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George Hermes

george hermes

     (22 April, 1775- 26 May 1831)

          Philosopher and theologian, b. at Dreierwalde near Theine (Westphalia),22 April, 1775; d. at Bonn on the Rhine, 26 May 1831. After completing his course in the gymnasium, or high school, at Rheine, Hermes studied philosophy at the University of Münster from 1792 until 1794. He then took up theology in order to remove the doubts regarding faith awakened in his mind by the study of

Kant and Fechte. Initiated as he was into the science of theology by professors of limited ability, and altogether dissatisfied with the traditional methods of proof, he determined for the time being to adhere to the faith of the Church as set forth in the Catechism, but afterwards to seek on his own account a better basis for the truths of Christianity. In 1797 Hermes became professor at the Münster gymnasium; in 1799 he was ordained a priest. The first work he wrote, "Untersuchung über die innere Wahrheit des Christentums" (Münster, 1805), in which he sought to demonstrate the harmony between reason and revelation, was received with so much favour that in 1807 its author, warmly commended by the Protestant theologian Niemeyer, at Halle, was appointed to a chair of theology at the University of Münster.

         Hermes lectured on dogmatic theology, and, with especial zest, on the introduction to theology. Impressive and attractive in appearance, he was highly esteemed by his students because of his extraordinary pedagogic ability and his exemplary priestly bearing. He also earned the respect and appreciation of his colleagues by his zealous devotion to the interests of the university; up to 1819 they elected him dean three times. But his rationalistic methods of instruction, which were out of harmony with the theology of the past, roused opposition among the ruling circles at Münster including several men of eminence, such as Clement August von Droste-Vischering (later Archbishop of Cologne), Frederick von Stolberg, Obverberg, Katerkamp, Kistemaker, Kellermann. When the Vicar-General von Droste-Vischering, who was at the head of the administration of the diocese during a vacancy of the see, demanded that Hermes should continue the use of the Latin tongue in the dogmatic lectures, the latter refused to obey. The same prelate, by order of the pope, denied the legality of the uncanonical reorganization of the cathedral chapter by

Napoleon I, refused to acknowledge the wrongful appointment of Baron von Spiegel (later Archbishop of Cologne) as vicar-general, and on 31 March 1813, took back into his own hands the government of the diocese. Thereupon Hermes published a voluminous opinion disputing his right to such a procedure ("Gutachten in Streitsachen des Münsterschen Domkapitels mit dem Generalvikar des Kapitels. Mit Bewilligung des hochwürdigen Domkapitels herausgegeben", Münster, 1815). As confidential adviser of the Prussian ministry he wrote at its request, particularly between the years 1815 and 1819, several important opinions, e.g. the one published in 1818 concerning the establishment of a theological faculty at the new University of Bonn. His loyalty to the Church is attested by the opinion he wrote condemning the inaccurate and erroneous translation of the Bible by Carl and Leander van Ess and the first-named author"s "Geschichte der Vulgata". Although the Prussian ministry, to his deep regret, reduced the Münster University to the rank of an academy in 1818, Hermes refused a call to the new University of Bonn just as firmly as he had declined, in 1816, the offer of a professorial chair at the University of Breslau. In 1819 Hermes published "Die philosophische Einleitung", the first part of his principal work "Einleitung in die christ-katholische Theologie" (Münster, 1819; 2nd ed., 1831). The purpose of this book was to put an end to all doubts regarding three questions which are of fundamental importance to all religious conviction, and especially to that of the Christian. These questions are: Whether there is any truth at all; whether God exists, and what are His attributes; whether a supernatural revelation is possible, and under what conditions. The theological faculty of Breslau conferred on his the degree of Doctor of Theologyhonoris causâ for his "Philosophische Einleitung." After that Hermes, yielding to the persistent urging of the Prussian Government, accepted the chair of dogmatic theology at Bonn, 27 April, 1820. His inaugural lecture dealt with the relation of positive theology to the general principles of science (see "Zeitschrift für Philosophie und katholische Theologie", 1833, pp. 52-61). His election, 3 August 1820, as "Rector Magnificus", which he declined, and the degree of Doctor of Philosophyhonoris causâ, which the philosophical faculty of Bonn subsequently conferred on him, in 1821, are ample evidence of the respect paid to him in Bonn. The University of Freiburg in Breisgau tried in vain to secure him for its faculty. His lectures on philosophy, the introduction to theology, and dogmatic theology attracted a tremendous following in Bonn, being attended even by large numbers of philologists and jurists. The Prussian ministry suspended the theological faculty in Münster for six months, on account of the interdict which the Vicar-General Clement August issued against Hermes, forbidding all theological students in the Diocese of Münster to attend any outside university without his permission. It was revoked immediately upon the retirement of the vicar-general. The theologians in the Diocese of Paderborn were also forbidden by the ecclesiastical authorities to attend Hermes" lectures. To please Hermes, the Government in 1825 dismissed his colleague Seber who was not in sympathy with him. Moreover, the Archbishop Baron von Spiegel, who had been a patron of Hermes even in his Münster days, appointed him a member of the cathedral chapter, examiner to the synod, and ecclesiastical counsellor in Cologne, without disturbing his professorial duties or obliging him to reside at Cologne.

