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Anton Günther

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Anton Günther

Anton Günther (17 November 1783, Lindenau, Bohemia (now part of Cvikov, Czech Republic) – 24 February 1863, Vienna) was an Austrian Roman Catholic philosopher whose work was condemned by the church as heretical tritheism.


  • Biography 1
  • Work 2
  • Views 3
  • Reception and ecclesiastical condemnation 4
  • Branded heretical 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7


He was born the son of devout Catholic parents at Lindenau (now part of Cvikov) in Bohemia. From 1796 to 1800 he attended the monastic school of the Piarists at Haide and from 1800 to 1803 the gymnasium of Leitmeritz. Subsequently he studied at Prague philosophy and jurisprudence. After completing these studies he became a tutor in the household of Prince Bretzenheim.

The religious views of the young man had been sadly shaken during the years of his student life by his study of the modern systems of philosophy (Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Jacob and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling); but his removal in 1811 to Brünn (Brno) near Vienna with the princely family mentioned above brought him under the influence of the parish priest of this place, named Korn, and particularly of Saint Clement Mary Hofbauer, and restored him to firm Catholic convictions. He then took up the study of theology, first at Vienna and afterwards at Raab (Győr) in Hungary, where in 1820 he was ordained to the priesthood. In 1822 he entered the Jesuit novitiate at Starawicz in Galicia, the region in Eastern Europe, but left it in 1824. For the rest of his life he resided at Vienna as a private ecclesiastic, and until 1848 occupied a position in that city as member of the State Board of book Censorship. He died in Vienna.


From 1818 Günther was active in the world of letters as contributor to the "Viennese Literary Chronicle" (Wiener Jahrbücher der Literatur).

In 1828 began to appear the series of works in which he expounded his peculiar system of philosophy and speculative theology: "Vorschule zur speculativen Theologie des positiven Christenthums" (Introduction to the Speculative Theology of Positive Christianity), in letter form; part I: "Die Creationstheorie" (The Theory of Creation); part II "Die Incarnationstheorie" (The Theory of the Incarnation) (1st ed., Vienna, 1828-9; 2nd ed., 1846-8); "Peregrins Gastmahl. Eine Idylle in elf Octaven aus dem deutschen wissenschaftlichen Volksleben, mit Beiträgen zur Charakteristik europäischer Philosophie in älterer und neuerer Zeit" (Vienna, 1830; new ed., 1850); "Süd- und Nordlichter am Horizont speculativer Theologie, Fragment eines evangelischen Briefwechsels" (Vienna, 1832; new ed., 1850); "Janusköpfe für Philosophie und Theologie" (in collaboration with J. H. Pabst; Vienna, 1833); "Der letzte Symboliker. Eine durch die symbolischen Werke Dr. J. A. Möhlers und Dr. F. C. Baurs veranlasste Schrift in Briefen" (Vienna, 1834); "Thomas a Scrupulis. Zur Transfiguration der Persönlichkeits-Pantheismen neuester Zeit" (Vienna, 1835); "Die Juste-Milieus in der deutschen Philosophie gegenwärtiger Zeit" (Vienna, 1838); "Eurystheus und Herakles. Metalogische Kritiken und Meditationen" (Vienna, 1843). A new edition of these eight works, collected into nine volumes, appeared at Vienna in 1882 under the title of Günther's "Gesammelte Schriften".

In addition to these, Günther produced in conjunction with J. E. Veith: "Lydia, Philosophisches Jahrbuch" (5 volumes, Vienna, 1849–54). His "Lentigos und Peregrins Briefwechsel" was printed in 1857, but was issued only for private circulation. Finally, long after Günther's death, Franz Peter Knoodt published from his posthumous papers "Anti-Savarese" (Vienna, 1883).


Abounding in polemic against widely divergent schools of philosophy, of a style aphoristic, often quaintly humorous, and sparkling with flashes of genius, but frequently such in form and tenor as to prove little palatable to the reader, Günther's writings contain only sporadic fragments of his thought.

