The Coherence of Biography and Philosophy: Hans Jonas’s Philosophical Biology in the Light of his Personal Memoirs

HomeArticlesThe Coherence of Biography and Philosophy: Hans Jonas’s Philosophical Biology in the Light of his Personal Memoirs
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Hans Jonas (1903-1993) was one of the foremost thinkers of the twentieth century. In three major books: The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology; The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age; and Mortality and Morality: In Search for the Good after Auschwitz, he discussed questions of biology, technology, philosophy, and theology. In 2008, Jonas’s Memoirs were published in English. Weaving Jonas’s dramatic experiences together with his philosophic insights illuminates the integral unity between biography and philosophy – both for him in particular and for human beings in general. As Eric Voegelin argues, philosophical consciousness is always somebody’s consciousness. There are no thoughts apart from the particular person – body and soul – who thinks them. This matters because experiences become meaningful and reality coherent when the nuances, contradictions, and paradoxes of human life are taken into account. Hans Jonas and Eric Voegelin argued that philosophical anthropology, some particular concept of the human person, is the test of relevance for meaning. Both argued that incorrect or deceptive accounts of the human person have practical consequences to political order.

Longing for Happenings

When Hans Jonas was a boy, he longed for excitement. However, the most exciting events always seemed to be happening elsewhere. It seemed unlikely that he could fulfill his boyhood “dreams of glory”[1] in the monotony of everyday life in Germany. Prior to the beginning of the First World War, the most significant world events in his memory had been the sinking of the Titanic and the Balkan Wars. Comparing these events to his “charmed life — in a country that had known nothing but peace for decades, that was flourishing economically, and as a child in a comfortably situated family,”[2] he found his life and the lives of his family members to be very boring. He recalls:

When something of significance happened, it was always far away, and other people had the advantage of experiencing it close up, whether it was the soldiers and the civilian populations in the Balkans or those passengers out in the middle of the ocean. But to me it was a sad fate to have been born into a period and a world where everything was in tip-top order and the only real excitement was to be found in history books and occasionally also in the paper.[3]
[…] I certainly had such a feeling, because I still remember, with some shame, the regret I felt at being denied the experience of living in an age of greatness, in which a person could display heroism, in which there were victories, perhaps also defeats, but at least something important was happening, something I could experience directly or even play a role in, and of course it would be a hero’s role, maybe even a sacrificial role — I didn’t assume that I would escape unscathed. What mattered was that something was happening.[4]

The necessity for something to be happening is the subject of Jonathan Lear’s book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, which he expressly says is a work of “philosophical anthropology” involving “ethical inquiry” with an “ontological dimension.”[5] Lear discusses what young Jonas was describing, calling it “an ontological vulnerability that affects us all insofar as we are human.”[6] Lear says, “If there is a genuine possibility of happenings breaking down, it is one with which we all live.”[7] Our ontological vulnerability is derived from the fact that “we necessarily inhabit a way of life that is expressed in a culture.”[8] The shame that accompanies an individual who is trying to live a life that he or she does not understand leads to an experience of anxiety and confusion about what is and what is not appropriate behavior.[9] Jonas says that his frame of reference included the heroic and edifying experiences of the Greeks, Romans, and heroes in the European and especially German past. Such myths permeated his cultural understanding. While Plato considers the city as the soul writ large,[10] equally true is that the soul is the city writ small and that politics can be studied well in the careful accounts of self-examining individuals. In an analogous way to cultural devastation, in which there is a breakdown in the way of life for a community, a person experiences devastation with the breakdown of genuine happenings that make an individual life worth living.

Political scientist Eric Voegelin emphasizes the particularity of consciousness as having a necessarily material and participatory dimension. He made this observation as the focus of his interest “moved from ideas to the experiences of reality that engendered a variety of symbols for their articulation.”[11] With this insight, Voegelin says, “I had to give up ‘ideas’ as objects of a history and establish the experience of reality — personal, social, historical, cosmic — as the reality to be experienced historically.”[12] Voegelin explains what he considers to be one of his most important findings: “propositional metaphysics is a deformation of philosophy, consistently continued in doctrinal ideology.”[13] The purpose of philosophy, Voegelin says, is “to recapture reality!”[14] Methodologically, this means returning to the actual experiences that engender the meaning of the language that is meant to symbolize the experience. This matters because, “If the experience of objects in the external world is absolutized as the structure of consciousness at large, all spiritual and intellectual phenomena connected with experiences of divine reality are automatically eclipsed.”[15] Voegelin then goes on to say that since phenomena cannot possibly be totally excluded, the sophist may succumb to the temptation to misconstrue reality “for the purpose of gaining social ascendance and material profits.”[16] The main problem of propositional metaphysics about transcendental reality is that this turning away from reality constitutes an “existential deformation” that leads to the problem of alienation.[17]

Although Jonas says that it was “with a child’s typical foolishness”[18] that he felt that the beginning of the First World War marked the beginning of something finally happening, he says reflectively much later in his life that he never felt a sense of alienation in the world:

I’m not referring to any particular metaphysical concept of a divine order in the universe, but simply to the fact that alert, receptive organism — feeling, seeing, perceiving — coincides with that which is worth seeing, receiving, and feeling, and that ultimately affirmation is implicit in any sentient and conscious existence. I’ve never been able to share that sense of alienation that’s based on the idea that the human being is cast into this world without being asked and sees himself confronting an alien, hostile, or even absurd universe.[19]

Lawrence Vogel, in his forward to Jonas’s The Phenomenon of Life, says that it is from an “intuitive certainty,” arguably such as that expressed above, that Jonas derives his ontological understanding. Vogel discusses this saying: “Through life, Being says ‘Yes’ to itself. Only humans, however, are able to discern the ontological truth: that the presence of life in Being is ‘absolutely and infinitely’ better than its absence.”[20] Stating that his tools are critical analysis and phenomenological description, Jonas admits: “I have not shied away, toward the end, from metaphysical speculation where conjecture on ultimate and undemonstrable (but by no means, therefore, meaningless) matters seemed called for.”[21] Jonas’s personal and particular participation in and experience of reality is presented in the clear coherence of his memoirs and his philosophical biology. For example, Jonas says, “In the course of my life I’ve experienced misfortune, but that hasn’t altered my overall relationship to existence, which was fundamentally always affirming.”[22] He says that The Phenomenon of Life is his “most important work because it contains the elements of a new ontology.”[23] He also says, “Any discussion of my philosophy should not begin with gnosticism [‘a journeyman’s project’] but with my efforts to establish a philosophical biology.”[24] Based on a certain “always affirming” experience of existence, Jonas proposes a philosophic return to the “original ontological dominance of life.”[25]

In order to pursue this philosophic return to an ontology of life grounded in reality, Jonas begins The Phenomenon of Life by discussing the Renaissance as the point of departure in modern thought. Examining the history of human experience, Jonas argues that the primitive view was panvitalistic: “to the extent that life [was] accepted as the primary state of things, death loom[ed] as the disturbing mystery.”[26] The deviation from this panvitalism is ushered in by Descartes who succeeds in intellectually reversing the theoretical situation. According to Jonas, “dualism itself represents so far the most momentous phase in the history of thought.”[27] Succinctly put, this phase is the separation of the spheres of spirit and matter. And this separation is not a distinction, but a divorce. The subject-object split in philosophy is a triumph of the mere abstractions of both pure ‘extension’ and pure ‘thought.’[28] These abstractions are problematic because, as Jonas says, “the abstractions themselves do not live”[29] and “life means material life, i.e., living body, i.e., organic being.”[30] In Descartes’ dualistic system, the person is no longer understood to be an ontological unity of both matter and mind, which are together inseparable for human existence. Jonas uses the term “psycho-physical totality” to recapture the ontological unity of the human person. Summarizing this, Jonas says, “Perhaps, rightly understood, man is after all the measure of all things — not indeed through the legislation of his reason but through the exemplar of his psychophysical totality which represents the maximum of concrete ontological completeness known to us…”[31]

