On the Prospects for a Folk Religion

Hegel, Tubingen (1793)

Source: Three Essays, 1793-1795. The Tübingen Essay, Berne Fragments, The Life of Jesus, by G.W.F. Hegel, edited and translated with Introduction and Notes by Peter Fuss and John Dobbins. University of Notre Dame Press. Notre Dame, Indiana, 186pp., 1984. pp. 30-58 reproduced here, omitting footnotes, under the “Fair Use” provisions;
Copyright: remains with University of Notre Dame Press.
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.

Religion is one of our greatest concerns in life. Even as children we were taught to stammer prayers to the deity, with our little hands folded for us so as to point up toward the supreme being. Our memories were laden with a mass of doctrines, incomprehensible at the time, designed for our future use and comfort in life. As we grow older, religious matters still fill up a good deal of our lives; indeed for some the whole circuit of their thoughts and aspirations is unified by religion in the way that a wheel’s outer rim is linked to the hub. And we dedicate to our religion, in addition to other feast days, the first day of each week, which from earliest youth appears to us in a fairer and more festive light than all the other days. Moreover, we see in our midst a special class of people chosen exclusively for religious service; and all the more important events and undertakings in the lives of people, those on which their private happiness depends – birth, marriage, death and burial – have something religious mixed in with them.

But do people reflect as they become older on the nature and attributes of the being toward whom their sentiments are directed – or in particular on the relation of the world to that being? Human nature is so constituted that the practical element in sacred teaching, that in it which can motivate us to act and which becomes a source of consolation for us as well as the source of our knowledge of duty, is readily manifest to the uncorrupted human sensibility. On the other hand, the instruction (i.e. the concepts as well as everything only externally connected with [the practical]) that we receive from childhood on, and which accordingly makes such an impression on us, is something that is, as it were, grafted onto the natural need of the human spirit. Although this relation is frequently immediate enough, it is, alas, all too often capricious, grounded neither in bonds indigenous to the nature of the soul nor in truths created and developed out of the concepts ...

We should not be so enthralled by the sublime demand of reason on mankind (the legitimacy of which we wholeheartedly acknowledge whenever our hearts happen to be filled with reason), or by alluring descriptions (the products of pure and lovely fantasy) of wise or innocent men, as to ever hope to find very many such people in the real world, or to imagine that we might possess or behold this ethereal apparition here or anywhere else. [Were we not in fact so easily enthralled,] our sensibility would be less often clouded by a peevish disposition, by dissatisfaction with what we in fact encounter; nor would we be so terrified when we believe ourselves obliged to conclude that sensuality is the predominating element in all human action and striving. It is no easy matter to tell whether mere prudence or actual morality is the will’s determining ground. Granted that the satisfaction of the instinct for happiness is the highest goal of life, if we but know how to calculate well enough, the results will outwardly appear the same as when the law of reason determines our will. However scrupulously a system of morality may require us to separate in abstracto pure morality from sensuality and make the latter more subservient to the former, when we consider man’s life as a whole we must make equally full allowance for his sensuality, for his dependence on external and internal nature (i.e. both on the surroundings in which he lives and on his sensual inclinations and blind instinct). – But human nature is quickened, so to speak, solely by virtue of its rational ideas. just as a dish well prepared is permeated by salt, which must impart its flavor to the whole without showing up in lumps – or even as light, which cannot be exhibited as a substance, nonetheless suffuses everything, showing its influence throughout all nature (e.g. breaking upon objects in various ways, thus giving them their shape, and generating wholesome air via plants, etc.) – so likewise do the ideas of reason animate the entire fabric of our sensual life and by their influence show forth our activity in its distinctive light. Indeed reason as such seldom reveals itself in its essence; and its effect pervades everything like fine sand, giving each and every inclination and drive a coloring of its own.

By its very nature, religion is not merely a systematic investigation of God, his attributes, the relation of the world and ourselves to him, and the permanence of our souls; we could learn all this by reason alone, or be aware of it by other means. Nor is religious knowledge merely a matter of history or argumentation. Rather, religion engages the heart. It influences our feelings and the determination of our will; and this is so in part because our duties and our laws obtain powerful reinforcement by being represented to us as laws of God, and in part because our notion of the exaltedness and goodness of God fills our hearts with admiration as well as with feelings of humility and gratitude. And so religion provides morality and the well-springs of its activity with a new and nobler impetus – it sets up a new and stronger dam against the pressure of sensual impulses. But if religious motives are to have an effect on sensuality, they too must be sensual; hence among sensual people religion itself is sensual. Of course such motives, insofar as they are at all moral, lose a bit of their majesty. But they have thereby acquired such a human aspect, and have so perfectly adapted themselves to our feelings that, led by our hearts and lured on by the beauteous images of our fancy, we readily forget that cool reason disapproves of such images or indeed even forbids so much as comment on this sort of thing.

When we go on to speak of religion as public, we still of course take it to include the concepts of God and immortality as well as everything connected with them, but specifically insofar as these constitute the conviction of a whole people, influencing their actions and way of thinking. Moreover, we include the means whereby these ideas are both taught to the people and made to penetrate their hearts – a means concerned not only with the immediate (e.g. I refrain from stealing because God has forbidden it), but directed more especially to ends that, while removed from the immediate, must by and large be reckoned as more important. Among these we include the uplifting and ennobling of the spirit of a nation so as to awaken in its soul the so often dormant sense of its true worth, and to encourage a self-image colored with the gentler hues of goodness and humanity; for not only should it resist debasing itself or allowing itself to be degraded, but it should refuse to settle for being “merely” human.

Now although the main doctrines of the Christian religion have remained essentially the same since their inception, one doctrine or another has been, depending on the times and circumstances, left altogether in the dark, while some other doctrine has been given the limelight and, unduly emphasized at the expense of the one obscured, stretched much too far or interpreted much too narrowly. Yet it is the entire body of religious principles and the feelings flowing from them – above all the degree of strength with which these are able to influence modes of action – that is decisive in a folk religion. Upon an oppressed spirit, one which, under the burden of its chains, has lost its youthful vigor and begun to age, such religious ideas can have little impact. At the beginning of maturation the youthful spirit of a people feels its power and exults in its strength; it seizes hungrily upon any novelty (albeit never upon anything that would put fetters on its proud and free neck), and then typically tosses it aside in favor of something else. By contrast, an aging spirit is characterized by its firm attachment to tradition in every respect. It bears its fetters as an old man endures the gout, grumbling but unable to do more. It lets itself be pushed and shoved at its master’s whim, and it is only half conscious when it enjoys itself – not free, open, and bright with the appealing gaiety that invites camaraderie. Moreover, its festivals are but occasions for chatter, since old folk prefer gossip to everything else. Here there is no boisterousness, no full-blooded enjoyment.

