Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion - Gareth Stedman Jones (2016)

Chapter 3. Berlin and the Approaching Twilight of the Gods


Karl reached the rapidly growing metropolis of Berlin in October 1836. Between 1816 and 1846, Berlin’s population had risen from 197,000 to 397,000. Two thirds of the estimated 10,000 new workers who poured into the city each year were effectively homeless and forced nightly to hire a sleeping space (Schlafstelle). Most of the city’s burgeoning workforce of tailors and shoemakers remained beneath the tax threshold, and according to the socialist journalist Ernst Dronke,1 one in seventeen of the city’s female population – many of them country migrants and would-be domestic servants – turned to prostitution. Friedrich Sass writing in 1846 believed that no city except for St Petersburg did less for its poor. But even those whose standard of living was higher lived in unattractive conditions. Its ‘broad plain streets with their prosaic houses’ stood there ‘like a regiment of soldiers’.2 An English visitor, Henry Vizetelly, complained of ‘clouds of sand, which in dry weather, at the slightest puff of wind, rise into the air and envelop everything they encounter in their progress’.3 This was why Heine had famously described Berlin as ‘the sandbox of the north’.

Berlin was the capital of Prussia, a state without parliament or independent judiciary. A constitution, promised by the king in 1815, had never materialized. There was no free press as heavy censorship was particularly applied to Berlin newspapers. As a result, there were only two newspapers in Berlin, and these, according to Edgar Bauer, were unable to grasp ‘truly significant signs of the times. They can hardly digest the ideas the provinces send them.’4The middle classes did not offer opposition to the regime; nor did the new entrepreneurs developing their enterprises in the chemical and textile factories and workshops growing up around Berlin. Critics accused ‘the bourgeois’ of being loyal, politically inert and distinctive mainly for ‘his sour and critical views of life, and his sickly piety’.5

Yet despite these drawbacks, for many Berlin was an exciting city. Its cultural vitality derived from its university, its theatres and its coffee houses, its pubs and beer halls. The university was founded by Wilhelm Humboldt in 1810 and was one of the most impressive achievements of the ‘Reform Era’, which followed Prussia’s traumatic defeat by Napoléon at the Battle of Jena in October 1806.6 It was designed according to liberal humanist ideals and its first director was the radical idealist philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte. It was remarkably inclusive in its intake and was considered by many to be the best in the world.7 The university was situated in a city which was home to a flourishing tradition of performing arts, with a highly developed musical culture, an array of topical dramatists and over seventy theatres. According to a literary critic and Young Hegelian, Eduard Meyen, Berlin was ‘the central point of German culture and German activity, like no other place in Germany’.8 If not on the scale of Paris or London, Berlin nevertheless offered many of the attractions of a great nineteenth-century city, not only the pleasures and variety of city life, but also an escape from the philistine prejudice of the small town.

Karl came from Bonn to Berlin as a student initially committed to continue his studies in law. Our knowledge of his first year in Berlin derives from one ten-page letter to his father sent around 10 November 1837, and the only letter to have been preserved from this period.9 It is a strange document: while it expresses Karl’s passion for Jenny, his changing ideas about the philosophy of law, and the ups and downs of his poetic ambitions, it reads in large part like an exercise in belles-lettres, rather than a personal letter to an ailing parent. It opens portentously: ‘There are moments in one’s life, which are like frontier posts marking the completion of a period.’ It then moves on, now in the first person plural: ‘At such a moment of transition we feel compelled to view the past and the present with the eagle eye of thought in order to become conscious of our real position … world history itself likes to look back in this way.’ It then reverts to the third person: ‘At such moments … a person becomes lyrical, for every metamorphosis is partly a swan song, partly the overture to a great new poem.’ Once more, Karl uses the first person plural: ‘we should like to erect a memorial to what we have once lived through.’ It is only at this point that the addressee looms into view, but even here this person must first be garlanded with wreaths of rhetorical finery: ‘And where could a more sacred dwelling place be found for it than in the heart of a parent, the most merciful judge, the most intimate sympathiser, the sun of love whose warming fire is felt at the innermost centre of our endeavours!’ Only once this courtly opening was concluded did Karl embark upon an account of his first year in Berlin, a declaration of his love for Jenny and then a discussion, for the most part, of his changing views about law and poetry.

Karl had come to Berlin in a state of total distraction. ‘A new world had come into existence for me, that of love’ – and at that point still ‘a passionately yearning and hopeless love … no work of art was as beautiful as Jenny’; and this meant that ‘lyrical poetry was bound to be my first subject’. As previously mentioned, he had sent three volumes of poetry to Jenny in Trier, poetry which he described as ‘purely idealistic … nothing natural, everything built out of moonshine, complete opposition between what is and what ought to be’. He broke off ‘all hitherto existing connections, made visits rarely and unwillingly’, and tried to ‘immerse’ himself in ‘science and art’, and, to this end, began a lifelong habit of making extracts from books.10

Seven pages on law and poetry follow in this extraordinary letter and only in the last few paragraphs did Karl become more personal, though his tone is stilted and uneven. Genuine expressions of concern are crowded together with phrases that appear hurried and formulaic. ‘Eduard’s condition, dear Mama’s illness, your own ill-health, although I hope it is not serious, all this makes me want to hurry to you, indeed it makes it almost a necessity.’ He asks that the end of the letter be not shown ‘to my angel of a mother. My sudden arrival could perhaps help this grand and wonderful woman to recover.’ Finally, there are expressions of ‘profound, heartfelt sympathy and immeasurable love’ and a plea to take into account his ‘much agitated state of mind’ and to provide forgiveness where his ‘heart seems to have erred’, overwhelmed by his ‘militant spirit’. This hasty ending was perhaps understandable since he was writing around four o’clock in the morning, ‘when the candle has burnt itself out, and my eyes are dim’.

The letter was written barely a month before the death of his eleven-year-old brother, Eduard, and less than six months before that of his father. Since no other letters have survived, it is impossible to say how representative it may have been. But the solipsistic self-absorption, belletrist conceit, and apparent lack of real interest in the condition of his family – even in the face of the dark clouds that had been gathering around it in the preceding year – seem to have been a characteristic feature of Karl’s letters home.

Such at least was the gist of the frequently reiterated complaints of his father and occasionally that of other members of his family during his time in Berlin. They all agreed that Karl’s letters home were all too rare. On 28 December 1836, his father complained that they had not received a letter since early November. On 12 August 1837, writing from Bad Ems, where Henriette had sent him in a vain attempt to cure his persistent cough, Heinrich pleaded that a letter from Karl during the summer had been ‘a real need’. He also wrote that twelve-year-old Eduard had been ailing for the last six months and had grown quite thin, that his recovery was ‘quite doubtful’ and that Henriette ‘torments herself day and night’. On 16 September, Heinrich again urged Karl to ‘write now and again a few lines for Eduard, but act as if he were quite well again’, and his mother requested a few lines for his brother Hermann. By 17 November, Heinrich was pointing out that they had received no information about his address in Stralow, no letter for two months, and then ‘a letter without form or content, a torn fragment saying nothing’. In the following letter of 9 December, although deeply fearful of sounding too harsh, he gave way to his exasperation with Karl:

