Carl Wilhelm Frölich’s «On Man and his Circumstances»

A Translation of «Über den Menschen und seine Verhältnisse»

by Edward T. Larkin (Author)
Others XXVIII, 244 Pages
Series: German Life and Civilization, Volume 66


This book includes both the original German version and, for the first time, an English translation of Carl Wilhelm Frölich’s important essay of 1792, which Georg Foster praised as «one of the rarest creations of our time, the work of a young, right-thinking and sensitive man.» Published anonymously, Frölich’s treatise consists of ten Platonic-like dialogues between Erast and Philemon, the central interlocutor, and four interspersed reflections. In response to Erast’s opening question – «What! I should not educate my children for the state? Does a teacher have a higher, nobler purpose?» – Frölich/Philemon addresses the major concerns of the late eighteenth century from the vantage point of materialist ethics: the path toward happiness, natural and conventional feelings, truth and propriety, human freedom, active and passive education, nature and morality, virtue and justice, legislation and social behavior, reason and religion, and the requirements of a good teacher. Underlying all of these concerns is Frölich’s belief that social circumstances significantly determine individual happiness. If humanity is to become happier, these circumstances must be changed via pupil-oriented education and opposition to private property with its dehumanizing profit system. Frölich represents a unique voice in the conversation on human perfectibility in eighteenth-century German intellectual history.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction: Carl Wilhelm Frölich’s On Man and his Circumstances: Another Education of Humanity
  • Über den Menschen und seine Verhältnisse /On Man and his Circumstances (Carl Wilhelm Frölich)
  • Preface
  • Dialogue 1
  • Dialogue 2
  • Dialogue 3
  • Reflection 1
  • Reflection 2
  • Dialogue 4
  • Dialogue 5
  • Dialogue 6
  • Dialogue 7
  • Reflection 3
  • Reflection 4
  • Dialogue 8
  • Dialogue 9
  • Dialogue 10
  • Vorrede
  • Dialog eins
  • Dialog zwei
  • Dialog drei
  • Betrachtung eins
  • Betrachtung zwei
  • Dialog vier
  • Dialog fünf
  • Dialog sechs
  • Dialog sieben
  • Betrachtung drei
  • Betrachtung vier
  • Dialog acht
  • Dialog neun
  • Dialog zehn
  • Index
  • English
  • Deutsch
  • Series index

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Carl Wilhelm Frölich’s On Man and his Circumstances: Another Education of Humanity


For decades, even centuries, scholars have sought to explicate the notion of the German Enlightenment. Studies focusing on the literary, theological, historical, philosophical, and feminist interests of the period have elucidated and expanded the Kantian promulgation of the ideal “Sapere aude!” in order to demonstrate the presumed reform-mindedness of the period. While the Enlightenment need not be understood as a monolithic entity united by a common set of philosophical ideas, both moderate reformers and less restrained critics of the existing social order were seen to have exalted reason, praised critical inquiry, promoted education and pedagogical innovation, embraced science, demanded religious tolerance and personal freedom, insisted on fundamental human rights, and to various extents extolled the common good, all in the name, generally, of seeking to improve the collective human experience.1 The speculative belief in the perfectibility of humanity and the existence of the “bonté naturelle” was said to underlie the progressive, if not necessarily inevitable, advance toward human happiness. Beneficial to uninitiated students and well-trained scholars alike,2 these studies have allowed us to speak sensibly of the Enlightenment, indeed ← ix | x → of multiple Enlightenments, and even of competing Enlightenments, for example, Protestant and Catholic. They have also made dix-huitièmistes more conscious of the perspectivity and interest-laden foundation of particular understandings of the Enlightenment, even as universalistic claims about the Enlightenment persist. As eighteenth-century scholars have explored less well-known writers and have unearthed overlooked texts of the period, they have demonstrated the common-sense assumption that interpretations of the Enlightenment are provisional, fragile, elastic, and plural. Researchers have also begun to speak of and examine so-called “second-tier” writers (no longer referred to as trivial writers) as they widen the lens through which the eighteenth century is viewed. Moreover, less familiar texts can make clear that the Enlightenment was not the exclusive domain of the liberally educated, but that the desire to educate the rural population and the nascent urban masses was a growing concern, as the work of Holgar Böning and others on the notion of Volksaufklärung has demonstrated. Slowly but surely, studies of the Enlightenment have come to terms with texts that reflect the thinking of those who were not originally included in the canon of Enlightenment thinkers.3

