Thomas Abbt’s Vom Tode für das Vaterland (1761) and the french debates on monarchical patriotism
University of Cambridge
Abstract. Thomas Abbt’s Vom Tode für das Vaterland (On Dying for the Fatherland) (1761) is a central text of eighteenth-century German patriotism. This article explores its philosophical and political content against the backdrop of the French debates of the 1750s on modern monarchical patriotism. Montesquieu launched these debates by describing the moral life of modern commercial monarchies in Mandevillian terms as a quagmire of materialist selfishness. Civil and military service, he argued, could only be entrusted to the privileged non-commercial estate of nobility, which had preserved its distinct pre-modern principle of noble honour. Patriotism was the motivating principle only of the populace of republics. Its content was self-renunciation in the name of political and social equality. A number of thinkers, including Abbt, criticised Montesquieu’s theory of modern monarchy. French critics of Montesquieu based patriotism on men’s self-interest and desire for distinction, but disagreed with each other about the political implications of this analysis. Abbt’s solution was to develop a novel theory of aesthetic patriotism as the foundation of modern monarchy.
Keywords: patriotism, honour, monarchy, German Enlightenment, Montesquieu, Helvétius, Abbt