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Recollecting Professor Eucken 

Rudolf Eucken


Waging War to Make Peace Series
By David Arthur Walters

President Obama’s personification of the contradiction between pacific ideals and

militant reality brings to mind the self-contradicting predicament of University of Jena
professor and ‘Christian Activist’ philosopher Rudolf Eucken. Professor Eucken won
the 1908 Nobel Prize, admittedly not for Peace but for Literature, "in recognition of
his earnest search for truth, his penetrating power of thought, his wide range of
vision, and the warmth and strength in presentation with which in his numerous
works he has vindicated and developed an idealistic philosophy of life,” announced
Harald Hjärne, presenter of the Prize and director of the Swedish Academy. The Prize
was awarded over strenuous objections that philosophy is not literature even though
philosophers may think of themselves as poets. Alfred Bernhard Nobel’s will
provided that a prize for literature be “given to a person who shall have produced in
the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” Is not
perpetual peace one of the greatest ideals of humankind? It has long been long for
and promised by every religion worth its divinity.

Professor Eucken was a “typical German professor,” as British professors liked to

say, meaning that he was patriotic: he supported his own country in time of war
instead of denouncing it for the sins that were obvious to its enemies who purportedly
worshiped the same omnipotent god of love. Indeed, his reputation for espousing

Recollecting Professor Eucken 

Christianity was grievously damaged by his patriotic support of the so-called Huns
during the Great War, and his subsequent denial of their brutal activities; in fact, he
lectured to the troops in Belgium as atrocities were being committed there. Yet he is
still regarded by some thinkers as a literary genius whose foremost cause was the
advancement of world peace.

In his essay, Rudolf Eucken, Anatole France, John Galsworthy, Armand Cuvillier stated
that, despite his nationalistic tendencies, "Eucken undeniably made a major
contribution to modern philosophy, fully justifying the award of the Nobel Prize in
1908," because his thought helped link religious traditions, if not organized religion,
with the ideology of the developing twentieth century. "To Eucken," he concluded,
"the Church is only a means of achieving the kingdom of God. It is even possible, he
maintains, to be deeply religious without belonging to any formally organized religion;
the main thing is religion as a personal experience."

Professor Eucken’s popular philosophy, dubbed Christian Activism, implied the

commission of loving acts, but his action was largely symbolic i.e. confined to mental
activity i.e. lecturing and writing books; rationalizing belief and not necessarily doing
anything about, claiming to have gone beyond mechanistic naturalism, or devastating
materialism, and arid intellectualism including scientism, both of which philosophers
of life or vitalism had declared bankrupt, to fruitful mysticism, in order to gain direct
access to the godhead. He was no pragmatist: he was not a “feel good” Christian who
would do anything that makes one feel good including forgiving people; his
“activism” was strictly spiritual, highly unlikely to bring the Kingdom of God to
Earth. Nor was he a voluntarist, whose faith is in making oneself believe at will.
Although his writings did refer to ethical choices, he generally relied on intuition for
those choices, prescribing few deeds in particular. He believed that we are at times
commanded by spiritual forces to do certain things: “They force human activity into
particular channels; they speak to us with a tone of command and require absolute
obedience.” He felt it was his bounden duty as an obedient German professor to turn
from universal Christian Activism to the particulars of German patriotism when the
Great War broke out. Thus does universal love and peace turn to particular hatreds
and wars to somehow keep the former: it appears that Professor Eucken, a neo-
Kantian to the extent that he emphasized concepts over intuition yet placed
categorical limits on intellectual knowledge, was the unwitting victim of a Kantian

Professor Eucken was an idealist at a time when people were becoming increasingly
disgruntled with the gross materialism of “naturalism.” Philosophers disenchanted
with reductive materialism as well as the rationalization of irrational speculative
idealism were flocking back to Kant, who had drawn conceptual boundaries at the
Recollecting Professor Eucken 

frontier of human reason, beyond which was the spiritual realm ruled by a deity to be
affirmed as a matter of faith for its utility rather than a supreme being whose existence
could be proven; the world seemed to have been created on purpose for a purpose,
and it was practical to behave as if that were true. The New England
transcendentalists, relying on secondhand interpretations of Kant, thought he
supported the notion that one could get directly in touch with its godhead; but Kant
had in fact explicitly warned his students about the illusions of transcendental

