Heinrich Heine's On the History of Religion and Philosophy
in Germany is one of the most remarkable 19th
century documents. I was first made aware of it many years ago
when I found it discussed by Charles DeKoninck in his book
La primauté du bien commun. Heine was above all a poet, of
course, but his understanding of the telos of German
philosophy is remarkable. In this lengthy essay, he is
attempting to explain Germany to the French and his account of
philosophical developments in his native land is favorable to
The key to those developments was the dismantling of what
Heine called deism but which could simply be taken for theism.
And if God disappeared from the philosophical landscape, this
had obvious ramifications for Christianity and Heine's own
original Judaism. His conversion to Protestant Christianity is
generally considered to have been one of convenience, meant to
facilitate upward mobility in German society.
It is Hegelian to seek to discern in history a necessity
relentlessly moving through the apparently contingent events.
The aim of the philosophical historian is, according to Hegel,
to know God, not simply to love Him, and God can be known
through history. Providence does surmount the distinction
between necessary and contingent events but not even the
highest angel, according to St. Thomas, can know future
contingents. When those contingent events are past they become
necessary, in the sense that it is impossible for what has
been not to have been. But any effort to understand their
coming about is conjectural.
From Kant, through Fichte to Hegel, God is not so much
rejected as redefined. Feuerbach's notion that the divine
attributes were merely human capacities projected onto an
imaginary transcendent being influenced Marx, Heine's friend,
who declared that philosophy is by nature atheistic. Hegel
seems rather to have identified mind and the divine mind. In
either case, man becomes the center, the locus of meaning. We
are all Prometheans now.
DeKoninck asked if modern philosophy could be understood in
other than spiritual terms, with its aim of supplanting God
with man. Heinrich Heine, in later life, had a conversion. He
returned to reading the Bible in which he found all the
answers he needed. He speaks of this in a reissue of On
Germany and in his book Conversion. There are those
who must go down the path of Non serviam in order to
see its fatal telos. Heinrich Heine was one of them,
and he was granted the grace to repudiate what he considered
the central theme of modern philosophy.