Discussions on the History of Conscience and Ethics
Early Atheists & Morality
Finally, some of you who have followed this thread from the beginning may recall I voiced disappointment over the unavailability of the earliest espousers of atheism in the A.D. era--Mathias Knutzen, 1674, and Jean Meslier, c.1730--in an English translation. Well, I received an e-mail message from someone who indicated a willingness to translate all three of Knutzen's German pamphlets as soon as someone else could come up with a scanner, etc, and all the filing(?????) needed to simply transmit all twenty-five pages to our valiant scholar! Will keep you posted...
I have sent off (by snail mail) the German Knutzen pamphlets embodying the earliest atheism of the A.D. era (1674) to an interested reader overseas, a native-speaking German who has decided he would like to have a bash at translating them, if he has time. Will keep you posted.
There is a Frenchman who has contacted me by e-mail who is interested in translating into English Chapter Two, the most controversial and vehement section, of Jean Meslier's hitherto untranslated Mon Testament. (Baron d'Holbach's drastically abridged--basically sympathetic--version from much later in the 1700s is available in English in a book entitled Superstition in All Ages, but d'Holbach's abridgement discreetly leaves out most of the sentiments in the crucial second chapter.) I will keep readers posted on any progress in this possible translation of Meslier's original Chapter Two.
I have already sent off (by snail mail) the Second Chapter of Jean Meslier's Mon Testament for translation by our intrepid e-mail correspondent. Please let me know if anyone might be interested in my posting representative translated passages of this Chapter on this site as soon as it becomes available.Eyler Coates
I was assuming that you were planning on posting the whole chapter here. Certainly, there is room enough. If it is not too much of a burden converting the whole of it into digital form, I hope you will consider doing that.
How can I get an English translation of Matthias Knutzen's pamphlets?GRiggs
Believe it or not, we have finally looked into this matter fairly thoroughly, and, so far as we know, there is literally no available English translation of any of these brief but crucial espousals anywhere!
Andreas Keller's current project, being duly carried on these pages, will be, apparently, the only available text in English throughout the English-speaking world. I know this sounds rather incredible, but there it is! Nobody would be happier than yours truly to be proved wrong on this.
Understandably, Mr. Keller has his own life to lead and can only do so much with whatever spare time he has from month to month. We remain deeply grateful to him for his ongoing efforts. However, should more users of this forum share my frustration at the lack of any easily available translation of this, the first open espousal of atheism of the A.D. era, we would appreciate any follow-up information you would care to share concerning any online--or offline--translation. I know any assistance you would care to give Mr. Keller would be deeply appreciated as well.
Right now, we are looking forward to receiving the opening paragraphs of Knutzen's first of three 1674 pamphlets in English translation some time before the end of October.
We remain grateful for your continuing interest. Please let us hear from as many of you as we possibly can. Thank you.
An Interim ReportGRiggs
The following is an interim report from Germany on the ongoing English translation of Matthias Knutzen's three pioneering professions of atheism from 1674. This is a precis of the second of the three pamphlets.
The second pamphlet presents a talk between an innkeeper and his guests in Altona near Hamburg. Altona is today a part of Hamburg. It looks like Knutzen was there. Altona was under Danish rule those days, and it was known for its tolerance compared with Hamburg. The coat of arms of both cities show a city gate, but the one of Altona has its doors wide open, and this was a symbol of tolerance. The former border between the two cities is a street called "Grosse Freiheit," which means "great freedom," because that was where the freedom started (if you came from Hamburg).
According to the text, Knutzen was born in Eidersted, which is in Holstein. Schleswig-Holstein is the part of Germany north of Hamburg and belonged to Denmark in those days, so Hamburg was next to the Danish border. Knutzen is a typical North German name (there are 34 Knutzens in the Hamburg telephone book, and in Schleswig-Holstein such names as -sen and -zen are very common).
