I. A. (Isaak August) Dorner.

System of Christian ethics online

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Among the opponents of Pessimism are — Haym, Frcussische
Jahrhiicher, 1873, Nos. 1-3. Weygoldt, Kritik des pMlos. Fes-

[Eehmke, Glossen zu Hartmann s Flianomenologie. Zeitschr.


fuT Philoso^hie unci philosophiscJie Kritik, 1879, No. 2. Der
Pessimismus vnd die Sittenlehre, 1883. Michelis, Philosophu des
Bewusstscins. 'EVjYSiTd, JTartmann's Philosophie dcs Unheunissten,
1876. Golther, Der moderne Pessimismus, edited by Vischer.
E. Ptieiderer, Der Pessimismus. Lasson, Pluilosophische Monats-
heft, 1879, Nos. 6 and 7. Gass, Optimismus und Pessimismus.
A. Schweizer, Philosophie d. Unhewusstcn. Ztschr. f. wiss. Theol.
1873, p. 407 sq. Huber, Die religiose Fragc. Secretan, La
nouvcauM metaphysique. Phil, de Vinconscient. Revue chr^tienne,
1872. Sommer, Per Pessimismus und die Sittenlehre. Christ,
Der Pessimismus und die Sittenlehre. My article, " Hartmann's
pessimistische Philosophie," Studien und Kritlken., 1881, No. 1.
Prantl, Die BcrccJitigung des Optimismus. Euckeii, Geschichte u.
Kritih d. Grundhegriffe, p. 236 sq. Hoekstra, Dc Tegenstelling
van Optimisme en Pessimisme, 1880. — Ed.]

Frank advances the idea that Pessimism is the truth of the
life of unbelief. But it is Martensen especially who has given
an ethical estimate of Pessimism as it appears within Chris-
tianity {Christian Ethics, vol. i. p. 164 sq., vol. ii. p. 199 sq.). The
fundamental error in these systems is that liniteness is looked
upon as necessarily involving imperfection. That is to say, all
determination, without which there could, of course, be no
world at all, is regarded as negation, instead of as a specific mode
of being ; and conversely, the unlimited or indeterminate is
regarded as true and perfect being. But such being, like Nir-
vana, cannot be distinguished from mere nothingness. These
form.s of Pessimism, closely connected as they are with Dualism
or Atheism, are for us made untenable by the Christian doctrine
of God.

However, there is a certain trutli in this pessimistic view of
the world, if only it be taken apart from the grounds upon
which it is made to rest. That is to say, if the world be con-
sidered as it is, apart from redemption, apart from the salt of
Christianity which preserves it from corruption, then to sober
observation penetrating to the truth behind the appearance of
things, it is a state of misery, a huge grave ; it is that vale of
tears wdiich the Preacher saw it to be when he declared that
the true verdict upon the pre-Christian world was, " all is
vanity." But revealed religion, even in Old Testament times,
made a great advance beyond all the positions of absolute
Pessimism, by referring the evil that is in the world neither to
God uor to a power inaependent of God, but to human sin, and
by deriving death from the same source. By this means, it is
true, man is made to suffer a still deeper pain than the so-called
world-pain, with its complainings ; for physical evil reminds us
of human guilt, and is thereby armed with a still sharper sting.


A greater than physical evil is brought to light in the world,
viz. moral evil. Nevertheless, faith in God is now preserved,
faith in His goodness and power, and this affords a resting-
place for hope. Evil is now regarded, not as something neces-
sary, due to existence itself, but as relatively accidental, since
it is made to depend upon the sin and the freedom of man.

Finally, the evils that do exist would themselves be bearable,
if only the greatest of them all, viz. guilt, were wiped away
through divine forgiveness. For the sting of evil, which con-
sists in its being punishment, would then be taken away, and
evils themselves, while still continuing to exist, would be looked
upon as a means of education and purification, and consequently
as a good. And if, besides, the power of sin. as well as of guilt
were broken by God, then all other evils would be checked at
their source, and hope might rejoice in the prospect of a condi-
tion of things in which evils will have wholly disappeared. This
is the Christian view of the world. And it is opposed not only
to the error of Pessimism but to that of Optimism as well.
Although the Christian jjrinciplc is in the world, and thus the
salvation of the w^orld is something real and present, we must
not overlook the work that has still to be performed and the
battle that has still to be fought before victory is won, nor must
we lull ourselves into premature contentment with our own
state and that of the world. Even in Christian times it is
possible to find mild forms of Optimism and Pessimism at work,
which alike exercise an enfeebling and enervating effect, and
are therefore most pernicious. But Christian hope is able to
withstand both of these errors ; we have only to turn to it and
then our moral vigour is restored, and true Christian motives

