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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 10



PHILEMON: Since most people seek their happiness in things that are subject to the intervention of chance, it is no wonder that so few are content with their fate. Egotism provides such excellent evidence of their important accomplishments. But Nature, which is better structured to satisfy their needs than to reward their accomplishments (which it unfortunately did not foresee), is not rich enough to show equal attention to everyone. This imbalance between supply and demand has caused industrious Nature to go bankrupt, and our ensuing dissatisfaction leads us to suppose that the world, as it is, is virtually incapable of increasing the general level of happiness. Each of these deserving creditors is equipped with the most concise prescriptions, and the demands that can occasionally facilitate happiness are so multiplied by greed that the supply is easily exhausted even before the majority of people can realize their aspirations. Many are even deprived of what their needs would entitle them to; the general discontentment is only too well founded. The more goods that we acquire, the more eagerly we are concerned with increasing our needs to help counter the occasional reproach that we are impoverished – and certainly the heart bleeds to see so many people leading ← 182 | 183 → pitiable lives for the simple reason that they are too ignorant to know what they are entitled to. The superabundance gives rise to so much apparent enjoyment that one cannot expect a voluntary renunciation of the excesses. But...

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