In all his scientific work, Günther aimed at the intellectual confutation of the Pantheism of modern philosophy, especially in its most seductive form, the Hegelian, by originating such a system of Christian philosophy as would better serve this purpose than the Scholastic system which he rejected, and would demonstrate clearly, even from the standpoint of natural reason, the truth of positive Christianity. As against this Pantheism, he seeks a speculative basis for Christian "Creationism" in the twofold dualism of God and the world, and within the world of spirit and nature; he furthermore strives to demonstrate scientifically that the fundamental teachings of the Christian Faith, and even the mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation, at least in their raison d'être if not in their form, are necessary truths in the mere light of reason. He would thus change faith into knowledge. A systematic and complete development of his ideas is not given in any of his works, not even in his "Introduction to Speculative Theology", in which one would most naturally look for it.

The starting-point of Günther's speculation is his theory of knowledge. Man is endowed with a twofold faculty of thought, the one a logical or conceptual function, which deals with appearances, and the other ontological, ideal, self-conscious, which penetrates through appearances to being; hence it is inferred that there are in man two essentially different thinking subjects. This "dualism of thought" establishes the dualism of spirit (Geist) and nature in man, who thus exhibits their synthesis. The subject of the conceptual function is the Seele 'soul', which belongs to the nature-principle (Naturprincip). From the "mind" must be distinguished the Geist 'spirit', which differs from the former essentially as the subject of ideal thought.

The first result of this ideal thought-process is self-consciousness, the knowledge which man acquires of himself as a real being. The immediate object of inner perception is the conditions or states of the Ego, which make their appearance as the expressions of the two primary functions, "receptivity" and "spontaneity", when these are called into activity by influences from without. Inasmuch as the soul refers the manifestations of these two forces to the one principle and contradistinguishes itself as a real being from whatever appears before it, it arrives at the idea of the Ego. By this speculative process, which Günther calls a "metalogical" or ideal (ideell) inference, as distinct from a logical or conceptual conclusion, the idea of its own being becomes for the soul the most certain of all truths (the Cartesian cogito ergo sum). Then from the certainty of its own existence the thinking soul arrives at the knowledge of an existence outside itself, since it is confronted by phenomena which it cannot refer to itself as cause, and for which, in line with the ontological inference, it must assign a cause in some real being external to itself.

Thus regarding man as a compound of two qualitatively different principles, spirit and nature, he arrives at the knowledge of the real existence of nature. The fact of self-consciousness leads him also to the knowledge of God; and Günther believes that the following proof of the existence of God is the only one that is possible and conclusive: when the soul, once self-conscious, has become certain of the reality of its own existence, it immediately recognizes that existence as afflicted with the negative characteristics of dependency and limitedness; it is therefore compelled to postulate another being as its own condition precedent or its own creator, which being it must recognize, in contradistinction to itself and its own inherent negative characteristics, as absolute and infinite. Wherefore this being cannot be the Absolute Being of Pantheism, which only arrives at a realization of itself with the development of the universe; it must be One Who dominates that universe and, differing substantially from it, is the personal Creator thereof. This is the point at which Günther's speculative theology takes up the thread. Proceeding along purely philosophical lines, and prescinding entirely from historical Divine Revelation, the absolute necessity of which Günther contests, it seeks to make evident the fundamental tenets of positive Christianity by the mere light of reason. Thus, to begin with, the threefold personality of God is, according to him, the consequence of that process which must be supposed to take place in God as well as in the created soul, whereby the differentiation or transition is made from indeterminateness to determinateness, with the difference that this process in God must be thought of as consummated from all eternity. God, according to this theory, first sets up for His own contemplation a complete substantial emanation (Wesensemanation) of His own Being (Thesis and Antithesis: Father and Son); a further total substantial emanation, which issues from both simultaneously, constitutes the third personal Subject (the Holy Ghost), or the Synthesis, in which the opposition of thesis and antithesis disappears and their perfect parity is made manifest.