1. Along with hope there arises the Christian vieiv of the
Woiid. Its character is clearly brought out by its opposi-
tion both to Optimism and Pessimism. Optimism is moral
apathy, and takes two forms. On the one hand, it may over-
estimate earthly well-being and its influence upon morality ;
on the other, it may U7ulervalue the -power of evil in the
world, refuse to look at evil, disregard its power, and lull
itself to sleep with rose-coloured illusions concerning the
power and practice of virtue in the world. In one word, it
treats the world and the individual person ideally : it does not
take them as they are, but anticipates their perfection in its
subjective imaginings. When those who have arrived at such
hasty satisfaction with everything proceed to act, they would
fain overleap the stages which must first be traversed before


the end is reached, and so their action is applied at the wrong
place. And just as their conceptions of the nearest aims to
be pursued and the means to be employed are wrongly-
formed, so no result follows their efforts. Optimism is morally
superficial ; it lacks depth of earth, 7?} ttoWt] (Matt. xiii. 5,
20). Those who from love of ease would like to flee at once
to the goal, make no progress, because they disdain to labour
in the sweat of their face, and to mount upward step by step.
In short, Optimism is too much satisfied with the present, and
therefore it has no hope to urge it forward.

Opposed to Optimism is Pessimism, which has as its
moving power the imperfection, the evil, and the sin which
are in the world. Pessimism assumes tivo forms. It may
appear in a more passive form, and then it leads to passive
renunciation of moral effort, resignation, melancholy despair
of the coming of the chief good. This is moral impotence,
unbelief. If an interest is still taken in the kingdom of God,
yet work is done with spiritless hands and progress is made
with feeble knees (Heb. xii. 12), whereas faith demands us
^eeiv TTveu/xari (Rom. xii. 11). Here too, it may be, instead
of honest and zealous work, there is the expectation of extra-
ordinary events which will make everything turn out for the
best • (in the highest, Christian form of Pessimism, it is the
second coming of Christ that is expected) ; but meanwhile all
moral labour, except perhaps what is expended on directly
religious objects, is regarded as vain, futile, or even sinful.
Here there is exhibited a sour, censorious disdain, a barren and
pernicious mistrust.

The second main form of Pessimism is the active. Here we
find a restless haste which will not enter confidently into the
present and the work of God that is in it, but is at variance
with it, and thinks to reach a better state of things by some
abrupt way, by the use of force, the violation of rights, or by
fanatical means — in short, by a single spring as it were, and
so by breaking off in revolutionary fashion from the past
course of historical development.

Pessimism of both kinds proceeds as if the kingdom of God
were altogether absent and had yet to come. According to
the first species of Pessimism, its coming is to be brought
about by a sudden act on the part of God, which must be


passively awaited, — tliis is the position of the Darbyitcs with
their objective chiliasm. According to the second, it is to be
brought about by human intervention, which has to lay the
foundations, alike of society, the State, and the kingdom of
God, entirely by human effort, or which at least has to prepare
the way for the second coming of our Lord, — this is the form
in which Pessimism has been held by many parties from
the Ancibaptists of the Eeformation time onward.

In accordance with the principle on which it rests.
Pessimism gives rise to all sorts of ideals, set up by fanaticism
in the various spheres of life, — especially the political and
educational, — such as the dreams of comnnmism and socialism.
In the ecclesiastical sphere, moreover, we find all kinds of
church-ideals : that, for example, of Donatistic purity, either in
morality or in piety and intelligence. Here we find separa-
tion and exclusion advocated, either from men wishing to
form a Church composed of the regenerate alone, or from their
demanding perfect purity in one department at least — that of
public instruction, in the teachers of the Church. This means
a pure creed, and brings us back to the demand that at least
the clerical order shall consist of the regenerate alone, if the
Church is to be a Church. For according to evangelical
principles, we can demand a creed only as the product of
evangelical faith, so that to require a pure creed is identical
with requiring regenerating faith. Donatistic Pessimism
refuses to be satisfied with a lowly condition of the Church,
in which it includes unbelievers among the ministers of the
word as well as among its members at large ; it seeks by
means of force or compulsion to rid itself of such as are not
or not yet at one with the Church in its creed. Of course, it
cannot hinder hypocrisy, but may very readily increase it.