The present translation of Carl Wilhelm Frölich’s Über den Menschen und seine Verhältnisse [On Man and his Circumstances] is to be understood in this expansionary context inasmuch as it brings to the fore an author whose views on education, societal transformation, and economic enterprise add to our increasingly multivalent understanding of the Enlightenment. Like many enlighteners, Frölich embraced the commonplace but not gratuitous metaphor of light, as indicated by the frontispiece of his text. Carl Christian Glassbach’s engraving shows the descent of two men into a cavern guided by the light of a burning torch. As the darkened path of the cavern slowly yields to the light of the torch, the work of enlightenment is seen as an arduous but productive endeavor. Frölich’s text, a collection of Platonic-like dialogues, was similarly intended to illuminate a path: one toward greater human happiness, justice, and autonomy, however ← x | xi → gradually they may be realized. As part of his eudaemonistic ethic, Frölich advocated a commitment to practical reason, a reevaluation of educational practices, attentiveness to the power of passions, an aversion to clericalism, and an embrace of natural law. However, in contrast to several of his more prominent contemporaries who placed individual happiness and autonomy above (and in some cases apart from) social circumstances, Frölich insists, even in the title of his book, that social circumstances can significantly determine individual happiness and moral conduct. Consisting of more than merely an interiorized sense of well-being, the happiness he espouses is also far removed from the infamous and apolitical German inwardness (“Innerlichkeit”) and its private system of virtue. Moreover, it is not just personal happiness that is shaped by circumstances; so too is collective happiness. Indeed, for Frölich, individual happiness cannot be conceived apart from social happiness and social justice, understood as an equitable distribution of the means to satisfy basic human needs. Human beings are entitled, he tells us, to have their fundamental needs met. Frölich’s emphasis on the implication of social embeddedness to our happiness is one reason to give attention to his On Man and his Circumstances.

If we understand the Enlightenment at its most basic as a contentious debate about the rate and quality of societal transformation, that is, ultimately, about how peoples’ lives might to be improved and how people might become happier, then we may be allowed to speak, as Jonathan Israel4 does, of moderate and radical enlighteners. Whether the source of the desired change is Spinoza or whether the Enlightenment was played out primarily in an intellectual arena, it is nevertheless clear that some enlighteners pushed the emancipatory envelop of societal transformation further than others, and each had his or her own reasons for doing so. The concept of a “radical” Enlightenment has been around for a long time; one thinks of the recently reissued The Radical EnlightenmentPantheists, Freemasons and Republicans (1981) by Margaret Jacob. In Germany the notion continues to receive attention. In their very useful effort to contextualize specific networks and constellations of late Enlightenment ← xi | xii → radical thinkers, that is, to draw attention to collaborative pockets of enlightened thinking by intellectuals who indeed broke with the generally moderate posture of German enlighteners, Mulsow and Naschert offer a much needed overview of radical enlighteners.5 One such thinker whom they do not consider, however, is Carl Wilhelm Frölich, who, by nearly any measure, may be considered a radical enlightener or perhaps even an anarchist in Olaf Briese’s sense,6 for Frölich’s goal, “a revolution of our ideas and desires,” stipulated a profound reordering of society, which was to be effected through a transformation of pedagogical practices and through the abolishment of private property. While a renewal of educational philosophy and practice was a frequent topic among the intelligentsia of the late eighteenth century (one thinks of Basedow, Zedlitz, Campe, and others), one does not readily find eighteenth-century German thinkers who contemplated an economic system based on the abolition of private property during the advent of the free market system in this still agrarian, pre-industrial Germany. Hence, our understanding of the complexity of the German Enlightenment can be further refined and enhanced by a consideration of ideas expressed in Frölich’s dialogue.


