The Essence of Christianity/Chapter II

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The Essence of Christianity
Ludwig Feuerbach
Chapter II
God as a Being of the Understanding
PART I.


THE TRUE OR ANTHROPOLOGICAL ESSENCE OF RELIGION.




CHAPTER II.


GOD AS A BEING OF THE UNDERSTANDING.


Religion is the disuniting of man from himself: he sets God before him as the antithesis of himself. God is not what man is — man is not what God is. God is the infinite, man the finite being; God is perfect, man imperfect; God eternal, man temporal; God almighty, man weak; God holy, man sinful. God and man are extremes: God is the absolutely positive, the sum of all realities; man the absolutely negative, comprehending all negations.

But in religion man contemplates his own latent nature. Hence it must be shown that this antithesis, this differencing of God and man, with which religion begins, is a differencing of man with his own nature.

The inherent necessity of this proof is at once apparent from this, — that if the divine nature, which is the object of religion, were really different from the nature of man, a division, a disunion could not take place. If God is really a different being from myself, why should his perfection trouble me? Disunion exists only between beings who are at variance, but who ought to be one, who can be one, and who consequently in nature, in truth, are one. On this general ground, then, the nature with which man feels himself in disunion, must be inborn, immanent in himself, but at the same time it must be of a different character from that nature or power which gives him the feeling, the consciousness of reconciliation, of union with God, or, what is the same thing, with himself.

This nature is nothing else than the intelligence — the reason or the understanding. God as the antithesis of man, as a being not human, i.e., not personally human, is the objective nature of the understanding. The pure, perfect divine nature is the self-consciousness of the understanding, the consciousness which the understanding has of its own perfection. The understanding knows nothing of the sufferings of the heart; it has no desires, no passions, no wants, and for that reason, no deficiencies and weaknesses, as the heart has. Men in whom the intellect predominates, who with one-sided but all the more characteristic definiteness, embody and personify for us the nature of the understanding, are free from the anguish of the heart, from the passions, the excesses of the man who has strong emotions; they are not passionately interested in any finite, i.e., particular object; they do not give themselves in pledge; they are free. “To want nothing, and by this freedom from wants to become like the immortal Gods;” — “not to subject ourselves to things but things to us;” — “all is vanity;” — these and similar sayings are the mottoes of the men who are governed by abstract understanding. The understanding is that part of our nature which is neutral, impassible, not to be bribed, not subject to illusions — the pure, passionless light of the intelligence. It is the categorical, impartial consciousness of the fact as fact, because it is itself of an objective nature. It is the consciousness of the uncontradictory, because it is itself the uncontradictory unity, the source of logical identity. It is the consciousness of law, necessity, rule, measure, because it is itself the activity of law, the necessity of the nature of things under the form of spontaneous activity, the rule of rules, the absolute measure, the measure of measures. Only by the understanding can man judge and act in contradiction with his dearest human, that is, personal feelings, when the God of the understanding, — law, necessity, right, — commands it. The father who as a judge condemns his own son to death because he knows him to be guilty, can do this only as a rational not as an emotional being. The understanding shews us the faults and weaknesses even of our beloved ones; it shews us even our own. It is for this reason that it so often throws us into painful collision with ourselves, with our own hearts. We do not like to give reason the upper hand: we are too tender to ourselves to carry out the true, but hard, relentless verdict of the understanding. The understanding is the power which has relation to species: the heart represents particular circumstances, individuals, — the understanding, general circumstances, universals; it is the superhuman, i.e., the impersonal power in man. Only by and in the understanding has man the power of abstraction from himself, from his subjective being, — of exalting himself to general ideas and relations, of distinguishing the object from the impressions which it produces on his feelings, of regarding it in and by itself without reference to human personality. Philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, physics, in short, science in general, is the practical proof, because it is the product, of this truly infinite and divine activity. Religious anthropomorphisms, therefore, are in contradiction with the understanding; it repudiates their application to God; it denies them. But this God, free from anthropomorphisms, impartial, passionless, is nothing else than the nature of the understanding itself regarded as objective.

