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History, Metaphors, FablesA Hans Blumenberg Reader$

Hans Blumenberg

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9781501732829

Published to Cornell Scholarship Online: January 2021

DOI: 10.7591/cornell/9781501732829.001.0001

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Critique of a Category of Historical Illegitimacy (1964)

(p.53) 3 “Secularization”
History, Metaphors, Fables

Hans Blumenberg

Cornell University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter evaluates Hans Blumenberg's interpretation of the modern age, which is thrown into sharper relief in a text that would become the basis for his most famous book, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age. Presented in 1962 at the seventh German congress of philosophy, “'Secularization': Critique of a Category of Historical Illegitimacy” (1964) challenges the notion of modernity as the illegitimate appropriation of medieval theological patterns, concepts, and institutions. Against such a substantialist view of history, Blumenberg presents a functional model in which “positions” of past thought systems become vacant and are “reoccupied” with new but unrelated concepts. Eschatology, to give an example, is not secularized into the concept of progress. Instead, once it loses its status as an explanation for the course of history, this function is taken up by the entirely distinct concept of scientific progress.

Keywords:   Hans Blumenberg, modern age, philosophy, secularization, modernity, medieval theological concepts, medieval theological institutions, thought systems, scientific progress, eschatology

That the world has become ever more worldly and continues to do so is a complaint that has not ceased since the early days of Christianity. But such a statement has a comprehensible meaning only in theological terms, and its assessment likewise depends on theological principles. From the perspective of a dialectical theology, this claim may even meet with a positive assessment, in that growing worldliness is read as the formula for a spiritual cleansing of this world, which reveals itself as what it is precisely as a consequence of becoming more worldly. Secularization would thus portend that judgment of final separation which is anticipated as the eschatological event. This spiritual usage of the word has nothing to do with secularization as a historical category, though it appears in a most (p.54) modern form, that of the wave of secularization, thus dressing itself in the cloak of a natural phenomenon.

When it is claimed that (to list a number of examples chosen at random)

… ​the final state promised by the Communist Manifesto was a secularization of the biblical paradise;

… ​the modern work ethos was a secularization of the ideal of holiness and its method, asceticism;

… ​the notion of guilt found in our criminal law was a secularization of the sacred guilt relation in which the sinner stood before God;

… ​the notion of theoretical certainty, which has become doubtful in modern epistemology, was the secularized form of the fundamental theological problem of certainty of salvation;

… ​the ideas of the unity of mankind and its political organization in a League of Nations or the United Nations were secularizations of the unity of redeemed mankind in the last days;

… ​Laplace’s demon was the secularization of divine omniscience in the form of a mechanistic ideal of knowledge;

… ​the democratic idea of the equality of all before the law was a secularization of the Christian equality of all men before God

—when these and countless similar claims are made,1 the aim is very much not to reach spiritual conclusions, a pre-eschatological judgment, but to understand certain historical processes.

What emerges here is a precise usage of the term secularization, one that goes back to its original legal meaning and content, that (p.55) is, the expropriation of ecclesiastical possessions as it has been practiced and referred to since the Peace of Westphalia.2 It is easy to see that there is an analogy between the usages of the term secularization recounted here and these processes of expropriation—an analogy that makes the idea of secularization liable to be used as a basic concept of historical understanding. The transference taking place here draws its assumptions from the features of the process of expropriation, which are as follows:

  1. a) the ability of the expropriated goods to be identified;

  2. b) the legitimacy of primary ownership;

  3. c) the seizure being unilateral.

So far as modern authors find it necessary to define the terms they use at all, the specimens gathered here display the above features. “Becoming worldly [Verweltlichung], that is, the release of spiritual or ecclesiastical ideas and notions, likewise the release of spiritual (consecrated) objects and persons from their ties to the divine.”3 Furthermore: “Today, it is customary to speak of secularization where ideas and knowledge are untied from their original source in revelation and made accessible to human reason by its own power. Hence, secularization concerns operations of the mind that were originally enabled by faith but are subsequently performed by man (p.56) with the abilities at his disposal.”4 Finally: “By exposing and creating awareness of the process of secularization, the continuity between the present and the past is preserved. … ​There is a continuity of the historic even in the negative relation of the past to the present. … ​The reality in which we actually live is obscured by misleading notions.”5 This is clear only inasmuch as it implies that we find in our relationship with the past a discontinuity that does not actually exist, and we do so, it would seem, because of a reluctance to acknowledge a debt to the past on the part of the present. The historical interpretation that works with the category of secularization uncovers the concealed facts of the matter, and in doing so, calls attention to an objective cultural debt—no shorter formula for the implications of secularization is conceivable.6

For the time being, it should be quite coolly noted that a historical interpretation seeking to avail itself of the expression secularization bears, from a methodical perspective, the burden of proving that the features of the seizure are in evidence in the thematic process. Failing that, what emerges may well be a statement that sounds profound and creates the illusion of having understood something, but its grasp for a historical structure misses the mark.

I shall now move on to the thesis of my remarks, which maintains that the use of the category of secularization, particularly in its most commonplace formulas, is neither equal to nor even aware of this methodical burden of proof. An impressive and well-known (p.57) book can thus simply assume the origin of the historical idea of progress from theological eschatology as known, but none of the above features has yet been cited in support of the claim that the idea of progress was a secularized form of eschatology.7

There is nothing to substantiate the claim of a transposition of eschatology into the idea of progress. The crucial formal difference is this: eschatology speaks of an event irrupting into history, in relation to which it is transcendent and heterogeneous; the idea of progress extrapolates into the future from a structure immanent to history and forming part of any present.8

More important still, however, is a genetic difference: in its late form, though historically antecedent to the modern age, eschatology is an answer to the question concerning the meaning and course of history as a whole; the idea of progress is originally a structural formula for theoretical processes and as such was applied in the aesthetic realm as a formula of protest against the binding claims for constant exemplars made on behalf of humanism.9 There is thus (p.58) little to be said in favor of the claim that the factual historical succession of an eschatological interpretation of history by the idea of progress represents the endurance of a notion whose substance has become alienated from its origin.

No less questionable is the historical applicability of the category of secularization according to the second criterion, which demands that an idea belong originally and singularly to the theological realm if we are to speak of secularization. The prerequisite is that it should be at all possible methodically to elucidate the question of property rights to the supposedly secularized notions. In the first instance, the legality of the acquisition and ownership of ideas is but an analogy to property rights to objects. If this analogy is taken too far, such as by imagining a sale or purchase in good faith, historical understanding is left empty-handed. By contrast, it manifestly makes more sense and is easiest, methodically speaking, to admit talk of secularization only where a genuine and authentically theological subject matter is at issue. We would then be faced with a kind of property in the sense of copyright law [urheberrechtlich], in which the act of seizure takes a particularly drastic form.10 There can be no doubt that historical hypotheses of the kind discussed here assume the original and primal unworldliness11 of a notion to be self-evident, (p.59) to detect in their becoming worldly a process that is irreversible, possible in this direction only.