On his views concerning the Trinity, Günther builds up his theory of the Creation. Inseparably united with the self-consciousness of God in the three Divine Persons is His idea of the Non-Ego, that is, the idea of the Universe. This idea, in formal analogy to the threefold Divine Being and Life, has likewise a threefold scheme of Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis. God's love for this world-idea is His motive for realizing it as His own counterpart (Contraposition), and as necessarily entailing all three of its factors, two of which (spirit and nature) are in antithesis to each other, while the third (man) exists as the synthesis of both. This world-reality, which God, by the mere act of His will, has through creation called from nothingness into being, does indeed exist as really as God Himself; its reality, however, is not drawn from the essence of God, but endures as a thing essentially different from Him, since it is indeed the realized idea of non-Divine Being and Life (Dualism of God and Universe). Thus the two antithetical factors of spirit and nature in the created world differ substantially from each other and stand in mutual opposition. The antithetical relation of spirit and nature shows itself in this, that the realm of the purely spiritual is formed of a plurality of substances, of unitary and integral real principles, each of which must ever retain its unity and its integrity; while nature, which was created a single substance, a single real principle, has in its process of differentiation lost its unity for ever, and has brought forth, and still brings forth, a multiplicity of forms or individuals. For this very reason nature, in her organic individual manifestations, each of which is only a fragment of the universal nature-substance, can only attain to thought without self-consciousness. Self-conscious thought, on the other hand, is peculiar to the spirit, since self-consciousness, the thought of the Ego, presupposes the substantial unity and integrity of a free personality. The synthesis of spirit and nature is man. From man's character as a generic being, the result of his participation in the life of nature, Günther deduces the rational basis of the dogmas of the Incarnation and Redemption. And, as this explains why the guilt of the first parent extends to the entire race, so also does it show how God could with perfect consistency bring about the redemption of the race which had fallen in Adam through the God-Man's union with that race as its second Head, Whose free compliance with the Divine will laid the basis of the fund of hereditary merit which serves to cancel the inherited guilt.

Günther was a faithful Catholic and a devout priest. His philosophical labours were at any rate a sincere and honest endeavour to promote the triumph of positive Christianity over those systems of philosophy which were inimical to it. But it is questionable whether he pursued the right course in disregarding the fruitful labours of Scholastic theology and philosophy–of which, like all who scorn them, he had but scanty knowledge–and permitting his thought, particularly in his natural philosophy, and his speculative method to be unduly influenced by those very systems (of Hegel and Schelling) which he combated. The fact is that the desired result was in no wise attained. The schools of philosophy which he thought he could compel, by turning their own weapons against them, to recognize the truth of Christianity, took practically no notice of his ardent contentions, while the Church not only was unable to accept his system as the true Christian philosophy and to supplant with it the Scholastic system, but was finally obliged to reject it as unsound.

Reception and ecclesiastical condemnation

Among Catholic scholars Günther's speculative system occasioned a far-reaching movement. Though he never held a position as professor, he gathered about him through his writings a school of enthusiastic and in some instances distinguished followers, who on the other hand were opposed by eminent philosophers and theologians. At its zenith the school was powerful enough to secure the appointment of some of its members to academic professorships in Catholic philosophy. Günther himself was offered professorships at Munich, Bonn, Breslau and Tübingen; he refused these because he hoped for a like offer from Vienna, but his expectation was never realized. In 1833 he received from Munich an honorary degree of Doctor of Theology, and a similar degree in philosophy and theology was conferred on him by the University of Prague in 1848.

