Zöllner on Prejudices and Superstitions: An Article from the German Museum

Introduction to Zöllner, “On Prejudices and Superstitions”

While Johann Friedrich Zöllner (1753-1804) is hardly a major thinker he deserves a bit more attention than he’s gotten in the Anglophone world. He was, after all, the person who asked the question that Moses Mendelssohn and Immanuel Kant were attempting to answer when they wrote their essays on the question “What is enlightenment?”

ZöllnerThe English-language scholarship has managed to obscure his contribution until relatively recently. The first two editions of Dorinda Outram’s fine survey of the Enlightenment began by informing readers that “in 1783 the Berlinische Monatsscrift set up a prize competition for the best answer to the question ‘What is Enlightenment?’”. But, while the Berlin Academy sponsored any number of significant prize contests, the Berlinische Monatsscrift didn’t; I suspect Outram (and others) was misled by Michel Foucault’s lecture on the question “What is Enlightenment?,” which begins by musing on how eighteenth-century newspapers liked to ask questions to their readers.1 The French aren’t that much better: Louis Dupré began The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of the Modern Age by observing, “In 1783 the writer of the article ‘Was ist Aufklärung?’ … confessed himself unable to answer the question he had raised.”2 But Zöllner’s article was not entitled “Was ist Aufklärung?” — its title was “Is it Advisable Not to Further Sanctify the Bonds of Marriage through Religion.” Further, Zöllner was not attempting to answer the question of what enlightenment might be; he was laying down a challenge to those who kept using the term to explain what they meant by it. Samuel Fleischacker’s What is Enlightenment? gets the basic history right, but part of the cost of his study’s appearing in a series entitled “Kant’s Questions” (and, let’s face it, a book entitled “Zöllner’s Question” would have a limited audience) is that, for the rest of the book, he treats the question “What is Enlightenment?” as if was a question that (like the famous quartet of questions Kant asked in his Logic: What can I know?, What ought I to do?, What can I hope for?, and What is man?) Kant had posed to himself.3

Though I’ve written an article complaining about this sort of thing, I haven’t treated Zöllner any better. In putting together my collection of German texts on the question, I decided against translating Zöllner’s essay because it would have necessitated also translating the essay by Johann Erich Beister to which Zöllner was responding, an essay that advocated removing clergy from wedding ceremonies. I figured that this would strain the reader’s patience and, besides, back in 1996 arguments about the role of clergy in wedding ceremonies didn’t seem nearly as interesting as they would be seven years later.4

It’s not as if Zöllner was all that famous in the eighteenth century. He had some success with his Reader for All Classes, a collection of essays on various disciplines that sought to introduce a diverse audience to some of the central ideas that we now associate with the Enlightenment (the young Hegel was familiar with the collection). His sermons at the Marienkirche in Berlin — where he served as deacon from 1782 onward —were unorthodox enough to unsettle Frederick William II when the new monarch attended services there shortly after his ascent to the throne in the summer of 1786. And like Biester, he was a Freemason in the Berlin lodge Zur Eintracht, a lodge whose members included Friedrich Gedike (the co-editor, with Biester of the Berlinische Monatsschrift) and the publisher Friedrich Nicolai. More relevant for the appearance of the article that ought to have made him more famous than he was, he, Gedike, Nicolai, and Biester were all members of the Berlin “Wednesday Society”, a secret organization of “Friends of Enlightenment” closely linked to the Berlinische Monatsschrift.5

But, as it turns out, one of Zöllner’s contributions to the Berlinische Monatsschrift was translated into English. The German Museum — that friend of all things having to do with the German enlightenment — translated Zöllner’s article “Etwas von Vorurtheilen und Aberglauben” (literally, “Something About Prejudices and Supersitions”) into English in 1800.6 So, in an attempt to make belated amends to the man whose simple question has kept me busy for several decades, I offer, as the second of my series of republications of essays from the German Museum, the only text by Johann Friedrich Zöllner that (at least as far as I have been able to determine) has ever been translated into English.7

