Ernst Troeltsch, the German theologian and social scientist, was born near Augsburg in Bavaria. He studied Protestant theology at the universities of Erlangen, Göttingen, and Berlin, and after three years as a Lutheran curate in Munich, he returned to the University of Göttingen as a lecturer in theology.
He became extraordinary professor at Bonn in 1892, and in 1894 ordinary professor of systematic theology at Heidelberg, a position that he held for twenty-one years. He also served as a member of the Bavarian upper legislative house. In 1915 he moved to a chair of philosophy in the University of Berlin, serving concurrently as a member of the Prussian Landtag and as undersecretary of state for religious affairs.
Troeltsch contributed to the philosophy and sociology of religion and also to cultural and social history, ethics, and jurisprudence. His work raised in many related fields the much-debated questions of the extent and limitations of the historicosociological method.
He played a leading role in the clarification of the conception of historicism and made important contributions to the study of methodology in the historical sciences. By recognizing the impact of sociological and historical thinking on the shaping of modern mentality, Troeltsch became involved in the intractable problems of the relation between absolute ethical and religious values and historical relativity.
He remained uncompromisingly sincere in revealing the difficulties of this approach and admitted to not being able to surmount them or to reconcile conflicting results in an all-embracing theory.
Troeltsch’s intellectual development was bound up with his recognition of the importance of historical change. He chose theology as the field in which, in his own words, “one had access to both metaphysics and the extraordinarily exciting historical problems.”
The historical theology devoid of metaphysics of his teacher Albrecht Ritschl stimulated him to radical doubt of the validity of Ritschl’s own procedure, although with Ritschl Troeltsch accepted the Kantian primacy and underivative character of the basic structure of human morality.
He argued that moral awareness was basic to the human constitution and that it was only during the course of historical development that morality and religion became connected and interdependent. To understand Christian ethics as the supreme manifestation of such historical combination was nevertheless his aim in Grundprobleme der Ethik.
Troeltsch was aware of the problems arising from two basic assumptions:
- the Kantian thesis that the formal necessities and laws of morality are irreducible and
- the equally basic assumption of materialist ethics that what we study are the manifestations of a grown and growing morality in religious, social, and political consciousness. Thus Immanuel Kant’s formalism changed in Troeltsch’s hands from a means of critical analysis to an attempt to provide an ontology of personality. The point of reference for an understanding of the moral person is no longer the will as such, but morality as realizing itself through persons in history.
Troeltsch’s major work is Die Soziallehren der christlichen Kirchen und Gruppen. It is a collection of many detailed studies in Christian social ethics published earlier in the Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik, with new chapters on Calvinism, the sects, and mysticism. The work is unified by the sociological formulation of the entire history of the Christian churches.
It is easy to see how Troeltsch maneuvered himself into what has been described as the “crisis of historicism.” For despite his insistence on the formal a priori of morality and the necessity of thinking of some values and norms as transcending historical change and accident, Troeltsch could not avoid the suggestion that the explanation of a given phenomenon can be adequately provided only by an account of its genesis.
Troeltsch faced the problems his position posed for Christian ethics and theology, with their claims to historically unique or historically transcendent values. In Die Trennung von Staat und Kirche (Separation of state and church) he spoke of the polymorphous truth of the churches.
This conception was still present in his later attempts to reconcile the absolutist claims of Christian revelation—which as monomorphous truth belongs strictly to the early church—with the later developments of the three great Christian forms of social expression: the church, the sects, and mysticism.
Troeltsch made reliable and learned contributions to the history of ideas, notably his analysis of the role of Protestantism in the formation of the modern world and his searching studies of the differentiation of Protestantism into Calvinism and Lutheranism with their important differences in ethos. He was in basic agreement with his friend Max Weber, whose theses he summarized and elaborated.
His important contributions to the conception of group personalities are generally recognized in sociology, philosophy, and jurisprudence. His work on the great social groups—family, guild, state, and church—owed much to Otto von Gierke’s Genossenschaftsrecht, but Troeltsch went beyond Gierke’s emphasis on corporative formations to a study of their personal aspect.
Troeltsch’s political thought emerged from his wide learning in the history of ideas. After World War I he was among those German thinkers who realized that Germany’s disastrous estrangement from the West was based on a divergence in political philosophy. He urged a return of German political thinking to the position of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, before the romantic glorification of the state.
He thought that this position was compatible with Western thought, as rooted in Stoic and Christian ethics with their essential respect for the individual person that grew into the modern democratic idea of the rights of man. Troeltsch made the point that German political thinking had yet to learn from the West not to despise arrogantly the serious possibilities of compromise.
In 1922 Troeltsch collected his writings on the philosophy of history under the title Der Historismus und seine Probleme (Historicism and its problems). Material toward a projected second volume is contained in Christian Thought, Its History and Application.