The earliest extant writings of Karl Marx are a number of essays which he wrote in August 1835, at the age of seventeen, as obligatory papers for his finals at the high school in Trier. Three of them are of lasting interest, in that they give us an insight into his state of mind at the end of his schooldays. The school is, in a sense, a concentrated course in civilization. Within the narrow limits of a dozen years, the child and adolescent are introduced to the accumulated experience of the civilization into which they have been born. The school system incorporates received ideas about the past and present of a particular civilization. The school selects those values which that civilization wants to hand on to the next generation; thus it reflects the expectations of a society, as well as its prospects for the immediate future.
The fact that Marx was educated at a German Gymnasium (or “high school”) left an indelible mark on his thinking, not only in adolescence but for the remainder of his life. To that circumstance he owed an intimate relationship to the tradition of ancient Greece, especially to the heritage of classical Greek philosophy, of Greek political life and thought of Greek mythology and the art of the great tragedians. The Gymnasium of his day was patterned on a neo-humanistic type of education, focused upon the classical Greek view of man and world. A central feature of Marx's thinking, his deep longing for totality, is characteristic of the humanist idealism which he absorbed during his adolescent years. Neo-humanist idealism projected on to classical Greek culture and society the notion of an organic unity of body and soul, nature and spirit, sensory perception and abstract thought. Its educational ideal was the universal, harmonious development of all human capacities, as over against the philistinism that had emerged from a popularized Enlightenment and in contrast with the increasing differentiation and specialization of modern civilization.
The papers which Marx had to produce for those final examinations are as typical of the style of education he had enjoyed as of the way he had absorbed it. One such paper is the so-called German essay, entitled “Reflections of a youth before choosing a profession”. Another is the essay on a religious subject, dealing with a passage from the Gospel according to John. The Latin essay, which was the third paper, deals with the Roman principate of Augustus. I shall first describe and try to interpret these papers: and then we shall consider them in their reciprocal relationship.
Despite its obligatory character, the German essay, which deals with problems regarding the choice of a profession, has a remarkable depth and maturity. Its reflections are developed within a broad philosophical framework. It takes up a theme which in subsequent years was to loom large in the background of Marx's thinking: the theme of man's uniqueness vis-à-vis the animal kingdom. Nature has assigned to the animal a special domain of activity in which it is content to live, undisturbed by any yearning for, or any notion of, a beyond. The general goal allocated to man by the Godhead is the purpose of working for the ennoblement of mankind and for his own perfection. But the Godhead left it to man's own ingenuity to seek the means by which to achieve this goal and to choose the adequate social standpoint for his own benefit and for the benefit of society as a whole.
These opening sentences contain, of course, certain familiar ideas inherited from the Enlightenment—so familiar that they could have been written in the eighteenth century. But Marx elaborates this general theme in a special way, so that the germs of his personal philosophy are already detectable in these reflections. The contrast between man and animal turns out to depend upon a theological distinction, the distinction between “the Godhead” and “nature”. In opposition to the animal species, which is part of the realm of nature, man is related to the Godhead. The distinction is described more fully as the contrast between a linear and a circular movement. The animal species has a natural Wirkungskreis, a “circle of activity”. Its life moves within the limitations of a hermetically sealed world which embraces the totality of its consciousness and its strivings.
Man is quite different, since his existence is not determined by nature but by the Godhead. His realm is not closed, his activity is not imprisoned within a circular movement: man has a goal, received as a gift from the Godhead, a goal which, to his mind's eye, lies beyond the horizons of a linear and unretraceable road, the road to his final destiny. That goal is his ennoblement, his perfection: the perfection of mankind and the perfection of man “himself”. In this respect, too, man and animal are basically different. The animal is only a species: any distinction between the animal “itself” and the animal as a species would be pointless, since self-consciousness is a peculiar quality of man.
