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Choosing Life


By Hans Jonas

Edited by Christian Wiese

Translated by Krishna Winston

(Brandeis University Press, 320 pp., $35)

The Life and Thought of Hans Jonas: Jewish Dimensions

By Christian Wiese

(Brandeis University Press, 292 pp., $50)


Hans Jonas was a philosopher, not a prophet, but his teachings speak as powerfully to our age of global warming, global markets, and Manichaean geopolitics as they did to the century of world wars in which he developed them. From his Weimar investigations of early Christian dualist mythologies to his discovery of the new field of bioethics in the baby boom-era suburbs of New York, Jonas's warning over the course of an astoundingly long philosophical career was always the same: that the unconstrained power of the human will threatens the possibility of life.

For the first half of his career, that warning went largely unheeded. No theologian or philosopher in Weimar or Nazi Germany paid much attention to the contemporary political and theological implications of Jonas's dissertations on Gnosticism and early Christianity, least of all Martin Heidegger, under whose direction they were written. Jonas's prediction--produced in Palestine in 1939, some two years before the Wannsee conference decided the fate of Europe's Jews--that the mythic structures of National Socialism demanded the extermination of the Jewish "species-being" went similarly unnoticed. It was only in the 1960s and 1970s, as breakthroughs in military, industrial, and biomedical engineering spread the threat of extermination from one particularly stigmatized form of "species-being" to the possibility of all life, that his warning took wing.

Late in his career, Jonas became the philosopher of planetary life in a technological age that seemed bent on its destruction. His writings influenced the birth of the modern environmental movement, providing the philosophical foundations for its most effective political manifestation, the German Green Party. His bioethical teachings have found an echo even in our fantasies, amplified through trilogies such as Ursula LeGuin's Earth-Sea and Garth Nix's Abhorsen. Now, with the translation of his Memoirs some fifteen years after his death, we have a chance to step into a life that has remarkably much to say to our own.

Jonas was born in 1903 in Monchengladbach, a quiet town in western Germany, and his memoir begins in his birthplace, with the young Hans starved for great deeds. Unsated by the heroes of the past--Achilles, Napoleon--he devours newsprint in search of stories about sinking ships (the Titanic) and distant wars (the Balkans). His own life he finds boring: "To me it was a sad fate to have been born into a period and a world where everything was in tip-top order and the only real excitement was to be found in history books and occasionally also in the paper." Of course the world into which Jonas was born turned out to be anything but tip-top, and his life proves exciting even by the standards of our digitally enhanced age.

In part this is because his memories span nearly a century of breathtaking change. To put it in terms of technology--an appropriate measure for a man who became the most rigorous philosopher of its perils--Jonas entered the world a month ahead of Henry's first Ford and left it just weeks before the launching of the World Wide Web. But the thrill of Jonas's story stems as much from its epic style as from the storm-tossed sea of time that it traverses. Jonas is one of those characters, like Odysseus or Beowulf, who is sworn to uphold the heroic norms of his society, even as he becomes an acute critic of the mythic structures that underpin them. His life lacked neither battles nor bravery.

At school he was a "holy terror," a Jewish paladin who would go blind with rage at any insult to his people. "Everything would literally go black before my eyes, probably from the blood rushing to my head, and I would hurl myself at the offending person." In those days his favorite hero, like the young Freud's, was Hannibal, "because he was the great 'Semitic' general who had given the 'Aryans' a good thrashing, who'd shown them that you can't just push the 'Semites' around." When World War I broke out, he was too young to fight for Germany, but not too young for patriotic dreams of honor and great deeds. The rising anti-Semitism of the Weimar Republic eroded the patriotism, and the Nazi victory crushed it completely, but the dream of action did not dim.

Already as a teenager in Weimar that dream had encouraged him to choose Zionism over any of the assimilationist alternatives on offer to the children of the German-Jewish bourgeoisie, whether the liberal ones so dear to his parents or the Marxist ones attracting so many of his peers. As an adult under Hitler, it shaped his reactions to the racist legislation and the Jew-hatred that increasingly surrounded him. The disastrous end of a hike he took with a Christian girlfriend in 1933 seems characteristic. While the couple was dining at a local inn, a group of hefty lumberjacks began to serenade the crowd with the "charming refrain" of a folksong: "When Jewish blood from the knife blade spurts/Then all will be well again." "As soon as I heard that I said 'Come on, pull out your knives. Here I am. Here's a Jew.'" There was sudden silence. His girlfriend, fearing for their lives if she was recognized as a Christian, was terror-stricken, but a police official happened to be in the room and had them escorted out of his district immediately. Jonas's conclusion was that the incident was "a complete moral victory for me."