We never had the pleasure of a rational correspondence … We never received a reply to our letters; never did your next letter have any connection to the previous one or with ours … On several occasions we were without a letter for months, and the last time was when you knew Eduard was ill, mother suffering and I myself not well; and moreover, cholera was raging in Berlin; and as if that did not even call for an apology, your next letter contained not a single word about it, but merely some badly written lines and an extract from the diary entitled The Visit which I would quite frankly prefer to throw out rather than accept, a crazy botch-work, which merely testifies how you squander your talents and spend your nights giving birth to monsters.11

Heinrich Marx was equally concerned about Jenny’s situation in Karl’s absence, for although the Marx family knew about the engagement in the autumn of 1836, the Westphalens were not informed until March 1837. On 28 December 1836, Heinrich wrote to his son that Jenny was making a ‘priceless sacrifice for you’ and that she still did not know how her parents would take the relationship, and that ‘the judgement of relatives and the world’ (no doubt Ferdinand in particular) was not ‘a trifling matter’. It was, therefore, particularly important to find out how soon he might hold an academic post. His sister Sophie, who had been acting as a go-between, added that if the difference in age worried Jenny (she was four years older), that was because of her parents, that she had ‘wept tears of delight and pain on receiving your poems’, and that once she had ‘prepared’ them, Karl should write. On 3 February 1837, Heinrich wrote again to his son to say that it weighed on Jenny’s mind ‘that her parents do not know or, as I believe, do not want to know’. He urged that a letter be sent, ‘not dictated by the fanciful poet’, but something informative, which would ‘give a clear view of your relationship and elucidate and discuss the prospects’.12

On 2 March, Heinrich and Jenny were still deliberating how news of the engagement should be communicated to the Westphalens. This must have happened a few days later. But the whole process had generated in Heinrich an anxiety about Karl’s character which he repeatedly sought to allay. On 28 December 1836, after reaffirming his ‘high opinion of your kind heart’, despite ‘aberrations’, he went on to state that ‘high as I esteem your intellectual gifts, in the absence of a good heart, they would be of no interest to me at all’. In March, he returned to the theme:

at times my heart delights in thinking of you and your future. And yet at times I cannot rid myself of ideas which arouse in me sad forebodings and fear when I am struck as if by lightning by the thought: is your heart in accord with your head, your talents? … And since that heart is obviously animated and governed by a demon not granted to all men, is that demon heavenly or Faustian? … Will you ever be capable of imparting happiness to those immediately around you?

These thoughts troubled him in relation to Jenny and the vulnerability of her situation: ‘I note a striking phenomenon in Jenny. She, who is so wholly devoted to you with her childlike, pure disposition, betrays at times, involuntarily and against her will, a kind of fear, a fear laden with foreboding, which does not escape me.’13

A recurrent irritant was the aesthetic posturing of Karl as the would-be poet. In a letter in which he expressed his anxieties about Eduard’s illness, Jenny’s ‘prolonged indisposition’ and ‘profound worry’, and his ambiguous position in relation to the Westphalens, Heinrich reproached Karl for possessing ‘a little more egoism than is necessary for self-preservation’. And he went on to accuse him of abandoning himself to grief ‘at the slightest storm’. The ‘first of all human virtues’, Heinrich continued, ‘is the strength and will to sacrifice oneself, to set aside one’s ego, if duty, if love calls for it, and indeed, not those glorious, romantic or hero-like sacrifices, the act of a moment of fanciful reverie or heroic feeling. Even the greatest ego is capable of that, for it is precisely the ego which then has pride of place. No it is those daily and hourly recurring sacrifices which arise from the pure heart of a good person … that give life its sole charm and make it beautiful despite all unpleasantness.’ From the evidence of the surviving letters, during 1837 this self-absorption appears to have grown more intense, particularly once the issue of the engagement had been settled. At the end of the year, Heinrich complained, ‘From your letters, one can hardly see that you have any brothers or sisters; as for the good Sophie, who has suffered so much for you and Jenny and is so lavish in her devotion to you, you do not think of her when you do not need her’.14

Heinrich was particularly repelled by Karl’s apparent attraction to the Faustian and demonic paraphernalia with which Romanticism had associated the pursuit of knowledge. ‘Disorderliness, musty excursions into all departments of knowledge, musty brooding under a gloomy oil-lamp; running wild in a scholar’s dressing gown and with unkempt hair … the love letters of a Jenny and the well-meant exhortations of a father, written perhaps with tears, are used for pipe-spills.’15

At a time when the ailing Heinrich worried that he would have to give up work, there were concerns about money too. He gently tried to steer Karl away from his ambition to found a journal of dramatic criticism. Would it yield significant financial profit? These worries about Karl’s lack of realism and his thoughtless extravagance increased as the year wore on. The richest students, Heinrich claimed, spent less than 500 thalers, while Karl had got through 700 thalers ‘contrary to all agreement’. Finally, in the last letter Karl’s father had the strength to write, he once again reproached his son for his ‘aristocratic silence’ about money, and pointed out that he had already spent more money in the fourth month of the law year than Heinrich had earned during the winter.16

During the winter of 1837–8, Heinrich’s condition steadily worsened. On 12 August 1837, he complained that for the last few months he had been ‘afflicted by a painful cough’. The spa, Bad Ems, where Henriette had sent him in the summer, had brought no real relief – ‘this fatal cough tortures me in every respect’; and by late August he was also suffering from ‘the most painful boredom’. Back home, his condition continued to deteriorate, and on 10 February 1838 he wrote with great effort to his son that for the previous two months he had been confined to his room, and more recently to his bed. His mother added that ‘good father is very weak’, that she was really disappointed that Karl would not be coming home at Easter, but that Jenny ‘takes an intimate part in everything’ and ‘often cheers us up by her loving childlike disposition, which still manages to find a bright side to everything’. His sister Sophie wrote that their father was ‘very impatient’ to be so ‘behindhand with business matters … I sing to him every day and also read to him.’ She urged Karl, ‘write at once, it will be a pleasant distraction for us’. On 15 and 16 February 1838, Heinrich managed no more than a sentence of greeting to Karl. He died on 10 May.17

Karl’s attachment to Jenny and his respect for his father remained strong. But as life at home had grown more disheartening, Karl appears to have become increasingly immersed in his life in Berlin. In Berlin, conversations flowed easily and news travelled fast. Even in the absence of a free press, theatres provided a vital outlet for the transmission of new ideas. These were in turn discussed in theatre reviews, in small intellectual journals like the Athenäum (the house magazine of the Doctors’ Club), or out-of-town publications like the radical Hegelian Hallische Jahrbücher. Coffee houses, pubs and beer halls served as informal news agencies. In cafés like the Café Stehely, newspapers and journals from abroad and from other parts of Germany were made available on long tables, while correspondents gathered political news and gossip from foreign and provincial journals for dissemination through Central Europe and beyond.


During the later years of the Vormärz – the years from 1815 to 1848 – Berlin’s coffee houses, pubs and beer halls became famous as centres of free and open debate. The free discussion which flourished in these establishments probably represented for Karl the most stimulating aspect of life in Berlin, especially after the narrowly Catholic horizons he would have encountered in Trier and Bonn. According to Ernst Dronke, writing in 1846, Berlin ‘wit’ was political; it was a city in which ‘a general preoccupation with politics’ almost made up for ‘the lack of a real political life’.18 Each of the occupational and political groupings – higher civil servants, the military and businessmen, the theatre, the academy and literature – had its favoured meeting places. For radicals, intellectuals and theatrical people, the most famous Konditorei was Café Stehely, just across from the playhouse on the Gendarmenmarkt, and once allegedly patronized by Mozart and the influential Romantic author E. T. A. Hoffmann. In the decade after 1836 discussion centred increasingly upon philosophy, theology and politics.19 There Marx first got to know members of the Doctors’ Club and began to write his dissertation; there also a few years later, in 1842–3, meetings of the notorious group of free thinkers known as the ‘Free’ supposedly took place.

