Turkish Philosophy

Christian Friedrich Rudolph Vetterlein

Vetterlein was born in 1758 in Warmsdorf, a village in Anhalt-Köthen, but moved to the small town of Sandersleben in Anhalt-Dessau as a child. In 1775, he attended the Reformed Gymnasium in Halle and later studied schöne Wissenschaften (belles-lettres), philosophy, and theology at Halle until 1781. In the same year, he was unanimously elected by the city council (Magistrat) in Köthen to be the new Rector of the Reformed Town School (Stadtschule). Immediately after his arrival, he turned his attention to the elimination of the Stocksystem method (hitting students with a stick to punish them), which had been tolerated up until that point. In 1802, Duke August Christian Friedrich commissioned him to prepare a plan for the modernization of this school. He received approval to implement his plan and was also given the directorship of the school. Between 1802 and 1804, Vetterlein’s translation of Jean Gag-nier’s La vie de Mahomet (The Life of Muhammad) was published in German, Leben Mohammeds des Propheten, in two volumes in Köthen. In 1811, Vetterlein received an order to plan to combine and improve the municipal schools. He presented the necessity for the establishment of three educational institutions for the city of Köthen, a Bürger- und Gelehrtenschule (municipal school for boys), a Mädchenschule (school for girls), and an Armenschule (school for the poor) for children of both sexes, as well as the educational requirements for the schools.

Soon afterwards, Duke August appointed him a member of the state committee for school issues of the duchy. In this role, he was engaged in conceiving a total school reform of the country until the Duke died in 1812 and the committee for school issues was abolished. He was the director until 1821, when he was removed from his position due to his perceived lack of authority, although he remained a teacher in the upper classes. Vetterlein knew the requirements of the school system and had the great skill to conceive school plans according to the respective local requirements. Unfortunately, he did not have enough energy or funds from the state to implement his new vision for the vital flourishing of the institution. He did, however, possess great scholarly knowledge and

Turkish Philosophy 237 showed his taste and dexterity in explaining ancient poets, especially Homer and Horace.

In the earlier years, according to Vetterlein’s biography in Neuer Nekrolog der Deutschen, he only left his study room for teaching and exams. Despite his reclusiveness, he was neither clumsy nor pedantic. He was known for his witty conversation and good humor. As a writer, he was excellent and gave generously from his wealth of knowledge. He advanced the understanding of German poets, such as Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (d.l803), through his teachings and writings. As a member of the Reformed Church, Vetterlein did not emphasize church authority or sacraments. He believed that the Redeemer (Erlöser) would be of Germanic descent and that this could be proven historically.

In 1836, he was retired upon his own request, with continued payment of his full salary, and bought a small property in the nearby village of Geuz, where he engaged in horticulture in addition to his scholarly studies. Toward the end of his life, he returned to Köthen, where he died of old age (eighty-four) in 1842. The post-structuralist philosopher Friedrich A. Kittier considers Vetterlein an important figure in the transformative period of the German Protestant education system.1

Variant Names: C. F. R. Vetterlein and Chrs. Fred. Rud. Vetterlein

Summary and Analysis

Vetterlein begins his treatise with a justification of why he is writing about Turkish philosophy since popular opinion is that the Turks have nothing comparable to European philosophy. However, according to Vetterlein, the Turks have progressed to the first basics of philosophy, so that the little they have achieved is worthy of inquiry. He says that the Turks have ignored philosophy for the most part because of their despotic regime and their “savage and intolerant” religion. He finds it remarkable that, despite this inhospitable environment, some philosophies bearing similarities to Greek philosophy have arisen nonetheless. He seeks to explain how this occurred.

He begins by outlining the Turkish educational system; its public schools are connected to mosques. The schools teach Arabic and Persian, together with Ottoman history, and the students read literature “written foolishly in an effeminate style.” The Turks do not study geography, Greek, Latin, or “any other science or liberal art with reason or good methods.” Although they value medicine, the Turks are hampered by little knowledge of chemistry and anatomy. Some Turks read philosophers, such as Averroes and Avicenna, but “more for show than use,” and although Aristotle has been translated into Arabic, the translation is poor. The Ottomans waste their time studying alchemy, astrology, magic, and prophecy. Overall, Vetterlein describes a people who favor superstition and magic over reason and philosophy.

