Christian Wolff 1679–1754

Christian Wolff.jpg

The Aufklärung was an essentially German school of rationalist philosophy that began in 1706 when Christian Wolff (1679–1754) was appointed professor of mathematics at Halle-Wittenberg University. His lectures were delivered in German and soon philosophy replaced mathematics.

He said if one of King Frederick William’s guards decided to desert the King would be unjust if he punished him since the guard did only what he was predetermined to do.

It just seemed reasonable to Wolff but the king was not amused and Wolff was expelled in 1723. He decided to leave Prussia and go to the University of Marburg in Hesse. There he taught for the next twenty-five years. His system became the critical philosophical theory of the day regarding the interaction of spiritual and material substances..


French philosopher Pierre Bayle, 1647-1706, thought that reason and faith were irreconcilable. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, 1646-1716, Leipzig University, wrote against this idea and rationalism entered German thought as a champion of Christianity over against  English Deists and French Skeptics. Christian Wolff was Leibniz’s student while at the University of Halle.

It will be an everlasting subject of wonder to persons who know what philosophy is, to find that Aristotle’s authority had been so much respected in the schools for several ages, that when a disputant quoted a passage from that philosopher, he who maintained the thesis, durst not say “Transeat,” but must either deny the passage, or explain it in his own way — just as we treat the Holy Scriptures in the divinity schools. The parliaments, which have proscribed all other philosophy but that of Aristotle, are more excusable than the doctors; for whether the members of the parliament were really persuaded that that philosophy was the best of any, or whether they were not, the public good might have induced them to prohibit the new opinions, for fear the academical divisions should spread their malignant influences on the tranquility of the state.

That which ought most to amaze wise men is, that the professors should he so furiously prepossessed in favour of Aristotle’s philosophical hypotheses. Had the prevention been limited to his poetry and rhetoric, there had been less cause of wonder; but they have been fond of the weakest of his works, I mean his logic, and natural philosophy; in which no one pretends to deny that many things are found which discover the elevation and profoundness of his genius; but nothing can exceed the hyperboles in the praises of Casaubon, and in the following passage of father Rapin: —“Nothing appeared regular or fixed in logic before Aristotle. That genius so fraught with reason and knowledge, searches so deeply into the abyss of human wit, that he penetrates all the secrets of it, by the exact distinction which he has made of its operations. This vast source of the thoughts of men had not yet been sounded to the bottom: Aristotle was the first who discovered that new way to attain to science, by the evidence of demonstration, and by proceeding geometrically to that demonstration in the way of syllogism, the most accomplished work, and the greatest effort of human wit. This is in miniature the whole art and method of Aristotle’s logic, which is so very sure a one, that there can be no perfect certainty in reasoning but by this method, which is a certain rule for thinking aright on what we ought to think of.”

That philosopher’s treatise of syllogisms may be praised to its desert, without using; any such extravagant expressions.

These are several most sublime questions in his natural philosophy, which he discusses and clears like a great master; but the main part of that work is good for nothing, infelix operis summa. The chief reason of the defect is that Aristotle forsook the way which the most excellent naturalists took who had philosophized before him. They believed that all the alterations which happen in nature are only a new disposition of the particles of matter; they admitted no generation, properly speaking. This doctrine he rejected, and by so doing committed himself; for being thus obliged to teach that new beings are produced, and that others are destroyed he distinguished them from matter, gave them unheard-of names, and affirmed or supposed things whereof he had no distinct idea.

Now it is as impossible to philosophize well without the evidence of clear ideas, as to sail well without the polar star or the compass. To be void of that perspicuity is to mislead ourselves; it is to imitate a traveler in a strange country without a guide, or to grope in a strange house night without a candle. Everyone knows the many forms and faculties distinct from substance, which Aristotle’s followers have introduced. He led them into that maze; and if in the seventeenth century natural philosophy began to appear again with a new lustre, it was by restoring the ancient principles which had been forsaken, and by insisting on sufficient evidence.

