Thomasius, Christian (1655–1728)

views updated Jun 11 2018


Christian Thomasius was a philosopher and jurist and the first important thinker of the German Enlightenment. He was born in Leipzig, the son of the Aristotelian philosopher Jakob Thomasius, who had been a teacher of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Christian, after studying philosophy and law at the universities of Leipzig and Frankfurt an der Oder, began lecturing at Leipzig in 1682. His theological enemies forced him to move in 1690 to the Ritterakademie in Halle. He helped to found the University of Halle, became professor of law there in 1694, and later was Geheimrat (privy counselor) and rector of the university.

Law and Theology

Thomasius followed his father, as well as Hugo Grotius and Samuel von Pufendorf, in the study of natural law. He sought a foundation for law, independent of theology, in man's natural reason. Like Pufendorf he opposed the orthodox Lutheran view that revelation is the source of law and that jurisprudence is subordinate to theology. He held that law is based on common sense and on truths common to all religions. On the other hand, many precepts traditionally held to be absolute were only the result of the historical development of a given nation, subject to change and justifiable only in terms of the characteristics of that nation. Thomasius asserted the right of free and impartial interpretation of the Bible and of God's laws, reacting against orthodox Lutheran exegesis and the intricacies and dogmatism of scholastic theology. He condemned fanaticism and the persecution of heretics and preached toleration of differing religious beliefs.

Thomasius opposed the episcopal system of church government, which asserted the rights of consistories and of theological faculties in church affairs, and supported a territorial system of church government, in which the government would have control of church administration but not of dogma. In dogma neither state nor consistories and faculties should have power; the latter should make decisions concerning dogma, but individual churches and Christians should be free to accept or reject them. Thomasius thus sought to break the power of the governing bodies of the church, which were dominated by intolerant orthodox Lutherans, and to subordinate the church to the government, which by natural law should be supreme within the state. It was these doctrines that forced Thomasius's expulsion from Leipzig and led to his reception at Halle by the Prussian government, which was more liberal in religious matters.

Education and the Nature of Man

Thomasius held that philosophy should be practical and should concentrate on man, his nature, and his needs. He opposed the Aristotelian scholasticism of orthodox Lutheranism because its abstractions and speculative complexities were useless in life. His Introductio ad Philosophiam Aulicam (An Introduction to Philosophy for the Courtier; Leipzig, 1688) was in the tradition of Renaissance humanistic pedagogy. It advocated a worldly education intended to produce "courtiers" (politicians, diplomats, and bureaucrats) rather than the "pedantic" scholastic education of the universities. The German states established after the Thirty Years' War were organizing centralized governments and modern administrations on the French model, and they needed officials with the practical education Thomasius advocated. Thomasius's model was the education given in the German Ritterakademien (schools for the nobility), and he himself introduced this practical, worldly education into the teaching of the Halle faculty of law.

The Introductio was intended as the first of a series of texts furthering Thomasius's educational goals. In it Thomasius advocated eclecticism and disapproved of sectarianism and quarrels between schools of thought. He held that philosophy should be independent of revealed theology and founded on the observation of reality. Metaphysics was harmful and should be confined to a short terminological excursus. For Thomasius theoretical philosophy comprised natural theology, physics, and mathematics. The Introductio presented his theory of man and covered psychology and theory of knowledge, knowledge being obtained through the senses only. Thomasius was a nominalist, and he was skeptical about rationally proving God's existence. He closed with a summary of logic, both practical and theoretical. Thomasius continued the educational program of the Introductio in his Einleitung zu der Vernunfft-Lehre (Introduction to logic; Halle, 1691), Einleitung zur Sitten-Lehre (Introduction to ethics; Halle, 1692), Ausübung der Vernunfft-Lehre (Practical logic; Halle, 1693), and Ausübung der Sitten-Lehre (Practical ethics; Halle, 1696), all of which introduced the use of German into university teaching.

In the Introductio and other works Thomasius's eclecticism and opposition to dogmatism, his empiricism, his concentration on description of human nature and the giving of advice for practical behavior, are evident. His eclecticism and opposition to dogmatism was connected with the tradition of Peter Ramus that survived in the school of John Amos Comenius and with Thomasius's philosophical individualism. He often presented his doctrines as only hypothetical and spoke of "my own" philosophy, renouncing absolute truth. Thomasius's concentration on the practical was influenced by such writers as Pierre Charron and Baltasar Gracián. Besides his texts he wrote special works on "prudence" (Klugheit, prudentia ), giving advice for persons in different situations and positions.

