Strauss, David Friedrich (1808–1874)
STRAUSS, DAVID FRIEDRICH
David Friedrich Strauss, the German theologian, historian of religion, and moralist, was born at Ludwigsburg in Württemberg. He studied from 1821 to 1825 at Blaubeuren, where he fell under the influence of the Hegelian theologian F. C. Baur, and at the Tübingen Stift from 1825 to 1831. He next attended the University of Berlin, where he heard lectures by G. W. F. Hegel and Friedrich Schleiermacher. In 1832 he went to the University of Tübingen as lecturer, remaining there until 1835, the year of the publication of the first volume of his most important work, Das Leben Jesu kritisch bearbeitet (2 vols., Tübingen, 1835–1836; translated from the 4th German edition by George Eliot as The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, London, 1848). The universal storm of public indignation that this book occasioned resulted in his dismissal from the university and his permanent retirement from academic life. Master of a clear and forthright prose style, Strauss had no difficulty supporting himself as a journalist and popular exponent of the view that religion—Christianity in particular—is an expression of the human mind's capacity to generate myths and treat them as truths revealed by God to man.
When he began his study of the Gospels, Strauss was neither a liberal nor a materialist. His original interests had been those of a Hegelian idealist; he had meant to study the available records of Jesus' life in order to distinguish their historically valid content from the theological accretions that had become associated with them during the first two centuries of the Christian era. His investigations convinced him, however, that the principal importance of the Gospels was aesthetic and philosophical, not historical. On the one hand, the Gospels provided insight into the Messianic expectation of the Jewish people in the late Hellenistic period; on the other hand, they reflected a memory of the exceptional personality of a great man, Jesus. Thus envisaged, the Gospels were a synthesis of notions peculiar to the Jews regarding the nature of world history and of certain moral teachings associated with the name of a purely human, yet historically vague, personality, presented in an aesthetically pleasing form for members of a new religious community that was both Jewish and Greek in its composition. For Strauss, the Gospels were, in short, interesting primarily as evidence of the workings of consciousness in the sphere of religious experience: they showed how the mind could fabricate miracles and affirm them as true, contrary to the Hegelian dictum, then regarded as an established truth, that the real was rational and the rational was real.
Had Strauss halted at this point, his work might have been ignored as merely another vestige of the free thought of the Enlightenment. Instead, he went on to argue that even if the historicity of the account of Jesus's life in the Gospels were denied, it need not follow that the Gospels were a product of conscious invention or fraud. He held, rather, that they could be said to belong to a third order of mental activity, called by Hegel unconscious invention or myth and defined by him as an attempt to envision the Absolute in terms of images derived from sensible experiences. As unconscious invention, the Gospels were to be viewed as poetic renderings of man's desire to transcend the finitude of the historical moment, as evidence of the purely human desire to realize the immanent goal of Spirit in its journey toward the Hegelian Being-in-and-for-itself. Thus, although Strauss had denied that the Gospels were evidence of the direct intrusion of the divine into history or even of the true nature of Jesus' life, he had, in his own view, at least salvaged them as documents in the history of human expression. In doing so, of course, he had reduced them to the same status as the pagan myths, legends, and epics.
In a second work, Die christliche Glaubenslehre (2 vols., 1840–1841), Strauss tried to clarify the theoretical basis of his original historical inquiry. He argued that Christianity was a stage in the evolution of a true pantheism that had reached its culmination in Hegelian philosophy. What the poet and mystic took for God was nothing but the world—specifically, man in the world—conceived in aesthetic terms. Science studied the same phenomena that are governed by physical laws, and philosophy was, as Hegel had taught, mind reflecting on these prior activities of thought and imagination.