The term “Godhead” has a deistic background; significant in this respect is the close relationship between the Godhead and the ultimate goal of history, the goal of mankind as a whole and of every individual human being. The “Godhead” is the gentle leader and paternal guide of man towards his perfection. Whereas the life of the animal species is blindly determined by its natural instinct, man has received his free will. The Godhead has only determined a goal in general: but it is up to man himself to achieve it and to discover the adequate ways and means. What meaning has the term “mankind”? Evidently, it is not used as an abstract definition of the human species: its connotation is concrete: mankind is equivalent to “society”. It is by means of his actual standpoint within society that man is enabled to work for the perfection of society and for his own perfection. Man's place in society is, so to speak, the runway from which his endeavour takes off.
This introductory description of man's essential condition is followed by a closer investigation of man's free will, which he has received as a peculiar gift from the Godhead. The train of Marx's argument is at variance with the belief in the power of human reason which he could have derived from a popularized Enlightenment-tradition. Far from glorifying man's freedom, he begins by stressing the dramatic consequences of that freedom. It follows from his free will, which he has received from the Godhead, that man is called to choose his own way to the general goal which the Godhead has provided. Certainly, this free choice is man's great advantage over the rest of nature. But it is at the same time a risk which may destroy his life, may frustrate all his endeavours, may ruin his happiness. Before choosing a profession, therefore, an adolescent must take this choice into serious consideration: he cannot allow chance to decide his most important affairs.
Thus the greatness of man's freedom to choose his own way of life is on the other hand his agony, since it includes the risk of his downfall. No less grave than this is a second dilemma, which follows from man's need of a criterion for making the right choice and saving himself from catastrophe. Where is such a criterion to be found? At first sight, the answer appears to be simple. In the heart of every individual there is an indwelling voice, a most intimate conviction which reveals to him a tremendous and alluring goal. It is the voice of the Godhead, who never leaves us earthly beings without a guide, a voice, though scarcely audible, which speaks with certainty.
Yet how can we know with absolute certainty that this inner voice is truly the voice of the Godhead? How easily it is stifled! What was thought to be enthusiasm may in reality have been a momentary impression. Our fanciful vision may have been enkindled, our feelings stirred. Apparitions may well play their tricks upon our imagination; and we may rush towards a goal which we suppose to be a revelation of the Godhead itself; however, we are soon repelled by the very thing we have embraced with such burning desire; and, lo, our very being is annihilated.
Again and again Marx stresses the enormous risks entailed by man's freedom to choose his own way of life. The most dangerous of source self-deceit, leading a man to identify a private enthusiasm with the call of the Godhead, is ambition. As soon as a man is seized with the fury of ambition, reason is powerless to restrain him, and he is carried away by his passion. No, our own reason is unable to guide us; bereft of the support of experience and profound reflection, reason is deceived by emotion and blinded by fantasies.
Thus Marx's analysis of the true criterion for a right choice ends up with his exclaiming: “When our reason fails us, to whom shall we look: who will support us!” As a matter of fact, he fails to give an answer, at least the expected answer. Since the paper started with the proposition that the Godhead guides us through an inner voice, we might expect Marx to find the saving answer in that kind of conviction. Such a solution would, however, be immediately invalidated, if this inner voice were to prove the merest illusion. The religious answer, the way of the mystics, the solution of Augustine or Luther, all this is baseless, it is the product of circular reasoning, defenceless against the risk of self-delusion.
However—and this is an indication of his depth of mind—the method of Descartes who found the ultimate criterion of certainty in axiomatic evidence, the solution of the Enlightenment which put its faith in the clarity of reason these answers are also rejected by Marx on the same grounds, namely, that they are not safeguarded against self-deception.
There is another weakness inherent in reason, too: it lacks the support of experience and of profound reflection. This consideration leads Marx to an answer which seems appallingly naïve after the rehearsal of such a variety of serious doubts: our heart, unable to find certainty either in the voice of the Godhead or in the guidance of reason, turns to our parents, since they possess those very assets which reason lacks: experience and profound reflection. Our parents have already travelled the path of life, they have already tested the hardness of fate.
In order to understand this seemingly superficial and inadequate answer, we have to turn back to the theme of the paper: “Reflections of a youth before choosing a profession”. The German word for “profession” is Beruf, a term closely akin to the word Ruf, which means “calling”. The problem which Marx seeks to cope with, is the relationship between Beruf (profession) and Ruf (calling). We may enthusiastically choose a profession, convinced that it is a calling of the Godhead: but this conviction may turn out to be a mere delusion.
