A friend of mine recommended a book that was influential in his path to atheism, The Essence of Christianity. This is a book that can be found for free in the public domain.
I pick it up and read it now and then, and leave some of my takeaways here.
First of all, sorry for all the copy/pasting. I find this author incredibly difficult to understand, so I’m basically rewriting sections of it with my own interpretation. I have no idea if I’m even close to being right. Philosophers like to use fancy language. It’s almost like they’re trying to obscure their meaning. <sarcasm>Not like religious doctrines or anything.</sarcasm>
1. The Essential Nature of Man
Differences Between Man & Brute
Religion: The difference between man and the brute, is that brutes have no religion. Natural history writers of the old days used to say that the elephants possessed the virtue of religion, but that is just a myth. The elephant is no smarter than a dog.
Consciousness: Actually, the most simple difference between man and the brute is consciousness. By this I mean the feeling of self as an individual. I do not refer to the consciousness that all animals have; a basic awareness of their surroundings with their senses, perceptions and judgment. Brutes have a very basic understanding of “self” too, but humans have a higher consciousness. When there is a higher consciousness, there is a capability of science.
The brute has only a simple life. The brute’s inner life is one with the outer. Man has both an inner and an outer life. Man “thinks”; and converses with himself. Brutes can’t think internally to themselves. Man can be “I” and “you” at once; he can put himself in the place of another. Because of this, his species, and not merely his individuality, is an object of thought.
Religion = Consciousness of the Infinite
Both religion and consciousness are offered as characteristics that separate us from the brutes. Let’s equate them: religion is consciousness of the infinite. Since religion and consciousness are the same thing, religion is man’s consciousness of his infinite nature.
A finite being has a limited consciousness, and can’t be aware of an infinite being. For example, the consciousness of the caterpillar, whose life is confined to a particular plant, does not go beyond this narrow domain. Caterpillars can discriminate between plants, but it knows nothing more. A consciousness so limited, is not actually consciousness, but instinct.
Consciousness, in the strict or proper sense, is identical with consciousness of the infinite; a limited consciousness is no consciousness; consciousness is essentially infinite in its nature.
What defines our humanity?
- Mankind has power of thought (reason). The power of thought is the light of the intellect.
- Mankind has power of will. The power of will is energy of character.
- Mankind has power of affection. The power of affection is love.
The divine trinity in man is the unity of reason, will, and love. To think, to will, to love, are the highest powers, and the basis of mankind’s existence. We are nothing without them. We are what we are only by them.
Thought: What true thinker has not experienced the quiet, subtle power of thought? When you sink into deep reflection, forgetting yourself and what is around you, do you govern reason, or is reason governing you? Don’t you agree—the desire of knowledge is simply irresistible, and all-conquering?
Will: When you suppress a passion, renounce a habit, in short, achieve a victory over yourself, is this victorious power your own personal power, or is it the force of morality, which seizes the mastery of you, and fills you with indignation against yourself and your individual weaknesses?
Melody: Who has not experienced the overwhelming power of melody? Melody—music—is the language of feeling, what you are hearing are audible feelings of the performer.
Love: Who has not experienced the power of love, or at least heard of it ? Which is stronger: love or the individual man? Does man possesses love, or does love possess man? When love impels a man to suffer death joyfully for his beloved, is this death-conquering power his own individual power, or is it the power of love?
Visionaries and the Solar System
Great men & women reveal to us what mankind is capable of. These exemplary people were given the gift of focus, and were inspired by a singular goal. Their visions are their own, however. It is a rare thing for a vision to be shared by multiple people, and even if it is, the goals differ slightly in each person.
Consider the Sun in our sky. Let’s say the Sun represents a goal or vision. The Sun appears different from the perspectives of Mercury, Venus, Earth, Saturn, and Uranus. Each planet has its own Sun. The Sun which lights and warms Uranus is a completely different Sun than the one on Earth.
The relation of the Sun to the Earth is a relation to Earth’s own nature. The intensity of light which the Sun possesses is a measure of distance, which determines the peculiar nature of the Earth. Hence each planet has in its sun the mirror of its own nature.
Image source: Tim Engle
Just like the planets and sun analogy above, man can contemplate his own consciousness and become acquainted with himself.
