Thinker: Ludwig Andreas von Feuerbach
Ludwig Andreas von Feuerbach was the man who brought religion down to earth, says Nina Power
Ludwig von Feuerbach (1804-1872), is one of those thinkers whose ideas have so infused our way of conceiving the world that we have forgotten who it was who originally committed them to paper. The son of a famous Bavarian lawyer, he married into money and was able to pursue a life of relative ease, marred only by the death of a daughter and his dismissal from university teaching on account of his anti-religious views.
Feuerbach is no doubt best known for being the target of Karl Marx’s attack on philosophers in the famous “Theses on Feuerbach”. But Feuerbach, far from being the dusty old idealist that Marx pillories, deserves to be remembered as the thinker who made humanism and atheism serious philosophical and practical concerns. It is Feuerbach who first articulates the eminently human origins of religious belief and describes the processes by which mankind alienates itself from its real, practical concerns. It is Feuerbach, too, who breaks with the idea that philosophy must defend the status quo, whether it be the stranglehold of church authority or the dead weight of tradition. He places man at the centre of his thought, not in order to assert our dominion over nature but to unite us in our shared identity as a thinking, living, creative species.
Feuerbach’s most important idea, as simple as it is ingenuous, is that, as he puts it, “the true sense of Theology is Anthropology”. In other words, instead of looking to the heavens and the vagaries of religious belief in order to understand religion, we need to turn the question around: what is it in us that needs to believe? Why do we hanker after immortality? Why do we project all those things we admire in ourselves – the capacity to forgive, to create, to love – on to something transcendent we cannot see and cannot prove? Feuerbach’s answer lies in demonstrating that every aspect of what we call God corresponds to some feature or need of human nature. We project human capacities on to something beyond because what we imagine is possible goes far beyond what we as individual mortal beings can achieve. As individuals we cannot possibly hope to be as wonderful as we would like to be, argues Feuerbach, but instead of assuming there must be an entity that is a perfect form of man (immortal instead of mortal, infinitely benevolent instead of petty, all-knowing instead of ignorant), we should steal these qualities back from religion and understand them in their rightful place – as human ambitions, not godly attributes.
The publication of Feuerbach’s major work, 1841’s The Essence of Christianity, which was translated into English by George Eliot, caused a scandal in Europe and helped many young atheists, anarchists and communists (including Marx) to formulate their opposition to church, state and philosophical dogma. Feuerbach remained committed to his radical thesis, and became even more down-to-earth in his later years as he attempted to prove that even the loftiest sentiments have their origins in more practical, human concerns such as eating and the need for affection. He advocated a combination of rationalism and sensualism that took as its object not the fevered brain of the philosopher, nor the fantasies of religion, but real living human beings, understood as a species, as a collective social and political subject. What Feuerbach ultimately proposes is a thorough examination of human nature, its needs, successes and desires. It is only then, he argues, that we will have a complete “philosophy of the future’”. ■