Letter to his father - Karl Marx

Letter written by Karl Marx to his father in 1837.

Submitted by pogo on April 10, 2015

Letters: 1837-Letter to father

Early Works of Karl Marx

Letter from Karl to his Father

In Trier (1837)

First published: in Die Neue Zeit No. 1, 1897 [2];

Source: MECW, Volume 1;

Transcribed: in 1998 for MEIA by [email protected]

Berlin, November 10

Dear Father,

There are moments in one's life which are like frontier posts marking the completion of a period but at the same time clearly indicating a new direction.

At such a moment of transition we feel compelled to view the past and the present with the eagle eye of thought in order to become conscious of our real position. Indeed, world history itself likes to look back in this way and take stock, which often gives it the appearance of retrogression or stagnation, whereas it is merely, as it were, sitting back in an armchair in order to understand itself and mentally grasp its own activity, that of the mind.

At such moments, however, a person becomes lyrical, for every metamorphosis is partly a swan song, partly the overture to a great new poem, which endeavours to achieve a stable form in brilliant colours that still merge into one another. Nevertheless, we should like to erect a memorial to what we have once lived through in order that this experience may regain in our emotions the place it has lost in our actions. And where could a more sacred dwelling place be found for it than in the heart of a parent, the most merciful judge, the most intimate sympathiser, the sun of love whose warming fire is felt at the innermost centre of our endeavours! What better amends and forgiveness could there be for much that is objectionable and blameworthy than to be seen as the manifestation of an essentially necessary state of things? How, at least, could the often ill-fated play of chance and intellectual error better escape the reproach of being due to a perverse heart?

When, therefore, now at the end of a year spent here I cast a glance back on the course of events during that time, in order, my dear father, to answer your infinitely dear letter from Ems, allow me to review my affairs in the way I regard life in general, as the expression of an intellectual activity which develops in all directions, in science, art and private matters.

When I left you, a new world had come into existence for me, that of love, which in fact at the beginning was a passionately yearning and hopeless love. Even the journey to Berlin, which otherwise would have delighted me in the highest degree, would have inspired me to contemplate nature and fired my zest for life, left me cold. Indeed, it put me strikingly out of humour, for the rocks which I saw were not more rugged, more indomitable, than the emotions of my soul, the big towns not more lively than my blood, the inn meals not more extravagant, more indigestible, than the store of fantasies I carried with me, and, finally, no work of art was as beautiful as Jenny.

After my arrival in Berlin, I broke off all hitherto existing connections, made visits rarely and unwillingly, and tried to immerse myself in science and art.

In accordance with my state of mind at the time, lyrical poetry was bound to be my first subject, at least the most pleasant and immediate one. But owing to my attitude and whole previous development it was purely idealistic. My heaven, my art, became a world beyond, as remote as my love. Everything real became hazy and what is hazy has no definite outlines. All the poems of the first three volumes I sent to Jenny are marked by attacks on our times, diffuse and inchoate expressions of feeling, nothing natural, everything built out of moonshine, complete opposition between what is and what ought to be, rhetorical reflections instead of poetic thoughts, but perhaps also a certain warmth of feeling and striving for poetic fire. The whole extent of a longing that has no bounds finds expression there in many different forms and makes the poetic "composition" into "diffusion".

Poetry, however, could be and had to be only an accompaniment; I had to study law and above all felt the urge to wrestle with philosophy. The two were so closely linked that, on the one hand, I read through Heineccius, Thibaut and the sources quite uncritically, in a mere schoolboy fashion; thus, for instance, I translated the first two books of the Pandect [3] into German, and, on the other hand, tried to elaborate a philosophy of law covering the whole field of law. I prefaced this with some metaphysical propositions by way of introduction and continued this unhappy opus as far as public law, a work of almost 300 pages. [4]