His earliest friends and collaborators were: the physician, Johann Heinrich Pabst (died 1838, author of "Der Mensch und seine Geschichte", Vienna, 1830; 2nd ed., 1847; "Gibt es eine Philosophie des positiven Christenthums?" Cologne, 1832; "Adam und Christus. Zur Theorie der Ehe", Vienna, 1835; in collaboration with Günther, the "Janusköpfe"); the celebrated homilist Johann Emmanual Veith, a convert (d. 1876, co-editor of the publication "Lydia") and Karl Franz von Hock (d. 1869; wrote "Cartesius und seine Gegner, ein Beitrag zur Charakteristik der philosophischen Bestrebungen unserer Zeit", Vienna, 1835, and other works; later took an active part in the discussion of political and economical questions).

Other prominent adherents of Günther were: Peter Joseph Elvenich (d. 1886; from 1829 professor of philosophy at Breslau, at first a Hermesian and later a disciple of Günther); Johann Baptista Baltzer (d. 1871; from 1830 professor of dogmatic theology at Breslau, originally a Hermesian); Joseph Hubert Reinkens (d. 1896; from 1853 professor of church history at Breslau; from 1873 Old Catholic bishop at Bonn). Finally, in a younger generation, the most distinguished advocates of the system were pupils of Knoodt, Theodor Weber (d. 1906; professor of philosophy at Breslau, 1872–90; from 1890 vicar-general under Reinkens at Bonn, and from 1896 Old Catholic bishop in that city), whose "Metaphysik" (2 volumes, Gotha, 1888–91), containing an independent reconstruction of Günther's speculation, is on the whole the most important work of the Güntherian School and Ernst Melzer (d. in 1899 at Bonn).

Among the literary opponents of Günther's philosophy the following deserve mention: O.S.B., Johann Nepomuk Oischinger, Franz Xaver Dieringer, Franz Jakob Clemens, Friedrich Michelis, Johann Adam Hitzfelder, Joseph Kleutgen and Johannes Katshthaler.

Branded heretical

The Congregation of the Index in Rome began in 1852 an investigation of Günther's doctrines and writings, Günther being invited to appear personally or to send some of his disciples to represent him. This mission was entrusted to Baltzer and Gangauf who arrived at Rome in November, 1853. Gangauf was replaced by Knoodt, a professor of theology at Bonn, in the summer of 1854. The latter and Baltzer laboured together until the end of November in that year, when they submitted their written defence to the Congregation of the Index and returned to Germany. Yet their efforts and the favourable intervention of friends in high station failed to avert the final blow, though they served to defer it for a time.

Cardinal Schwarzenberg and Cardinal von Diepenbrock and Bishop Arnoldi of Trier were friendly to Günther and assisted him at Rome. Even the head of the Congregation of the Index, Cardinal d'Andrea, was well-disposed towards him. On the other hand, Cardinals Johannes von Geissel, Joseph Othmar Rauscher and Carl von Reisach urged his condemnation. By decree of 8 January 1857 the Congregation placed the works of Günther on the Index librorum prohibitorum. The special grounds of this condemnation were set forth by Pius IX in the Brief addressed by him to Cardinal von Geissel, Archbishop of Cologne, on 15 June 1857, which declares that Günther's teachings on the Trinity, the Person of Christ, the nature of man, the Creation and particularly his views on the relation of faith to knowledge, as well as the fundamental rationalism, which is the controlling factor of his philosophy even in the handling of Christian dogmas, are not consistent with the doctrine of the Church.

Before the publication of the Index decree, Günther had been summoned to submit thereto, and in fact had declared his acquiescence, but for him internal submission and rejection of his errors was out of the question. He felt keenly the blow, which he looked upon as an injustice and which embittered him; but subsequently he published nothing. Some of his followers, like Merten, now turned away from Güntherianism, but the greater number held to it obstinately, and for many years it found academic support at Bonn (through Knoodt) and at Breslau (through Elvenich and Weber). After the First Vatican Council most of the Güntherians named above who were still living at the time (with the exception of Veith) joined the Old Catholic movement, in which some of them assumed leading parts. Their hopes of thus imparting new vigour to Güntherianism were not realized, whereas, by their separation from the Church, they brought about the final elimination of Güntherian influence from Catholic thought.

See also


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