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Censorship and the Language of Feuerbach's "Essence of Christianity" (1841)

Author(s): Marilyn Chapin Massey

Source: The Journal of Religion, Vol. 65, No. 2 (Apr., 1985), pp. 173-195
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1202205
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Censorship and the Language of
Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity (1841)

Marilyn Chapin Massey / College of New Rochelle

The Essence of Christianity, written in 1841 by the brilliant left-wing

Hegelian Ludwig Feuerbach, is well known by historians of Christian-
ity as the source of modernity's most serious criticisms of religion as
illusion and projection. Throughout the works of Karl Marx, Friedrich
Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud echoes of Feuerbachian expressions re-
sound. Even now one is struck by the concise formulations on the
nature of religion in The Essence. Among the most famous are the fol-
lowing (which I will cite with Feuerbach's own emphases):
Religion, at least the Christian, is the relation of man to himself or more correctly
to his own (and, to be sure, subjective) essence, but the relation to his essence as
to another essence. The divine essence is nothing other than the human essence, or
better, the essence of humanity, purified, freed from the limits of individual
humans, and made objective, that is, contemplated and worshiped as another, as
the human's own essence distinguished from him. All determinations of the divine
essence are therefore human determinations.1

The human - this is the secret of religion - projects for himself his essence into
objectivity and then again makes himself into an object of this projected essence
changed into a subject; he contemplates himself as his own object, but as the
object of an object, of another essence. So here. The human is an object of God.2

[We have] proven that... the divine wisdom is human wisdom, that the secret of
theology is anthropology, of the absolute spirit is the so-called finite subjective
spirit .... The necessary turning point of history is therefore this public confes-
sion and avowal that the consciousness of God is nothing other than the con-
sciousness of the species, that the human can and should raise himself only

1 Ludwig Feuerbach, Das Wesen des Christentums, vol. 5 of Gesammelte Werke, ed. Werner
Schuffenhauer and Wolfgang Harich (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1973), pp. 48-49 (hereafter
cited as Das Wesen). The translations here are my own from the first edition of 1841. Feuerbach
revised The Essence of Christianity in 1843 and again in 1849.
2 Ibid., p. 71.
? 1985 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0022-4189/85/6502-0002$01.00


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The Journal of Religion

above the limits of his individuality, but not above the laws, the positive determi-
nations of the essence of his species, that the human cannot contemplate, dream of,
represent, feel, believe in, will, love and worship any other essence as absolute
other than the essence of human nature.3

As arresting as the language of these statements is, historians of

Christianity, along with Feuerbach scholars in other fields, locate in it
the limitations of The Essence. Focus for a moment on the terms Feuer-
bach emphasized in these quotations: "Relation of man to himself" / "to
his own essence" / "as to another essence" / "the essence of humanity" /
"the human's own essence distinguished from him" / "determinations" /
"object of an object" / "essence of his species." This language of essence,
determinations, and species is the language of German idealism, most
specifically of Hegelianism. Because of Feuerbach's use of this idealist
language, even those scholars who herald his move to associate religion
with psychological projection and to reduce theology to anthropology
interpret his own psychology and anthropology as insignificant repeti-
tions of idealism's conceptions of consciousness and human essence.
Marx was one of the first critics, and certainly the most influential
one, of the idealist language of The Essence. In his Theses on Feuerbach, he
described the human essence into which Feuerbach resolved the reli-
gious essence in this work as relegated to "theoretic" as opposed to prac-
tical activity, and he charged that Feuerbach did not "comprehend the
significance of 'revolutionary,' of 'practical-critical' activity."4 Marx
went on to judge that Feuerbach did not see "that 'religious feeling' is
itself a social product and that the abstract individual he analyzes
belongs to a particular form of society."5 Of course, for Marx, the par-
ticular form of society in which the human could be described as con-
sciousness and essence was the bourgeois.
Today scholars in general interpret The Essence as a product of
bourgeois society, of the optimistic, abstract humanism of the nine-
teenth-century middle class. Christian theologians and historians of
Christian thought have quite readily accepted this general assessment
of the sociopolitical meaning of The Essence. For readers of the English
translation of The Essence, Karl Barth's introduction subtly links this
sociopolitical meaning to the validity of Feuerbach's entire enterprise.
Barth writes: "So long as this nail [of the solitary individual confronting
death and evil] is not firmly in, so long as the talk about 'God in man' is

3 Ibid., pp. 443-44.

4 Karl Marx, Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, ed. and trans. Lloyd D. Easton
and Kurt H. Guddat (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1967), pp. 400-401.
5 Ibid., p. 402.


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Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity

not cut out at the roots, we have no cause to criticize Feuerbach, but
are with him 'the true children of his century."'6
I think that this commonly accepted assessment of the sociopolitical
meaning of The Essence of Christianity is a superficial one that derives
from a reading of the text that is insufficiently historical. I would like to
contribute in this essay to a historical reading of The Essence that makes
evident a "revolutionary" and "practical-critical" dimension of the text.
What I want to do is investigate two aspects of the work that point to
the need for a more thoroughly historical reading than it has received.
The Essence was not an ordinary philosophical text and it was not
written in ordinary times; its language is a mixture of the rhetorical
and the philosophical or, as Feuerbach himself put it, of the "popular"
and the "speculative,"7 and the book was written under the conditions
of censorship.


In his description of the impact of The Essence in Ge

Friedrich Engels wrote: "The very faults of the boo
momentary effect. The literary, impressive, even b
cured for it a very large public and was a constant
years of abstract and abstruse Hegelianism."8 No
The Essence of 1841 could miss this literary style. I
sage in the preface, Feuerbach describes the object o
as follows:

Also Christianity has had its classical period - and only the true, the great, the
classical, is worthy to be considered; the unclassical belongs before the forum of
comedy or satire. Therefore, in order to be able to establish Christianity as an
object worthy of thought, the author must abstract from the faint-hearted,
characterless, comfortable, belletristic, coquettish, epicurian Christianity of the
modern world, and put himself back into the period when the bride of Christ
was still a chaste, untainted virgin, when she had not yet braided the rose and
myrtle of the heathen Venus into the crown of thorns of her heavenly bride-
groom so that she would not fall into a faint at the sight of the suffering God;

6 See Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, trans. George Eliot, introduction by Karl
Barth (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), p. xxx. Barth refers here to the phrases of Max Stirner,
a left-wing Hegelian contemporary of Marx.
7 Ludwig Feuerbach to Christian Kapp, January 12, 1841, in Ausgewihlte Briefe, vol. 12 and 13
in Samtliche Werke, originally ed. Wilhelm Bolin and Friedrich Jodl, reedited by Hans-Martin
Sass (Stuttgart-Bad Cannstadt: Friedrich Frommann, 1964), p. 57.
8 Frederick Engels, Feuerbach: The Roots of the Socialist Philosophy (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr,
1906), p. 54.