It seems at first counterintuitive that the Cartesian dualist, with his emphasis on the abstraction of pure consciousness, would have a mechanistic view of worldly nature. But, in fact, subscribing to a theory of pure consciousness leads to the objectification of all other nature. Man, the subject, subordinates every object that he perceives to his own consciousness rather than recognizing the necessity of his existence as a living organism – mind and body. This integral unity of the person is essential for the freedom and purposiveness correspondingly to perceive and act. Descartes, because he strives to doubt everything, does not relate to his environment. The perception of every object, according to his own consciousness, is the source of his alienation. Jonas says that “an unprejudiced examination will find that not the pure understanding but only the concrete bodily life, in the actual interplay of its self-feeling powers with the world, can be the source of the ‘idea’ of force and thus of cause.”[32] With this understanding of man as a psycho-physical totality and ontological unity, we have an analogy for other features of human existence and experience that are also paradoxical. Jonas describes this tension eloquently: “Indeed to say ‘yes,’ so it seems, requires the copresence of the alternative to which to say ‘no.’ Life has in it the sting of death that perpetually lies in wait, ever again to be staved off, and precisely the challenge of the ‘no’ stirs and powers the ‘yes.'”[33]

The starting point for Jonas’s philosophical biology is rooted in the recognition of the copresence of matter and spirit, object and subject, the physical and the psychological, the mechanical and the vital, organism and consciousness, necessity and freedom, to be and not to be. This matters 1) because it seems true (and, that which makes a thing a thing should be lovingly conserved),[34] 2) because it is meaningful (taking a “mutilated slice of life” and “arrogantly opting for this and not that part of life” renders the whole quite meaningless and arbitrary),[35] and 3) because openness to this reality is a precondition for action (the faculty of which is ontologically rooted)[36] and is “mankind’s safeguard against lapsing into boredom and routine, its chance of retaining the spontaneity of life.”[37]

Responding critically to the seeds of existentialism and nihilism discernible in Cartesian dualism, Jonas grounds his philosophical biology in the integrity of ontological unity. Psycho-physical totality replaces the panmechanistic view with a life-affirming, panvitalistic one. This ontology of life accounts for both the miracle of human action, which is rooted in natality and “the burden and blessing of mortality.”[38] From the novelty that comes “by virtue of being born,”[39] we can begin to give an account of the “faith and hope”[40] that makes life worth affirming, worth saying ‘yes’ to again and again throughout the process of aging. Etty Hillesum says, “It sounds paradoxical: by excluding death from our life we cannot live a full life, and by admitting death into our life we enlarge and enrich it.”[41] And Jonas agrees insofar as he considers Psalm 90 – “Teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom” – helpful to living “a truly human life.”[42]

Discovering Philosophy and Living by It

Hans Jonas was eleven years old on August 1, 1914. He vividly remembers the first day of the First World War[43] because of how the mobilized troops disrupted his ordinary activities. Recalling how the marching soldiers stomped on his fun, he says:

But that afternoon I set out as usual for the town swimming pool, where I’d recently passed my freestyle swimming test. When I got there, the entire area around the pool had been turned into a reception camp for the troops passing through, and the pool director, when he saw me arriving with my bathing suit things under my arm, asked, “What are you doing here?” “I want to go swimming!” At that he gave me a big slap in the face. “Beat it! Can’t you see we have more important things to do here!” That was the beginning of the war.[44]

Jonas then describes how he and his family were, for the most part, gripped by patriotic fervor. He says that only his mother, “who was a gentle soul, mourned in advance all the dead, wounded, and maimed, and everything connected with the war. Not out of any theoretically or principled pacifism but simply out of compassion, out of overflowing humanity: ‘It’s dreadful, just dreadful!'”[45] Jonas says that his father, Gustav Jonas, was very intelligent. He greatly valued education, but invested all of his energy into the family business. Conscientious and hardworking, he had been raised an Orthodox Jew and throughout his life observed wholeheartedly the high holy days. Jonas says that his mother, Rosa Horowitz, was delicate, musical, and enormously compassionate.  She valued tenderness. He also says, “My dear mother found life painful, and not because of the unanswered questions, but because of all of the pain and suffering in the world, all the poverty and misery.”[46]

Hans Jonas had two brothers, Ludwig who was a year and a half older and Georg who was three years younger. Of his younger brother Jonas says, Georg “had always been a worry to us” and “could never hold a job.”[47] In childhood, his older brother Ludwig was diagnosed with progressive calcification of his joints. At age fourteen, he had a fatal accident after his spine had become so rigid that he could not break his fall.[48] Because he had been hospitalized, Ludwig’s bar mitzvah was postponed until he and Hans could celebrate it together. But Ludwig died a month before the occasion. And so Jonas says, “I recall my bar mitzvah very clearly, because it was overshadowed by death.”[49]

Throughout the war, it became increasingly clear that “the high hopes people had for the war weren’t going to be fulfilled, and a somber mood was settling over the country.”[50] Jonas primarily observed those suffering the consequences of wartime losses. Although usually thoughtful and poetic, he also describes getting into fistfights upon overhearing anti-Semitic remarks at which he would become “flooded with Maccabean rage.”[51] Such instances reinforced his awareness of being an outsider and he says, “All throughout school I was aware that I belonged to a minority and that we couldn’t take anything lying down; we would never be completely accepted. This defiant pride has stayed with me all my life.”[52]

Another memorable anecdote from Jonas’s schooldays demonstrates features of his character. Despite the generally waning patriotic enthusiasm for the war, when Jonas was in the tenth grade, his Latin teacher would begin class by asking for a student to report the latest news from the front. A classmate one day relayed, “An English troop transport has been torpedoed in the Channel,”[53] to which the teacher replied, “yes, excellent news. Let’s hope many were drowned.”[54] Jonas expresses the surprise he had upon hearing this, saying:

At this moment something revolted inside me. Without thinking, I raised my hand – we had to ask permission to speak – and stammered, “Is it really acceptable to wish for that?” Good old [Professor] Brasse stared at me for a moment in perplexity, and then said, “Oh, I see, you mean it isn’t Christian?” Whereupon I answered, “I mean not humane.”[55]

Jonas recalls that his classmates had found this hilarious because he was, in fact, the only Jewish student. He also says that this event marked a turning point in his life but he does not indicate precisely why.[56] Perhaps this experience contributed to his desire for ethics to be grounded in an understanding of metaphysics, compatible with, though not dependent on, theistic faith. Even at his young age, he was fundamentally concerned with humanity.[57] Of his book The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age it is written: “Though informed by a deep reverence for human life, Jonas’s ethics is grounded not in religion but in metaphysics, in a secular doctrine that makes explicit man’s duties toward himself, his posterity, and the environment.”[58] In a similar context, Eric Voegelin emphasizes the spiritual dimension; Jonas, for his part, emphasizes the ethical one.

Jonas participated in both German life and Jewish life. His family spoke High German – free of Jewish expressions[59] – and avoided eating ham.[60] He experienced Christmas with his non-Jewish neighbours[61] and joined his father at the synagogue on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.[62]  Though there were Jewish schools, Jonas attended a public one.[63] When he was sixteen years old he “stumbled on the Prophets of Israel”[64] and, making his first scholarly attempt, wrote a sixty-page treatise on the ethics of the Prophets.[65] Jonas discusses that his positive relationship with the Bible came from the realization that Scripture concerns “something that had taken place in historical time, involving figures of flesh and blood, who sent forth their word into the world out of a sense of inner necessity and with full personal commitment.”[66]  From the historical-critical school Jonas learned the need for contextual criticism in scriptural exegesis. He says that though he “no longer believed in the Bible,”[67] the recognition that “the word of God can be uttered only by human mouths”[68] remained with him throughout his life.

