Exploring Friedrich Engels’ Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy: Part 3 – Feuerbach. By: Thomas RigginsRead Now
(Read Part 1 HERE and Part 2 HERE)
So what kind of Idealism is Feuerbach, according to Engels, peddling? Feuerbach is a materialist who wants to advocate a true religion for humanity. Here is a quote from him: “The periods of humanity are distinguished only by religious changes. A historical movement is fundamental only when it is rooted in the hearts of men. The heart is not a form of religion, that the latter should exist also in the heart; the heart is the essence of religion.” Religion is based on the love that humans are capable of sharing with one another. Heretofore that love has been objectified and projected upon mythical beings and has been the alienated essence of the historic religions as well as the natural religions of primitive times.
Now, in the modern world of scientific understanding, we can dispense with the mythical superstitious religious beliefs that dominate the masses (they will have to be educated of course) and have a loving religion of the heart directly practiced by humans, Engels says, “this becomes the love between ‘I’ and ’Thou.’” Sex is the highest way we can express our love; so, sexual relations become one of the highest forms of Feuerbach’s new religion.
Sexual attraction and love making are purely natural functions of the human being and they should not be circumscribed by the rules and regulations of the state or of the positive religions (positive = historically existing). All the rules and regulations about sex and the relations between loving humans that are associated with, for example, Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism should be dumped as they are based on illusions and mythological premises. But the Idealism that Feuerbach manifests comes from his view that these relations do need a religious foundation, not from the positive or primitive religions, but based on the “human heart.” Speaking strictly as a materialist, the “heart” is a muscle, just as the ischiocavernosus muscle, so Feuerbach is being metaphorical. Anyway, Engels says, the major point is “not that these purely human relations exist, but that they shall be conceived of as the new, true religion.”
Here Feuerbach is a victim of his era: religion is important, and Feuerbach wants to keep the word around – he thinks it is important to have a society based on “religion.” Engels thinks it’s really ridiculous to try and have a materialist religion, one without a “God” or any supernatural ideas attached to it. The idea that religious changes are what delimit the periods of humanity is, Engels says: “Decidedly false.”
For Marxists, As Engels notes, the great epochal changes in history are economically based on changes in class relations and power politics; religious changes only accompanied these events. Meanwhile, there can be no “I-Thou” lovey-dovey relationships between humans as humans based on the natural proclivity for people to love one another, this is because our world and the globalized society we are all living in is still “based upon class antagonism and class rule.” Feuerbach’s writings on the religion of love, Engels points out, are “totally unreadable today.”
Religion remains in the 21st century what it has always been— the opium of the masses. We can work with religious people on specific progressive projects, but we should not encourage religious belief because such beliefs are rooted in Idealistic unscientific notions which prevent people from a proper understanding of reality – and this holds back the movement towards human liberation and in the long run only helps the exploiters.
Despite his writings on religions, Feuerbach has only really studied one, according to Engels, i.e., Christianity. Not only that, but it is an abstract idealized form of Christian morality which Feuerbach thinks his new religion of the heart, based on sexual intercourse, will instill in humanity. What is this “humanity” that he writes about? It is an abstract and idealized humanity that Feuerbach finds existing in all ages and climes. It is an ahistorical concept – some kind of “human nature” that Feuerbach had deduced by his concept of Christian morality.
Engels contrasts the materialist Feuerbach with the objective idealist Hegel, who also writes about Christianity and morals. Despite outward appearances, the materialist is really an idealist and the idealist a materialist. Feuerbach is a materialist because he doesn’t believe in God or a supernatural world on which to base his new religion; he bases it on the materially existing species of man on our planet and on nothing else. Sexual intercourse is at the heart of the heart of the new religion. It is really rooted in material existence. Yet his moral system is an abstract one deduced from an ideal Christianity.
Christianity, Jesus, God, etc., is nothing more than a human reflection projected into the sky for Feuerbach – the human family Is the source of all the ideals about the Holy Family, morality is just this reflection coming back to us of our own dreams and ideals. But for Engels, this reflection is devoid of the actual behavior of Christians throughout history who, besides engaging in sexual intercourse, have done a lot of unsavory activities inspired by their religion. Feuerbach who “preaches sensuousness, immersion in the concrete, in actuality, becomes thoroughly abstract as soon as he begins to talk of any other than mere sexual intercourse between human beings.” So, the materialist has produced a philosophy based on abstract mental constructions he has deduced from the Christian religion which is the basis for his morality. This is why the materialist is an idealist! A living breathing unity of opposites. (At least until 1872).
And what of Hegel? Was Feuerbach actually an improvement on Hegel? Well, here is Feuerbach’s morality in a nutshell. All human beings have an innate desire for “bliss;” but we can’t attain bliss without knowing how not to overindulge our desires, and we must also respect the social rights of others to also attain bliss – and this we do through love. Engels writes, “Rational self-restraint with regard to ourselves and love in contact with others— these are the basic rules of Feuerbach’s morality; from them all others are derived.”
Despite all Feuerbach’s comments about materialism, these rules about morality are, Engels says, banal. You can’t find “bliss” by just thinking about yourself and it is impossible to practice “love” towards others in the real world due to the actual social and economic systems humans live in. Feudal lords and surfs, slaves and masters, and in our age capitalists and proletarians are proof of the banality of Feuerbach’s pretensions to morality. Ruling (and exploiting) and ruled (and exploited) classes existing under the same social totality means that the masses will always be deprived of the material needs they require – both to find a blissful life for themselves, or to properly be able to practice unselfish “love” for others, especially for those who oppress them.
In this respect Hegel was more advanced than Feuerbach. Hegel saw morality as advancing through historical stages driven by humanity's “greed and lust for power.” Hegel explained how in each stage this struggle produced contradictions that could be resolved only by moving on to a higher stage of moral consciousness, until we reached Hegel’s day, when the idea of human equality had reached its highest bourgeois level (with the French Revolution) – all men are equal before the law (the level including women was yet to come). There was an innate drive here also, the struggle for human freedom – which was an idea struggling to come to human consciousness and history – was the result of this struggle. This was Hegel’s idealism.
For Marxists, it will be the class struggle objectively working in the material life of human beings at any point in history that is responsible for “moral” progress. “The cult of abstract man, which formed the kernel of Feuerbach’s new religion, had to be replaced by the science of real men and their historical development. This further development of Feuerbach’s standpoint beyond Feuerbach was inaugurated by Marx in 1845 in The Holy Family.” [Although this work was a joint creation of Marx and Engels, Engels here credits Marx with the breakthrough beyond Feuerbach’s materialism to what was to become Dialectical Materialism.]
Next: Part Four “Marx”
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association.