When Jonas left Germany later that year, chased away by the Nazis' new racist laws, he "vowed never to return except as a soldier in a conquering army. " He felt that "precisely because they were considered to be softies, cowards, and weaklings, Jews could wash away such affronts to their honor only with blood." The outbreak of World War II found him living in Mandate Palestine, where in 1939 he wrote an exhortation to heroism titled "Our Part in This War: A Word to Jewish Men":

This is our hour, this is our war ... the hour when it would be allowed to us after powerlessly enduring all the ignominy ... to finally confront our arch enemy eye to eye, with weapon in hand; to demand retribution.... This [is] a bellum judaicum [a Jewish war] in the profoundest sense of the word.... Yudah with the world against the worldenemy.... It is a war of two principles of which the one also holds in trust, in the form of Christian-occidental humanity, Israel's legacy to the world--while the other, the cult of power and contempt for humanity, signifies the absolute negation of this legacy.... It would be an eternal shame for the Jewish people if we ... did not show our flag ... in the main theater of the war. We expect from the Jewish people this act, this proof of its manliness, this contribution to the mastery of its own fate.

Jonas lived up to his own expectations. Although he was already approaching middle age, he enlisted in the British army and became an artilleryman in what would eventually be its Jewish Battalion. He spent some eight years under arms, beginning in 1936 with his service in the Haganah, the "underground Jewish self-defense forces" of Mandate Palestine, through the Italian campaigns of the war, and then again in 1948, when he was drafted into the newborn army of Israel to man the guns defending besieged Jerusalem.

For a man who dreamed so much of heroes as a child, it is striking that in the relatively few pages that he devotes to these martial years in his memoirs there is scarcely a word about what others might see as the glories of war. Surveying the ruins of Germany as part of the conquering army, he admits with sorrow to the satisfactions of vengeance. But like the blind schoolyard rages of his youth, his battles in Europe and Israel were not motivated by any yearning for a "muscular Judaism" (a coarse vitalism from which he explicitly distances himself). They were the product, rather, of a profoundly psychosomatic ethics, an ethics in which the organism is constantly compelled to stake its very being in defense of the essential truths by which it lives. Not only does this ethics tint every page of Jonas's life story, it also provides the substance of the philosophy that made him famous.

There is something wonderfully archaic about the unity of organic life and philosophical thought in Jonas's Memoirs, and it is this archaism that gives all of his writing its peculiar power. By the mid-twentieth century, philosophy--above all "Anglo-Saxon" philosophy--had evolved from its pre-modern status as "a way of life" to become a profession. It had succeeded in scientizing itself, and in exchange it happily surrendered most of its ancient responsibility to teach us how to live, or to assign value to our existence. Modern theory and modern science, as Jonas explained in The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology, which appeared in 1966, are "value-free." Since they believe that "the validation of value requires a transcendence whence to derive it," they consider value as non-rational. "Relation to an objective transcendence lies today outside theory by its rules of evidence," Jonas writes, "whereas formerly it was the very life of theory."

Jonas's goal was to reverse this abdication. Like his friend Leo Strauss, Jonas wanted to reconstruct some of the moral foundations of human thought that had been shattered by secular modernity. But whereas Strauss focused his efforts on the restoration of natural right as a normative basis for political life, Jonas strove for the rights of nature itself. His goal was to establish that life--not only human life, but all organic life--makes a claim to freedom and subjectivity. Insofar as the organism differentiates itself metabolically from the surrounding physical world and constantly re-asserts its self-maintaining identity within that world, it possesses "selfhood." And insofar as it struggles to maintain this precarious distinction in the face of the constant possibility of its disappearance into the non-being that will engulf it in the end, it possesses "subjectivity," which is to say, the desire and capacity for freedom. "It is in the dark stirrings of primeval organic substance," Jonas startlingly concluded, "that a principle of freedom shines forth for the first time within the vast necessity of the physical universe--a principle foreign to suns, planets, and atoms."

