Luca Pellarin (Erfurt) & Thomas Sojer (denʞkollektiv): Reading Pierre-Joseph Proudhon – Franz C. Overbeck and Simone Weil in catalogical notes.



is a research assistant and PhD candidate at the University of Erfurt’s Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies as well as at the University of Graz. Born in Friuli, he studied philosophy in Turin and Milan, specialising in the thought of Erik Peterson. Dealing in particular with the philosophy of religion and the contemporary history of Christianity, he is currently working on Franz C. Overbeck.



is one of the founding members of the Simone Weil denʞkollektiv.

The French political theorist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865), the German theologian Franz C. Overbeck (1837-1905), and the French philosopher Simone Weil (1909-1943) share an interest in rethinking socialism against the backdrop of a sharp criticism of Christianity. Proudhon lays the foundation of this philosophy, leaving Overbeck and Weil to carry on his heritage, albeit in opposed directions. All three figures mark an often ignored but essential juncture between the 1840s and the 1940s in the history of ideas concerning the relationship between socialism and Christianity.


In what follows, we introduce our three thinkers and areas of their overlapping interest, all through catalogical notes to map a very short history of ideas often overlooked in academia.

Proudhon, Weil, and Overbeck at a Glance


o Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was a political thinker often associated with the concept of anarchy. He dealt, in particular, with two problems bequeathed by the Enlightenment: social inequality and the failed development of the individual. When combined, these two problems reveal an even greater one to which Proudhon almost linked his name: property. According to him, property ratifies the supremacy of the victors in the struggle for power. Herein lies Simone Weil’s interest in Proudhon: both theorize that property and sovereignty are legitimised by history and transcendence, or, to put it differently, that the law of force and power in the double articulation of war and religion are the cornerstone of the political community.


o In Proudhon’s eyes, the post-war process of institutionalisation shows that the political community uses power to legitimise the relations established during war; the winners change the name to the law of force by improperly matching it with the law of nature. Property is nothing but the final result of this corrupt process.

Yet, Proudhon does not want to abolish property, as property is the expression of individual autonomy. And as Franz C. Overbeck [1] observes, Proudhon assigns property a crucial role and regards it as one of the hallmarks of social progress. Despite this, he aims for a social equilibrium between the individual, social justice, and reason – the outcome of which is the so-called “libertarian socialism”.

Reason must manifest itself as a collective reason, namely as the embodiment of a system of relations to be pursued through public debate. Thus Proudhon does not advocate revolution itself, but rather a social science able to engender a critical attitude.


Franz C. Overbeck on Proudhon


Despite the size of the Overbeckian bequest in the “Franz C. Overbeck” archive at the University of Basel, the following reconstruction of Overbeck’s reading of Proudhon is based exclusively on other published material, primarily from the Kirchenlexicon. Since Overbeck took unrelated “notes” throughout various periods of his life –often while working on entirely diverse topics– without ever organizing them, I attempted some semblance of order by resorting to a list format, as follows.


o Overbeck knows Proudhon through reading Of Justice in the Revolution and the Church (De la justice dans la révolution et dans l’Église, 1858) and Jesus and the Origins of Christianity (Jésus et les origines du christianisme, posthumous), and É. Faguet’s Politicians and Moralists of the 19th Century (Politiques et moralistes du XIXe siècle, 1891).

o Of the first of these texts, he reproduces in his Kirchenlexicon two extracts:

“Without being afraid of the accusation of atheism, I cannot, however, allow it to degenerate into defamation and ostracism. Ever since my birth, I have been thinking about God, and I recognise no one more than myself the right to talk about him”.[2]

“Religion is the mystical lover of the Spirit, the companion of its young and free loves. Similar to Homer’s warriors, the Spirit does not dwell alone in its tent: this Cupid must have a lover, a Psyché. Jesus, who forgave the Magdalene, taught us to be lenient towards the wooers. But the day comes when the Spirit, tired of its own vitality, thinks of joining, through an indissoluble marriage, Science, the severe matron, that the Gnostics, those socialists of the second century, called Sophia, wisdom. There, for a few moments, the Spirit seems to be divided in itself; there are ineffable reminiscences and tender reproaches. More than once, the two lovers thought they had been reconciled: ‘I will be a Sophia for you’, says Religion; ‘I will also become wise, as you are, and always be more and more beautiful’. Vain hope! Inexorable fate! The nature of ideas, no more than that of things, cannot be modified in this way. Like the nymph abandoned by Narcissus, who from languishing ends up fading away in the thin air, Religion gradually turns into an impalpable phantom: it is only a sound, a remembrance, which rests in the deepest of the Spirit, and never entirely leaves the heart of man”.[3]