Knutzen coins the interesting term "Gewissener" to denote people sharing his opinions. It is a pity that word did not catch on in the German language. It is derived from the words "Gewissen" (conscience) and "Wissen" (knowledge). Bearing in mind that scientia is the Latin word for knowledge, one could coin the English term "conscientist" to translate it. Not a bad term for atheist. Knutzen writes (page 59, put in italics by the editor):
'We "conscientists" believe nothing, except it agrees with knowledge and reason, but not of a single person, who could maybe be mistaken, but of many people, but not of little children but of adults, combined with the conscience!'About his beliefs (page 43 - 44):
'We declare that God does not exist, we deeply despise the authorities and also reject the churches with all their priests. For us Gewisseners the knowledge of a single person is insufficient, only that of the majority is sufficient... (because a single person cannot see everything) and the conscience in combination with the knowledge. And this, the conscience, which the generous Mother Nature has given to all humans, replaces for us the bible ... and the authorities; it is the true judge ... and is valid for us instead of the priests, because this teacher teaches us to harm nobody, to live in honor and to give everybody what is his'
[what he deserves (?)].
A word of clarification here. My regrets that lack of proper knowledge of Knutzen's three pamphlets made me unaware that Keller's abbreviated citation from pp. 43-44 is in fact taken from one of the concluding paragraphs of Pamphlet No. 1. As we now have the passage in its entirety, the full text appears at the conclusion of this chapter together with some queries of my own that other readers may wish to tackle. The balance of these remarks from Mr. Keller do refer to pamphlet No. 2.]AKeller
And on page 53:
'live honest, don't insult anybody, and give everybody what is his'
[or what he deserves (?)].
He cites a lot of places in the Bible to show how it contradicts itself. I will need an English edition of the Bible, so I would not have to translate those parts myself. His strategy seems to be to show obvious contradictions in the Bible in order to undermine the belief of people that the Bible is the truth.
One interesting statement is that he writes that the number of people thinking like himself is very large in Paris, Amsterdam, London, Hamburg, Kopenhagen, Stockholm, and even in Rome. It seems like he traveled a lot and that he met a lot of atheists everywhere.
I am surprised by Knutzen's apparent willingness to let the prevailing sense of one's peers guide one's beliefs--up to a point. True, he certainly acknowledges conscience as critical here, but many an atheist of today might stress that an undue dependence on the "common sense" of one's peers is precisely what has maintained religion's hold on humanity for so long. Still, I'll hold off on any broader assumptions regarding Knutzen's arguments, till Mr. Keller has a clearer picture of his schedule and can feel ready to send off specific passages (or the whole text!!) of Knutzen's writings.
Trust yourself, your own conscience OR trust your neighbors' "common sense" -- the horns of the dilemma. If you hold your own opinions dearest, you run afoul of that simple truth, that one person cannot know all. If you depend on your fellows, you may simply have collective ignorance, and may deprive the community (and yourself) of your unique genius (if any ;-).
Which to choose? Choosing is itself evil, in this case. What you're looking for, in choosing, is simplification: a "when in doubt, do this" formula, that absolves you of having to deal with the unique dynamics of whatever situation confronts you, a formula whereby you always "know what to do." Pick one, just one, of the above horns and never deviate from it, and sooner or later great evil will come of it.
If on the other hand, you keep in mind both horns, their virtues and their dangers, and try to use them both, for dynamic stability, balancing one against the other -- then sooner or later you will still make an error, maybe even a grave error, but at least you will have gotten there with your eyes open, doing the best you can with ALL the tools at your disposal. To willingly renounce the use of either horn, either tool for understanding, and hamstring your resources -- that is evil.
There is no question that "mellyrn" has articulated brilliantly the reasons why sheer context is so critical in determining the value of Knutzen's precise reasoning. In the current absence of such knowledge on any of our parts concerning Knutzen, this conundrum of how one can play off personal conscience against community consensus continues to tantalize. Of course, it should in any event, as it remains a fundamental enigma dogging all moral conduct at whatever level. It is just unfortunate that the critically historic juncture we are concerned with here entails nothing less than the precise way in which this conscience-vs.-community dilemma was being addressed at the very dawn of secular thinking!
A basic understanding of a fundamental building block in the history of ideas and mores is thus denied us.
