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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2139

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.”

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Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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 Protestant theology. Heidegger was scheduled to give the opening lecture but withdrew because of his health. In his place, Jonas took the podium and used the opportunity to confront Heidegger’s Nazi affiliations and ideology. On this occasion, Jonas criticized Heidegger’s notion that “fate” plays an integral part in Christian faith. Jonas proclaimed that such a doctrine militates against the responsibility to choose and offers no hope for a norm that would inform the ethical dilemma posed by the “call of German destiny” under the führer, Adolf Hitler. When Jonas had completed his lecture, he was received with a standing ovation by the very people who had come to honor Heidegger. Jonas was convinced that from the time of Socrates, philosophy had been shown to be unique among the branches of learning. It alone shaped the conduct as well as the thinking of its disciples with respect to the pursuit of the good. Many years later, Jonas wrote:

Therefore, when the most profound thinker of my time fell into step with the thundering march of Hitler’s brown battalions, it was not merely a bitter personal disappointment for me but in my eyes a debacle for philosophy.

Jonas wrote three important treatises that map his intellectual pilgrimage. Jonas’s classic work on Gnosticism and primitive Christianity, The Gnostic Religion, examines the basis of metaphysical dualism. Gnosticism, which thrived during the first three centuries of the Christian era, was a philosophical-religious movement that embraced a dualism according to which matter was evil and God was utterly transcendent. The human task was to gain “gnosis,” or “knowledge,” so that after death the soul would be reunited with God and freed from material, bodily existence.

Jonas’s later works aim at countering the ethical nihilism mandated by both Heidegger’s existentialism and Gnosticism. Jonas considered existentialism and Gnosticism to be flawed in the same way; both affirmed a dualism between authentic human existence and nature, or the material world. They shared the common tenet that there are no moral laws in the cosmos or in nature to which human beings are responsible. For Gnosticism, it is because the world is positively evil; for existentialism, it is because human beings create values and therefore are not themselves subject to any moral law. According to Heidegger, only human beings have purposes and therefore “exist.” Nature, which includes nonhuman living organisms, takes on meaning only within this world of humanity. Jonas believed that since the time of French philosopher René Descartes, philosophy had embraced one side of a dualism, the side of mind, or consciousness. The metaphysical dualism of Gnosticism and Christianity lives on in the thought of Descartes, phenomenology, and existentialism.

Jonas relies on some of Heidegger’s own tenets to remap the “existential” so as to include all organisms. In The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology, Jonas contends that purposive existence is not unique to human beings; it is evident in all living things. All living nature is purposive, free, and therefore value-laden. In a paper first presented to the Royal Palace Foundation in Amsterdam on March 19, 1991, and published in Mortality and Morality: The Search for the Good After Auschwitz under the title “The Burden and Blessing of Mortality,” Jonas declares, “Life says ‘yes’ to itself. By clinging to itself it declares that it values itself.” All living organisms, according to Jonas, exhibit concern for their own existence as evidenced by the evolution of the survival techniques that they employ. This value that is to be associated with life is derived from the possibility of death, and this only in organic beings.

The challenge posed by Gnosticism and Heidegger’s existentialism apparently could be countered only by an extensive investigation into the domain of metaphysics, and it is in this conceptual region that Jonas distinguishes himself. At a conference in Bonn, “Industrial Society and an Ethics for the Future,” in October, 1985, Jonas delivered a lecture that was later revised and published under the title “Toward an Ontological Grounding of an Ethics for the Future” (1996). The lecture and the article summarize the important themes of his earlier, major monograph, The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age. His concern is to preempt the nihilist retort that there is nothing in the notion that nature makes value decisions or that nature has intrinsic value that makes human beings bound by duty to such value. Jonas maintains that “purpose as such” is that in nature that is “good in itself,” and as the essence of life, it presents to the human will a summons to ethical responsibility for the preservation of life in its highest evolutionary form, human life. The argument in this work also supports an ethical obligation to all “being,” including nonhuman living nature. Although Jonas considers theology to be of great value, he denies that the existence of a creator God is necessary as a foundation for ethics. The imperative of responsibility is grounded in nature itself. Jonas asserts, however, that faith is not necessarily contrary to reason, and faith in the God of Judaism is compatible with Jonas’s own ethical and metaphysical views.

Jonas’s 1996 publication Mortality and Morality brings together the full range of his philosophical and theological pursuits in the form of a compilation of his most important essays, five of which were translated into English for the first time.

An important element of Jonas’s general ontology that unifies the external and internal worlds—those of matter and subjective purpose—into a “psychophysical totality of reality” is the disruptive place that the emergence of human thought has in the evolution of ecological systems. The relatively late arrival of humankind in the evolutionary continuum has resulted in an impairment of the equilibrium of nature. Jonas notes that philosophy has traditionally fixated on human actions in social contexts but has not given adequate attention to the human being as an acting and, potentially, disruptive element in nature. The writings of Jonas go some distance in providing a philosophy of nature that sets forth principles for environmental ethics.


Jonas attempts to explicate a conceptual connection between metaphysics and ethics; a connection and purpose that has, in modern philosophy, been largely disavowed. The work of Jonas regarding method represents a return to speculative philosophy, which aims toward a sort of comprehensive explanation of the cosmos and the place of humanity in it. At the same time, he integrates scientific principles and disciplines such as evolution and biology into his analysis, resulting in a contemporary and informed philosophy of nature. His early and late works reveal a place in his thinking for God, as understood from a vantage point of liberal Judaism, but he does not believe that the notion of a creator God is fundamentally necessary to the grounding of ethics. Jonas contends that the practice of philosophy should make its practitioners moral, as it did with Socrates. Jonas’s life and his work are a tribute to that ancient notion.

Additional Reading

Lubarsky, Sandra B., and David Ray Griffin, eds. Jewish Theology and Process Thought. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996. A compilation of essays in honor of Hans Jonas, including one essay by Jonas. An essay by John B. Cobb notes the parallels between Jonas’s doctrine of God and process theology, particularly with respect to God’s manner of relation to the world.

Spicker, Stuart F., ed. Organism, Medicine, and Metaphysics: Essays in Honor of Hans Jonas on His Seventy-fifth Birthday, May 10, 1978. Boston: D. Reidel, 1978. Includes essays by Charles Hartshorne and Strachan Donnelley that contrast Jonas’s view of organisms with that of Alfred North Whitehead.

Wellmer, Albrecht. Endgames: The Irreconcilable Nature of Modernity. Translated by David Midgley. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998. A look at some of Jonas’s fundamental ideas in the context of German social thought.

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