This feature of authenticity seems to be provable for the claim that, in the modern age, theological eschatology recurred in various secular transformations, for example as utopias of earthly paradise, as the essence of revolutionary programs, or as the notion of history as the final court of appeal. But before the possibility of the historic succession of such notions is considered, the questionable origins of biblical-Christian eschatology itself must be brought to bear. With regard to the status of the unclear methodic issue pertaining to this question, it is striking that one of the first authorities for the historical applicability of the category of secularization does not grant eschatological notions any heterogeneity vis-à-vis the cosmological-cyclical speculations emanating from the world of the Hellenistic mind: Rudolf Bultmann derives biblical eschatology from a basic myth of a kind of constant regeneration of the world, such as we may encounter in Stoic cosmology, but the cyclical process had been shortened to just one period. There is no need for me to discuss the substance of this thesis here;12 suffice it to point out that this deduction of eschatology leads us back to a thoroughly profane interest in knowledge [Wissensinteresse]. Human curiosity seeks to explain the course of the world as a whole, but this explanation has no direct bearing on the life of the individual. Shortening unlimited cyclical recurrence to a single cycle alters nothing about the theoretical nature of this perception of the world. The radical shift in the meaning of such notions takes place only once the anticipated great and ultimate cosmic events are moved into the lifetime of the individual or a generation.

We find this immediate expectation of the imminent apocalypse, so completely different in nature, in the sphere from which the New Testament originates. In terms of content, little has changed from Jewish apocalyptic thought, but by shortening the space of the anticipation to a time frame that renders it acute for the present moment gives it a completely heterogeneous function: the immediate (p.60) expectation no longer epitomizes the fulfillment of disappointed expectations in history and postponed secular hopes; following the Babylonian exile, compensations for a destroyed national existence developed whose consoling effect was counterbalanced by their highly indefinite nature; their purpose was to make history tolerable, to bestow on it a surrogate of meaning. Immediate expectation, on the other hand, destroys the significance of history by directly confronting the individual with the care for his salvation, demands that he abandon all earthly ties, and renders all attempts at self-assertion and providing for the future objectless. It is something radically different on the one hand to impose on history a framework of boundary notions, with creation at the beginning and judgment and apocalypse at the end, and on the other to do away with any meaning that an image of history might have by rendering what happens in the world insignificant against what happens to it.

If one takes these two different forms of eschatology—one a speculation framing and justifying history, the other an immediate expectation exploding history and stripping it of any relevance—to be entirely heterogeneous in their meaning and assignable to a common category only with regard to some nonessential overlap in their imagery, the immediate expectation emerges as the authentic and genuinely theological point of departure for a process in intellectual history that might, at first sight, lend itself to being interpreted as secularization. For because the immediate expectation was directly and perceptibly disappointed by the continuation of history and the life of the individual, and by the continued existence of the world, it finds itself compelled to perform artful modifications to its content and to its acute threat. By permitting the return and the acceptance of history, eschatology historicizes itself and becomes secular. Sources still allow us to trace how the earliest Christians’ eschatological mood of hope in the last days shifted to an eschatological mood of fear throughout the subsequent epoch. Soon, the community is no longer praying for the Lord’s second coming, but asking pro mora finis, for a postponement of the end and a stay of execution.13 The (p.61) last judgment becomes God’s secret reserve in history, which does not so much confront human consciousness with its acute crisis as it serves to justify God for not sparing the Christians from the expressions of His wrath against the pagans, thus making them pay the price for the longed-for continuation of the history of the not-as-yet separated genus humanum [human race].14

The seed of the philosophy of history is sown the moment that the biblical claims about the end of the world can no longer withstand a literal reading but must instead be interpreted more or less as allegories. A speculative eschatology founded chiefly on Daniel and the Revelation of St. John the Divine was in no further need of being secularized, for the theological elements it uses are already primarily attempts to answer the meaning of history itself. What was more, the unity of eschatology was torn apart: in the Middle (p.62) Ages, there was a cosmic eschatology and an individual one, and it was inevitable that man should have become preoccupied with questions concerning his own last things. The late doctrine of an individual judgment for each deceased person relegated the general judgment of the last days to a remote position with little effect on the individual mind. The question concerning history’s meaning and form was thus uncoupled from the original care for salvation, an attitude that was neither at home in the world nor directed toward it, and integrated into the system of a dogmatic explanation of the world.

We would thus find a piece of real secularization in the question concerning history if it were possible to find evidence of the third feature given earlier: the unilateral nature of the seizure, the expropriation, and thus the distortion to an inauthentic condition, alienated from its origins. But this feature is absent, and it is absent not just on account of our failure to prove it methodically, but for a reason to which I already alluded when I said that eschatology has historicized itself. It is not that much-derided autonomous thought had seized, speculatively usurped, and violently remade the question concerning the end and goal of history; it is instead the inner consequence of the original eschatological idea itself and its ineluctable fate that forced its secularization. The excessive stress placed on the ethical demands in the acute situation of the imminent anticipation, the inevitable refutability of the apocalyptic prophecies, the necessary disappointment of a renunciation that would have triumphed only in the world’s undoing—these factors force answers to questions that had not previously posed themselves and to answer which theology could not attempt an infinite number of times. The elasticity in answering this question, of which theology had a sudden need, the studied indeterminacy and ambiguity of allegorical speculations, the distinct contrast with subtle dogmatic exactitude in other theological articles—all suggested the possibility that this might, after all, be a question not of revelation but rather of secular responsibility.

To speak of secularization as an act of expropriation assumes a quite natural state of competition to obtain between a spiritual instance and a temporal one. Secularization would accordingly be of (p.63) the historic forms of an infringement of the temporal instance on the spiritual, in this case the form of the appropriation of its ideational substance. From the perspective of intellectual history, however, this assumption is a fiction, or a stock piece of theology’s traditional self-interpretation. A province of secularity or, more accurately, one beyond the remit of theology, was delimited and stabilized only in the course of the all-encompassing process in which an unworldly, eschatological anticipation was disappointed and banished to speculative indeterminacy. Man now found himself, alone and left to his own devices, with the burden of newly arisen big questions, the inscrutability of a history of which he had only just become aware as such. Worldliness—secularity—could not exist until there was unworldliness: that which claimed to be not of this world called this world into question, while at the same time logically opening up the possibility to it to prove itself qua world, as permanent and reliable, and for its continued existence to be desired—for example, worthy of being prayed for. In this case, secularization is anything but expropriation as a unilateral, unlawful act, but instead the constitution of a previously unknown worldliness from its religious disavowal and unrealization [Entwirklichung]. Primary secularization is not a transformation of something given but the original inception, the primary crystallization of that secularism which by the term secularization could first be accused of unlawfully infringing on areas beyond its remit. There is nothing primordial about the duality of the two instances; instead, it is a secondary product of processes internal to a mode of thinking itself—one that is, in the broadest sense, eschatologically dominated.