This may not be thought too much of a tragedy by some readers, but that depends on whether the mere thought of, say, citizens hypothetically living in a democracy shrouded in utter ignorance of the Declaration of Independence would give one the shudders or no. It would me. Like it or not, ours is pretty much a secular age. Are we not entitled to knowing the fundamental perspectives that helped bring this age into being? Right here, in America, we really don't fully know that--and that may be our loss.
Our gratitude for Andreas Keller's ongoing efforts in translating Knutzen is unbounded, even as our sympathy for the daunting hurdles he has had to overcome in accomplishing this task forcibly reminds us just how tremendously we are in his debt.
We look forward to hearing from Mr. Keller soon, as we also look forward keenly to "mellyrn"'s continued participation in this "Conversation."
Matthias Knutzen: Pamphlet No. 1GRiggs
Following is the latest installment of an ongoing translation of Matthias Knutzen's three pamphlets.A Keller
Here is the opening section of the translation of the first of three pamphlets by Matthias Knutzen, written in 1674.
Friendly wishes of a friend for his friends!
I had often been astonished how it can happen that the Christians, although they are oiled like a wheel, are in discord with each other and incessantly begin their quarrels and frictions anew. But now I am not astonished any more, since I have realized also that their law book and foundation of their belief, their so-called Bible, is not coherent in itself and fluctuates. I could verify this with countless examples through all books of the Old as well as the New Testament, but it is to be feared that I might cause the reluctance of my readers by the abundance of my evidence. Therefore, I will present only a few things, so that they can be considered by the reader even more carefully.
I don't want to talk here about the measurements, which are mentioned in I Kings 7:26, and II Chronicles 4:5, where (as far as I can judge) the numbers given contradict each other completely. I also do not want to talk about the persons in the Bible: e.g. if you compare Genesis 26:34 with Genesis 36:3, in the former, Basemath, Esau's wife, is called the daughter of Elon the Hittite, but in the latter, the daughter of Ishmael.G Riggs
Following is the complete statement of Knutzen's "Conscientist" creed. It comes toward the end of Pamphlet No. 1:M Knutzen
'We declare that God does not exist, we deeply despise the authorities and also reject the churches with all their priests. For us Conscientists the knowledge of a single person is insufficient, only that of the majority is sufficient, as in Luke, 24,39: "Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me and see for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have" (because a single person cannot see everything) and the conscience in combination with the knowledge. And this, the conscience, which the generous Mother Nature has given to all humans, replaces for us the bible -- compare Romans, 2, 14-15: (14)"For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves:" (15)"Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another" -- and the authorities; it is the true judge, as Gregory of Nazianzus testifies ("On his Father's Silence, Because of the Plague of Hail," paragraph 5: "Under what circumstances again is the righteous, when unfortunate, possibly being put to the test, or, when prosperous, being observed, to see if he be poor in mind or not very far superior to visible things, as indeed conscience, our interior and unerring tribunal, tells us"), and is valid for us instead of the priests, because this teacher teaches us to harm nobody, to live in honor and to give everybody what is his'
It is striking how Knutzen, in fashioning an ethic based on the "conscientist" creed, turns to passages out of some of the most pious sources there are. We see Jesus himself being cited in the passage from Luke, St. Paul in the passage from Romans, and Gregory of Nazianzus, sometimes called Saint Gregory the Theologian and one of the first Cappodocian fathers, in a passage from one of his sermons. I don't pretend to understand why there should be citations from such authorities. That could be a fruitful line of inquiry for others to pursue. Clearly, for Knutzen, in 1674, there were more secular thinkers whose ancient writings must have been available to him for ethical amplification. Democritus, Epicurus, Lucretius, Cicero--all of these and more could have been used readily enough, but weren't.
Words in italics within Knutzen's main statement are direct allusions to certain authorities in addition. The final words describing the "Conscientist" way of life ("to harm nobody," etc.) constitute an apparent quote of an ancient formula for an upright individual and a civil society. No indication is given where this "aphorism" (?) comes from, but I was intensely curious as to its original context.
