Clement Theodore Perthes.

Memoirs of Frederick Perthes, or, Literary, religious, and political life in Germany, from 1789 to 1843 (Volume 2) online

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altogether. " My knowledge," writes ho, " is more imperfect
than should be possessed by one who speaks on such subjects, my
speech is but stammering, and that every one is welcome to sec
and know, but I will not be the means of injuring the cause.
There are good estimable men to whom, owing to the circum-
stances of their lives, their parents, their education, their age,
the study of Christian evidence has been a sealed book. Now,
if such hear me, they only perceive my weakness in argument,
and my impetuosity, and the holy cause bears the blame that
should attach to the unholy man. I will not be guilty of this
any longer, I will hold my peace." This was a Avise resolve, but
to carry it out Avas very difficult to Perthes. It was only in
his last years that he had attained such self-control as to be
silent when speaking was useless, or to speak with mildness
and moderation.

But these theological conflicts awoke in him a desire for a
knowledge of systematic Christianity, and led to his diligent
study of the dogmatical and historical works of Protestant
and Catholic theologians. lie wrote essays by way of defining
his own views, and sought through a correspondence with
his friends in North Germany, with Poel, Neander, Nicolovius,
and even with the Catholics, Friedrich Schlegel, and the
Countess Sophie Stolberg, to attain to a deeper understand-
ing of special questions. For many years he had been well
acquainted with the Scriptures, but principally with parti-
cular passages and chapters. While in Hamburgh he had
never had time for the systematic study of them, to which he
now applied himself, and which he continued up to the day
of his death. He, too, had his difficulties and hindrances of
various kinds, as all have had before and will after him, though




to each probably these will be of a different nature. In one
of his letters he says, " I find that the benefit I receive from
Scripture, in great measure depends upon myself. How often
on turning to it to clear up some historical sequence, or some
obscure doctrine, to find material for imagination or ground
for hypothesis, I only get at the shell instead of the kernel :
or, again, if in high-wrought times a clearer insight be afforded,
how prone we are to seek to improve and define it by our own
strength, and so to bring human fictions instead of Divine
truth to light. The mysteries of Holy Scripture are only re-
vealed to us when we are seeking for nothing else but for the
way of reconciliation with God, and for help in our battle with
selfishness and sin."

Perthes having written very fully to a friend about St. Paul's
Epistles, received the following reply : — " You know that to
me Judaism and Christianity, Old and New Testament, do not
appear as they do to you, to constitute one great whole. What
I most admire in Paul's Epistles is, the triumph of Christianity
over Judaism, and therein I acknowledge rather the expres-
sion of Divine inspiration than the result of human percep-
tion. And yet there remains in them a Hebrew element,
which I cannot master, and which must make all in a measure
dark and confused to one who does not feel as a Jew. The
Apostle had, as he tells us, to wrestle all his life long, and we
receive God's revelation only out of these wrestling human
vessels." — " Your opinions approach very nearly," replied Per-
thes, " to the now almost universally prevalent notions respect-
ing Scripture. The earlier theologians have perhaps too little
remembered that God has not spoken immediately, but through
John, Peter, and Paul, in the Bible. At the present time,


liowever, we are certainly in danger of overlooking the unity
of the Scripture, while dwelling on the individual writings of
.Paul, John, or Peter. In short, the trees prevent our seeing
the forest, and we forget that it is not with a collection of sepa-
rate writings that we have to do, but with the Bible as a whole,
as being the word which, during the course of the world's his-
tory, God wrote down for man's salvation, and which contains
nothing more indeed, but still nothing less than is necessary to
reveal the ' mystery of godliness.' It is not so much from the
individuality of the writers of the Epistles and Gospels, that
we arc to understand their writings, as from the relation of
these to the whole."