In his letter to his father, Karl provided a fairly detailed account of the progress of his legal studies. The so-called ‘Historical School of Law’ personified by its greatest representative, Karl von Savigny, dominated the Law Faculty. In 1836–7, Karl attended Savigny’s lectures on the Pandects, the compendium of Roman Law compiled by order of the Emperor Justinian between AD 530 and 533. The only significant opposition to Savigny’s approach came from a Hegelian, Eduard Gans. Karl attended Gans’s lectures on Prussian Law (Preußisches Landrecht) in the summer of 1838.20

During his first few months in Berlin, Karl’s primary preoccupation was still whether to accept the abandonment of his poetic vocation. By the end of his first term, he had spent ‘many a sleepless night’ and ‘shut the door on my friends … Yet at the end, I emerged not much enriched.’ He became ill and was advised by a doctor to seek a cure in the country. And so he journeyed to Stralow.21 In Stralow he ‘got to know Hegel from beginning to end’. Earlier ‘the grotesque craggy melody’ of Hegel had not appealed to him.22 For in Hegel’s conception of modernity, art and poetry occupied only a subordinate and derivative part. Why allude to the truth in symbols or stories or by means of pictorial representation, when philosophy had opened the way to ‘absolute knowledge’ and could therefore articulate the truth in plain unvarnished language? Karl described the change: ‘my holy of holies was rent asunder and new gods had to be installed’. After one further attempt at emotional resistance, which would unite art and science, ‘my dearest child, reared by moonlight, like a false siren’ delivers me ‘into the arms of the enemy’. His first reaction was ‘vexation’. In a passage which rather belied his abandonment of literary pretension, he described how he ‘ran about madly in the garden by the dirty water of the Spree’, which, in Heine’s words, ‘washes souls and dilutes the tea’; how after he had joined his landlord in a hunting excursion, he ‘rushed off to Berlin and wanted to embrace every street-corner loafer’.

In his letter to his father, Karl described his efforts to arrive at a satisfactory philosophical foundation for the law in the face of the formidable intellectual challenge represented by Savigny. His original political and ethical sympathies – both those of his father and of Wyttenbach at the Gymnasium – derived from a position ‘nourished with the idealism of Kant and Fichte’.23 But the defect of this approach was that discussion of philosophical norms or ‘basic principles’ was divorced from all ‘actual law’. Furthermore, what he termed ‘mathematical dogmatism’ – mechanical approaches characteristic of the eighteenth century – had prevented ‘the subject taking shape as something living and developing in a many-sided way’. More concretely, such an approach could not accommodate the history of ‘positive law’, or law as historical ‘fact’, and it was this insistence upon the law as ‘fact’ which constituted the starting point of Savigny.

Savigny’s writings formed part of the first wave of Romantic nationalism that had developed between 1800 and 1810 in reaction to the conquests and domination of Prussia by Napoléon. In his History of the Roman Law in the Middle Ages, Savigny contested the belief that Roman Law had ‘perished’ with the fall of Rome and ‘was revived by accident, after six hundred years of neglect’. His research documented the continuity of the development of laws, customs and institutions throughout the Middle Ages, based upon the creative confluence of Roman and German themes. It was a period, according to Savigny, ‘abounding with examples of this awakened energy and restless enterprise’.24

Savigny’s seminal work, The Law of Possession (Das Recht des Besitzes), of 1804, argued that Roman Law treated ‘possession’ ‘not merely as the consequence of right, but as the very foundation of right’.25 From this starting point, he constructed a conception of law radically opposed to prevalent rationalist and idealist approaches. Law, and particularly the notion of private property, derived not from reason, but from the fact of possession embodied in the customs and languages of particular peoples in history. ‘All laws depend more on the ever changing wants and opinions of those who obey them than on the mere fiat of any legislator.’26 The law was not ‘made’, but ‘found’. Following Herder, the law was aligned with language and culture; following Edmund Burke, emphasis was placed upon tradition and gradual change.27 ‘In the earliest times, law already attained a fixed character peculiar to the people, like their language, manners and constitution.’28 Rights were not natural, but historical. Such an approach opened up ‘a totally different view of the historical evidence’; for ‘the law is part of a nation entwined with its existence and abrogated by its destruction’.29

In an attempt to clarify his own ideas, Karl wrote a 300-page manuscript on the philosophy of law. In the second part of this manuscript, in response to Savigny, he examined ‘the development of ideas in positive Roman law’, the area particularly investigated in Savigny’s On Possession. Karl concluded, however, that there was no difference between ‘positive law in its conceptual development’ and ‘the formation of the concept of law’. He wrote to his father to say that he now encountered in Savigny a mistake he himself had earlier made: that of imagining the matter and form of the law developing separately. It seemed then that neither the Kantians nor Savigny had provided a satisfactory connection between philosophical norm and historical fact. The problem became acute when Karl embarked upon the section on ‘material private law’, where central questions concerning persons and property would have to be addressed; and it was at this point that he abandoned the project. For it was plain that Roman concepts – the facts of possession, use and disposal – could not be forced into a rationalist system.

The resort to Hegel helped Karl at this point. In place of the separation between norm and fact, the development of law had to be studied as ‘the concrete expression of a living world of ideas’. As he told his father, he had been led from ‘the idealism of Kant and Fichte’ to ‘the point of seeking the idea in reality itself … If previously the gods had dwelt above the earth, now they became its centre.’

He had not reached this position unaided. Karl had not only read through Hegel, but also ‘got to know most of his disciples’, and ‘through a number of meetings with friends in Stralow’ had come across the Doctors’ Club. This loose association of admirers of Hegel met and argued in favoured taverns, and included university lecturers, schoolteachers and journalists. Karl specifically mentioned Bruno Bauer, ‘who plays a big role among them’, and Dr Adolf Rutenberg, at that point ‘my most intimate Berlin friend’. It also seems likely that, in Karl’s first years in Berlin, Eduard Gans, one of the most prominent members of the Club, also helped him to redefine his ideas about law. Karl is recorded as having attended his lectures both in 1837 and in 1838.30

Gans was a professor in the Berlin Law Faculty, and a friend of the late Hegel. His early career had been blighted by the resurgence of anti-Semitism in the aftermath of ‘the war of liberation’. Insulted by students in Berlin and Göttingen, he moved to Heidelberg, where he acquired a brilliant reputation as a law student under the rationalist and progressive jurist Anton Thibaut. In the early 1820s, he was a leading member of the Union for the Culture and Science of Jews, an attempt to bring together Jewish culture and Enlightenment values. At the same time and in accordance with the Jewish emancipation decree of 1812, he applied in 1822 for a professorship at the University of Berlin. The king personally intervened to declare that Jews were no longer eligible for academic appointments. In 1825, therefore, like his friend Heine, he converted to Christianity, and was appointed to the Berlin Chair in the following year. During this time he became a convinced Hegelian, and Hegel’s closest ally and friend in the Berlin Faculty. It was not, therefore, surprising that in the 1830s he was chosen to prepare posthumous editions both of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1833) and of his Philosophy of History (1837).