Thomasius held that logic should be simple, should avoid the scholastic syllogistic treatment, and should be based on personal experience. Its goal should be not only the demonstration but also the discovery of truth. In line with his empiricism and opposition to dogmatism, Thomasius wrote much on probability and combined his discussion of logic with psychology and sociology.

Thomasius believed that Christian ethics must be based on rational love. Love, in its different forms, is the basic impulse in man. The will is independent of reason and is the origin of evil.


About 1694 Thomasius underwent a personal religious and philosophical crisis. Influenced by certain Pietist thinkers, he lost faith in the natural goodness and intellectual power of man and held that virtue and truth could be reached only through God's grace, man being otherwise vicious and blind. He solemnly disavowed his former errors in a public confession. By 1705 Thomasius showed a renewed faith in human freedom and goodness and in the natural light. The period from 1694 to 1705 is known as Thomasius's Pietist period, but his acceptance of Pietism was eased by substantial similarities between his own views and those of the Pietists. Both opposed "pedantry," Aristotelianism, Lutheran orthodoxy, the episcopal system of church government, and intolerance; both were also eclectic and empirical and avoided scholastic abstractions and theological subtleties. A personal acquaintance with the Pietist A. H. Francke played an important part in Thomasius's temporary conversion to other Pietist views.


Thomasius's two works on metaphysics were published at Halle during his Pietist period, the Confessio Doctrinae Suae in 1695 and the Versuch vom Wesen des Geistes (An Essay on the Essence of Spirit) in 1699. Like Paracelsus, Valentin Weigel, Jakob Boehme, and others before him, Thomasius presented a mystical or theosophical variety of animism or vitalism. The world, both spiritual and material, is animated by a spirit created by God. Truth can be found only in the Bible as made clear by divine illumination. Although such views were held by some Pietists, they were not confined to them, and Thomasius continued to hold them after his Pietist period. Perhaps Thomasius's metaphysics was influenced not only by Pietism but also by the school of Comenius, who influenced Thomasius in other ways, and by the Hermetic school of medicine and chemistry, which had a mystically based experimental attitude. The latter possibility especially would explain Thomasius's combination of empiricism and a mystical metaphysics advanced only as a hypothesis.


Thomasius's most important followers were either Pietists or their sympathizers, and his views soon became the official Pietist philosophy. The theologian Joachim Lange in particular stressed Thomasius's Pietism and held that divine illumination was the only source of truth. By 1710 Thomasius's followers had displaced the Aristotelians in nearly all the German universities. Lange led the first attacks against the new doctrines of Christian Wolff, but Thomasius, true to his spirit of toleration, did not participate in the attack. Wolffianism became dominant after 1730, but a few Pietist centers remained. Later, the work of the Pietists A. F. Hoffmann and Christian August Crusius helped to bring about the renewal of German philosophy after 1760, which culminated in the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant.

See also Aristotelianism; Boehme, Jakob; Charron, Pierre; Comenius, John Amos; Crusius, Christian August; Empiricism; Enlightenment; Gracián y Morales, Baltasar; Grotius, Hugo; Hermeticism; Holism and Individualism in History and Social Science; Kant, Immanuel; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Paracelsus; Pietism; Philosophy of Law, History of; Pufendorf, Samuel von; Ramus, Peter; Toleration; Wolff, Christian.


additional works by thomasius

Institutiones Iurisprudentiae Divinae. Frankfurt and Leipzig, 1688.

Die neue Entfindung einer wohlgegründeten und für das gemeine Wesen höchstnötige Wissenschaft. Das Verborgene des Hertzens anderer Menschen auch wider ihren Willen aus der täglichen Conversation zu erkennen. Halle, 1692.

Kleine deutsche Schriften. Halle, 1701.

Fundamenta Iuris Naturae et Gentium. Halle, 1705.

Kurtzer Entwurff der politischen Klugheit. Halle, 1705.

works on thomasius

Barnard, F. M. "The Practical Philosophy of Christian Thomasius." Journal of the History of Ideas 32 (1971): 221246.

Battaglia, Felice. Cristiano Thomasius. Rome, 1935.

Bienert, Walther. Der Anbruch der Christlichen deutschen Neuzeit dargestellt an Wissenschaft und Glauben des Christian Thomasius. Halle: Akademischer, 1934.

