Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 December 2013
The Enlightenment took enormous interest in a wide variety of religious topics: the existence of God, the problem of evil, the meaning of revelation, ecclesiastical authority, the status of scripture, religious tolerance, and immortality. This last issue is particularly important as one of the essential components, along with the existence of a moral God, of a “natural” theology that could be fully derived or endorsed by reason. Furthermore, reflection on immortality plays directly into the urgent discussions in the eighteenth century about autonomy, freedom, and progress; the way one envisions a hereafter profoundly reflects and legitimates the way one envisions life in the present. This fluidity between an understanding of the here and the hereafter is perfectly captured in Johann Joachim Spalding's extremely influential Bestimmung des Menschen (1748; The Vocation of Man), which envisions immortality as a process of ever increasing rational pleasure and self-perfection—goals not at all unfamiliar to the mortals of the Enlightenment.
Johann Gottfried Herder is a central and in some ways transitional voice in this public discussion of man's immortal Bestimmung. In the early 1769 letters to Mendelssohn he espoused a model of nonprogressive palingenesis, in which the soul is endlessly reborn within the same class of being without undergoing any overarching development. There is, in short, no personal, angelic afterlife. Compared to the essentially Christian afterlife of the rationalist Popularphilosophen of Herder's day, this position was quite austere.
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