He argues that some sects of Islam have ways of thinking which are similar to the Greek philosophical schools. There are the Calen-dery (Kalenderi), who are similar to the Epicureans, and the Maelu-mitae (Meldmeti), who believe that self-knowledge is a prerequisite for knowledge of the divine. The Munachistae are similar in doctrine to the Pythagoreans, and he likens the highly skeptical Haeretitae to the Academics in ancient Greece. The Jabrite and Qadarite hold opposite views on free will and predestination, and the Ishraqiyya school rejects parts of the Qur’an they find absurd. According to Vetterlein, atheists exist among the Turks and some are Ottoman sultans. The Charavidschitae deny that any man can receive divine revelations, whereas the Musser-ini deny the existence of God. Vetterlein’s treatise ends rather abruptly, with no conclusion about the philosophy of the Turks. He finds Turkish philosophy a primitive curiosity, valuable, and interesting, not in its own right, but only insofar as it relates to Greek philosophy. However, Vetterlein shows great awareness of the Sufi groups, and different religious sects, including atheists, in the Ottoman Empire. As a member of the Reformed Church, Vetterlein’s criticism of Christian sects that are foreign to philosophy as well as full of mystics and fanatics with no theological education is a veiled critique of Pietism and orthodox Lutheranism.

Turkish Philosophy (Kothen, 1790)

My readers will perhaps wonder why I have written this little book about Turkish philosophy, since it is commonly agreed that the Turks have neither philosophy, as we understand it, nor any books on philosophy. But I think that the human genius and intellect has progressed among the Turks to something that resembles the first basics of philosophy. They have begun to exercise their reason in a way that we can speak of as philosophizing. For philosophy is nothing other than reason and the human mind seeking natural causes and the laws of nature. I truly believe that any effort spent on philosophy is not at all useless, whether one reaches a higher understanding of things through the powers of a civilized or barbarian mind. What then might cause the Turks to ignore philosophy? For philosophy helps us to understand history, which is very useful for human and divine knowledge. The reason the Turks never undertook a deliberate study of rational philosophy is because they never wanted to apply themselves to it. Their despotic and irrational empire opposes the refinement of the mind; and their religion is not only devoid of reason, but savage and intolerant. This intolerance, backed by civil law, represses all attempts at free thought and free speech. A third reason for this lack of philosophy is the slowness of the Tatar genius, although they exercise their judgement rationally enough in everyday affairs. But this nation lacks the mental strength and passionate force of mind necessary to discover and understand the deepest and greatest science of all: philosophy. They seem fonder of leisure and frivolous matters than is

Turkish Philosophy 239 appropriate to cultivators of the most difficult and honorable discipline. But these barbarians have progressed to some semblance of philosophy, which can also be observed in the histories of other uncivilized nations in the process of laying aside their barbarousness. For us who are led by the Supreme Deity, reason seems of secondary importance, yet it too can lead us to the truth. Thus, there are certain means by which some nations are led to a deeper philosophical understanding of things. The first of these is religion, even one that is superstitious and foolish. The second is an understanding of history and foreign languages. With these means, the more talented intellects of a barbarous age can reach a deeper knowledge of nature and begin to philosophize.

The possessor of a sophisticated mind craves knowledge of the truth and understanding of the obscure when he has been freed from work and can enjoy leisure time. Thus, he explores things that he usually fears due to religious superstition; he cannot help seeking explanations for the unknown, and this, on its own, is philosophizing. For every organized religion pronounces on almost all matters, and dares to respond to all serious questions: the origin and end of man and the universe, the causes of both, God, and the good life. This is why even Christians who do philosophy mostly start with inquiring into their paternal religion and the opinions formed in childhood before anything else, as if they could not step out into the light of philosophy without throwing down these chains. These chains and impediments need to be removed in order to make the love for truth and justice stronger and more enduring.