         As examiner, Hermes was a bitter opponent of all ecclesiastics who did not share his views. Like the theological faculty atBonn, to which only pupils of Hermes had been appointed since 1826 (Achterfeldt, Braun, Bogelsang, Müller), the seminary atCologne and a large part of the clergy were soon imbued with his ideas. Even the other faculties of Bonn included followers of his, particularly Professor Clement August von Droste-Hülshoff in law and Elvenich in philosophy. In a very short time the theological faculties of Breslau, Münster, and Braunsberg, the seminary at Trier, many cathedral chapters and instructorships in religion at the gymnasia were filled with Hermesians. In 1830 Hermes cast the decisive vote against calling Mühler and Dِllinger to the chair of ecclesiastical history at Bonn. On the other hand the appointment of Professor Klee for Biblical exegesis and dogmatic theology implied a distinct concession to the anti-Hermesian movement which in the meantime had been slowly gathering strength. Hermes began to publish the second part of his "Introduction to Theology", the "Positive Einleitung", or "Positive Introduction", in 1829 (Münster, 1829, 2nd ed., 1834). Therein he sought to demonstrate the truth of

Christianity by way of completing the "Philosophical Introduction". The "Philosophical Introduction" having shown the possibility of proving that Christianity is both extrinsically and intrinsically true, and having shown also how the demonstration should proceed, we have now got to the point of furnishing this proof such is the purpose of the "Positive Introduction" (Positive Introduction, 1). In carrying out this purpose he investigates five questions: (1) Are the books of the New Testament externally (historically) true? (2) Is the so-called oral tradition likewise historically true? (3) Are the expositions and interpretations of Jesus" doctrine, as communicated by the oral teaching of the Catholic Church, infallibly correct? (4) Are the teachings of Jesus contained in the books of the New Testament intrinsically true? (5) Are the teachings ofJesus that have been handed down by oral tradition likewise intrinsically true?

           In its essence Hermes" theological system, or "Hermesianism", was rationalism; and, though in many respects opposed to the doctrines of

Kant and Fichte, it was strongly influenced by them. According to Hermes our knowledge is subjectively true when we are convinced in our minds that it coincides with its object. This conviction, however, becomes a certainty when it is irresistible. The necessity of our conviction, therefore, is the criterion of objective truth. This necessity is either physical or moral, that is, it is either independent of, or dependent on, duty and conscience. It comes to pass in two ways: it is either forced upon us, or we admit it freely. In the first case, we call our conviction belief in truth, in the second, acceptance of a truth. Belief in a truth is a matter of theoretical reason, while acceptance is a matter of practical, or obligating, reason. Belief in a truth is in part the result of mediate necessity, in which case it is founded either on imagination, i.e. on the clearness and vividness of the mental content, or on insight (understanding); in part, also, it springs from immediate necessity, and only in this case is knowledge philosophically certain. "It is of immediate necessity that we must accept the following proposition as true, together with all propositions subordinate to it: Everything that is must have a sufficient reason" (Philosophische Einleitung, no. 14). Now the first and most immediate reality, that is forced upon the reason of direct necessity, is inseparably connected with the consciousness thatI know, and with the thought thatsomething is there. In order to discover the sufficient reason for this first reality, we are referred to the world as it appears to us, both within and outside of ourselves. The variations which occur in these phenomena require a sufficient reason in order to account for them; the variations in the origin of things call for a sufficient and absolute reason for their origin, and this ultimately can only be found in the idea of God. In such wise Hermes proves the existence of God along lines of theoretical reason in contradistinction to Kant, who treated the acknowledgment of God"s existence as a postulate of practical reason.
The knowledge of the existence of God and of His attributes, which determine His relation to the world and to mankind, is a preliminary condition indispensable to the solution of the question as to whether supernatural revelation is possible. Hermes answers this question in the affirmative, first, becauseGod is able directly to produce representations in the human mind, and secondly, because by means of representations man can be convinced of the intrinsic truth of conceptions supernaturally imparted to him, and also of conceptions naturally produced by himself, the truth of which he cannot himself demonstrate (cf. Philosophische Einleitung, no. 74).

 The question of the fact of a supernatural revelation must be distinguished from the question of its possibility. Revelation, said Hermes, must be admitted as a fact so soon as it can be shown that a message has emanated supernaturally from

God. But the duty of the practical reason to admit revelation as a fact is demonstrated if in any alleged Divine revelation all the conditions are present on fulfillment of which it can and must be accepted for what it purports to be. Hermes, however, deems it necessary to make a very questionable distinction between philosophers and non-philosophers in regard to the duty of accepting revelation. No precept of practical reason , he says, can oblige the philosopher, who has a well-founded confidence in his knowledge, to accept a revelation that was imparted to him supernaturally, even if he had ascertained it supernatural character, and even it if fulfilled all the conditions of a Divine origin. For the philosopher can, through his own discerning perceive very definitely his natural duties, and he will always be convinced that he does so perceive them. Consequently, practical reason cannot oblige him to look for this perception outside of himself, or to accept it if offered to him unsought, whether by another person or by superhuman agency.