Here, above all, the same opposition between what is and what ought to be, which is characteristic of idealism, stood out as a serious defect and was the source of the hopelessly incorrect division of the subject-matter. First of all came what I was pleased to call the metaphysics of law, i. e., basic principles, reflections, definitions of concepts, divorced from all actual law and every actual form of law, as occurs in Fichte, only in my case it was more modern and shallower. From the outset an obstacle to grasping the truth here was the unscientific form of mathematical dogmatism, in which the author argues hither and thither, going round and round the subject dealt with, without the latter taking shape as something living and developing in a many-sided way. A triangle gives the mathematician scope for construction and proof, it remains a mere abstract conception in space and does not develop into anything further. It has to be put alongside something else, then it assumes other positions, and this diversity added to it gives it different relationships and truths. On the other hand, in the concrete expression of a living world of ideas, as exemplified by law, the state, nature, and philosophy as a whole, the object itself must be studied in its development; arbitrary divisions must not be introduced, the rational character of the object itself must develop as something imbued with contradictions in itself and find its unity in itself.

Next, as the second part, came the philosophy of law, that is to say, according to my views at the time, an examination of the development of ideas in positive Roman law, as if positive law in its conceptual development (I do not mean in its purely finite provisions) could ever be something different from the formation of the concept of law, which the first part, however, should have dealt with.

Moreover, I had further divided this part into the theory of formal law and the theory of material law, the first being the pure form of the system in its sequence and interconnections, its subdivisions and scope, whereas the second, on the other hand, was intended to describe the content, showing how the form becomes embodied in its content. This was an error I shared with Herr v. Savigny, as I discovered later in his learned work on ownership, the only difference being that he applies the term formal definition of the concept to "finding the place which this or that theory occupies in the (fictitious) Roman system", the material definition being "the theory of positive content which the Romans attributed to a concept defined in this way", [5] whereas I understood by form the necessary architectonics of conceptual formulations, and by matter the necessary quality of these formulations. The mistake lay in my belief that matter and form can and must develop separately from each other, and so I obtained not a real form, but something like a desk with drawers into which I then poured sand.

The concept is indeed the mediating link between form and content. In a philosophical treatment of law, therefore, the one must arise in the other; indeed, the form should only be the continuation of the content. Thus I arrived at a division of the material such as could be devised by its author for at most an easy and shallow classification, but in which the spirit and truth of law disappeared. All law was divided into contractual and non-contractual. In order to make this clearer, I take the liberty to set out the plan up to the division of jus publicum, which is also treated in the formal part.


jus privatum

jus publicum

I. jus privatum

a) Conditional contractual private law.

b) Unconditional non-contractual private law.

A. Conditional contractual private law

a) Law of persons; b) Law of things; c) Law of persons in relation to property.

a) Law of persons

I. Commercial contracts; II. Warranties; III. Contracts of bailment.

I. Commercial contracts

2. Contracts of legal entities (societas). 3. Contracts of casements (locatio conductio).

3. Locatio conductio

l. Insofar as it relates to operae.

   a) locatio conductio proper (excluding Roman letting or leasing);

   b) mandatum.

2. Insofar as it relates to usus rei.

   a) On land: usus fructus (also not in the purely Roman sense);

   b) On houses: habitatio.

II. Warranties

l. Arbitration or conciliation contract; 2. Insurance contract.

III. Contracts of bailment

2. Promissory contract

1. fide jussio; 2. negotiorum gestio.

3. Contract of gift

1. donatio; 2. gratiae promissum

b) Law of things
I. Commercial contracts

2. permutatio stricte sic dicta.

1. permutatio proper; 2. mutuum (usurae), 3. emptio venditio.

II. Warranties


III. Contracts of bailment

2. commodatum; 3. depositum.

But why should I go on filling up pages with things I myself have rejected? The whole thing is replete with tripartite divisions, it is written with tedious prolixity, and the Roman concepts are misused in the most barbaric fashion in order to force them into my system. On the other hand, in this way I did gain a general view of the material and a liking for it, at least along certain lines.

At the end of the section on material private law, I saw the falsity of the whole thing, the basic plan of which borders on that of Kant [6], but deviates wholly from it in the execution, and again it became clear to me that there could be no headway without philosophy. So with a good conscience I was able once more to throw myself into her embrace, and I drafted a new system of metaphysical principles, but at the conclusion of it I was once more compelled to recognise that it was wrong, like all my previous efforts.

