Christian Thomasius was a philosopher and jurist and the first important thinker of the German Enlightenment. He was born in Leipzig, the son of the Aristotelian philosopher Jakob Thomasius, who had been a teacher of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.
Christian, after studying philosophy and law at the universities of Leipzig and Frankfurt an der Oder, began lecturing at Leipzig in 1682.
His theological enemies forced him to move in 1690 to the Ritterakademie in Halle. He helped to found the University of Halle, became professor of law there in 1694, and later was Geheimrat (privy counselor) and rector of the university.
Law and Theology
|Law and Theology|
Thomasius followed his father, as well as Hugo Grotius and Samuel von Pufendorf, in the study of natural law. He sought a foundation for law, independent of theology, in man’s natural reason.
Like Pufendorf he opposed the orthodox Lutheran view that revelation is the source of law and that jurisprudence is subordinate to theology. He held that law is based on common sense and on truths common to all religions.
On the other hand, many precepts traditionally held to be absolute were only the result of the historical development of a given nation, subject to change and justifiable only in terms of the characteristics of that nation.
Thomasius asserted the right of free and impartial interpretation of the Bible and of God’s laws, reacting against orthodox Lutheran exegesis and the intricacies and dogmatism of scholastic theology. He condemned fanaticism and the persecution of heretics and preached toleration of differing religious beliefs.
Thomasius opposed the episcopal system of church government, which asserted the rights of consistories and of theological faculties in church affairs, and supported a territorial system of church government, in which the government would have control of church administration but not of dogma.
In dogma neither state nor consistories and faculties should have power; the latter should make decisions concerning dogma, but individual churches and Christians should be free to accept or reject them.
Thomasius thus sought to break the power of the governing bodies of the church, which were dominated by intolerant orthodox Lutherans, and to subordinate the church to the government, which by natural law should be supreme within the state.
It was these doctrines that forced Thomasius’s expulsion from Leipzig and led to his reception at Halle by the Prussian government, which was more liberal in religious matters.
Education and the Nature of Man
Thomasius held that philosophy should be practical and should concentrate on man, his nature, and his needs. He opposed the Aristotelian scholasticism of orthodox Lutheranism because its abstractions and speculative complexities were useless in life.
|Education and the Nature of Man|
His Introductio ad Philosophiam Aulicam (An Introduction to Philosophy for the Courtier) was in the tradition of Renaissance humanistic pedagogy. It advocated a worldly education intended to produce “courtiers” (politicians, diplomats, and bureaucrats) rather than the “pedantic” scholastic education of the universities.
The German states established after the Thirty Years’War were organizing centralized governments and modern administrations on the French model, and they needed officials with the practical education Thomasius advocated.
Thomasius’s model was the education given in the German Ritterakademien (schools for the nobility), and he himself introduced this practical, worldly education into the teaching of the Halle faculty of law.
The Introductio was intended as the first of a series of texts furthering Thomasius’s educational goals. In it Thomasius advocated eclecticism and disapproved of sectarianism and quarrels between schools of thought.
He held that philosophy should be independent of revealed theology and founded on the observation of reality. Metaphysics was harmful and should be confined to a short terminological excursus. For Thomasius theoretical philosophy comprised natural theology, physics, and mathematics.
The Introductio presented his theory of man and covered psychology and theory of knowledge, knowledge being obtained through the senses only. Thomasius was a nominalist, and he was skeptical about rationally proving God’s existence. He closed with a summary of logic, both practical and theoretical.
Thomasius continued the educational program of the Introductio in his Einleitung zu der Vernunfft-Lehre (Introduction to logic; Halle, 1691), Einleitung zur Sitten-Lehre (Introduction to ethics; Halle, 1692), Ausübung der Vernunfft-Lehre (Practical logic; Halle, 1693), and Ausübung der Sitten-Lehre (Practical ethics; Halle, 1696), all of which introduced the use of German into university teaching.
In the Introductio and other works Thomasius’s eclecticism and opposition to dogmatism, his empiricism, his concentration on description of human nature and the giving of advice for practical behavior, are evident.
His eclecticism and opposition to dogmatism was connected with the tradition of Peter Ramus that survived in the school of John Amos Comenius and with Thomasius’s philosophical individualism. He often presented his doctrines as only hypothetical and spoke of “my own” philosophy, renouncing absolute truth.
Thomasius’s concentration on the practical was influenced by such writers as Pierre Charron and Baltasar Gracián. Besides his texts he wrote special works on “prudence” (Klugheit, prudentia), giving advice for persons in different situations and positions.
Thomasius held that logic should be simple, should avoid the scholastic syllogistic treatment, and should be based on personal experience. Its goal should be not only the demonstration but also the discovery of truth. In line with his empiricism and opposition to dogmatism, Thomasius wrote much on probability and combined his discussion of logic with psychology and sociology.
Thomasius believed that Christian ethics must be based on rational love. Love, in its different forms, is the basic impulse in man. The will is independent of reason and is the origin of evil.
About 1694 Thomasius underwent a personal religious and philosophical crisis. Influenced by certain Pietist thinkers, he lost faith in the natural goodness and intellectual power of man and held that virtue and truth could be reached only through God’s grace, man being otherwise vicious and blind. He solemnly disavowed his former errors in a public confession.
By 1705 Thomasius showed a renewed faith in human freedom and goodness and in the natural light. The period from 1694 to 1705 is known as Thomasius’s Pietist period, but his acceptance of Pietism was eased by substantial similarities between his own views and those of the Pietists.
Both opposed “pedantry,” Aristotelianism, Lutheran orthodoxy, the episcopal system of church government, and intolerance; both were also eclectic and empirical and avoided scholastic abstractions and theological subtleties. A personal acquaintance with the Pietist A. H. Francke played an important part in Thomasius’s temporary conversion to other Pietist views.
Thomasius’s two works on metaphysics were published at Halle during his Pietist period, the Confessio Doctrinae Suae in 1695 and the Versuch vom Wesen des Geistes (An Essay on the Essence of Spirit) in 1699.
Like Paracelsus, Valentin Weigel, Jakob Boehme, and others before him, Thomasius presented a mystical or theosophical variety of animism or vitalism. The world, both spiritual and material, is animated by a spirit created by God.
Truth can be found only in the Bible as made clear by divine illumination. Although such views were held by some Pietists, they were not confined to them, and Thomasius continued to hold them after his Pietist period.
Perhaps Thomasius’s metaphysics was influenced not only by Pietism but also by the school of Comenius, who influenced Thomasius in other ways, and by the Hermetic school of medicine and chemistry, which had a mystically based experimental attitude. The latter possibility especially would explain Thomasius’s combination of empiricism and a mystical metaphysics advanced only as a hypothesis.
Thomasius’s most important followers were either Pietists or their sympathizers, and his views soon became the official Pietist philosophy. The theologian Joachim Lange in particular stressed Thomasius’s Pietism and held that divine illumination was the only source of truth.
By 1710 Thomasius’s followers had displaced the Aristotelians in nearly all the German universities. Lange led the first attacks against the new doctrines of Christian Wolff, but Thomasius, true to his spirit of toleration, did not participate in the attack.
Wolffianism became dominant after 1730, but a few Pietist centers remained. Later, the work of the Pietists A. F. Hoffmann and Christian August Crusius helped to bring about the renewal of German philosophy after 1760, which culminated in the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant.