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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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Reflection 1


There are yet other weaknesses in our national character, which become even more obvious the more one tries to render them innocuous by means of usurped authority or religious chimera. For some time now the disadvantages that necessarily result from ignoring the feeling for truth have been evident, but an unmistakable distrust of our essential strength has prevented our leaders from eliminating this evil themselves. One had always sought a remedy that could either hide the symptoms or make them less harmful, but no consideration was given to the fact that there could come a time when the patients might be able to perceive the uselessness of the remedy and would ridicule it. As long as the clergy had it in their power to command heaven and hell, the threat of eternal suffering seemed to be a sure means to terrify the denier back to a recognition of the truth. But the halos hovering above the priests’ heads have disappeared, and the power of their threats has likewise vanished. The confessional has ceased being heaven’s credit house, and one no longer pledges what no human being can command.

What horrific historical regression! – The identical testimony of two people must be the truth, as long as no proven crime has made their testimony suspect. And the greatest crimes are those that are not provable; where such proof is lacking, there is no truth. Necessity has sanctified these basic principles, and when something terrible occurs, they remain the...

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