  1. Dorinda Outram, The Enlightenment, 2nd ed., (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 1. The third edition of Outram’s book fixes this.
  2. Louis K. Dupré, The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 1
  3. Samuel Fleischacker, What Is Enlightenment? (London; New York: Routledge, 2012).
  4. See Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health, 798 N.E.2d 941.
  5. I discuss most of this in my introduction to What Is Enlightenment?: Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).
  6. “On Prejudices and Superstitions,” The German Museum Vol. II (1800) pp. 320-323 . For the German original, see “Etwas von Vorurtheilen und Aberglauben,” Berlinische Monatsschrift1783 (1) 468-475.
  7. I have done minimal editing, retaining eighteenth-century spelling but altering the journal’s convention (which I’d not encountered before) of leaving the names of the days of the week in lower case. The one footnote in the essay was inserted by the anonymous translator.




EVERY friend of humanity feels it a sacred duty to contribute his utmost towards the extermination of prejudice and superstition. They are the offspring of the barbarism of ancient times, and are not only disgraceful to the understanding, but, as long as they retain their influence, become the foundation of infinite unseen evils. How many virtuous wives and mothers, instead of enjoying present happiness, indulge childish fears and absurd presentiments regarding the future? How many insignificant trifles fill their minds with alarms and terrors, while they not only devour, as it were, every remnant of the antiquated simplicity of old wives and grandmothers, but oppose the enjoyment of the most innocent gratifications? Thus Ariovistus neglected an excellent opportunity of giving the Romans battle, merely because some soothsaying formen, that accompanied his army, forbid his engaging till the new moon. And thus, alas, to this day, innumerable advantages are lost, or give place to incalculable evils, because some idle superstitious prejudice stands in their way. In Russia, inoculation was long rejected, because people of all conditions were firmly convinced, that the person from whom the matter was taken would inevitably die. But why should we look for examples in the north, since innumerable instances are daily occurring before our eves?

It is unfortunate, that the root of this evil is so difficult to be discovered. Opposed to sayings of deep and early impression, the authority of a doting nurse or grandmother, an old worm-eaten book of dreams or an almanack of the last century, and still more the pride of not confessing ourselves mistaken —opposed to these, the arms of sound reason are unavailing. Serious argument and ridicule, even the demonstration of their impossibility, are in vain. Of what use is reasoning with one who defends that which is incomprehensible, for no other reason than because he does not comprehend it?

The philosopher ought not to suffer himself to be discouraged from continuing his benevolent exertions by the small effects they produce. Every just idea that is disseminated among the people will take a deep and permanent root and draw to itself, as it grows up, the juices that have so long nourished weeds; and should it be impossible to eradicate these, where they have once obtained possession and been consecrated by time, yet his exertions afford hopes, that they will not encrease or again convert the once cultivated soil into an unproductive wilderness.

It sometimes happens, though rarely, indeed, by the force of reason, that persons who have grown old in the belief of superstition, renounce her faith. The prejudice against inoculation, was destroyed in Russia, for no other reason than that the empress determined to suffer the matter to be communicated from herself to several of her subjects. The empress lived, and the prejudice was banished by a single fact. But it is the privilege of the great alone thus, at once, to enlighten a whole nation by facts. Happy were it for nations if they made use of this privilege oftener. Others can rarely do good, but in the small circle of their acquaintance, though here their utility may be considerable. Every proselyte we make to sound reason, not only diminishes the number of the votaries of error, but will, perhaps, contribute to bring over other individuals to the side of truth.

Among my own acquaintance, whom I have often vainly endeavoured both to laugh and reason out of their prejudices, I have had recourse to facts with good effect: for example some of them believed, the weather, on Sunday, was the same as on Friday, agreeably to the old adage.

Der Donnerstag ist wunderlich,
Der Freitag ist absonderlich.
Wie das Wetter am Freitag,
So ist es am Sonntag.

Thursday is wonderful,
Friday is particular.
As the weather on Friday,
So is it on Sunday.