o Overbeck particularly appreciates Proudhon for his critique of religion, which, in his opinion, is in many ways similar to Nietzsche’s. He sees Proudhon and Nietzsche as emblematic and passionate representatives of individualism in contemporary culture. From Overbeck’s standpoint, as long as individualists want to place themselves at the centre of their own thoughts and actions in a coherent way, they will have to be able to dispense with the supernatural support of, and continuous recourse to, God. This is what, according to Overbeck, Proudhon achieves in his book Of Justice in the Revolution and the Church: emancipating morality from religion. He cuts the umbilical cord between man and God, who, until then, has always been considered indispensable by human beings. In this respect, Proudhon defines religion as expensive and superfluous to the state that human culture has reached.

o Overbeck does not characterise Nietzsche’s individualism as irreligious, although Overbeck does say that individualism and atheism go hand in hand. He deems Proudhon as the most dedicated connoisseur of atheism in the world and continually sets him next to Nietzsche. However, he notices a difference between the two, which he illustrates through parallelism with J.-J. Rousseau: just as Proudhon could not stand Rousseau’s idealism and attitude of posing as an artist, Overbeck cannot tolerate the same features in Nietzsche.

o Besides being a passionate individualist and fervent moralist, Overbeck’s Proudhon is fiercely anti-idealist, considering idealism the instrument of all seductions and the source of all the mystifications and abominations on earth. Building on these assumptions, Proudhon criticises Rousseau’s and E. Renan’s depictions of Jesus, in whom he sees a saviour. Overbeck alludes to Renan, portrayed as an idealiser of anarchism, to better outline Proudhon’s profile. Whereas Renan came to socialism from Christianity, Proudhon walks the opposite path, coming to Christianity by way of socialism.

o Concerning the relationships between socialism and Christianity (possible connections which Overbeck finds highly problematic), I quote a metaphor Overbeck adopts to describe them:

“In the dispute of our modern society and socialism on Christianity, there will be as much left of it [Christianity], as of the bone that two wild beasts bite around. Both of them want to incorporate it so that it will be consumed: this is the only sure result of the biting. Therefore, who presumes to label one of the two fighting beasts as the “defender” of the bone [of Christianity] can only make himself ridiculous”.[4]

o Although Overbeck makes no particular reference to Proudhon when comparing socialism with anarchism, it is useful to add that the German theologian prefers anarchism over socialism. Compared to the latter, anarchism appears more coherent, as long as it is concerned only with the individual and not, I say, idealistically, with society (which Proudhon sees as the outcome of the connection of individuals). Additionally, anarchism is more honest than socialism, if only through its indifference to the social democrats’ main principle of human equality, a principle in which Overbeck does not believe. In addition to equality, he depicts anarchism as indifferent to justice – and I assume that Overbeck was more sensitive to this point.

o Despite preferring anarchism to socialism, Overbeck is in no way an anarchist: he harshly attacks anarchism, claiming that in the name of freedom it destroys society without knowing that it will replace it with something very similar.

Simone Weil’s reception of Proudhon


o Simone Weil’s political thought is marked by her early love for the revolutionary syndicalism, her alienation from it, starting in 1934, and its lasting impact until her death. Long after its golden age from 1900 to 1910, revolutionary syndicalism hardly had any political influence when the young student Simone Weil first countered the movement. This situation of political ruin allowed Weil to dismantle the previous unity of political and ethical traditions within the movement and to develop a critical position towards Marxism. In the light of the ethical tradition (anti-authoritarian individualism and proletarian community), Simone Weil criticises the political tradition (the question of revolution and the role of unions within society). Her separation between ethics and politics reflects Weil’s distinction between a “source of inspiration” and a “doctrine” in her unfinished essay Sur les contradictions du marxisme in 1937. Here, she writes:


“I don’t believe that the labour movement will become alive again in our country as long as it doesn’t seek, I’m not saying doctrines, but a source of inspiration against what Marx and the Marxists combated and foolishly disdained: in Proudhon, in the unions of 1948, in the syndicalist tradition, in the anarchist spirit. Concerning a doctrine, the future alone, in the best of all cases, could perhaps provide an inspiration; not the past.”[5]

o It is Proudhon’s passion for the autonomy of the individual, the rethinking of property, and a proletarian particularism that inspires Weil when reading his texts. For her, Proudhon personifies an ethics which she sees as the initial inspiration for the labour movement of the previous century. As with Proudhon, Simone Weil does not want to abolish property as it constitutes individual autonomy.