Bloch, Ernst. Christian Thomasius. Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag, 1953.

Fleischmann, Max, ed. Christian Thomasius, Leben und Lebenswerk. Halle: Niemeyer, 1931.

Hunter, Ian. "Christian Thomasius and the Desacralization of Philosophy." Journal of the History of Ideas 61(4) (2000): 595616.

Jaitner, W. R. Thomasius, Rüdiger, Hoffmann und Crusius. Bleicherode, 1939.

Kayser, R. Christian Thomasius und der Pietismus. Hamburg, 1900.

Link Salinger, R. "Christian Thomasius: Of Moral Philosophy and Natural Law." In Philosophy and Culture. Vol 2, edited by Venant Cauchy. Montreal: Montmorency, 1988.

Neisser, Liselotte. Christian Thomasius und seine Beziehung zum Pietismus. Munich, 1928.

Schneiders, Werner. Recht, Moral und Liebe. Untersuchungen zur Entwicklung der Moralphilosophie und Naturrechtslehre des 17 Jahrhunderts bei Christian Thomasius. Münster, 1961.

Schroder, Peter. "Thomas Hobbes, Christian Thomasius and the Seventeenth-Century Debate on the Church and State." History of European Ideas 23(2-4) (1997): 5979.

Schubert-Fikentscher, Gertrud. Unbekannter Thomasius. Weimar: Böhlaus Nachfolger, 1954.

Wolf, Erik. Grotius, Pufendorf, Thomasius. Tübingen, 1927.

Giorgio Tonelli (1967)

Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)

Thomasius, Christian (1655–1728)

views updated May 29 2018


THOMASIUS, CHRISTIAN (16551728), German philosopher. Christian Thomasius was the leading legal theorist and university reformer in Protestant Germany during the early Enlightenment. A self-consciously controversial figure who built on the writings and influence of his mentor Samuel von Pufendorf (16321694), he developed a new philosophical outlook, eclecticism, which united all of his contributions to many intellectual fields. It also underpinned his high-profile assaults both on the outmoded Scholastic pedantry of German university life and on several contemporary instances of what he took to be intolerance and superstition in wider society, notably witchcraft prosecutions and the use of torture to extract confessions.

He was the son of Jakob Thomasius, himself an influential Aristotelian moral philosopher of the Altdorf School, which sought to introduce some of the ideas of Francisco Suárez (15481617) into German Protestant Scholasticism. Trained and educated at the Universities of Frankfurt an der Oder and Leipzig, he was a product of the intellectual synthesis between Lutheran Protestantism and Scholastic Aristotelianism, which had been brokered originally by Philipp Melanchthon (14971560). But Thomasius broke decisively with this intellectual orthodoxy when appointed as a young Privatdozent at Leipzig in the 1680s: he was the first academic to regularly give lectures in German as opposed to Latin, a practice he later carried through into his published writings. He was required to leave Leipzig in 1690 and sought employment in Prussia at the newly founded University of Halle, where he went on to hold senior chairs in philosophy and law. During this transitional period he developed his "practical philosophy" and initial proposals for reform of the traditional university curriculum. In a series of works, notably Institutiones Jurisprudentiae Divinae (1688; Institutes of divine jurisprudence) and Introductio ad Philosophiam Aulicam (1688; Introduction to court or civil philosophy) he transformed the innovative epistemological insights of Samuel Pufendorf's De Jure Naturae et Gentium (1672; On the law of nature and of nations) into a radical separation of moral philosophy from theology.

What drove this program was not a commitment to "Enlightenment rationality," as has been argued anachronistically by some historians, but a perception that the mingling of theology and moral and political sciences within the framework of metaphysics had produced a fundamental form of institutionalized corruption that was damaging both to true religion and to healthy philosophy. Only by separating theology and ethics could religion be saved from mere dogmatism, and a useful preparatory curriculum devised that would produce the jurists, administrators, and pastors appropriate for a coherently governed and properly ordered absolutist state. Educational reform, stemming from a revision of the traditional responsibilities of the faculties of philosophy, law, and theology, would thus usher in substantial changes for ecclesiology, political responsibility, and confessional coexistence. On this account Thomasius offered a powerful program for completing the desacralization of state forms, a process left incomplete in the political and philosophical debates that had followed the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Yet this was undertaken not on behalf of the cause of secularization but rather so that Protestant Christianity could acquire once more a purified spiritual identity free from the accretions of "priestcraft." True religion was to be a matter of promoting the inward relationship of the individual with Christ in the manner of the early church. At first, these convictions naturally drew Thomasius close to the contemporary doctrines of the Pietists. However, he and his followers drew back from this assimilation once it became clear that Pietism would not accept his radical reduction of the state's right to intervene in religious affairs to the minimal level of threats to civil safety. In this respect too, Thomasius went well beyond the more conservative positions of Pufendorf.