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The Journal of Religion

when she was, to be sure, poor in earthly treasures, but excessively rich and
excessively happy in the pleasure of the secret of a supernatural love.9

What a curious, image-laden way for a philosopher avowing a scien-

tific method to describe his object of study. Appearing where it does in
the text, this passage immediately calls into question the seriousness of
Feuerbach's claims to be presenting a philosophy of religion with a
methodology as strict as that of "the new method of analytical chem-
istry."'0 Indeed, it makes the reader wonder about the meaning of the
most famous phrase of The Essence-"the secret of theology is anthropology"-
which appears for the first time in the very next paragraph."1 What
does it mean that the essence of Christianity can only be made an
object worthy of thought and capable of yielding a true anthropology if
it is disentangled from nineteenth-century coquettes and a heathen
Venus in order to be associated with a chaste, untainted virgin? I want
to show that if the images in this passage are not dismissed as rhetorical
flourish, the reader will not be prone to dismiss as readily as did Marx
Feuerbach's assertion that "while the object of the text is a pathological
or psychological one its purpose is at the same time a therapeutic or prac-
tical one."12 I think Feuerbach's practical or therapeutic purpose
accounts for the images in this preface as well as the popular language
in the body of the text and that these images and this language are
directed at the exorcism of what he calls "modern ghosts" who had polit-
ical as well as religious shapes.
Startling images are not the only "popular" language in The Essence,
however. In addition to its "bombastic style," Engels identified its
"extravagant glorification of love" as a reason for its immense popular-
ity. He said that "in comparison with the insuperable sovereignty of
pure reason" in German thought, this glorification "found an excuse, if
not a justification."13
Throughout The Essence, there are indeed encomiums to love.
Among them are the following:
Religion is man's consciousness of himself in his empirical totality, in which
the identity of self-consciousness exists only as the copiously related, impreg-
nated unity of I and Thou. 14

9 Feuerbach, Das Wesen, pp. 6-7. See also the preface to the 2d ed., p. 10, where Feuerbach
quotes this entire passage at the very beginning of his 1843 edition and says that because of it he
was accused of reckless heresy. This passage is missing from the English translation.
10 Ibid., p. 6.
ll Ibid., p. 7.
12 Ibid., p. 8.
13 Engels, p. 54.
14 Feuerbach, Das Wesen, p. 132.


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Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity

Love especially works wonders, and the love of the sexes in fact. Man and
woman mutually rectify and complement each other in order, thus united, to
first represent the species, the perfect human.... The individual is defective,
imperfect, weak, needy; but love is strong, perfected, contented, free from
needs, self-sufficing, infinite; because in it the self-feeling of individuality is the
mysterious self-feeling of the perfection of the species.15
Love is in and for itself feminine sex and essence. The belief in the love of God
is the belief in the feminine as a divine principle. Love without nature is an anomaly,
a phantom. Behold in love the holy necessity and depth of nature. 16

Historians of ideas seeking the contribution of Feuerbach's The

Essence of Christianity to philosophical and theological thought have
found the rhetorical and sentimental languages in the text to be obstruc-
tions to the task of interpretation. In his recent intellectual biography of
Feuerbach, Marx Wartofsky writes: "The trouble with a bald reading
of [The Essence] is not that it does not hold one's attention or that its
revelations seem old hat. It is, on the face of it, an exciting book
(though repetitive) and an original one.... Still, with this alone, the
book remains, though effective, largely superficial: a competent 'pop-
ular' work, full of quotable aphorisms, and marvelously acid polemical
asides, but hardly a philosophical landmark. What gives the work its
depth is its context in the development of Feuerbach's thought."17 In
The Philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach, Eugene Kamenka expresses a similar
opinion: "Irritating as Feuerbach's literary imprecision and hyperbole
can be, and fatal as they were to any ambition that he may have had of
becoming a philosopher of the first rank, we should not allow them to
blind us to the importance and fruitfulness of a great deal that Feuer-
bach is saying [in The Essence].... Feuerbach as a consequence has to
be read sympathetically; his work is a mixture of illuminating insights
and important if undeveloped logical criticisms, often buried in extrav-
agances of style and over emphasized illustrations."18
While historians of ideas put aside the popular language of The
Essence to discover its philosophy or theory of religion, Engels read its
popular language as consistent with its idealist theoretical language.
He judged that Feuerbach "set literary phrases in the place of scientific
knowledge, the freeing of mankind by means of love in the place of the
emancipation of the proletariat through the economic transformation

15 Ibid., pp. 273-74.

16 Ibid., p. 147.
17 Marx W. Wartofsky, Feuerbach (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), p. 197.
18 Eugene Kamenka, The Philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970),
p. 38.


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The Journal of Religion

of production, in short [true socialism] lost itself in nauseous fine

writing and sickly sentimentality."'9
With Engels, I want to suggest that the popular, rhetorical language
of The Essence bears on the meaning of its more technical philosophical
language. But I do not think that these languages can be interpreted as
simply homologous, as parallel reflections at different levels of lan-
guage of the abstractions of a sentimental, bourgeois society, as his
interpretation suggests. In disagreement with Wartofsky and Kamenka,
I think that what gives The Essence its "depth" as a text is its dual charac-
ter, its balance of popular and speculative objects and styles; its pop-
ular, transient, radically historical character and its theoretical content
cannot be separated if the text is to be adequately interpreted. With a
careful historical reading, its undercurrent of social critique becomes
evident. Rather than merely reflecting its bourgeois cultural root in the
mirror of idealism, The Essence of Christianity is itself a pathology, an
analysis of the symptoms of a diseased society, a linguistic practice.
Out of many possible examples, I have chosen to cite Wartofsky's
reaction to the popular side of The Essence because his intellectual biog-
raphy of Feuerbach is outstanding in its genre, and thus it demon-
strates more effectively than less competent studies the limits of intel-
lectual history itself. Furthermore, Wartofsky himself acknowledges
these limits and expresses the need for a different type of study that
would analyze "both the intellectual-philosophical dialectic of Feuer-
bach's thought and... its concrete historical matrix."20 I think that this
type of reading is one that not only articulates together the literary and
philosophical languages of The Essence but also can discern the meta-
phorical nature of the philosophical language itself.21 In other words, it
is one that brings together the historical matrix and the philosophical
language in a way that the historicity of that language is recognized but
not reduced to an epiphenomenal reflection of social, political, or eco-
nomic factors. In this essay I want to take a first step toward this type of
reading. Here I will touch only a particular surface of the text and
select aspects of its historical matrix to which Feuerbach scholars com-
monly allude. I will try to show how, by attending to these quite
obvious elements of the text and its historical matrix, it becomes clear
that Feuerbach's image-laden description of the "classical" object of

19 Engels, p. 54.
20 Wartofsky, p. 23.
21 I have found Jacques Derrida's, Michel Foucault's, and Julia Kristeva's treatments of the
historical and political dimensions of scientific language, as well as of the political function of
poetic language, helpful in developing an interpretive method that I hope can meet Wartofsky's
definition and yet avoid the vulgar Marxism that he finds unsatisfactory.