In short, it was by excluding the great number of entities of which our mind has no manner of idea, out of the doctrine of generation, and adhering to the figure, motion, and situation of the particles of matter; of all which we have a clear and distinct conception.—

In the year 1654 the Parliament of Paris banished out of its jurisdiction persons who attempted to maintain theses publicly against the doctrine of Aristotle, and forbade all persons to publish, sell or vend the propositions contained in these theses, on pain of corporal punishment; or to teach any maxims contrary to the ancient approved authors on pain of death.— Mercure Francois t. 10. P. 504

Rene Descartes (1596-1650)
Louis XIV Reign 1643-1715
Pierre Bayle, 1647-1706

Wolff called philosophy “the science of the possible” and wanted to create a pure philosophy dealing with God (Theology), the Soul (Psychology), and the Physical World (Cosmology).  He wrote Cosmologia generalis (1731), Psychologia empirica (1732),Psychologia rationalis (1734) and Theologia naturalis (1736-1737).


Natural theology is the science of those things which are possible through God; that is, of those things which relate to him and are known to be possible through those things which relate to him.

  • All things treated in natural theology must be demonstrated. Natural theology must be a science. Wherefore, since science has the method of demonstrating what we affirm or deny, those things which are treated in natural theology must be demonstrated.
  •  One who studies natural theology acquires certain knowledge of God.
  • In natural theology the existence of God must be demonstrated
  • Laws of motion are not absolutely necessary but contingent
  • A divine revelation ought to contain things necessary to be known by man, but which can be learned in no other way.
  • Divine revelation cannot contain that which contradicts reason and experience.
  • In a Divine revelation there is a place for mysteries.

Just as Martin Luther gained success in Germany with the publication of The Bible in German so Christian Wolff did the same by lecturing in German, but as theology became more rationalistic it also became less religious.

At this time Germany was busy trying to free itself from Aristotelian scholasticism and French culture. They hoped to develop a genuine German culture, an Enlightenment, while Frederick the Great ruled Prussia (1740-1786). Many of the Illuminati were Wolffian in thought, Moses Mendelssohn (1728-1786) and Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768) are two examples. Mendelssohn argued in favor of the immortality of the soul in Phaedo (1767); Reimarus wrote On The Chief Truths of Natural Religion (1754) where he asked “Who taught these animals to measure the distances that they might not leap too short or too far?”

Wolff joined miracles and revelation, Reimarus denied the necessity of a revelation having to be accompanied by miracles. Apology for the Rational Worshipers of God was written by Reimarus but not published until after his death by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing .

Lessing (1729-1780) was a man of versatile genius, a towering figure in the history of German literature. He took no part in the theological discussions of his time until in the closing years of his life, when he was already an author of world-wide reputation. In philosophy he favored Spinoza, though his Spinozism was tempered by an intimate acquaintance with the works of Leibnitz. It seems generally true of the gifted men of that period that, repelled by the crude super-naturalism of the prevalent orthodoxy, they found satisfaction in the logical consistency and immanent unvarying law of Spinozism. In his student days Lessing was skeptical as to the current orthodoxy, yet his profound nature early rejected the superficial French skepticism prevalent in the polite society of the time. The publication of the “Wolfenbiittel Fragments” (1774- 1778) aroused an extraordinarily heated discussion, in which it is assumed by all devout adherents of the Lessing cult that, as the champion of the pure religion of Christ and of Luther, Lessing annihilated his antagonists. In his little work on “The Christian Religion and the Religion of Christ,” Lessing sets forth the evil effects of metaphysical theologies and ecclesiastical establishments in perverting the simplicity of Christ’s religion — which is in the main the simple religion of nature which we so often encounter in this period. Also in “The Testament of John” — “Little children, love one another ” — Lessing represents the essence of religion as morality, in harmony with the ring parable in Nathan the Wise. In the “Education of the Human Race,” supernatural revelation is represented as the primer of the race, bringing to men more easily and quickly what the unaided reason would have discovered in time.

Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743-1819) brings the “Glaubens-Philosophie” to clear and methodical expression. He is the Scotch realist of German speculation, to whom Sir William Hamilton was indebted for much philosophical material. His deeply religious nature was aroused by the destructive results of the critical philosophy as he found it culminating in Kant, Fichte, and Schelling, and he found the fundamental error of these thinkers in a one-sided emphasis of the intellectual.

The development of modern religious thought : especially in Germany, by Edwin Stutely Carr.

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