Exposition of the difference between objective and subjective religion; the importance of this exposition in view of the entire question

Objective religion is fides quae creditur [the faith with which one believes]; understanding and memory are the powers that do the work, investigating facts, thinking them through, retaining and even believing them. Objective religion can also possess practical knowledge, but only as a sort of frozen capital. It is susceptible to organizational schemes: it can be systematized, set forth in books, and expounded discursively. Subjective religion on the other hand expresses itself only in feelings and actions. If I say of someone that he has religion, this does not mean that he is well schooled in it, but rather that his heart feels the active presence, the wonder, the closeness of the deity, that his heart knows or sees God in nature and in the destinies of men, that he prostrates himself before God, thanking him and glorifying him in all that he does. The actions of such an individual are not performed merely with an eye to whether they are good or prudent, but are motivated also by the thought: This is pleasing to God – which is often the strongest motive. When something pleases him or when he has good fortune he directs a glance at God, thanking him for it. Subjective religion is thus alive, having an efficacy that, while abiding within one’s being, is actively directed outward. Subjective religion is something individual, objective religion a matter of abstraction. The former is the living book of nature, of plants, insects, birds and beasts living with and surviving off each other – each responsive to the joys of living, all of them intermingled, their various species everywhere together. The latter is the cabinet of the naturalist, full of insects he has killed, plants that are desiccated, animals stuffed or preserved in alcohol; what nature had kept totally apart is here lined up side by side; and whereas nature had joined an infinite variety of purposes in a convivial bond, here everything is ordered to but a single purpose.

The entire body of religious knowledge belonging to objective religion, then, can be the same for a large mass of people, and in principle could be so across the face of the earth. But having been woven into the fabric of subjective religion, it comprises only a small and relatively ineffectual part of it, and in fact varies within each individual. For subjective religion the chief question is whether and to what extent our sensibility is inclined to let itself be determined by religious impulses, i.e. how susceptible are we to religion sensually; then further, what makes an especially strong impression upon the heart, what kinds of feelings are most cultivated in the soul and hence most readily elicited. Some people have no feeling whatever for the more tender representations of love, so that impulses derived from the love of God simply do not affect their hearts; the organs with which they feel are rather more blunt, being roused only by the stimulus of fear (thunder, lightning, etc.). The chords of their hearts simply do not resonate to the gentle stroke of love. Other people are deaf to the voice of duty; it is quite useless to try to call their attention to the inner judge of actions which supposedly presides in man’s own heart, i.e. to conscience itself. In them no such voice is ever heard; rather, self-interest is the pendulum whose swinging keeps their machine running. It is this disposition, this receptivity that determines how in each individual subjective religion is to be constituted. – We are schooled in objective religion from childhood, and our memory is laden with it all too soon, so that the as yet supple understanding, the fine and delicate plant of an open and free sensibility, is often crushed by the burden. As the roots of the plant work their way through loose soil, they absorb what they can, sucking nourishment as they go; but when diverted by a stone they seek another path. So here, too, when the burden heaped on memory cannot be dissolved, the now sturdier powers of the soul either shake loose of it altogether or simply bypass it without drinking in any nourishment. – Yet in each person nature has planted at least the seed of finer sentiments, whose source is morality itself, she has implanted in everyone a feeling for what is moral, for ends beyond those attaching to mere sensuality. It is the task of education, of culture, to see to it that this precious seed is not choked out and is allowed to sprout into a genuine receptivity for moral ideas and feelings. And religion, precisely because it cannot be the first to take root in our sensibility, needs to find this already cultivated soil before it can flourish.

Everything depends on subjective religion; this is what has inherent and true worth. Let the theologians squabble all they like over what belongs to objective religion, over its dogmas and their precise determination: the fact is that every religion is based on a few fundamental principles which, although set forth in the different religions in varying degrees of purity, however modified or adulterated, are nonetheless the basis of all the faith and hope that religion is capable of offering us. When I speak of religion here, I am abstracting completely from all scientific (or rather metaphysical) knowledge of God, as well as from the relationship of the world and ourselves to him, etc; such knowledge, the province of discursive understanding, is theology and no longer religion. And I classify as religious only such knowledge of God and immortality as is responsive to the demands of practical reason and connected with it in a readily discernible way. (This does not preclude more detailed disclosures of special divine arrangements on man’s behalf.) Further, I here discuss objective religion only insofar as it is a component of subjective religion. But I do not intend to investigate which religious teachings are of the greatest interest to the heart or can give the soul the most comfort and encouragement; nor how the doctrines of any particular religion must be constituted if they are to make a people better and happier. Rather my concern is with what needs to be done so that religion with all the force of its teaching might be blended into the fabric of human feelings, bonded with what moves us to act, and shown to be efficacious, thus enabling religion to become entirely subjective.

When it actually is so, it reveals its presence not merely by hands clasped together, knees bent, and heart humbled before the holy, but by the way it suffuses the entire scope of human inclination (without the soul being directly conscious of it) and makes its presence felt everywhere – although only mediately or, if I may so express it, negatively, in and through the cheerful enjoyment of human satisfactions. Subjective religion’s role in the performance of the nobler deeds and the exercise of the finer, philanthropic virtues is not, to be sure, a direct one; its influence is discreet, it lets the soul carry on these tasks freely and openly without inhibiting the spontaneity of its actions. Any expression of human powers, whether of courage or considerateness, cheerfulness or delight in life itself, requires freedom from an ill-natured tendency toward envy along with a conscience that is clear and not guilt-ridden; and religion helps foster both of these qualities. Furthermore, its influence is also felt insofar as innocence, when combined with it, is able to find the exact point at which delight in extravagance, high-spiritedness, and firmness of resolve would degenerate into assaults upon the rights of others.