After an intensive search, I eventually found it. It's in the enormous "Digest" portion of the Justinian code, which runs to ten volumes! Justinian hired a legal scholar (sorry, I only recall the scholar's initial as T.) to synthesize, with the help of an entire panel, naturally, the entire corpus of Roman jurists, past and present. This synthesis was to become the new compendious legal code of the realm. All contradictions from jurist to jurist were to be resolved in finalizing Justinian law.
The result was a basic code of law running a couple of hundred pages, plus this enormous ten-volume Digest culled for that purpose from carefully identified jurists throughout the tide of Roman history.
The Digest uses more of the jurist Ulpian (of the second/third century A.D.) than of anyone else.
Ulpian was part of the administration under Emperor Septimus Severus around the turn of the second/third century A.D. Septimus's reign, with its jurist panoply of Gaius, Papinian, Paul, and Ulpian, is generally regarded as a Golden Age of Roman jurisprudence. After Septimus died, the extremely brutal Caracalla succeeded him, and Ulpian's duties were shoved on to the back burner. Papinian was summarily executed. Ulpian wasn't exactly persecuted, but. . . . Historians apparently disagree whether or not Ulpian set his stamp on some of the Christian persecutions during his time in the political wilderness. When Caracalla finally kicked the bucket, his successor, the very young Alexander Severus, was placed under Ulpian's tutelage, and it appears that Ulpian was widely credited with having moderated some of the brasher less considerate urges of the young Prince. At any rate, Alexander's reign was a lot more humane than Caracalla's. Ulpian tried to lessen many of the powers of the Praetorian Guard, and Alexander was quite sympathetic with his efforts. But eventually, the Guard got fed up, and a rogue(?) detachment managed to kill him despite Alexander's protection.
That's his life history. He doesn't come off as either especially enlightened or especially Draconian. He was a reasonably conscientious, very well-read civil servant. That's all.
The passage I was looking for is a citation of Ulpian at Entry 10 in Title I
("Concerning Justice and Law") of Book I of the Digest:
10. Ulpianus, Rules, Book I.
Justice is the constant and perpetual desire to give to every one that to which he is entitled.
1) The precepts of the law are the following: to live honorably, to injure no one, to give to every one his due.
2) The science of the law is the acquaintance with Divine and human affairs, the knowledge of what is just and unjust.
At first, I was really happy to have found this, but, as is so often the case, reaping an answer seems to have unearthed a multitude of new questions in its place.
The chief question is whether Ulpian, in his contrasting(?) of "Divine and human affairs," is necessarily contrasting the utterly exclusive, utterly remote, utterly ineffable realm of the Divine, on the one hand, versus the contrasted sweep, on the other, of all human commerce here on temporal terra firma--all conceivable transactions of any kind relating to each and every man and woman's doings here in the mortal dimension? At first, I assumed he was.
But right on the previous page, there is another terse distinction attributed to Ulpian, within this same section of the Digest, that may suggest something different:
Of this subject [law] there are two divisions, public and private law. Public law is that which has reference to the administration of the Roman government private law is that which concerns the interests of individuals for there are some things which are useful to the public, and others which are of benefit to private persons. Public law has reference to sacred ceremonies, and to the duties of priests and magistrates. Private law is threefold in its nature, for it is derived either from natural precepts, from those of nations, or from those of the Civil Law.
With Ulpian's coupling here of "sacred ceremonies" and the "priests and magistrates," I couldn't help wondering whether his reference way back in Entry 10 to "Divine and human affairs" ("The science of the law is the acquaintance with Divine and human affairs") might not be a reference to a deliberate distinction between the sacred on the one hand versus the secular on the other, within the context of the daily commerce of each and every Roman citizen, rather than a sweeping metaphysical statement referring to the ostensibly unattainable Divine realm on the one hand versus on the other hand the tangible human realm of daily commerce --- including both the sacred and the secular daily transactions that lie within such daily human commerce --- that I had first supposed.
Might anyone reading this have a clue to what "Divine and human affairs" refer to? I sincerely hope I've made the possible nature of the ambiguity reasonably clear, but if not, please let's hear from any puzzled readers out there. I'm really curious as to the general take on the nature of the contrast Ulpian is making here.