It is noteworthy that, involuntarily and unconsciously, Marx levels a radical criticism at the traditional propensity of Protestant ethics. The German terminology of Beruf and Ruf stems from a Christian social ethic which sees the secular career of the layman as a realization of God's own calling within the realm of His creation. The connection between Beruf (profession) and Ruf (calling) had already been adumbrated by the German “lay mysticism” of the fourteenth century. Tauler's use of the word Ruf with reference to Beruf had paved the way for Luther's theological interpretation of the secular avocation. Its principal significance lies in the application of the term vocatio to the common avocation of the laity, as distinguished from its traditional restriction to the monastic vocation.
In Marx's paper, the connection between Beruf and Ruf is still apparent: it is the starting-point of his analysis and of his questions. But the direction given to his analysis is different. The Lutheran problem—how to arrive at a gracious God?—is beyond his horizon: his problem focuses on the question of the right choice and of its criterion of certainty. His analysis leads to a negative conclusion, i.e. that any subjective criterion of certainty is non-existent.
At this point, another term makes its appearance: the term Stand. Whereas, from an internal viewpoint, the main question concerns the identity between Ruf and Beruf, the major external problem turns on the identity between Beruf and Stand. The point at issue is the proposition that for everybody there is an appropriate “estate”, a specific Stand. In the social ethics of traditional Lutheranism the term Stand had acquired a static meaning, denoting everybody's fixed social position within an hierarchical, semi-feudal social system. Marx's paper introduces a more dynamic interpretation of the word Stand: within the framework of divine governance, directing the history of mankind, every person is called upon to play his proper role. The right choice of occupation is a choice of the adequate Stand, status, position, estate, which enables us to subserve the divine goal of history.
This Stand however is hard to know. The adolescent who is just beginning his career should therefore seek advice of the older generation, which has borne the full brunt of life and has experienced the vagaries of fate. The experience of our parents is, for that reason, the only trustworthy basis for a responsible choice of profession. When we have listened to them and have soberly weighed all the demands of the career ahead of us, if our enthusiasm has withstood this painful testing and we still cherish the Stand to which we believe we have been called, then at last we are really entitled to make a choice and to adopt our Stand, our proper profession. For now we may be sure that we are neither deceived by enthusiasm, nor carried away by excessive haste.
No sooner has the first problem—the criterion for the right choice—been solved, than a new problem arises; the possibility of its realization. We cannot always take up the Stand which we believe to be our calling. Our social circumstances begin to crystallize more or less before we are in a position to affect them.
What does Marx mean by the term “social circumstances”, literally: “relations in society” (Verhältnisse in der Gesellschaft)? He might, in accordance with certain ideas of the French Enlightenment, have had in mind the limitations of one's social milieu, which influence the choice of one's profession so as to reduce its scope to a relatively small number of concrete opportunities. But no considerations of that kind are advanced. “Relations in society” in this paper has the concrete meaning of our physical and psychic “nature”. The tension between our being called to follow a particular profession and the actual predisposition of our nature presents a new problem, to the solution of which the second part of the essay is now devoted. As far as our physical nature is concerned, this is more often than not an obstacle to our calling, Marx is evidently thinking of the whole of our physical and sensual constitution as providing the foundation of our profession. For a moment we may fancy ourselves able to overcome the weakness of our physical nature, but the next moment we find ourselves wallowing, as it were, in a morass. Our life then becomes a tragic struggle of the spiritual versus the bodily element. But great and noble deeds can only come to fruition in the soil of an inner peace. If we fail to resolve within ourselves the struggle between the spiritual and the physical, how can we expect to cope with the unruly urges of our being?
However that may be, the physical element is not the main challenge. Though joy and perseverance in our work may be hard to achieve in a poor physical condition, it could still be a lofty ideal to sacrifice our physical health on the altar of duty. The real menace to the realization of our calling consists therefore in our psychical nature. Should we be insufficiently talented for the Stand which we have chosen, we may ruin ourselves. Such a failure breeds self-contempt, which like a snake sucks the very life-blood from our heart, mixed with the venom of misanthropy and desperation. The inner ache of despair is more terrible than any criticism we may have to suffer from our fellowmen.
