“Absolute Man”

Barth calls the eighteenth century the time of the rise of “absolute man.” By this he means “Man, who discovers his own power and ability, the potentiality dormant in his humanity, that is, his human being as such, and looks upon it as the final, the real and absolute, I mean as something ‘detached,’ self-justifying, with its own authority and power, which he can therefore set in motion in all directions and without any restraint–this man is absolute man.” [Protestant Thought From Rousseau to Ritschl, trans. Brian Cozens (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1959), pg. 14]

He sees two major components of the worldview of the eighteenth century: positively, the time of the rise of mechanistic science and its assumption of the autonomy of man (pg. 15), and negatively the time of “the man who no longer has an emperor” (pg. 19). These two components signal the end of the Middle Ages and the rise of the Modern world. Absolute man, trusting in the power of his sovereign Reason, begins to treat the whole world like mere material to be shaped at his own discretion and whim: “This material he confronts as he who has all the knowledge: knowledge of the form, the intrinsically right, fitting, worthy, beautiful form for which all the things provided are clearly intended to be the material, for which they are obviously crying out, and into which, as is plain, they must be brought with all the speed, artistry an denergy man has at his command.” (pg. 33). Men for the first time stand in a free (autonomous) relation to external reality and are its masters (pg. 52).

Similarily, absolute man, having rejected all concepts of order above the merely “national,” now creates “the state without a master, or alternatively the state governed by an arbitrary master, beneath whose sway, even if he were the best of possible monarchs, justice was a matter of pure chance” (pg. 26).

Absolute man is the man who stands above history, judging all
of it with a critical spirit rooted solely in his own present situation: “it was in the eighteenth century that man began axiomatically to credit himself with being superior to the past, and assumed a standpoint in relation to it wherein he found it possible to set himself up as a judge over past events according to fixed principles, as well as to describe its deeds and substantiate history’s own report[.]” “For the yardstick is quite simply the man of the present with his complete trust in his own powers of discernment and judgment, with his feeling for freedom, his desire for intellectual conquest, his urge to form and his supreme moral self-confidence. What historical facts, even, can be true except those which to the man of the age seem psychologically and physiologically probable, or at any rate, not improbable?” (pg. 36). Interestingly, it is in this age that the dichotomous Golden Age / Dark Age scheme gains the force of a supposed scientific fact, arising merely from the external force of “history” being allowed to speak for itself through “unbiased” men (pp. 36-37).

Barth’s judgment on this attitude is striking: “It must be said of this race of historians, those who seemed to dismiss the past either in whole or in part as one whole night of wickedness and folly, as well as those who lavished all their love and praise upon on particular aspect of it [whether Antiquity, the Middle Ages, or the Reformation, Barth has earlier said], that although as a race they were very learned in historical matters, they were at the same time singularly uninstructed, simply because their modern self-consciousness as such made them basically unteachable.” (pg. 37).

Absolute man is also the man of scientific educational theory. Universal, public, government-sponsored education in the form that we know it today (as a compulsory duty) begins here.

Absolute man is the creator also of fully nominalistic societies, that is, societies based entirely on the voluntary assembling of fundamental equals. Associations, even up to marriage and the Church, are no longer necessary by their very nature and by the nature of reality itself, but are entirely artificial, created by men for men and just as easily dissolvable by men: “It is this freely formed community, not that already known and in existence, which is alone in possession of the truth, and therefore of the future–or of the joyful, assured prospect of the future.” (pg. 44).

At the last, eighteenth century man, the absolute man, is essentially a non-Christian Stoic: “The attitude of the mind of eighteenth century man makes it quite clear that the man, the citizen, the hero, the sage, the virtuous and pious man he held before his mind’s eye as his model and his measure, as the frame into which he set his own picture, was the man of late pre-Christian or extra-Christian antiquity of quite a definite stamp: the Stoic with a dash and sometimes with a lot more than just a dash of Epicurianism in his make-up.” (pg. 55).

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