Interestingly, Jonas demonstrates this sustained influence of his early study of the ethics of the Prophets in The Imperative of Responsibility. Devising a “prophecy rule,”[69] Jonas states: “the prophecy of doom is to be given greater heed than the prophecy of bliss.”[70] He argues that there is a new reality that “renders obsolete the tacit standpoint of earlier ethics that, given the impossibility of long-term calculation, one should consider what is close at hand only and let the distant future take care of itself.”[71] This new reality is the “apocalyptic potential”[72] of certain matters in human affairs. The magnitude of the matters with which he is concerned is not resolved against the problem of unpredictability, but he does present a good critique of this pessimistic prognosis for practical purposes. He notes, “The reproach of ‘pessimism’ levelled at such partisanship for the ‘prophecy of doom’ can be countered with the remark that the greater pessimism is on the side of those who consider the given to be so bad or worthless that every gamble for its possible improvement is defensible.”[73] Put another way, the declinists who masquerade as conservatives are actually progressives.

When it comes to ideology, Jonas discusses the intense enthusiasm that he developed for Zionism. Becoming enthralled with an ideology was the sharpest way in which he differed from one of his greatest mentors, his uncle Leo. Of this uncle he says, “He took a great interest in me as I was growing up, but didn’t try to lecture me or influence me; instead he talked with me and paid close attention to whatever I had one my mind.”[74] Jonas also says:

Uncle Leo had a great deal to teach me. There was only one thing I didn’t take over from him, namely his suspicion of all ideologies. Instead, I soon found myself powerfully drawn to an ideology, and it wasn’t socialism or Marxism but Zionism. Uncle Leo wasn’t opposed to Zionism; he simply distrusted every ideology.[75]

The factors that Jonas says motivated his fervour for Zionism included “the sense of difference, together with pride, and the conviction that the arguments put forward earlier by the emancipation and assimilation movement had failed,”[76] combined with the intellectual appeal of Martin Buber.[77] For Jonas, Zionism became not merely an intellectual attraction but the movement and community to which he devoted his energy. For the older generation, Zionism represented “a betrayal of Germanness.”[78] But Jonas says, “My private and social life revolved entirely around the Zionist student body, and I spent almost all my time in my fraternity, Maccabea.”[79] There is an undeniable connection between one’s philosophy and one’s actions. Consciousness cannot be separated from the material facts of existence. And though ideological Zionism may be manifested in activism far more discreetly than the activism of other ideologues, the meaning of it to Hans Jonas, practically and theoretically, cannot be understated.

In 1921, Hans Jonas entered university upon the insistence of his father. He insisted that it would be a waste for Hans to work in the family business since, “Earning money – that’s something we already know how to do.”[80] Gustav Jonas rented a furnished room for his son and Hans says, “he encouraged me to study whatever I wanted and for as long as I wanted.”[81] Appreciative of this generosity, Hans was diligently devoted to his studies and spent seven years in German universities. He enrolled in as many courses as possible in his first semester and sought out specific universities and professors. Throughout the course of his education, he studied at the University of Freiburg, Friedrich-Wilhelm University in Berlin, the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies, Marburg University, and the Sorbonne in Paris.[82] Though Edmund Husserl had been a deciding factor for his enrolling at Freiburg, he remembers, “As a first-semester student I was not admitted to Husserl’s seminar, so instead I enrolled in the beginners’ seminar offered by the young instructor Martin Heidegger.”[83] When Jonas went to sign up for the class, Heidegger asked him if he knew Greek to which he responded that he did.[84] Jonas reminisces about the combination of intimidation and admiration that he experienced in those early days with Professor Heidegger.

Intellectual life was exciting for Jonas because despite “grasping next to nothing of [Heidegger’s] interpretation [of Augustine’s Confessions], [Jonas] had the compelling sense that something immensely important was at stake and that he was grappling with the material in a most serious way.”[85] Equally exciting during the same period was the political life in Berlin, which Jonas describes as “breathtaking.”[86] The unavoidable political culture that Jonas outlines affirms the idea that philosophical consciousness is only intelligible insofar as it is understood to be the consciousness of particular persons “participat[ing] in the order and disorder of particular times and places.”[87] Of his three semesters in Berlin from 1921-1923, Jonas says:

Everywhere the effects of the war made themselves felt — the public transportation didn’t always work, so you could end up walking vast distances. It was cold, and the street lighting was poor. Clearly hunger and poverty were widespread, but you could             also sense the energy and freshness of new political ideas and experiments. At the university, though, a reactionary wind was blowing, and our professors were unmistakably loyal to the deposed monarchy. They condemned the imposition of the Treaty of Versailles and rejected all leftist notions. In the Zionist circles I moved in, the Treaty of Versailles was of no interest, however. We had the sense that it didn’t really apply to us but only to the German people. It was clear, of course, to everyone that it was an unreasonable treaty and that the reparations in particular had caused the inflation and the economic conditions from which we were all suffering. […] We were naturally pro-English, because England had opened the gates to Palestine to us.[88]

In addition to his intellectual and political settings, Jonas sketches his personal setting as well. He associated with numerous students in Jewish circles and developed close friendships with Leo Strauss and Hannah Arendt, to name two of the most interesting ones. Jonas and Strauss became acquainted first as fraternity brothers in the Zionist milieu and subsequently became friends. Jonas admired Strauss who was a few years older than he and whom he quickly recognized as having “a first-class philosophical mind.”[89] Jonas visited the farm where Strauss grew up and met his father there who was “a genuine rural Jew”[90] who had raised Leo in an Orthodox home. Jonas emphasizes the “intense spiritual pain to tear himself away from his traditional upbringing” that Strauss experienced.[91] Counted among his “sharpest and most profound interlocutors during those years,” Jonas insists, against the conventional view, that Strauss “suffered from the necessity of being an atheist” and that this “tormented him all his life.”[92]

Then, there was Hannah Arendt whom Jonas describes as “being very aware of being Jewish without really knowing anything about Judaism.”[93] Jonas was a few years older than Arendt, who was only eighteen when they first met in 1924. He says that they liked one another immediately and were drawn together since they were the only two Jews in Rudolf Bultmann’s seminar on the New Testament. Since they were also philosophers in a class of theologians, this added to their mutual sense of not quite belonging. Jonas recounts a story attesting to Arendt’s audacious character. Seeking permission to take Bultmann’s class, as was required, she approached him during his office hours, introducing herself and saying that she would like to take the class. “But I’d like to make one thing clear from the beginning,” she told him. “I won’t put up with anti-Semitic comments!”[94]

Arendt and Jonas were best friends and saw one another daily during their studies in Marburg. Jonas describes his enchantment with her with an account that is illustrative of their closeness. He recounts:

One day I was visiting Hannah in her room because she was sick and had a bit of a fever.          She had to stay in bed, and I came to keep her company. And while I was sitting by her bed, something happened that’s almost unavoidable when two people of the opposite sex are fond of each other. Hannah was beautiful, and I wasn’t too bad looking myself. So we kissed, and I held her in my arms a bit.[95]

He says that when he got up to leave, Hannah called him back, insisting that she had to tell him something. It was then that she confided in him a “most secret experience”[96] that became one of his “most intimate memories.”[97] He relays her account saying that in her words: “Suddenly [Heidegger] went down on his knees before me. And I bent down, and from below he reached up his arms toward me, and I took his head in my hands, and he kissed me and I kissed him.”[98]

Upon learning of Arendt’s relationship with Heidegger, Jonas says that she became taboo for him and that she had accomplished what she had meant to with Jonas by confiding in him. Jonas remained her friend and confidant and says that his wife can attest that as long as Hannah was living, he never told her this story – “and usually you tell your wife everything.”[99] Jonas says that when asked how Arendt forgave Heidegger for his anti-Semitism, Arendt replied, “I can put my answer in one word: love. And love can forgive a great deal.”[100] In The Human Condition, Arendt calls action “the one miracle-working faculty of man” and says that Jesus was quite insightful “when he likened the power to forgive to the more general power of performing miracles.”[101] And so, in addition to being an immensely interesting story, Jonas’s friendship with Arendt further illustrates the relationships between biography and philosophy as they correspond to experience and reflection; and the relationship between necessity and freedom, corresponding to both limits and the possibilities for action within them.

