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

A Translation of «Über den Menschen und seine Verhältnisse»


Edward T. Larkin

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.

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Dialogue 3



ERAST: In our previous conversation you mentioned a particular kind of feelings that are first experienced in youth and then become crucial for our future active life. Can you explain more fully the kind of feelings that are worth nurturing?

PHILEMON: Every notion, whether it is caused by an external stimulus or whether it results from the laws of intellectual association, first affects the imagination, which in turn determines the impact of the idea on us; this is the feeling of an idea. Many people are content to accept this first representation and to follow it. This belief in the correctness of an emotion can become mechanical by virtue of the individual’s malleability; it can become a law to be blindly followed such that some individuals ultimately lose both the good will and the ability to justify the motivation for their actions – their feelings – to reason. These feelings then become autonomous and force us to conform to their authority, much like an elastic object that is set in motion only by a movement particular to itself and then remains insensitive to any other stimulus. They differ from natural feelings, which are grounded in Nature itself – if they are indeed natural to the individual – that is to say, they are present wherever man is to be found. On the other hand, conventional feelings are only present when one is immersed in interactions where such feelings are prominent. Among the former are the love...

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