Subjective Religion

Inasmuch as theology (whatever its source, even if in religion) is a matter of understanding and memory, while religion is a concern of the heart stemming from a need of practical reason, it is clear that the powers of the soul activated in each of them differ considerably, and that our sensibility has to be made receptive in a different way for each. For our hope to be vindicated that the highest good – one dimension of which we are duty-bound to actualize – will become actual in its totality, our practical reason demands belief in a divinity, in immortality. – This, at any rate, is the seed from which religion springs. But when religion is thus derived, it is in fact conscience (the inner sense of right and wrong, as well as the feeling that wrongdoing must incur punishment and well-doing merit happiness) whose elements are being analyzed and articulated in clear concepts. Now, it may well be that the idea of a mighty and invisible being first took root in the human soul on the occasion of some fearful natural phenomenon; God may first have revealed himself through weather that made everyone feel his presence more closely – if only in the gentle rustling of the evening breeze. Be that as it may, the human soul eventually experienced a moral feeling such that it found in the idea of religion something that answered to its need.

Religion is sheer superstition whenever I seek to derive from it specific grounds for action in situations where mere prudence is sufficient, or when fear of divinity makes me perform certain actions by means of which I imagine that it might be placated. No doubt this is how religion is constituted among many a sensual people. Their representation of God and how he deals with men is bound to the idea that he acts in accordance with the laws of human sensibility and acts upon their sensuality. There is little of the truly moral in this notion. However, the concept of God and my recourse to him (worship) is already more moral – hinting at consciousness of a higher order, determined by non-sensual ends (even though superstitions like the above may still be involved) – when my feeling that everything depends on God’s decision leads me to beseech his support concerning the eventual outcome of an undertaking, when my belief in God’s dispensing good fortune only to the just and inflicting misfortune on the unjust and presumptuous becomes at least as pervasive as belief in fate or in natural necessity, and when religion at last gives rise to principles of moral conduct.

While objective religion can take on most any color, subjective religion among good people is basically the same: what makes me a Christian in your eyes makes you a Jew in mine, Nathan says. For religion is a matter of the heart, which often deals inconsistently with the dogmas congenial to understanding and memory. Surely the worthiest people are not always those who have done the most speculating about religion, who are given to transforming their religion into theology, and who are in the habit of replacing the fullness and warmth of faith with cold cognitions and deft displays of verbal dexterity. Religion in fact acquires very little through the understanding, whose operations and skeptical tendencies are more likely to chill than warm the heart. And whoever finds that other peoples’ modes of representation – heathens, as they are called – contain so much absurdity that they cause him to delight in his own higher insights, his own understanding, which convinces him that he sees further than the greatest of men saw, does not comprehend the essence of religion. Someone who calls his Jehovah Jupiter or Brahma and is truly pious offers his gratitude or his sacrifice in just as childlike a manner as does the true Christian. Who is not moved by the splendid simplicity and guilelessness of someone who, when nature has bestowed its goods on him, thinks at once of his greatest benefactor and offers him the best, the most flawless, the first-born of his grain and sheep? Who does not admire Coriolanus who, at the apex of his good fortune, was mindful of Nemesis, and asked the gods (much as Gustavus Adolphus humbled himself before God during the battle of Luetzen) not to glorify the spirit of Roman greatness but rather to make him more humble?

Such dispositions are for the heart and are meant to be enjoyed by it with simplicity of spirit and feeling, rather than be criticized by the cold understanding. Only an arrogant sectarian, fancying himself wiser than all men of other parties, could fail to appreciate the guileless last wish of Socrates to have a rooster delivered to the god of health, could remain unmoved by the beauty of his feeling in thanking the gods for death, which he regarded as a kind of convalescence, or could bring himself to make the malicious remark offered by Tertullian.

A heart that does not speak louder than the understanding (unlike that of the friar in the scene from Nathan above), or that just keeps silent, allowing the understanding all the time it needs to rationalize some course of action – a heart like that isn’t worth much to begin with: there is no love in it. Nowhere do we find a finer contrast between the voice of uncorrupted feeling, i.e. a pure heart, and the obstinacy of the understanding than in the Gospels. With what warmth and affection Jesus allows a woman of former ill-repute to anoint his body, accepting this spontaneous outpouring of a beautiful soul which, filled with remorse, trust, and love, refuses to be inhibited by the rabble around her. And this even as several apostles who are too cold of heart to empathize with her deepest feeling, her beautiful gift of trust, belie their pretensions to charitableness by indulging in cutting side-remarks.

What a sterile and unnatural observation it is that good old Gellert makes someplace (much like Tertullian, Apologia, ch. 46: deum quilibet opifex) to the effect that a small child nowadays knows more about God than the wisest heathen. This is as if the treatise on morality I have sitting in my closet – which I can use to wrap up a stinking cheese if I see fit – were of greater value than the perhaps at times unjust heart of a Frederick the Second. For in this respect the difference between Tertullian’s opifex, or Gellert’s child who has had the theological leaven beaten into him along with the catechism, and the paper containing moral pronouncements is on the whole not very great. A genuine consciousness acquired through experience is lacking in them to nearly the same degree ...

Enlightenment: the will to actualize by means of the understanding

The understanding serves only objective religion. In clarifying fundamental Principles and exhibiting them in their purity, the understanding has brought forth splendid fruit (Lessing’s Nathan) and deserves the eulogies with which it is forever being extolled. But such principles are never made practical by means of the understanding alone.

The understanding is a courtier who is ruled complaisantly by the moods of his master. It knows how to hunt up rationalizations for every passion, every venture; and it is first and foremost a servant of self-love, which is always very clever at putting blunders committed or about to be committed in a favorable light. Self-love likes to sing its own praises for this, i.e. for having found such a good excuse for itself.

Having my understanding enlightened does make me smarter, but not better. If I reduce virtue itself to Shrewdness, and calculate that no one can become happy without it, such a calculation is much too sophisticated and cold to be effective in the moment of action, indeed to have any influence on my life at all.