Ulpian has assumed--possible--critical importance, warts and all, because this man may have scooped Jefferson, after a fashion. Sample this little tidbit in Book L of the Digest:
Title XVII ("Concerning Different Rules of Ancient Law")
32. Ulpianus, On Sabinus, Book XLIII:
So far as the Civil Law is concerned, slaves are not considered persons, but this is not the case according to natural law, because natural law regards all men as equal.
Despite this anticipation of Jefferson, I'm not going to be canonizing Ulpian any time soon -) , but I'm still interested in anyone's take on Ulpian's contrasting of "Divine and human affairs," especially in the light of the dynamics of his earlier contrast of "Public" versus "Private Law." Thanks..
It may be there could be some specialist in ancient Roman law out there who would answer this question. Or someone may know how to reach one. Better yet, if someone could point us in the direction of similar utterances by Ulpian elsewhere in the Digest that would throw light on what Ulpian is trying to say here, that would be a real boon. I really don't look forward to scanning all ten volumes into the next century -)
I don't think I can be of much help on your questions about Roman law, since my areas of "expertise" in political science are mainly postwar Japan and Russia since the Revolution. I never even took Latin!
The Encyclopedia Britannica (I have the 1991 ed.) in the "Macropaedia" long entry on "Legal Systems" has a section on Roman law that uses the distinction you mention between public and private law, so it must be very basic. I think you have to keep in mind that rulers claimed to rule by the will of the gods, and religion was integral to the state, so that public duties included religious ceremonies, etc. Therefore Roman scholars might simply not have recognized the distinction you are bringing in from modern times, between religion and public law. In other words, and I hope I am not oversimplifying here, "divine and human affairs" might have meant the same thing as "public and private affairs," as there was no separation between church and state.
It is also interesting that you seem to have found a precursor to Jefferson, etc., on the subject of "natural law," but perhaps it is not as surprising as you might think since education in Jefferson's time meant primarily studying the Greek and Roman classics; and after all, there are few really new ideas under the sun (an ancient Greek said all matter is made of "atoms", etc.).
One thing that did catch my attention in the Britannica entry was that when a Roman slave was freed, he automatically became a citizen. Thus, apparently slavery was a legal condition, not an inherent status of some "inferior" humans.
Dec. 7, '98
UPDATE RE: THE PRECEDING: From the modest follow-up I've done so far, it is not apparent that ancient Roman society recognized quite the same distinction that we do between the sacred and the secular.
What still seems of critical importance here is Ulpian's own understanding of the Divine realm, as it related to the social dictates of his time. Was he, like Epicurus and Lucretius, a skeptic/ agnostic when it came to theistic worship, or did he believe such rites did indeed play a crucial role in social comity after all?
This question becomes highly pertinent, since Knutzen, in fashioning a Conscientist, non-theistic creed, would appear (by accident or design) to have applied only to theistic moral tenets as the foundations for his moral, ethical code: Jesus in Luke, Paul in Romans, and Gregory of Nazianzus.
Ulpian may be the odd man out. It is certainly striking how Knutzen has passed over any other more familiar classical thinkers and questioners in favor of the relatively obscure Ulpian.
Was Ulpian a skeptical exception to Knutzen's theistic authorities, as the better-known Epicurus or Lucretius would have been?
To my surprise, evidently not.
Upon Alexander Severus's accession (in his minority) to power, Ulpian (as Alexander Severus's guardian) was placed at the head of a panel of sixteen ministers responsible for restoring some semblance of sanity to a realm wracked by Caracalla's abuses. And it was one of Ulpian's first measures to restore the theistic institutions, rites, and shrines relating to worship that had fallen into disrepute or been subverted by personal exploitation through Caracalla's excesses.
This means that all four morality/ethics authorities cited by the atheist Knutzen (Jesus, Paul, Gregory Nazianzus, and now Ulpian) were veritable institutional theists, let alone practicing theists in their private lives. Knutzen, therefore, is far from generating an entirely autonomous code of moral action/ethics in tandem with his clearly path-breaking, "peer-bucking" non-theism. He is an original atheist with respect to his peers in academia, but not an original moralist, which remains our chief concern in these "Conversations."
Table of contents for "The Jefferson Bible"