The German philosopher and jurist Christian Thomasius (1655-1728) was one of the most respected and influential university teachers of his day. He was instrumental in the popularization of the Enlightenment in Germany.

Christian Thomasius was born in Leipzig on Jan. 1, 1655. He received his early education there from his father, a schoolteacher. He pursued the study of law at Frankfurt and began teaching at the University of Leipzig in 1684. In his lectures Thomasius was a bold advocate of the teachings on natural law of the jurist Samuel von Pufendorf. He attracted even more attention, however, when he began to severely criticize the prejudices, pedantry, and intolerance of the scholars and theologians at Leipzig. In 1687 he became the first German university professor to lecture in German instead of Latin. The following year he began to publish a monthly periodical which he used as his chief instrument in further attacks on the stupidities of scholars and theologians. His outspoken views, however, brought reaction, and in 1690 he was forbidden to lecture or publish. He moved to Berlin, where Elector Frederick III of Brandenburg-Prussia allowed him to lecture. In 1694 Thomasius helped lay the foundation for the University of Halle, where he became second and then first (1710) professor of jurisprudence. He remained in Halle until his death on Sept. 23, 1728.

A renowned professor, Thomasius gave expression to many enlightened ideas and programs. Although he was not a profound thinker, his commonsense reasoning enabled him to put forth many practical reforms in the areas of philosophy, law, theology, and social customs. As a teacher, Thomasius believed not only in a solid academic training but also in developing character and comprehension of practical affairs. In religious matters he believed in the necessity for freedom of thought and speech and thoroughly condemned theologians who were always searching for heretics. He also attempted to free the study of jurisprudence from the control of theology. In his own theological beliefs, he considered that revealed religion was necessary for salvation.

Although he was influenced by the Pietists at Halle, especially Philipp Spener, Thomasius agreed primarily only with their opposition to established theological systems and their practical piety and not with their central emphasis on sin and grace. On matters of Church law, he emphasized that, since the Church was an institution within the domain of the state, the power of the state was supreme over the Church although not necessarily over the moral lives of individual Church members. He expressed himself powerfully against trial for witchcraft and the use of torture. In all of these ideas, Thomasius demonstrated his fundamental belief in the enlightened ideas of the 18th century.

Further Reading on Thomasius

There is no adequate biography of Thomasius. He is discussed in an excellent one-volume survey of the course of German philosophy to 1800 by Lewis White Beck, Early German Philosophy: Kant and His Predecessors (1969).