Once these risks—the failure of our physical nature and of our mental gifts—have been considered in all seriousness, we are allowed to take up our Stand, our occupation, our calling. But still the devious journey of Marx's analysis is not at an end. New dangers loom ahead—dangers that spring from the very greatness of our calling. An adequate Stand is that profession which guarantees the greatest dignity; which is based upon ideas we believe to be true; which grants us the widest opportunity to work for the benefit of mankind and to achieve the general goal of perfection to which any profession can only be a means.
The German word for dignity, used by Marx, is Würde: his elaboration of this term brings it very close to the Latin idea of virtus: virtue, dignity, honest, nobility. Virtue, he says, is that which elevates man (just as the Latin word virtus is derived from vir, male, he uses the German word Mann, which means “male”), which ennobles all his activities and allows him to take his stand above the crowd and unaffected by its admiration. Virtue can only be confessed by that profession which does not make of us slavish instruments but allows us to carry out original, creative work. Though such a profession may not be the highest one, it will at all events be excellent.
Marx has now apparently reached the topmost point, where his journey ends in a lofty panorama of the noblest and most perfect ideas. But, yet a third time, the very greatness of the promise makes him aware of the inherent risks. Whilst a profession which lacks virtue is humiliating, the burden of a profession based upon ideas which afterwards turn out to be false will doubtless prove intolerable. In that case self-deception will be the sole and desperate remedy.
It is as if Marx, at seventeen years of age, is measuring with his mind's eye the distance that separates him from the mountain-top which he is about to climb. Is he really prepared? Or is it safer to rest content with a less hazardous adventure, even though it may not reach the highest peaks nor yield the loftiest view? The loftiest profession is surely one more concerned with abstract truths than with the common interests of life. If his assurance is unshakable, there is no greater promise for a man than to sacrifice his life in the service of the highest ideas. But if his choice should be the result of rashness or haste, it is likely to prove most dangerous for the adolescent who, if he fails, will be ruined by that failure.
Obviously, Marx has already decided to take the risk and to engage in the adventure of a profession which would lead him to the highest ideas. But what are they? In its concluding part his paper takes up the argument of the beginning. If the general goal which the Godhead has given to a man is the perfection of humanity in general and himself in particular, then the main criterion for the choice of a profession is the well-being of mankind and our own perfection. There is no contradiction between the public good and our personal perfection, for human nature has been so arranged that only by working with an eye to the perfection and well-being of his fellows is man able to achieve his own perfection. Anyone who works for his own benefit alone may be a fine scholar, a sage, an excellent poet, but he will never be a perfect, never be a really great man.
The great men of history are those who have ennobled themselves in working for the common weal. We know by experience that the greater the happiness we spread, the happier we ourselves become. It is the lesson of religion itself, which teaches us that the Ideal, which all men pursue, has sacrificed Himself for the benefit of mankind. And who would venture to deny these truths?
When once we have chosen the profession which affords us the greatest opportunity to work for the benefit of mankind, we shall not find any burden too great; for it involves sacrifice on behalf of all of mankind. In that profession we do not experience a paltry, narrow-minded, selfish pleasure—millions have a part in our happiness, our deeds have a silent, but eternal life, and our very ashes will be moistened by the burning tears of noble hearted people!
The rather quaint sentiments that conclude this essay should not mislead us as to its profound honesty and its importance when it comes to interpreting Karl Marx's early development. This paper bears all the marks of a confession of faith, recorded at a stage which for many of his fellow-pupils involved the rite of confirmation and the business of entering the membership of the Christian church. Since we have come to know this paper in some detail, it may be worthwhile now to approach it as a whole and to analyse it from three different points of view: from the standpoint of Christian theology; from the angle of idealist neo-humanism; and in the perspective of Marx's own career.
Considered from a theological viewpoint, the essay is noteworthy for the religious setting of its opening and closing sentences. It begins with a reference to the guidance offered to man by the Godhead; and it closes with an allusion to the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. A trinitarian interpretation appears plausible enough, therefore.