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Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity

investigation in the text refers to specific historical actors in the reli-

gious and political struggles of the 1840s and that the text's sentimental
love language contains an implicit social critique.
I will proceed by (1) describing the language of the text that is evi-
dent "on the surface," (2) examining the censorship conditions under
which it was written and their bearing on its style and images, and
(3) comparing the love language in the text with that in an article that
Feuerbach wrote at the same time.


The original 1841 edition of The Essence most influenced Karl Marx
was characterized, as Feuerbach himself said, by a balance of the pop
ular and the speculative. Thus this first edition has a sociopolit
meaning that is both more historically influential and more historic
accessible than that of either the second edition of 1843 or the third of
1849.22 Readers of the English translation of The Essence, done by George
Eliot in 1854, have had particular difficulty in recognizing its historical
richness and complexity because the translation is based on the 1843
German edition in which the balance of speculative and popular found
in the original 1841 edition was tipped in the favor of the speculative.
Moreover, even portions of this second edition were deleted because they
were "too specific a reference to transient German polemics to interest
the English reader."23 In order to familiarize the readers of the English
translation of The Essence with the 1841 edition, as well as to highlight the
rhetorical elements in it for Feuerbach scholars who do know it, I will
briefly describe its variations in language.
The Essence has five major divisions. It begins with a brief preface that
is marked, as we have seen, by a vibrant literary style and the use of
vivid metaphors. An introduction, containing the "idealist" quotations
cited above, follows, and it treats under the rubric of "in general" or
"universal" the topics of the essence of the human and the essence of
religion. The style of this part of the text is clearly and densely
The body of the text is divided into two parts. The first and longer
part, "Religion and Its Agreement with the Essence of the Human,"
22 The 1973 Schuffenhauer edition of the 1841 text, cited above in n. 1, is annotated to show
variations in the three editions. Important differences between these editions will be noted in the
next section.

23 The preface to the 2d ed., which addresses the polemic surrounding the first, is the on
translated in the English edition. The well-crafted wit and metaphoric language of the 18
preface is lost in this 1843 version. See The Essence of Christianity, pp. 3-10, and the note on
xxxiii cited here.


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The Journal of Religion

puts familiar Christian dogmatic topics under the rubric of mystery. Its
first two chapters are entitled "God as Law or the Essence of the Mind
[Verstand]" and "God as Love or the Essence of the Heart." Among the
other topics are the Incarnation, the suffering God, the Logos, the cos-
mological principle, predestination, creation, prayer, miracles, resur-
rection, the personal God, celibacy, and monasticism.24 A shorter sec-
ond part, "Religion in Its Contradiction of the Essence of the Human,"
covers a condensed version of this dogmatic list. Here the concepts of
the existence of God, revelation, the essence of God, the sacraments,
and faith and love are discussed, this time under the rubric of contra-
The final section of the text is an appendix of "Remarks and Proof
Texts."25 Its topics follow the order of those in the two main middle
parts, but they are rephrased and they remain undivided. Two aspects
of the proof texts found in this appendix stand out sharply: (1) they are
drawn almost entirely from patristic and medieval Christianity, and
the greatest number of them are from Bernard of Clairvaux or pseudo-
Bernard; and (2) as proof texts for the central Christian dogmas two
long poems are cited in verse form.
The first poem is composed of verses taken from The Songbookfor the
Use of the Evangelical Brothers of the Common Life, not a medieval but a
contemporary source, and it is included in the remarks on the mystery
of the Trinity, which is treated in the first part of the body of the text on
the agreement of religion with the human essence. One of the verses

My friend is to me and I am to him

As the Cherubim over the mercy seat;
We look at each other continually.
He seeks repose in my soul,
And I in the wound in his side.26

24 In the 2d ed. this part is subtitled "The True, That Is, Anthropological Essence of Relig
A major change is the division of the first chapter of the 1st ed., "God as Law," into two chapt
the second of which was titled "God as Moral Essence or Law" in the 2d ed. Also decisive was the
addition to the first division of that chapter of a long section of speculative philosophical argu-
ment. (See Das Wesen, pp. 75-100.) This addition is significant because it radically changes the
tone of the original from the popular to the speculative and it serves to move the initial material of
the body of the text much closer to that of the introduction.
25 In the 2d ed., the appendix was vastly expanded, primarily by the addition of quotations
from the works of Luther and Augustine. The meaning of these changes is treated inJohn Glasse,
"Why Did Feuerbach Concern Himself with Luther?" in Revue internationale de philosophie 26
(1972): 364-85; and Johannes von Wallmann, "Ludwig Feuerbach und die theologische Tradi-
tion," Zeitschriftfur Theologie und Kirche 67, no. 1 (1970): 56-86. Noteworthy in the 1st ed. is the
fact that Feuerbach quotes from almost all the works of the twelfth-century Cistercian monk
Bernard of Clairvaux and from those attributed to him in the writings of the pseudo-Bernard.
26 Feuerbach, Das Wesen, p. 496. This translation is from the English edition, p. 291.


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Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity

The second poem is one attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux entitled

"A Rhythmic Adoration of Each Member of Christ's Body Suffering
and Hanging on the Cross," and it is found in a commentary on the
contradition in the Incarnation:

Hail side of salvation

In which is hidden the nectar of his sweetness
In which is manifest the power of his love
From which the fountain of his blood gushes!

In this grave rescue me

Bury my heart deep
Where, concealed, it is warmed
And can rest in peace.27

At the end of this amazing poem Feuerbach referred to the first and
made a comparison of classical and unclassical forms of Christianity.
He wrote, "In The Songbook of the Evangelical Brothers of the Common Life,
excerpted above, are found verses on the individual parts of Christ's
body, which are similar to these, only poorer in taste, poetic quality,
and feeling but richer in blood thirsty egoism."28
Even a superficial skimming of The Essence of 1841, therefore, shows
that its language ranges widely. It moves from the speculative metalan-
guage of the introduction to what might be called poetic body language
in the outstanding proof texts in the appendix. Feuerbach's stylistic
habit of emphasis makes it easy to see that this contrast of language is
repeated, although not as dramatically, in the two central sections of
the text; his marked words superimpose a free-form poetry over the
discursive prose. In the first part on religion in agreement with human
nature, the terms of this "poetry" are those of anatomy and psychology,
which refer to sexual differences, family relations, and communal
interactions. The most prominent terms are those referring to the heart
and to love. The following is an example of this "poetry," found on one
page in the first section:
Humans become God / in love / truth / divinity of the
human heart / as heart / as mind / significant factors /
fact of essence / passion / proves itself through
suffering / supreme being of the heart.29