The reciprocal relationship between the facts of one’s existence and philosophy was especially apparent to Jonas in the lives of both Heidegger and Bultmann. Jonas’s renunciation of Heidegger’s existentialism in favour of his philosophy of life[102] coincided with Heidegger’s shocking actions during the Nazi period which Jonas called a “cruel and bitter disappointment.”[103] Jonas says that Heidegger’s Nazism was “an unbelievable blow to me – personally and professionally.”[104] He states: “That the most profound thinker of our time fell in with the goose-stepping brown-shirted battalions struck me as a catastrophic failure on the part of philosophy, as a disgraceful moment in world history, as the bankrupting of philosophical thought.”[105]

Under Heidegger’s spell, so to speak, when he was a student writing his dissertation on gnosticism under his supervision, Jonas did not then realize the relationship that he eventually identified between gnosticism, existentialism, and nihilism.[106] In The Phenomenon of Life, he says, “In retrospect, I am inclined to believe that it was the thrill of this dimly felt affinity which had lured me into the gnostic labyrinth in the first place. […] What had happened was that Existentialism, which had provided the means of historical analysis, became itself involved in the results of it.”[107] Jonas connected Cartesian dualism with modern nihilism. When man is alone in the world he thinks, “not because but in spite of his being a part of nature. As he shares no longer in a meaning of nature, but merely, through his body, in its mechanical nature, so nature no longer shares in his inner concerns.”[108] The estranged consciousness becomes a foreigner in the world and thus suffers alienation from a rootlessness in any recognizable ontological hierarchy of being. The dismissal of concrete reality in favour of purely subjective consciousness places human will at the centre so that will cannot possibly be teleological. There can be no right response to reality when “will replaces vision.”[109] Lawrence Vogel succinctly says:

But existentialism, on Jonas’s diagnosis, is no idiosyncrasy within modern thought; it is instead the most complete expression of the ‘ethical vacuum’ caused by the two key assumptions of the modern credo: 1) that the idea of obligation is a human invention, not a discovery based on the objective reality of the Good-in-itself; and 2) that the rest of Being is indifferent to our experience of obligation.[110]

Rather than discerning his place in nature (since he does not want to act a part in the whole),[111] the existentialist wills to exist “authentically”[112] which is to say, he attempts to construct some system of world dominion and self-salvation. Refusal to recognize reality is the essence of gnosticism. The reason that gnostic movements always imitate reality in perverted ways is that reality itself is the only thing gnostics can manipulate to construct their fantasies. Eric Voegelin clarifies the meaning of will replacing vision by saying: “the will to power of the gnostic who wants to rule the world has triumphed over the humility of subordination to the constitution of being.”[113] Since the constitution of being cannot, in fact, be altered by man,[114] “the result, therefore, is not dominion over being, but a fantasy satisfaction.”[115] And it is precisely this fantasy satisfaction with which Heidegger contented himself. In 1969, Jonas finally agreed to meet with Heidegger with the hope of reconciliation, but left bitterly disappointed. “With this meeting,” he explains, “I put to rest my inner struggle over my relationship to Heidegger, but any clarification on his part, let alone a word of regret, was not to be.”[116]

That “life is essentially relationship,”[117] including the relation between action and thought, is demonstrated in the example of Bultmann, who provides a counterscenario to Heidegger. In his book Mortality and Morality, Jonas discusses the philosophical aspects of Bultmann’s New Testament scholarship. Expressing the impossibility of separating the man from his work, Jonas attests that “Bultmann lived with what he thought, and his thought itself was such that this to-be-lived character stood forth as the true meaning of it.”[118] This experience represented in Jonas’s memory of Bultmann “the unwavering purity of his being”[119]:

It was in the summer of 1933, here in Marburg. We sat around the dinner table with his           lovely, so richly emotional wife and their three schoolgirl daughters and I related what I        had just read in the newspaper, but he not yet, namely, that the German Association of the Blind had expelled its Jewish members. My horror carried me into eloquence: In the face of eternal night (so I exclaimed) the most unifying tie there can be among suffering men, this betrayal of the solidarity of a common fate – and I stopped, for my eye fell on Bultmann and I saw that a deathly pallor had spread over his face, and in his eyes was such agony that the words died in my mouth. In that moment I knew that in matters of elementary humanity one could simply rely on Bultmann, that words, explanations, arguments, most of all rhetoric, were out of place here.[120]

Bultmann faithfully honoured his promise to provide an introduction to Jonas’s study of gnosticism. In his introduction, Bultmann expressed his appreciation to Jonas, indicating that he had learned from him.[121] But with the Nazis rising to power throughout the early thirties, the publisher of the series tried to recant his agreement to include Jonas’s work. Bultmann then threatened to resign as the series editor. Publisher Wilhelm Ruprecht depended on Bultmann’s reputation to bolster the success of the series and so his judgment was respected and the commitment to publish Jonas’s early work was made.[122]

Many people taught Jonas “what it means to live by one’s philosophy.”[123] These human examples of the indivisible unity of biography and philosophy inspire recollection of Jonas’s essay “The Practical Uses of Theory.”[124] In that work he argues “that to modern theory in general, practical use is no accident but is integral to it, or that ‘science’ is technological by its nature.”[125] The reality of transcendence (i.e., objects higher than man)[126] means that part of the constitution of being is mysterious. But what is discernible, at least in part, is an ontological hierarchy in nature. “With no hierarchy of being,” Jonas explains, “but only distributions of a uniform substratum, all explanation has to start from the bottom and never leaves it.”[127] In order to act, persons need to be able to make use of some knowledge of means and ends through deliberation.[128] He asks: “[…A]nd whence can reverence come except from a knowledge of what is to be revered?”[129]

Consistently Jonas avoids dualistic categories in favour of recognizing the copresence of action and thought, practice and theory, use and truth. The human person is an ontological unity and this nature corresponds to his place in nature. This understanding is useful to grasping such a biblical paradox as the idea of being in the world and not of it.[130] Man is not alienated from the world, nor does he belong to it. There is no reason for him to be an atheist, nor for him to be a pantheist. Jonas discusses “the overcoming of an annoying dualism, [that] is achieved by an ingenious conceptual scheme straddling both sides of the fence.”[131] Perhaps we are citizens of two cities.[132]

Freedom and Responsibility

In 1944, Hans Jonas had been living in Palestine for nearly a decade. He joined the newly formed Jewish Brigade and was initially deployed to southern Italy.[133] Lore Jonas, whom he married shortly before his deployment, recalls: “During his military service, when he was far from any libraries, he thought about life – for obvious reasons, given the ever-present danger of being wounded or killed – and that sparked his interest in the natural sciences.”[134] She would send him works by Charles Darwin and Aldous Huxley and he would record his thoughts about science in the form of “didactic letters” to her.[135] It was in this profession that Rainer Maria Rilke describes as “hard and full of contradictions of yourself”[136] that Jonas began to work out his philosophy of life.

