Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

The Determination of Man: Johann Joachim Spalding and the Protestant Enlightenment

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

The Determination of Man: Johann Joachim Spalding and the Protestant Enlightenment

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

"In the short time that I have on this world," wrote Johann Joachim Spalding in 1748, "I see that I can live according to entirely different principles, whose value and consequences cannot be reconciled to one another."2 With these words, an obscure Lutheran pastor opened a remarkable little book that would remain in demand and be reprinted for almost fifty years. At once a philosophical and religious meditation about the senses, the spirit, the nature of creation, and the immortality of the soul, Spalding's Betrachtung über die Bestimmung des Menschen would be rapidly followed by several new editions with expansions and supplements. By the eleventh edition of 1794, the book had expanded in length almost tenfold. It was translated into French (several times) and Latin, and appeared in pirated editions. One of the most widely-read books in eighteenth-century Germany, it set off a notable debate between Moses Mendelssohn and Thomas Abbt about skepticism and natural religion, and it also shaped the German discussion of philosophical anthropology down to Kant's Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View? Spalding's book was current enough to be elliptically lampooned by Goethe and Schiller in 1797, while the cultural relevance of his book was more positively attested by Johann Gottlieb Fichte's Bestimmung des Menschen (1800). Spalding's search for the "determination of man" became, in the words of Norbert Hinske, a "standard formulation" of the German Enlightenment after 1748.4 Likewise, Spalding's importance for German "popular philosophy," and even the rise of Kantiansm, has been noted by historians of philosophy.5

But for all the influence in philosophical discussions, Spalding was first and foremost a Lutheran pastor, and subsequent to the first edition of Bestimmung des Menschen he published widely-read books on religion, the clergy, and devotion. Especially renowned for his sermons, in which some of the same themes and language of Bestimmung appear, Spalding also translated Shaftesbury as well as English refutations of Deism.6 Most importantly, as a member of the Prussian Upper Consistory from 1764 to 1788, Spalding played a key role in the spread of "Enlightenment Theology" in Prussia, thereby influencing the course of "neology" across the German lands.7 Spalding's Bestimmung des Menschen, for all its many additions and changes from 1748 to 1794, nonetheless retained its core message throughout, while the book accompanied the career of its author and secured his popularity for more than fifty years.

Spalding belongs to a cohort of Enlightenment authors who responded to deism and anti-religious radicalism, but his significance lies not in new arguments as such, but in the way he sought to re-orient Protestant piety to respond simultaneously to the rise of unbelief on the one hand and the limits of orthodoxy and Pietism on the other. His Bestimmung des Menschen eschewed the formal academic language of theological apology, but nonetheless offered a defense of the possibility of revealed religion and the immortality of the soul. While the basic ideas of Bestimmung derived from a familiar Wolffian arsenal that saw reason and revelation as compatible, the language and genre in which he presented them were fundamentally new, which explains the book's initial success as well as its longevity. The language of Spalding's defense of Christianity differed profoundly from both Orthodox theology and from prevailing philosophical defenses of revelation to such a degree that it shaped the larger agenda of the German Enlightenment. In unleashing a set of discussions about the purpose of "man" that went far beyond its apologetical and devotional intentions, Spalding's Bestimmung des Menschen assisted in the conflation of theology and philosophy that characterized modern German Protestant culture. Thus it offers a window into the remarkable transformation of German Protestantism in the second half of the eighteenth century. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.