And variations on the theme of the contrast of the mind and heart-
man is the mind, woman is the heart-form a substantial portion of

27 Ibid., p. 569. This poem does not appear in the 2d ed.

28 Ibid., p. 570.
29 Ibid., pp. 117-18.


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The Journal of Religion

this "poetry." At times the "poetry" points to ambiguities not evident in

the prose. For example, on another page appears:
The truth/comedy/passivity as such30

Furthermore, some of it combines the explicitness of Bernard's poem

on the parts of Christ's body with the ambiguity and even cynicism of
juxtaposing truth, comedy, and passivity:
Providential, caring love / loving an anatomical
human heart / everything in God which it despises31

In the second section on the contradiction of religion with the human

essence philosophical terms are marked. Indeed, this whole section is
characterized by the return of the metalanguage of the introduction,
where a sort of idealist poetry, such as we gleaned from the statements
on the nature of religion, is created by Feuerbach's emphases.
This diversity of languages is given meaning and integrity, in my
opinion, when it is placed within the historical context of the conditions
of censorship under which Feuerbach wrote.


The Essence was written as a ferment was growing i

to the revolution of 1848. After Napoleon's troops w
Germany, a Confederation of its thirty-nine states,
Austria, was set up by the Congress of Vienna in 181
leading Protestant state rivaling Austria for the cen
locus of identity for Germany. As is well known, the
not unite the German states into a nation. Because of its aristocratic
composition, the Diet of the Confederation supported turning back the
clock to pre-Napoleonic times, that is, restoring feudal Germany rather
than constituting it a modern nation with a representative government.
Indeed, it opposed representative governments in any of the states and
repressed movements and thought that agitated for such governments.
Paramount among the repressive measures adopted by the Federal
Diet was press censorship. Although it was enforced unevenly and spo-
radically in the various states, it was intensified in general after the
Paris Revolution of 1830, which stirred the hopes of those Germans
who sought liberal political change. In 1835, censorship was further
intensified when the writings of an entire literary group, called Young
Germany, were banned as seditious by the Diet.
30 Ibid., p. 121.
31 Ibid., p. 112.


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Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity

When Wilhelm IV acceded to the throne of Prussia in the spring of

1840, there was a widespread hope that he would take the lead in liber-
alizing censorship across the German states. Indeed, during 1841, he
released political prisoners and promised decrees, finally promulgated
on Christmas Eve, reforming Prussia's censorship code. Yet days before
they were issued, Campe, the publisher of the most notable Young
German, Heinrich Heine, was forced to close his business. And in May
1841 the Prussian censors demanded that Arnold Ruge, the editor of
the Halle Yearbooks, to which Feuerbach was a major contributor, move
his presses from Saxony into their jurisdiction so that they could more
closely control the content of the journal. Indeed, even the liberalized
decrees retained a tight restriction on the criticism of religion.
It should be noted that in the context of the religiously and politically
divided Germany of the 1840s, the issue of the criticism of religion was
not a simple one. For example, criticism of Catholicism could be
viewed differently by Prussian censors than by Austrian ones. Such
criticism might be interpreted as a support of Protestantism and the
Prussian state. Even criticism of certain forms of Protestantism that
differed from the state church could be acceptable. There was such
general agreement on censoring the works of Young Germany because
this group criticized Christianity in all forms, or at least in any of its
recognized orthodoxies, as oppressive. Certainly, anyone writing a
treatment of the essence of Christianity in 1841, which was as evidently
critical as Feuerbach's, confronted a complex and difficult situation of
Feuerbach's own concern with censorship is recognized by scholars.
They note that from the time his first book, Thoughts on Death and
Immortality (1830), was banned, he had been preoccupied with it.32 In
fact, John Glasse has proposed that Feuerbach's concern with censor-
ship explains the major alteration of the second edition of The Essence-
the change of the identity of the principal author of its proof texts for
"classical" Christianity from Bernard of Clairvaux to Luther.33 To
scholars who attribute this change to Feuerbach's theological and
philosophical concerns, Glasse points out that his Thesesfor a Reform of
Philosophy, which Ruge was publishing in Saxony, was banned even in
that state in 1842. Even more striking, Feuerbach's home was searched
in April 1843 by government officials. Glasse proposes that, in the face
of these threats, Feuerbach added the witness of Luther to The Essence

32 See Ludwig Feuerbach, Thoughts on Death and Immortality, trans. with an introduction by
James A. Massey (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980), pp. xi-xviii,
for a discussion of Feuerbach's early encounter with censorship and political repression.
33 See Glasse, pp. 379-85.


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The Journal of Religion

"as a strategy of survival and persuasion."34 He writes, "Feuerbach

appealed over the heads of contemporary authorities to the authority of
a figure who was at once the paradigmatic Protestant and a German
hero. This appeal put his assailants in an awkward position. If they
rejected or suppressed his interpretation of Christianity, they would
have had to reject or suppress with it a major culture hero of their
own."35 If we keep in mind that Luther witnesses to the classical, orig-
inal Christianity, which can on one level be identified with the positive
and true aspect of religion, Glasse's argument is compelling.
Feuerbach scholars, moreover, commonly allude to his direct en-
counter with the censors in 1839, but, in contrast to Glasse, they have
not proceeded to connect this encounter with, in this case, the 1841
text. I think that here too there is direct relation between censorship
and the principal witness for classical Christianity, Bernard of
In March 1839, Feuerbach submitted a long article, "The True
Viewpoint according to Which the 'Leo-Hegel' Polemic Must Be
Judged,"36 a highly satirical piece, to Ruge's Halle Yearbooks. Only two
daily installments of this article appeared before it was censored. Fol-
lowing Ruge's advice, Feuerbach published the entire manuscript
under the title "Philosophy and Christianity" outside of Saxony that
year in Mannheim. Although scholars do recognize that this work
closely anticipates The Essence, they have elided its political meaning.
The "Leo-Hegel" polemic began over an incident in 1837 when the
Prussian government imprisoned the Catholic archbishop of Cologne.
This archbishop had refused to resign his post at the government's
request after overreaching his authority by insisting on orthodoxy
among the Catholic theological faculty at the University of Bonn and
on receiving the promise from spouses in mixed marriages to raise their
children Catholic. This incident stirred up long-standing questions
about the boundary between the secular and religious authority of the
church and of the state and about whether the "true" Germany was
Catholic or Protestant. This latter question had earlier been brought to
the fore by the papal reinstatement in 1814 of the Jesuits, the Counter-
Reformation agents held responsible by Protestants for a religiously

34 Ibid., p. 383.
35 Ibid.

36 Ludwig Feuerbach, "Der wahre Gesichtspunkt aus welchen der 'Leo Hegel'sche Streit'
beurtheilt werden muss," Hallische Jahrbiicher, beginning March 12, 1839, col. 481. These
chapters are included in Uber Philosophie und Christenthum in Beziehung auf den der Hegel'schen
Philosophie gemachten Vorwurf der Unchristlichkeit (Mannheim: Hoff & Heuser, 1839).