Hans Jonas reflects similarly saying, “Far from books, lacking any materials for scholarly research, I was thrown back on the question that should actually preoccupy every philosopher, namely the question as to the meaning of our existence and the existence of the world around us.”[137] As a nation cultivates self-understanding through its emergence from existential threat, so an individual cultivates self-understanding through his participation in the existential risks involved in battle. The paradoxical experience of never feeling so closely alive as when close to death[138] and of living with renewed vitality upon being branded with the truth of mortality[139] led Jonas to combine his scholarly abilities with the insights he gained by participating in the very realities he sought to understand.

From his didactic letters to his wife, Jonas had the beginnings of his book Organism and Freedom, which later became The Phenomenon of Life.[140] When Jonas speaks of “philosophical biology,” he means “a philosophical biology without which there cannot be a philosophy of man on the one hand and a philosophy of nature on the other.”[141] For Eric Voegelin and many others, this relationship of the human being to nature, an idea of man, is called philosophical anthropology.[142] The importance of philosophical anthropology is conveyed by Voegelin, who says, “unless we have an idea of man, we have no frame of reference for the designation of human phenomena as relevant or irrelevant.”[143] A failure to distinguish human phenomena within the ontological hierarchy of being is not a mundane philosophical problem, but rather the cause of many of our practical political problems.

Immediately following England’s declaration of war on Germany on September 1, 1939, which Jonas says “came as a great relief to me,”[144] he drafted a manifesto appealing to all Jewish men worldwide to join the war against Nazi Germany. In his Memoirs, he has reproduced this rousing appeal exhorting men to action in the face of injustice. He emphasizes the right and duty with which the war has been waged and says that “individual dignity, national honor, and political considerations all call equally for our participation in this war.”[145] Jonas’s appeal reminds me of Shakespeare’s Henry V, who wondered whether the justness of his claim could be made “with right and conscience.”[146] And the three things Jonas enumerates when calling for participation in the war remind me of the three motivations for war enumerated by Thucydides: honour, fear, and profit/interest.[147] But the totalitarianism of the twentieth century may be considered new compared to all the tyranny and terrors of the past. Hannah Arendt argues that totalitarian terror is unique insofar as it threatens “harmless citizens without political opinions.”[148] Here is how Jonas conveys the significance of this threat in his appeal:

Directed against us is truly total war. For we are negated as a category of human beings, plain and simple, no matter what political, social, or ideological form our existence takes. No accommodation, no adaptation is possible. Our mere existence is incompatible with the existence of Nazism. Here we have a confrontation that has taken           on mythological dimensions, and it can end only with the destruction of one or the other. No other people is in this situation.[149]

Jonas says “the Nazi principle, which aspires to impose itself on the entire world, strikes at the heart of our human dignity and, at the same time, at the very possibility of our existence on earth.”[150] This two-fold attack on dignity and existence corresponds to what Voegelin calls the central problem of Hitler: the problem of dedivinizing and dehumanizing.[151] Voegelin remarks:

The defection at its core always takes the form of a loss of dignity. The loss of dignity comes about through the denial of the participation in the divine, that is, through the dedivinizing of man. But since it is precisely this participation in the divine, this being theomorphic, that essentially constitutes man, the dedivinizing is always followed by a dehumanizing.[152]

When a person does not grasp, in his understanding of the human person, man’s ontological completeness, then he tries to opt (always unsuccessfully)[153] for the spiritual part of his nature for himself and for purely the material part of the nature of the other person. This constitutes a non-recognition of the idea of man as a “psychophysical totality which represents the maximum of concrete ontological completeness known to us…”[154] The practical consequence of trying to divorce matter and spirit is that “all other humans are reduced to material for my self-aggrandizement.”[155] Since matter and spirit, the human and the divine elements, comprise an inseparable ontological unity, the exercise of dominion over one of the indispensable parts of human existence destroys the human person. As C.S. Lewis says, “Man’s conquest of Nature [and we may say specifically, human nature] turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man.”[156]

One of the most significant events in Hans Jonas’s life occurred in 1945 when he discovered that his mother had been murdered at Auschwitz.[157] The last he had heard five years prior had been that she was living in a ghetto while he was leading a fairly happy life in Jerusalem. He says solemnly:

Yes, it’s a grim story, the great sorrow of my life. This wound has never healed – my mother’s fate. I’ve never got over it, as my children know. It was terrible – the fits of uncontrollable sobbing that overcame me at certain moments, when the conversation turned to something that reminded me, or when we saw a film. There’s no way to get over something like that. My mother was the most loving person you could imagine.[158]

When Jonas’s younger brother Georg had been sent to Dachau after the Night of Broken Glass in 1938, Jonas’s mother decided that she would refuse to emigrate as long as she had a son at Dachau.[159]  And so, despite having had an emigration certificate for Palestine, a ticket for the ship, and everything she would need to furnish a new home there, she refused to leave her son in danger. Jonas honoured his mother’s insistent request[160] and had the emigration certificate reissued to Georg who reached Palestine safely in 1939. And so, insofar as there is no greater love than to lay down’s one life,[161] Jonas seems justified in telling us that his mother was the most loving person imaginable. Jonas is quite loving too in not condemning his brother,[162] but instead saying, “It was my brother who, without being to blame for it, actually caused this unspeakable misfortune.”[163]

As a high school student Jonas had thought that it was not humane to celebrate deaths, even the deaths of enemies. How fundamentally “not humane” the murder of his own mother must have seemed! And so, Jonas is concerned with “matters of elementary humanity.”[164] His “‘existential’ interpretation of biological facts,”[165] when considered in light of his memoirs, should be understood as being radically commonsensical. Yet, the loss of reality requires some tedious work in its rediscovery. Knowing this, Jonas’s starting point is immanent nature, i.e., human beings in the existent world. He “seek[s] to break through the anthropocentric confines of idealist and existentialist philosophy as well as through the materialist confines of natural science.”[166] But this approach is paradoxical because, by aiming to recapture the reality of our place in nature, “without appealing to religious belief in the transcendent,”[167] he tries to temporarily suspend the view to the transcendent and make ethical sense without it — even though he recognizes this dimension as an indispensable element of the totality of the reality of which he endeavours to give a thorough account.

It will be useful to remember when considering Jonas’s reflections on the meaning of the senses and on the distinctiveness of human beings within the order of creation that this suspension is intended to be temporary. I think there is a connection between Jonas’s biological interpretations, which easily correspond to the “theomorphic,” “image of God,” “divine reality” – “this decisive part that constitutes man,” as Voegelin describes it.[168]   

In The Phenomenon of Life, there is a chapter titled, “The Nobility of Sight: A Study in the Phenomenology of the Senses.” Jonas considers this essay, which he first gave as a lecture in 1958, to be a milestone in his theoretical work and also one of his most significant pieces.[169] Jonas recalls, “Hannah Arendt, who read the lecture when it was finished, said, ‘That’s beautiful… All your life you’ve looked and seen and taken pleasure in what your eyes have perceived. And now you’ve captured in writing what seeing actually is.'”[170] Reading this anecdote inspired me to consult Arendt’s The Human Condition because Jonas’s discussion of the dignity of sight in his essay corresponds to Arendt’s analysis of the uniquely human ability to make distinctions.