To summarize the foregoing with regard to the example of the theory of progress: it is not the case that the modern idea of progress was made possible only by the precedence of theological eschatology or that it had appropriated and transformed the latter’s claims contrary to its original intention. What is true, however, is that the idea of progress was forced to extend the scope of its claims, which were originally circumscribed and specific to certain objects, thereby “overstretching” them to the generality of a philosophy of history. It had to do so to answer a question that, as it were, remained at large, abandoned and unsaturated, after theology had (p.64) made it virulent. As one possible answer to the question concerning history in its entirety, one might say that the idea of progress was drawn into eschatology’s function for consciousness. In the process, it was enlisted for an explanatory performance that overtaxed its rationality. An originally theological imaginative content was not subjected to a violent transposition, but rather, what was in itself already a secular, not secularized, notion was reinterpreted and overinterpreted, burdening it with, if you will permit the phrase, the responsibility for theology’s failure and self-denial [Versagen und Sich-Versagen]. The emergence of the idea of progress and its stepping in for the religious interpretation of history are thus two completely different processes. I do not wish to overstate the argument for the sake of inverting it, but the violence of the transposition—the reinterpretation and overinterpretation to the point of inauthenticity—was not visited upon eschatology, by the worldly upon the unworldly instance. Instead, it was the idea of progress, which emerged independently and in different contexts, that was now required for a task that exceeded and distended its original rationality, driving it to make a metaphysical claim about the totality of history.

These considerations have thus not only sought to clarify the methodical burden of proof for applying the category of secularization, but at the same time have come across the reason secularization could appear as an elementary form of explaining historical processes: the historical identity and methodical identifiability of supposedly secularized notions is an illusion created by the identity of the function that altogether heterogeneous contents can assume in certain positions within man’s system of understanding the world and himself. In our intellectual history, Christian theology has played the eminent part of the expander of this system by creating such positions that could no longer be undone or, within the theoretical economy, remain unoccupied. To theology, no question need remain unanswerable, and thereupon is founded the ease with which it inserts titles into the economy of human needs for knowledge. One might call this a charge and compare it to the charge brought by Leibniz against Descartes for having, in the radicalism of his doubt, demanded evidence of a kind that neither he nor anyone else would ever be able to provide.

(p.65) The willingness to take on such a liability and to deal with it as one’s own continues largely to define the intellectual history of the modern age. That this desperate effort to come to terms with the legacy of theology should lead to the more or less open insinuation that the legacy had been obtained by disreputable means has a tragic aspect. What actually occurs in the process thought of as secularization is not the transposition [Umsetzung (Transposition)] of an authentically theological content into its secular self-alienation, but the reoccupation [Umbesetzung] of a position that had become vacant yet could not be eliminated as such.

The example to which I have hitherto devoted the most attention, the thesis regarding the origin of the idea of progress, which has become a truism, cannot, however, be applied as a paradigm by which to understand all cases of supposed secularization. There are cases in which early Christianity was under a similar problem pressure raised by alien questions as has just been explained with regard to modern rationality. We shall have to rid ourselves of the assumption that there is such a thing as a fixed canon of great questions that, throughout history, have continuously stimulated human curiosity, and that this canon had its counterparts in the changing mythological, theological, and metaphysical systems. The questions do not always precede the answers. There is such a thing as the spontaneous, primal generation of great claims of acute effect. When their credibility and validity dwindles, they leave behind equally great questions, to which new answers are then needed. I need only remind you to what extent the dwindling mythos of the Greeks prescribed the questions philosophy would have to answer. The history of philosophy is taken up with the effort to live up to this supposed measure of its powers, and with the disappointments that were inevitable in the process. It would appear, then, that there are problems that are posed only by their supposed solutions being proffered, or by what might appear as a solution after the fact. Questions that have thus become established and stabilized are difficult to banish, and amidst the competition between manifold forms of intellectually coping with the problems of human existence, the presence of these big questions offers a criterion that must be satisfied.

(p.66) This is not, however, a phenomenon that first appears in the post-Christian era—early Christianity itself had to address it. The early Christians too were asked questions that Christianity did not come equipped to solve, or at least not to the degree of precision demanded of it in the Hellenistic world. If, for instance, one considers how strongly our tradition has been affected by the problem of immortality, it will keep on coming as a surprise to find that this question does not exist in biblical sources dating from before the exile. And even in the New Testament, there is palpable uncertainty in formulating the goal of salvation, an uncertainty that was removed only by the precise demands of Greek metaphysics. For a number of reasons, Greek philosophy was able to know more precisely which conditions had to be met in a promise of happiness, and it, in turn, prescribed its own obligatory program to Christian patristics. This is to say that Christianity, as it entered into the Hellenistic world, was already assigned a role; a scope for action, a matrix to be filled, and a claim to being heard could be justified only by taking on this role. For the first time, a system of assertions appeared under the guise of the final shape of philosophy. Theology created this peculiar claim by cloaking itself in the language of ancient metaphysics and claiming to answer the universal questions that had confounded it. Patristic authors repeatedly assert that Jesus had answered all the ancient philosophers’ questions. I draw attention to this phenomenon because it shows that the modern syndrome known as secularization is not unique. The Christian reception of classical antiquity and the so-called modern secularization of Christianity are, both structurally and functionally, to a great extent analogous historical phenomena: patristic Christianity appears in the role of ancient philosophy; modern philosophy largely stands in for the function of theology.

A more important observation still is this: already in the polemics and apologetics accompanying the reception of Christianity in the ancient world, the language of notions of property is in evidence, as are the attendant accusations of unlawfulness. To acquire and to assert legitimacy is, in history, the basic aspiration of that which is new or claims to be; to contest or to dash this legitimacy and the self-confidence resulting from it is the technique by which the existing order asserts itself. Early Christianity not only claimed legitimacy (p.67) for its possession of the truth by virtue of revelation but also denied paganism the legitimate ownership even of those notions held in common, or indeed that Christianity had taken from it.15 The ploy to have the philosophers secretly learn from the Bible so as to pass off the reception of their dictums as the restitution of alienated property occurs again and again in patristic literature. Of the much-quoted Stoic doctrine, according to which the cosmos existed for man’s benefit, St. Ambrose writes: “Unde hoc, nisi de nostris scripturis, dicendum adsumpserunt?” [From what source have they claimed that this must be said, if not from our scriptures?]16 Tertullian, as radical as ever, grabs this problem by the root. Regarding the nature of the soul, he says (in De amima I, 6) that what mattered was not the truth of a statement as such, but rather its origins—and it was better to remain ignorant, if God had not wanted to reveal something, than to learn of it through men who had presumed to gain an understanding of it had thus succeeded in acquiring this truth. This is a case of Tertullian’s famous technique of praescriptio [legal objection]—of his devising—whereby the opponent in (p.68) a dispute is put at a disadvantage by the formal legal conditions before the matter at hand can even be argued. Accordingly, he forbids heretics to cite scripture in their arguments, for a thing could be used only by its lawful owner, and lawful ownership comes into being by being acquired from the hand able to dispose of it.17

These few allusions are intended to show that it was not only with the application of the concept of secularization to the context of intellectual history that the basic notion of property in ideas and its legitimacy was awakened and became effective for historical understanding. Instead, this basic notion is indissolubly tied to the problem of epochs in our tradition and the specific interpretation given to it by theology. But finding it to be historically conditioned does not yet suffice to prepare a critique of the concept of secularization. What must be added is to note the thoroughgoing historical change in the relationship between the concept of truth and the basic notion of property. The modern age truly begins when the legitimacy of property in ideas as stemming from their authentic inception alone becomes the norm, and with the concomitant radical rejection of property being founded in anything like a gift [Schenkung]. In theology, the moment of grace was taken to such a pitch that it elicited the objection of the theoretical self-assertion of reason: only a truth that is self-produced is a truth that can be truly owned. But this capacity for self-producing truth applies, in principle, to every rational subject; it is an objective given. The principle of the interchangeability of the predicates verum [what is true] and factum [what is made], which is of such foundational significance for the modern age, deprives the notion of property in ideas that can be passed down, or of their unlawful appropriation, of any basis. Truth can no longer be a heritable fief, a distinction claimed by a few or a particular group.18