Were one to adopt the very best of moral codes, inform oneself most exactly both about its universal principles and its derivative duties and virtues, and keep in mind this mountain of rules and exceptions at the moment of action, the result would be a mode of conduct so involuted that one would be eternally hesitant and at odds with oneself Not even the authors of moral codes go so far as to expect that somebody would actually commit their books to memory or, upon the slightest impulse to action, consult them before doing anything in order to ensure that this is all quite ethical and hence permissible. And yet this is in fact what one demands of a person when one insists on a moral code. No printed code or manner of enlightening the understanding could ever prevent evil impulses from taking root or even flourishing. In view of this, Campe’s Theophron is designed to have only a negative effect – a person ought to act on his own, work things out for himself, make his own decisions, not let anybody else do this for him – although in his hands this approach turns out to be nothing more than a mechanical contrivance.

When one speaks of enlightening a people, this presupposes that errors and vulgar prejudices associated with religion are rampant. And by and large religions do consist of such things, based as they are on sensuousness – on the blind expectation that a certain effect will be brought about by an alleged cause that has nothing to do with it. Among a people full of prejudices the concept of cause seems largely based on the notion of mere succession, as evidenced by its not infrequent tendency, when speaking of causes, to leave out and indeed fail to observe the intermediate members of a series of effects. Hence sensuousness and fantasy are and remain the sources of prejudice. And even valid propositions that have stood up to investigation by the understanding are still prejudices when people simply adopt and give credence to them without having any rational grounds for them.

Prejudices, therefore, can be of two kinds:

a) notions that are actually erroneous,

b) notions that, while in actuality true, are not apprehended as truths ought to be (i.e. by means of reason), being acknowledged only on the basis of trust or faith, and thus doing little credit to the person who accepts them. To enlighten a people, to rid it of its intellectual prejudices (practical prejudices, i.e. those that affect the determining process of the will, have entirely different sources and consequences and are thus of no concern here) involves improving its understanding in certain respects so that it may free itself of the thrall of error and attain the certainty of actual truths on rational grounds. Yet to begin with, who is the mortal willing to decide what truth is? Still, we can here assume – as we must when we speak of human knowledge in concreto and (from a political perspective) in view of the fact that human societies do exist – that surely there are some universally valid principles which are not only evident to common sense but form the basis of any religion deserving of the name, however deformed it may be.

a) Certainly there are only a few such principles; and they are all quite general and abstract. Thus when set forth in their purity as reason demands, they “contradict” ordinary experience as well as everything that seems so apparent to the senses. These they could never influence anyhow, since they are fit only for an order of things antithetic to sense. Little wonder, then, that they do not readily qualify for whole-hearted acceptance on the part of the people. And even if they are preserved in memory, they still constitute no part of man’s system of spiritual desires.

b) Now a religion that is supposed to be generally accessible cannot consist just of some universal truths embraced lovingly and wholeheartedly only by the handful of outstanding individuals who rediscovered them for their era. Hence there are always added ingredients which must be taken merely on faith; and the purer tenets must be coarsened and given a more sensual exterior if they are to be understood and made accessible to a sensual disposition. Moreover, customs must be introduced that require., if one is to be aware of their necessity and utility, either trusting belief or habituation from childhood on. Thus it is evident that a folk religion, if as its very concept implies its teaching is to be efficacious in active life, cannot possibly be constructed out of sheer reason. Positive religion necessarily rests on faith in the tradition by which it is handed down to us. Our commitment to religious customs stems likewise from their binding force, i.e. from our belief that God demands them of us as being appropriate and obligatory. But when they are taken merely by themselves and regarded rationally, all that can be claimed for them is that they serve to edify, to awaken pious sentiments; and their suitability for this purpose is always open to critical inspection. Yet as soon as I have persuaded myself that such customs and forms of worship do no real honor to God – that right conduct is the form of service most pleasing to him – they have, despite their edifying effect, thereby already lost a good deal of their potential impact on me.

Since religion is inherently a matter of the heart, one might well ask how much ratiocination it can tolerate without ceasing to be religion. If we do a lot of reflecting on the formation of our sentiments on the customs in which we are made to participate and which are supposed to awaken pious feelings, on their historical origin, on their utility, and so forth – they surely lose some of the aura of sanctity with which we had always been accustomed to regard them. No less do the dogmas of theology lose some of their dignity when we look at them in the light of ecclesiastical history. Yet how little lasting effect such cool reflections have can be seen when we find ourselves in straitened circumstances, when a troubled heart seeks a sturdier staff, when in desperation we reach out – deaf to the sophistries of the understanding – for anything that once gave comfort, clutching at it all the more tightly and fearfully now lest it slip away again.

Wisdom is something quite different from enlightenment, from ratiocination. But wisdom is not science. Wisdom is the soul’s elevation, through experience deepened by reflection, over its dependence on opinion and the impressions of sense. And if it is to be practical and not merely a complacent and boastful intellectualism, wisdom must be attended by the steady warmth of a gentle flame. It does little rationalizing; and it does not proceed methodo mathematica from concepts and, by way of a series of inferences in the mode of Barbara and Barocco, arrive at what it takes to be truth. Nor does it purchase its conviction at the common marketplace, where knowledge is handed out to anybody who pays the right price; indeed it wouldn’t know what denomination to put on the counter for such a deal. – And when it speaks, it does so only from the depths of its heart.

Now the cultivation of the understanding and its application to matters that elicit our interest may very well be promoted by enlightenment – along with a firm grasp of our obligations and a clear head in practical matters. But none of these are such that they could endow mankind with morality. They are infinitely inferior in worth to goodness and purity of heart, with which they are not really commensurable in the first place.

A happy disposition is a major part of the character of a well-constituted youth. But now suppose that circumstances compel this youth to become increasingly self-absorbed, and he resolves to cultivate himself into a virtuous person. Lacking the experience to realize that books cannot make him one, he may perhaps pick up Campe’s Theophron in order to make its lessons in wisdom and prudence the guiding principles of his life. Each morning and evening he reads an excerpt, and all day he thinks about it. What will be the result? True self-perfection, perhaps? Knowledge of human nature? Practical good sense? All this requires years of experience and practice – yet meditation on Campe and the Campian rule will cure him in a week! Gloomily and apprehensively he enters into a society where only those are welcome who know how to be amusing. Timidly he indulges in this or that pleasure which is a real treat only for him who partakes of it cheerfully. Overcome by feelings of inferiority, he defers to everyone. The company of women gives him no joy, for he fears that even the slightest contact with some girl might cause a raging fire to course through his veins. His appearance is awkward, his demeanor rigid. But he won’t be able to stand this for long; soon he will reject his peevish mentor’s outlook on life, and feel all the better for it.

