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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 7



PHILEMON: When Justice descended from heaven and humans were to be judged by other humans, she wept to see her scale in such capricious hands. It pleased the gods – she said – to provide me only weak instruments to judge human behavior. Nevertheless, I will dispense justice as far as they will allow. Everything else will be a matter for the gods and humanity. She labeled the duties over which she herself intended to keep watch perfect duties, and those that were left to the people alone were called imperfect duties. She thereby erected a permanent monument to their human weakness, which was supposed to remind them to be circumspect. But all the duties, whether their source of accountability was Justice herself or the individual conscience, were supposed to be equally binding as dictated by their nature. The people, however, seemed neither to feel nor to understand the gift that they alone among the creatures had received. They were so weak that they believed the designation of imperfect duties had the same origin as did the imperfection of the obligation itself, i.e., that it was good and praiseworthy to comply with them, but that the fulfillment of them was something else to which the people had not actually obligated themselves. They referred to the exercise of these duties as virtues. To the extent that every obligation is accompanied by a limitation of their rights, they felt justified in expecting some compensation, as they saw it,...

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