Emily Hermann described the spiritually impoverished temper of the relatively

prosperous time, in Eucken and Bergson, Their Significance for Christian Thought (1912):
“Hitherto the social conscience has agreed with popular pragmatism in glorifying the
thing that ‘works’ most quickly and apparently in raising the submerged and
ameliorating their conditions of life. We are just emerging barely emerging from a
temper to which the man who cries for bread makes a more real and poignant appeal
than the soul that crieth out for the living God, and which accounts the man who
evolves a " darkest England " scheme a greater hero than the man who "merely"
thinks and prays. To our passionate arraignment of modern civilization and culture on
the count of its callousness and brutality to the toiling and unprivileged masses we are
adding the deeper indictment of injustice and damage to the spiritual life of man,
taking that term in its broadest signification. Slowly we are learning to believe the
hackneyed truth that the central guilt and sting of all cruelty to body and estate is
spiritual, and that a Herod's massacre of innocents is not so black a crime as the
extinction in a single human soul of those ‘noble thoughts that pass across the heart
of every man like great white birds.’ Tardily we are coming to see the essential
triviality, vulgarity and heartlessness of unredeemed refinement and culture, the coarse
selfishness and veiled sensuality at the core of romantic aestheticism, the stultifying
influence of a pedestrian and conventional morality and its menace to true ethics, and
the spiritual stupefaction and demoralization consequent upon a civilization which
patronizes Christianity. And it is not from pulpits and theological colleges that this
new appreciation of the Christian point of view comes, but from the philosophers and
scientists, the essayists and novelists. Men everywhere are feeling the hollowness, the
contradiction, the spiritual bankruptcy of our sleek and well-to-do culture.”

The Ideal of the spiritual realm was naturally the Good to which all citizens of the
cosmos are stoically obligated. The Good could only be intuited, could only be known
by irrational, transcendental means. The relativity of the rationed goods on the
material plane for which rational animals compete fail to provide a reliable model for
unity, for the one good that is not relatively good but is absolutely good despite
apparent ambiguity and ambivalence. To wit, in pagan terms, “God.” Man is a rational
animal, but the reasoning power is merely a mediator between two irrationals: matter
Recollecting Professor Eucken 

and spirit, so he must be a god as well, standing flat on his feet on Earth but with his
head in the highest heaven. Likewise is the Logos adopted by Christianity, where the
duality is incorporated in human form, irrational and absurd, some “thing” that can
only be believed in by God’s fools, who faithfully intuit the Word beyond the words.
It was not a question of righting Hegel’s world after Marx stood it on its head, but of
realizing the ideal: the ideal was once again the real; all else was illusory and doubtful.
Man is in part a rational animal, but one given to revolt: irrationalism revolts against
the static concepts of an age.

Irrationalism and individualism usually go hand in hand – Christian salvation is

essentially a personal salvation, one that guarantees survival to the individual who has
blind faith. That a man wakes up every day is evidence to a primitive man of his own
immortality; that he dies by accident or by tooth and claw of other animals or by the
hand of human beings seems unnatural; wherefore he attributes natural death to
unseen, malevolent forces, which he would placate or conquer by magical means; he
believes he is personally responsible for his fate. The individual naturally has a strong
will to live forever, notwithstanding the possibility of a death instinct as well, hence is
in need of absolute power to persist unimpeded, a power he projects and worships for
his own sake. But survival also depends on the cooperation of others, led for the sake
of convenience by a superior man, a super individual, a superman if not an
omnipotent god, or at least one in direct touch with an omnipotent god.

Professor Eucken was no worshipper of the individual no matter how superior, so

Nobel presenter Harald Hjärne did not associate Rudolf Eucken’s philosophy with an
exaltation of the individual superman: “It is not the individual or the superman in his
separate existence," the director of the Swedish Academy wrote, "but the strong
character formed in the consciousness of free harmony with the intellectual forces of
the cosmos, and therefore profoundly independent, that in Eucken's view is called
upon to liberate us from the superficial compulsion of nature and the never
completely inescapable pressure of the historical chain of cause and effect."