The Phenomenon of Life marked a watershed in Jonas's career. Before its publication in 1966, he had been largely known for the researches on Gnosticism that he had undertaken in the 1920s and 1930s under the direction of Heidegger and Rudolph Bultmann. Now he was becoming increasingly famous as a philosopher of life--a sharp critic of the nihilistic cultures of modernity that had proved capable of producing the Holocaust, a founding father of environmental thought, and a pioneer in biological and medical ethics.

In his Memoirs, Jonas dismisses his early work on Gnosticism as a "journeyman's project," and prefers to stress the philosophical biology of his later years, but elsewhere in his work there is plenty of evidence for an intimate interrelation between the two. In "Gnosticism, Existentialism, and Nihilism," an essay that he published in 1952, Jonas suggested that the alienation of the ancient Gnostic from the created world was similar to that of the modern nihilist, with this difference: whereas the Gnostic creation had at least a negative transcendence, the modern one is completely indifferent, utterly wanting in the possibility of any and all transcendence, and therefore more terrifying. Already in the seventeenth century, with God not yet dead but increasingly non-interventionist in his creation, Pascal was getting scared: "Cast into the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened." But the terror of scientific modernity, entirely stripped of any teleological view of nature, is much worse. "That nature does not care, one way or the other, is the true abyss," Jonas declared. "That only man cares, in his finitude facing nothing but death, alone with his contingency and the objective meaninglessness of his projecting meanings, is a truly unprecedented situation."

This essay stages in miniature all the grand themes of Jonas's work. From his early studies of ancient dualisms to his later studies of modern ones, the goal of all his thinking was to help humanity deal with the "truly unprecedented situation" of its modern alienation from nature. He clearly believed that without a philosophy capable of teaching us how to live in this state of crisis, humanity would end by destroying the very possibility of life on earth. Equally clear is his sense of which philosophies had already shown themselves inadequate to this urgent task: chief among them the existentialism of his teacher Heidegger, which had failed so spectacularly to help that philosopher make an ethical choice when confronted with the triumphant power of Nazi nihilism in 1933.

Jonas did not content himself with exposing the inability of previous philosophies to reconcile Being with nature. Instead, he set out to show that "Being, in the testimony it gives of itself, informs us not only about what it is but also about what we owe it." By this he meant that through its constant struggle to maintain its Being in the face of the non-Being that always threatens it, every organic metabolism reveals to humanity its "binding obligation to the guarding of being." The extraordinary point was that organic life itself contains the ethics that we need to learn.

Following Kant, Jonas articulated that ethics as an imperative. Kant's categorical imperative had been "Act so that you can will that the maxim of your action be made the principle of a universal law." Jonas's imperative-- first articulated in 1973 in his essay "Technology and Responsibility: Reflections on the New Tasks of Ethics"--was more biological and less individual: "Act so that the effects of your actions are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life." In 1979 Jonas published a book-length articulation of this ethics in German, titled (in its English translation five years later) The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age. A difficult book of serious philosophy, The Imperative of Responsibility promptly sold some 200,000 copies, and catapulted the seventy-six-year-old Jonas to rock-star status in his native land.


Like Bob Dylan's Chronicles, Hans Jonas's Memoirs are an account of the many encounters that go into the formation of a creative voice, an account steeped in gratitude for the sheer luck required to shape such a voice and bring it recognition. In a sense, the memoirs themselves are the result of just such an encounter, this one with two young "fans" in Munich, a graduate student named Stephan Sattler and a bookseller named Rachel Salamander. In 1989, after several years of friendship, the two convinced the octogenarian sage to sit for a series of recorded interviews that eventually filled thirty-three tapes. Edited into continuous narrative and annotated by Christian Wiese, the result is an extraordinary book, no less fascinating for being peopled with philosophers instead of folksingers.

This is not a book for readers in search of gossip about the intellectual giants of an earlier age. Its recollections are unmoved by resentments and uninterested in the diminution of rival reputations. With the exception of some cruel words about Jacob Taubes, a fellow emigre philosopher-theologian whom Jonas (like many others) despised, Jonas's portraits are painted with a sharp eye but a generous brush. He treats his family with a loving piety reminiscent of Nabokov's Speak, Memory. His relations with his famous friends--Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem are the most often mentioned of many--were not always easy, but they always reveal a man with a gift for critical love.