(p.69) It is also connected with the change in the historical preconditions of the notion of intellectual property that we—quite independently of examining the applicability of the concept of secularization as a historical category—must conclude that at least this concept, too, is itself the result of secularization. Although the historian may not concur in the value judgment implicit in this notion—neither in regretting the loss of spiritual property nor in satisfaction at its cleansing for the benefit of the temporal realm—by using the category, he nonetheless enters into Christianity’s self-interpretation. From the theological self-definition, the historian adopts the assumption, which is a necessary corollary of the idea of revelation, of a beginning that cannot be deduced from the history preceding it and has no preconditions, and with which begins a historical formation that is not merely new, but final. Any historical self-confidence that afterward thought it could once more define a new beginning or thought it had done so was bound to come into conflict with the Christian era’s claim to finality.

The modern age—no matter what it might have made its program—would merely by dint of its self-confidence as being new and beginning from the ground up have been un-Christian, which is to say, in theological terms, secular. From the theological position in this conflict followed the necessity of putting this new claim to finality in the wrong, and secularization is the term by which this need could be met. There is no fault to be found with the internal consistency of this connection. But this does not yet make secularization a category of historical understanding, but first a concept of theological self-interpretation and self-assertion.

But this does not yet explain the fact that this notion could nonetheless make so much sense to historical thinking as a means to understanding intellectual-historical configurations; indeed, it was fascinating to many. Even if continuing the critique for which approaches (p.70) and examples are given here should lead to most supposed diagnoses of secularization to fall short of the standard of proof, the question still remains whether the appearance in all these phenomena cannot be objectively grounded. I believe that it is possible to get to the root of this appearance. The modern age was not only content to let the positions that were occupied within the system to be passed down to it; it even did all it could to conceal the competition into which it had entered by claiming that after the final epoch in history, there should be another epoch, a turn in history, and that it was once again to be final and unsurpassable. I need only to remind you of the astonishing fact that only in the seventeenth century did the chronology symmetrically focused on the birth of Christ as its zero hour become firmly established.19

(p.71) The modern age did not seek to demonstrate its constitutive secularity but rather shied away from doing so: the first centuries of the modern age are of a forced spiritual attitude that phenomenally overshadows anything medieval. During these centuries, the world of sacred language was fearfully preserved, drawn into the philosophical and political spheres, drawn over as the preferred cover. It is far from being the case that the modern age possessed that cheerful confidence in itself and its right which Burckhardt bestowed on his Renaissance and of which Nietzsche believed all post-Christianity to be capable. The modern age let itself be put in the wrong and has become questionable to itself in its historical legitimacy. It no longer wished to be the epoch of theology, yet it could not escape the fate of the heir: being unable to disentangle itself from theological interpretation. This epoch begins with the explosive problem of justification not only in relation to the history of dogma—justification, in the broadest sense, remains its innermost problem.

That an epoch’s legitimacy should become questionable to those living in it is a phenomenon that had never existed before and outside the modern age. Nor could it have, for an understanding of oneself as belonging to an epoch had previously not even been possible. It was only by giving itself its name that the modern age was even able to bring forth the structural concept of an epoch and, along with it, all the problems associated with situating caesuras in history. But the idea of history taking a radical turn from damnation to salvation, from the inauthentic to the authentic, developed within Christianity—albeit as a secondary guise under which appears the interpretation of the primal event of redemption, which after all was supposed not to turn history around, but to terminate it. Of course, the possibility thus experienced and the language coined from it helped the modern age articulate its self-perception as an epoch making a break with previous history—and after all, signs even appeared in the heavens to prove it. But evidence that (p.72) the epochal turn was interpreted or stylized as an imitation of Christianity’s theological founding event is sought in vain. It must be granted, however, that the sources do not always present us with what it was possible to think, but only what was felt not to exceed the capacity of the times.

Secularization as a category of historical understanding is one symptom (among many) of how uncertain the modern age feels of its legitimacy; it is a theologically determined category of wrong [Unrecht]. Not, I should make clear, a “theological” category of wrong, for as such it would possess criteria sui generis that cannot even be discussed here. It is, after all, a secularized category, which is not to say, however, that as a basic concept of service to the historian it was exempt from the interest of theologians. On the contrary, as a category of wrong, there is a potential for it to be invoked, the implication of a writ of execution, and therein lies the notion’s ideological moment. What I intend ideological to mean here is the extratheoretical interest that is latently perceived and always able to be activated in the context of theoretical objectification. It is not by chance that the secularization syndrome is so well suited to the activities of cultural criticism, which, in its search for suitably remote responsibilities for the unease felt toward the present, today consist largely of standing in judgment over the foundation of the modern age and the factors involved in it. After all, what else are we to make of all the gratuitous profundity associated with the term secularization? What can it mean for the ideal of a terrestrial, political realization of happiness to have been able to be formed only as a transposition of the promise of otherworldly beatitude? It should be noted that the theological depiction of eternal bliss as a visio beatifica [beatific vision] no longer has anything in common with the biblical illustration of the kingdom of heaven but everything to do with the blissful theōria [contemplation] of ancient philosophy. Furthermore, what can it mean to say that the Marxist idea of revolution was an idea of the final judgment transposed into a secular register and that its imagined goal, the state of communism, was the earthly paradise, secularized messianism? Indeed, there is simply no need for anything to be transformed or distorted here; instead, the elementary, primal longing for universal justice (p.73) keeps imagining ever new satisfactions—especially when the usual ones have proved ineffective and worn out.

It is remarkable how many things can emerge from secularization. The same original substance appears in manifold metamorphoses, which are quite dissimilar to each other. The same origin is supposed for the communist final state as for eternal progress, and thus for a finite notion of history as well as an infinite one. The deeper antitheses are ignored for superficial resemblances: it is of no consequence whether a paradise is terrestrial-messianic or heavenly; the crucial difference is whether this final state transcends human efforts or is immanent to them, that is, whether man can attain it by his own exertions or depends for it on grace, which cannot be earned. To get caught up in appearances is, of course, facilitated by language, which properly constitutes the illusion of secularization.

The durability of theologically conditioned elements of language in particular is not something I regard as a quasi-mechanical phenomenon but as a meaningful fact that is open to interpretation. What I earlier called the reoccupation of a system’s functions in the process of historical epochs changing requires constancy of language, particularly where content is being replaced and this replacement is in need of concealment. Just as the content of the ideas that genuinely underpin an activity can get lost amid its ritualization, with a new meaning taking over the form of that activity to secure the sanction of its tradition and unquestionability, so the enduring semantic element merely denotes a position that must not be touched and, at the same time, is familiar and sanctified to consciousness.