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Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity

divided Germany.37 Joseph G6rres, a Catholic publicist, who espoused

a united Catholic Germany restored to its medieval strength and polit-
ical shape, attacked the Prussian government for its acts against the
archbishop in a text entitled Athanasius.38
In the Halle Yearbooks, on the other hand, the government's action
was defended as truly Protestant, but "truly Protestant" was defined as
an act in the name of freedomfrom religious orthodoxy. The form this
defense took initially was a review, written by F. W. Carove, of the
prolific literature on the incident. As James A. Massey has shown, in
this review Carove reduced "the multitude of opinions in print" to two
principles, "Catholic particularism and the universality of reason and
A medieval historian from the University of Halle, Heinrich Leo,
also took up the defense of the Prussian government's action against the
archbishop, and Ruge published it. Leo based this defense on an
appeal to the authority of Bernard of Clairvaux; his defense appears in
a review of Johann Otto Ellendorfs Der heilige Bernhard von Clairvaux und
die Hierarchie seiner Zeit (1837).40 The intellectual issue involved in the
book review concerned Ellendorf's thesis that Bernard was a true pious
Christian who advocated that the papacy remove itself from secular
affairs. Leo opposed this historical judgment and held that Bernard had
supported papal secular authority as well as the hierarchical structure
of the church. He went on to assert that similarly a doctrinally pure and
deeply pious Protestant church ought to exercise secular power to unite
present-day Germany.
Soon after this article appeared, Carove and Ruge wrote rebuttals
labeling Leo as reactionary as the Catholic G6rres. Leo responded to
them by calling on the Prussian government to censor the Halle Year-
books and by spelling out the dangerous political potential in the left-
wing Hegelianism of its contributors. His was not an isolated attack.
Charges against the journal were picked up by the influential Berliner

37 Protestant advocates of a united, representatively governed Germany blamed the overt

activity of the Jesuits in Austria and the supposedly subvert activity elsewhere in German states
for the momentum of the efforts toward restoration. Polemics against the Jesuits and an identifi-
cation of them with Protestant right-wing pietists are prominent in the Halle Yearbooks.
38 This text is a vehement denunciation of Protestants and Prussia.
39 See James A. Massey, "Hallische Jahrbiicher (1838-1843): A Study in Radicalization
(Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1973), p. 56. I owe an immense debt to James Massey
sharing his thoughts and his texts with me throughout his years of studying the Halle Yearbooks.
his article "The Hegelians, the Pietists, and the Nature of Religion,"Journal of Religion 58 (Ap
1978): 108-29, he points to some important sources in the developing left-wing Hegelian cri
cism of pietism and its political potential.
40 Heinrich Leo, "Der heilige Bernhard von Clairvaux und die Hierarchie seiner Zeit. VonJ
Ellendorf," in the HallischeJahrbicher, beginning February 17, 1838, col. 330.


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The Journal of Religion

politisches Wochenblatt and by the Evangelische Kirchenzeitung, whose

editor, Ernst W. Hengstenberg, the noted neoorthodox Pietist theolo-
gian, was cultivating the then crown prince Wilhelm, who showed
sympathy with his religious and political goals.
It was into this intense and dangerous political conflict that Feuer-
bach jumped with his own quickly censored attempt to give the correct
viewpoint on the Leo-Hegel polemics. What is important for us to
recognize here is that the medieval proof text of The Essence of 1841 was
at the center of this argument over practical Prussian politics. For his
left-wing Hegelian colleagues and for their opponents in 1839, it was
Bernard's piety that focused the themes of (1) the contrast between the
particularity of Catholicism and the universality of reason and justice
and (2) the contrast between a romanticist-medievalist-Catholic, or
misguided Protestant, yearning for the past and a true modern Protes-
tant freedom.

The question of whether a soulful, pure piety is apolitical or rather

supportive of oppressive religious authority and hierarchical structure
raised by the Hegel-Leo polemic is, I think, the one addressed by The
Essence. In it the explicit speculative treatment of the relationship
between philosophy as universal and Christianity as particular, found
in "Philosophy and Christianity," is repeated, but it is paralleled by the
use of proof texts and images that reach directly into politics and give
this abstract philosophical discussion a specific historical referent.
Beneath Feuerbach's rehearsal of the classical conundrums of the
confrontation of reason and faith carried out in his treatment of the
agreement and the contradiction of religion with human nature run
the questions preoccupying his politically and philosophically left-wing
colleagues-what makes religion a force for progress toward greater
human freedom and what makes it a force of reaction.


In her book Reading the Young Marx and Engels, Mar

Heine's reflections on the effects of censorship during th
the revolution of 1848: "[It] created the 'fear before one's
and encouraged the obscurity of scientific and secret
According to Rose, "Heine's suggestion that the exter
internalized by the writer practicing self-censorship on

41 Margaret A. Rose, Reading the Young Marx and Engels: Poetry, Parody, and
Croom Helm, 1978), p. 30. See also pp. 20-31 for an excellent summary of
sorship in Germany from 1819 to 1844.


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Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity

indicates the significance of the censored writers' tactics of using not

only obscure scientific and secret languages but also "irony, parody, or
metaphor" to point to something that could not be said "directly."42
No Feuerbach scholar would deny that The Essence belongs together
with the works of Heine, Marx, and the lesser figures of the Young
Germans and the Young Hegelians in which contemporary German
cultural, social, and political conditions were being attacked but in
which those attacks were veiled with literary devices. But few aside
from Glasse have asked about the characteristic literary devices of The
Essence. Without a doubt Feuerbach shared Heine's "fear before one's
own words." In an 1841 letter describing The Essence he wrote, "[my
book] is well written, because it is badly written."43 The marks of"bad"
writing to which Feuerbach refers are not the many asides, the pro-
liferation of adjectives, the popular elements sprinkled throughout the
text, which trouble historians of philosophy and theology. On the con-
trary, they are "moderation in style," a balance of pros and cons, the
addition of learned footnotes, and the amassing of "boorish theological
quotes."44 In short, the marks of bad writing are the marks of serious
scholarly writing! And "bad" serious scholarly writing guaranteed that
the book was well written because it ensured it could not "be faulted,"
that is, be censored.45
Feuerbach's own acknowledgment of the paradox of style in The
Essence clearly raises questions about how one ought to read its philo-
sophical language: To what extent was his use of the so-called abstract,
idealist language of essence, species, and determination, whether con-
sciously or not, the use of the safe obscure scientific language necessi-
tated by the external conditions of censorship? Does the very exercise of
reading this philosophical language apart from the rhetorical language
in the text produce its "theoretic" character and hide its "revolutionary" or
"practical-critical" dimension? Does a philosphically or theologically
"sympathetic" reading that digs out its "logic" from beneath "extrav-
agances of style and overemphasized illustrations" (to use Kamenka's
terms) continue to impose on The Essence conditions of censorship such
as those imposed by the external and internal censors in the 1840s?