God as God, that is, as a being not finite, not human, not materially conditioned, not phenomenal, is only an object of thought. He is the incorporeal, formless, incomprehensible — the abstract, negative being: he is known, i.e., becomes an object, only by abstraction and negation (via negationis). Why? Because he is nothing but the objective nature of the thinking power, or in general, of the power or activity, name it what you will, whereby man is conscious of reason, of mind, of intelligence. There is no other spirit, that is, (for the idea of spirit is simply the idea of thought, of intelligence, of understanding, every other spirit being a spectre of the imagination,) no other intelligence which man can believe in or conceive, than that intelligence which enlightens him, which is active in him. He can do nothing more than separate the intelligence from the limitations of his own individuality. The “infinite spirit,” in distinction from the finite, is therefore nothing else than the intelligence disengaged from the limits of individuality and corporeality, — for individuality and corporeality are inseparable, — intelligence posited in and by itself. God, said the schoolmen, the Christian fathers, and long before them the heathen philosophers, — God is immaterial essence, intelligence, spirit, pure understanding. Of God as God, no image can be made; but canst thou frame an image of mind? Has mind a form? Is not its activity the most inexplicable, the most incapable of representation? God is incomprehensible; but knowest thou the nature of the intelligence? Hast thou searched out the mysterious operation of thought, the hidden nature of self-consciousness? Is not self-consciousness the enigma of enigmas? Did not the old mystics, schoolmen, and fathers, long ago compare the incomprehensibility of the divine nature with that of the human intelligence, and thus, in truth, identify the nature of God with the nature of man?[1] God as God — as a purely thinkable being, an object of the intellect, — is thus nothing else than the reason in its utmost intensification become objective to itself. It is asked what is the understanding or the reason? The answer is found in the idea of God. Everything must express itself, reveal itself, make itself objective, affirm itself. God is the reason expressing, affirming itself as the highest existence. To the imagination, the reason is the revelation of God; but to the reason, God is the revelation of the reason; since what reason is, what it can do, is first made objective in God. God is a need of the intelligence, a necessary thought — the highest degree of the thinking power. “The reason cannot rest in sensuous things;” it can find contentment only when it penetrates to the highest, first, necessary being, which can be an object to the reason alone. Why? Because with the conception of this being it first completes itself, because only in the idea of the highest nature is the highest nature of reason existent, the highest step of the thinking power attained; and it is a general truth, that we feel a blank, a void, a want in ourselves, and are consequently unhappy and unsatisfied, so long as we have not come to the last degree of a power, to that quo nihil majus cogitari potest, — so long as we cannot bring our inborn capacity for this or that art, this or that science, to the utmost proficiency. For only in the highest proficiency is art truly art; only in its highest degree is thought truly thought, reason. Only when thy thought is God, dost thou truly think, rigorously speaking; for only God is the realized, consummate, exhausted thinking power. Thus in conceiving God, man first conceives reason as it truly is, though by means of the imagination he conceives this divine nature as distinct from reason, because as a being affected by external things he is accustomed always to distinguish the object from the conception of it. And here he applies the same process to the conception of the reason, thus, for an existence in reason, in thought, substituting an existence in space and time, from which he had, nevertheless, previously abstracted it. God, as a metaphysical being, is the intelligence satisfied in itself, or rather, conversely, the intelligence satisfied in itself, thinking itself as the absolute being, is God as a metaphysical being. Hence all metaphysical predicates of God are real predicates only when they are recognised as belonging to thought, to intelligence, to the understanding.

The understanding is that which conditionates and co-ordinates all things, that which places all things in reciprocal dependence and connexion, because it is itself immediate and unconditioned; it inquires for the cause of all things, because it has its own ground and end in itself. Only that which itself is nothing deduced, nothing derived, can deduce and construct, can regard all besides itself as derived; just as only that which exists for its own sake can view and treat other things as means and instruments. The understanding is thus the original, primitive being. The understanding derives all things from God, as the first cause, it finds the world, without an intelligent cause, given over to senseless, aimless chance; that is, it finds only in itself, in its own nature, the efficient and the final cause of the world — the existence of the world is only then clear and comprehensible when it sees the explanation of that existence in the source of all clear and intelligible ideas, i.e. in itself. The being that works with design, towards certain ends, i.e. with understanding, is alone the being that to the understanding has immediate certitude, self-evidence. Hence that which of itself has no designs, no purpose, must have the cause of its existence in the design of another, and that an intelligent being. And thus the understanding posits its own nature as the causal, first, premundane existence: i.e. being in rank the first, but in time the last, it makes itself the first in time also.