Professor Eucken as a neo-Kantian was keenly interested in the role that concepts
play in human development. In The Fundamental Concepts of Modern Philosophy (1880)
traced the history of the concept of the individual in its relation to the many. He
would undoubtedly take exception to our one-sided notion of Christian individualism.
We left out the other side of the story in our intentional focus on the individual. He
might notice that we used the term ‘person’ ,and point out that the Christian concept
of the person defines socially responsive individuals.

“It is no easy task to show the relation of Christianity to the problem of individuality,
because it involves different and conflicting elements. Viewed in connection with a
Recollecting Professor Eucken 

cosmology which makes the ethico-religious element the sole meaning and design of
the world and of life, the events which occur in the experience of each individual
must be, above all, the most important, and the individual must thus receive an
immeasurably increased significance. The Church Fathers generally believed (in
opposition to the ancient theory) that every individual is the object of divine care, for
which reason the activity of the Church must be directed to each individual. The
doctrine of the unlimited freedom of the will, generally held during the earlier
centuries, by the form which it gave to action insured an independence to the
individual; and the distinctive feature of that doctrine was recognized in the idea of an
organic union of individuals in a comprehensive whole. On the other hand, the
assumption of an absolute value in the individual was contradicted by the doctrine of
eternal punishment, and we need hardly explain that, at that time, nothing was said of
any rights of the individual as opposed to the general interests. As soon as the
individual deviates from the general order he is considered as one who has gone
astray, and is to be brought back to the truth, even though by coercion. The whole
everywhere precedes the individual; it communicates itself to it as an objective power,
demanding faith and obedience, so that all which occurs in the individual is intelligible
only by the appropriation of a meaning which is raised above the arbitrary judgment
of any one man. No salvation is possible for the individual, except as salvation for the
whole has been and is an all-comprehensive fact, "that the opposition in itself has
been removed constitutes the condition, the presupposition of the possibility that
each subject should remove it for himself." (Hegel) Whether these two tendencies
have been equally worked out is more than questionable; we must rather answer
negatively, because, as a matter of fact, the recognition of the individual was ever
more and more repressed. No one contributed more to this than Augustine, who,
above all others, both in his whole idea of the world and of life, and in his personal
appropriation of Christianity, made the fullest use of his own individuality. All things
considered, of the Church Fathers Origen has best established the principle of

The soldier sacrifices himself as an individual for the good of his group; that good is
purportedly peace and prosperity; thus he wages war to make peace, the more booty
for the victors the better. Socrates, an experienced soldier who speculated on the stars
and then turned within to behold the cosmos since he believed the individual to be a
microcosm, said that it is better to suffer an evil than to do one; we find that Greek
tenet pickled in the Christian canon. Today Christian soldiers say it is best to die
fighting for peace; yet we know of early Christians who preferred to die rather than
kill their kind, because Jesus said to put away the sword and leave the defense to his
heavenly father. Indeed, the Romans despised the early Christians because they would
not fight for the state; but Christians were won over to waging war behind the cross

Recollecting Professor Eucken 

soon enough, that their religion would become a world religion instead of a minor
Jewish cult.

Martyrdom is for saints. Philosophy is for the wise. Still Professor Eucken would not
tell his philosophy students to put away the sword and depend on God for justice:
“Philosophy,” he proclaimed, in a homily appearing in the April 1916 edition of New
York’s ‘Homiletic Review’, “is summoned to proclaim the unity of mankind over
against the present split among the peoples…. (Philosophers) are not merely scholars;
they are also living men and citizens of their own nation. When they see this assaulted
and its existence put in peril, it is for them a holy duty to come to the defense of the
fatherland…. Meanwhile, the belief is entirely proper that the intellectual gains which
are the result of philosophical labor remain unharmed by war, that a realm of
intellectual creation will remain fully recognized beyond the enmities of man…. Let
each, therefore, remain true to his own people, but never forget the task and aim of
philosophy – to consider things under the form of perpetuity, maintaining for
humanity in the present a world superior to all the littleness of human action.”

Edwin E. Slosson’ essay on Rudolf Eucken in Six Major Prophets (1917) praised the
professor and claimed that, if the Nobel committees “have not discovered original
genius, they have at least pointed it out to the world at large. The men thus
distinguished as having contributed to human progress have extended their influence
over their contemporaries, as well as received a due appreciation of their efforts. The
Nobel Prize does not add to the stature of a man, but it does elevate him to a pulpit.”