o It is important to consider that Weil understands the term ‘ethics’ not as a simple reflection of moral behaviour but rather, in the sense of Charles Péguy’s Notre Jeunesse, as ‘mystique’; as the experience of an elementary internal intuition towards a society of free individuals characterised by dignity. [6]


o In Proudhon’s spirit, Weil envisions the future as the self-determination of the working class and as a form of anti-intellectualism in resistance to the authority of intellectuals over the laboring class. Weil demands an autonomous and independent culture of the working class and outlines in her 1943 L’Enracinement the founding of small co-operative self-determined workplaces in which neither foreman nor boss exist.

Proudhon’s thoughts on anti-authoritarian individualism and a proletarian community, which in terms of Weil is to be understood as ‘mystical ethics’ in Péguy’s sense, stands as canvas against which Simone Weil’s confrontation with Christianity takes shape. Weil’s fierce criticism of the Church as a collective within the political tradition and and her own deviant marginal traditions of individual mystical testimonies can be read in the context of this mystical-ethical framework of Proudhon’s critique of Christianity. Following in the footsteps of Proudhon, Weil also walks to Christianity via socialism, sharing his critique of all forms of religious authority over individuals.


o In Marseille, Weil rediscovers similar ideas in the JOC, Jeunesse ouvrière chrétienne, a group seeking to improve the welfare of the working-class youth independent of politics and even unconstrained by religion and the collective rage often entwined with both constructs. Weil’s experience with the JOC led her to reflect on the foundation of an alternative structure similar to religious orders but characterised by source d’inspiration of the anti-authoritarian individualism and the proletarian community, one could say, in the spirit of Proudhon.