The term “Godhead” is used with strict consistency and nowhere is it replaced with the word “God”. The term was familiar in the tradition of the Enlightenment and within the framework of classical tradition is recalled the Latin term deltas. Its abstract character is accentuated by the consistent use Marx makes of the feminine pronoun. But this does not imply that the term refers merely to an abstract idea. From the very outset it is connected with man, in contradistinction to the animal; with history as distinguished from nature; with man as having individuality in contrast with the animal species. There is not the slightest tendency to identify the Godhead with a divine Nature, nor to fuse the Godhead with a divine man. This Godhead is the wise and fatherly guide and educator who leads mankind as a whole, and every individual man, towards the final goal of perfection. The Godhead is less related to the beginning, as Creator, than to the end, the perfect education of man. Theology is determined by teleology. But man, as distinguished from the animal, is not led blindly and automatically. The Godhead, as a wise educator, had only set the general goal, and it is up to man himself, in his freedom, to find the way. Nevertheless, man in his freedom is not left completely to his own devices. The fact that man has the vision of a lofty, final goal derives from the Godhead's guidance, its gentle but unmistakable voice speaking in man's deep-rooted conviction, in the inner voice of his heart. In dogmatic terms, from the First Person of the Trinity we have switched to the Third Person; and we are faced with the question of the testimonium spiritus sancti, the testimony of the Holy Spirit. As a matter of fact this is the proper subject of the essay. Translated into theological terminology, his essay wrestles with the problem of the relationship between the First and Third Persons of the Trinity. The Godhead has posited perfection as the final goal for man to achieve. Man sees a goal and, in his inmost heart, feels irresistibly fascinated by its greatness. Moreover, it is certain that the Godhead speaks through the voice of our private conviction.
This proposition could easily be translated in terms of the traditional Christian doctrine of God's self-revelation through the testimony of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the believer. Of course, that doctrine is dependent upon a circular argument which solves the question of inner certainty by means of a predetermined theological standpoint. It is precisely that hidden circular reasoning which, for Marx, precludes a traditional answer. His questions arise at the very point where dogmatics has already pronounced the discussion closed. How do we acquire a really invincible conviction; how do we attain complete certainty; how can we be sure that it is the voice of the Godhead and not the deceitful voice of our own imaginings? In terms of the theme of the essay, how can we be sure that the profession we have chosen is really the Godhead's own calling for us; how can we attain certainty that it will really lead us towards the goal of perfection which the Godhead has established, rather than toward our own phantasmagoria?
The second problem to be solved relates to the external aspect: how can we be sure that we really possess the physical and psychic proclivities for realizing our calling and for achieving the final goal? The solutions of these problems, as presented by traditional theology or by a rationalist philosophy, are unsatisfactory. Marx rejects both procedures, though not explicitly. His denial of a theological procedure follows from the postulate of man's complete freedom, granted him by the educative wisdom of the Godhead, to seek the divine goal by his autonomous efforts. He cannot therefore, assuage his doubts and questionings with the Augustinian exclamation: “cor inquietum donec requiescat in te!”, nor by a deductive, dogmatic argument. On the other hand, just as the theological procedure conceals a petitio principii, the same weakness is inherent in a rationalist solution. Therefore, the evidence of reason is no less emphatically discounted as a basis for man's inner certainty.
The solution of the dilemma, which Marx then proposes, reminds one of the procedure involved by a scientific experiment like the first flight to the moon. Once the general goal, namely a landing on the moon, has been decided upon, man has to find a means of achieving this goal. Neither the greatness of the goal nor the rationality of the scientific procedure in general are sufficient to bring us there. The endeavour depends upon two basic conditions. The first of these is the accumulation of past experience, which means in terms of Marx's reflections: the life-experience of an older generation, of our parents. The second condition is a conscientious and patient testing of the materials, or in the words of Marx's essay: a scrupulous self-investigation with an eye to the physical and mental conditions for the implementation of one's calling. All this having been completed, all the risks considered and all the instruments tested, the adventure may be undertaken with faith and assurance, the calling may be realized.