Gans was considerably more radical than Hegel in the post-1819 years. He was a dedicated member of the ‘party of movement’ and an active supporter of the ‘Friends of Poland’ following the suppression of the Polish uprising of 1830.31 He knew Paris and the activities of the Saint-Simonians32 at first hand. He was also the first German writer seriously to study the ‘social question’.33 Particularly important in this context was his criticism of Savigny and of the Historical School of Law. In the absence of political parties or freedom of the press, open intervention in domestic politics was practically impossible. That was why, in the 1820s and 1830s, one of the most important battles over the future of Prussia was fought out in a controversy about the nature of Roman Law.34

Although Savigny avoided overt political partisanship, the political implications of his position had become clear at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. In 1814, the liberal jurist Anton Thibaut proposed that Germany should adopt a uniform legal code comparable to the Code Napoléon. In reply, Savigny launched in that year a fierce polemic, Of the Vocation of Our Age for Legislation and Jurisprudence. Napoléon, he argued, had used his Code as a bond to ‘fetter’ nations, ‘which he had succeeded in subjecting to his rule’. In Germany the Code had ‘eaten in further and further, like a cancer’. While in some areas it had been thrown off as ‘a badge of political degradation’, it was still in force in at least six states. Its continued spread would have ended in ‘the annihilation of our nationality’. Codes, Savigny argued, dated from the middle of the eighteenth century, when the whole of Europe ‘was actuated by a blind rage for improvement’; now ‘a historical spirit has been everywhere awakened and leaves no room for the shallow self-sufficiency’ of those times.35

There were several worrying implications in the position of Savigny, who was to become the Prussian Minister of Justice in the 1840s. Firstly, his advocacy of a return to Roman Law, as it had existed before the revolutionary epoch, perpetuated a situation in which laws of property and inheritance were subject to legal uncertainty and endless local variation. Secondly, his argument that the Roman Law of possession started from ‘fact’ rather than ‘right’ strengthened the claim of feudal lords to hold their demesnes by right of ‘acquisitive prescription’ or mere ‘dominion over a thing’.36 Finally, Savigny’s position represented a particular threat to the Rhineland, where a modified form of the Code Napoléon was grounded upon the assumption of equality before the law, and where trial by jury was still in force.

Gans attacked the Historical School for its confusion of natural and legal fact. The fact of possession had no legal status. A ‘right’ could not be based on a ‘wrong’. What the lawyers called tort presupposed the existence of a legal right that made wrongful violation subject to legal remedy.37 More generally, Gans accused the Historical School of a refusal to acknowledge the creativity and forward movement of the World Spirit or World History. In place of rational progress, Savigny and his followers viewed history as a process to be uncovered by purely empirical means, a succession of events which became embedded in the form of traditions expressing the life and soul of the people. In this way, Gans argued, the present was subordinated to the past. Finally, Gans’s vision of the significance of Roman Law was very different from that of Savigny’s. Firstly, he stressed that much of its value derived from its promulgation as a code by Justinian. Secondly, in contrast to those who gloried in the immersion of Roman Law in native German custom during the Middle Ages, Gans praised the relative autonomy of Roman Law. Its long history suggested that legal rules could remain to some extent independent of political power, and this in turn suggested the existence in some form of natural law beneath it.38

Unlike the Kantians or the Historical School, Gans argued that a dialectical process of ‘mediation’ existed between philosophical norm and historical fact underpinning the historical and rational development of the concept of law. As he sought to demonstrate in his major study, The History of the Law of Inheritance in Its Universal Development (1826), there was a rational development of the concept of inheritance through the successive historical epochs of the progress of the Spirit. Karl attended Gans’s 1836–7 lectures on the criminal law and those on Prussian civil law in the summer of 1838. In his letter to his father, he clearly echoed Gans’s position in his assertion that ‘the rational character of the object itself must develop as something imbued with contradictions in itself and find its unity in itself’.39

For all his interest in philosophy, Karl still appeared undecided about whether to continue a career in law. He wrote to his father of his preference for jurisprudence over administrative science, of the possibility of transferring as a ‘justiciary’ after the third law examination, of then becoming an ‘assessor’ and eventually attaining an extraordinary professorship. How far this reflected real indecision rather than a simple desire to humour his father is not clear. Back in September 1837, Heinrich had already stated, ‘whether you make your career in one department of learning or in another [is] essentially all one to me’. His son should choose whatever was ‘most in accord with [his] natural talents’ whether in law or philosophy, but in either case not forget the need for patronage.40 It also seems that his interest in jurisprudence persisted. Not only did he continue to attend Gans’s lectures in the summer of 1838, but his contributions to the Rheinische Zeitung over three years later suggested a continued engagement with the concerns of rational jurisprudence.


By 1839, however, it was clear that Karl was fully committed to philosophy and ready to embark upon his doctorate. His father’s death had removed any lingering inhibitions about changing course, while the death of Gans in the following year could only have reinforced his decision. Even more important was his sense of the cultural and political divisions that were opening up in Vormärz Prussia. Contemporaries noted the shift of interest at Café Stehely from literature and art to philosophy, theology and politics, and this matched the shift in Karl’s own concerns. The appeal of Hegel – as he wrote to his father in 1837 – had been that of ‘seeking the Idea in reality itself’. But the problem was that thought and being were not coming together in the way Hegel’s position assumed. If anything, and particularly from the time of Hegel’s death in 1831, thought and being had been driven further and further apart.

In the years following 1815, Hegel was the thinker who had most powerfully articulated the association between the Germanic world and the development of Universal Spirit. It was a discourse that made sense so long as it seemed credible that Prussia would continue the emancipatory programme of the ‘Reform Era’, begun in the aftermath of defeat by Napoléon in 1806. Hegel’s appointment to the Chair of Philosophy in Berlin in 1818 can be regarded as part of this reform programme. The invitation had come from Karl von Altenstein, Minister of Education, Health and Religious Affairs, a protégé of Hardenberg, and a convinced rationalist.

In his lectures on The Philosophy of History delivered in the 1820s, Hegel argued that two parallel paths could be traced in the modern history of freedom. One derived from the German Reformation, in which Luther freed religion from external authority and thus made possible the flowering of the German virtues of inward spirituality – Innerlichkeit – and reflective thought. This path of development culminated in the philosophy of Kant and the liberation of man from all received beliefs. The second path, that of politics, had led to the French Revolution, which despite its manifest imperfections had produced a situation in which man’s internal and spiritual freedom could now be expressed in external political and institutional form. This combination of spiritual and political freedom, Hegel believed, was now being realized in Germany. In Prussia, a rational reform programme was accomplishing peacefully what the French Revolution had attempted to create by force.

Hegel’s approach had come under fire from conservatives almost from the moment he was appointed. The Kotzebue assassination had rekindled fear of revolution in the king and his circle.41 The Carlsbad Decrees of 1819 had led to the dismissal of ‘demagogue’ professors at the universities and severely curtailed freedom of publication, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. It had also seemingly deterred Hegel from open avowal of the cause of political reform. In his newly written preface to The Philosophy of Right, published in 1821, he had disclaimed any intention to legislate for the future, and had apparently defended the rationality of the existing state of affairs.42 The 1830 revolutions, which had sparked off violence and the demand for independence in Italy and Poland, had led to the separation of Belgium from Holland, and had delivered liberal constitutions in France and Belgium and Britain, further reinforcing the anxiety of political authorities. Alarmed by a mass democratic gathering at Hambach in the Palatinate in 1832, the German Confederation imposed further increases in censorship and political repression.