Accordingly, Proudhon, the “theologian of progress” (Karl Löwith), purposely availed himself of theologically tinged language and rhetoric, though he did so not in a continuity of substance but only in the continuity of the claims associated with them. In Proudhon, such linguistic mimesis is actually connected to a theory, according to which history weighs on us so irrevocably that we cannot make the inherited and deeply infected language bend to our will, can give voice to the revolution’s boldness only in the cloak of tradition, and can never be sure that the meaning carried along from (p.74) history does not in fact overlie the present meaning actually intended. In his The System of Economic Contradictions, or The Philosophy of Poverty (1846, preface), Proudhon clearly saw what we are still at pains to understand: that it is only tradition that creates the possibility for the revolution to formulate itself in the first place, in a manner comparable to that in which sensory perception is the precondition for the metaphorical articulation of intellectual concepts. Ultimately, this also applies to the worldliness or secularity meant by secularization: the “world” constantly invoked in sacred language only learned to understand and formulate itself in terms of the unworldly, and it never again escaped the language in which it had done so.

The case of the supposedly secularized paradise provides a fine opportunity to study this configuration. It goes without saying that theology, once spurred by the Greeks to frame its ideal of beatitude in more precise terms, did much to expand the linguistic capacity of human ideas of fulfillment; mysticism and religious poetry took inspiration from any abstraction and tried to render it more palpable. In nothing is language as powerful as in formulating claims in the realm of the intangible and unprovable. Hobbes phrased this in striking terms: “Even the most insubstantial arguments are sufficient for hope. Yea, even what the mind cannot truly conceive can be hoped for, if it can be expressed.”20

That more should be uttered than the mind can perform is a fact—a logically vexing fact—that we must take into account as a history-making factor of the first order. It is thus that emotional intensities are created, and there is no escaping that even a radically changed idea of the fulfillment of individual and social existence should express not its contents but the urgency of its claims in the very same language in which this claim was first accumulated. If, for instance, an ultimate, unsurpassable claim is to be made for the position of art and the irrevocable, absolute self-responsibility of the artistic act—what a difference of affective significance between the abstract formula whereby the artist had made of his work a (p.75) piece of highest reality, and the archetypally familiar one that he made art the true judgment day!21 But it would be patently nonsensical to say that the idea of art, its seriousness and existential relevance, had at some point sprung from the transformation of the eschatological notion of judgment day or even of only one of its elements.

I can thus only attempt to formulate my thesis by saying: the constancy of language indicates a constant function for consciousness, but not a genetic nexus of content. There is no denying that, for instance, the resonance of an appeal of the kind of the Communist Manifesto to modern consciousness was prepared by expectations that became articulable in the language of theology; yet this resonance is founded not on the Manifesto containing supposedly secularized—that is to say, unlawfully expropriated—theology, but on the neediness of a consciousness overextended and then disappointed by the great questions and great hopes of its history. Faced with such a text, the question to ask first, from a methodical perspective, is not how it came to be, how the elements of its content fell together. Attention should rather be directed toward the needs, to serve and to relate to which a proclamatory text will never forgo. (p.76) (Note that the needs I speak of here are not of an economic kind, for they explain little, lacking as they do historical specificity.) What is more, any demand of an immanent human ideal of fulfillment could, in this historical situation, appear only as an antithesis to the transcendent ideal of fulfillment; yet an antithesis can articulate itself only with permanent reference to and in explicit competition with the thesis to which it opposes itself. This is true even of Heine’s naively stylized verses: “On earth we fain would happy be.”22

The field of linguistic phenomena that might indicate processes of secularization is broad indeed, but in each case such diagnoses require methodical securing by means of an analysis of function. In the deepest Middle Ages, we can observe the interweaving of mysticism and courtly love, and with them of the rules and the language of love both heavenly and profane. It should be noted here that the audacious sleight of language is one of the forms by which love proves itself—the pretense of something that had hitherto not been dared but would nonetheless be risked in this one and absolute case. Mysticism thus becomes erotic, and eroticism avails itself of the store of untouchably hallowed notions. Remember that the Middle Ages found all substances to be worthy of spiritualization, that in its lapidaries and bestiaries it subjected everything physical to religious allegoresis and, in doing so, opened up a trove of expressive possibilities that could now be applied secondarily to things that were to participate not only in consecration by spiritualization but also in the absolute bond of the religious. The discovery of the interchangeability of religious and profane notions was initially a rhetorical technique by means of which a wealth of parallels and associations was established to which any intellectual intent could subsequently help itself.23 Contrary to the presumption of clandestine substitution and concealment evoked by the charge of a wrong (p.77) that is coupled with the concept of secularization, these linguistic diagnoses not only appear openly but quite emphasize the marks of their origin, because only by doing so can they discharge their function of suggesting the obviousness of the exchange, the equivalence.

In the modern literature of self-presentation, we encounter a further sphere in which consciously secularized linguistic forms function. As a stylistic device for the sincerity of laying oneself bare, a linguistic form has developed that is designed to perform as a literary equivalent of the pitilessness with which religious thought would have man be recognized and seen through by God. Imitation of St. Augustine’s Confessions alone does not suffice to explain this phenomenon, for Augustine still believed that God knew more about the human soul than it could ever know about itself. The particular disrespect with which, for instance, Rousseau consciously imitates Augustine’s confessions, far from being a kind of legitimation by means of a literary authority, is the stylistic device by which such uncompromising exposure is made believable. Rousseau not only refers to the Last Judgment as the tribunal that one day will rule in his favor; in revealing himself, he anticipated man’s transcendental state of being revealed before God. Humanity, before which he confesses, does not just temporarily fill the judge’s position. Rather, its judgment replaces the appeal to the final judgment, which is rendered irrelevant by being, as it were, anticipated experimentally. Indeed, Rousseau makes it perfectly explicit that he has grown indifferent to the moment of Judgment Day—let the trumpet sound when it will. Self-knowledge has become the only form of knowledge adequate to divine knowledge. From an iconological perspective, it is telling that the book has changed its place in the courtroom: whereas all of apocalyptic literature features a ledger of humanity kept beside God’s throne, to be opened before the assembly of humankind on doomsday, Rousseau writes the book for his case himself and intends to step before the tribunal with it in hand, speaking the (p.78) proud words, themselves revealing in their sequence of objects: “Here is what I have done, what I have thought, what I was.”24

This instance of linguistic, stylistic secularization acts as a prop for a literary sensation, the shock of such unflinching self-presentation. By referring to the image’s sacred background, this literary genre’s new claim simultaneously legitimizes and heightens itself. Yet what we have before us here surely is more than an occurrence at the level of linguistic expression. Instead, there can barely be any doubt that this is a real secularization of God’s transcendent judgment to a literary self-judgment—though this could be verified only in the context of a comprehensive interpretation.

