The Re-Discovery of Ludwig Feuerbach

By Harvey, Van A. | Free Inquiry, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

The Re-Discovery of Ludwig Feuerbach


Harvey, Van A., Free Inquiry


In the nineteenth century, he was recognized as Europe's most famous and powerful atheist, the herald of a new anti-Christian and anti-idealist era. In the twentieth, he is mentioned only in passing as one of the influences on the young Karl Marx and as a precursor of Sigmund Freud, who believed that the gods are projections of the human psyche. Then, he was revered by humanists in both Europe and America, so much so that, when it was learned he was destitute, a collection was taken up for him by his admirers in the United States. Now his name is scarcely recognized in this country.

Nevertheless, Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) was one of the profoundest critics of religion in the history of Western thought; more profound, in my opinion, than any of those three who have been singled out as "masters of suspicion": Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud.(1) What constitutes these three as "masters" is that, unlike their rationalistic eighteenth-century predecessors, they did not simply dismiss religion as the result of fear and ignorance but regarded it as rooted in the human psyche - in the deprivation of essential human needs (Marx), in the tendency of language to personify causes (Nietzsche), or in the need to provide some metaphysical support for human morality (Freud). Feuerbach also believed that religion was deeply rooted in human subjectivity, but he thought this could best be shown by a sympathetic interpretation of the religious consciousness itself. To demonstrate that the gods were really psychological projections, he did not invoke a wider theory of some sort but conducted a detailed analysis of the prayers, hymns, and beliefs of religious believers themselves. He attempted to enter into the religious consciousness and let it speak for itself. "I constitute myself," he wrote, "only its listener and interpreter, not its prompter."(2) Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud rarely wrote directly about religion because, with the possible exception of Nietzsche, they were not very knowledgeable about it. Feuerbach, by contrast, was deeply acquainted with it both theoretically and practically. So much so that even the great Protestant theologian, Karl Barth, was forced to concede that Feuerbach's knowledge of the Bible, Christian theology, and especially of Luther places him above most modern philosophers so far as theological skill is concerned.(3)

Moreover, unlike Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, for whom religion was only one human activity to interpret, Feuerbach was intellectually preoccupied with its explanation and interpretation. His first major book, Thoughts on Death and Immortality (1830) was about it as was his last, Theogonie (1857). And between these two there are three major works: The Essence of Christianity (1832), The Essence of Religion (1845), and Lectures on the Essence of Christianity (1848). Like a tongue worrying a sore tooth, he returned to the problem of religion again and again, so that, despite the various classifications of his work, he could write that all of it was the expression of only one theme, "religion and theology and everything connected with it."(4) His aim, he said, "was to illumine the obscure essence of religion with the torch of reason. ..."(5)

Ironically, one of the reasons Feuerbach is not better known is that he became so identified with the sensationally successful Essence of Christianity that all of his later writings on religion were largely ignored or were erroneously regarded as minor modifications of that earlier work. This identification became still more entrenched because that book was so deeply impregnated with Hegelianism, the reigning philosophy of the time. Hegel, the great idealistic philosopher, had argued that the Absolute necessarily objectifies itself in creation and then comes to complete self-consciousness in and through the self-consciousness of human beings. Christianity, he claimed, is the naive and mythical symbolization of this cosmic process. Feuerbach cleverly stood Hegel "on his head," so to speak.

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