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Thomas International Center
October 2008


Ralph McInerny


Prose From a Poet



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 them.

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.


Ralph McInerny