On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers

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On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers (German: Über die Religion: Reden an die Gebildeten unter ihren Verächtern) is a book by Friedrich Schleiermacher published in 1799.


As translated by John Oman (1893); original German text is available online: original spelling edition/modernized spelling edition.
  • Von alters her ist der Glaube nicht jedermanns Ding gewesen, von der Religion haben immer nur Wenige etwas verstanden, wenn Millionen auf mancherlei Art mit den Umhüllungen gegaukelt haben.
    • Faith has never been every man's affair. At all times but few have discerned religion itself, while millions, in various ways, have been satisfied to juggle with its trappings.
    • p. 1
  • I know how well you have succeeded in making your earthly life so rich and varied, that you no longer stand in need of an eternity. Having made a universe for yourselves, you are above the need of thinking of the universe that made you.
    • pp. 1–2
  • On every subject, however small and unimportant, you would most willingly be taught by those who have devoted to it their lives and their powers. ... How then does it come about that, in matters of religion alone, you hold every thing the more dubious when it comes from those who are experts?
    • p. 2
  • The human soul, as is shown both by its passing actions and its inward characteristics, has its existence chiefly in two opposing impulses. Following the one impulse, it strives to establish itself as an individual. For increase, no less than sustenance, it draws what surrounds it to itself, weaving it into its life, and absorbing it into its own being. The other impulse, again, is the dread fear to stand alone over against the whole, the longing to surrender oneself and be absorbed in a greater, to be taken hold of and determined. All you feel and do that bears on your separate existence, all you are accustomed to call enjoyment or possession works for the first object. The other is wrought for when you are not directed towards the individual life, but seek and retain for yourselves what is the same in all and for all the same existence, that in which, therefore, you acknowledge in your thinking and acting, law and order, necessity and connection, right and fitness. Just as no material thing can exist by only one of the forces of corporeal nature, every soul shares in the two original tendencies of spiritual nature. At the extremes one impulse may preponderate almost to the exclusion of the other, but the perfection of the living world consists in this, that between these opposite ends all combinations are actually present in humanity.
And not only so, but a common band of consciousness embraces them all, so that though the man cannot be other than he is, he knows every other person as clearly as himself, and comprehends perfectly every single, manifestation of humanity. Persons, however, at the extremes of this great series, are furthest removed from such a knowledge of the whole. The endeavour to appropriate, too little influenced by the opposite endeavour, takes the form of insatiable sensuality that is mindful only of its individual life, and endeavours only in an earthly way to incorporate into it more and more material and to keep itself active and strong. Swinging eternally between desire and enjoyment, such persons never get beyond consciousness of the individual, and being ever busy with mere self-regarding concerns, they are neither able to feel nor know the common, the whole being and nature of humanity. To persons, on the other hand, too forcibly seized by the opposite impulse, who, from defective power of grasp, are incapable of acquiring any characteristic, definite culture, the true life of the world, must just as much remain hidden. It is not granted them to penetrate with plastic mind and to fashion something of their own, but their activity dissipates itself in a futile game with empty notions. They never make a living study of anything, but devote their whole zeal to abstract precepts that degrade everything to means, and leave nothing to be an end. They consume themselves in mistaken hate against everything that comes before them with prosperous force. How are these extremes to be brought together, and the long series be made into a closed ring, the symbol of eternity and completeness?
Persons in whom both tendencies are toned down to an unattractive equilibrium are not rare, but, in truth, they stand lower than either. For this frequent phenomenon which so many value highly, we are not indebted to a living union of both impulses, but both are distorted and smoothed away to a dull mediocrity in which no excess appears, because all fresh life is wanting. This is the position to which a false discretion seeks to bring the younger generation. But were the extremes avoided in no other way, all men would have departed from the right life and from contemplation of the truth, the higher spirit would have vanished from the world.
  • pp. 4–6
  • I mean, in particular, those who unite those opposing activities, by imprinting in their lives a characteristic form upon just that common nature of spirit, the shadow of which only appears to most in empty notions, as an image upon mist. They seek order and connection, right and fitness, and they find just because they do not lose themselves. Their impulse is not sighed, out in inaudible wishes, but works in them as creative power. For this power they create and acquire, and not for that degraded animal sensuality. They do not devour destructively, but, creatively recasting, they breathe into life and life's tools a higher spirit, ordering and fashioning a world that bears the impress of their mind.
    • p. 6
  • Far more the earthly and sensual require such mediators from whom to learn how much of the highest nature of humanity is wanting to their own works and ways. They stand in need of such a person to oppose to their base animal enjoyment another enjoyment, the object of which is not this thing or that, but the One in All, and All in One, an object that knows no other bounds but the world, that the spirit has learned to comprehend. He is needed to show to their anxious, restless self-love, another self-love whereby man in this earthly life and along with it loves the highest and the eternal, and to their restless passionate greed a quiet and sure possession.
    • p. 7
  • Acknowledge, then, with me, what a priceless gift the appearance of such a person must be when the higher feeling has risen to inspiration, and can no longer be kept silent, when every pulse-beat of his spiritual life takes communicable form in word or figure, so that, despite of his indifference to the presence of others, he almost unwillingly becomes for others the master of some divine art. This is the true priest of the highest, for he brings it nearer those who are only accustomed to lay hold of the finite and the trivial. The heavenly and eternal he exhibits as an object of enjoyment and agreement, as the (sole exhaustless source of the things towards which their whole endeavour is directed/ In this way he strives to awaken the slumbering germ of a better humanity, to kindle love for higher things, to change the common life into a nobler, to reconcile the children of earth with the Heaven that hears them, and to counterbalance the deep attachment of the age to the baser side.
