On December 10, 2018, the renowned German philosopher Robert Spaemann passed away. His was a distinctive voice among contemporary thinkers, a voice that eschewed attention-seeking brilliance but instead offered calm and deep reflections on the most important matters for human beings. Spaemann’s trajectory of thought spanned about 70 years of engagement with crucial questions that refer, as the German phrase has it, ‘to God and the world’ (Über Gott und die Welt). This is also the title of an intriguing autobiography, written in conversational form, based on a 2012 dialogue Spaemann had with journalist Stephan Sattler.
Born in Berlin on May 5, 1927, to parents who would convert to Catholicism a few years later, Spaemann grew up under the National Socialist dictatorship, a regime that he considered to be a break with the 2,000-year-old tradition of the West. He would also always remember from this period his teacher’s anti-National Socialist teachings, which were transmitted through a reading of Adalbert Stifter’s novella Kalkstein. In this way, from the point of view of the revolutionary Nazis, Spaemann was introduced into counter-revolutionary thinking.
Significantly, his early readings during this time also included some of Plato’s dialogues as well as the writings of Josef Pieper. Nevertheless, after the war he considered himself to be more a left-wing Catholic. (Years later, however, he would write a preface to the 2005 French edition of Martin Mosebach’s La Liturgie et son ennemie: L’Hérésie de l’informe, which was originally written in German in 2003 in defence of the Latin liturgy.)
As a young man in 1945, Spaemann wanted to become a Benedictine monk but was advised to attend university first. So he went to study at the University of Münster in Westphalia, soon switching from theology to philosophy. His first published monographs are an indication of Spaemann’s non-conventional choice of topics: His 1952 dissertation dealt with Louis de Bonald and the origins of sociology based on the ‘spirit of restauration’. It was later published as Der Ursprung der Soziologie aus dem Geist der Restauration (1959).
Spaemann’s ‘Habilitation’ thesis in 1963 presented several studies on the French bishop François Fénelon (under the title Reflexion und Spontaneität). In this work, Spaemann analysed the last theological debate of European significance — that between Fénelon and Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet concerning the true nature of the love of God: Should one love God for God’s sake alone (Fénelon)? Or was it legitimate for human beings to love God in order to become happy themselves (Bossuet)? Spaemann claimed that both theologians, however, were unable to understand Thomas Aquinas because they shared Cartesian assumptions and a non-teleological understanding of nature. This was, for Spaemann, the starting point for his later attempts to recover a proper teleology.
Spaemann — who taught at the universities of Münster, Stuttgart, Heidelberg, and Munich — was to become one of the most prominent members of the philosophical circle formed around Joachim Ritter, a thinker of singular importance for German philosophy in the second half of the 20th century, despite his rather limited written output. Some of Ritter’s students — such as Hermann Lübbe, Odo Marquard, Reinhart Maurer, Günter Rohrmoser, or Bernard Willms — contributed to a trend in thought that was sometimes more liberal, sometimes more conservative, in its orientation. But they were always well aware of the traditions going back to Aristotle and Plato, as well as Hobbes and Hegel, while following paths that differed from the other dominant philosophical schools at the time: the critical theory people of Frankfurt and the followers of Heidegger (including Gadamer).
This became quite relevant once the political developments of the late 1960s and 1970s in the West presented the spectacle of left-wing utopianism and deep-seated hatred for Bürgerlichkeit (a term that is hard to translate into English without losing all its various connotations). Whereas left-wing thinkers such as Jürgen Habermas (who was not uncritical of some aspects of the student movement) gave support to the utopian notion of ‘rule-free discourse’ (herrschaftsfreier Diskurs), it was philosophers like Lübbe, Marquard, Maurer, and, of course, Spaemann, who criticized the attempt to control the universities and the schools by means of imposing left-wing ideologies. Spaemann soon became a prominent voice of the so-called Tendenzwende (‘trend to turn things around’) in the 1970s, which tried to reign in — and roll back — the widespread left-wing ideologies, especially in the educational sector.
In 1978, a major conference called Mut zur Erziehung (“Courage to Educate”) took place in Bonn, which Spaemann had co-organized and for which he had co-authored various papers that rejected the major tenets of ‘emancipatory’ pedagogy. Instead, Spaemann and his colleagues emphasized the continuing relevance of old anthropological wisdom concerning the virtues of discipline, industry, and order. These could not be jettisoned to achieve some easy and equally distributed happiness, as was often suggested by those refusing to accept any kind of ‘repression’.
As a philosopher, Spaemann aimed at presenting “rational objections against the abstract utopia of the radical emancipatory rule of reason”. This could only be regarded by critics as a dangerous vision that would ultimately undermine plurality and provide the ideological legitimation for the use of violence against those resisting this alleged rule of reason. But Spaemann repeatedly raised his voice in defence of the freedom of the press and argued against political correctness. He was neither a partisan of the left nor of the right, which he saw as modernist phenomena: “I am not modern,” he once declared in an interview. And recently, in October 2017, Spaemann was one of the co-signers of the so-called “Paris Statement”, the conservative manifesto formally titled “A Europe We Can Believe In”, which is a re-statement and affirmation of the civilizational inheritance of Europe which was promulgated by a group of European philosophers and thinkers in opposition to the “fashionable abstractions of our age”.