42 Ibid., p. 30. Rose also stresses the importance of interpreting the silences in the works of the
Young Germans and the Young Hegelians imposed by their own inner self-censorship. She
makes important qualifications in the thesis and method used by Louis Althusser in his sympto-
matic reading of Marx's Capital. See Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar, Reading Capital, trans.
Ben Brewster (Paris: Librairie Francois Maspero, 1970).
43 Feuerbach, Ausgewdhlte Briefe (n. 7 above), p. 58.
44 Ibid.
45 Ibid.


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The Journal of Religion

Rose's analysis of the use of irony, parody, and metaphor by polit-

ically left-wing writers helps us identify a major structural characteris-
tic of The Essence that binds together its philosophical and rhetorical lan-
guages and demonstrates that they ought not be separated in interpre-
tation. She identifies parody-"The Umbildung or 'reconstruction' of a
known serious literary text into a comic work in which the form of the
original is reproduced"- as the distinctive device used by the young
Marx and other Young Hegelians to cope with censorship.46 In partic-
ular the Young Hegelians took Cervantes' Don Quixote as a model for a
type of parody that could challenge established political authority. Don
Quixote "could be taken as a paradigm for a type of innovative or 'dialec-
tical' parody, in which the target of satire (the knightly romance) is
quoted to form the basis of the parodistic work before being aufgehoben,
or superceded by the parody."47
I think that Feuerbach presented his own literary tactic in the image-
laden passage from the preface cited above; this tactic is parody. In The
Essence, as in Don Quixote, a knightly romance is cited to provide "the
basis of the parodistic work before being aufgehoben." This knightly
romance is a piety taken from the time when "the bride of Christ was
still a chaste, untainted virgin," when she did "not fall into a faint at the
sight of [the parts of the body of] the suffering God."48 The serious orig-
inal text in The Essence is the writing of Bernard of Clairvaux, the medi-
eval mystic who is famous for his devotion to that untainted virgin,
Mary. In the comic copy of this original text are to be found the
modern ghosts eliciting the therapeutic, but also practical, purpose of
The Essence.

By assuming a historian's objective gaze on Christianity's past, an-

other "safe" tactic, Feuerbach set up the very conditions of parody-a
comparison between an original and a copy. Throughout The Essence
comparisons are made explicitly and seriously between the pure classi-
cal form of the Christian religion, principally in its medieval embodi-
ment, and its enervated theological form evidenced in the modern theo-
logical dogmatics. And this comparison is paralleled by a philosophical

46 Rose, p. 85. In my book, Christ Unmasked: The Meaning of the "Ltfe of Jesus" (Chapel Hill,
N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1983), I discuss the importance of irony in interpret-
ing David Friedrich Strauss's Life of Jesus. The irony defining the structure of that founding work
of the left-wing Hegelian movement is quite different from the parody Rose describes as essential
to the writings of the young Marx. Irony involves the revelation that what one considered to be
reality is not reality at all. And satire, understood as a ridicule of foibles or vices, is an element
found in many of the writings of the left-wing Hegelians and Young Germans along with ironic or
parodic elements in their underlying structures.
47 Rose, p. 121.
48 Feuerbach, Das Wesen, p. 7.


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Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity

treatment of the universality of thought and the particularity, not just

of Catholicism or of Christianity, but of religion itself. But these serious
scholarly comparisons play against a background of a comparison of
medieval and modern piety, the piety of Bernard and of the Brothers of
the Common Life epitomized in the outstanding poetry of the proof

In my opinion, the "bad" scholarly style serves to suppress the un

lying parody in The Essence. It serves to suppress the fact that it
contemporary Protestant piety before the forum of comedy and th
attacks contemporary and politically powerful "romantics"
Quixotes), Leo, Hengstenberg, and Wilhelm himself. Moreover,
Essence is not a simple parody. It begins by turning what is alread
parody, already blatantly a comic copy, into an original serious tex
turns the "faint-hearted, characterless, comfortable, belles-lettris
coquettish, epicurian Christianity of the modern world" into the o
inal pure text of early and medieval Christianity.49


I think that the identification of the underlying pa

leads to the recognition that its love language, its "s
(in Engels's terms), implies, at least in part, a social
this critique fully evident would entail placing this
historical context of the particular nineteenth-ce
courses on love and the relation between the sexes and of their interre-
lations with political and religious discourses in the 1840s. Here I can
only point out that the love language in The Essence is that of the pop-
ular psychology of the educated (and principally politically liberal)
strata-that amalgam of romanticism, idealism, and scientism charac-
terized by its sharp differentiation between the inner lives of men and
women. 50

49 Ibid., p. 6.
50 See, e.g., Karin Hausen, "Die Polarisierung der 'Geschlechtscharaktere': Eine Spiegelung
der Dissoziation von Erwerbs und Familienleben," in Sozialgeschichte der Familie in der Neuzeit
Europas, ed. Werner Conze (Stuttgart: Ernst Klett, 1976), pp. 363-93. J. ChristineJanowski in a
theological and philosophical study of the fundamental structure of Feuerbach's work, DerMensch
als Mass (Zurich-Cologne: Benziger, 1980), recognizes the need to examine more closely Feuer-
bach's use of this language. While tracing the history of some of its terms in German intellectual
history, this scholar does not, however, ask about their social history or effect. A similar difficulty
is presented by the otherwise extraordinary study of Feuerbach's sources by S. Rawidowicz,
Ludwig Feuerbachs Philosophie: Ursprung und Schicksal (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1964). In
the eighteenth century the language for gender difference shifted from the legal to the philosoph-
ical and psychological. In feudal Germany, vestiges of which lasted in many regions into the


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The Journal of Religion

By unearthing a philosophical anthropology beneath the rhetoric of

love, scholars have analyzed Feuerbach's use of the motif of the balance
of heart and mind to describe a human capacity for interrelationship
based on a natural communal instinct that Christianity distorts. Why,
then, the remarkable encomiums to love, which are so obtrusive as to
be "nauseous" (again, Engels's term) and which connote a hegemony of
a sickly, sentimental, emotional heart? I think they serve the purposes
of persuasion and survival, and of parody as well. They render the
work popular, make it look innocuous, and provide the basis for social
Consider the following passage from the treatment of the mystery of
the Trinity and the mother of God in the section of The Essence on
religion in agreement with human nature:
The Christians-I mean, of course, the ancient Christians who would have
difficulty recognizing today's love-sick, gallant, syrupy, babbling, societally-
diseased Christians as their brothers in Christ-substituted for natural love
and unity only a religious love and unity; they abandoned real family life, t
inner bonds of the naturally moral love, as ungodly, unheavenly, that is to sa
in truth as nothing. But in compensation for this they had a Father and a S
in God, who embrace each other with the most heartfelt love, with that inten
sive love, which only natural consanguinity instills.