The increasingly defensive posture of the Prussian government was also a response to a larger cultural and political reaction against ‘rationalism’ and the Enlightenment, which had gathered strength in the decades following 1815. In Brandenburg-Prussia, there was a return to an Evangelical and fundamentalist form of Christianity, particularly among sections of the aristocracy and the professional classes. Followers of the new Evangelicalism believed that Enlightenment ideas had been responsible for the spread of rationalism and atheism, and that these in turn had led to the horrors of the French Revolution. This post-1815 world, dominated by the wish to turn its back on revolution and religious heterodoxy, was wholly different from that of the French Revolution and the crisis in orthodox belief occasioned by Kant’s demolition of traditional theology and metaphysics. This was the world in which the philosophical approach of the young Hegel had first been formed, but was now seen as wholly at odds with the priorities of a renewed Christian fundamentalism and Romantic medievalism.

German radicalism, republicanism and socialism in the 1830s and 1840s – the aspirations of the ‘party of movement’ – were attempts to renew the forms of rationalism, which in different ways had supposedly guided the ambitions of Frederick the Great, defined the ideals of the Jacobins, shaped the philosophies of Kant and Fichte, and inspired the major innovations in the ‘Reform Era’. Karl’s thought was formed within this tradition and in important ways his approach remained a product of its expectations.

The rationalist heritage was particularly important in shaping the identity of what became known in the 1830s and 1840s as ‘socialism’, which in Germany as elsewhere arose from a battle about the status and character of religion. But in Germany this rationalism and the socialism which was constructed out of it assumed a different form from that found in the Anglo-French tradition.

In the Netherlands and the German world from the late seventeenth century, unbelief had taken on a ‘pantheist’ form, starting from Spinoza: God and Nature were the same thing, and this indivisible whole was governed by rational necessity. In Germany, the impact of Spinoza was lasting, leading Heine to declare in the 1830s that Spinozism was the secret religion of Germany. In Britain and France, there had been parallel conflicts over religion, but they had taken different forms. In contrast to Spinoza, the starting point had been predominantly deist (a ‘clockmaker’ God separated from his creation) rather than pantheist, and empiricist rather than rationalist. The starting point in both traditions, however, in contrast to the Christian emphasis upon original sin, had been the assumption that man was a natural being, whose ideas were formed through sensory perception, and whose activity was propelled by desire and the pursuit of happiness.

But in Germany, in the last third of the eighteenth century, there appeared a third major form of philosophy. It drew in important ways from Rousseau’s conception of liberty as self-enacted law, but was formalized into what became known as idealism in the ‘critical’ philosophy of Kant. While equally sceptical of revealed religion, idealism stressed human freedom, the active role of the mind in shaping knowledge and activity, and the ability of reason to resist and overcome natural desires.

Idealism opened the door to a distinctive form of perfectionism or utopianism, built upon the displacement of man’s limitations as a natural being by the advance of a realm of reason, in which man ultimately obeyed only those commands which had been formulated by himself. The formation of this distinctively idealist conception of human emancipation and its increasing separation from conventional religious belief can be clearly charted in Kant’s later writings, in which the Christian conception of the afterlife is replaced by a quasi-secular picture of emancipation on earth.

In The Critique of Pure Reason of 1781, Kant had asserted that his purpose in eliminating all claims to knowledge about God’s existence was to make room for faith.43 This promise was fulfilled in 1788 in his Critique of Practical Reason, in which God together with immortality were restored as prerequisites or ‘postulates’. But God’s status was now far shakier. In traditional metaphysics it was God who provided the foundation for morality. In the new theory it was morality which (disputably) required the existence of God. The argument for the necessity of God now formed part of a larger requirement, as Kant understood it, to reconcile the moral law with the fact that human beings were embodied natural creatures, who pursued happiness.44 In The Critique of Practical Reason, he argued that the connection between virtue and happiness was to be found in the notion of the ‘highest good’. This was the condition in which happiness was distributed in proportion to virtue, and in which, therefore, each would receive the amount of happiness he or she deserved. Such an ideal, according to Kant, could never be achieved in this world, but since we believe it must be achieved, it was necessary to postulate a God who might distribute happiness to the virtuous in just proportion, and immortality of the soul as a means of allowing for however much time might be required to reach this ultimate result.

Kant tried in a number of ways to make these ‘postulates’ more compelling. In his Critique of Judgement of 1790, he wrote no longer about ‘the highest good’, but about ‘the final end’. Putting the argument the other way round, he claimed that if God did not exist, the moral law would contradict itself, by demanding something which by its nature could not be fulfilled. The basic structure of the argument remained the same. In Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason of 1793, however, the distance from conventional belief was further increased. Christian supernaturalism encapsulated in the doctrine of the immortality of the soul was replaced by the vision of an ‘ethical commonwealth’, which would be the result of ‘the victory of the good principle in the founding of a kingdom of God on earth’.45 Here again an argument for the necessary relationship between the moral law, and God as the moral lawgiver, was developed. But the need for such a legislator was not fully established. The moral law was divine because it was binding, not binding because it was divine. Furthermore, Kant conceded that the idea of a ‘final end’ was introduced as something humans could ‘love’, and was a concession to ‘an inescapable limitation of humanity’.46 By the mid-1790s, therefore, it was clear that Kant had failed to re-establish God as a postulate of ‘practical reason’.47The only way of preserving the moral argument for God was to identify the moral world itself as God.48

It was during the early and mid-1790s that Hegel’s views together with those of his two brilliant fellow students, Hölderlin and Schelling, were shaped by his experience as a theology student in Tübingen.49 The young Hegel was repelled by the rigidity of official Lutheranism, stirred by the events in France, and inspired by the challenge of Kant’s philosophy. His response in his unpublished writings was to attempt to reformulate Christianity in the light of the post-Kantian prerequisites of autonomy and self-legislation. His ideas also drew upon Lessing’s Education of the Human Race and Rousseau’s conception of a civil religion, together with the vision of the spontaneous ethical harmony once supposedly enjoyed in Ancient Greece, according to the ideas of Goethe, Schiller and Herder during the time they worked together in the small court of Weimar between the 1770s and 1805.50 In 1793, Kant himself had outlined the shape of a purely moral religion in Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason. But Hegel and his friends thought Kant placed too much emphasis on virtue as the fulfilment of duty. In 1796, they outlined their own conception of a ‘religion of the people’ (Volksreligion). Inspired by Schiller’s Aesthetic Education of Man, they stressed that Kantian ethical ideas must be coupled with the appeal of the beautiful: ‘monotheism of Reason and heart, polytheism of the imagination and art, this is what we need’. The need was for ‘a new mythology’, ‘a mythology of Reason’.51

Debates in the 1790s were not concerned with the historicity of the Christian narrative, but with the capacity of Christianity to form the basis of ethical life. In Hegel’s view, the superiority of Christianity over other religions was incontestable because it alone was based upon the conviction that all were free. In his later writings, Hegel could therefore argue with justice that his conception of Sittlichkeit – the ethical norms and laws informing a modern culture and a rational state – was based upon Protestant Christianity. The absence of such a culture, in Hegel’s view, was the main reason why the French Revolution had descended into terror and war. Religion in its untransformed state had been incapable of defending itself against the irreligious attacks of the Enlightenment. Hegel believed that his philosophy had broadened and enriched Christianity.

