Article abstract: Jonas’s philosophical works treat, principally, Gnosticism, existentialism, ethics, and metaphysics. The philosophical edifice that Jonas constructs is broadly based on metaphysics and the premise that there is a logical bridge between “being” and moral obligation; between “what is” and “what ought to be.”
Hans Jonas began studying philosophy at Freiburg in 1921 and completed his doctorate on Gnosticism in 1928 under the supervision of Martin Heidegger and Rudolf Bultmann at the University of Marburg. Heidegger was the most renowned philosopher of his day, and Bultmann was, perhaps, the most influential New Testament scholar of the first half of the twentieth century. In 1924, Jonas had come with Heidegger from Freiburg to Marburg, and it was there that he met Bultmann and established what would be a lifelong friendship. Upon Bultmann’s death in 1976, Marburg University conducted a memorial at which Jonas delivered an academic lecture. In this lecture, Jonas recounted that it was in a New Testament seminar taken under Bultmann that the intellectual environment of primitive Christianity was first opened up to him. It was in this seminar that Jonas learned of Gnostic Christianity, and it was Bultmann who encouraged him to pursue the investigation of this topic for his dissertation, published in 1930. Jonas’s study of Gnosticism went on for many years, and in 1958, having narrowed the scope of his two previous volumes on Gnosticism published in Germany in 1934 and 1954, he finalized his research and published it in English under the title The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity.
The two disciplines of philosophy and theology were formative with respect to the life work of Jonas. Jonas had studied at the University for the Science of Judaism in Berlin between 1921 and 1924, and Jewish theology would have an enduring importance for him. In 1933, having completed his doctoral work, Jonas fled Germany to London as a result of Hitler’s Law for the Reconstitution of the German Civil Service, which prohibited Jews from placement in universities. He vowed that he would not return to Germany except as a soldier in a conquering army.
In 1935, Jonas emigrated to Jerusalem and, at the onset of World War II, enlisted in the British Army. He volunteered for combat duty and served for five years in Italy and Germany. It was not until the war’s end that Jonas discovered that his mother had been executed at the concentration camp in Auschwitz. Jonas later wrote an essay on the problem of evil in connection with the Holocaust, “The Concept of God after Auschwitz” (1968). It was during World War II that Jonas entered what he would later call the “second stage of his theoretical life.” In part, the transition resulted from his separation from his books and the tools of research while in combat; partly it was a consequence of being confronted by “the apocalyptic state of things” and “the proximity of death.” He could not do formal research, but he was not prevented, as he put it, from “thinking.” He thought about “the very foundations of our being” and “the principles by which we guide our thinking on them.” While in Jerusalem before the war, he had spent his days absorbed with the second volume of his classic work on Gnosticism. The war, and a change in Jonas’s intellectual priorities postponed publication of the second volume until 1954. Jonas married Elinore Weiner in 1943 and again enlisted in the military in 1948, this time on the side of the Israelis in their effort to gain independence.
By his own account, the years spent in war had a profound effect on his philosophical-theological outlook. Through the atrocities of war, he came to be more conscious of human mortality and the fundamental similarities that human beings have with other organisms: biological life, death, hunger, and pain, and, most important, purposiveness. The existential characteristics of a human being must be seen to include these value-laden, “somatic” elements. This rethinking of philosophy established his philosophical agenda for the next two decades. On the whole, his task during this period could be characterized as a revival of both nature philosophy, an ancient but abandoned Western tradition, and ethical objectivism.
In 1949, Jonas and his family left Israel under the firm conviction that peace would be long in coming between Arabs and Jews and his philosophical studies and academic goals would be hampered as a result. They arrived in Montreal, Canada, where he was the recipient of a fellowship. In 1951, he secured a position as an assistant professor of philosophy at Carleton University, Ottawa. Jonas went to the United States in 1955 and obtained a position as professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York.
Jonas gained recognition in the United States in 1964 when he was asked to give the inaugural lecture at an international gathering of scholars honoring Heidegger at Drew University. The theme of the gathering was the relevance of Heidegger’s philosophy for contemporary...
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