Inquiring into the partiality of the classical philosophers for the sense of sight,[171] Jonas argues that the nobility of sight is found in this: “Seeing requires no perceptible activity on the part of the object or on that of the subject. Neither invades the sphere of the other…”[172] The fact that “the object is not affected by our looking at it”[173] means that “it is present to me without drawing me into its presence.”[174] From the non-aggressiveness of the world[175] experienced through vision, we derive a concept of objectivity as spectators who can contemplate reality in “detachment from the actual presence of the original object.”[176] Jonas explains, “The complete neutralization of dynamic content in the visual object, the expurgation of all traces of causal activity from its presentation, is one of the major accomplishments of what we call the image-function of sight…”[177] What we lose by this, Jonas alerts us, is the “the causal connection from the visual account.”[178] The non-requirement for a dynamic “force-experience”[179] for sight means that we can easily forget that indispensability of the existence of objects to our perception of them.  Sight is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, abstraction is inherent in it[180] and we may be deluded into thinking that we are self-contained spectators forgetting our necessary relationship to nature, to the objects of our perception. On the other hand, sight makes possible the ability for us to make “highly human spiritual distinction[s]”[181] such as those between change and the unchanging, between time and eternity, essence and existence, and theory and practice.[182]

Hannah Arendt says that only man can make distinctions and can distinguish himself from others.[183] The image-function of sight that Jonas says makes man able to grasp “the thing as it is in itself as distinct from the thing as it affects me” is also the organic root for political possibilities. For in speech and action, there is the contemplation of theoretical truth afforded by a sense of objectivity and this enables man to experience what Arendt calls the paradox of plurality. The paradox is that a man lives “as a distinct and unique being among equals.”[184] In the equality of the human condition, we can expect speech and action, but at the same time, the very nature of human speech and action is that we can expect the unexpected because of the ability for a person to take initiative and begin something new.[185] This two-fold human plurality of equality and distinctness, organic life and political initiative must be accounted for in a true idea of man. Opting for one dualistic category to the exclusion of its inalienable counterpart is demonstrated in modern political ideologies. For example, individualism takes human distinctness without human equality; socialism takes human equality and forgets human distinctness.

Arendt begins her “Action” chapter of The Human Condition with this quotation by Dante:

(For in every action, what is primarily intended by the doer, whether he acts from natural necessity or of free will, is the disclosure of his own image. Hence it comes about that every doer, in so far as he does, takes delight in doing; since everything that is desires its own being, and since in action the being is somehow intensified, delight necessarily follows […] Thus, nothing acts unless [by acting] it makes patent its latent self.)[186]

This quotation demonstrates the relationship between Arendt’s philosophical anthropology and Jonas’s philosophical biology. The human conditions for action are paradoxical and Jonas identifies them as such: “The great contradictions which man discovers in himself – freedom and necessity, autonomy and dependence, self and world, relation and isolation, creativity and mortality – [which he says] have their rudimentary traces in even the most primitive forms of life, [are] each precariously balanced between being and not-being, and [are] each already endowed with an internal horizon of ‘transcendence.'”[187] That man can make theoretical distinctions means that he can determine his “‘specific difference’ in the animal kingdom.”[188] The ability to create images and likenesses is an exclusively human ability. The representational faculty is analogous to the nobility of sight because “the image does not represent the causality of its own becoming.”[189]

Persuasively and poetically, Jonas argues for exploring the uniqueness of human beings as image-making creatures rather than requiring reason, thinking, and language in order to ascertain evidence of man. This argument can be called an illustration:

Our explorers [hypothetically coming from another planet to ascertain the presence of men on earth] enter a cave, and on its walls they discern lines or other configurations that must have been produced artificially, that have no structural function, and that suggest a likeness to one another of the living forms encountered outside. The cry goes up: ‘Here is evidence of man!’ Why? The evidence does not require the perfection of the            Altamira paintings. The crudest and most childish drawing would be just as conclusive as the frescoes of Michelangelo. Conclusive for what? For the more-than-animal nature of its creator; and for his being potentially a speaking, thinking, inventing, in short “symbolical” being. And since it is not a matter of degree, as is technology, the evidence must reveal what it has to reveal by its formal quality alone.[190]

What we here have is a trans-animal, uniquely human fact: eidetic control of motility, that is, muscular action governed not by set stimulus-response pattern but by freely chosen, internally represented and purposely projected form. The eidetic control of motility, with its freedom of external executing, complements the eidetic control of imagination, with its freedom of internal drafting. Without the latter, there would be no rational faculty, but without the former, its possession would be futile. Both together make possible the freedom of man. Expressing both in one indivisible evidence, homo pictor represents the point in which homo faber and homo sapiens are conjoined – are indeed shown to be one in the same.[191]

To sum up: Human beings are creatures with the ability for image-making. This means that, beyond necessity, instrumentality, and usefulness, man indulges by freedom, imagination, and creativity in making likenesses – i.e., images that bear recognizable and discernible comparison to other objects.[192] Again, the idea of man as an ontological unity is manifest in the biological reality of necessity and freedom, perception and representation, biology and philosophy. On one hand, man has tremendous freedom because “the freedom that chooses to render a likeness may as well choose to depart from it.”[193] On the other hand, “Man cannot be free if he does not know that he is subject to necessity, because his freedom is always won in his never wholly successful attempts to liberate himself from necessity.”[194]

Man’s place in nature requires careful discernment because of the countless paradoxes of his existence. In the poem “Mythopoeia,” J.R.R. Tolkien expresses the paradox that man is a creature and that he can also create.

The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act: not his to worship the great Artefact,
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made.[195]

Again, the practical consequences of this are observable in everyday politics. For example, Alexis de Tocqueville discusses the relationship between a materialist conception of the human person and the materialism characteristic of a democratic people:

There are many things that offend me in the materialists. Their doctrines appear to me pernicious and their haughtiness revolts me. If their system could be of some utility to man, it seems it would be in giving him a modest idea of himself. But they do not make anyone see that this should be so, and when they believe they have sufficiently established that they are only brutes, they show themselves as proud as if they had demonstrated they were gods.[196]

This leads me to the realization that our material nature inspires a sense of humility and our spiritual nature inspires a sense of dignity. This idea is contained in the meaning of what it is to be in the image and likeness of God.[197] Man, as an image, has the necessary “incompleteness of image-likeness.” This means that he shares in God’s nature, (i.e., in the nature of the object of which he is a created representation), but is humbled because he cannot share in it fully. However, in sharing in some representative, relevant, or significant features of the object,[198] which is the necessary condition for a likeness, man is raised to dignity by his image-making freedom.

In his appeal to all Jewish men to fight the war against Hitler, Jonas identifies how, in Nazism, humility was swapped for pride, for “a cult of power that mocks human values,”[199] and dignity was swapped for an attack on “the great spiritual tradition originating in revelation.”[200] Jonas calls National Socialists heathens in the most profound sense.[201] As Voegelin says, “The murder of God is committed speculatively by explaining divine being as the work of man.”[202] This matches St. Paul’s description of heathenism and idolatry as the exchanging of the truth about God for a lie and as the worshiping and serving of “the creature rather than the Creator.”[203]

Hans Jonas’s understanding of the human person biologically, existentially, philosophically, ontologically, and theologically leads him to the conviction that man’s two-fold nature of organic being and spiritual freedom correspond to necessity and responsibility. He says:

It’s my conviction, and this brings me to a philosophical topic, that ontology necessarily entails a doctrine of obligation. But is that really true? Can an objective perception of being, one whose premises don’t point it in a specific direction, but which represents an objective, neutral ontology, yield a doctrine of values or even a doctrine of duties? This key question now became the main subject of my philosophical inquiry.[204]