The doubts of conservatives about the compatibility of rationalism and Christianity were not allayed. Hegel’s books and lectures placed Christianity as the last and highest in the development of successive forms of religious consciousness. While religion in earliest times had begun with mysterious gods surrounded by cults of nature and magic, from the time of the Reformation clarity had ultimately been attained in Christianity. Christianity had overcome the gulf between man and God. For in the Christian story of the Incarnation, the human had ceased to be alienated from the divine. Hegel placed at the heart of his Christianity the ‘Holy Ghost’, the third component of the Trinity. This was the Divine Spirit, which dwelt within each and every person and was celebrated in the act of Communion.

Christianity, however, claimed not only to be immanent, but also transcendent, and there was nothing in Hegel’s writings to support the idea of a God separate from his creation or of life after death. Furthermore, it was clear from Hegel’s presentation of the ‘Absolute Idea’ that in the light of the development of self-consciousness, religion, like art before it, was ultimately incapable of providing an adequate idea of the divine.52 The rites and symbols of Christianity relied upon an ineffable form of symbolism; this vision of the Absolute was ultimately naive and its mode of communicating the truth unfree. The Christian religion was content to rest its claims upon Scriptural authority rather than upon the free determination of self-consciousness.

By the 1820s, such a position was increasingly isolated, confined to little more than Hegel’s immediate followers. The brilliant generation of Romantic writers and philosophers, who had once espoused conceptions of the divine similar to Hegel during his years in Jena between 1800 and 1806, had all died or moved on. Novalis died young, Schleiermacher renounced his former pantheism, the Schlegel brothers became Catholics, and Schelling had retreated into mysticism. In the 1820s, there were repeated attacks upon Hegel from the followers of Schleiermacher, who emphasized the association of religion with feeling, while Pietists and Evangelicals, led by Ernst Hengstenberg, the editor of the newly founded Evangelische Kirchenzeitung, considered Hegel’s rationalist translations of religious dogma presumptuous and heretical. Despite his protestations, Hegel was still accused of Spinozist pantheism, while others attacked him for ‘panlogism’, the subordination of freedom and reality to logical necessity.53 In the face of these assaults, Hegel became increasingly defensive, and favoured his more conservative followers, who were intent upon demonstrating the compatibility of revealed religion and speculative philosophy.


The most intellectually challenging attack upon Hegel’s position came in the 1830s, after his death, from his one-time friend at Tübingen, the now celebrated philosopher Schelling. Schelling had published nothing after his years at Jena and his position was only known by repute. But in 1827 he repudiated his youthful ‘panlogism’ and in 1834 launched a barely disguised philosophical attack upon Hegel’s position. Like others who had turned their backs on their youthful philosophical radicalism, Schelling desired to recover a personal God free from the confines of logic or reason. As early as 1804, he had retreated from a vision of humanity overcoming all otherness within a totality and encompassing the identity of spirit and nature. He brought back the Christian language of the Fall, complemented a few years later by a conception of God as pure will beyond reason. God was now posited as the creator of the world, but eternally separate from it. What he revealed of himself to the world was attained, not through reason, but through revelation.54

The philosophical generation of the 1830s were generally unimpressed by Schelling’s eccentric reconstitution of Christian apologetics, but they could not ignore the force of his criticism of Hegel. This took the form of a reassertion of the independence and prior reality of being, and an attack upon Hegel’s attempted demonstration of the passage from logic to reality at the beginning of his Science of Logic (1816).55 In contrast to philosophies that denied the autonomy of reality – ‘negative philosophy’ – Schelling posited a ‘positive explanation of reality’, ‘positive philosophy’. The ‘logical necessity’ which ‘negative philosophy’ considered to order the world was in Schelling’s view the result of God’s will, which was unbound by any law. What speculative philosophy could not admit was the groundlessness of reality. Positive philosophy, on the other hand, presupposed the surrender of reason’s autonomy to something external to it, to ‘positive fact’, which was only accessible through ‘revelation’.

Schelling’s ‘positive philosophy’ was amplified into a political philosophy by Friedrich Julius Stahl, an uncompromising anti-rationalist and friend of Savigny. In 1833, Stahl brought out his own Philosophy of Right, and in 1840 he was promoted to the Berlin Chair in Law in succession to Eduard Gans. According to Stahl, Hegel’s philosophy suffered from the dangerous delusion that reason could know God. He accused Hegel of destroying divine – and by extension human – personality by depriving God of free will. Hegel’s God (‘Spirit’) was encased within a universal principle of necessary development incorporating both nature and spirit and therefore unable to act as a freely self-revealing Supreme Being.

Stahl’s objection to Hegel’s conception of the monarch was similar; the monarch was immured in the substance of the state and beholden to the constitution. Just as God’s will grounded being and reason, but was not limited by them, so the will of the monarchy should be similarly unbounded. For just as the all-encompassing being of God imparts unity to the whole of creation, so the personal sovereignty of the monarch should singly embody the authority of the state, and similarly not be bound by constitutional constraints. In practical terms, Stahl urged the restoration of ‘the Christian state’ with its ‘cuius regio, eius religio’ principle established at the Peace of Augsburg in 1555.

By the mid-1830s, the conflict between the new conservatism and the ‘party of movement’ was becoming, in philosophical terms, more heated. It also began to take on a more explicit political form.

In the German Confederation, monarchs had successfully repudiated what small liberal gains had been made in Hesse–Kassel, Saxony and Hanover as a result of the 1830 revolutions. The writings of ‘Young Germany’, a literary tendency, which included Heine and Ludwig Börne, were banned throughout the Confederation. The political scrutiny of academic appointments was tightened up. At the University of Erlangen in Bavaria, Ludwig Feuerbach was blocked from any prospect of gaining a Chair after writing a hostile review of Stahl.56 Other prominent Hegelians, including David Strauss, Arnold Ruge and Bruno Bauer, were to suffer a similar fate.

The defining event in this struggle was the publication in 1835 of the Tübingen-based theologian David Strauss’s Life of Jesus, Critically Examined.57 Here at last a book had been published which spelled out plainly what might be meant by the Hegelian claim that the aims of religion and philosophy might differ in form, but were identical in content. According to Strauss, the rational truth embodied in Christianity, the union of the human and the divine, could only become clear once the Gospels were freed from their archaic supernatural setting. In the New Testament, the ‘Idea’ had been encased in a narrative about the life and activity of a single individual. That narrative had been ‘the product’ of an unconscious mythologizing process shaped by the Old Testament picture of the Messiah. If Christianity were to be saved for modern science, the figure of Christ would have to be replaced by the idea of ‘humanity’ in the whole of its history. For only the infinite spirit of the human race could bring about the union of finite and infinite, as it was depicted in Hegel’s portrayal of ‘Absolute Spirit’.58

In the late 1830s, battles over the direction of the religious policy to be followed by the Prussian state became increasingly rancorous. Altenstein – still Minister for Education and Religious Affairs – allowed the publication and free dissemination of Strauss’s Life of Jesus despite conservative outrage. But he was forced more and more onto the defensive, since conservative forces had gained increasing influence at court, particularly among the circle of the Crown Prince, which included Stahl, Hengstenberg and supporters of the Romantic anti-rationalist view of church and state. In the aftermath of Strauss’s book, more conservative Hegelians were also tempted to compromise with Stahl’s aggressive promotion of the resurgent monarchical Christian German state. Altenstein was, therefore, unable to promote radicals to university chairs. He urged Göschel, Hegel’s successor in Berlin, to reiterate the compatibility between Hegelianism and orthodox Christianity as a way of calming the passions about Strauss.