Das Leben Jesu became a cause célèbre in a Germany growing increasingly reactionary both politically and intellectually. The attack launched against Strauss from all quarters soon made him a symbol to German liberals; he was regarded as a martyr of science and freedom of thought. Accordingly, Strauss was drawn into political as well as theological polemics. In 1848 he published at Halle a defense of bourgeois liberalism, Der politische und der theologische Liberalismus. He later turned to the study of philosophical materialism (that of Friedrich Albert Lange and of Charles Darwin) and to the production of a series of historical works on leading advocates of freedom of thought in European history (for example, a long biography of Ulrich von Hutten, 1858, and a study of Voltaire, 1870). As he progressed, he repudiated the Hegelianism of his first book. In a preface to a later edition of Das Leben Jesu, he stated that he had undertaken it to show "to those to whom the conceptions … as to the supernatural character … of the life of Jesus had become intolerable … [that] the best means of effectual release will be found in historical inquiry." Abandoning the last residues of his earlier idealism, he argued that "everything that happens, or ever happened, happened naturally." He still recognized the aesthetic value of the Gospel account, but he now saw it as providing the image of the good life that had finally become possible on this earth because of the triumphs of science and industrial technology and the advance of political liberalism. It was this position that won for him the enmity of both Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche. To Marx, he was the bourgeois idéologue par excellence, who tried to combine Christian sentimental ethics and the practices of capitalism in a single package. For Nietzsche, Strauss represented the German Bildungsphilister who made a show of intellectual radicalism but always left the conventional morality intact.
Strauss remained to the end of his life the spokesman of popular religious criticism, materialistic in his intention but Hegelian in method, a combination which allowed him to accommodate almost any position that appealed to him. After 1850 his political and social criticism became increasingly conservative—aristocratic, monarchical, and nationalistic. In part this transformation was due to the suspicion that popular democracy would be in general as unable to recognize genius as it had been unable to recognize, in particular, the value of Strauss's own works; but this transformation was also a result of his attempt to move from Hegelianism to positivism. In the second half of the eighteenth century, positivist social thought had become—as, for example, in Hippolyte Taine—a kind of crude determinism, hostile to any revolutionary impulse.
To the young Hegelians, who were already becoming aware of the methodological limitations of Hegel's late thought, Das Leben Jesu provided an impulse to the critical, empirical study of the historical milieus within which Geist supposedly manifested itself, and it thus prepared them to accept Leopold von Ranke's historicism. To German liberals, Strauss remained a symbol of the risks that had to be run by any German who presumed to espouse radical causes. The later Marxists regarded Strauss as merely a confused bourgeois who had blundered onto forbidden ground. For them, the way to a true revision of Hegelianism was provided by Ludwig Feuerbach. Feuerbach saw that the true importance of Strauss's Das Leben Jesu lay in a problem that remained implicit in the work and was hardly touched upon by Strauss himself: the psychological problem about the nature of the mythmaking mechanism that distinguishes man from the rest of nature. It was Feuerbach, then, rather than Strauss, who posed the question with which German philosophy had to come to terms in the 1840s—the question of the relation between human consciousness and its material matrix.
See also Darwin, Charles Robert; Enlightenment; Feuerbach, Ludwig Andreas; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Hegelianism; Idealism; Lange, Friedrich Albert; Marx, Karl; Materialism; Miracles; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Positivism; Schleiermacher, Friedrich Daniel Ernst; Taine, Hippolyte-Adolphe; Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de.
works by strauss
Ulrich von Hutten. 2 vols. Leipzig, 1858. Translated by Mrs. G. Sturge as Ulrich von Hutten, His Life and Times. London, 1874.
Hermann Samuel Reimarus. Leipzig: Brockhaus, 1862.
Kleine Schriften biographischen, literarischen, und kunstgeschichtlichen Inhalts. Leipzig, 1862.
Der Christus des Glaubens und der Jesus der Geschichte. Berlin, 1865.
Kleine Schriften, Neue Folge. Berlin, 1866.
Voltaire: sechs Vortrage. Leipzig, 1870.
Gesammelte Schriften, edited by Eduard Zeller. 12 vols. Bonn: E. Strauss, 1876–1878.
Ausgewählte Briefe. Bonn, 1895.
works on strauss
Barth, Karl. Die protestantische Theologie im 19. Jahrhundert. Zürich: Evangelischer, 1947. Translated by Brian Cozens as Protestant Thought from Rousseau to Ritschl. New York: Harper, 1959.
Feuter, Eduard. Geschichte der neueren Historiographie. 3rd ed. Munich and Berlin, 1936.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Unzeitgemüsse Betrachtungen, Erstes Stück. Leipzig, 1873. Translated by A. M. Ludovici as Thoughts out of Season. New York, 1924.
Schweitzer, Albert. Von Reimarus zu Wrede. Tübingen: Mohr, 1906. Translated by W. Montgomery as The Quest for the Historical Jesus. London: Black, 1910.
Zeller, Eduard. David Friedrich Strauss in seinem Leben und seinen Schriften. 2 vols. Heidelberg, 1876–1878.
Hayden V. White (1967)