Matthias Knutzen (also: Knuzen, Knutsen) (1646 – after 1674) was a German-languaged critic of religion and the author of three atheistic pamphlets. In modern Western history, he may be the first atheist known by name and in person.
Matthias Knutzen was born at Oldenswort (Schleswig-Holstein) early in 1646. His parents were Berend Knutzen, organist in Oldenswort and his wife Elisabeth (Elsebe). In the same year Knutzen was born his father died. As a boy, Knutzen was sent to his brother Johann Knutzen, an organist in Königsberg in East Prussia, and attended there a secondary school (the Altstädtisches Gymnasium) from 1661 to 1664. In 1664, he registered at the university of Königsberg and in 1668, at the University of Copenhagen to study theology. In between he earned some money as a private tutor. In 1673, he took a position as a village schoolteacher and auxiliary preacher in the Kremper Marsch (Schleswig-Holstein). However, he was dismissed at the end of that very year 1673, because he had sharply criticised the ecclesiastical authorities in his sermons. In the February 1674 he went to Rome and in the September 1674 to Jena (Thuringia). There, Knutzen distributed handwritten pamphlets with atheistic contents. The town and the university of Jena carried out an investigation. In order not to be arrested, Knutzen went first to Coburg and then to Altdorf near Nuremberg. On October 22, 1674, he was last seen in Jena. Then his track is lost. The author Johannes Moller wrote in his biography of North German writers, Cimbria Literata (printed in 1744), that Knutzen had died in an Italian monastery, but that was probably only an invention made up to discredit both Knutzen and the Roman Catholic church.
In his three pamphlets of 1674 (listed below under 'Writings'), Knutzen claimed that there was a sect or community called the “Gewissener” or “Conscientarians” (i.e. the conscience-people). According to him, the Conscientarians had many members at different places (Hamburg, Jena, Paris, Amsterdam, Rome), allegedly more than 700 at Jena alone. However, this claim is regarded as a disguise and the teachings which Knutzen spread as an alleged member of the Conscientarians were in fact his own.
According to Knutzen, there are no transcendent entities such as God, the devil and immortal souls. The Bible is not plausible because of its many contradictions. The guidelines for human behavior should be reason and conscience. Therefore, both secular and ecclesiastical authorities are superfluous. In his Latin letter Amicus Amicis Amica! Knudsen summarizes his beliefs as:
Insuper Deum negamus, Magistratum ex alto despicimus, Templa quoque cum omnibus Sacerdotibus rejicientes.
Moreover, we deny God, we despise authorities from above and we reject the churches together with all ministers.
The uppermost rule is for Knutzen, “Live honestly, do not harm anybody and give everybody what they deserve” (in Latin, Honeste vivere, neminem laedere, suum cuique tribuere), an old Roman legal principle according to Ulpian.
Sources and reception
Knutzen was obviously inspired by Socinianism. Other influences (Spinoza?) are hard to tell and disputed. However, it can be shown that Knutzen was well versed in the philosophical literature of his time even when it comes to insignificant details.
Knutzen’s views provoked the violent rejection of ecclesiastical authors. E. g. in 1677, the German theologian Tobias Pfanner claimed that Knutzens work surpasses the infamy of all enemies of religion known until then. Pierre Bayle included Knutzen in his dictionary Dictionnaire historique et critique (first edition in 1697, further editions throughout the 18th century). Thus, for the philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment, Knutzen became the first modern atheist known by name.
- Epistola amici ad amicum [Latin: Letter of a Friend to a Friend], also under the title Amicus Amicis Amica!, 1674.
- Gespräch zwischen einem Gastgeber und drei Gästen ungleicher Religion [German: Conversation between a Host and three Guests of different Religion], 1674.
- Gespräch zwischen einem Feldprediger namens Dr. Heinrich Brummern und einem lateinischen Musterschreiber [German: Conversation between an Army Chaplain called Dr Heinrich Brummern and a Latin Pattern-Writer], 1674.
- M. Knutzen, ein deutscher Atheist und revolutionärer Demokrat des 17. Jahrhunderts. Flugschriften und zeitgenössische sozialkritische Schriften, ed. and prefaced by Werner Pfoh. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag 1965.
- Matthias Knutzen: Schriften und Materialien, ed. by Winfried Schröder. (Philosophische Clandestina der deutschen Aufklärung. Texte und Dokumente / Philosophische Clandestina der deutschen Aufklärung Abteilung I: Texte und Dokumente). Stuttgart: Frommann-Holzboog 2010.
- Pierre Bayle, Matthias Knuzen, in: Dictionnaire historique et critique, edition of 1740, vol. 3, p. 12 online here (French)
- Dieter Lohmeier (1980), "Knutzen, Matthias", Neue Deutsche Biographie (NDB) (in German), 12, Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, pp. 232–233; (full text online)
- Winfried Schröder, Matthias Knutzen: Flugschriften, in: Winfried Schröder, Ursprünge des Atheismus. Untersuchungen zur Metaphysik- und Religionskritik des 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts, Stuttgart 1998, p. 420 f.
- Julius August Wagenmann (1882), "Knutsen, Matthias", Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie (ADB) (in German), 16, Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot, pp. 335–336
- Wolfgang Weber. "Knutzen, Matthias". Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon (BBKL) (in German)., vol. 4, col. 190-193.