It was not only with inward but with outward difficulties
that Perthes had to struggle. His ignorance of the original
was a hindrance to him, and the whole generation to which he
belonged, had been deficient in religious instruction and early
familiarity with the Scriptures. Perthes writes to a friend : —
" The Bible is certainly one and the same for all ; but the best
method of studying it varies with the individual, and without
a guide few are able to discover it. The peasant, the mecha-
nic, feels no want, because unable to understand many a his-
torical and circumstantial detail ; without stumbling at this,
he quietly passes them over ; but behind his plough, or at his
daily toil, he has much unbroken time for meditation and in-
trospection, and it is Avith reference to this point of view that
he must be directed to the Bible. The man of business has
different requirements ; his hours are broken up into fragments,
and he must devote his few free moments to the great essen-
tials the Scriptur(4 reveals, without having them perplexed by
what is comparatively immaterial. As for many of the edu-


cated in Germany, who have plenty of leisure, and who, with-
out being learned theologians, yet feel a spirit of inquiry within
them, they ought not to be perplexed by external difficulties,
which only learned theologians can remove, but should have
the result of profound science and learning afforded them in a
concise form, so that, supported and enlightened by it, they
might progress in spiritual understanding. If the numerous
ministers who spend, and often spend in vain, their energies in
producing well-conceived and well-expressed sermons, would
strive to give to seekers after truth the special guidance their
different positions and wants require, there would be a great
improvement amongst us/'

Even the language of Luther's translation of the Bible often
presented difficulties to Perthes. " Believe me," he once wrote
to Ullmann, " the Bible, as translated by Luther, is a sealed
book for the majority of those whose education has been de-
rived from modern writings." To Olshausen, he says : " You
cannot know it, but of this be sure, the Bible is a hard book
for the layman. The Gospels are plain enough, thank God ;
but the Epistles, which complete them, are very little read now-
't-days, because even those who are able to follow a translation
of Homer or Shakspeare, find great difficulty in following
Luther's language. The fault, however, does not lie with
Luther's translation, whose force and excellence cannot be sur-
passed, but in the want of early religious education. It is
because we are not taught the Bible in our childhood, that
Luther's style is so strange to us, many of its words are unin-
telligible, many of its parentheses appear to us unconnected and
perplexing, many difficulties and misconceptj[pns hem us in, be-
cause they were not explained to us then. Now, it is not easv


for a man in advanced life to get over all tliis. I appeal to all
who are of my own age, and, without being theologians, apply
their mind to the Bible. To bring a new version of the Scrip-
tures into general circulation, would, for many reasons, be im-
possible, but we older men do need sucli a thing to supply our
want of early teaching and to serve us as an introduction to
Luther's style. I myself have gained much from Kistemaker's
New Testament, though it is certainly coloured by Roman Ca-
tholic views, and far inferior in force and beauty to Luther's."

It was during this season of conflict and inquiry that Perthes
applied himself to Tauler's works. He once wrote to Nico-
lovius : " That which Lutlier aimed at making openly known,
had been already announced centuries before by Tauler. Li
this exalted man we find humility, fervour, and sincerity
united with vigorous inquiry, and a free use of human reason.
He was raised far above the traditions of men, and yet we find
him obedient to ecclesiastical rules and precepts. Luther called
him a man of God, a teacher such as there had not been since
the days of the Apostles. At tlie present time all, whether
Catholic or Protestant, may find in him wliat they need, i.e.,
Christ. Do take the book in hand, it is full of the Spirit of God."

About this time Perthes wrote to Rist to the following
effect : " Intimate as we have been for many years, there yet
are subjects on which we have never spoken. I once gave you
Tauler, and believed that his writings would bring us nearer to
each other, but you did not notice them, and I was reluctant
to speak first. Now, however, in this time of sorrow for your
brother's death, give me some indications which may lead us
on to furtlier confidence."

