Jonas, Hans

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JONAS, HANS . Hans Jonas (19031993) was a theologian and philosopher whose intellectual development moved from research into the Gnosticism of late antiquity through a naturalistic philosophy of life and culminated in establishing an ethic of global ecological responsibility. Born in Mönchengladbach, Germany, into the liberal German-Jewish bourgeoisie, Jonas adhered to Zionist convictions early in life. His philosophical studies led him to Edmund Husserl (18591938) in Freiburg, thenfor a short timeto the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin, and finally into the circle of Martin Heidegger (18991976) in Marburg. There Jonas encountered his other influential teacher, Rudolf Bultmann (18841976), who was developing his method of existential interpretation and "demythologizing" of the New Testament. Bultmann aroused and intensified Jonas's interest in Gnosticism and in Gnostic ontology. On the road to his revolutionary attempt at a comprehensive philosophical interpretation of Gnosticism, the Heideggerian analysis of existence was especially helpful to Jonas, since it led him to a new, modern understanding of this religious-historical phenomenon of antiquity. In 1930, as an outcome of his dialogue with Bultmann and Heidegger, Jonas published the study Augustin und das paulinische Freiheitsproblem, in which he laid the foundation for his later reflections concerning freedom as the basic defining feature of human existence.

Early Career

When the first volume of Gnosis und Späntantiker Geist appeared, in 1934, Jonas had already left Nazi Germany and emigrated to Jerusalem, where he stepped into the German-Jewish intellectual circle of Gershom Scholem (18871982) and taught at the Hebrew University. In 1939, he volunteered to serve in the British army and in 1945 he returned to Germany as a member of the Jewish Brigade Group. There he learned that his mother had been deported to Lodz and had subsequently been murdered in Auschwitz. The passion with which Jonas, in his philosophy, attempted to justify the value of life resulted from his confrontation with the Nazis' utter abandonment of all that is human. In 1949, after being drawn into the army again during the Israeli War of Independence, Jonas left Jerusalem in order to accept an academic position in Canada, and in 1955 he accepted a post at the New School for Social Research in New York City.


Jonas published the second volume of Gnosis und Späntantiker Geist in 1954; however, he devoted himself increasingly to other topics and continued to pursue his gnosis research as a peripheral activity. That most publications since the 1980s in the field of religious studies make only limited reference to Hans Jonas is due to the fact that current researchwhich is more strongly historical and sociological in its orientationis capable, on the basis of the Nag Hammadi editions of the original sources, of elucidating the different currents of Gnosticism in a more thoroughgoing and detailed fashion than was possible for Jonas. Jonas did have access to an abundance of religious-historical sources, but these were primarily from the Patristic literature, the middle-Asian Manichean literature, the fore-Asian Mandean literature, and Neo-Platonism. However, his aim was first and foremost to effectuate a religious-philosophical interpretation of these sources. In later editions of his 1958 book The Gnostic Religion, he undertook to integrate new material into his understanding of Gnosticism, without changing his basic conception in any significant respects. In pursuing his work, he deliberately omitted offering any particular analysis of the religious-historical origins of Gnosticism, its development within the specific social and religious-cultural settings that engendered it, and its relationship to Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, or the Hellenistic philosophy. His goal was rather to achieve a philosophically based phenomenological survey of the mythological motifs, symbols, religious-existential attitudes and ethical concepts that characterized the appearance of Gnosticism in its diverse manifestations.

The permanent value of Jonas's interpretation lies in his hermeneutical approach, through which he led research on Gnosticism out of the narrow limits of theology and church history and at the same time went beyond a mere discussion of the religious-historical origins of the multifaceted, syncretistic Gnostic movement. Aided by the Heideggerian existential analyticand proceeding also on the basis of Oswald Spengler's (18801936) cultural-morphological theses, which asserted that abstruse aspects were to be found hidden behind the historical expressions of religious phenomenaJonas attempted to overcome the impression of chaos and pandemonium and identify the basic types of a Gnostic worldview. Particularly noteworthy in this connection were the belief in the essentially evil or alienating character of material existence and a tendency to devalue the demiurgic world (a world that could be overcome only by being renounced) on the basis of a fundamental anti-cosmic dualism. This interpretation formed the starting point of a whole generation of researchers in the field of Gnosticism; however, it has more recently been called in question, for example by Michael A. Williams, who has astutely disputed the idea of one Gnostic religion that can be understood in uniform categories and who has characterized this idea as a misleading typological construct.