With the affirmation of freedom grounded in the phenomenon of life, the question then becomes: what am I to do with this freedom? Jonas formulates this key question asking: how can we live with nature?[205] While he says that the only political philosophy that he opposed was utopianism, it does seem that later in his life he embraced the ideological opposite, i.e., dystopianism and “a heuristics of fear.”[206] He even confesses that in his most popular book, The Imperative of Responsibility, he “clearly and unmistakably invoke[s] this fear” and that “fear of such threats accounts for the success of [his] book.”[207]

In her forward to the Memoirs, Rachel Salamander says:

Now in postwar West Germany Jonas achieved a fame enjoyed by none of the other German-Jewish philosophers of his generation who had fled Hitler to countries in the West – including such eminent philosophers as Günther Anders, Hannah Arendt, Max Horkheimer, Alfred Schütz, and Leo Strauss. Jonas became a media celebrity, the star   attraction at every conference on the world’s prospects. Interviewers clamored for time with him, and during the 1980s no Catholic or Protestant academy worth its salt would plan a program that did not include him as a participant.[208]

Jonas became a public intellectual. This involved lecture tours, being a founding fellow at the Hastings Center think tank, receiving a Peace Prize of the German publishing industry, being made an honorary citizen of a town, and receiving numerous honorary doctorates. He says he “slid irreversibly into the role of a philosopher who not only commented on current practical questions but sometimes even intervened to prescribe or to warn against a course of action.”[209] This biographical change, of course, is marked by a corresponding change of course from the thoughtful and even-tempered philosophical biology to urgent and inflammatory commentary on current affairs.[210] I think Jonas’s concerns for bioethics, nuclear technology, the environment, climate change, and overpopulation arise most significantly as a result of career changes and less significantly (though still partially) from his philosophical developments.

For this reason, it is important to balance Jonas’s “prophecy of doom”[211] and “heuristics of fear”[212] with his reflection: “But to me, even though terrible things happen, of course, the world has never been a hostile place.”[213]


Through this preliminary study of Hans Jonas’s books and memoirs, it has become clear that there is an important relationship between biography and philosophy. Personal experiences of reality inspire certain philosophical insights. Man is a psychophysical totality and grasping this requires an understanding of man as an ontological unity rather than opting for one dualistic category to the rejection of another. A right response to reality requires acknowledging the ontological completeness of the inseparable elements in man and nature that we tend to separate theoretically. We can make theoretical distinctions because we are human beings with the freedom of image-making and the possibility for initiative. The idea of man as an image of God includes an understanding of both humility and dignity. When this idea of man is abandoned, will tends to replace vision. The philosophical underpinnings of a community have practical political consequences. Philosophical anthropology rooted in a true idea of man needs to be the beginning of good political science.



[1] “People tend to fantasize about playing important roles, what the Americans call ‘dreams of glory’: there was a series of cartoons under this heading in the New Yorker, showing young people or adolescents imagining their futures as filled with great deeds.” In Hans Jonas, Memoirs, Edited and Annotated by Christian Wiese and Translated from the German by Krishna Winston, (Waltham, Massachusetts: Brandeis University Press, 2008), 37.

[2] Hans Jonas, Memoirs, 4.

[3] Ibid, 3.

[4] Ibid 4.

[5] Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, Cambridge, (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2009), 7.

[6] Ibid, 50.

[7] Ibid, 6.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid, 61.

[10] Plato, The Republic of Plato, Translated with Notes and an Interpretative Essay by Allan Bloom, (Basic Books: A Division of Harper Collins Publishers, 1991), 368c-d.

[11] Eric Voegelin, Autobiographical Reflections, Volume 34, The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2006), 105.

[12] Ibid, 105-6.

[13] Ibid, 124.

[14] Ibid, 118.

[15] Ibid, 124.

[16] Ibid, 119.

[17] Ibid, 124.

[18] Hans Jonas, Memoirs, 4.

[19] Ibid, 108.

[20] Lawrence Vogel’s Forward to Hans Jonas’s The Phenomenon of Life, xvi.

[21] Hans Jonas’s Preface to The Phenomenon of Life, xvi. In the next line, he follows this up by saying, “The departure is clearly marked, and the more positivistically inclined reader is free to draw the line which he will not wish to cross with me.” xxiv.  It seems to me that Jonas’s existential and ontological interpretations derived from this phenomenological approach are less controversial than his later ethical and theological interpretations.

[22] Hans Jonas, Memoirs, 107.

[23] Ibid, 197-8.

[24] Hans Jonas, Memoirs, 65.

[25] Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life, 9.

[26] Ibid, 8.

[27] Ibid, 16.

[28] Ibid, 24.

[29] Ibid, 22.

[30] Ibid, 25.

[31] Ibid, 23.

[32] Ibid, 22.

[33] Hans Jonas, Mortality and Morality: A Search for the Good after Auschwitz, Edited by Lawrence Vogel, (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University: Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, 1996), 91.

[34] “The nature of a thing cannot be changed; whoever tries to ‘alter’ its nature destroys the thing.”
Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, (Washington, D.C. Regnery Publishing, Inc.), 1968, 43.

[35] Etty Hillesum, “Writings of Etty Hillesum,” In Etty Hillesum: Essential Writings, 131 and 150.

[36] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Second Edition: Introduction by Margaret Canovan, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press), 1958, 247.

[37] Hans Jonas, Mortality and Morality, 96.

[38] Ibid, Chapter Title.

[39] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 247.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Etty Hillesum, “Writings of Etty Hillesum,” In Etty Hillesum: Essential Writings, 131.

[42] Hans Jonas, Mortality and Morality, 87.

[43] In describing the beginning of the First World War, Hans Jonas uses the peculiar style that G.K. Chesterton terms “atheistic literary style.” Chesterton insists, “There is such a thing. The mark of it is that wherever anything is named or described, such words are chosen as suggest that a thing has not got a soul in it. Thus they will not talk of love or passion, which imply a purpose or desire. They talk of the ‘relations’ of the sexes, as if they were simply related to each other in a certain way, like a chair and a table. Thus they will not talk of the waging of war (which implies a will), but of the outbreak of war – as if it were a sort of boil.”
Gilbert Keith Chesterton, The Illustrated London News, Vol. 29, The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 400-01.
Jonas’s examples of this include: “One of the formative experiences of my youth was the outbreak of the First World War”; “[M]y own country suddenly found itself at war”; and “We were at home when the Austrian heir to the throne was assassinated in Sarajevo.”
Hans Jonas, Memoirs, respectively pages 4, 5, 5.

[44] Ibid, 5.

[45] Ibid, 7.

[46] All of these words and phrases describing Jonas’s parents are his own. See: Hans Jonas, Memoirs, 9-14.

[47] Ibid, 78.

[48] Ibid, 16.

[49] Ibid, 17.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid, 25.

[52] Ibid, 25-26.

[53] Ibid, 19.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Lawrence Vogel says: “The person of faith should believe not that creation is good because God created it, but that God created it because He recognized life as a Good-in-itself and morally responsible life as the highest evolution of the Good. But this means that theistic—and in particular Judaic—faith, though compatible with an understanding of nature that commands our responsibility, is not necessary for such an understanding.”
In Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life, xviii. Also see: Plato’s Euthyphro.
Furthermore: “Jonas contends that although we can make ethical sense of our place in nature without appealing to religious belief in the transcendent, we can also make sense of nature—and perhaps deepen its meaning—by thinking of it as God’s creation.” Ibid, xvii.

[58] Hans Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), Back cover.

[59] Hans Jonas, Memoirs, 10.

[60] Ibid, 12

[61] Ibid, 27.

[62] Ibid, 11.

[63] Ibid, 26-27.

[64] Ibid, 29.

[65] Ibid, 30.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Ibid.

[69] Hans Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility, 34.

[70] Ibid, 31.