Rist replied : — " I thank you much, my dear Perthes, for


having gentlj and delicately touched on the great centre of
union for all spirits, the relations of the creature to the eternal
and infinite source of all Being. I feel as you do, but I am satis-
fied to know of any friend that his external life is pervaded,
moulded, and guided by the invisible, and that he recognises
it to be the one reality, the beginning and the ending, the
measure of all truth, and the goal of all efi'ort. It is not
difficult to recognise in the character and conduct of another
whether this be the case with him or not. It is as difficult
to simulate an internal equanimity, an invariable rule of
action, as it is to conceal an unstable and unconccntrated ex-
istence. Now, this inward and upward direction, I call it
direction advisedly — for it is not indigenous in any mortal, I
have always recognised in you, and as the same has been im-
planted in me also, I have, in consequence, felt myself drawn
towards you, regardless of the fact, that reduced to words, our
creeds would not sound alike. You consider that grace is a
fact occurring in the course of time ; I, who can boast of no
especial illumination, view it as contemporaneous with the
beginning of existence, and only developed in life. Now we
are neither of us perfect, — we wrestle with the world and with
ourselves. It is thought that moulds language, and thought is
infinite ; but language is a prison against whose barriers the
prisoner knocks his head. Imagination and surmise can,
indeed, overpass these barriers, but these are so little certain in
the boundless regions of space of meeting with the imagination
and the surmise of a friend, be it even the dearest we have, that
little else but misunderstanding can ensue from striving to ex-
press the inexpressible. For this cause I have been silent. The
intercourse of the so-called pious often begets an effeminate,


uncertain, nay, untrue mood, bordering on affectation and
hypocrisy. Such intercourse carried on between men is to me
peculiarly revolting. Neither have I ever seen you seek or carry
on such intercourse, but rather carefully avoid the pious b}-
profession, who are always wishing to edify and be edified, while
both you and I have gladly associated with men whose life,
character, and conduct, were pervaded by a higher universal
element. You gave me Tauler's admirable book, and I have
hardly ever received a better gift, a gift that I shall leave with
a few marginal notes in it to my children. It has always been
near me, and I have been often deeply impressed by it, and
filled with admiration for the free noble spirit it breathes
forth, so different from the poverty and narrowness of the re-
ligious zeal of our day. But I never told you, for I could not
have done so truthfully, that I was able to appropriate to my-
self what it contains respecting the annihilation of the body,
or rather of the senses, the spiritual resurrection, and the new
birth, I will neither deceive myself nor others, and were I to
wish it even, I could not do so. I have always been clear-
sighted both as regards others and myself, and my own self-
knowledge gives me an insight into other men's hearts. This
self-annihilation of the sensual nature — this entrance of the
divine into a mortal vessel — this complete change and purifi-
cation of the natural man is a sublime thought, but, according to
my firm conviction, it is a delusion ; it is an abstract idea derived
from a momentary exaltation, and then applied to a whole life,
which God has bound not only by strong but by golden ties to
this common earth of ours. Desires such as those which Tau-
ler afiirms to be consequent upon the new birth, may, indeed,
arise in the spiritualized nature of a few religious men ; and


standing far off, one may admire those vvlio are able to offer
themselves up thus as a sacrifice to the Highest. But this very
sacrifice excludes all reference to human fellowship, and is not
fitted for us who are called by a more imperative decree to a
field of battle where all the strength of our sensuous nature is so
often required to fulfil the duty close at hand, and commanded
by law and feeling alike. I would not fling away the thousand
faculties and enjoyments afforded me by my senses, as though
they were a despicable gift ; rather would I connect them
with those higher gifts, which, although citizens of a nobler
home, still dwell as strangers upon our earth. But why should
I more fully state my views to you, dear Perthes, when you
yourself arc the most energetically and actively sensuous man
(according to my interpretation of the phrase) that I ever saw?
Without worldly wisdom, passion, and self-confidence, you would
never have occupied your present advantageous position, but
would have been an unhappy self-engrossed framework knitter.
Your nature is scarcely more akin to Tauler's than is mine,
which is, indeed, widely different, and ever will be, so long as
I live. Can you seriously suppose that Tauler would ever look
upon a man, who, with the whole strength of his animal na-
ture, strives after external objects, manages and improves his
worldly affairs, and defies his foes, as one like-minded with
himself? No, no ; the man who prosecutes Voss, requires apolo-
gies, and finds compensation in public opinion for the legal sen-
tence against him, does not practise the self-abnegation which
Tauler demands : and, indeed, amongst all the men we know,
love, and honour, shew me one who, like this mortified monk,
has annihilated his body and rendered his soul inaccessible to
earthly joys and sorrows. You will not find one such, because.


however lofty Tauler's views may be, they are not practical ;
his system does not seek to build up, but to destroy, and must
therefore be faulty."