Alienation and Organic Being

Irrespective of whether Jonas's account of Gnosticism can stand in the face of more recent research in the field, it was a crucial determinant of his philosophical development after the war. In his 1952 essay "Gnosticism and Modern Nihilism," he endeavored to make use of his research on Gnosticism to effectuate a fundamental critique of Existentialism, which had been of great service to him as a hermeneutical key but which now had become the major challenge to his thinking. Above all, the politically ominous potential of Heidegger's attitude toward the world, which had made him susceptible to the inhumanity of the Nazi ideology, induced Jonas to set forth a counter-philosophy in opposition to modern nihilism. The "existentialist reading" of Gnosticism, with the help of Heideggerian categories (for example, the losing-of-self, abandonment into the nullity of the world, the foundationality of fear) helped Jonas decode the Gnostic myths and work out their nihilistic implications for self and the worldimplications that are marked by the human feeling of alienation and suffering under the enslaving powers of the world and of the cosmos. He postulated a "Gnostic foundationality," comparable to Heidegger's "abandonment," which was diametrically opposed to the ontology of Greek antiquity, with its conception of the cosmos as a living, harmonious, and rational system affording security. The foundation myth that Jonas abstracted as Gnosticism's common feature tells of a radically disturbed metaphysical situation of the world, whichas a demiurgic creationcondemns the human being to existential abandonment, darkness and "not-at-home-ness." Liberationwhich, in Gnostic thinking, was conceived of as a return of the imprisoned soul into an otherworldly, divine realm of light, wherein the human soul participates by virtue of the spirit even during its exile in the material worldis only possible by treading the path of revealed, occult knowledge (gnosis) and demands as an ethical consequence a conscious "renunciation of worldliness."

Jonas believed himself to have discerned a secularizing return to the Gnostic mode of thinking in spiritual streams that extended from Blaise Pascal (16231662) through Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900) and up to Heidegger; Jonas called these spiritual currents "cosmic nihilism" both because they viewed the human being as a lonely element within an altogether indifferent universe, an element separated from nature by an unbridgeable chasm, and because they advocated contempt for the world and escape from it. Jonas hoped to overcome this tendency through an antidualistic "philosophy of the organic," which he set forth in The Phenomenon of Life (1963). In this work, he expounded his understanding of organic being, which recognizes in the process of evolution a progressive development of freedom and danger, culminating in human beings, who do not have to experience the world as an inhospitable, hostile place where they are not at home if they will begin to see themselves as part of a nature that is meaningful in itself.

Ethic of Responsibility

In his 1984 The Imperative of Responsibility, Jonas explored the ethical consequences of his speculative ontology. In view of the vulnerability of a world society that is able, through its actions, to damage life on earth irrevocably, and in opposition to the utopian thinking of Ernst Bloch (18851977), he demanded a "heuristic of fear" that would enable one to envision "evil suffered by coming generations" and set strategies of humility to counter the ominous euphoria of the Faustian dream, for example, strategies of self-limitation and reverence for the "holiness of life." In view of dwindling public trust in religion, he quite deliberately gave up theological arguments in order to be able to establish a universally plausible ethic for the global society. By contrast, when he addressed Jewish audiences, he gave a central role to human respect for the integrity of creation and to the notion that human beings are created in God's own image. Jonas viewed the power of science and technology to reshape the world, giving humanity the feeling of treading in the very footsteps of God, as the era's most important challenge. In the field of bio-ethics, he warned against unbridled genetic engineering, which, as he emphasized in his 1970 essay "Contemporary Problems in Ethics from a Jewish Perspective," seemed to him to endanger in a most dramatic fashion the very "image of the creation itself, including the human being."

