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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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It is appropriate that someone who is about to embark on a journey into the world of letters should inform the guardians of this realm of the intention of his voyage (and what has led him there) so that they may offer a proper assessment as to whether this newcomer might be part of the misguided rabble who at various times offer pirated works, already-published imprints, or unripe fruits that poison the taste of our contemporaries, or whether his goods are of a kind that one could allow them to circulate safely.

As far as my goods are concerned, the gentlemen will see their utility for themselves.

If, however, they ask why I have offered precisely these goods and no other, then my whole rationale is: I had first to study human behavior before I chose to describe it. Those whom I would wish to be the judges of my work will be satisfied with this answer and will appreciate the fact that I have spared them a long-winded discourse on the presumed sequence of ideas. But those who find this explanation insufficient will believe that I have written too little in any case.

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