It would appear, in any case, that even by strict methodical criteria something like secularization exists in the history of the modern mind. I wish to point to an entire category of historical evidence that might be summarized under the heading “Man Compares Himself to God.” The anthropology of the modern age largely developed by picking up the thread of theological notions of God as a subject, and this fact can in no way be glossed over by pointing out that such theological notions can themselves be traced to man’s self-understanding as a subject. Over the course of centuries, infinite work has been done on the concepts of the person and the subject according to the program of via eminentiae [way of eminence] and via negationis [way of negation], the development of which goes back to antiquity. Yet what was brought down to earth at the end of this work is not what had previously been projected into the heavens. To say, “God is the ‘infinitely distant man’”25 is a perspectival illusion from a historical vantage point at which philosophy, in its concept of the human subject, has worked through the attainments of the entire theological tradition. I need only call to mind what it meant for the modern age, in the moments when its self-confidence was at its boldest, to say that man was a creative being. That was an act of conscious secularization, one that, in the (p.79) aesthetic realm in particular, aimed to ascribe to man the realization of a possibility that had before been the preserve of God.26

The transition lies in the term alter deus [another god], the deus in terris [god on earth], which at first was used with pious intent and was but a hyperbolic rephrasing of man’s creation in the divine image. The palpable wrongfulness, the identifiability, the original authenticity, indeed the violence of unilateral expropriation—that is to say, the required features of an act of secularization—permeate the very style of this language. In epistemological considerations, comparisons with the mode of knowledge ascribed by theology to God can be found from Galileo to Husserl. I hope to retrace that path of modern self-articulation on another occasion.

These methodical caveats and objective distinctions have, I hope, taken us some distance away from so-called Toposforschung [the study of literary topoi], whose problem is its assumption of constants in intellectual history and thus ultimately its substantialist ontology of history. But it was in the very act of remarking that linguistic secularization could consciously be developed into a stylistic device for intellectual sensation and provocation that we hit on a discontinuity of substance that was overlaid by the transfer of form. As a historical category, the explanatory value of secularization depends crucially on the preservation of a substantial element. The simultaneous appearance of Toposforschung and the secularization thesis can thus be recognized as being not coincidental but founded in a shared historical metaphysics of substance. Establishing constants, however, invariably entails the renunciation of some knowledge [Erkenntnisverzicht]; they are contingent facts that can be examined or resolved no further. That the possibility of discovering constants should evoke such fascination in the natural sciences is due not to their ability to render the processes of nature more intelligible but merely to the enhanced reliability they impart to our calculations thereof.

(p.80) Only in the natural sciences, however, is there an equivalent to such renunciation of knowledge (and one that is at heart technical rather than theoretical); to introduce constants in the humanities [geisteswissenschaftlich] can only be understood as an act of renunciation with no corresponding gain. Here, factual presence, insofar as it can be philologically ascertained, is but a transitional point that understanding is always pushing to surpass. One need only consider how premature and superficial it would be to conclude the existence of a living substance of tradition from the extensive and manifold use and remaking of elements of classical mythology in contemporary literature, long inventories of which might be produced; what preserves us from deluding ourselves that we are in the midst of a new Renaissance is the healthy dose of historicism with which every act of relating to our tradition is admixed. But the manner in which mythical dimensions continue to this day to encircle this tradition as a horizon of perpetual reference is a good example of a nonsubstantialist system of positions that, in history, can be repeatedly occupied, filled, newly substantiated—named hollow molds to which particular functional values are ascribed. I am afraid that many of the expectations tied to the syndrome of secularization will turn out to be groundless when the supposed continuity of a disavowed substance emerges as a complex of the kind of the mythical appeal, the repetition of something of archaic familiarity to better assimilate what is still unfamiliar and uncanny.

For all the fully developed parallel in form and content with the biblical Passion story, its unmistakable signatures from the betrayal by Judas to the empty tomb, the thirty-three-year-old French corporal in William Faulkner’s A Fable (1954) is in fact not a secularized Christ. Instead, in its figurative realization he represents a problem that could be experienced only in consequence of the great World Wars: the biblical Passion becoming unreal and fading into a mythical horizon.

This is the moment to return to the notion of secularization as an objective cultural debt. A more balanced appraisal of the phenomena to be considered under this rubric will reveal not only the debts that can be deduced from the idea of a historical substance that was once formed and enriched, or even revealed, but also accounts (p.81) of what debts history continues to owe any present. This ambiguity is part of the essence of the historical: the idea of history as the judgment on the world is not only the denial of an objective debt to the theological idea of an eschatological Judgment Day but also the statement of and additional claim to that which has been withheld from our history by that act of transcending those dues internal to history.

We must be aware that we are discussing a term that, already in the second and third generation, has been used with such lack of clarity with regard to its methodical conditions and so unquestioningly with regard to its implications that it is overripe for critical analysis. The unquestioning nature of its use is best recognized in the fact that we can already encounter remoter descendants of the term secularization, the metaphorical levels of meaning, as it were, of a metaphor. Only in passing shall I quote some examples culled from my reading, notably “the Platonic idea, secularized by Aristotle”; Marx’s secularization of philosophy to a theory of political action; the idea that the glass and steel architecture of the World’s Fairs “may be looked upon as a secularization of the Gothic”; the characterization of the “conditions under which modern medical institutions function” as “secularized and ‘corporate [großbetrieblich]’” when compared to traditional conceptions of the medical profession; or finally, the description of a well-known screen actor in an equally well-known newspaper, according to which his allure, dash, and arrogance “look like secularized Hapsburg.”27 But in more remote scholarly fields, too, the success of some theses seems to depend, probably even in method, on the success of the secularization theory, such as the hypothesis situating the origin of the Hellenistic novel in the history of religion.

At the background of this entire question lay the broader problem, the key to describing which is the clue of secularization as a category of historical illegitimacy. I call this problem that of the legitimacy of (p.82) the modern age. This problem results—as do all problems of historical legitimacy—from an epoch’s claim to bring about and to be able to bring about a radical break with all tradition, and the discrepancy between this claim and the reality of history, which is never able to start completely afresh. But the crucial difference is whether I can say that the modern age was to be understood as the result of what was indeed the theologically conditioned era that preceded it, tied also in contradiction and self-assertion to the givenness of that against which they rise up—or whether I am compelled to say that the modern age was but a metamorphosis of that very medieval era’s theological substance and thus nothing more than its derivation, known by the title of secularization, and thus in sum “a Christian heresy.”28 If the substance of the modern age were indeed a secularized one, it would then have to conceive of itself as the epitome of “that which ‘in actual fact [der Sache nach]’ ought not to be.”29 In that case, something like an “objective cultural debt” would indeed exist, and it would follow from the applied category to look for recognition of this debt [Schuld] and its restitution, or even to demand them. In this respect, it may be accurate to speak of secularization as the ultimate theologoumenon, which intends to burden theology’s heirs with a sense of guilt for the testator’s demise.

Translated by Joe Paul Kroll


Originally published as Hans Blumenberg, “‘Säkularisation’: Kritik einer Kategorie historischer Illegitimität,” in Die Philosophie und die Frage nach dem Fortschritt: Verhandlungen des Siebten Deutschen Kongresses für Philosophie, Münster 1962, ed. Helmut Kuhn and Franz Wiedmann (Munich: Pustet, 1964), 240–265.

(1.) Hermann Lübbe’s lecture, which directly preceded my own at this congress, releases me from the task of supplying instances of the term’s use, thus allowing me to avoid appearing to engage in polemics [Hermann Lübbe, “Säkularisierung als geschichtsphilosophische Kategorie,” in Die Philosophie und die Frage nach dem Fortschritt: Verhandlungen des Siebten Deutschen Kongresses für Philosophie, Münster 1962, ed. Helmut Kuhn and Franz Wiedmann (Munich: Pustet, 1964), 221–239]. For the purposes of the critical analysis to be undertaken here, it is furthermore immaterial that this category of historical understanding is already in heavy use, rather than being a concept to be newly proposed or constructed on a purely hypothetical basis. Of course, the term’s actual use has a significance of its own, one that provides an additional clue to the intellectual situation in which we find ourselves.