In his 1987 essay The Concept of God after Auschwitz, Jonas radically transformed the question of theodicy into a question about the justification of the human being, who is created for freedom; he thus bid farewell to the idea that God is in absolute control of the course of history. Stimulated by ideas from the Lurianic Qabbalah, Jonas employed a speculative myth to unfold a process of theogony and cosmogony in which God, in the course of evolution, withdraws completely back into himself, relinquishes his omnipotence, and makes the world subject to human action, thereby giving over to human control the fate of his own divinity, which is deeply affected by the joy and suffering of life. These speculations lent the utmost urgency to his appeal to human responsibility for life. It is decisive for the whole of Hans Jonas's philosophy that his ethical-philosophical interpretation of the contemporary world's challenges cannot be understood in isolation from his existential confrontation with the abysmal depths of inhumanity revealed in Auschwitz, or from his belief in the transcendent responsibility of the human being. The underlying motif of the philosopher's cosmogonical suppositions is this: given the human formation of the world, in a time when genocide is practiced and technological self-destruction is possible, the very image of God is in peril.

See Also

Ascension; Exile; Gnosticism; Hermeneutics; History of Religions.


A comprehensive bibliography of the works of Hans Jonas, and of writings about him, is to be found in the appendix to Jonas's Erinnerungen (Memoirs), after conversations with Rachel Salamander, edited by Christian Wiese (Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 2003). Jonas's Wissenschaft als persönliches Erlebnis (Science as personal experience; Göttingen, Germany, 1987) contains further autobiographical reflections. Biographical perspectives provide good introductions to Jonas, especially Christian Wiese, Hans Jonas: Zusammen Philosoph und Jude (Hans Jonas: Philosopher and Jew; Frankfurt am Main, 2003); Olivier Depré, Hans Jonas: 19031993 (Paris, 2003); and Alberto Prieri, Hans Jonas (Florence, Italy, 1998). A good overview of the different perspectives on Jonas's work can be found in Dietrich Böhler, ed., Ethik für die Zukunft (Ethic for the future; Münich, Germany, 1994). Introductions to Jonas's philosophy are provided by Franz Josef Wetz, Hans Jonas zur Einführung (Hamburg, 1994) and David J. Levy, Hans Jonas: The Integrity of Thinking (Columbia, Mo., 2003). Detailed interpretations of Jonas's life and research are found in two collections of essays, Wolfgang Erich Müller, ed., Von der Gnosisforschung zur Verantwortungsethik (Hans Jonas: From gnosis research to an ethic of responsibility; Stuttgart, Germany, 2003) and Christian Wiese and Eric Jacobson, eds., Weiterwohnlichkeit der Welt (Berlin, 2003).

Augustin und das paulinische Freiheitsproblem (Augustine and the Pauline problem of freedom; Göttingen, Germany, 1965) should be counted among Jonas's important religious-historical works. Other important books by Jonas include: Ein philosophischer Beitrag zur Genesis der christlich-abendländischen Freiheitsidee (A philosophical contribution toward the genesis of the Christian-Western idea of freedom; Göttingen, Germany, 1930); Gnosis und spätantiker Geist. Die mythologische Gnosis zur Geschichte und Methodologie der Forschung (Göttingen, Germany, 1934; expanded edition, 1964); Gnosis und spätantiker Geist. Von der Mythologie zur mystischen Philosophie (Göttingen, Germany, 1954); The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity (Boston 1958; expanded and revised edition, Boston, 1963).