As—to speak in dogmatic terms—the essay starts with the First Person of the Trinity, and likewise the middle part is given over to the problem of the testimony of the Holy Spirit, so the essay closes with a christological passage. Though the name of Jesus is not explicitly mentioned, the reference is unmistakable. In this way, the trinitarian pattern provides the composition with a logical structure. The opening proposition which proclaimed the general goal of perfection, granted to man by the Godhead, was followed by an analysis of the subjective conditions required for the achievement of that goal. In conclusion, the opening proposition returns in the final statement that the perfection of mankind as a whole is identical with individual self-perfection. Man's nature is so constituted that he only achieves his own perfection by working on behalf of mankind.
This truth is evidenced by three different factors: history, personal experience and religion. The term “religion” is used in the classical sense of “the Christian faith” or religio christiana. After the testimonies of history and personal experience, the testimony of “religion itself” is cited as a conclusive argument. The fact that “the ideal which all men pursue has sacrificed himself for mankind” confirms the lessons of history and of personal experience: real human greatness consists in a life of service to the perfection of mankind. The conclusive christological argument proves the cornerstone of the composition as a whole. What matters is the choice of that Stand which affords the best opportunity for a sacrificial life in the service of mankind. This is not the Stand of a famous scholar, a great philosopher, a superb poet; it is the Stand of true, perfect humanity. It is the Stand of Jesus Christ crucified.
The moment of doubt and despair which Marx's analysis of the right choice and the true conviction has passed through appear in this light as the heart-searching of one who has heard the voice of the Master and submits himself to a painful examination of his readiness to follow. Whoever wants to build a tower must begin by counting the cost! The cost of sacrifice, of complete abandonment of one's own self-centred interests, pride, ambition. Every one who exalts himself will be humbled. Despair and self-contempt will be his reward.
If we sacrifice ourselves for mankind's sake, so much the greater will be our happiness. “Our happiness belongs to millions, our deeds have life eternal, our ashes are moistened by the burning tears of noble-minded people.” Thus the essay closes with a vista of the communion of saints, of everlasting life and a vision of mankind united around the sacrifice of those who have fulfilled their calling to pursue the common good and universal perfection. The essay does not contain any explicit reference to the Church; nevertheless, there is, under the surface, a specific ecclesiological framework. Many are called, but few are chosen. The terrible burden of this truth rests upon Marx's reflections. What is lacking is only the recognition of a communion of the elect. It seems to be everybody's individual calling to strive for his own salvation. There is, in the ultimate perspective, a unity of mankind, but not the slightest hint of a communion of those who follow their calling.
This consideration brings us to the second viewpoint, that of idealist neo-humanism. As a matter of fact, the preceding theological interpretation would be an overstatement of the Christian motives, were we not to make due allowance for the idealist fashion and the neo-humanist style of expression here. I have already pointed to the classical background of the term Würde, virtue, virtus, as an essential quality of the true Stand. The aristocratic ideal of the noble man, of nobility and self-ennoblement, points in the same direction. This classical ideal is based upon the Greek, and particularly the Platonic, norm of the true life as a life devoted to abstract truth, to lofty ideas of perfection and happiness and the common good. It suits with this neo-humanist idealism that the Godhead should function as an idea, that Christ be referred to as “the ideal”. As seen from this viewpoint, the loneliness of those who follow this ideal, who engage in these lofty truths, derives from an individualist anthropology.
These features, however, pale before the splendour of the dynamic spirit which runs through the essay as a whole. Standing on the threshold of a dramatic career, the adolescent surveys the visible horizon: and his eyes try to penetrate the invisible distance beyond, the unknown vista of his future. What is most impressive about this essay, which is by way of being a confession, is the dialectical style of analysis. Man, elevated above the animal, has a terrible freedom, the capacity to ruin himself. The voice of the Godhead may be the voice of our own delusions. The greatness of the goal may arouse the very ambitions by which we are blinded and brought to ruin. If the tower of our career is built on the quicksand of inadequate physical and mental faculties, then its end will be despair and self-annihilation.
