Edith Stein – German Philosopher, Martyr, Jewish Victim
Blind racist hate destroyed the life of a German whose talents and works embodied the best of the German and Western traditions. With her canonization in 1998 by Pope John Paul II, the peculiar tragedy of this fate was honored. The Pope called Edith Stein an “outstanding daughter of Israel” and also a “true daughter of the Church”. What often slips somewhat into the background, however, is that Stein was also an important philosopher.
Long before her baptism and entrance into a convent, Stein’s talents and abilities seemed to point instead to a career in scholarship. Born on October 12, 1891, the eleventh child of a Jewish merchant’s family in Breslau, Stein’s outstanding intellectual gifts were soon noticed. In 1911 she began her university studies in German philology, history and philosophy at Breslau and Göttingen. In 1916 she became the research assistant of Edmund Husserl, the famous phenomenologist. She was not only very helpful to Husserl; she also soon received recognition for own philosophical contributions, including her dissertation On the Problem of Empathy (i>Zum Problem der Einfühlung). This recognition had it limits: several attempts to qualify for a university teaching career failed. The German university was still a long way from granting a women (and a Jewish women at that) the highest academic honors.
Finite and eternal being
For Stein, this was a great affront, which rankled all the more as she had good reason to feel assured of the quality of her philosophical work. For one thing, she had developed Husserl’s phenomenology a decisive step further, particularly in the study of the “empathy” for other consciousnesses and experience. In addition, influenced by Max Scheler, she broadened the phenomenological view to take in the dimensions and the question of the being that escapes investigation by all the special sciences – a path of inquiry that was especially marked by her intense study of Thomas Aquinas. The most significant fruit of this intellectual development is Stein’s philosophical magnum opus, Finite and Eternal Being Endliches und ewiges Sein, which she completed in 1936.
Stein’s turn to the great authors of the Christian tradition (and generally to Christian faith and theology) was not merely academic. It was inseparable form her personal turn to God and her conversion, actuated by a growing feeling of the emptiness and the ultimate futility of her efforts. According to her own account, it was a reading experience in 1921 that gave the final impetus for the decision to be baptized: in a single night, Stein read the autobiography of the mystic and religious reformer Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582) and this “put an end to my long quest for the true faith”. Only a few months later she was baptized at Bad Bergzabern and received into the Roman Catholic Church. Years later, Stein wrote the following in a letter about her conversion experience: “It is an infinite world that opens up in an entirely new way when one begins to live inwardly rather than outwardly. All realities with which one formerly had to do become transparent and one senses the actually sustaining and moving forces”.
Knowledge and faith
From that moment on, Stein’s life was marked by a gradual approach to the institution of the Church. This also affected her professional life. Since a university career was denied her, beginning in 1922 she worked as a teacher at a school for girls and at the Dominican teachers college in Speyer, work that fulfilled her and at the same time provided the basis for further philosophical studies. In this period she translated several books, including Aquinas’s De Veritate, into German. In her Knowledge and Faith (Erkenntnis und Glaube), she brings Aquinas’s Christian doctrine of truth into dialogue with Husserl’s and a modern philosophical position in an original way. All merely worldly reason, so the basic tenor of the book, remains fragmentary and limited: “If faith reveals truths that cannot be reached by other means, then philosophy cannot dismiss these truths without abandoning its claim to universal truth …”.
Along these lines, Stein developed her philosophy, especially her effort to make Aquinas’s fundamental philosophical ideas freshly accessible by means of phenomenology. Her work revolves particularly round the question about the nature of man and the core of the (Christian) “person”. She also dealt intensively with questions of education and questions about the recognition of women, their rights and social discrimination. She gave numerous lectures that had a public echo.
“Blessed by the Cross”
The Nazi seizure of power made the continuation of her previous life impossible for the Catholic convert. At the same time, this event was the final impetus for Stein to realize a long-cherished desire. In October 1933, she entered the Carmelite Order of Our Lady of Peace in Cologne as a postulant. Six months later she received with her investiture in the Order the religious name Sister Teresia Benedicta a Cruce: “Teresia blessed by the Cross”.
In April 1933, Stein already addressed a letter to Pope Pius XI in which she asked that the Church protest against the incipient persecution of the Jews in Germany. This petition was granted only years later, and then only with qualifications, in the encyclical With Burning Concern. In 1938, a few weeks after the so-called Reichskristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass), Stein moved to the Carmelite convent in the Dutch town of Echt. But even there she cannot escape the German army. In 1942, all Catholics of Jewish origin in the Netherlands were arrested and deported. Proud of her Jewish heritage all her life, and unbroken in her faith in Christ, Stein said at her arrest to another nun who was also arrested: “Come, Sister, we go to our people”.
is a lecturer in Political Philosophy at the University of Munich.
Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
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