Others, instead of allying themselves with the beginnings of
the kingdom of God that are in history and in the present,
would like to make a new beginning, to bring back again,
perhaps, a past period of history, such as that of primitive
Christianity or of the Eeformation time — the Irvingitc restora-
tion of the apostolate is an instance in point. But if the king-
dom of God has in nowise come as yet, it cannot come at all,
for it is ethical, and can therefore be established only in an
ethical and not in a magical way. And whatever is ethically


produced in any spliere must have a living point of connection
with the present. In Pessimism, which seeks to break with
the past and present, and to destro}^ them in order to intro-
duce what is new, there is something dualistic, something
Manichsean, just as in the premature satisfaction of Optimism
there is an element of Pelagianism. It rends asunder the
unity and continuity of the world as a whole, since it opposes
to the actually existing world a world of the imagination ; and
so, wholly unsatisfied with what has been, it loves to talk of
a future state, a future Church, a future religion. It may
cherish hope, but it is a liopc witliout faith, — that is, it is
purely subjective, not a hope that is the outcome of the past
and the present, of faith and love. Pessimism is restless
haste and impatience ; not, like Optimism, premature rest and
contentment. But mere restless movement results only in
stagnation, and Pessimism, however hostile it is to all con-
servatism, never makes any real advance. For, in accordance
with its principle, it always acts abruptly ; it is continually
starting from the beginning over again, and thus all progress
is rendered impossible, and a perpetual standstill is the result.
While Pessimism in its active form is that restless haste
which never makes any advance, because it always begins
anew and breaks with what has hitherto taken place, Optimism,
on its side, is even less cafcthU of progress. It is mere immo-
bility ; it lowers its ideal, and denies the imperfections of the
present. The Xew Testament represents the kingdom of God
on the one side as already come for faith, and on the other
as still coming.^ But this ethically necessary association of
two apparent opposites is dissolved both by Optimism and
Pessimism, and that in opposite ways. Optimism holds to
the first alone, to the fact that the kingdom of God has come ;
it is faith without hope to impel it forward, since it has no
conception of the richness of the Christian principle, or of the
far-reaching moral problems which the latter brings to view; it
is therefore faith of only a superficial kind. Pessimism, on the
other handjholds to the second alone, to the fact that the kingdom
of Gocl is yet to come. But it does not do this on the ground

1 Luke xvii. 20 ; Matt. xi. 12, vi. 33 ; John iii. 3-5 ; Matt. xxv. 34 ; cf.
Matt. vi. 10, Th}' kingdom come. Chap, xiii., The mustanl-seed. 1 Cor. xv. 50 ;
Kom. xiv. 17.


that the kingdom has already come ; and so> while it may
have a higher idea of the problem to be wrought out in the
conversion of the world, it has no faith in the power of grace
that is already in the world ; its hope is a hope without faith,
not Christian hope, but one that is ever ready to fall back into

2. Whereas in Christian hope, joy {■^(apa.) is associated
with true Xvirr] (2 Cor. vii. 10 ; Col. i. 24), we find in
Pessimism and Optimism a false sadness and a false joy.