Thomasius was considered as a thinker of weight and significance for much of the eighteenth century, and until the 1750s his views were propounded at German universities against the doctrines of Christian Wolff (16791754), Leibniz's most distinguished follower. However, the restriction of the publication of many of his works to German limited his intellectual influence beyond German borders, as was not the case with Pufendorf's Latin texts. Moreover, the antisystematic, practical, and problem-solving bias of his work left it more vulnerable to supercession once the debates of his own day had faded from the forefront of political and intellectual discussion. In sum, Thomasius can be considered as one of the first writers in Germany to place the individual at the heart of moral and legal theory, although he did not draw the same liberal consequences for political theory as were extracted elsewhere by John Locke (16321704) and other contemporary philosophers. In this respect, together with other thinkers in the German Enlightenment, he did not substantially shift his account of sovereignty far from that of Thomas Hobbes (15881679), a balance that emphasizes his transitional status between the thought-world of the baroque and the fully mature Enlightenment.

See also Enlightenment ; Melanchthon, Philipp ; Pietism ; Universities .


Hochstrasser, T. J. Natural Law Theories in the Early Enlightenment. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 2000.

Hunter, Ian. Rival Enlightenments: Civil and Metaphysical Philosophy in Early Modern Germany. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 2001.

Schröder, Peter. Christian Thomasius zur Einführung. Hamburg, 1999.

Timothy Hochstrasser


views updated May 18 2018


The German philosopher and jurist Christian Thomasius (1655-1728) was one of the most respected and influential university teachers of his day. He was instrumental in the popularization of the Enlightenment in Germany.

Christian Thomasius was born in Leipzig on Jan. 1, 1655. He received his early education there from his father, a schoolteacher. He pursued the study of law at Frankfurt and began teaching at the University of Leipzig in 1684. In his lectures Thomasius was a bold advocate of the teachings on natural law of the jurist Samuel von Pufendorf. He attracted even more attention, however, when he began to severely criticize the prejudices, pedantry, and intolerance of the scholars and theologians at Leipzig. In 1687 he became the first German university professor to lecture in German instead of Latin. The following year he began to publish a monthly periodical which he used as his chief instrument in further attacks on the stupidities of scholars and theologians. His outspoken views, however, brought reaction, and in 1690 he was forbidden to lecture or publish. He moved to Berlin, where Elector Frederick III of Brandenburg-Prussia allowed him to lecture. In 1694 Thomasius helped lay the foundation for the University of Halle, where he became second and then first (1710) professor of jurisprudence. He remained in Halle until his death on Sept. 23, 1728.

A renowned professor, Thomasius gave expression to many enlightened ideas and programs. Although he was not a profound thinker, his commonsense reasoning enabled him to put forth many practical reforms in the areas of philosophy, law, theology, and social customs. As a teacher, Thomasius believed not only in a solid academic training but also in developing character and comprehension of practical affairs. In religious matters he believed in the necessity for freedom of thought and speech and thoroughly condemned theologians who were always searching for heretics. He also attempted to free the study of jurisprudence from the control of theology. In his own theological beliefs, he considered that revealed religion was necessary for salvation.

Although he was influenced by the Pietists at Halle, especially Philipp Spener, Thomasius agreed primarily only with their opposition to established theological systems and their practical piety and not with their central emphasis on sin and grace. On matters of Church law, he emphasized that, since the Church was an institution within the domain of the state, the power of the state was supreme over the Church although not necessarily over the moral lives of individual Church members. He expressed himself powerfully against trial for witchcraft and the use of torture. In all of these ideas, Thomasius demonstrated his fundamental belief in the enlightened ideas of the 18th century.

Further Reading

There is no adequate biography of Thomasius. He is discussed in an excellent one-volume survey of the course of German philosophy to 1800 by Lewis White Beck, Early German Philosophy: Kant and His Predecessors (1969). □

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Christian Thomasius