If enlightenment is to accomplish what its eulogists claim for it, if it is to earn its accolades, it must become true wisdom. Short of this it tends to remain a kind of snobbish sophistry that fancies itself superior to its many weaker brethren. Such arrogance is typical of adolescents, and indeed of their elders; having got a couple of insights out of books, they begin scoffing at beliefs they had up to now, like everyone else, unquestioningly accepted. In this process vanity of course plays a major role. So whenever someone has a great deal to say about the incomprehensible stupidity of the masses, seeks to show at great length that some popular prejudice is the most unbelievable folly, and is given to bandying about terms like ‘enlightenment’, ‘the knowledge of human nature,’ ‘the history of mankind’, ‘happiness’ and ‘perfection’, we know we are in the presence of one of enlightenment’s babbling quacks peddling shop-worn panaceas. These types stuff each other with empty words, oblivious to the sacred and delicate web of human feeling. Everyone is likely to hear examples of such idle chatter; no doubt some have experienced it firsthand already, for in our wordy age this form of culture is quite prevalent. Even if life itself gives one or another of us a better understanding of what had previously been stashed away in our soul as unused capital, we still have to deal with a belly-full. of book learning which, undigested, keeps the stomach hard at work, precluding healthier nourishment and preventing the flow of nutrients to the rest of the body. Our corpulence may give the appearance of health, but in every joint our free movement is inhibited by dried-out phlegm.

Part of the business of enlightened understanding is to refine objective religion. But when it comes to the improvement of mankind (the cultivation of strong and great dispositions, of noble feelings, and of a decisive sense of independence), the powers of the understanding are of little moment; and the product, objective religion, doesn’t carry much weight either. Human understanding is nonetheless rather flattered when it contemplates its work: a grand and lofty edifice of knowledge divine, moral, and natural. And true enough, it has provided out of its own resources the building materials for this edifice which it is making ever more elaborate. But as this building, which engages the efforts of humanity as a whole, becomes gradually more extensive and complex, it becomes less and less the property of any one individual. Anybody who simply copies this universal structure or appropriates it piecemeal – anybody who does not build within (and indeed from inside) himself a little residence of his own, roofed and framed so that he feels at home in it, with every stone if not hewn then at least laid by his own hands – anybody who neglects to do this becomes a person who can only rigidly adhere to the letter, who has never really lived.

And were the individual to have this great house rebuilt for him as a palace, and inhabit it as Louis xiv did Versailles, he would have only the barest acquaintance with its many chambers and would actually occupy a mere cubicle. By contrast, a family man is far more familiar with the details of his ancestral home, and can give an account of every bolt and every little cabinet, telling what they are used for now as well as their history (Lessing’s Nathan: “For the most part I can still tell how, where, and why I learned it.”). – This little house, which he can indeed call his own, requires the help of religion to build; but how much can religion help in all this?

The difference between a pure religion of reason, which worships God in spirit and in truth, affirming that he is served through virtue alone, and an idolatrous faith, which imagines it can curry God’s favor by some means other than a will that is in itself good, is so great that in comparison the latter is utterly worthless. In fact the two are completely different in kind. It is nonetheless of the utmost importance for us to discourage any fetishistic mode of belief, to make it more and more like a rational religion. Yet a universal church of the spirit remains a mere ideal of reason; and it is hardly possible to establish a public religion that would really do everything it could to rid itself of fetishistic belief. So the question naturally arises: How would a folk religion have to be constituted so that a) negatively, the opportunity for people to become fixated on the letter and the conventions of religion would be minimized, and b) positively, the people would be guided toward a religion of reason and become receptive to it?

Whenever moral philosophy posits the idea of saintliness as consisting of moral conduct at its highest, of moral exertion to the fullest, the objection will be raised that such an idea is beyond human attainment (which the moral philosophers themselves concede) because man needs motives other than pure respect for the moral law, motives more closely bound up with his sensuality. Such an objection does not prove that man ought not to strive, for all eternity if need be, to approximate to this idea, but merely that, given our crudeness and our powerful propensity toward the sensual, one ought to be content to elicit from most people a mere legality that does not demand the kind of purely moral motives for which they feel little or no affinity. Nor does such an objection deny that much has already been gained if crude sensuality is at least in some way refined and some interest in higher things is aroused – if propensities are awakened other than sheer animal drives, ones more amenable to the influence of reason and approximating to morality a little more closely. For in this way it is at least possible that, whenever the clamor of the senses dies down a little, moral dispositions might begin to make their presence known. In fact it is generally conceded that cultivation of any kind would already be a gain. Hence what this objection really comes down to is that it is altogether unlikely that humankind, or even a single individual, will ever in this world be able to dispense entirely with non-moral promptings.

Now we do in fact have a number of feelings, woven into our very nature, which do not arise out of respect for the law and hence are not moral, which are inconstant and unstable and do not deserve respect because of any inherent worth, but which are nevertheless to be cherished because they serve to inhibit evil dispositions and even help bring out the best in us. All the benign inclinations (sympathy, benevolence, friendliness, etc.) are of this sort. But this empirical aspect of our character, confined as it is to the arena of the inclinations, does contain a moral sentiment bent on weaving its delicate thread throughout the entire fabric. Indeed the fundamental principle of our empirical character is love, which is somewhat analogous to reason in that it finds itself in other people. Forgetting about itself, love is able to step outside of a given individual’s existence and live, feel, and act no less fully in others – just as reason, the principle of universally valid laws, recognizes its own self in the shared citizenship each rational being has in an intelligible world. The empirical character of human beings is still of course affected by desire and aversion; but love, even though as a principle of action it is sub-rational, is not self-serving. It does not do the right thing merely because it has calculated that the satisfactions resulting from its course of action are purer and longer lasting than those resulting from sensuality or the gratification of some passion. This principle, then, is not refined self-love, in which the ego is in the end always the highest goal.