We know the man by the object, by his conception of what is external to himself; in it his nature becomes evident; this object is his manifested nature, his true objective ego.
And this is true not merely of spiritual, but also of sensuous objects. Even the objects which are the most remote from man, because they are objects to him, and to the extent to which they are so, are revelations of human nature.
Even the moon, the sun, the stars, call to man. That he sees them, and so sees them, is an evidence of his own nature. The animal is sensible only of the beam which immediately affects life; while man perceives the ray, to him physically indifferent, of the remotest star. Man alone has purely intellectual, disinterested joys and passions; the eye of man alone keeps theoretic festivals.
The eye which looks into the starry heavens, which gazes at that light, alike useless and harmless, having nothing in common with the earth and its necessities this eye sees in that light its own nature, its own origin.
The eye is heavenly in its nature.
Hence man elevates himself above the earth only with the eye; hence theory begins with the contemplation of the heavens.
The first philosophers were astronomers. It is the heavens that admonish man of his destination, and remind him that he is destined not merely to action, but also to contemplation.
The absolute to man is his own nature. The power of the object over him is therefore the power of his own nature. Thus the power of the object of feeling is the power of feeling itself; the power of the object of the intellect is the power of the intellect itself; the power of the object of the will is the power of the will itself. The man who is affected by musical sounds, is governed by feeling; by the feeling, that is, which finds its corresponding element in musical sounds. But it is not melody as such, it is only melody pregnant with meaning and emotion, which has power over feeling. Feeling is only acted on by that which conveys feeling, i. e., by itself, its own nature. Thus also the will; thus, and infinitely more, the intellect. . Whatever kind of object, therefore, we are at any time conscious of, we are always at the same time conscious of our own nature; w r e can affirm nothing without affirming ourselves. And since to will, to feel, to think, are perfections, essences, realities, it is impossible that intellect, feeling, and
will should feel or perceive themselves as limited, finite powers, i. e., as worthless, as nothing. For finiteness and nothingness are identical; finiteness is only a euphemism for nothingness. Finiteness is the metaphysical, the theoretical nothingness the pathological, practical expression. What is finite to the understanding is nothing to the heart. But it is impossible that we should he conscious of will, feeling, and intellect, as finite powers, because every perfect existence, every original power and essence, is the immediate verification and affirmation of itself. It is impossible to love, will, or think, without perceiving these activities to be perfections impossible to feel that one is a loving, willing, thinking being, without experiencing an infinite joy therein. Consciousness consists in a being becoming objective to itself; hence it is nothing apart, nothing distinct from the being which is conscious of itself. How could it otherwise become conscious of itself? It is therefore impossible to be conscious of a perfection as an imperfection, impossible t feel feeling limited, to think thought limited.
Consciousness is self- verification, self-affirmation, self-love, joy in one’s own perfection. Consciousness is the characteristic mark of a perfect nature ; it exists only in a self-sufficing, complete being. Even human vanity attests this truth. A man looks in the glass ; he has complacency in his appearance. This complacency is a necessary, involuntary consequence of the completeness, the beauty of his form. A beautiful form is satisfied in itself; it has necessarily joy in itself in self-contemplation. This complacency becomes vanity only when a man piques himself on his form as being his individual form, not when he admires it as a specimen of human beauty in general. It is fitting that he should admire it thus ; he can conceive no form more beautiful, more sublime than the human. (Homini homine nihil pulchrius. (Cic. de Nat. D. 1. i ) And this is no sign of limitation, for he regards other beings as beautiful besides himself; he delights in the beautiful forms of animals, in the beautiful forms of plants, in the beauty of nature in general. But only the absolute, the perfect form, can delight without envy in the forms of other beings.) Assuredly every being loves itself, its existence and fitly so. To exist is a good. Everything that exists has value, is a being of distinction at least this is true of the
species: hence it asserts, maintains itself. But the highest form of self-assertion, the form which is itself a superiority, a perfection, a hliss, a good, is consciousness.