Barbara Aland, with Ugo Bianchi et al., edited an important volume, Festschrift für Hans Jonas (Gnosis: commemorative volume for Hans Jonas; Göttingen, Germany, 1978), in which world-renowned specialists focus on Jonas's approach to Gnosticism and related subjects. Ioan P. Culianu, Gnosticismo e pensiero moderno: Hans Jonas (Rome, 1985) is also important in this respect. Eric Jakob, Martin Heidegger und Hans Jonas (Martin Heidegger and Hans Jonas; Tübingen, Germany, 1996) is devoted to elucidating Jonas's relationship to Heidegger. See also Wolfgang Baum, Gnostische Elemente im Denken Martin Heideggers?: Eine Studie auf der Grundlage der Religionsphilosophie von Hans Jonas Gnostic (Gnostic Elements in the thinking of Martin Heidegger?: A study of the foundations of Hans Jonas' philosophy of religion; Münich, Germany, 1997); and Richard Wolin, Heidegger's Children: Hannah Arendt, Karl Loewith, Hans Jonas, and Herbert Marcuse (Princeton, N.J. 2001). For criticism of the notion of Gnosticism as formulated by Jonas, see Michael A. Williams, Rethinking "Gnosticism": An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category (Princeton, N.J., 1996) and Michael Waldstein, "Hans Jonas' Construct 'Gnosticism': Analysis and Critique," Journal of Early Christian Studies 8, no. 3 (2000): 341372.

Jonas develops his philosophy of the organic and brings out its ethical implications in The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology (New York, 1966); in Philosophical Essays : From Ancient Creed to Technological Man (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1974); and in On Faith, Reason and Responsibility: Six Essays (San Francisco, 1978). For Jonas's thoughts on the philosophy of responsibility and its ethical implications, see Macht oder Ohnmacht der Subjektivität?: Das Leib-Seele-Problem im Vorfeld des Prinzips Verantwortung (The power or powerlessness of subjectivity?: The mind-body problem underlying the imperative of responsibility; Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 1981); The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age (Chicago, 1984); Technik, Medizin und Ethik: Zur Praxis des Prinzips Verantwortung (Technology, medicine and ethics: Toward practice of the imperative of responsibility; Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 1985); and Philosophie: Rückschau und Vorschau am Ende des Jahrhunderts (Philosophy: Review and preview at the end of the century; Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 1993). Important works for interrelated themes in the fields of ontology and ethics in Jonas are Wolfgang Müller's Der Begriff der Verant wortung bei Hans Jonas (Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 1988); Gilbert Hottois, Hans Jonas: nature et responsabilité (Hans Jonas: Nature and responsibility; Paris, 1993); Bernd Wille, Ontologie und Ethik bei Hans Jonas (Ontology and ethics in Hans Jonas; Dettelbach, Germany 1996); Nathalie Frogneux, Hans Jonas ou la vie dans le monde (Hans Jonas, or Life within the world; Brussels, Belgium, 2000); Marie-Geneviève Pinsart, Hans Jonas et la liberté: Dimensions theologiques, ontologiques et politiques (Hans Jonas and freedom: Theological, ontological, and political dimensions; Paris, 2002); Frank Niggemeier, Pflicht zur Behutsamkeit?: Hans Jonas' naturphilosophische Ethik fuer die technologische Zivilisation (Duty to be cautious?: Hans Jonas' natural-philosophical ethic for technological civilization; Würzburg, Germany, 2002).

Jonas' late metaphysical reflections are to be found in Der Gottesbegriff nach Auschwitz: Eine jüdische Stimme (The concept of God after Auschwitz: A Jewish voice ; Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 1987); Philosophische Untersuchungen und metaphysische Vermutungen (Philosophical investigations and metaphysical suppositions; Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 1992); and Mortality and Morality: A Search for Good after Auschwitz, edited by Lawrence Vogel (Evanston, Ill., 2001). Thomas Schieder offers a critical polemic in Weltabenteuer Gottes: Die Gottesfrage bei Hans Jonas (God's cosmic adventure: The God question in Hans Jonas; Paderborn, Germany, 1998).

Christian Wiese (2005)

Translated from German by Marvin C. Sterling