Empiricism is of course absolutely useless in the establishment of foundational principles. But when it comes to having an effect on people, we must take them as they are, seeking out every decent drive and sentiment through which, albeit without directly enhancing their freedom, their nature can be ennobled. In a folk religion in particular it is of the utmost importance that the imagination and the heart not be left unsatisfied: the imagination must be filled with large and pure images, and the heart roused to feelings of benevolence. Setting these on a sound course is all the more crucial in the context of religion, whose object is so great and sublime; for both the heart and the imagination all too easily strike out on paths of their own or let themselves be led astray. The heart is seduced by false notions and by its own indolence; it becomes attached to externals, or finds sustenance in feelings of false modesty, thinking that with these it serves God. And the imagination, taking to be cause and effect what is merely accidental, comes to expect the most extraordinary and unnatural results. Man is such a many-sided creature that anything can be made of him; the intricately woven fabric of his feelings has so many strands that there is nothing that cannot be attached to it at some point. This is why he has been capable of the silliest superstitions, and of the greatest ecclesiastical and political slavery. Folk religion’s primary task is to weave these fine strands into a noble union suitable to his nature.

The main difference between folk religion and private religion is one of aim. Through the mighty influence it exerts on the imagination and the heart, folk religion imbues the soul with power and enthusiasm, with a spirit indispensable for the noble exercise of virtue. On the other hand, the training of individuals in keeping with their character, counsel in situations where duties conflict, special inducements to virtue, comfort and care in the face of personal suffering and misfortune – all such things must be left to private religion. That this is not the concern of a public folk religion is evident from the following considerations:

a) Situations that involve a conflict of duties are so complex that I can satisfy my conscience only by falling back on the counsel of upright and experienced men or by recourse to the conviction that [come what may] duty and virtue constitute the highest principle of conduct – assuming of course that this conviction has been in some way established by public religion and so become available to me as a maxim of action. But public instruction, like the moral training mentioned above, is too tedious; and not even this conviction is in the least capable of making us amenable in the moment of action to hair-splitting casuistical rules. If it were, the result would be a perpetual scrupulosity quite contrary to the resoluteness and strength requisite for virtuous action.

b) If virtue is not the product of indoctrination and empty rhetoric but is rather a plant which, albeit with proper tending, grows out of one’s own driving force and power, then the various arts invented allegedly to produce virtue as though in a hothouse (where it would be incapable of failure) actually do more damage to people than just letting them grow wild. By its very nature public religious instruction involves not only an attempt to enlighten the understanding concerning the idea of God and our relation to him, but also an effort to make our obligations to God the ground of all other duties, whereby the latter become at once more urgent and more binding. But there is something strained and farfetched about this derivation. It involves a relationship whose connection only the understanding comprehends, one that tends to be rather forced and is not at all evident, at least to common sense. Ordinarily, the more inducements we are offered for doing our duty, the cooler we become toward it.

c) The only true comfort in suffering (for pain [Schmerzen] there is no comfort; strength of soul is all that can be pitted against it) is trust in divine providence. Everything else is idle talk which the heart does not heed.

How is a folk religion to be constituted? (Here folk religion is understood in an objective sense.)

a) With respect to objective religion.

b) With respect to ceremonies.

A. I. Its teachings must be founded on universal reason.

II. Imagination, the heart, and the senses must not go away empty-handed in the process.

III. It must be so constituted that all of life’s needs, including public and official transactions, are bound up with it.

B. What must it avoid?

Fetishistic beliefs, including one that is especially common in our prolix age, namely the belief that the demands of reason are satisfied by means of tirades against enlightenment and the like. As a result, people are endlessly at loggerheads over points of dogma without doing anything constructive either for themselves or for anyone else.


The doctrines [of a folk religion], even if resting on the authority of some divine revelation, must of necessity be constituted so that they are actually authorized by the universal reason of mankind, whereby one is no sooner made aware of them than he perceives and recognizes their binding force. For even if such doctrines either claim to furnish special means of obtaining God’s favor or promise all sorts of privileged insights and detailed information concerning otherwise inaccessible matters, the disclosures they provide are intended to serve one’s rational intellect, not just one’s fantasy. Moreover, since doctrines such as these sooner or later come under fire from thinking men and end up as objects of controversy, our practical interest in them invariably gets misdirected as the endless bickering of various factions issues in rigid symbols expressive of little but their own intolerance. And since these doctrines remain unnatural in their link to the true needs and demands of rationality, they lend themselves to abuses, especially as they become engrained and hardened through habit. Surely they could never of themselves gain sufficient weight in human feeling to be a pure and genuine force in direct alignment with morality.

But the doctrines must also be simple; and indeed they are simple, if only they be truths of reason, because as such they require neither the machinery of erudition nor a display of laborious demonstrations. By virtue of such simplicity, they would exert all the more power and impact on our sensibility, on the determination of our will to act; thus concentrated, they would have a far greater influence and play a much bigger part in cultivating a people’s spirit than is the case when commandments are piled up and ordered artificially so as always to be in need of many exceptions.

At the same time, these universal doctrines must be designed for humans, i.e. must be in keeping with the level of morality and spiritual cultivation attainable by a given people – which is no easy task to determine. Some of the noblest – and for mankind most interesting ideas are scarcely suited for adoption as universal maxims. They appear to be appropriate only for a handful of ripened individuals who, having endured many trials, have already succeeded in attaining wisdom. In such individuals they have become sure beliefs, and in situations where such beliefs are truly supportive they have become matters of unshakable conviction. Thus, for instance, the belief in a wise and benevolent providence: when it is alive and of the right sort, it goes hand in hand with the complete acceptance of God’s will.

Now this tenet and everything connected with it is also undeniably the main doctrine of the whole Christian community, whose teachings in general reduce to the all-transcending love of God toward which everything moves. Day in and day out God is represented to us as being ever present and close by, as bringing about everything that goes on around us. And this is not just represented as being somehow necessarily linked with our morality and everything we hold sacred, it is even given out as a matter of complete certainty on the basis of the abundant assurances God provides us and through all the deeds he performs to convince us of it incontrovertibly. And yet as experience teaches, a mere thunderclap or a cold night can cause the masses to become very faint-hearted in their trust in divine providence and in their patient submission to God’s will, it evidently being only within the capability of the wise man to quell impatience and anger over frustrated hopes, and to overcome despair over misfortunes. Such abrupt abandonment of trust in God, this sudden changeover to dissatisfaction with him, is facilitated not only by accustoming the Christian populace from childhood on to pray incessantly, but even more by forever seeking to persuade it of the most urgent necessity for doing so through promises that such prayers will surely to some degree be answered.