Every limitation of the reason, or in general of the nature of man, rests on a delusion, an error. It is true that the human being, as an individual, can and must herein consists his distinction from the brute feel and recognise himself to be limited ; but he can become conscious of his limits, his finiteness, only because the perfection, the infinitude of his species is perceived by him, whether as an object of feeling, of conscience, or of the thinking consciousness. If he makes his own limitations the limitations of the species, this arises from the mistake that he identifies himself immediately with the species a mistake which is intimately connected with the individual’s love of ease, sloth, vanity, and egoism. For a limitation which I know to be merely mine humiliates, shames, and perturbs me. Hence to free myself from this feeling of shame, from this state of dissatisfaction, I convert the limits of my individuality into the limits of human nature in general. What is incomprehensible to me is incomprehensible to others ; why should I trouble myself further ? it is no fault of mine ; my understanding is not to blame, but the under standing of the race. But it is a ludicrous and even culpable error to define as finite and limited what constitutes the essence of man, the nature of the species, which is the absolute nature of the individual. Every being is sufficient to itself. No being can deny itself, i.e., its own nature ; no being is a limited one to itself. Rather, every being is in and by itself infinite has its God, its highest conceivable being, in itself. Every limit of a being is cognisable only by another being out of and above him. The life of the ephemera is extraordinarily short in comparison with that of longer lived creatures; but nevertheless, for the ephemera this short life is as long as a life of years to others. The leaf on which the caterpillar lives is for it a world, an infinite space.
That which makes a being what it is is its talent, its power, its wealth, its adornment. How can it possibly hold its existence non-existence, its wealth poverty, its talent incapacity? If the plants had eyes, taste and judgment, each plant would declare its own flower the most beautiful; for its comprehension, its taste, would reach no farther than its natural power of production. What the productive power of its nature has brought forth
as the highest, that must also its taste, its judgment, recognise and affirm as the highest. What the nature affirms, the understanding, the taste, the judgment, cannot deny ; otherwise the understanding, the judgment, would no longer he the understanding and judgment of this particular being, hut of some other. The measure of the nature is also the measure of the understanding. If the nature is limited, so also is the feel ing, so also is the understanding. But to a limited heing its limited understanding is not felt to he a limitation ; on the contrary, it is perfectly happy and contented with this under standing ; it regards it, praises and values it, as a glorious, divine power ; and the limited understanding, on its part, values the limited nature whose understanding it is. Each is exactly adapted to the other ; how should they he at issue with each other ? A being’s understanding is its sphere of vision. As far as you see, so far extends your nature ; and conversely. The eye of the brute reaches no farther than its needs, and its nature no farther than its needs. And so far as your nature reaches, so far reaches your unlimited self-consciousness, so far art you God. The discrepancy between the understanding and the nature, between the power of conception and the power of production in the human consciousness, on the one hand is merely of individual significance and has not a universal application ; and, on the other hand, it is only apparent. He who having written a bad poem knows it to be bad, is in his intelligence, and therefore in his nature, not so limited as he who, having written a bad poem, admires it and thinks it good.
It follows, that if you think the infinite, you perceive and affirm the infinitude of the power of thought ; if you feel the infinite, you feel and affirm the infinitude of the power of feeling. The object of the intellect is intellect objective to itself; the object of feeling is feeling objective to itself. If you hast no sensibility, no feeling for music, you perceive in the finest music nothing more than in the wind that whistles by your ear, or than in the brook which rushes past your feet. What then is it which acts on you when you art affected by melody? What dost you perceive in it? What else than the voice of your own heart ? Feeling speaks only to feeling ; feeling is comprehensible only by feeling, that is, by itself for this reason, that the object of feeling is nothing else than feeling. Music is a monologue of emotion. But the dialogue of philosophy also is in truth only a monologue of
the intellect; thought speaks only to thought. The splendours of the crystal charm the sense ; but the intellect is interested only in the laws of crystallization. The intellectual only is the object of the intellect. (” The understanding is percipient only of understanding, and what proceeds thence.” Reimarus (Wahrh. der Natiirl. Religion, iv. Abth. 8.))
All therefore which, in the point of view of metaphysical, transcendental speculation and religion, has the significance only of the secondary, the subjective, the medium, the organ, has in truth the significance of the primary, of the essence, of the object itself. If, for example, feeling is the essential organ of religion, the nature of God is nothing else than an expression of the nature of feeling. The true but latent sense of the phrase, ” Feeling is the organ of the divine,” is, feeling is the noblest, the most excellent, i.e., the divine, in man. How couldst you perceive the divine by feeling, if feeling were not itself divine in its nature ? The divine assuredly is known only by means of the divine God is known only by himself. The divine nature which is discerned by feeling, is in truth nothing else than feeling enraptured, in ecstasy with itself feeling intoxicated with joy, blissful in its own plenitude.