The understanding is to itself the criterion of all reality. That which is opposed to the understanding, that which is self-contradictory, is nothing; that which contradicts reason, contradicts God. For example, it is a contradiction of reason to connect with the idea of the highest reality the limitations of definite time and place; and hence reason denies these of God, as contradicting his nature. The reason can only believe in a God who is accordant with its own nature, in a God who is not beneath its own dignity, who on the contrary is a realization of its own nature: i.e., the reason believes only in itself, in the absolute reality of its own nature. The reason is not dependent on God, but God on the reason. Even in the age of miracles and faith in authority, the understanding constitutes itself, at least formally, the criterion of divinity. God is all and can do all, it was said, by virtue of his omnipotence; but nevertheless he is nothing and he can do nothing which contradicts himself, i.e., reason. Even omnipotence cannot do what is contrary to reason. Thus above the divine omnipotence stands the higher power of reason; above the nature of God the nature of the understanding, as the criterion of that which is to be affirmed and denied of God, the criterion of the positive and negative. Canst thou believe in a God who is an unreasonable and wicked being? No, indeed; but why not? Because it is in contradiction with thy understanding to accept a wicked and unreasonable being as divine. What then dost thou affirm, what is an object to thee, in God? Thy own understanding. God is thy highest idea, the supreme effort of thy understanding, thy highest power of thought. God is the sum of all realities, i.e., the sum of all affirmations of the understanding. That which I recognise in the understanding as essential, I place in God as existent: God is, what the understanding thinks as the highest. But in what I perceive to be essential, is revealed the nature of my understanding, is shown the power of my thinking faculty.

Thus the understanding is the ens realissimum, the most real being of the old onto-theology. “Fundamentally,” says onto-theology, “we cannot conceive God otherwise than by attributing to him without limit all the real qualities which we find in ourselves.”[2] Our positive, essential qualities, our realities, are therefore the realities of God, but in us they exist with, in God without, limits. But what then withdraws the limits from the realities, what does away with the limits? The understanding. What, according to this, is the nature conceived without limits, but the nature of the understanding releasing, abstracting itself from all limits? As thou thinkest God, such is thy thought; — the measure of thy God is the measure of thy understanding. If thou conceivest God as limited, thy understanding is limited; if thou conceivest God as unlimited, thy understanding is unlimited. If, for example, thou conceivest God as a corporeal being, corporeality is the boundary, the limit of thy understanding, thou canst conceive nothing without a body; if on the contrary thou deniest corporeality of God, this is a corroboration and proof of the freedom of thy understanding from the limitation of corporeality. In the unlimited divine nature thou representest only thy unlimited understanding. And when thou declarest this unlimited being the ultimate essence, the highest being, thou sayest in reality nothing else than this: the être supréme, the highest being, is the understanding.