Religion alone does not lead to truth for the majority of people. This is demonstrated by the existence of many heretical sects arising within any given religion. Many think that religion combined with sound reason is far superior. Many opinions and doctrines, some of which are absurd, have arisen from a mixture of religion and reason. These opinions and doctrines bear a marvelous resemblance to those of the Greek philosophers. This is what I want to demonstrate with examples drawn from the Turkish nation, although I could easily do the same with the Indians, the Jews, other barbarians, or even Christian sects that are foreign to true philosophy. Mystics and other fanatics who lack theological teaching often reach judgements in a way that is similar to the keenest discoveries of the free mind and the metaphysical inquiries of philosophers, although they are expressed in unpolished and impure words, and corrupted by other ineptitudes. This is how religious sects arose among the Turks, expressing varied opinions in a manner reminiscent of different schools of philosophy. But first we must speak a few words about their education and intellectual history, which will elucidate their understanding of nature and the universe. For other disciplines tend to precede philosophical study. For the following, I have consulted the works of Busbeck, Ricaut, Businello, Büsching, Liidecke, and Volney.

[In the Ottoman] medrese, the public school attached to the mosque, [students] learn Arabic and Persian. Arabic is taught so the Turks couldread and recite the Qur’an; Persian is studied for reasons of style and ornamentation in writing. Besides this, they study the native history of the Ottomans. I doubt that this [initial education] prepares their minds for philosophy. In the Persian language, they read the fiction that we call Romance. This genre is written foolishly in an effeminate style, telling tales of lovers and monsters, which is the genius of the East. The works that [Pierre de] Marivaux and [Henry] Fielding composed based on these Romance stories are almost philosophical, but the Persian source material could not be acknowledged as such. Other literary studies were unknown to the Ottomans, except for knowledge of the law and sacred matters, which were based on the impure Qur’an. For they cared neither for history or geography, nor Greek or Latin, nor any other science or liberal art with reason or sound methods. They were drawn to medicine, but they were unsophisticated, and were ignorant of chemistry and anatomy. Some Turks read books in Arabic about medicine and philosophy by Avicenna and Averroes. But this was more for show than for use, so they could engage in mere sophistry and subtleties instead of divine abundance and Aristotelian acuteness. These barbarians also translated Aristotle to their own language very poorly. That is why they were unskilled and unreachable in physics. Many princes of this nation were fruitlessly engaged in and enthusiastic about alchemy, astrology, magic, and prophecy. The court employed an astrologer at public expense, who was consulted for advice. They had no sophisticated moral teachings, but they had brief aphorisms which were allegorical in the Eastern manner.

The Muslim religion is divided into many sects. These sects have opinions which resemble those of the Greek philosophical schools, which were founded by the pioneers of philosophy. [For example], the ideas of the Calendery [Kalenderi] resemble those of the Epicureans: they wickedly opine that all abstinence is futile; and all sadness is roused by black bile, which is natural to the superstitious; and every day should be lived to the fullest; and they think men should enjoy themselves in order to live a good life. The heretics called Maelumitae [Melameti] uphold a certain dogma which is wiser than the teachings of other philosophers: they believe that men can reach a perfect knowledge of God over the course of their own lives if they first know themselves fully. According to them, divine nature can only be understood through human nature. Those who are called Munachistae [Bekta§i?] believe in metempsychosis [tanasukh]1 just like the Pythagoreans, and refrain from all use of animals. Another sect, the Haeretitae [Cerrahi?], doubts everything, affirms nothing, and denies knowledge of truth to men, attributing it to God alone. This makes them unargumentative, dutiful, and compliant. But they are very pious and diligent in worshipping and performing rites on their paternal sacred days. Behold! These Tatar barbarians are like Academics!

Just as the question of free will and fate is important to philosophers, it is also a matter of importance to Muslims. Hence arose the Jabrite

Turkish Philosophy 241 sect, which believes that everything, including men, are ruled by a supreme deity; and that all our actions depend on divine will. They believe that we would not even think of doing anything against God’s will; and that whatever we do, it comes from a natural and determined beginning. They also think that the whole mind is controlled by physical laws, as is water flowing down from a height, and heavy objects which are carried downwards. However, the Qadarites believe the opposite. For they do not believe in fate and an immutable nexus of human events; they attribute free will to men, otherwise God would be the cause of evil and the author of sin.