[1] Franz C. Overbeck (1837-1905) was a protestant theologian and professor of New Testament and Early Church History at the University of Basel, where he taught from 1870 to 1897. He has been little studied and hardly known by scholars, if not for being Nietzsche’s roommate in Basel. Between 1870 and 1875, the two lived in two contiguous floors of the same building and later, in 1889, after the outbreak of Nietzsche’s madness, Overbeck travelled to Turin to pick up his friend and eventually prevented at least some of Nietzsche’s writings from being instrumentalised by Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche. Overbeck’s most famous work is How Christian is our Present-Day Theology? (Über die Christlichkeit unserer heutigen Theologie, 1873, 1903). Important to recall, however, is the Kirchenlexicon, an extensive collection of Overbeck’s reflections gathered for the purpose of writing his never accomplished project of a profane history of the Church. Overbeck worked on it from 1856 until his death. What made Overbeck “known” in the twentieth century to thinkers such as Thomas Mann, Karl Barth, Martin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin and Karl Löwith, was a philologically inaccurate and small compendium of about 300 pages (Christentum und Kultur), edited in 1919 by Overbeck’s pupil Carl Albrecht Bernoulli. Among the prominent authors who read Overbeck, one can also count Jacob Taubes. [2] transl. by the author cf. Overbeck 1995: Werke und Nachlaß. Band 4. Kirchenlexicon.. Ausgewählte Artikel A-I, Stuttgart/Weimar: Metzler (Atheismus [Moderner] Beispiele. oder Proben 1, II, 1870-1897): 32 [“Sans que je m’effraie beaucoup de l’inculpation d’athéisme, je ne puis permettre cependant qu’elle dégénère en calomnie et proscription. Je pense à Dieu depuis que j’existe, et ne reconnais à personne plus qu’à moi le droit d’en parler”]. Overbeck reproduced the excerpt directly in French. See Proudhon 1858: “Prologue”, in: idem: Nouveaux principes de philosophie pratique, Paris: Garnier Frères, 46. [3] transl. by the author cf. Overbeck 1995: Werke und Nachlaß. Band 5. Kirchenlexicon. Texte. Ausgewählte Artikel J-Z, Metzler, Stuttgart/Weimar, 1995 (Religion [Ende] 1, II, 1870-1897): 281 [“Die Relig. ist die mysti. Geliebte des Geistes, die Genossin seiner jungen und freien Liebesabenteuer. Den Homerischen Kriegern vergleichbar, wohnt der Geist nicht allein in seinem Zelte: dieser Cupido muss eine Geliebte, eine Psyche haben. Jesus, welcher der Magdalena verzieh, hat uns die Nachsicht gegen die Buhlerinnen gelehrt. Aber es kommt der Tag da der Geist, von seiner eigenen Ausschweifung müde, daran denkt sich durch eine unlösliche Ehe mit der Wissenschaft zu verbinden, der strengen Matrone, welche die Gnostiker, diese Socialisten des 2. Jahrh’s, Sophia, die Weisht nannten. Da erscheint der Geist, während einiger Augenblicke, wie mit sich selbst entzweit; da giebt es unaussprechli. Rückblicke und zärtliche Vorwürfe. Mehr als ein Mal hielten sich die Geliebten für versöhnt: Ich werde für dich eine Sophia sein, sagt die Religion; ich werde mich ebenso gelehrt machen, und ich werde immer schöner sein. Eitle Hoffnung! unerbittli. Schicksal. Die Natur der Ideen kann sich, ebensowenig als die der Dinge, | so nicht fälschen. Wie die vom Narcissus verlassene Nymphe, welche vor schmachtender Sehnsucht schliesslich in den Lüften dahinschwindet, verwandelt sich die Religion allmälich in ein untastbares Fantom: es ist nur noch ein Laut, eine Erinnerung, welche im tiefsten Innern des Geistes bleibt, und niemals im Herzen des Menschen ganz zu Grunde geht”]. The symbol | stands for “paging in the manuscript”. Overbeck reproduced the excerpt in German. See Proudhon 1858: “De la justice dans la révolution et dans l’Église.” Tome 1. in: idem: Nouveaux principes de philosophie pratique, Paris: Garnier Frères 1858, 94 (Première étude) [“La Religion est l’amante mystique de l’Esprit, la compagne de ses jeunes et libres amours. Semblable aux guerriers d’Homère, l’Esprit n’habite pas seul sous sa tente: il faut une amoureuse, une Psyché, à ce Cupidon. Jésus, qui pardonna à la Madeleine, nous a enseigné l’indulgence envers les courtisanes. Mais vient le jour où l’Esprit, fatigué de sa propre exubérance, songe à s’unir, par un mariage indissoluble, à la Science, la sévère matrone, celle que les gnostiques, ces socialistes du deuxième siècle, appelaient Sophia, la sagesse. Alors, pendant quelques instants, l’Esprit semble divisé d’avec lui-même; il y a d’ineffables retours et de tendres reproches. Plus d’une fois les deux amants se sont crus réconciliés: Je serai pour toi une Sophia, dit la Religion; je me ferai aussi savante, et je serai toujours plus belle. Vain espoir! Inexorable destin! La nature des idées, pas plus que celle des choses, ne peut ainsi s’adultérer. Comme la nymphe abandonnée de Narcisse, qui à force de langueur finit par s’évanouir dans les airs, la Religion se change peu à peu en un impalpable fantôme: ce n’est plus qu’un son, un souvenir, qui reste au plus profond de l’Esprit, et ne périt jamais tout à fait au cœur de l’homme”]. [4] transl. by the author cf. Overbeck 1995: Werke und Nachlaß. Band 4. Kirchenlexicon. Texte. Ausgewählte Artikel A-I, Metzler, Stuttgart/Weimar, 1995 (Christenthum u. Socialismus Allgemeines 1, III, Mai 1899-1905): 251 [“Im Streit unserer modernen Gesellschaft und des Socialism. um das Christenthum wird von diesem so viel übrig bleiben, wie vom Knochen, um den sich zwei wilde Bestien herumbeissen. Jede will ihn sich einverleiben, er wird also aufgezehrt, und das ist das einzig sichere Resultat der Beisserei, so dass sich nur lächerlich machen kann, wer die eine der beiden Streitenden Bestien mit dem Titel eines ‘Vertheidigers’ des Knochen auszeichnen zu können meint”]. [5] transl. by the author cf. Weil 1991: Œuvres complètes, Tome II/2, 135-136 [“Je ne crois pas que le mouvement ouvrier redevienne dans notre pays quelque chose de vivant tant qu’il ne cherchera pas, je ne dis pas des doctrines, mais une source d’inspiration dans ce que Marx et les marxistes ont combattu et bien follement méprisé : dans Proudhon, dans les groupements ouvriers de 1948, dans la tradition syndicale¬, dans l’esprit anarchiste. Quant à une doctrine, l’avenir seul, au meilleur des cas, pourra peut-être en fournir une ; non passé.”] [6] Cf. Patrice Rolland 1998: “Simone Weil et le Syndicalisme Révolutionnaire” in: Charles Jacquier ed.: Simone Weil, l’expérience de la vie et le travail de la pensée, Arles: Edition Sulliver, 69-106; 80.

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