[71] Ibid, 34.

[72] Ibid.

[73] Ibid.

[74] Hans Jonas, Memoirs, 23.

[75] Ibid, 24.

[76] Ibid, 33.

[77] Ibid, 32.

[78] Ibid, 35.

[79] Ibid, 47.

[80] Ibid, 39.

[81] Ibid.

[82] Ibid, 255.

[83] Ibid, 42.

[84] Ibid, 41.

[85] Ibid.

[86] Ibid, 47.

[87] John von Heyking and Barry Cooper, “‘A Cow Is Just a Cow’: George Grant and Eric Voegelin on the United States,” Voegelin View.

[88] Hans Jonas, Memoirs, 47.

[89] Ibid, 48.

[90] Ibid, 49.

[91] Ibid.

[92] Ibid.

[93] Ibid, 61.

[94] Ibid.

[95] Ibid, 64.

[96] Ibid.

[97] Ibid.

[98] Ibid, 63.

[99] Ibid.

[100] Ibid, 63.

[101] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 247.

[102] Hans Jonas, Memoirs, 187.

[103] Ibid.

[104] Ibid.

[105] Ibid.

[106] Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life, Title of the Ninth Essay, 211.

[107] Ibid, 212.

[108] Ibid, 214.

[109] Ibid, 215.

[110] Ibid, xiv.

[111] Ibid, 224.

[112] Ibid.

[113] Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, 73.

[114] Ibid, 69.

[115] Ibid, 73.

[116] Hans Jonas, Memoirs, 193.

[117] Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life, 4.

[118] Hans Jonas, Mortality and Morality, 145.

[119] Ibid.

[120] Ibid, 146.

[121] Hans Jonas, Memoirs, 146.

[122] Ibid, 147.

[123] Ibid, 148.

[124] Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life, Title of the Eighth Essay, 188.

[125] Ibid, 198.

[126] Ibid, 195.

[127] Ibid, 201.

[128] Ibid, 198.

[129] Ibid, 197.

[130] This is a conventional expression of these verses in the Gospel of John. “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. […] They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. […] As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” John 17:14, 16, 18, New Revised Standard.

[131] Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life, 95.

[132] “Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.”
Augustine, The City of God, Translated by Marcus Dods, D.D. (New York: Random House Inc., 2000), 477.

[133] Hans Jonas, Memoirs, 257.

[134] Ibid, xvi.

[135] Ibid.

[136] Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, Translated by M.D. Herter Norton, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 2004), 36.

[137] 128, Memoirs.

[138] Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War, (New York: Grove Press, 2010), 250.

[139] Ibid.

[140] Hans Jonas, Memoirs, xvi.

[141] Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life, 92.

[142] Barry Cooper, Eric Voegelin and the Foundations of Modern Political Science, (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1999), 161.

[143] Ibid.

[144] Hans Jonas, Memoirs, 110.

[145] Ibid, 111.

[146] William Shakespeare, “The Life of Henry the Fifth,” Edited by John R. Brown, (Toronto: Signet Classic: Penguin Group, 1998), 1.2. 96.

[147] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Translated by Rex Warner, (London: Penguin Group, 1972), 1.76.

[148] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, (New York: Harcourt Inc., 1968), 322.

[149] Hans Jonas, Memoirs, 112.

[150] Ibid.

[151] Eric Voegelin, Hitler and the Germans, The Collected Works: Volume 31, Translated by Detlev Clemens and Brendan Purcell, (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1999), 88.

[152] Ibid, 87.

[153] “One cannot dedivinize oneself without dehumanizing oneself—with all the consequences of dehumanization that we shall have to deal with. Such dedivinization is the consequence of a deliberate closing of oneself to the divine, whether to the rationally divine or the pneumatically divine, that is, the philosophical or revelational divine.” Ibid.

[154] Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life, 23.

[155] Eric Voegelin, Hitler and the Germans, 27, (Introduction by Brendan Purcell).

[156] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man: How Education Develops Man’s Sense of Morality, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1955), 80.

[157] Hans Jonas, Memoirs, 79.

[158] Ibid, 79-80.

[159] Ibid, 78.

[160] “I had no choice but to comply.” Ibid, 78.

[161] “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” John 15:13, NRS.

[162] “And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you.” John 8:11, NRS.

[163] Ibid, 78.

[164] Hans Jonas, Mortality and Morality, 146.

[165] Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life, xxiii.

[166] Ibid.

[167] Ibid, xvii, Lawrence Vogel’s Forward.

[168] Eric Voegelin, Hitler and the Germans, 87.

[169] Hans Jonas, Memoirs, 197.

[170] Ibid.

[171] Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life, 152.

[172] Ibid, 148.

[173] Ibid, 146.

[174] Ibid.

[175] Ibid, 148.

[176] Ibid, 147.

[177] Ibid, 146-147.

[178] Ibid, 147.

[179] Ibid.

[180] Ibid, 149.

[181] Ibid, 146.

[182] Ibid, 152.

[183] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 176.

[184] Ibid, 178.

[185] Ibid.

[186] Ibid, 175.
An alternate translation reads: “In every action the chief intent of the agent, whether it act by necessity of nature or by choice, is to unfold its own likeness; whence it is that every agent, in so far as it acts in this way, delights in action. Since every existent thing desires its existence, and since an agent in action amplifies its existence to a certain extent, delight necessarily ensues, for delight is bound up in the thing desired. Nothing can act, therefore, unless existing already as that which the thing acted upon is to become; and therefore the Philosopher states in his writings of simple Being: “Every reduction from potentiality to actuality is accomplished by an actuality of like kind;” for if anything attempted to act under other conditions, it would try in vain.”
Dante Alighieri, The De Monarchia of Dante Alighieri, Edited with Translation and Notes by Aurelia Henry (Boston and New York: Houghton, Miflin and Company, 1904).

[187] Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life, xxiii.

[188] Ibid, 157.

[189] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 164.

[190] Ibid, 158.

[191] Ibid, 172-3.

[192] Ibid, 159.

[193] Ibid, 172.

[194] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 121.
Also relevant is this quotation by G.K. Chesterton: “If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe. The moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world of limits. You can free things from alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature. You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes. Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump: you may be freeing him from being a camel.”
G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, The Project Gutenberg eBook, 2005.

[195] Tolkien, J.R.R. “Mythopoeia.”

[196] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition of De la démocratie en Amérique, Edited by Eduardo Nolla, Translated from the French by James T. Schleifer. A Bilingual French-English edition, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010). Vol. 3. Chapter 15: “How from Time to Time Religious Beliefs Divert the Soul of the Americans toward Non-Material Enjoyments.”

[197] Genesis 1:26, NRS.

[198] Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life, 160.

[199] Hans Jonas, Memoirs, 116,

[200] Ibid, 117.

[201] Ibid.

[202] Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, 36.

[203] Romans 1:25, NRS.

[204] Hans Jonas, Memoirs, 202.

[205] Ibid, 210.

[206] Ibid, 205.

[207] Ibid.

[208] Ibid, vii.

[209] Ibid, 201.

[210] Examples include: “overpopulation,” “too great a burden on the biosphere,” and “To regulate human procreation, the political system must intervene in this most private and personal sphere.” Ibid, 213 and,
“the insanity of a sudden, suicidal atomic holocaust,” “sheer population growth,” “the overtaxing of nature,”
Hans Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility, ix.

[211] Ibid, 31.

[212] Hans Jonas, Memoirs, 205.

[213] Ibid, 7.

Written by

Amanda Achtman is a graduate student in the John Paul II Philosophical Studies program at the Catholic University of Lublin in Poland. She completed her undergraduate studies in political science at the University of Calgary under the direction of Barry Cooper.