{a) The pain of Pessimism is superficial, as is seen when
we consider its two forms. (a) It may take a merely
ocsthetic or eudaemonistic form, in which it is aroused only by
the physical evils that exist, or by the lack of worldly bless-
ings ; it may be by evils that affect a whole community, such
as the failure of one's country to secure power and glory, or
the want of external splendour in the condition of the Church.
The last of these plays an important part in the modern forms
of cliiliasm, e.g. in Darhyism and Irvingism, where pain is
chiefly felt at the imperfect appearance of things. (/8) Again,
the pain of Pessimism may directly refer to the sin of the
world, its might and dominion, or to the power of Satan over
the world. But sin is here taken as absolutely unconquer-
able, so that the first Parousia of Christ is unable to meet it,
and only the power of His second coming will be sufficient to
overcome it. In the meantime, Pessimism opposes to sin no
hearty labour of love, least of all a labour undertaken in
common, but only action of a violent kind, for the most part
negative, separatistic, and uninspiring ; or its opposition con-
sists in mere passive resignation, at most in bearing a Christian
testimony in the world. Pessimism doubts the possibility of
the gospel still being what it once was — a power that is
able to overcome every form of individual and social sin.
Accompanying this renunciation of loving, inspiring activity,
we find, as a matter of course, that the Pessimist regards
himself as opposed to the world, which he looks upon as lost,
and the judgment of which he is awaiting. Nay, he even
takes pleasure (Matt. vii. 1) in assuming the office of judge,
and anticipating the verdict of God, by uncharitably suppos-
ing the worst of every one, and so keeping up within himself
the feeling that he is a stranger and pilgrim in the world. It


naturally follows from this, that, since the heart is concealed
from human view, a tendency is manifested to devise after a
legal fashion certain tests, by which the Christianity of each
one may be gauged.

Now Christianity deepens the pain of Pessimism. If the
latter appears in an aesthetic form, then Christianity enlightens
it as to the connection that exists in all departments of life
between evil and sin, and also between Christianity and the
highest blessings. Again, if the pain is felt with reference to sin
(a legalistic spirit being predominant), then Christianity deepens
it, by taking the man who has set himself apart as a judge,
disclosing to him the sinfulness of the uncharitableness and
pride which he exhibits, and thus surrendering him to inward
self-condemnation. Christianity takes the edge off pessimistic
pain. For it comes to him who so willingly finds pleasure in
taking up the role of an accuser or judge, or who would
fain play the part of a misunderstood benefactor of the world,
tells him that his true position is one of humility, and exhorts
him before everything else to accuse himself, and to recognise
the connection between the common sin of humanity and his
own personal share in it. And then it assures him that
absolute reconciliation with God is to be found in divine
grace, and, by reminding him of what a load of guilt has been
lifted off his own soul, weans him from his spirit of exacting
and censorious arrogance towards his fellow-servants. Further,
since in absolute reconciliation with God we are already made
partakers of the chief good, Christianity takes away all bitter-
ness from the pain that is felt at the deficiencies everywhere
visible, and teaches us to be thankful for the good that exists
(Col. i. 12), and to cease from over-estimating what as yet is
wanting. Especially does it teach us not to put too high a
value upon the secondary spheres, as if in these by themselves
the absolute good could be found. It therefore gives a deeper
ethical character to the dissatisfaction of Pessimism, and by
this means paves the way for that contentment with the lead-
ings of Providence, tliat inner peace and joy, in which alone
there resides the power to yield us true serenity of spirit amid
the contradictions of the world.

(5) Christianity, too, imparts a deeper tone to the joy of
Optimism. It brings to bear upon it the pain which is


experienced at sin both within and without ourselves, and so
leads us to find joy in that good which alone is worthy of the
name, — a good which now exists, but which no less ever
points us to a future that demands our labour in the present
time. Thus Christianity sets both Optimism and Pessimism
right ; in these the human spirit is at a false point of view,
and Christianity brings it back to the true one. Christian
faith gives it its true starting-point, and Christian hope its true
goal. The joy of the Christian is a noble joy. Treading the
path of sorrow, and mortification of everything that is impure,
it becomes joy in the possession of a good that shall never
pass away (1 Pet. i. 6, ii. 19 f . ; Jas. i. 2 f.). It is true that
this joy gives rise to a new kind of sorrow, viz. to compassion
for the world with its mistaken ideas of happiness. But it
is not a sorrow that manifests itself in cold separatism or in
stubborn despondency ; it is a sorrow that carries its consola-
tion in itself, that enters into Christian love, inspires it with
active courage, and gives it vigour. Thus we see that
Christian hope, since it tlow^s out of faith and finds an outlet
in active love, is opposed to both the extremes which have
been discussed. And so what has already been said is once
more confirmed, that Christian hope contains the germs or
buds, as it were, of the Christian spirit.