It was therefore entirely in order that to complete the love bond between t
Father and Son, a third, and in fact, a feminine person was received into heav
en.... To be sure, Mary was not so placed between the Father and the Son
as to imply that the Father had begotten the Son through her because t
intermingling of man and woman was something unholy and sinful for thes
Christians; but it was enough that the maternal principle was represented nex
to the Father and the Son.51

nineteenth century, men and women were differentiated principally in terms of their different
rights and duties within the immediate and extended households. In the late eighteenth century,
philosophers, most prominently Rousseau, Kant, and Fichte, began to describe not only the
human's inner life in general as the locus of right and duties but also a polarized inner human life
corresponding with the duality of the sexes. In the early nineteenth century this duality of inner
life, heightened by the Romantics, was linked with the science of biology and articulated within
the fields of medicine and psychology as a pervasive, physically based, differentiation of the sexes.
This change in discourse occurs at the time when the economic and social shape of the middle-
class nuclear family was emerging. See also Marilyn Chapin Massey, Feminine Soul. The Fate of an
Ideal (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985).
51 Feuerbach, Das Wesen, pp. 142-43. Eliot (The Essence of Christianity, p. 70) translates the
phrase Vermischung des Mannes und Weibes, which I have rendered as "the intermingling of man and
woman," as "the sexual relation." The term Vermischung is an unusual one for sexual relation or for
sexual intercourse. It was commonly used in the natural sciences to refer to processes of the
adulteration or mixing together of chemicals or metals. Feuerbach consistently used terminology
from the natural sciences in the Essence, and it is an important aspect of the rhetorical dimension
of the text that I have had to leave aside here. It might be noted, however, that this terminology


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Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity

The terms pertaining to love in this passage and their juxtaposition are
extraordinary -"love-sick," "gallant," "syrupy," "real family life," "inner
bond of love," "heartfelt love," "religious love," "naturally moral love,"
and "intermingling of man and woman." Note the emphasized terms:
"religious love" / "naturally moral" / "feminine person." As throughout
The Essence, love is identified with the feminine and represented by the
Virgin Mary.
In this passage the classical object of analysis, the Virgin Mary (as
mother) completes a love bond, a heartfelt love that is already dis-
torted, however, because it is natural love projected into heaven, and
she herself (as virgin) distorts the love bond by representing a sexual
asceticism that prohibits the intermingling of man and woman. If we
understand these distortions in classical Christianity as a basis for the
not-so-subtle parody of present Christianity, they connote a knightly
romance in which there is an intensified male desire for the female
predicated on her unattainability, her social distance from the male.
Indeed, with a pre-Freudian brilliance, Feuerbach went on to write in
this passage about male desire, even the son's desire for the mother.
But what is significant for us is the relation between distorted, mis-
guided desire and this worship of the feminine principle, which is
implied in the doctrine of the Trinity.
In the article "On the Cult of the Virgin Mary,"52 which Feuerbach
wrote for Ruge's Journal when it was still being published from Saxony
and allowed by the censors, he virtually railed against a cult of the
feminine principle and against the cult of Mary. Here the "chaste,
untainted" classical object of The Essence is hardly sanguine. The article
is a review of Die Glorie der heilige Jungfrau Maria by Georg Friedrich
Daumer.53 Daumer's thesis was that Mary represents a fluidity and

bears on Feuerbach's ambiguous claim to be proceeding with a method "as strict as that of
analytical chemistry." In this passage the use of a term from the natural sciences relates to the
Romantic's use of this terminology to describe the relation between the sexes, and it calls to mind
a definitely nineteenth-century cultural attitude to that relation in which an intermingling or
adulteration of male and female characters was prohibited. Rather, a sharp, almost extreme
differentiation between the sexes-one pole as passive, the other as active-was deemed to be the
basis of their strong attraction to one another as opposites.
52 Ludwig Feuerbach, "Uber den Marienkultus, 'Die Glorie der heiligen Jungfrau Maria:
Legenden und Gedichte nach spanischen, italienischen, lateinischen und deutschen Relationen
und Originalpoesien,' Durch Eusebius Emmeran," in the Deutsche Jahrbiicher, beginning January
13, 1842, col. 37a. The DeutscheJahrbucher is the title given to the HallischeJahrbucher after Ruge
moved out of Prussia to Saxony in 1841 when the Prussian censors demanded that he move the
presses within their jurisdiction. Citations to Feuerbach's article will be to a reprint found in vol.
2 of Gesammelte Werke (n. 1 above).
53 This book, Die Glorie der heiligen Jungfrau Maria: Legenden und Gedichte nach spanischen,
italienischen, lateinischen und deutschen Relationen und Original Poesien, was written by Georg Friedrich


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The Journal of Religion

freedom in the formulation of Christian dogma that contrast with the

rigidity of Protestant orthodoxy, pietism, and moral despotism, and he
suggests that, even for modern Protestants, the image of Mary can
evoke a religious liberality and spontaneity.54 Feuerbach vehemently
disagreed and contended that the liberal side of Mary is joined to an-
other side that is "castrating."55 Articulated in the Catholic theology of
Mary, this castrating potential is made evident in "an exclusive,
unlimited cult of the feminine." This is the cult of "the most extreme
self-denial."56 Far more than sexual asceticism is involved in this cult.
It is the cult of that passivity as such emphasized in the ambiguity of the
words - the truth/comedy/passivity as such - superimposed over the dis-
cursive love language in The Essence.
In this article, Feuerbach unrelentingly satirized Christian worship
of Mary as indicative of the extremes of human passivity. Here, as in
The Essence, Bernard of Clairvaux's Marian piety and hymns of adora-
tion to parts of the body are prominent. Most attention, however, is
given to modern Jesuit devotion to parts of Mary's body from which is
cited the supplication-"Mix your milk with Christ's blood."57
In the treatment of the Trinity of The Essence, in which the apparently
positive, true feminine and maternal element is, in a sense, granted
divinity, Christ's suffering blood is also associated with Mary's mother-
ing milk (two images of extreme passivity). There the stress seems, on
one level at least, to be on natural love. But in this article Feuerbach
links the worship of the feminine principle with the destruction of
human personality and with the appearance of the bloody "brutality of
religious fanaticism."58
What religious fanaticism, what cult of the feminine is the object of
Feuerbach's criticism? He says here that he is dealing with the past,
with a time when Mary was believed to be a "chaste, pure virgin." Yet
he goes on to condemn any attempts (and certainly Daumer's itself) to