The understanding is further the self-subsistent and independent being. That which has no understanding is not self-subsistent, is dependent. A man without understanding is a man without will. He who has no understanding allows himself to be deceived, imposed upon, used as an instrument by others. How shall he whose understanding is the tool of another, have an independent will? Only he who thinks, is free and independent. It is only by the understanding that man reduces the things around and beneath him to mere means of his own existence. In general: that only is self-subsistent and independent which is an end to itself, an object to itself. That which is an end and object to itself, is for that very reason — in so far as it is an object to itself — no longer a means and object for another being. To be without understanding is, in one word, to exist for another, — to be an object: to have understanding is to exist for oneself, — to be a subject. But that which no longer exists for another, but for itself, rejects all dependence on another being. It is true, we, as physical beings, depend on the beings external to us, even as to the modifications of thought; but in so far as we think, in the activity of the understanding as such, we are dependent on no other being. Activity of thought is spontaneous activity. “When I think, I am conscious that my ego in me thinks, and not some other thing. I conclude, therefore, that this thinking in me does not inhere in another thing outside of me, but in myself, consequently that I am a substance, i.e. that I exist by myself, without being a predicate of another being.”[3] Although we always need the air, yet as natural philosophers we convert the air from an object of our physical need into an object of the self-sufficing activity of thought, i.e., into a mere thing for us. In breathing I am the object of the air, the air the subject; but when I make the air an object of thought, of investigation, when I analyze it, I reverse this relation, — I make myself the subject, the air an object. But that which is the object of another being is dependent. Thus the plant is dependent on air and light, that is, it is an object for air and light, not for itself. It is true that air and light are reciprocally an object for the plant. Physical life, in general, is nothing else than this perpetual interchange of the objective and subjective relation. We consume the air, and are consumed by it; we enjoy, and are enjoyed. The understanding alone enjoys all things without being itself enjoyed; it is the self-enjoying, self-sufficing existence — the absolute subject — the subject which cannot be reduced to the object of another being, because it makes all things objects, predicates of itself, — which comprehends all things in itself because it is itself not a thing, because it is free from all things.

That is dependent, the possibility of whose existence lies out of itself; that is independent which has the possibility of its existence in itself. Life therefore involves the contradiction of an existence at once dependent and independent, — the contradiction that its possibility lies both in itself and out of itself. The understanding alone is free from this and other contradictions of life; it is the essence perfectly self-subsistent, perfectly at one with itself, perfectly self-existent.[4] Thinking is existence in self; life, as differenced from thought, existence out of self; life is to give from oneself, thought is to take into oneself. Existence out of self is the world, existence in self is God. To think is to be God. The act of thought, as such, is the freedom of the immortal gods from all external limitations and necessities of life.

The unity of the understanding is the unity of God. To the understanding the consciousness of its unity and universality is essential; the understanding is itself nothing else than the consciousness of itself as absolute identity, i.e., that which is accordant with the understanding is to it an absolute, universally valid, law; it is impossible to the understanding to think that what is self-contradictory, false, irrational, can anywhere be true, and, conversely, that what is true, rational, can anywhere be false and irrational. “There may be intelligent beings who are not like me, and yet I am certain that there are no intelligent beings who know laws and truths different from those which I recognise; for every mind necessarily sees that two and two make four, and that one must prefer one’s friend to one’s dog.”[5] Of an essentially different understanding from that which affirms itself in man, I have not the remotest conception, the faintest adumbration. On the contrary, every understanding which I posit as different from my own, is only a position of my own understanding, i.e. an idea of my own, a conception which falls within my power of thought, and thus expresses my understanding. What I think, that I myself do, of course only in purely intellectual matters; what I think of as united, I unite; what I think of as distinct, I distinguish; what I think of as abolished, as negatived, that I myself abolish and negative. For example, if I conceive an understanding in which the intuition or reality of the object is immediately united with the thought of it, I actually unite it; my understanding or my imagination is itself the power of uniting these distinct or opposite ideas. How would it be possible for me to conceive them united — whether this conception be clear or confused — if I did not unite them in myself? But whatever may be the conditions of the understanding which a given human individual may suppose as distinguished from his own, this other understanding is only the understanding which exists in man in general — the understanding conceived apart from the limits of this particular individual. Unity is involved in the idea of the understanding. The impossibility for the understanding to think two supreme beings, two infinite substances, two Gods, is the impossibility for the understanding to contradict itself, to deny its own nature, to think of itself as divided.

The understanding is the infinite being. Infinitude is immediately involved in unity, and finiteness in plurality. Finiteness — in the metaphysical sense — rests on the distinction of the existence from the essence, of the individual from the species; infinitude, on the unity of existence and essence. Hence, that is finite which can be compared with other beings of the same species; that is infinite which has nothing like itself, which consequently does not stand as an individual under a species, but is species and individual in one, essence and existence in one. But such is the understanding; it has its essence in itself, consequently, it has nothing together with or external to itself which can be ranged beside it; it is incapable of being compared, because it is itself the source of all combinations and comparisons; immeasurable, because it is the measure of all measures, — we measure all things by the understanding alone; it can be circumscribed by no higher generalization, it can be ranged under no species, because it is itself the principle of all generalizing, of all classification, because it circumscribes all things and beings. The definitions which the speculative philosophers and theologians give of God, as the being in whom existence and essence are not separable, who himself is all the attributes which he has, so that predicate and subject are with him identical, — all these definitions are thus ideas drawn solely from the nature of the understanding.

