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CHRISTIAN ethics cannot be understood without its history, nor the latter without the history of the systems lying anterior to and outside of Christianity. 36But the history of ethics presupposes a knowledge of the historical development of the moral consciousness in general, whereof ethics proper is simply the scientific fruit.
The mistakes committed in a large portion of the field of more recent ethics, spring largely from non-attention to the history of this science; and yet no other theological science has so long and rich a history, and so many relations to the history of the human mind anterior to and outside of Christianity, as, in fact, this very one; Greek philosophy has had, upon the development of Christian ethics, a wide-reaching influence. But the history of ethics cannot be separated from the history of the moral spirit in general, out of which ethics sprang, and of which it is simply the scientific form; also the moral consciousness itself has a history, the knowledge of which is of much higher importance than that of the history of mere ethics. Not every moral consciousness has produced an ethical system, for only the more gifted nations have risen to science at all, and ethics is one of the most difficult; but the moral consciousness of a people, even though not developed into a scientific form, is to be looked upon as the historical basis for another higher and ultimately scientific national consciousness. Even as botany considers the germination and foliation no less than the blossoms and fruit,—as the history of religious doctrines presupposes the history of the religious life, as the history of philosophy presupposes and develops further the history of civilization,—so also the history of ethics cannot be given without, at the same time, taking into consideration the history of the moral consciousness itself; the ethical thoughts of Plato and Aristotle are not to be understood merely from themselves, but largely only in the light of the moral spirit of the Greeks in general.
The history of ethics itself, though frequently touched upon, has not as yet’ been sufficiently presented. The most complete work is that of Stäudlin: “History of the Ethics of Jesus,” 1799-1823, 4 vols., of which the work, “History of Christian Morals since the Revival of the Sciences,” which appeared as early as 1808, is to be regarded as a continuation; and to it is to be added the same author’s “History of Moral Philosophy,” 1822 (and, as a short compendium, the “History of Philosophical, 37Hebrew, and Christian Ethics,” 1816). The rich body of matter scattered through these works, is much diluted and not always reliable, and is constructed into no vital unity. The superficial Rationalistic stand-point precludes a proper understanding whether of philosophical or of theological ethics. It is stated as a high merit of the ethics of Jesus, that, in it, are combined the “better elements of the Platonic and Stoic systems;” the portraiture of the “wise Teacher” of morals, Jesus, is about as insipid as well possible. Rousseau’s “excellent” moral discussions are lauded to the skies, while Luther is treated as a person of narrow prejudice; the doctrine of the inspiration of the Scriptures is repeatedly declared as dangerous to morality. The “History of Moral Philosophy” and several minor treatises on the history of special ethical subjects (the oath, marriage, the conscience) are very superficial and inaccurate.
De Wette wrote a “Christian Ethics,” 1819; (more briefly presented in his “Compendium of Christian Ethics,” 1833, in which the history of ethics constitutes far more than half of the whole book; the first work, because of the negligent printing, is almost useless for unprofessional persons, and is very dependent on Stäudlin, even to his typographical errors, though in particular parts surpassing him).—(Meiner’s “History of Ethics,” 1800, utterly worthless. Marheineke’s “History of Christian Ethics,” etc., 1806,—only a fragment.) E. Feuerlein’s “Ethics of Christianity in its Historical Chief-Forms,” 1855, furnishes only unequal and often unclear or inadequate outlines; the same author published a “Philosophical Ethics in its Historical Chief-Forms,” 1856-59. Neander’s “History of Christian Ethics,” 1864, enters also upon Greek ethics, though here from a somewhat antiquated stand-point, and is somewhat ununiform, breaking off the historical development by an unhappy classification, and furnishing rather single- points than a connected presentation.
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