That gift sometimes failed. After Jonas's departure from Jerusalem, his friendship with Scholem degenerated into a low academic quarrel about the origins of Gnosticism, a quarrel in which Jonas did not always do justice to Scholem's ideas. But it could also triumph spectacularly, as in the relationship between Jonas and Arendt. Close friends since their days together as students of Bultmann and Heidegger, their sympathy survived all the separations of exile to resume once again when the New School reunited them in New York. What it almost did not survive was the publication of Arendt's New Yorker articles on "Eichmann in Jerusalem." Jonas's horror at what he took to be Arendt's ignorant caricature of Judaism and Zionism drove him to express his criticism to her directly in 1963, in a letter that also predicted that she would be unable to hear: "But the paradox is that precisely the hopelessness makes the effort unavoidable, for in the case of a life-long friend ... one cannot say: she is lost, without having tried everything." In his Memoirs, Jonas describes the result:

Hannah was obsessed. Anyone who spoke out against her was either stupid or in the pay of the enemy. Suddenly the entire foundation of our trust for one another collapsed, everything that had made it possible for us to be tolerant of each other's views.... That was an attitude I couldn't have anymore, for the way she was behaving didn't deserve respect.

Jonas re-opened relations with Arendt after two years of silence, relations that attained the depth so movingly expressed in his eulogy at her funeral in 1975: "You kept faith, you were always there. We all are the poorer without you. The world has become colder without your warmth." That eulogy is a generous monument to a friendship, but the letter of 1963 is an even more generous one: to friendship that is critical, not blind, and that never gives up hope in the possibility of communication.

The same generosity is evident in Jonas's treatment of his famous teachers. Husserl, Jaspers, Heidegger, Bultmann: all emerge with their flaws and their foibles, but with their dignity and greatness intact. Not even Heidegger is demonized: Heidegger, whom Jonas drolly calls the "Lubavitcher rebbe" of Marburg because his brilliant philosophy attracted so many Jewish students from all over Germany, but whose willingness to answer the Nazi call for "de- judaification" in 1933 was for Jonas the greatest example of a philosophical "catastrophe." As a student, Jonas's contact with his aloof supervisor was distant and infrequent, but the case of Heidegger looms over Jonas's narrative, reminding us of the dark shadows that mottled Jonas's world in the 1930s and 1940s--shadows that help to explain why, for all his generosity of spirit, Jonas does not hesitate to castigate and to condemn.

The chapter dedicated to his "Travels Through a Germany in Ruins" contains the most terrible of these condemnations. As a member of the conquering army, he returned to his hometown of Monchengladbach, trying to learn his mother's fate. He met a Jewish survivor at the refugee center there who recognized his name: "Then she burst into tears and said, 'I was with your mother in od [where she was first deported], but she was sent to Auschwitz in 1942.' Everyone knew what that meant--Auschwitz--and that was how I learned of my mother's death." The murder of his mother remained a terrible wound for Jonas until the end of his life, and became for him a crime against which all the ethical claims of German philosophy could be measured. Measured by such a standard, the great philosophers were not those you might expect. When Bultmann told Jonas that Julius Ebbinghaus, a dogmatic Kantian with whom Jonas had once studied, was "one of the people whose behavior was really magnificent," Jonas decided to visit him in order to express his "admiration for the strong stand he had taken":

Ebbinghaus then said something I'll never forget: "Yes, Jonas, but I want to say one thing: without Kant it wouldn't have been possible for me to survive this period."... At that I suddenly saw clearly what it means to live by one's philosophy. Such steadfastness reduces Heidegger, the far more important and original philosopher, to a non-entity. What the Kantian had grasped, and the existential philosopher hadn't, was that philosophy also imposes the obligation to live and behave in a way that can withstand public scrutiny.

Jonas did not see Heidegger during his time in occupied Germany, and in fact he refused to meet his former teacher for many years to come. When they finally did "reconcile," in 1973, Jonas remained deeply dissatisfied, and the terms of his unhappiness are revealing. "If I'd hoped that anything would be said about the events after 1933, about the fate of the Jews in Germany, about my mother's death, I was bitterly disappointed again." From the perspective of applied ethics (rather than that of courtesy or empathy), it may seem odd to expect Heidegger to apologize for the death of Jonas's mother, a woman whom he had never met, who had lived and died far outside his ken. But as far as Jonas was concerned, it was precisely this refusal to take responsibility for life that was the fatal flaw in Heidegger's teachings. "It's my conviction," says Jonas at his most lapidary, "that ontology necessarily entails a doctrine of obligation."