On the other hand, when a revelation known to be supernatural is offered to a person unversed in philosophy, he is bound by practical reason to accept it in order that he may learn his natural obligations. He must accept it, since he could not otherwise acquire the sum total of needful knowledge, being unable to attain it by philosophical methods. If, however, it is incumbent on the great majority of mankind -- consisting, of course, of non-philosophers -- to obey the behests of practical reason by believing in revelation, then neither can the philosopher refuse to accept the truth of revelation; reflective theoretical reason obliges him to accept it. At the most he could refuse to do so only on the ground that he had not yet been convinced of its Divine origin, since the fact that it could not be of any advantage to him would be no reason for withholding his acquiescence in its Divine origin. In order, therefore, to deny this certainty of the Divine origin of revelation, he must assume that what others, millions in fact, are in strictest duty bound to assume as true may possible by untrue, and that obligatory reason when it leads mankind of absolute necessity to believe something to be true can guide them to the opposite of objective truth. Hermes" rationalistic conception of the idea of revelation follows from this line of argument; and furthermore he says expressly that reason cannot teach the existence of truths of such primary importance and yet declare that it is unable to know them.

        Again, Hermes" opinions on themotiva credibilitatis were quite absurd. Theoretical reason, he said, can accept the probability of the Divine origin of extraordinary phenomena (

miracles and prophecies) only because it does not know all the laws of the natural world, while practical reason, for the sake of duty, can accept their supernatural origin as certainly true. Theoretical reason, for example, could not assert with certainty that the revival of a decomposing corpse was of supernatural origin, whereas practical reason could. For, if such a phenomenon could have a natural cause, men should be allowed to act accordingly and, in this case, to delay the burial of the corpse because the possibility of a natural reanimation was as yet by no means excluded. In this way Hermes sought to demonstrate the moral duty of accepting miracles under certain circumstances, in opposition to Kant who had laid it down as a moral principle never to presuppose the miraculous. Furthermore, Hermes denied that miracles afforded conclusive testimony in favour of revelation; he distinguished between the proof of the supernaturalness o fmiracles and the proof of the Divinity of a revelation. That many of the supernatural miracles worked by higher intelligent powers are of Divine origin can only be proved by the contents of the revelation and its moral character. A revelation shown to be genuine to the satisfaction of practical reason demonstrates the Divinity of the miracles.

According to Hermes, the starting-point and chief principle of every science, and hence of theology also, is not only methodical doubt, but positive doubt. One can believe only what one has perceived to be true from reasonable grounds, and consequently one must have the courage to continue doubting until one has found reliable grounds to satisfy the reason. We may follow only where reason leads us, because this is the only guide that the Author of our being has given us for this life. Hermes differentiated theHerzensglaube, or belief of the heart, i.e. the accepting of revealed truths dictated by the will, from theVernunftglaube, or belief of the reason, brought about by scientific demonstration. He says,

          In order that one"s faith may be efficacious it is not enough for the intellect, impelled by the laws of our cognitive faculties, to acquiesce in the evidence of all these truths which reason or revelation teaches or establishes, nor to adhere firmly to the same consequence, but it is also required that men should surrender themselves to these truths (realities). Efficacious faith is not the faith dictated by reason, which is subject to necessity and can, therefore, be demonstrated, but the faith of the heart, that cannot be compelled by any proof, but is accepted by a free, unconditional surrender of the will. It is for reason to prevent us from believing blindly or in a visionary way, but it is for the will as a free agent to impel us to work by faith. (Christkatholische Dogmatik, III, no. 285)


Although he was absolutely lacking in originality as a philosopher, and although as a theologian his acquaintance with the traditional theology was very limited, Hermes soon acquired a following. In philosophy there were Esser, Biunde, and Elvenich; in ethics G. Braun and Vogelsang; in natural and ecclesiastical law Droste-Hülshoff, all of whom treated their subjects according the Hermesian way of thinking, while Achterfeldt and Siemers wrote for use in the higher schools textbooks of religious instructions incorporating his views. Among his other disciples were Baltzer, Hilgers, Rosenbaum, and J.W.J. Braun. The last-named, together with Achterfeldt, founded the "Zeitschrift für Philosophie und katholische Theologie" (1832-52) in defence of Hermes" ideas. The Archbishop of Cologne, Baron von Spiegel, continued to champion Hermesianism even after the death of its author, and he silenced by repeated favourable reports the doubts that had been awakened inRome as to correctness of the new doctrine.

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