, reason, and morals, and is one tissue of folly, deceit, enthusiasm, selfishness, and crime. Moreover, it is not a doctrinal compendium, or catechism, which a revelation would have to be. What the Old Testament says of the worship of God is little, and that little worthless, while its writers are unacquainted with the second fundamental truth of religion, the immortality of the soul. The design of the writers of the New Testament, as well as that of Jesus, was not to teach true rational religion, but to serve their own selfish ambitions, in promoting which Reimarus makes them exhibit an inconceivable combination of conscious fraud and enthusiasm. With all his acuteness as a rationalistic critic, and the destructive force of his attack upon the old orthodox conception of the nature of the Bible and revelation, Reimarus must be regarded simply as the classical representative of rationalism in its absolute inability to form any remotely just conception of God, religion, revelation, the Bible, and Christianity. His Apologie is the historical monument to the incapacity of rationalism with regard to philosophy, religion, and true historical and literary criticism. By the higher and profounder ideas and historical insight of Lessing, Herder, Semler, Kant, and Schleiermacher, his entire position was rendered antiquated, and the permanently valid portions of his criticism of the Bible are of value only as destructive of a theory, now outlived, of it and religion. But as a learned, acute, and logical assailant of that theory he must be honoured with a place amongst the pioneers of truer views of both.

See the “Fragments” as published by Lessing, reprinted in vol. xv. of Lessing's Werke, Hempel's edition; D. F. Strauss, Hermann Samuel Reimarus und seine Schutzschrift für die vernünftigen Verehrer Gottes, 1861, 2d. ed. 1877; Rev. Charles Voysey, Fragments from Reimarus, London, 1879 (a translation of the life of Reimarus by Strauss, with the second part of the seventh fragment, on the “Object of Jesus and his Disciples”); the Lives of Lessing by Danzel and G. E. Guhrauer, Sime, and Zimmern; Kuno Fischer, Geschichte der neuern Philosophie, vol. ii. pp. 759-772, 2d ed. 1867; Zeller, Geschichte der deutschen Philosophie, 2d ed. 1875, pp. 243-6.