Jonas also believed that "modern analytic-positivistic philosophy counts among the errors in thought," a position left more or less vacant since Kant. "I'm sure I'm right about this," he insists: "being can tell us something about how we should live ... about the responsibilities that we human beings, acting consciously and freely, must fulfill." This is a position with many consequences, not only for the philosopher, but also for the biographer. For if "being" tells us something about how we should live, then our biography becomes proof of our ontology. Does a philosopher's behavior withstand ethical scrutiny? If so, this speaks well for his ideas. If not--and here the chief example for Jonas was Heidegger--then it does not. How we live and how we die: this, for Jonas, was the truest test of our philosophies.

As a memoirist, Jonas can be accused of simultaneously setting the test and taking it. He is, after all, the author of both a philosophy of life and of the life against which it will be measured. I do not think that the legitimacy of this accusation marks his recollections as suspect, but it certainly does give his Memoirs a flavor of ethical exemplarity that we no longer expect in the autobiographies of our professors. In a way this autobiography is closer to the vitae of pre-modern philosophers or medieval saints, in which the protagonists' way of life and death demonstrates the truth of their ideals. The moment of death was thought to be especially revealing--which was why seventeenth-century polemicists squabbled about how the "atheist" Spinoza had faced the terrors of mortality (by most accounts, he managed admirably), and why Boswell scurried to Hume's deathbed in 1776, looking for cracks in that philosopher's famous skepticism about the immortality of the soul (the fact that he found none disturbed him "for some time"). Fittingly, Jonas's wife Lore tells us in her "introductory remarks" that he was not afraid of death. He knew, like the Psalmist, how to "count our days." The end of his life was thus in keeping with his teaching, which warned of the threat posed by humanity's fear-driven quest for immortality to the sustainability of life on earth.

Nietzsche once claimed that every philosophy resolves itself into autobiography. Today the claim seems either sociologically banal--ideas are the product of their social context--or ontologically ridiculous. What professional would accept such a congruence between life and publications? The thrill of Jonas's Memoirs, and the scandal of his philosophy, is that they force us to confront the relationship once more, though in a way very far from what Nietzsche intended. Creation, says Jonas, teaches an ethics of obligation, and the way we live reveals how well we have learned it. This is not a message with much appeal to contemporary departments of philosophy. It did not help that Jonas was willing, like Plato and many other pre-modern philosophers, to cast his teachings in the form of myths; or that he sometimes advocated the deployment of a "heuristics of fear" to constrain human behavior; or that he occasionally countenanced discussions about the relationship between God and the cosmos. All this explains why, within the halls of American academe, Jonas has attracted much less attention than his friends Scholem, Strauss, and Arendt.


The appearance of Jonas's Memoirs and of Christian Wiese's accompanying study marks something of a revival of interest in this genuinely significant thinker. (It will happily continue this winter with the publication of Benjamin Lazier's stunning study of Jonas and company, God Interrupted: Heresy and the European Imagination Between the World Wars.) What accounts for this revival? The answer, I suspect, has less to do with the increasing importance of environmental concerns than it does with changes within the academy itself. In part, Jonas is caught up in the great awakening of interest in Weimar intellectuals--such as Walter Benjamin and Carl Schmitt--that has acquired new urgency in the decades since 1989, as thinkers on both the left and the right cast about for new critical languages with which to address the dangers they perceive in a triumphant neo-liberalism. In part, he benefits from the de- secularization of these same decades. With the return of religion to the respectable ranks of academic discourse, the more transcendental implications of Jonas's philosophy no longer embarrass. Finally, perhaps the most provincial explanation for the appearance of these books (and for their publication by Brandeis University Press) has to do with the rapid expansion of the discipline of Jewish studies since the 1970s. There is now a subdiscipline called "Jewish philosophy," and it needs "Jewish philosophers" to study, and Jonas looks like a good candidate.

Wiese's book is devoted to making the case for the "Jewish dimensions" of Jonas's philosophy. But what does it mean to speak of "Jewish philosophy"? If it means any philosophy written by Jews, then we are claiming that the religion of the thinker suffices to classify the thought. But if it means a philosophy developed from or engaged with the textual corpus of rabbinic Judaism, then neither Jonas nor most of the other mainstream philosophers nowadays classified as "Jewish" would qualify, since with very few exceptions (Solomon Maimon, Emmanuel Levinas) their philosophical indifference to (not to say ignorance of) Talmud is almost total. And what are we to do with the many non-practicing, often nonbelieving, but "ethnically" Jewish thinkers, those whom Isaac Deutscher called "non-Jewish Jews"? What is it that might make their philosophy "Jewish"?