Who was Carl Wilhelm Frölich? Although biographical information is relatively scant,7 we do know that he was the son of Johann Caspar Frölich, a military chaplain with a university degree, and Renate Justina Frölich, née Hoppensack. Born on 22 December 1759 in Landsberg an der ← xii | xiii → Warthe, the young Frölich was raised with several siblings on his father’s farm in Groß-Rosenburg in the duchy of Magdeburg, which at the time belonged to Prussia. It is not known for certain which secondary school Frölich attended,8 but the reader of On Man and his Circumstances might reasonably conclude that his schooling was not learner-oriented. On the other hand, it is certain that Frölich matriculated at the university in Halle in the spring of 1778 as a law student, where he likely encountered such prominent law professors as Daniel Nettelbladt, Johann Christian Woltär, and Friederich Christoph Jonatan Fischer. Influential on Frölich’s educational philosophy were the theologian Johann August Eberhard and the reformist pedagogue Ernst Christian Trapp, whose high estimation of natural education (“natürliche Erziehung”) finds considerable agreement with the views expressed in Frölich’s dialogues. Frölich may also have come across the radical, indeed heretical writings of Carl Friedrich Bahrdt who had sought refuge in Halle in 1779 and whose rationalistic, anti-orthodox religious views coincide with the observations expressed in Frölich’s text. Among his closest friends in Halle were Johann Christian Siber and Gottlieb Friedrich Lebrecht Wolmer to whom he dedicated his On Man and his Circumstances, a book that has been attributed to Siber.9 Some time after the completion of his studies, but certainly by 1789, Frölich appears to have taken a position as a privy secretary in the General Post Office in Berlin. In May of the same year he married the well-educated, twenty-year-old Henriette Rauthe (1768–1833); their household in Berlin was said to be a gathering point for proponents of enlightened scientific knowledge (Wissenschaft). Henriette Frölich, better known to literary scholars than her husband, would be his lifelong intellectual partner and author of the utopian epistolary novel Virginia oder die Kolonie von Kentucky published in 1819 under the name “Jerta.” The novel, though ← xiii | xiv → published some twenty-seven years after On Man and his Circumstances, nevertheless reflects some of the political and pedagogical thinking that characterizes Frölich’s dialogues, in particular, the striving for freedom and the rejection of private property.

In 1792 Frölich acquired property at Scharfenbrück near Treuenbrietzen – his friend Siber had an estate at nearby Gottow – and, as the administrator responsible for the school there, he showed himself to be a forceful advocate for education. During the Scharfenbrück decades, in which he oversaw the construction of a residence for those working on the estate, Frölich sought to put into practice the Enlightenment thinking that he had proposed in his writings. Frölich was not a professional philosopher, writer, or clergy member, the typical groups from which we take our understanding of the Enlightenment. He was rather a thoughtful and determined member of a struggling middle-class that had witnessed (and envied) the achievement of greater political self-determination (France, United States) as well as the development of empirical scientific methods, particularly in the field of agriculture. Within a decade after moving to Scharfenbrück, Frölich wrote Buch für den Landmann und Oekonomen (1801) and Gemälde nach der Natur (1802), both of which concretely promoted the establishment of a rationally grounded, egalitarian society, which was to be based not on mystical and superstitious practices (especially common in the area of agriculture) but on the most current scientific knowledge available. Frölich’s Buch für den Landmann und Oekomomen can be seen in the tradition of Rudolf Zacharias Beckers Noth- und Hülfsbüchlein (1788). Frölich viewed his subsequent texts as continuations of his earlier theoretical Über den Menschen und seine Verhältnisse. His view of Enlightenment, a kind of Volksaufklärung, was aimed not at the educated or the intelligentsia but at the Volk who toiled for a living. By “Volk,” we might understand, as Holger Böning does, those who were without some higher education via a tutor or university and whose social sphere was limited. “Volk” included not only peasants but also craftsmen, lower-level members of the military and bureaucracy, servants, and the wide range of those of the lower class living in the country and in the city. Given the genre and level of language, Frölich’s reader was, however, likely of a more educated class. ← xiv | xv →

In the military conquests of 1806, the estate at Scharfenbrück was plundered. Worse yet, in 1813 one of Frölich’s sons perished in the Wars of Liberation. After two decades the family returned to Berlin but soon found itself in financial straits. On his return to Berlin in 1813, Frölich unsuccessfully sought a position in the state ministry. The professional path that he did finally pursue reflected his continued reformist impulse: with his brother he opened the “Museum für Literatur und Kunst” in October 1814, a library in which local residents and visitors could read and discuss some eighty-five German, English and French newspapers and magazines, even on Sundays, for a small fee. In 1814 Frölich also acquired the Werkmeister Lending Library; the holdings, some 24,000 volumes, were presumably intended to further the education and political self-consciousness of the city’s population. On the city rolls of 1820 he is still listed as the owner of the lending library and in 1822 as a librarian (“Bibliothekar”). His library, further evidence of his commitment to enlightened social organization, caused concern among the governmental class, and as a result some of the library’s materials were removed from circulation. It may be that the emergence of coffee houses, the absence of a publishing house associated with his library, or competition from other reading rooms contributed to the ultimate demise of his business. Frölich died in bankruptcy on 23 May 1828. As Marie Louise Römer points out, throughout his life Frölich was a man who refused to pursue his own happiness at the expense of the happiness of his fellow citizens.10