Marx's dialectical style of thinking is the expression of an inner struggle between contradictory tendencies which threaten to tear his soul asunder: between self-seeking ambition and the call to self-sacrifice for the benefit of mankind; between a craving for perfection and fear of failure and self-destruction: between the voice of the Godhead and an agonizing consciousness of self-deception; between the loftiness of the ideal and the weakness of his capacities; between the spiritual and the corporeal principles or—in biblical language—between the spirit and the flesh.
Out of this inner disruption he seeks a sphere beyond these contrasts, an inner peace and harmony in which the contradictions will be reconciled. For great and beautiful deeds cannot arise, save out of inner peace.
I have said that this paper on the choice of a profession has the character of a confession. As a matter of fact, the essay as a whole has strongly religious overtones; and it could very well have served as an essay on religion. However, for his finals at a high school in Lutheran Germany a pupil was required to submit a paper specifically on a religious subject. Marx fulfilled this duty with an essay bearing the title: “The union of believers with Christ, according to St. John's Gospel 15:1–14, an exposition of its basic essence, its absolute necessity and its consequences”. A careful reading of this religious essay would seem to confirm my theological interpretation of the German essay on the choice of a profession.
Since the religious essay was written in order to meet a formal requirement, a careful reproduction of the religious instruction he had received during the preceding years would have been sufficient. However, when one looks at it more closely, the religious essay discloses a pattern of thought and a train of argument remarkably analogous to the German essay. Such an analogy works in both directions. Marx had no reason, in the German essay, to follow a theological or religious trend of thinking. The theological background of that essay suggests, therefore, the deeper roots of his reflections. On the other hand, the religious essay might be expected to conceal under its formal surface some really independent thinking.
The trinitarian line of argument that we discovered in the German essay is also recognizable in the framework of the religious essay. The paper starts by demonstrating the necessity of union with Christ and poses the question: is that union really conditioned by man's nature; is it impossible to achieve by one's own efforts the goal for which God destined man when He called him forth out of Nothingness? As in several other instances, Marx here uses the term “God”, although in other parts of the essay we find the term “Godhead”. This mixed use may depend upon the alternative function of both terms in the religious instruction that he had received. The paper on the choice of a profession indicates Marx's personal preference for the abstract term “Godhead”.
The necessity of union with Christ is demonstrated in accordance with a trinitarian scheme; the general guidance of God in history, the inner testimony of His voice in our hearts and the word of Christ. First, in studying history, the great teacher of mankind, we discover that even the highest stage of culture does not enable man to liberate himself from the shackles of idolatry, to acquire right notions about himself and about the Godhead, to purify his morals from untamed egoism and ambition. The primitive peoples display their fear of the anger of the gods, whom they try to assuage by expiatory sacrifices. Even the greatest sage of classical antiquity, the divine Plato, several times expresses his deep longing for the revelation of a higher Being which would implement the unsatisfied pursuit of truth and light.
Second, the spark of the Godhead is inherent in man's nature, in a longing for truth and goodness: but time and again the spark of eternity is stifled by the flame of lust and the seductive power of falsehood. Thus, man appears to be the only being within nature who does not fulfil his destiny, the only member in the whole of creation who is unworthy of the God who created him.
The third and most convincing proof of the necessity of union with Christ is the Word of Christ Himself, which we find in St. John's Gospel, chapter 15, in the parable of the union of vine and branches. Thus our heart, reason, history and the word of Christ convince us that without Him we cannot achieve our goal, that without Him we are doomed by God, that only Christ can save us.
This trinitarian demonstration of the necessity of union with Christ is followed by an exposition of the cause and essence of union with Christ. The cause is our need of salvation, our sinful nature, our erring reason, our depraved heart, our reprehensibility before God. Its essence consists in God's revelation in Christ as forgiving Father and gentle Educator, the very God who had beforehand presented Himself as offended Majesty. Our heart, in union with Christ filled with the highest love, at the same time turns to the brothers for whose sake Christ has sacrificed Himself and whom He has united with us. This leads up to the third part of the paper, the fruits of union with Christ. Our love of Christ results into our desire to follow His commandments and to sacrifice ourselves for our fellow men. This is the true virtue, the virtue emerging from love to Christ.