The majority of those skilled in law and those who function as royal priests in mosques constitute the order of the Ischrakitae [Ishraqiyya], who espouse liberal doctrines. According to their beliefs, it is most important that we be loved by God, which is impossible unless we love humans. Hence, they show great generosity to the poor, and great companionship and constancy in friendship. Besides this, they show great freedom and wisdom in religious matters. They do not praise the Qur’an completely, but only those parts that contain goodness; the rest they despise as absurd and stupid. They treat the followers of foreign religions humanely and bear themselves with equanimity. When they debate with Christians, they do not wholly reject their mysteries, but challenge certain aspects of their reasoning and dogma. They define goodness as contemplation. They use well-considered judgement in sacred matters and exercise laudable caution toward the masses, whose religious opinions no wise man would ever impugn openly. Thus, I can justly claim that the source of wisdom, the Academic school, has transferred from old Greece to these masters of new Greece. [...].

For just as a shadow of a man gave rise to the art of statuary, so thought, with some religion as its foundation, gives the opportunity to investigate everything about nature. And thus, we come to true and false judgements. The Charavidschitae [Kharijites?] deny all religious revelations given by a man. They do not think that there is any man divinely instructed and sent down from heaven for the sake of founding a religion, for every man can be deceived and make mistakes. If God had wanted to help humankind by revealing religion, it is extremely unlikely that He used one man or one nation. Either none or all organized religions in the world should rest on the authority of God, since He is the kind of being who cares for the whole race of mortals. Therefore, the Charavidschitaes reject the Muslims who think more of domination and empire than of virtue.

But the Musserini are bolder and they deny that there is a God. They say that nature is inward and that the force of things, “in which the cause of each thing is situated,” lies in the individual.

This is what produced everything that we see of its own accord and what maintains it in its nexus; this is what gave forth the sun, moon,

and stars and what forces them to stay on their course; this is where man gets strength to stand and move himself, where he is born and grows and gains strength like a plant; this is that force and wonderful nature which stands out so clearly that the mind comprehends it as if it were visible.

They think that this inward force is the cause of the marvels of nature and they say that we feel the divine without seeing it. They use the [dialectical] question of whether or not there is a god. If there is, He is not wise, since prophets imagine Him for us. For He would not have created atheists, who deny His strength and nature, and persistent thinking that He does not exist. Many of these atheists preside over the laws and are princes of the Ottoman Empire, boasting of the sophisticated elegance of their ways. Indeed, these atheists tend to hide their own beliefs, and for that reason they are called Musserini, that is, “those who have the mystery.”3 These men pay much more attention to [secular] morality, hospitality, and companionship; they freely pursue their studies, cultivate friendship, and dispute among themselves with great freedom on public and religious matters. Therefore, good and civil ways are not always foreign to atheists, if they must be called thus, for they do not reject the concept of a divine power, but rather the concept of an anthropomorphic god. Indeed, Strato, Spinoza, and others philosophized on this matter. The opposite viewpoint comes from those who attribute the idea of personhood to the divine power, which is something extraordinary and therefore not subject to human understanding.


  • 1 Vetterlein’s biography was compiled from the following sources: Andreas Gottfried Schmidt, Anhaitisches Schriftsteller-Lexikon, oder historischliterarische Nachrichten über Schriftsteller, welche in Anhalt geboren sind oder gewirkt haben (Bernburg, 1830), 432-4; Christian F. R. Vetterlein, Klopstocks Oden und Elegieen mit erklärenden Anmerkungen (Leipzig, 1833); Friedrich A. Schmidt and Bernhard F. Voigt, Neuer Nekrolog der Deutschen, vols. 20-21 (Weimar, 1844), 127-31; Friedrich A. Kittier, Aufschreibesysteme 1800/1900 (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 1985), 155; Ingrid Tomkowiak, Lesebuchgeschichten: Erzählstoffe in Schullesebüchern, 1770-1920 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1993), 36-42; and Hole Rößler, “Polyhistorie und Polymathie,” in Neue Diskurse der Gelehrtenkultur in der Frühen Neuzeit: Ein Handbuch, eds. Herbert Jaumann and Gideon Stiening (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2016), 635-76.
  • 2 [MK] On the believers of metempsychosis in the Safavid context, see Kathryn Babayan. Mystics, Monarchs, and Messiahs: Cultural Landscapes of Early Modern Iran (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 3-8 and 484.
  • 3 [MK] On the Musserini sect (spelled also Muserin or Muserim), see Alan Charles Kors, Atheism in France, 1650-1729, Volume I: The Orthodox Sources of Disbelief (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 151-2.
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