This Day in Jewish History

1903: Lest We Destroy Earth: The First Green Philosopher Is Born

Humans should 'take responsibility for the earth as if the future of human life depended on it', urged Hans Jonas, a great fan of Hannibal.

Illustration by Ayala Tal

May 10, 1903, is the birthdate of the German-born philosopher Hans Jonas, who believed that the way a philosopher conducted his life was the best test of his doctrine. He also called on human beings to take responsibility for the earth as if the future of human life depended on it, thus becoming a father of the environmental movement.

Jonas was born in the town of Moenchengladbach, near the Dutch border, to Gustav Jonas and the former Rosa Horowitz. He studied philosophy and theology at the Universities of Freiburg, Berlin, Heidelberg and Marburg, at the latter of which he earned his PhD in 1928.

Jonas was too young to be able to fight in World War I, leaving him hungry for the opportunity to undertake heroic action. In his memoir, he noted how unfortunate he felt to “have been born into a period and a world where everything was in tip-top order and the only real excitement was to be found in history books and occasionally also in the paper."

He took offense at anyone who spoke insultingly about the Jews, and decided that his favorite hero was Hannibal, "because he was the great 'Semitic' general who had given the 'Aryans' a good thrashing, who'd shown them that you can't just push the 'Semites' around."

Soon enough, Jonas learned that things weren’t really in tip-top order, especially for the Jews, and he became a Zionist. In 1933, he fled Germany, in direct response to the decision by the German Association for the Blind to expel its Jewish members. He vowed not to return, "except as a soldier in a conquering army."

His first stop was England, followed in 1934 by Palestine. There he met the woman who in 1943 would become his wife, Lore Weiner, and served briefly in the Haganah before volunteering for the Jewish Brigade of the British Eightharmy in World War II. (He served as an artilleryman, turning down the opportunity to serve in a physically safer intelligence unit.)

After the war, he returned to Moenchengladbach, where he learned that his mother had been murdered in Auschwitz in 1942. He then left Germany again, this time resolving never to return.

How to destroy humanity and everything else

Back in Palestine, he fought in the War of Independence in 1948, and taught briefly at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 1950 he moved to Canada, where he taught briefly at Carleton University, in Ottawa, before finally settling down in New York City. He began teaching at the New School for Social Research, where he was a professor of philosophy from 1955 through 1976. He also was a fellow at the Hastings Center, a think tank devoted to questions of bioethics.

Jonas’ earliest work revolved around Gnosticism, the dualistic religious philosophy with its roots in the ancient Middle East. But after World War II, he became increasingly concerned with an ethics of responsibility for human beings.

Concerned that both philosophy and science were "value free," and could just as easily be employed in the service of murderous ends as beneficial ones, he became a pioneer in the nascent field of bioethics. Before most others, he understood that human beings had the capacity to destroy not only their own species, but the very existence of life on earth in general.

His conclusion was that the existentialism of many philosophers before him, including his teacher Martin Heidegger, had proved to be a failure.

In 1964, participating in a conference at Drew University, in New Jersey devoted to the career of Heidegger, Jonas was asked to address the relationship between Christian theology and Heidegger’s philosophy. He quoted the Prophet Micah who called on people to "do justice, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God," and argued that Heidegger’s work did not "provide a norm by which to decide how to answer such calls." That was because Heidegger, who remained in Germany during the Nazi years, had given his own answer, telling "the students of Germany: 'Not theorems and ideas be the rules of your being. The Fuehrer himself and alone is the present and future German reality and its law. Heil Hitler!'"

Shortly before his death, which occurred on February 5, 1993, Jonas received the Premio Nonino literary prize, in Italy. In his acceptance speech, his last public statement, he spoke of how the “excessive exploits of human inventiveness” threatened all life. This he called the “latest revelation”: “the outcry of mute things themselves that we must heed by curbing our powers over creation, lest we perish together on a wasteland of what was creation.”