In conclusion, the paper goes back to the beginning and gives us an exposition of the radical divide separating Christian virtue from any other virtue, in a word, of its absolute excellence. Virtue in Stoic philosophy is but a gloomy phantom: among the Gentiles, virtue is the product of an unfeeling sense of duty. But virtue having love for Christ as its source is spotless, gentle, humane. The fruit of union with Christ is a joy which the Epicureans in their superficial philosophy sought in vain, just as did the more profound thinkers in the hidden grounds of knowledge. It is a joy known only to the innocent heart united with Christ, and through Christ with God.
Marx's paper on religion is, in fact, an exegetical sermon on John 15. So far as religious instruction to adolescent pupils is concerned, the paper witnesses to the success of traditional Lutheran catechesis: and indeed we might wonder why Marx did not proceed to confirmation, for his heart and mind seemed fully prepared for membership in the Lutheran church. What, then, are we to make of this paper? I have already hinted at the remarkable parallel between the argumentation followed in this and in the first paper, a parallel which rules out the possibility of reading this paper as no more than the fulfilment of an examination requirement. Marx seems in his reflections on a future profession to have made a most personal application of the insights which, in a more formal and impersonal style, we find in his paper on religion. The shift of accent is so much the more significant. The radical Christocentrism, so characteristic of the paper on religion and, we may suppose, of the Lutheran catechetical instruction Marx had undergone, has, so to speak, submerged in his reflections on the choice of a profession. Obviously, the theological part of these reflections has been strongly influenced by Marx's inclination to entertain an abstract idea of the Godhead. But conversely, the treatment of the subjective aspect, of the inner voice of the Godhead and of commitment to our calling, has in this personal meditation assumed a dramatic depth and dialectical vigour which in the paper on religion is lacking. To sum up, the Ghristocentric religion of traditional Lutheranism has, in Marx's adolescent period, been translated into a broad perspective of the goal of history, the happiness and perfection of mankind, for the sake of which every individual man is called upon to sacrifice himself, passing through an agonizing struggle with his pride, passions and radical doubts.
There has also been preserved a third paper written for the final examination. It is an essay in Latin called: “Is the Principate of Augustus rightly reckoned among the happier periods of the Roman Empire?” Marx's method in this essay is to compare the republican period prior to the Punic wars with the imperial reign of the Emperor Augustus. His conclusion is that both periods enjoyed a form of government befitting the specific needs of that time. Augustus had to reign during a period of moral enervation and corruption; in such a time public freedom is better guaranteed by a monarch than by a free republic. Augustus’ reign was characterized by the mildness of his despotism, which helped the Roman citizens to believe that they still enjoyed the traditional freedoms. Augustus deserves our respect, since the only goal he had in mind was the salvation of the State.
This paper illustrates the effect on Marx of such instruction in the classics as he had enjoyed. It illuminates the all but complete isolation of classical education. The lessons in Greek and Roman history, literature, philosophy and politics were given in a purely classical atmosphere, unaffected by the teaching given in other subjects related to contemporary life and civilization and were kept in a watertight compartment, quite separate from the religious instruction. Thus it was quite a normal thing to write a splendid exegesis on a chapter of St. John's Gospel—required for the examination on the Christian religion—and at the same time to offer an evaluation of Augustus’ emperorship, as if it had never occurred to the pupil that Jesus Christ had been born during Augustus’ reign and had been crucified under Pontius Pilate. Again, it was nothing out of the ordinary to praise, in one paper, a life of self-denial dedicated to the happiness of mankind, after Christ's example, and yet in the Latin essay to extol the Roman emperor Augustus, a man deified by his subjects, and to represent the salvation of the State as the highest goal.
For an adolescent with Marx's depth of mind and lucidity of intelligence, this splendid isolation could not last for long. The walls of those neatly separated, watertight compartments, filled to the brim with knowledge accumulated at the gymnasium, were on the point of collapse. The choice of his profession could not be kept isolated from his insights into classical history; nor could the instruction he had received in religion remain divorced from his classical education. A confrontation was unavoidable; and it affected each of the three dimensions: the choice of his career, his relationship to the State, and his attitude to the Christian religion.