(2.) This is to say that the full range of meanings in the conceptual history unfolded by Hermann Lübbe has not been absorbed into or transferred to its usage as it is relevant to historical examination. In particular, the programmatic elements and immediate value judgments entailed by secularization [Verweltlichung] as a kind of transfer of power or change of rule within a realm imagined and constant have been omitted. This is not to exclude the possibility of secularization [Säkularisation] occasionally appearing as the historical statement of a quantitative distribution of shares between spiritual and temporal instances, a shifting of competences between transcendent and immanent allegiances. Such proportions, distributions, and demarcations may perhaps be identified from case to case and compared to preceding and subsequent situations, but this does not suffice as a foundation of an understanding. The boundary drawn here aims to delineate a basic concept of understanding, which takes its bearings from a model process and the necessity of which is in need of further scrutiny.

(3.) Siegfried Reicke, “Säkularisation,” in Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Tübingen: Mohr, 1961), 5:1280.

(4.) Martin Stallmann, Was ist Säkularisierung? (Tübingen: Mohr, 1960), 33. The scheme of expropriation is only just discernible in the background, making itself felt in the cautious phrasing (“untied… ​made accessible”), but the author is completely aware of the transfer implied here: “The term ‘secularization’ first appeared in the study of history, where it denoted the transfer of ecclesiastical and spiritual rights to jurisdiction or property to secular powers. The word then came to be applied to a process in intellectual history, whereby ideas and behaviors untied themselves from the religious context within which they were originally founded and were henceforth deduced from general reason. This transfer from one sphere to another is usually stated without asking how this word’s apparently multiple meanings were made possible.” Stallmann, Was ist Säkularisierung?, 5; note the reflexive use of untie!

(5.) Friedrich Delekat, Über den Begriff der Säkularisation (Heidelberg: Quelle & Meyer, 1958), 55f.

(7.) [Blumenberg refers here to Karl Löwith, Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1957).]

(8.) Progress claims that subsequent history is foretold not in the register of metaphysical insights, but as laws of a history that has already been grasped rationally and that one always believes already to have experienced to an extent sufficient to justify induction. To this effect, Kant speaks of “a possible representation a priori of events which are supposed to happen then,” “a divinatory narrative of things imminent in future time,” by dint of the theoretical subject simultaneously being his object’s principle: “But how is a history a priori possible? Answer: if the diviner himself creates and contrives the events which he announces in advance.” Immanuel Kant, Conflict of the Faculties, trans. Mary J. Gregor (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979), 141, 143. The truth of total historical conceptions would thus be founded in an ideal case of the axiom verum et factum convertuntur [the true and the made are convertible], which has been formulated since the days of Vico. A neat example of how this immanence could be misunderstood and how soothsaying [Wahrsagen] in the sense of that axiom could come to be misunderstood as divination [Weissagung] is to be found in Friedrich Nicolai’s reaction to Kant, whom he calls the “inventor of a soothsaying narration of history”—in doing so missing the point in a manner that was to prove influential linguistically. Friedrich Nicolai, Über meine gelehrte Bildung (Berlin: Nicolai, 1799), 94–99.

(9.) The relative contributions of the theories of science and art to the emergence of the new historical consciousness have been brought closer to a functional classification in Hans Robert Jauß’s lecture at this congress, adding to the case for the immanent authenticity of the idea of progress [Hans Robert Jauß, “Ursprung und Bedeutung der Fortschrittsidee in der ‘Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes,’” in Die Philosophie und die Frage nach dem Fortschritt, 51–72].

(10.) Of course, this methodical maxim cannot deny its position within the modern age’s frame of reference: as far as theology is concerned, it cannot sensu stricto claim property rights to its contents based on copyright, but only by gift of Revelation. I might have chosen a more neutral phrasing and spoken of a “relation of primary property.” If I chose to adhere to the version I presented at Münster, I did so not from a quasi-historical respect for something that was said once, but specifically to underscore the peculiarity and conditionality of the historical attitude as distinct from the ahistorical participation in immanent self-interpretations.

(11.) To speak of unworldliness in a purely historical context can only mean that statements that can be deduced or verified neither by the world (i.e., empirically) nor by pure rationality are espoused and accepted as binding by virtue of faith in their origin and legitimation. From a purely formal perspective, the possibility of secularization rests in consciousness of the motive of espousal and bindingness diminishing, i.e., it is explicitly denied or implicitly annulled by the assertion that such claims must admit of an empirical or a priori foundation. A transformation of a material kind need not yet follow from this.

(12.) Rudolf Bultmann, History and Eschatology (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1957), chap. 3. See my review of this book in Gnomon 31 (1959): 163–166.

(13.) See Karl Georg Kuhn, “Maranathâ,” in Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1942), 4:470–475 (on 1. Cor. 16:22); Didache 10:6; Rev. 22:20; Tertullian, Apologeticum, 32:1, 39:2. On the process by which acute eschatology retrogresses, see Martin Werner, Die Entstehung des christlichen Dogmas, 2nd ed. (Berne: Haupt, 1941) (on which see Hans Blumenberg, “Epochenschwelle und Rezeption,” Philosophische Rundschau 6 [1958]: 102–107).

(14.) Tertullian, Apologeticum, 41:3: “For He who has once for all ordained an everlasting judgment after the end of the world, does not hasten the separation, which is a circumstance of the judgment, before the end of the world. Meanwhile he deals impartially with the whole human race, both as indulging and reproving; he wished that good and evil should be shared alike by his own servants and by the wicked, so that, by an equal partnership, all might have experience both of his gentleness and of his sternness.” Franz Oehler and John E.B. Mayor, eds., Q. Septimi Florentis Tertulliani Apologeticus: The Text of Oehler, Annotated, with an Introduction, trans. Alexander Souter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 212. Into what untold distance the events of the end of days are remythologized here is most plainly visible in the necessity of making jurisdiction at the community level (“this violence is pleasing to God”), which was won by prayers “for the state of the world” (Oehler and Mayor, Q. Septimi Florentis Tertulliani Apologeticus, 111), plausible as a provisional substitute for doomsday postponed: “For our judgment too is delivered with great weight, as among those who are sure that they are acting under the eye of God, and there is the greatest anticipation of the future judgment” (Oehler and Mayor, 113). This, if anything, is eschatology secularized: it serves to explain the unchanged course of the world and to sanction discipline within the factio Christiana. And Tertullian is no outlier: to his treatise “Tertullian als Schriftsteller” [Tertullian as a writer] Karl Holl added a handwritten note that nearly sounds disappointed: “No apologist seems to hope for the Lord’s imminent return!” Karl Holl, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Kirchengeschichte (Tübingen: Mohr, 1928), 3:11n.

