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

A Translation of «Über den Menschen und seine Verhältnisse»

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

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Introduction

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

I

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...

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