Perthes replied as follows ; " We are not so much opposed
as your letter would imply. The tmth of the saying, ' All is
vanity,' does indeed come home to the man of ripe years, when
he reflects upon all that in life's vicissitudes has charmed and
enchained his heart and mind ; but he who, because all things
are vain, should cease to take a part in them, would merely
vegetate, and no longer live. An entirely contemplative life is
an impossibility, the instinct of activity is innate ; at all events
hard work is to me a liabit with which I cannot dispense. He
who should attempt nothing on earth but to meditate on God,
and feel His presence, would soon cease to do either. The Chris-
tian is set in the midst of the world, and, let him stand wliere
he may, will always be called on to fulfil various external
duties : in these he is to act as skilfully, expeditiously, and ener-
getically as his faculties will allow, and he may not extinguish
liis earthly nature or his senses, for he needs them all in order
to be God's faithful servant and steward. If therefore I have
gladly and actively used my physical energies, that is no con-
tradiction to my Christianity ; but if I have failed to sanctify
and employ them as in God's sight, then I have been un-
true to my convictions. No one knows better than I how
little progress one makes. When I remember, that, six-and-
twenty years ago, I expressed to Caroline my earnest desire to
approach God, and purify my life, and then consider what I am
at this day ; alas, how little improvement I find ! The con-
flict is difl'erent, now less violent indeed, but not easier ; and I
often feel as though my whole past, from earliest childhood,




came crowding into the present. Brought up by worthy, well-
intentioned relatives, I yet heard hardly anything about Chris-
tianity. I did, indeed, learn Luther's Catechism by heart, but
its meaning was never explained to me ; and as to my confir-
mation, it might well be called blasphemous. I owe some facts
and good impressions to Iliibner's Biblical History ; Lavatcr's
Diary, too, fell into my hands, and left some religious impres-
sions behind. When I was fifteen years old, I went to Leipsic
and was there taught a rude lesson. While licentious books
inflamed my imagination, I started in the track of Game,
Reinhard, and Kioscwetter, and was only saved from ruin by
my deep and sincere love for a modest girl. When I was twenty
years' old, and full of internal struggles, I went to Hamburgh,
where I was surrounded by a new world, filled with all kinds
of interests. The writings of Schiller and Jacobi attracted
me ; I became acquainted with Besser, Runge, Hiilsenbeck,
and Speckter, and my education, properly speaking, then began.
I became acquainted, too, with Caroline, and through her, with
the blessing of my life. The first six years of our married life
were full of internal and external difficulties, and then the great
public events of the time intruded into our domestic circle.
The spiritual struggle went on. Pride and arrogance never
belonged to my character, and good sense saved me from petty
vanity ; but I was always ambitious. As for the impetuosity
of my nature, it has often helped me forward, and the excess
of it is punished and restrained by the conditions of life. My
besetting sin has always been sensuality. I have fought a
hard battle with it, and only triumphed, or rather found tlie
way to triumph, by becoming a Christian ; and it was not
Caroline, nor Claudius, nor any one else tliat made me a Chris-


tian, but the deep yearning* for help whicli I felt to be necessary
in battling with my sensual nature. Until manhood, the moral
law performed for me the functions of the Old Testament,
by convincing me of sin, and of my powerlessness to conquer
it, and so breaking my presumptuous spirit. As soon as I had
relinquished my self-reliance, the gospel renewed the humbled
man, comforted him for the sins of the past, and promised and
afforded him help in liis future struggle. I am not conscious
of ever having experienced any special act of grace, though I
have yearned after such for years, and I know very well where
and what the hinderance in myself is, which stands between
this desire and its accomplishment. That many others possess
what I still only long for, I firmly believe, though they may
perhaps have begun to work in the vineyard some hours after
me ; but that God has worked in me, and is still working in
many ways, I feel. I have found the sure, the only way to
spiritual peace, but the end of that way cannot be reached
on earth ; I am neither dead to the world, nor made sinless ;
and, indeed, I believe that the effect of regeneration is not to
transfigure a man while here below, but to make him childlike
and humble. As regards Taulcr, it is true that he aims at a
wholly interior life, a withdrawal from the world, which is pos-
sible only for those who have no earthh^ calling or earthly ties ;
but you must not forget, that Tauler is here addressing him-
self especially to unmarried ecclesiastics ; for who else could
have understood or even read his works at that time ? His ser-
mons to the people, on the contrary, are full of practical wis-
dom, and contain many cautions against the danger of under-
valuing one's lawful calling In favour of the inner Christian life ;
but even in these respects, the infinite difference comes out