In the course of this work I adopted the habit of making extracts from all the books I read, for instance from Lessing's Laokoon, Solger's Erwin, Winckelmann's history of art, Luden's German history, and incidentally scribbled down my reflections. At the same time I translated Tacitus' Germania, and Ovid's Tristia, and began to learn English and Italian by myself, i. e., out of grammars, but I have not yet got anywhere with this. I also read Klein's criminal law and his annals, and all the most recent literature, but this last only by the way.

At the end of the term, I again sought the dances of the Muses and the music of the Satyrs. Already in the last exercise book that I sent you idealism pervades forced humour (Scorpion and Felix) and an unsuccessful, fantastic drama (Oulanem), until it finally undergoes a complete transformation and becomes mere formal art, mostly without objects that inspire it and without any impassioned train of thought.

And yet these last poems are the only ones in which suddenly, as if by a magic touch - oh, the touch was at first a shattering blow - I caught sight of the glittering realm of true poetry like a distant fairy palace, and all my creations crumbled into nothing.

Busy with these various occupations, during my first term I spent many a sleepless night, fought many a battle, and endured much internal and external excitement. Yet at the end I emerged not much enriched, and moreover I had neglected nature, art and the world, and shut the door on my friends. The above observations seem to have been made by my body. I was advised by a doctor to go to the country, and so it was that for the first time I traversed the whole length of the city to the gate and went to Stralow. I had no inkling that I would mature there from an anaemic weakling into a man of robust bodily strength.

A curtain had fallen, my holy of holies was rent asunder, and new gods had to be installed.

From the idealism which, by the way, I had compared and nourished with the idealism of Kant and Fichte, I arrived at the point of seeking the idea in reality itself. If previously the gods had dwelt above the earth, now they became its centre.

I had read fragments of Hegel's philosophy, the grotesque craggy melody of which did not appeal to me. Once more I wanted to dive into the sea, but with the definite intention of establishing that the nature of the mind is just as necessary, concrete and firmly based as the nature of the body. My aim was no longer to practise tricks of swordsmanship, but to bring genuine pearls into the light of day.

I wrote a dialogue of about 24 pages: "Cleanthes, or the Starting Point and Necessary Continuation of Philosophy" [7]. Here art and science, which had become completely divorced from each other, were to some extent united, and like a vigorous traveller I set about the task itself, a philosophical-dialectical account of divinity, as it manifests itself as the idea-in-itself, as religion, as nature, and as history. My last proposition was the beginning of the Hegelian system. And this work, for which I had acquainted myself to some extent with natural science, Schelling, and history, which had caused me to rack my brains endlessly, and which is so written (since it was actually intended to be a new logic) that now even I myself can hardly recapture my thinking about it, this work, my dearest child, reared by moonlight, like a false siren delivers me into the arms of the enemy.

For some days my vexation made me quite incapable of thinking; I ran about madly in the garden by the dirty water of the Spree, which "washes souls and dilutes the tea". I even joined my landlord in a hunting excursion, rushed off to Berlin and wanted to embrace every street-corner loafer.

Shortly after that I pursued only positive studies: the study of Savigny's Ownership, Feuerbach's and Grolmann's criminal law, Cramer's de verborum significatione, Wenning-Ingenheim's Pandect system, and Mühlenbruch's Doctrina pandectarum, which I am still working through, and finally a few titles from Lauterbach, on civil procedure and above all canon law, the first part of which, Gratian's Concordia discordantium canonum, I have almost entirely read through in the corpus and made extracts from, as also the supplement, Lancelotti's Institutiones. Then I translated in part Aristotle's Rhetoric, read de augmentis scientiarum of the famous Bacon of Verulam, spent a good deal of time on Reimarus, to whose book on the artistic instincts of animals I applied my mind with delight, and also tackled German law, but chiefly only to the extent of going through the capitularies of the Franconian kings and the letters of the Popes to them.

Owing to being upset over Jenny's illness and my vain, fruitless intellectual labours, and as the result of nagging annoyance at having had to make an idol of a view that I hated, I became ill, as I have already written to you, dear Father. When I got better I burnt all the poems and outlines of stories, etc., imagining that I could give them up completely, of which so far at any rate I have not given any proofs to the contrary.