However unfavourable these portents were, the ‘party of movement’ still clung to the hope that events might lead the government to change course. The old king, Friedrich Wilhelm III, was famous for his high-handed amalgamation of the Lutheran and Calvinist churches back in 1817, a measure closer in spirit to the bureaucratic absolutism of Napoléon than it was to the post-1815 Evangelical revival. But now the government faced an unanticipated challenge from the right. The question concerned the relationship between the Prussian state and its Catholic subjects. In 1835, the new Catholic Archbishop of Cologne, Droste-Vischering, was a militant supporter of the ‘ultramontane’ tendency within the church. This meant an emphasis upon the authority of the Pope over the temporal affairs of civil governments and that a country’s priests’ first loyalty was to Rome rather than their secular leaders. He introduced a strictly enforced papal ban on mixed marriages. The church now required a written undertaking on the part of Protestant spouses of Catholics that their children would be brought up as Catholics. This meant not only the rejection of a long-standing Rhineland compromise on the issue, but a breach of Prussian law and a direct challenge to the authority of the king as ‘supreme bishop’ of the Prussian Union church. As a result, the archbishop was imprisoned in 1837.59

Not surprisingly, this confrontation between the Prussian state and the overwhelmingly Catholic Rhineland attracted unparalleled interest; the issue was debated in over 300 pamphlets.60 It was also an issue upon which Hegelians could offer the state unqualified support.61 Athanasius, the leading ultramontane pamphlet, was written by the well-known Rhinelander and former radical Joseph Görres. He claimed that Protestantism had led to the French Revolution. The Protestant counter-case was set out by the ex-Hegelian Heinrich Leo. But radical Hegelians thought the case was put too tamely. Their leading spokesman was Arnold Ruge, a lecturer at Halle and one time activist in the Burschenschaft.62 Together with Theodor Echtermeyer, he had founded the Hallische Jahrbücher (The Annals of Halle) at the beginning of 1838. This journal began life as a literary feuilleton drawing upon all shades of liberal and Hegelian opinion, but became increasingly identified with ‘the independence of scientific enquiry’ (meaning support for Strauss) and the supremacy of state over church. Ruge attacked both Görres and Leo in his pamphlet Prussia and the Reaction, for their hostility to rationalism, which Ruge claimed to be the essence of Prussia; he also accused Leo of being a ‘semi-Catholic’. Ruge’s attack in turn provoked an angry response from Leo, who dubbed Ruge, Feuerbach, Strauss and their allies ‘the little Hegelians’ (die Hegelingen). This was the origin of the term ‘Young Hegelians’. Leo portrayed them as a group of atheists who relegated Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension to the realm of mythology and were pressing for an entirely secular state.63

In response, Ruge reiterated the affinity between Protestantism and rationalism, and in the Hallische Jahrbücher embellished this theme with evidence gathered from Eduard Gans’s just published posthumous edition of Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of History. Prussia as the land of the Reformation and the Enlightenment stood for religious toleration and freedom of thought. Strauss belonged to this rationally oriented Prussian Protestant tradition, which seemed now allegedly to be in danger of falling under the sway of Catholicism. In a further attack on Leo and Hengstenberg entitled Pietism and the Jesuits, Ruge argued that the seventeenth-century inner Protestant kernel of Pietism had disappeared, leaving only its irrational husk, Catholicism as a religion of externals.64

At the end of 1839, Ruge and Echtermeyer enlarged this polemical assault into a ‘Manifesto’ in a series of articles entitled Protestantism and Romanticism. Both Protestantism and Romanticism, they argued, were products of the Reformation, but whereas Protestantism constituted its rational ‘kernel’, Romanticism represented its irrational ‘husk’. Romanticism was ‘the subjective impulse of the free self’, based upon the emotions and on nature rather than upon the universality of reason. It therefore embodied ‘the unfree principle’. This representation of ‘Romanticism’ focused upon its ‘irrational manifestations’. These included a taste for mysticism, proximity to Catholicism, affection for the Middle Ages and a preference for folk poetry. It was accompanied by an aversion to France, to the Enlightenment and to Frederick the Great.


Other supporters took up this campaign, but no one was more enthusiastic than Karl Köppen in Berlin, a scholar of the novel nineteenth-century interest in Nordic mythology, member of the Doctors’ Club and, according to many accounts, Karl’s closest friend at the time.65 Köppen had been writing for the Hallische Jahrbücher since May 1838. His approach to Nordic religion and mythology closely resembled that of Strauss: myth provided the inner account of the consciousness of a people before recorded history. As the controversy over Strauss and the character of the Young Hegelian campaign against ultramontanism unfolded, Köppen’s writings became increasingly radical. He praised the medieval emperor Friedrich Barbarossa for his heroic opposition to slaves and priests, and emphasized the progression both of Hegel’s thought and of Prussia itself towards constitutional rule. In 1840, he wrote an essay in praise of Frederick the Great on the centenary of his accession to the throne. The essay was turned into a book, Frederick the Great and His Opponents, and was employed to urge the new Prussian king, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, that he should follow the example of his great predecessor by making enlightenment and the battle against priestly fanaticism the guiding principles of his reign.

In the course of his study, Köppen drew attention to the fact that the Greek philosopher Epicurus was Friedrich’s favourite thinker, and more generally that ‘all the enlightened [the Aufklärer] of the last century were in many respects related to the Epicureans, just as conversely the Epicureans showed themselves to be the pre-eminent Aufklärer of antiquity’.66 Epicurus was the philosopher most hated by Romantics, as the forefather of eighteenth-century French materialism and a mechanistic view of the world. His philosophy was, according to Friedrich Schlegel, ‘the vilest of all ancient systems … which resolves everything into primary corporeal atoms’; Schlegel lamented that Epicureanism had grown to become the dominant philosophy of the latter half of the eighteenth century.67

All this helps to explain Karl’s choice of Epicurus as the subject of his doctoral dissertation. Köppen dedicated his Frederick the Great to Karl, while Karl in the foreword to his dissertation praised Köppen for his treatment of Epicurean, Stoic and Sceptic philosophy, and his ‘profound indication’ of ‘their connection with Greek life’.68 Like Köppen, Karl was concerned to promote the recuperation of an affinity between the Prussian state and the ideals of the Enlightenment – what soon after in his journalistic articles he was to call ‘the rational state’. But the dissertation also pursued other concerns. At a time when the Hegelian approach had been put on the defensive, the dissertation presented a general defence of idealism as a philosophy, directed firstly against ‘the theologizing intellect’ and secondly against the ‘dogmatic’ nature-based determinism of Democritus. Karl was concerned to refute the widely held anti-rationalist accusation that Epicurus was an advocate of materialism and determinism. For this reason he presented Epicurus as a precursor of the philosophy of self-consciousness.69

The dissertation concentrated upon the implications of Epicurus’ theory of the ‘atom’. It formed part of a larger project to study ‘the philosophers of self-consciousness’, the Epicureans, the Stoics and the Sceptics.70 Examining the trajectories of these philosophies, which had arisen in the aftermath of Plato and Aristotle, offered a way of obliquely examining the contradictory developments in German philosophy following the death of Hegel and the break-up of his system. In 1837, Karl had written to his father as if the synthesis between thought and being announced by Hegel’s philosophy were on the verge of completion. Now, like other followers of Hegel, he considered this reconciliation a goal to be attained in the future, an aim to be accomplished by a transition from theory to practice.

