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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By David Friedrich Strauss (1808–1874)

THE GERMAN renaissance, which had its beginnings in that great literary movement of which Goethe was the central figure, was destined to express itself at a later period in an output of philosophical and religious thought almost without parallel in its comprehensiveness and in its subtlety. Like other manifestations of intellectual and spiritual vigor, it was not without its negative and destructive principle: a principle which found, perhaps, its most significant expression in the life and work of David Friedrich Strauss,—a man modern only in the letter of what he performed; in the spirit a dogmatist of almost mediæval intensity and narrowness.

He was born at Ludwigsburg, near Stuttgart, January 27th, 1808. His father, although a tailor by trade, devoted much of his time to literary pursuits; his mother was a woman of strong common-sense, whose piety was of an extremely practical character. The son inherited his father’s taste for books, his mother’s distaste of mysticism. Being designed for the church, he was sent in his thirteenth year to an evangelical seminary at Blaubeuren near Ulm, to study theology. Two of his teachers there, Professors Kern and F. C. Baur, were to have a deep influence upon his life. There also he met Christian Märklin, a student whose biography he was afterwards to write. Four years later, in 1825, he entered the University of Tübingen; but finding in the curriculum little nourishment, he sought satisfaction for his needs in Schelling’s pantheistic philosophy, and in the writings of the romanticists, Jacob Böhme, and others.

In 1826 Professors Baur and Kern came to the University, resuming the intellectual oversight of their former pupils, Strauss and Märklin. Baur introduced Strauss to the works of Schleiermacher, whose mystical conception of religion, as having its roots in the emotional life, was for a time attractive to the future author of the ‘Leben Jesu,’ drawing him away from the influence of the rational philosophy of Kant and the pantheism of Schelling. But he was not to remain long a disciple of Schleiermacher. His own temperament, as well as outside forces, was drawing him to the consideration of the overwhelming Hegelian philosophy. In the last year at Tübingen he read Hegel’s ‘Phänomenologie,’—strong meat even for a German youth to digest. Hegel, in direct opposition to Schleiermacher, sought the roots of religion in thought, not feeling: his conception of Begriff and Vorstellung, of Notion and Representation, the Absolute, and the finite presentation of the Absolute, was to exert a tremendous influence upon Strauss; leading him at last to the inquiry embodied in the ‘Life of Jesus,’ how much of dogmatic religion is but the shadowing forth, the vorstellung, of great underlying truths.

He was not at once, however, to apply the Hegelian philosophy to the doctrines of the Christian religion. In 1830 he passed his examination with honor, becoming soon after assistant to a country clergyman; but a man of his restless and eager intellect could not long remain in the quiet atmosphere of a country parish. In 1831 he resigned his pastorate, to study under Schleiermacher and Hegel in the University of Berlin. The latter dying suddenly, shortly after Strauss’s coming to Berlin, he removed to Tübingen, where he became a repetent or assistant professor, lecturing upon logic, history of philosophy, and history of ethics. In 1833 he resigned this position to devote himself to writing the ‘Life of Jesus.’ In 1834 the first volume, and in 1835 the second volume, was published.

In the ‘Life of Jesus,’ Strauss attempted to apply the Hegelian philosophy to the dogmatic system of the Christian religion: or rather, influenced by the Hegelian principle that the Absolute is expressed in finite terms, he attempted to show that the miraculous elements in the life of Jesus were ideally but not historically true; that the immaculate conception, the transfiguration, the resurrection, the ascension into heaven, were symbols of profound truth, myths created out of the Messianic hopes of the followers of Christ. This mythical theory was directly in the face of the theory of the deists, that the miraculous events in Christ’s life were proof of the fallibility of the evangelists; and in the face of the theory of the rationalists, that those events were capable of natural explanation. The mythical theory of Strauss was not original with him. It had been applied to certain parts of the Old Testament by Eichhorn, Bauer, and others; in the secular domain, it was being applied by Niebuhr to early Roman history, and by Wolff to the Homeric poems: but no one before Strauss had applied it to the four Gospels thoroughly and exhaustively,—thoroughly and exhaustively, however, only in so far that Strauss never lost sight of his theory for one moment, bending everything to its shape. Of the critical study of the gospels in the modern sense Strauss knew little,—his dogmatic temper being impatient of the restraints of scholarship; added to that, a certain irreverence of temperament prevented him not only from appreciation of the essential in Christianity, but by a kind of paradox, from arriving at anything like scientific truth. He disproved everything but proved nothing. The Jesus of Strauss’s ‘Life’ is not even a historical personage like the Jesus of Renan’s ‘Life’; but a faint shadow, just discerned through dead mists of theory. The great work was to have but a negative mission: it prepared the way by its blankness for positive scholarship, for positive criticism; it is the reflection of the colorless mood of one standing between two worlds, without the spiritual insight necessary to understand that between the old order and the new there must be an organic link, else both will perish.

The replies to the ‘Leben Jesu,’ by Neander, Ullmann, Schweizer, and others, led to a reply from Strauss in 1837. In 1839 a third edition of the work appeared, in which concessions were made to the critics, to be withdrawn in the edition of 1840, of which George Eliot made an English translation. In the same year ‘Christliche Glaubenslehre,’ a history of Christian doctrines in their disintegration, appeared. Strauss meanwhile had been elected to the chair of theology in the University of Zurich, but the opposition this appointment aroused led to its annulment. In 1842 he married Agnes Schebest, an opera singer, with whom he lived until their separation in 1847, and who bore him three children. In 1847 he published a satire, in which he drew a parallel between Julian the Apostate and Frederick William IV. of Prussia. In 1848 he was nominated a member of the Frankfort Parliament, but was defeated; was elected to the Würtemberg Chamber, but his constituents asked him to resign because of his conservative action.

In 1849 be began to publish those biographies which contribute most directly to his literary fame. The ‘Life of Schubart’ was followed by the ‘Life of Christian Märklin,’ in 1851; the ‘Life of Frischlin,’ in 1855; and the ‘Life of Ulrich von Hutten,’ 1858–60. In 1862 appeared the ‘Life of Reimarus’; in 1877, ‘A Life of Jesus for the German People,’—in substance much like the former ‘Life.’ Previous to its publication, ‘The Christ of Dogma and the Jesus of History’ had appeared in 1865. In 1872 Strauss took up his residence at Darmstadt, where he made the acquaintance of the Princess Alice and the Crown Princess of Germany, who befriended him, and before whom he lectured on Voltaire. In 1870 these lectures were published; in the same year occurred his correspondence with Renan on the subject of the Franco-Prussian War,—a correspondence which led to the severing of their friendship.

In 1872 appeared ‘The Old Faith and the New.’ It is this work rather than the ‘Life of Jesus’ which is a monument of destructive criticism; although it is less scholarly and more superficial, written with a certain indifference, as if even a once stimulating subject had become wearisome. The book is without light or heat. Its author had drifted away from all philosophy, whether of Hegel or Schelling or Schleiermacher; had cast anchor in a port of No-man’s-land. To his intellect at least, God and the soul of man had become unreal. Yet he was perhaps not wholly satisfied with the aridity of his choice. The last picture of him is of an old man in hired lodgings, reading in the days before his death the ‘Phædo’ of Plato. He died in February 1874.