On Man and his Circumstances was published anonymously in 1792 by the newly sanctioned, progressive book dealer Friedrich Franke. The letters on the acknowledgment page, “c. c. e. f. h. i. l. o. r. w.,” however, provide evidence of Frölich’s authorship, as rearranged they spell out his name: c. w. f. r. o. l. i. c. h. ← xv | xvi → Banned in Vienna shortly after its publication, the book reached the public as Minister Johann Christoph von Wöllner, who had been trained as a theologian, was implementing the restrictive “Religionsedikt” of 1788 that sought to restore orthodoxy, protect Christianity from those who wanted to infuse it with greater rationality, and consign the schools to the direction of the orthodox clergy, initiatives that Frölich vigorously opposes in his dialogues. Subsequently, Minister Wöllner was also instrumental in overseeing Friedrich Wilhelm II’s harsh censorship laws in the “enlightened despotism” of Prussian Berlin. Perhaps seeking protection from these forces or some legitimacy for his positions, Frölich, a novice author, makes clear in the preface to his dialogues both his indebtedness to Christoph Martin Wieland, whom he considers the premier author of his time despite his preference for enlightened absolutism, and his intention to enlighten the lower and middle classes. Wieland, who had flirted with the idea of the abolition of private property in his fragment Gesicht von einer Welt unschuldiger Menschen (1755), is credited with helping Frölich see the conditionality of human experience. Frölich specifically mentions Wieland’s Goldener Spiegel (1772), an examination of government, and his Geschichte des Danischmende, which portrays a contented folk ruled by an enlightened leader. For Frölich, Wieland portrayed humanity as naturally inclined toward the good and capable of living in harmony, but which, through governmental disinterest or abuse, can be diverted from its true path. Similarly, Wieland’s caution vis-à-vis superstition can be found replicated in Frölich. Like Wieland, Frölich emphasizes that individuals and their welfare cannot be understood apart from the social (and political) circumstances that circumscribe them. Thus, a repressive social configuration or state can have a detrimental effect on human development, personal happiness, and even on nature and morality.

Frölich’s analysis consists of ten dialogues between Philemon, seemingly the author’s mouthpiece, and Erast, a local merchant with a predominantly conventional outlook. The dialogues are symmetrically interspersed by four short reflections. To Erast’s opening question about the education of his sons – “What! I should not educate my children for the state? Does a teacher have a higher, nobler purpose?” – Philemon responds that the goal of education is to become human, not merely to become an educated ← xvi | xvii → citizen of a particular state, for the same sun warms all of humanity, that is, some aspects of human development are more basic than mere political belongingness. The path of human development is one toward happiness, and the lodestar of that path is Nature, as the Ciceronian motto of the book suggests: “Opinionum commenta delet dies, naturae Judicia confirmat” or “Time erases the fictions of opinion and confirms the verdicts of nature.” With its promotion of false, selective, and self-serving truths, the state prevents the establishment of a natural, rationally grounded order, conducive to human happiness. Faulty education, disproportionate conventionality, princely extravagance, and private property, considered “the single most seductive means to expand one’s ego,” all contribute to the distortion of the actual nature of humankind. Fortunately, these disruptive factors, which are zealously protected by the appointed guardians of the state, are not immutable:

The disruption can be countered by a reliance on reason, not only a preordained theoretical reason, but also a practical, habit-trained reason that collaborates with the heart to restrain our passions, transcend our sensuality, promote freedom, and even create gainful employment. While Frölich’s sense of freedom entails both the liberation from animalistic, materialistic need as well as the desire to “want to do what Nature demands of us,” that is, encourage our autonomy, he also claims of political freedom:


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (July)
German Enlightenment pedagogy opposition to private property social interdependence
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2017. XXVIII, 244 pp., 1 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Edward T. Larkin (Author)

Edward T. Larkin is Professor of German at the University of New Hampshire, where he teaches in the undergraduate German program. He received his PhD in Germanic Languages and Literatures from the University of Pennsylvania in 1986 with a dissertation on the representation of war in Goethe’s writings. A participant in numerous conferences, seminars, and institutes, he has published on Goethe, Schiller, Friedrich Jacobi, Vulpius, Fichte, Pezzl, Perutz, Treichel, and, more recently, Alfred Fried. In addition, he has published translations of works by Erich Hackl, Eugenie Kain, Leo Perutz, and Friedrich Schiller.


Title: Carl Wilhelm Frölich’s «On Man and his Circumstances»
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273 pages