Moreover, suffering mankind has been furnished with such a motley assortment of reasons for proffering solace in misfortunes that in the end one might well come to regret not having a father or mother to lose once a week, or not being struck blind. With incredible acuity, this way of thinking has taken to pursuing and pondering over the widest range of physical and moral effects. And since these were alleged to be the designs of Providence, it was supposed that one had herewith attained keener insight into its plans for humankind, both in the broad perspective and in detail. – But no sooner do we lose patience with this, unwilling to merely lay our finger across our lips and lapse into awe-stricken silence, than we tend to find ourselves prey to an arrogant inquisitiveness that presumes to nothing short of mastery of the ways of Providence – a propensity reinforced (though not among the common people) by the many idealistic notions currently in vogue. All of which contributes little indeed to the furthering of contentment with life in general and acquiescence in God’s will.

It might be interesting to compare all this with what the Greeks believed. On the one hand, their faith – that the gods favor those who are good, and leave evildoers to the tender mercies of a frightful Nemesis – was based on a profoundly moral demand of reason and lovingly animated by the warm breath of their feelings, rather than on the cold conviction, deduced from single instances, that everything turns out for the best (a conviction that can never come truly alive). On the other hand, among them misfortune was misfortune, pain was pain. What had happened could not be altered. There was no point in brooding over whatever such things might mean, since their moira, their anangkaia tyche, was blind. But then they submitted to this necessity willingly and with all possible resignation. And at least this much can be said in their favor: one endures more easily what one has been accustomed from childhood on to regard as necessary, and that the pain and suffering to which misfortune naturally gives birth did not occasion in them the much more burdensome and unbearable anger, the despondency and discontent we feel. This faith, since it embraced not only respect for the course of natural necessity but also the conviction that men are governed by the gods in accordance with moral laws, seems humanly in keeping with the exaltedness of the divine and the frailty of man in his limited perspective and dependence on nature.

Doctrines that are simple and founded upon universal reason are compatible with every stage of popular education. And the latter comes gradually to modify the former in accordance with its own transformations, albeit more with respect to its external effects, i.e. those having to do with what the sensuous imagination depicts.

In keeping with how they are constituted, these doctrines, if they are founded on universal human reason, can have no other purpose than to influence the spirit of a people in but a general way – and to do so partly in and of themselves and partly through the closely connected magic of powerfully impressive ceremonies. They have no business interfering in the execution of civil justice or usurping the role of one’s private conscience. Nor, since the way in which they are formulated is simple as well, will they easily give rise to squabbles over their meaning. And, since they demand and stipulate very little that is positive (reason’s legislation being in any event merely formal), the lust for power on the part of the priests of such a religion remains circumscribed.


Any religion purporting to be a folk religion must be so constituted 4 that it engages the heart and imagination. Even the purest religion of reason must become incarnate in the souls of individuals, and all the more so in the people as a whole. In order that our fantasy be given a proper outlet, one orienting it onto a path it can decorate with its beautiful flowers without drifting off into romantic extravagances, it would be best to tie myths to the religion itself from the very outset. Now the doctrines of the Christian religion are for the most part tied to history and represented historically. The stage, even if other than mere humans acted on it, is set here in this mundane realm. Thus our imagination is provided with a readily discernible goal. To be sure, our imagination is still given some room to rove: if colored with black bile it can paint a frightful world for itself, or – since the spirit of our religion has banished all the beautiful colorations of sense as well as everything that has charm, even while we have become far too much men of words and reason to take much delight in beautiful images – it may well lapse into childishness.

With regard to ceremonies, on the one hand no folk religion is conceivable without them; on the other, nothing is harder to prevent than their being taken by the populace at large for the essence of religion itself. Now religion consists of three things: a) concepts, b) essential customs, and c) ceremonies. Thus if we regard baptism and the eucharist as rites involving certain extraordinary benefits and indulgences which we as Christians are duty-bound to perform so as to become more perfect, more moral, then they belong to the second class. But if we look upon them as mere means intended and able only to arouse pious sentiments, then they belong to the third class. – Sacrifices belong here too; but they cannot properly be called ceremonies, for they are essential to the religion with which they are connected. They are part of its structure, whereas ceremonies are mere embellishments, the formal aspect of this structure.

Sacrifices themselves can be looked at from two perspectives:

a) In part they were brought to the altars of the gods as propitiation, as atonement, as an attempt either to commute a much-feared physical or moral punishment into a fine or to ingratiate oneself into the lost favor of the supreme lord. the dispenser of rewards and punishments. Such practices are of course deemed unworthy and rightly censured on grounds of their irrationality and their adulteration of the whole concept of morality. But we have to keep in mind that an idea of sacrifice as crass as this has never really gained ascendancy anywhere (except perhaps in the Christian church), and we have to appreciate the value of the feelings activated in the process, even if they were not pure: a solemn awe of the holy being. a contrite heart humbly prostrated before him, and the deep trust that drove a troubled soul crying out for peace to this anchor. Think of a pilgrim burdened by the weight of his sins. He has left behind the comforts of home, his wife and children, his native soil, to wander through the world barefoot and clad in a hair-shirt. He hunts for impassable tracts to torment his feet. He sprinkles the holy places with his tears. Seeking repose for his ravaged spirit, he finds relief in every tear shed, in every mortification. He is urged on by the thought “Here Christ walked, here he was crucified for me,” a thought from which he gains renewed strength, renewed self-confidence. – But is it really for us, incapable of such a state of mind merely because of other notions prevalent in our time, to react to such a pilgrim and such simplicity of heart with the Pharisaic sentiment “Well, I am more sensible than people like that"? Is it for us to heap ridicule upon his pious sentiments? Then again, expiatory pilgrimages like this do form a subspecies of precisely the sort of sacrifice I was speaking of above, being offered up in the very same spirit as those penances.

b) But there is another, milder spirit of sacrifice, one germinating in a gentler latitude, that was probably the more original and universal. It was based on gratitude and benevolence. Filled with the sense of a being higher than man, and aware of its indebtedness to him for everything, it was confident that he would not scorn what was offered him in all innocence. It was disposed to implore his help at the outset of every undertaking, and to sense his presence in every joyous experience, every good fortune attained. Thinking of Nemesis before partaking of any pleasure, it offered to its god the first fruits, the flower of every possession, inviting him into its home confident that he would abide there willingly. The frame of mind that offered such a sacrifice was far removed from any notion of having hereby atoned for its sins or expiated some portion of their justly deserved punishment. Nor did its conscience persuade it that in this manner Nemesis might be appeased and induced to give up not only her claims on it but her laws governing the restoration of moral equilibrium as well.