While I was ill I got to know Hegel from beginning to end, together with most of his disciples. Through a number of meetings with friends in Stralow I came across a Doctors' Club [8], which includes some university lecturers and my most intimate Berlin friend, Dr. Rutenberg. In controversy here, many conflicting views were expressed, and I became ever more firmly bound to the modern world philosophy from which I had thought to escape, but all rich chords were silenced and I was seized with a veritable fury of irony, as could easily happen after so much had been negated. In addition, there was Jenny's silence, and I could not rest until I had acquired modernity and the outlook of contemporary science through a few bad productions such as The Visit [9], etc.

If perhaps I have here neither clearly described the whole of this last term nor gone into all details, and slurred over all the nuances, excuse me, dear Father, because of my desire to speak of the present time.

Herr v. Chamisso sent me a very insignificant note in which he informed me "he regrets that the Almanac cannot use my contributions because it has already been printed a long time ago" [10]. I swallowed this with vexation. The bookseller Wigand has sent my plan to Dr. Schmidt, publisher of Wunder's firm that trades in good cheese and bad literature. I enclose his letter; Dr. Schmidt has not yet replied. However, I am by no means abandoning this plan, especially since all the aesthetic celebrities of the Hegelian school have promised their collaboration through the help of university lecturer Bauer, who plays a big role among them, and of my colleague Dr. Rutenberg.[11]

Now, as regards the question of a career in cameralistics, my dear father, I recently made the acquaintance of an assessor, Schmidthanner, who advised me after the third law examination to transfer to it as a justiciary, which would be the more to my taste, since I really prefer jurisprudence to all administrative science. This gentleman told me that in three years he himself and many others from the Münster high provincial court in Westphalia had succeeded in reaching the position of assessor, which was not difficult, with hard work of course, since the stages there are not rigidly fixed as they are in Berlin and elsewhere. If later, as an assessor, one is awarded a doctor's degree, there are also much better prospects of obtaining a post as professor extraordinary, as happened in the case of Herr Gärtner in Bonn, who wrote a mediocre work on provincial legislation and is otherwise only known as belonging to the Hegelian school of jurists. But, my dear, very good father, would it not be possible to discuss all this with you personally? Eduard's condition, dear Mama's illness, your own ill health, although I hope it is not serious, all this makes me want to hurry to you, indeed it makes it almost a necessity. I would be there already if I was not definitely in doubt about your permission and consent.

Believe me, my dear, dear father, I am actuated by no selfish intention (although it would be bliss for me to see Jenny again), but there is a thought which moves me, and it is one I have no right to express. In many respects it would even be a hard step for me to take but, as my only sweet Jenny writes, these considerations are all of no account when faced with the fulfilment of duties that are sacred.

I beg you, dear Father, however you may decide, not to show this letter, at least not this page, to my angel of a mother. My sudden arrival could perhaps help this grand and wonderful woman to recover.

My letter to Mama was written long before the arrival of Jenny's dear letter, so perhaps I unwittingly wrote too much about matters which are not quite or even very little suitable. [12]

In the hope that gradually the clouds that have gathered about our family will pass away, that it will be granted to me to suffer and weep with you and, perhaps, when with you to give proof of my profound, heartfelt sympathy and immeasurable love, which often I can only express very badly; in the hope that you also, dear, ever beloved Father, taking into account my much agitated state of mind, will forgive me where often my heart seems to have erred, overwhelmed by my militant spirit, and that you will soon be wholly restored to health so that I can clasp you to my heart and tell you all my thoughts,

Your ever loving son,


Please, dear Father, excuse my illegible handwriting and bad style; it is almost 4 o'clock, the candle has burnt itself out, and my eyes are dim; a real unrest has taken possession of me, I shall not be able to calm the turbulent spectres until I am with you who are dear to me.

Please give greetings from me to my sweet, wonderful Jenny. I have read her letter twelve times already, and always discover new delights in it. It is in every respect, including that of style, the most beautiful letter I can imagine being written by a woman.