    • p. 7
  • Piety ... helped me as I began to sift the faith of my fathers and to cleanse thought and feeling from the rubbish of antiquity. When the God and the immortality of my childhood vanished from my doubting eyes it remained to me. Without design of mine it guided me into active life. It showed me how, with my endowments and defects, I should keep myself holy in an undivided existence, and through it alone I have learnt friendship and love.
    • p. 9
  • Those proud Islanders whom many unduly honour, know no watchword but gain and enjoyment. Their zeal for knowledge is only a sham fight, their worldly wisdom a false jewel, skilfully and deceptively composed, and their sacred freedom itself too often and too easily serves self-interest. They are never in earnest with anything that goes beyond palpable utility. All knowledge they have robbed of life and use only as dead wood to make masts and helms for their life's voyage in pursuit of gain.
    • pp. 9–10
  • See to it, friend, that you have not lighted upon those who merely follow, and collect, and rest satisfied with what another has furnished ; with them you will never find the spirit of that art:. to the discoverers you must go, on whom it surely rests.
    • p. 17
  • Religion is as far removed, by its whole nature, from all that is systematic as philosophy is naturally disposed to it.
    • p. 17
  • You need not fear that I shall betake myself in the end to that common device of representing how necessary religion is for maintaining justice and order in the world. Nor shall I remind you of an all-seeing eye, nor of the unspeakable short-sightedness of human management, nor of the narrow bounds of human power to render help. Nor shall I say how religion is a faithful friend and useful stay of morality, how, by its sacred feelings and glorious prospects, it makes the struggle with self and the perfecting of goodness much easier for weak man. Those who profess to be the best friends and most zealous defenders do indeed speak in this way. Which of the two is more degraded in being thus thought of together, I shall not decide, whether justice and morality which are represented as needing support, or religion which is to support them, or even whether it be not you to whom such things are said.
Though otherwise this wise counsel might be given you, how could I dare to suppose that you play with your consciences a sort of fast and loose game, and could be impelled by something you have hitherto had no cause to respect and love to something else that without it you already honour, and to which you have already devoted yourselves? Or suppose that these Speeches were merely to suggest what you should do for the sake of the people! How could you, who are called to educate others and make them like yourselves, begin by deceiving them, offering them as holy and vitally necessary what is in the highest degree indifferent to yourselves, and which, in your opinion, they can again reject as soon as they have attained your level? I, at least, cannot invite you to a course of action in which I perceive the most ruinous hypocrisy towards the world and towards yourselves. To recommend religion by such means would only increase the contempt to which it is at present exposed. ... Do not declare to the disgrace of mankind that your loftiest creation is but a parasitic plant that can only nourish itself from strange sap. ... To wish to transport religion into another sphere that it may serve and labour is to manifest towards it a great contempt. It is not so ambitious of conquest as to seek to reign in a foreign kingdom. The power that is its due, being earned afresh at every moment, satisfies it. Everything is sacred to it, and above all everything holding with it the same rank in human nature. But it must render a special service; it must have an aim; it must show itself useful! What degradation! And its defenders should be eager for it!
  • pp. 18–20
  • Religion, however, as I wish to show it, which is to say, in its own original, characteristic form, is not accustomed to appear openly, but is only seen in secret by those who love it. Not that this applies to religion alone. Nothing that is essentially characteristic and peculiar can be quite the same as that which openly exhibits and represents it.
    • pp. 26–27
  • You would ascribe with the poet earnestness to life and cheerfulness to art; or, in some other way, you would contrast them. Separate them you certainly will. For life, duty is the watchword. The moral law shall order it, and virtue shall show itself the ruling power in it, that the individual may be in harmony with the universal order of the world, and may nowhere encroach in a manner to disturb and confuse. This life, you consider, may appear without any discernible trace of art. Rather is it to be attained by rigid rules that have nothing to do with the free and variable precepts of art. Nay, you look upon it almost as a rule that art should be somewhat in the background, and non-essential for those who are strictest in the ordering of life. On the other hand, imagination shall inspire the artist, and genius shall completely sway him. Now imagination and genius are for you quite different from virtue and morality. ...
How are religion and art related? They can hardly be quite alien, because, from of old, what is greatest in art has had a religious character. When, therefore, you speak I of an artist as pious, do you still grant him that relaxation of the strict demands of virtue? Rather he is then subjected, like every other person. But then to make the cases parallel, you must secure that those who devote themselves to life do not remain quite without art. ...
Religion then, as a kind of activity, is a mixture of elements. ... Such an accidental shaking together, leaving both elements unaltered, does not, even though the most accurate equality be attained, make something specific. But suppose it is otherwise, suppose piety is something which truly fuses both, then it cannot be formed simply by bringing the two together, but must be an original unity. Take care, however, I warn you, that you do not make such an admission. Were it the case, morality and genius apart would be only fragments of the ruins of religion, or its corpse when it is dead.
  • pp. 28–29