I began therefore, to make observations on the weather every Thursday, Friday, and Sunday, and got them signed. Thus, by a comparison, continued for several months, it appeared, that the weather, on Thursday and Monday, was as much like that of Sunday as that of Friday. The greatest inconvenience of this method is, that it often requires a collection of innumerable experiments, many of which may favor the rule superstition has formed, and these, like the game of loto, make us forget how unfavorable the chances of the game have hitherto proved.

Many prejudices may be overturned by discovering and pointing out their original source. But this is often impossible as for instance in the case of old adages and proverbs, of the origin of which all traces are lost. But where it can be discovered, we gain not only the advantage of driving superstition from her hiding places, but we often hit upon-some practical remark which amply compensates us for our researches, and which ought by no means to be confounded with the common mass of prejudices. Such ancient superstitious rules, however, are, not superstitious in respect to what they prescribe or forbid, but merely through the addition — “it is unlucky” to do so and so (es ist nicht gut,) or some similar absurdity. These additions, however, have either been made in later times, or were used by the first inventor of the rule to give it additional weight and influence.

I have from time to time collected a vast number of examples of this nature, which, should I render more complete, I may, perhaps, publish. At present, I shall content myself with a couple of instances, viz. “It is not lucky to send a child to school, for the first time, on Monday,” and “it is not lucky to leave the shells of boiled eggs whole.” Both these are prejudices, inasmuch as they are said to be unlucky, provided any thing supernatural or magical is thereby understood, but in themselves they are true maxims, particularly in the literal sense of the German phrase “It is not good.”

When a child, is sent to school for the first time on a Monday, he is constrained to do two irksome things he is not accustomed to during a whole week without intermission, namely, to sit still and to learn; from which, if he begin on a Friday, Saturday afternoon and Sunday will soon relieve him, and he feels a desire before Monday to return to school, because it is new to him, and because he has been absent a day and a half. Thus the first disagreeable impression is diminished, which is a great advantage gained; for it is of the utmost importance to discover the means of rendering study a pleasure.1 But the rule goes further and says, we ought not to begin any important undertaking on a Monday. I know, indeed, persons who always make a point of beginning every important affair with the week, and with them nothing succeeds — certainly, however, not because Monday is not an unlucky day, but because, by waiting for its arrival; they suffer the proper time to pass. I remember when I was young I was desirous of beginning every thing that appeared to me important with some new period of time, as with a new quarter, month, or week; and in some mean while some obstacle frequently arose, my inclination diminished, and my project was dropped, or I met with difficulties which would not have occurred had I set to work the moment I had resolved to do so. Surely Monday may frequently be the very day most convenient for our purpose but the inventor of this rule forgot this, or else relied on the chances which it is true are six to one in his favor.

The rule relative to egg shells is, “not to leave the shells of boiled eggs whole, because, if one who has a fever drink out of them, he who has eaten the egg will catch it.” This reason is without all doubt absurd. The rule, however, is good, because if the egg shells are thrown into a farm yard, or any place where poultry are kept, the cocks and still more the hens eat them. This, at length, becomes habitual, and they eat the eggs they lay. The man who first made this observation feared, perhaps, that the injury he thence suffered would not be a sufficient motive to induce his servants to break every egg shell in pieces, and, therefore, added this threat of catching a fever.

  1. For the same reason, children should be sent on the Friday afternoon to avoid the irksomeness of a whole day’s application at first; whereas, if they went first on Saturday morning, they would not have time to become acquainted with their school fellows, or form an attachment to their socicty. Editor.

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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2 Responses to Zöllner on Prejudices and Superstitions: An Article from the German Museum

  1. Pingback: The Soldier, the Citizen, and the Clergyman, with a Postscript on Professors: Kant on Private Reason (Part II) | Persistent Enlightenment

  2. Pingback: The Soldier, the Citizen, and the Clergyman, with a Postscript on Professors: Kant on Private Reason (Part II) | Persistent Enlightenment

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