Lastly, the understanding or the reason is the necessary being. Reason exists because only the existence of the reason is reason; because, if there were no reason, no consciousness, all would be nothing; existence would be equivalent to non-existence. Consciousness first founds the distinction between existence and non-existence. In consciousness is first revealed the value of existence, the value of nature. Why, in general, does something exist? why does the world exist? on the simple ground that if something did not exist, nothing would exist; if reason did not exist, there would be only unreason; thus the world exists because it is an absurdity that the world should not exist. In the absurdity of its non-existence is found the true reason of its existence, in the groundlessness of the supposition that it were not, the reason that it is. Nothing, non-existence, is aimless, nonsensical, irrational. Existence alone has an aim, a foundation, rationality; existence is, because only existence is reason and truth; existence is the absolute necessity. What is the cause of conscious existence, of life? The need of life. But to whom is it a need? To that which does not live. It is not a being who saw that made the eye: to one who saw already, to what purpose would be the eye? No! only the being who saw not needed the eye. We are all come into the world without the operation of knowledge and will; but we are come that knowledge and will may exist. Whence, then, came the world? Out of necessity; not out of a necessity which lies in another being distinct from itself — that is a pure contradiction, — but out of its own inherent necessity; out of the necessity of necessity; because without the world there would be no necessity; without necessity, no reason, no understanding. The nothing, out of which the world came, is nothing without the world. It is true that thus, negativity, as the speculative philosophers express themselves — nothing is the cause of the world; — but a nothing which abolishes itself, i.e. a nothing which could not have existed if there had been no world. It is true that the world springs out of a want, out of privation, but it is false speculation to make this privation an ontological being: this want is simply the want which lies in the supposed non-existence of the world. Thus the world is only necessary out of itself and through itself. But the necessity of the world is the necessity of reason. The reason, as the sum of all realities, — for what are all the glories of the world without light, much more external light without internal light? — the reason is the most indispensable being — the profoundest and most essential necessity. In the reason first lies the self-consciousness of existence, self-conscious existence; in the reason is first revealed the end, the meaning of existence. Reason is existence objective to itself as its own end; the ultimate tendency of things. That which is an object to itself is the highest, the final being: that which has power over itself is almighty.


Footnotes[edit]

  1. Augustine, in his work Contra Academicos, which he wrote when he was still in some measure a heathen, says (1. iii. c. 12) that the highest good of man consists in the mind, or in the reason. On the other hand, in his Libr. Retractationum, which he wrote as a distinguished Christian and theologian, he revises (1. i. c. 1) this declaration as follows: — Verius dixissem in Deo. Ipso enim mens fruitur, ut beata sit, tanquam summo bono suo. But is there any distinction here? Where my highest good is, is not there my nature also?
  2. Kant, Vorlesungen über die philosophische Religionslehre. Leipzig, 1817, p. 39.
  3. Kant, loc. cit., p. 80.
  4. To guard against mistake I observe, that I do not apply to the understanding the expression, self-subsistent essence, and other terms of a like character, in my own sense, but that I am here placing myself on the stand-point of onto-theology, of metaphysical theology in general, in order to shew that metaphysics is resolvable into psychology, that the onto-theological predicates are merely predicates of the understanding.
  5. Malebranche. (See the author’s Geschichte der Philos., I. Bd. p. 322.) “Exstaretne alibi diversa ab hac ratio? censereturque injustum aut scelestum in Jove aut Marte, quod apud nos justum ac praeclarum habetur? Certe nec verisimile nec omnio possibile.” — Chr. Hugenii (Cosmotheoros, lib. i.) “And can there be anywhere a Reason contrary to this? or can what we call just and generous in Jupiter or Mars be thought unjust Villany? This is not at all, I don’t say probable, but possible.” (Wikisource contributor note)