Daumer under the pseudonym of Eusebius Emmeran. Daumer was Feuerbach's long-time
friend. In a letter to Ruge, Feuerbach mentioned this friendship in what is almost an apology for
having written such a long review of Daumer's book. But the review was hardly a neutral tribute
to a friend. Although Daumer thanked Feuerbach for it, the review ended their friendship. It is
easy to understand why because this review comes close to being Feuerbach's most satirical piece.
See Ludwig Feuerbach to Arnold Ruge, November 13 and November 15, 1841, in Ausgewahlte
Briefe (n. 7 above), pp. 382-84; and Daumer's letter to Feuerbach, January 1842, in Ausgewahlte
Briefe, p. 89.
54 Feuerbach, "Uber den Marienkultus," p. 171.
55 Ibid., p. 164.
56 Ibid., p. 174.
57 Ibid.
58 Ibid., p. 175.


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Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity

recapture this lost past. Specifically he refers to a time when anyone

who doubted that Mary was "still a chaste virgin" faced death by way of
a "sacred mania." This mania first appeared at the end of the Middle
Ages when "the Holy Ignatius of Loyola, the Don Quixote of Catholi-
cism," came over the battlement.59
But, as we have seen, Don Quixotes are on the horizon again-not
only the followers of Ignatius and their admirer G6rres but also those
Protestant counterparts, Leo, Hengstenberg, and Wilhelm. As a re-
sponse to their pietism and moral despotism Feuerbach unequivocally
rejects any softening or liberalizing of Christianity associated with a
religious cult of the feminine.
Does The Essence, in contrast, advocate a secular cult of the feminine,
of a love that is "in and for itself feminine sex,"6 as the strategy, as
Engels said, for the freeing of mankind? If it is read as a strategy of
resistance, as an attempt to exorcise modern full-bodied political
ghosts, and not merely supernatural phantoms, the ambiguity, what
might be called the glaring inappropriateness, of such a strategy is evi-
dent. Of course, one could interpret the text as the work of a mild-
mannered, nineteenth-century predecessor of Wilhelm Reich. Yet, it
seems to me that the text itself, its structure of parody, and its varieties
of languages undermine the univocity of its love language. If one does
not dismiss as rhetorical flourish adjectives like "love-sick," "gallant,"
"syrupy," "coquettish," "belletristic," "faint-hearted," then one finds it
difficult to take as unambiguous statements like "Love is in and for
itself feminine sex and essence"61 and "Love especially works wonders,
and the love of the sexes in fact."62 In the historical context of the power
of a politically regressive medievalism, the juxtaposition of these terms
of love implies that the societal disease, associated with this lovesick-
ness, and in general with knightly romance, is rooted not merely in a
psychological projection of natural heartfelt love into heaven or in the
repression of sensuality in the love between the sexes but also in a social
distortion in human relations symbolized by the worship of the femi-
nine principle. The text implies that there is an affinity between the
cultivated "softness" of a coquettish, comfortable Christianity and the
piety of "blood thirsty egoism," the piety of the purportedly liberal
middle class and that of the politically conservative neoorthodox
pietists. They concur in the cultivation of passivity as such for which

59 Ibid.

60 Feuerbach, Das Wesen, p. 147.

61 Ibid.
62 Ibid., p. 273.


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The Journal of Religion

the feminine in the Germany of the 1840s was the most fitting cultural


Granting equal status in interpretation to the rhetor

Essence and placing them within the context of cens
step in a historical reading of this complex and infl
essay I have intentionally overlooked its brilliant
guage in order to suggest that to isolate it produces
abstract, idealist text, and obscures its historical ma
By focusing on its rhetorical language, I think we ca
phorical centrality of Bernard's "untainted, chast
her paradoxical character as the eternal feminine
terfigure of nineteenth-century coquettes. What in
have taken as rhetorical flourish is rather the guide
layered historical matrix of the text that can be
more subtlety than it has been by those who desc
terms of economic determinism or theological conv
My goal has been to point to the need for a more thoroughly his-
torical reading of The Essence and to a revision of this superficial judg-
ment on its sociopolitical meaning by indicating the existence of these
layers of historical reference. Much more historical work is needed to
flesh out "modern ghosts" and fainting coquettes through a closer exam-
ination of the metaphors that Feuerbach shared with his fellow critics of
the German status quo. I have already mentioned the need to study the
discourses of love and the relations between the sexes and their use in
political and religious discourses. Throughout the Halle Yearbooks, for
example, the relations between the sexes are discussed as bearing on
the capacity of German culture to produce a revolution.63 Furthermore,
in its pages, not only Bernard's piety and Jesuit devotion but also
female nervous disorders, the Brothers of the Common Life, and epi-
gonal romantics are used as metaphors for religiopolitical oppression
and diseases of the social fabric.64 This oppression and these diseases
are inseparable from the theoretical object of criticism in The Essence.

63 See, e.g., Friedrich Vischer's article "Dr. Strauss und die Wirtembergers" (HalleJahrbicher,
beginning March 3, 1838, col. 449).
64 Two of the most important articles using these metaphors appear at the same time as Feuer-
bach's censored piece on Leo. They are Arnold Ruge, "Der Pietismus und die Jesuiten," Halle
Jahrbiicher, beginning February 5, 1839, col. 241; and Arnold Ruge and Theodore Echtermeyer,
"Der Protestantismus zur Verstandigung iiber die Zeit und ihrer Gegensatze: Ein Manifest,"


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Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity

Marx and the majority of the interpreters of The Essence have been
wrong in reading it as merely "resolving the religious world into [a]
secular basis" that is free of contradictions.65 Its rhetorical language is
essential to its therapeutic or practical purpose, which is to expose cul-
tural contradictions through parody, a parody of the religious pieties of
a specific social group (the liberal middle class) and of definite political
actors (powerful, conservative Prussians). In this parody lies the "revo-
lutionary" or "practical-critical" dimension of the Essence, which bears
on, and I think will alter, the interpretation of its philosophical language.

HalleJahrbucher, beginning October 12, 1839, col. 1953. AsJames Massey has pointed out ("The
Hegelians, the Pietists, and the Nature of Religion" [n. 39 above], p. 121, n. 30) in this latter
article the epigonal phase of romanticism is said to be "characterized by the recent entry of
romanticism in practical life and politics," and among its representatives are named Gorres,
Hengstenberg, and Leo. In the editorial introducing the 1840 volume of the Yearbook Ruge
himself used the term "modern ghosts" to refer to those forces of reaction in Germany, which
needed to be identified and eliminated.
65 Marx, Writings (n. 4 above), p. 401.


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