In the meantime, Karl had to examine the discrepant developments in post-Hegelian thought. For not only was it apparent that in Restoration Prussia the gap between reality and the idea had widened, but it also appeared that philosophy had become separated from the world. While subjective differences among Hegel’s followers had increased, the state in alliance with ‘Romanticism’ had become ever more reactionary. Philosophy’s objective universality was turned back into ‘the subjective forms of individual consciousness in which it has life’. Or as he also put it, ‘when the universal sun has gone down, the moth seeks the lamplight of the private individual’.71 Once thought and being had fallen apart and philosophy was forced to adopt this subjective form, philosophical self-consciousness had taken on the appearance of ‘a duality, each side utterly opposed to the other’. On the one side, there was ‘the liberal party’ that retained ‘the concept’; on the other, was ‘positive philosophy’, the ‘non-concept, the moment of reality’. This was Karl’s description of the conflict between the Young Hegelians and the supporters of Schelling and Stahl. The former considered the problem to be ‘the inadequacy of the world, which has to be made philosophical’; the latter considered that ‘the inadequacy’ was a problem for philosophy.72

The academic claim of Karl’s dissertation was to have solved ‘a heretofore unsolved problem in the history of Greek philosophy’. Commentators from Cicero and Plutarch to the church fathers had dismissed the work of Epicurus as a mere plagiarism of the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Democritus. According to Democritus, atoms were strictly determined in their movement; the ‘vortex’ resulting from their repulsion and collision was ‘the substance of necessity’. Epicurus, on the other hand, insisted that this motion could be un-determined; it could be subject to a ‘swerve’ or ‘declination’. He thus introduced a way of resisting the ‘blind necessity’ and purely materialist physics of Democritus. Democritus, according to Karl, had seen ‘in repulsion only the material side, the fragmentation, the change, and not the ideal side, according to which all relation to something else is negated and motion is established as self-determination’. The atom contained something in its breast which enabled it to fight back and resist determination by another being; and this, according to Karl, was the beginning of a theory of self-consciousness. ‘Now, when matter has reconciled itself with form and been rendered self-sufficient, individual self-consciousness emerges from its pupation, proclaims itself the true principle.’73

One of the most distinctive features of Karl’s dissertation was its attempt to represent the progress of the Epicurean atom as a foreshadowing of Hegel’s portrayal of the emergence of self-consciousness. According to Karl, ‘the absoluteness and freedom of self-consciousness’, even if only in the form of individuality, was ‘the principle of Epicurean philosophy’. ‘Atomistics’ with all its contradictions was ‘the natural science of self-consciousness’. ‘Atoms taken abstractly among themselves’ were ‘nothing but entities imagined in general … only in confrontation with the concrete do they develop their identity … The contradiction between existence and essence, between matter and form, is inherent in the individual atom endowed with qualities.’ Thus the declination or ‘repulsion’ of many atoms was the realization of the law of atoms. ‘It abstracts from its opposing being and withdraws from it’, which could be done if ‘the being to which it relates itself is none other than itself’. Repulsion was the first form of self-consciousness. All relation to something else was negated as motion was established as ‘self-determination’. The indication of this was ‘the heavenly bodies’, where the atom is matter in the form of individuality. The heavenly bodies were therefore ‘atoms become real’. In them matter acquired individuality. ‘In this process, matter ceased to be abstract individuality and became concrete individuality.’74 In this way, the ‘repulsion’ manifested by atoms in physical existence provided a paradigm for the existence of human freedom and self-consciousness.

The refusal of necessity led Epicurus to deny a central premise of Greek belief, ‘the blessed and eternal role of heavenly bodies’. He did so by pointing to the activity of meteors, whose existence was impermanent and whose activity was disordered. The supposedly eternal nature of the heavenly bodies like everything else was subject to earthly transience. Nature was not independent. The highest principle was ‘the absoluteness and freedom of self-consciousness’. The foreword declared, in words ascribed to Prometheus, that philosophy opposed ‘all heavenly and earthly gods who do not acknowledge human self-consciousness as the highest divinity’. For this reason, Epicurus was ‘the greatest representative of the Greek Enlightenment’.75

The shortcomings of Epicurus were also undeniable. The ancient philosophers of ‘self-consciousness’ had foundered because of their inability to move beyond a subjective notion of truth identified with ‘the wise man’. In this respect, Marx followed Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy: ‘thought and the thinker’ were ‘immediately connected’; the guiding ‘principle’ of Epicurus was ‘the impulse of self-consciousness towards self-satisfaction’.76According to Epicurus, ‘all that matters is the tranquillity of the explaining subject’. The main concern of ‘abstract individuality’, which Epicurus designated as the principle of the atom, was the preservation of ataraxy (serenity). This meant that ‘the purpose of action is to be found in abstracting, in swerving away from pain and confusion’. Thought remained separate from being, and thus the value of science was denied. Or, as Marx put it, the aim had been to achieve ‘freedom from being, not freedom in being’.77

The danger of the Epicurean conception of self-consciousness as ‘abstract universality’ was that ‘the door’ was ‘opened wide to superstitious and unfree mysticism’. This was what had made Epicurus vulnerable to the ‘theologizing intellect’ of Plutarch in ancient times, and had encouraged Gassendi to attempt to reconcile Epicurus and Catholicism in the seventeenth century. Much worse, however, was the threat represented by ‘positive philosophy’. For once thought was severed from being, yet the assumption of the Absolute preserved, philosophy was free to restore transcendence and theology returned. This criticism was aimed particularly at those conservative Hegelians inclined to compromise with the reassertion of ‘the Christian-German state’ advocated by Stahl, and given philosophical backing by Schelling.78

Karl’s dissertation and the notes accompanying it veered between confidence and uncertainty. ‘Theory’ had now to give way to ‘practice’, ‘but the practice of philosophy is itself theoretical. It is the critique that measures the individual existence by the essence, the particular reality by the Idea.’ It was, Karl thought, ‘a psychological law that the theoretical mind, once liberated in itself, turns into practical energy … The inner self-contentment and completeness has been broken. What was inner light has become consuming flame turning outwards. The result is that as the world becomes philosophical, philosophy also becomes worldly.’ In this sense, he was confident that ‘only the liberal party achieves real progress, because it is the party of the concept, while positive philosophy is only able to produce demands and tendencies whose form contradicts their meaning’. But, as he conceded, ‘the immediate realisation of philosophy is in its deepest essence afflicted with contradictions’. Ending his dissertation with a rhetorical flourish rather than a firm conclusion, Karl put his trust in the dialectic, ‘the vehicle of vitality, the efflorescence in the gardens of the spirit, the foaming in the bubbling goblet of the tiny seeds out of which the flower of the single flame of the spirit bursts forth’.79