Essential practices like these need not be bound more closely to religion than to the spirit of the people; it is preferable that they actually spring from the latter. Otherwise their exercise is without life, cold and powerless, and the attendant feelings artificial and forced. On the other hand it may be that these are practices that are not essential to folk religion anyway, although they may be to private religion. Thus for instance we have the eucharist as it exists in its present form throughout Christendom, although originally it was intended as a meal for communal enjoyment.

The indispensable characteristics of ceremonies designed for a folk religion are:

a) First and foremost, that they contain little or no inducement to fetishistic worship – that they not consist of a mere mechanical operation devoid of spirit. Their sole aim must be to intensify devotion and pious sentiments. Perhaps the only pure means for eliciting such an effect, the one least susceptible to misuse, is sacred music and the song of an entire people – perhaps also folk festivals, in which religion is inevitably involved.


As soon as any sort of wall is put between doctrine and life – as soon as they become in any way separated or lose touch with each other – we begin suspecting that there is something wrong with the very form of this religion. Perhaps it is too preoccupied with empty verbiage. Perhaps excessive and hypocritical demands are being made on the people, demands repugnant to their natural needs, to the impulses of a well-ordered sensibility (tes sophrosynes). Or possibly both at once. If a religion makes people feel shame over their moments of joy and merriment, if someone has to slink into the temple because he has made a spectacle of himself at a public festival, then its outer form is too forbidding for it to expect anyone to give up life’s pleasures in favor of its demands.

A folk religion must be a friend to all life’s feelings; it should never intrude, but should seek to be a welcome guest everywhere. And if it is to have real effect on a people, it must also be their companion supportive of their undertakings and the more serious concerns of their lives as well as of their festivals and times of fun. It must not appear obtrusive, must not become a nagging schoolmarm, but rather initiate and encourage. The folk festivals of the Greeks were all religious festivals, and were held either in honor of a god or of a man deified because of his exemplary service to his country. They consecrated everything, even their bacchantic excesses, to some deity; and the dramas they staged in the public theater had a religious origin which they never disavowed, even as they became more cultivated. Thus, for instance, Agathon did not forget the gods when he carried off a prize for his tragedy; the very next day he arranged a feast for them.

A folk religion – engendering and nurturing, as it does, great and noble sentiments – goes hand in hand with freedom. But our religion would train people to be citizens of heaven, gazing ever upward, making our most human feelings seem alien. Indeed at the greatest of our public feasts we proceed to the enjoyment of the holy eucharist dressed in the colors of mourning and with eyes downcast; even here, at what is supposed to be a celebration of human brotherhood, we fear we might contract venereal disease from the brother who drank out of the communal chalice before. And lest any of us remain attentive to the ceremony, filled with a sense of the sacred, we are nudged to fetch a donation from our pocket and plop it on a tray. How different were the Greeks! They approached the altars of their friendly gods clad in the colors of joy, their faces, open invitations to friendship and love, beaming with good cheer.

The spirit of a nation is reflected in its history, its religion, and the degree of its political freedom; and these cannot be taken in isolation when considering either their individual character or their influence on each other. They are bound together as one, like three companions none of whom can do anything without the others even as each benefits from all. The improvement of individual morality is a matter involving one’s private religion, one’s parents, one’s personal efforts, and one’s individual situation. The cultivation of the spirit of the people as a whole requires in addition the respective contributions of folk religion and political institutions.

Ah, to the soul that retains a feeling for human splendor, for greatness in great things, there radiates from distant bygone days an unforgettable image. It is the picture of the spirit of nations, son of fortune and freedom, pupil of a fine imagination. He too was tied to mother earth by the brazen fetters of basic need. But by means of his sensibility and imagination he cultivated, refined, and beautified them to such an extent that, garlanded with roses given by the Graces, he was able in the midst of these chains to take delight in them as his own handiwork, as part of his own self. His servants were joy, gaiety, and poise, and his soul was suffused with the consciousness of its power and freedom. But his more intimate playmates were friendship and love – not the wood faun but sensitive, soulful Amor, adorned with all the allurements of the heart and of sweet dreams.

Thanks to his father, himself a favorite of Fortune and a son of Force, he had ample trust in his own destiny and took pride in his deeds. His warm-hearted mother, never harsh or reproachful, left her son to nature’s nurturing; good mother that she was, she refused to cramp his delicate limbs in tight swaddling. She would rather play along with the moods and inspirations of her darling than think to curb them; in harmony with these, his nurse [i.e. religion] reared this child without fear of the rod or ghosts in the dark, without the bittersweet honey bread of mysticism or the fetters of words which would keep him perpetually immature. Instead she had him drink the clear and healthful milk of pure sensations. With the flowers of her fine and free imagination she adorned the impenetrable veil that removes the deity from our gaze, conjuring up behind it a realm inhabited by living images onto which he projected the great ideas his heart brings forth in all the fullness of its noble and beautiful sentiments. just as the nanny in ancient Greece was a friend of the family and remained a friend of her charge the rest of her life, so his nurse [again, religion] remains his friend even while he, unspoiled as he is, freely expresses his gratitude and returns her love. A good companion, she shares in his pleasures and takes part in his games; and he in turn never finds her a bother. Yet she always maintains her dignity; and his conscience rebels whenever he slights it. Her dominion holds sway forever, for it is based on the love, the gratitude, the noblest feelings of her ward. She has coaxed their refinement along, she has obeyed his imagination’s every whim – yet she has taught him to respect iron necessity, she has taught him to conform to this unalterable destiny without murmur.

We know this spirit only by hearsay. We have only a few traces on a handful of surviving reproductions that enable us to contemplate and lovingly admire his likeness; and these can but awaken a painful longing for the original. He – the fair youth we love even in his more light-hearted moments, when among the whole retinue of the Graces he inhales from every flower the balsam breath of nature, the soul that they had breathed into it – has fled from the earth.


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