3. Christian courage (avSpela). The perversity of the
world is often so overwhelming, that goodness appears to be
overborne by wickedness. It is this which furnishes materials
for tragedy, and these are to be found not only in poetry, but
often enough in actual life. Now, in our conflict with sin,
both within and witliout, we may be apt to regard the powers
of evil as too strong or even as invincible. And this is the
trial of our faith ; for faith cannot remain sound if its hopes
for the future are broken. The assurance which it possesses
wears away when hope, into which it must blossom, gives
place to despondency and cowardice. At such a time it is
needful, above all things, that the foundation be renewed, that
is, that faith again be made strono;. We must make our-
selves clearly conscious of the fact that in Christ the kingdom
of God is already in existence, and that He is the truth and
the power of the present. Against the world which stands in
contradiction to Christianity, that world which spreads around


US, and yet in its inner nature is so unsubstantial, we must
bring into force the idealism oi faith, or faith on its mystical
side. When this is done, then to faith the world, so far as
it is opposed to God, ceases to exist: faith becomes again
assured of the powerlessness of this world against the world
so far as it is in harmony with God ; for apart from God the
world has only a semblance of life. In this way the human
spirit again enters its stronghold, and there regains its freedom.
To it the power of sin and error is already judged, and in the
growth and spread of wrong it sees only the development of
evil toward certain destruction. The bitterness and harsh-
ness of the pain that is felt when the kingdom of God in
Christ seems itself to be threatened, disappear when we
recognise the folly and vanity of all attacks that are made on
the kingdom of God. Nay, when the Christian has recovered
himself in faith, he sees that his former anxiety about the
kingdom of God was itself but folly, no less than the blindness
displayed in assailing it : and so even that which was most
terrifying and tragic can now draw forth a song of triumph
such as Paul's, " death, where is thy sting ? grave,
where is thy victory ? Thanks be to God which giveth us
the victory, through our Lord Jesus Christ ; " or the words of
the Psalmist, " Why do the heathen rage," etc. (Ps. ii.).

Here we have what may be called Christian humotir} But
it is humour of a high and Christian kind, only when the
spiritual serenity that has been rescued out of the confusions
of things temporal does not fall into Optimism and become,
as in the case of Friedr. Schlegel, an irony that is wholly
indifferent to the conflict which goes on in the world; an
irony that refuses to take any part in that conflict, either in
the way of sympathy or of action. Whoever, in order to
maintain a mood of ostensible superiority, takes only a bird's-
eye view, as it were, of earthly activity, and looks upon all
that men busy themselves about with such tragic earnestness
as folly and vanity and so as a kind of tragi-comedy, — such a
man is given up to sensuous egoism, and only betrays folly
in another shape, that, namely, of frivolity and life-weariness.
On the other hand, it would hardly be possible to find a wise,
observant, and courageous Christian, who has not again and
^ [Cf. F. J. Meier's address, Htimor mid GhristentJmm. 1876.— Ed.]


again indulged in Christian humour, and found it give an
impulse and zest to his life. It is wholly justifiable and even
a duty, especially in times when in the Church, for instance,
or in any other community, error and perversity have grown
to a gigantic height. Then the conflict which we carry on
would lack the circumspection and courage that are needful,
did we not, by taking a true Cluistian view of things, attain
that self-control which enables us to apply the proper
standard to the appearance of power possessed by opposing
forces, and which strengthens our joy in the present and future
kingdom of God. But Christian humour is a salt in our
life, not only when we are opposing hostile powers, but also
when we turn to ourselves, for it serves to keep us from
becoming dull, despondent, and slothful. It is the source of
that speech seasoned v/ith salt which is so pleasant to hear
(Col, iv. 6). It demands, therefore (and this is a test of
its purity), that we set ourselves not only against the per-
versities that we see around us, but also against that sinful
reflex of them which is in ourselves, which consists in
despondency and fear of the power of wickedness, and in
an exaggerated estimate of that power, and which often
expresses itself in bitter and passionate judgments upon

Further, Christian humour must be accompanied by the
most living interest in the struggle that is waged. When
this is the case, it becomes a moving power in that spiritual
serenity which inspires the Christian with the bright and
joyful hope that the kingdom of God will prosper even by
means of its very adversaries, and sends him forth assured of

Online LibraryI. A. (Isaak August) DornerSystem of Christian ethics → online text (page 40 of 61)