Spaemann also criticized other developments in areas beyond mere philosophy. In modern science, the concept of nature had undergone a significant change: It became ‘de-teleologized’. Beginning with Francis Bacon, philosophers had suggested that one should never ask the question ‘why?’ in connection with natural phenomena. Only causal explanations were acceptable, so that in the course of the modern era, a teleological understanding of nature became anathema. Spaemann, in contrast, together with his colleague Reinhard Löw, opened up the debate on the meaning and ‘directedness’ of nature and human beings by examining the history — and the re-discovery — of teleological thinking in a work entitled Die Frage Wozu? Geschichte und Wiederentdeckung des teleologischen Denkens (1981). In this and later works, nature as such again became an issue, with immense consequences also for ecological thinking. Spaemann’s ‘conservatism’, therefore, always put a strong emphasis on the protection of the environment.
The concept of nature also relates to another feature of Spaemann’s ethical and political thought — namely, that which can perhaps be called a ‘modern version’ of natural right. He did not suggest that this could take the form of a ‘catalogue of norms’ but rather should be considered a way of thinking that enables human beings to ask about the justice of laws and their justifications. Understood in this way, ‘natural right’ remains vitally important.
One of the major fields in which Spaemann has certainly left his biggest mark is ethics. In his various writings on ethics, he offered reflections on major issues of modern society, such as the ethically problematic character of nuclear power, assisted suicide, and the biological manipulation of human beings — particularly abortion. Spaemann was one of the most emphatic defenders of the right to life. He also did not refrain from producing popular radio lectures (his Moralische Grundbegriffe of 1982 is notable) as well as a handy anthology of key ethical texts titled Ethik-Lesebuch: Von Platon bis heute (1987).
The character of human beings as persons became a focal point for Spaemann’s later thought, particularly in his 1996 work, Personen: Versuche über den Unterschied zwischen ‘etwas’ und ‘jemand’ (Persons: Essays on the Distinction between ‘Something’ and ‘Someone’). For Spaemann, this implied the recognition of all human beings as persons, even if not all thinkable criteria for personhood should be actualized in a given case. Especially in these cases, he argued, we should recognize the other’s humanity; and a test case for a civilized society, according to Spaemann, is ensuring that this humanity — even of retarded or handicapped people — is not put into question.
Spaemann’s deeply humane reasoning offers important succour against all attempts to negate the value of some people’s lives by claiming that they are not ‘proper’ persons. Many of his ethical reflections, as well as his more overtly political interventions, were later collected in a volume significantly titled Grenzen: Zur ethischen Dimension des Handelns (Limits: On the Ethical Dimension of Actions), published in 2001. To think about ‘limits’ implies taking a critical distance towards modernity. This also led Spaemann to criticize attempts to preserve ‘tradition’ without asking the crucial question whether what Plato said is true. Thus, the actual content of our intellectual traditions needs to be taken seriously instead of merely talking about secondary issues, such as the question over what the functions of a given body of thought might be under certain conditions. According to Spaemann, it is not enough to say that prima philosophia (metaphysics) is important; one actually has to practice it.
In his later years, Spaemann not only wrote about spiritual issues (two volumes of Meditationen eines Christen on the Psalms, published in 2014 and 2016) but also proffered what was eventually published as “the last proof of God’s existence” (Der letzte Gottesbeweis) in 2007. This was not actually a ‘logical proof’ properly understood but an attempt (unsuccessful, to my mind) to suggest that our use of the grammatical structure of futurum exactum somehow involves the necessity to posit an absolute consciousness (which is called ‘God’) in which all things that ever happened will be remembered once they are part of the past. Spaemann suggested that everything that happened or will have happened in the future can only be regarded as real as long as it is remembered. But as human memory at some point in the future will cease to remember these things, only an absolute consciousness secures the reality of everything that has happened.
The non-sequiturs involved in this reasoning need not concern us here. What should be emphasized is rather the courage on Spaemann’s part to at least make the effort, in the early 21st century, to reconstruct a notion of God by means of reason.
Spaemann was more successful, however, as a critical commentator of some of the follies in modern ethics and politics. Not only did he stress, against powerful currents of thought, the necessity of referring to the concept of the Good for ethics and politics, he also dissected erroneous and potentially harmful notions — such as the utopian idea of anarchy (Herrschaftsfreiheit). Perhaps the most important gesture Spaemann made was his rejection of the idea that one cannot go back behind this or that modern conception of reality: He believed that such slogans were fashionable phrases to which he reacted with great opposition. Progress in philosophy, according to him, always consists in going back to something that had already been there earlier. Later thinking, he claims, never integrates everything that was thought before. Therefore, traditions need to be kept in sight, so that older ways of thinking may develop a new life when their time comes.
Perhaps the best starting-point for discovering the wealth of Spaemann’s thinking are the two volumes of collected speeches and essays published under the title Schritte über uns hinaus (Steps Beyond Ourselves), which appeared in 2010/2011. The title confronts head-on David Hume’s famous claim to the contrary — namely that “we never advance one step beyond ourselves”. Spaemann could never consent to this view — which he thought imprisoned human beings in the here and now.