clearly between human writings, be they even as profound and
lofty as Tauler's Medulla Animw, and the divine sublimity,
simplicity, and moderation of Holy Scripture."

About this time Perthes spoke out with equal distinctness
to his son Matthias. "Neither Tauler, nor Thomas-a-Kempis/'
wrote he, " desires such a separation from the world as would in-
terfere with the performance of even one of our duties towards
our neighbour. I do not know what Terstegen may advocate,
for I am but little acquainted with his writings. To withdraw
one's-self entirely from contact with the world is impossible
under the conditions of time and space ; and if a man does
come into contact with it, though at only one point, that contact
gives the devil a hold over him. However, if the attempt to lead
an exclusively inner life be hopeless, we have the comfort of
knowing that such a life is not ordained of God, but devised
by man's own deluded will. We may, indeed, with the lofti-
est sentiments, and the sublimest ideas, imagine it, but we are
deceived by Satan. Behind tlie lofty sentiment lurks sloth,
which hopes for the crown without the conflict ; and behind
the sublime idea lurks pride, which, in its independence of
the world, would fain assume divinity. We are to suffer and
strive, but to suffer and strive in love ; if this love has degene-
rated towards our neighbour into coldness, towards ourselves
into sensuality, or towards God into presumption, we ought to
feel that we need atonement through Jesus Christ. We can
do nothing but light to the end. If we have conquered the
grosser and ruder forms of temptation, we have hourly to guard
against more subtle and gentle attacks. This world is not
made for the rest after victory : fight on, love, and trust God's
grace !"


But however clearly and fully convinced Perthes might be
that a state wholly undisturbed by earthly things was not made
for man here below — however active and ardent in his pursuit
of external objects — however susceptible of the impressions
each day brought with it — yet deep in his soul lay the yearn-
inof after a state of entire union with God, unmixed with
worldly influences, uninterrupted by self-will and self-love.
He thought that many expressions of Hamann, with whose
writings he was much occupied, evinced a longing after the
same end.

Hamann's writings had been pointed out to Perthes some
years previously by his friends Claudius and Fr. Heinrich
Jacobi, and, when he first came to Gotha, he read with interest
Hamann's Correspondence and later works. He had many a
severe criticism to bear from those whose attention he called
to this author. In a letter written to him in 1823, we find
these words : — '' Beware of citing Hamann as an authority in
religious subjects. Can you suppose that this unstable, doubt-
ing, envious, fretful man, who was never satisfied with any
condition in life, could have had a true insight into heavenly
things, and have been pervaded by the Spirit of God ? His
words are simple and lofty, it is true, and his figures of speech
boldly and inflexibly aim at expressing the highest truth, but
those words and expressions are fragmentary and unconnected,
reminding one of flashes of consciousness in a delirious patient.
They suggest the Infinite, indeed, but when we strive to grasp
and define them, all is vague and uncertain." Another letter
ran as follows : — " Hamann was too strong in intellect not to
perceive the want of truth in the fundamental views of his
time, but he was too Aveak in will to save the truth tliat was


revealed to his own mind from calumny. The disproportion
between the intellectual and moral forces wliicli was carried in
him to an abnormal height, accounts for the mysterious and,
indeed, awful figure which he makes in our literature. I never

Online LibraryClement Theodore PerthesMemoirs of Frederick Perthes, or, Literary, religious, and political life in Germany, from 1789 to 1843 (Volume 2) → online text (page 11 of 36)