Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD REFERENCE ( (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2013. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single entry from a reference work in OR for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: null; date: 21 June 2018

Abbt, Thomas

Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment

Hans Erich Bödeker

Abbt, Thomas 

(1738–1766), German philosopher.

In 1756, after graduating from an academic secondary school (Gymnasium), the highly gifted Thomas Abbt, the only son of an Ulm wig-maker, registered at the University of Halle to study theology. As early as 1757, Abbt abandoned theology and devoted himself to the study of mathematics and philosophy. He received a doctorate in 1758 for his dissertation in philosophy, and as early as 5 May 1759, he became a university lecturer. From early on Abbt was interested in practical matters, and was influenced by the works of the English philosophers John Locke and the earl of Shaftesbury.

Upon accepting the offer of an appointment as professor at the university in Frankfurt on the Oder (30 March 1761), Abbt became a Prussian subject. His unpublished inaugural address (28 July 1761) testifies to his admiration for Frederick II. Against the background to Prussia's crisis in waging a prolonged war, and in response to the death of his friend Ewald von Kleist, Abbt wrote Vom Tode für das Vaterland (On Dying for One's Fatherland), which was published in Berlin in 1761 and made Abbt known in the literary world. In arguing for a patriotic commitment by the educated elite of the Enlightenment, Abbt, as a Prussian by adoption, faced the problem of bringing love for one's country into harmony with a monarchical form of government. In this regard he opposed the traditional view. However, Abbt tied this enlightened commitment to the monarchical state to a guarantee of “civil” liberty and security under laws.

In the spring of 1761, before taking up a new post as professor of mathematics at the university of Rinteln, Abbt spent time in Berlin, where he had stimulating contact especially with Friedrich Nicolai, Moses Mendelssohn, Leonhard Euler, Karl Wilhelm Ramler, Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim, and J. W. Meil. In the spring of 1763, Abbt realized a long-cherished wish and set out on an educational tour of Switzerland. The high point of this trip was his visit to Voltaire in Ferney.

During his Rinteln years, in addition to many articles, short treatises, and translations, Abbt also wrote his major work of moral philosophy, which was published in Berlin in 1765 to little notice. Titled Vom Verdienste (On Merit), the book examines the changes in the concept of merit in the eighteenth century. As Abbt explains, the merit of the human being consists only of breadth of mind, “strength of soul,” and “kindness of heart.” This study also reflects his disagreement with the radical French Enlightenment.

When Abbt received an offer of appointment as senior civil servant and consistory official to Brückeburg toward the end of 1765, he was at the beginning of a long-desired career as a practical thinker of the Enlightenment. However, in November 1766, barely a year after taking up his new post, he died. Abbt was unlike the traditional German scholar; he embodied the new type of educated middle-class writer who wanted to have an effect on a large enlightened public.

[See also Aufklärung and Moral Philosophy.]


Abbt, Thomas. Vermischte Werke. Edited by Friedrich Nicolai. 6 parts in 4 vols. (letters in parts 3 and 5). Berlin/Stettin, 1768–1781; repr., Hildesheim and New York, 1978.Find this resource:

    Bödeker, Hans Erich. Thomas Albert: Patriot, Bürger and bürgerliches Bewusstsein. In Bürger und Bürgerlichkeit im Zeitalter der Aufklärung, edited by Rudolf Vierhaus, pp. 221–253. Heidelberg, 1981.Find this resource:

      Redekop, Benjamin W. Thomas Abbt and the Formation of an Enlightened German ‘Public'. Journal of the History of Ideas 58 (1997), 81–103.Find this resource:

        Hans Erich Bödeker