Wiese does not so much answer this question as propose a new category for Jonas. He calls him a "profoundly Jewish non-Jewish Jew." He suggests that Jonas had a sense of religiosity. Late in life Jonas even acknowledged his belief in a God whom he described with a term drawn from the traditional liturgy: rotseh ba-hayyim, he who wills life, although he did not think this God capable of intervening actively in creation. Wiese documents Jonas's admiration for the ethical voice of the Hebrew prophets, and his sense that their teachings could provide an antidote to the modern nihilism and irresponsibility that threaten to extinguish the possibility of life on earth. From all this he concludes that Jonas's work "at best can only be partially understood if one neglects his relationship to twentieth-century Jewish thought and to his sense of what it meant to be Jewish."

Though this conclusion is surely right, it seems strained to call any of this "profoundly Jewish." Indeed, these were the attributes of Jonas's thought--especially his "Protestant" preference for a pure prophetic Judaism--that led Scholem to characterize it as "too Christian." For my part, I think it is an error to attribute this or that aspect of a philosopher's thought to Athens or to Jerusalem. Nor can we easily distinguish between what is Jewish and what is Christian in a given philosophy, as Jonas himself tried to do in one of his least successful essays. These categories were born out of each other. They are so inter-penetrated, so codependent, that they cannot be separated without excessive loss.

And yet there is something profoundly Jewish about this non-Jewish Jew, something that has less to do with any specific content drawn from the Jewish textual tradition and more with sensibility--specifically, with the sensibility that Jonas, like Scholem, was so shocked to find wanting in Arendt: ahavat yisrael, the love of Israel, of the Jewish people, and the commitment to it as a community of fate. Beginning with his earliest schoolyard brawls, every aspect of Jonas's life seems steeped in this sensibility, and all his work, from his studies of the Gnostics' "metaphysical anti-Semitism" to his defense of organic life, has its roots in this commitment. There is a tremendous achievement here, one whose beauty becomes evident only by comparison. Jonas's ability to move from love of Israel to love of the world without leaving the former, to attend to the universal without abandoning the particular, was as rare in his age as it is in ours. Arendt understood ahavat yisrael much as centuries of Christian polemicists had done, as an ethnic particularism incompatible with belief in all humanity. Simone Weil's flight toward universal love took her even further from her native Judaism--she regarded it as a misanthropic horror--into what can fairly be called anti-Semitism.

But Jonas perceived very early the link between defending Judaism and defending life. Writing to his teacher Bultmann in 1929, he explained why Jesus's criticism of the Pharisees in the Gospels troubled him far less than the seventh chapter of Paul's Epistle to the Romans, with its description of how "with the advent of the Law sin came alive, and I died." Jonas saw in Paul the beginning of a tradition that simultaneously attacked Judaism and the life of the body in terms of each other. "As a Jew," he wrote to Bultmann, "I feel myself attacked by Jesus' critique not essentially, but only in a particular [Pharisaic] expression of Jewish piety. By Paul, however, I feel myself essentially and basically struck, so that neither as a Jew nor a man would I have something to defend myself against [him]."

Jonas was an able student of the long history of thought--Christian, Gnostic, and philosophical--that turned the Jew into a figure for the flesh. This history taught him that the defense of Judaism was therefore a defense of life itself. It is no accident that the first words of The Phenomenon of Life were written in 1944, two decades before its actual publication, while Jonas was fighting for the "Jewish Battalion" on the battlefields of Italy: "It is in the dark stirrings of primeval organic substance that a principle of freedom shines forth for the first time." For Jonas, the Jews and organic life were bound together in one common love, in one destiny. Is this "profoundly Jewish"? I don't know. It certainly turns a widespread Jewish suspicion of naturalism on its head. But whether or not it is "Jewish," it is profoundly Jonas. Naturalism was not a constraint for him, but a great release into the most universal ethic of all, and the same can be said of his Jewishness. This, I think, was Jonas's most original achievement. He put Judaism and the organism side by side at the gates of freedom, fighting for existence against extermination.

David Nirenberg is a professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the department of history at the University of Chicago.

This article originally ran in the November 5, 2008, issue of the magazine.