(15.) Augustine feels free to put this in general terms: “Moreover, if those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it.” St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, trans. J. F. Shaw (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2009), 75. Note how the claim is backed with legal sanction—how is such language possible? It seems to me that a form of Platonism is at work in the background here, according to which truth obtains by virtue of a relation of origin—as of an image to an original a truth identified with God, and already in Plato this dependency of the image is something that cannot be exempted and ignored but must always be implemented as a factor essential to its content. The patristic authors thus claim not only to integrate such elements of truth as they find in the ancient philosophers into their system and to make use of it as that which is available to all—in modern terms, that which is objective [das Objektive]—but also in fact to be the first to restitute its full truth by restoring its genetic relationship of dependency. Such a Platonic trace can be identified even in the theologically grounded accusation that is contained within the concept of secularization: just as an image not only represents an original but also and indeed rather conceals it and causes it to be forgotten (Plotinus, Third Ennead, Seventh Tractate: “Time and Eternity”), the supposedly secularized notion takes the place of the original, authentic claim not as a reminder but to make it dispensable—and to expose this genetic nexus by means of history already is restitution enough.

(16.) De officiis ministrorum I, 28.

(17.) I refer to my earlier studies on the problem of reception: “Kritik und Rezeption antiker Philosophie in der Patristik,” Studium Generale 12, no. 8 (1959): 485–497; “Das dritte Höhlengleichnis,” Studi e Ricerche di Storia della Filosofia 39 (1961); “Augustins Anteil an der Geschichte des Begriffs der theoretischen Neugierde,” Revue des Etudes Augustiniennes 7 (1961): 35–70; “‘Curiositas’ und ‘Veritas’: Zur Ideengeschichte von Augustinus, Confessiones X 35,” Studia Patristica 6 (1962): 294–302.

(18.) Against Descartes’s voluntarism in the foundation of rational truths, Leibniz is able to make the objection—which, though simple, was considered to be compelling—that the properties of a geometrical object would then apply only velut privilegium [by privilege], which is to say, with sly ambiguity, that they belonged to neither the object nor the knowing subject by their own virtue. See Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Philosophische Schriften, ed. Carl Immanuel Gerhardt (Berlin: Weidmann, 1880), 4:274. See Hans Blumenberg, Paradigms for a Metaphorology, trans. Robert Savage (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010), 32.

(19.) See Adalbert Klempt, Die Säkularisierung der universalhistorischen Auffassung. Zum Wandel des Geschichtsdenkens im 16. und 17. Jahrhundert (Göttingen: Musterschmidt, 1960). Although Klempt defines his concept of the “secularization of the European life of the mind” in the sense at issue here as the “critical transformation of notions and habits of thought that were originally framed in terms of theology and the Christian faith in salvation into such as could be contemplated in worldly terms” (Klempt, Die Säkularisierung der universalhistorischen Auffassung, 7), he does not follow through on the program he has thus set himself. The manner in which political history becomes untied from the history of the Church is a process of dissociation, of the separation of competences, not of the transformation of an identical substance. The doctrine of the two kingdoms permits Melanchthon systematically to categorize and make obligatory also the extrabiblical historical literature republished in the age of humanism but also to admit its standing in its own right, which consisted in the objective-quantitative fact that, against this corpus, biblical events appeared as a minute and provincial excerpt from the series historiarum mundi [sequence of world history]. Moreover, the corpus of profane history kept growing against the horizon of a world that was itself expanding, whereas that of the Bible remained constant. The separation of subject matters leads to a separation of methods: Jean Bodin makes a pithy semantic distinction between intueri [being regarded], with which historia divina [divine history] is to be approached, and explicare [explaining], which is proper to historia humana [human history]. See Jean Bodin, “Methodus ad facilem historiarum cognitionem,” chap. 1 in OEuvres philosophiques de Jean Bodin, ed. Mesnard, “Corpus général des philosophes français” (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1951), 3:101–475. But in fact, such systematizations offer protection against encroachments looking to transform either genus historiae [class of history]. Of course, this opens up new opportunities for profane history to structure its matter and consider it as a whole, such as a negative forerunner of the idea of progress in the rejection of the scheme of the four metals and their descending order of value contained in the Book of Daniel, with reference to signs pointing to the reverse. Yet this is not secularization in the sense of the transformation of a notion originally developed in theological terms, nor can it be, for the allegoresis of Daniel is itself of palpable worldliness in being a posteschatological historical speculation.

(20.) Thomas Hobbes, Man and Citizen: De Homine and De Cive, ed. Bernard Gert (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1972), 57.

(21.) Marcel Proust: “Excuses have no place in art and intentions count for nothing: at every moment the artist has to listen to his instinct, and it is this that makes art the most real of all things, the most austere school of life, the true last judgment.” Proust, Time Regained, trans. Andreas Mayor and Terence Kilmartin (New York: Modern Library, 1993), 275. Judgment Day also has a share in the richest secularized artistic self-testimony of which we know, the aesthetics of Jean Paul, where the judgment is decisive idealization by the poet according to good and evil: “But the poet—even the comic poet—cannot take any real character from nature without transforming it, as the day of judgment does the living, for hell or heaven.” Jean Paul Richter, Horn of Oberon: Jean Paul Richter’s School for Aesthetics, trans. Margaret R. Hale (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1973), 19. Humor, too, appears in the potency of Judgment Day (99), as does wit (144). Jean Paul draws on the language of the Christian tradition for all it is worth, from using it as a purely rhetorical ornament to playing with blasphemous frivolity; he uncovers its ironic disposition to lay bare the finite fact against its own infinite ideality. Creation and incarnation are his favorite metaphors for the poetic process, but they serve not just its metaphysical exaltation but also to lay open its insuperable conundrum. A functional analysis of these linguistic elements in Jean Paul that went beyond mere cataloging would be able to designate paradigms for our problem.

(22.) [Heinrich Heine, “Germany, A Winter Tale,” The Poems of Heine, trans. E. A. Bowring (London: Bell & Daldy, 1866), 329.]

(23.) Gerhard Hess (Pierre Gassend. Der französische Späthumanismus und das Problem von Wissen und Glauben [Berliner Beiträge zur Romanischen Philologie, 9:3/4] [Jena: Gronau, 1939], 30) provides revealing instances from La Mothe le Vayer and Gassendi, particularly what is a highly characteristic passage from Gassendi (Opera Omnia [Lyon: Anisson, 1658], I, 231B) in which God’s incarnation is adduced in support of the Epicurean concept of reality, with Christ and Lucretius each testifying in the other’s favor.

(24.) [Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Confessions, trans. Angela Scholar (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 5.]

(25.) Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy, trans. David Carr (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1970), 66.

(26.) Of course this is merely the side of the process that recalls Prometheus’s theft; the other aspect is the ontological opening of the possibility of creative man by means of the voluntaristic theologoumenon of uncreated world (see my treatise “‘Imitation of Nature’: Toward a Prehistory of the Idea of the Creative Being” [in this volume]).

(27.) [Only the first two quotations could be traced: Klaus Oehler, Ein Mensch zeugt einen Menschen: Über den Missbrauch der Sprachanalyse in der Aristotelesforschung (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1963), 183; Hans Sedlmayr, Art in Crisis: The Lost Center (London: Hollis and Carter, 1957), 50.]

(28.) Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, “Ethische und politische Probleme des Atomzeitalters,” Außenpolitik, May 1958, 305.

(29.) Carl-Heinz Ratschow, “Säkularismus,” in Die Religion und Geschichte und Gegenwart, 3rd ed. (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1961), 5:1288.