It is already clear from this that where feeling is held to be the organ of the infinite, the subjective essence of religion, the external data of religion lose their objective value. And thus, since feeling has been held the cardinal principle in religion, the doctrines of Christianity, formerly so sacred, have lost their importance. If from this point of view some value is still conceded to Christian ideas, it is a value springing entirely from the relation they bear to feeling; if another object would excite the same emotions, it would be just as welcome. But the object of religious feeling is become a matter of indifference, only because when once feeling has been pronounced to be the subjective essence of religion, it in fact is also the objective essence of religion, though it may not be declared, at least directly, to be such. I say directly; for indirectly this is certainly admitted, when it is declared that feeling, as such, is religious, and thus the distinction between specifically religious and irreligious, or at least non-religious, feelings, is abolished, a necessary consequence of the point of view in which feeling only is regarded as the organ of the divine. For on what other ground than that of its essence,
its nature, dost them hold feeling to be the organ of the infinite, the divine heing ? And is not the nature of feeling in general, also the nature of every special feeling, he its object what it may? What, then, makes this feeling religious? A given object? Not at all; for this object is itself a religious one only when it is not an object of the cold understanding or memory, but of feeling. What then ? The nature of feeling a nature of which every special feeling, without distinction of objects, partakes. Thus, feeling is pronounced to be religious, simply because it is feeling ; the ground of its religiousness is its own nature lies in itself. But is not feeling thereby declared to be itself the absolute, the divine ? If feeling in itself is good, religious, i.e., holy, divine, has not feeling its God in itself?
But if, notwithstanding, you wilt posit an object of feeling, but at the same time seek to express your feeling truly, without introducing by your reflection any foreign element, what remains to you but to distinguish between your individual feeling and the general nature of feeling; to separate the universal in feeling from the disturbing, adulterating influences with which feeling is bound up in you, under your individual conditions ? Hence what you canst alone contemplate, declare to be the infinite, and define as its essence, is merely the nature of feeling. You hast thus no other definition of God than this ; God is pure, unlimited, free Feeling. Every other God, whom you suppos, is a God thrust upon your feeling from without. Feeling is atheistic in the sense of the orthodox belief, which attaches religion to an external object ; it denies an objective God it is itself God. In this point of view, only the negation of feeling is the negation of God. You art simply too cowardly or too narrow to confess in words what your feeling tacitly affirms. Fettered by outward considerations, still in bondage to vulgar empiricism, incapable of comprehending the spiritual grandeur of feeling, you art terrified before the religious atheism of your heart. By this fear you destroy the unity of your feeling with itself, in imagining to yourself an objective being distinct from your feeling, and thus necessarily sinking back into the old questions and doubts is there a God or not? questions and doubts which vanish, nay, are impossible, where feeling is defined as the essence of religion. Feeling is your own inward power, but at the same time a power distinct from you, and independent
of you ; it is in you, above you : it is itself that which con stitutes the objective in you your own being which impresses you as another being ; in short, your God. How wilt you then distinguish from this objective being within you another objective being? how wilt you get beyond your feeling?
But feeling has here been adduced only as an example. It is the same with every other power, faculty, potentiality, reality, activity the name is indifferent which is denned as the essential organ of any object. Whatever is a subjective expression of a nature is simultaneously also its objective expression. Man cannot get beyond his true nature. He may indeed by means of the imagination conceive individuals of another so-called higher kind, but he can never get loose from his species, his nature; the conditions of being, the positive final predicates which he gives to these other individuals, are always determinations or qualities drawn from his own nature qualities in which he in truth only images and projects himself. There may certainly be thinking beings besides men on the other planets of our solar system. But by the supposition of such beings we do not change our standing point we extend our conceptions quantitatively, not qualitatively. For as surely as on the other planets there are the same laws of motion, so surely are there the same laws of perception and thought as here. In fact, we people the other planets, not that we may place there different beings from ourselves, but more beings of our own or of a similar nature.