Born in Munich in 1897 to an assimilated Jewish father who had converted to Christianity, Löwith volunteered in the first world war to defend the fatherland. He was wounded in the Italian campaign of 1915, spending three years in captivity near Genoa. Upon his return to Germany, he enrolled first at the University of Munich and later at Freiburg. At the latter institution, he fell under the influence of Martin Heidegger, under whom he habilitated in 1928. With the rise of the Nazis, Löwith fled Europe with his wife in 1934. Arriving in Japan, he taught at Tohoku University (which had its own tradition of phenomenology) before once again moving, this time to the United States, where he took a position at the Hartford Theological Seminary.
Löwith moved to the New School for Social Research in 1949 and in the same year published what is perhaps his best-known book, From Hegel to Nietzsche. This was followed in 1953 by his Meaning in History. 
Both books combine erudite readings of major figures in the history of philosophy with original arguments concerning the historical nature of philosophical thought. Löwith’s particular areas of interest are first, the German philosophical tradition and second, Christian theology, strands of thought he weaves together.
In From Hegel to Nietzsche, Löwith sets out to “transcribe” the philosophical history of the nineteenth century. In the preface to the first edition of the book, written from Japan in the spring of 1939, Löwith explains this project thus: “To transcribe history does not mean to counterfeit the irrevocable power of what has taken place once and for all, or to increase vitality at the expense of truth, but to do justice to the vital fact of history so that that the tree may be known only by its fruits, the father by his son. The twentieth century has made explicable the actual events of the nineteenth” (Preface, pp. xv-xvi). This is an audacious claim – that nineteenth century philosophy is brought to sense on the horizon of the twentieth – for two reasons. First in a consequentialist vein, Löwith suggests that philosophy becomes explicable or meaningful only in retrospect, that philosophical texts must be known “by their fruits.” The true meaning of the thought of the nineteenth century only became meaningful against the events of the twentieth. Taken more generally this means that philosophy is not clearly understood in its own time but is always “untimely” at the moment of production. Second he implies that the revolutions of the twentieth century are in some sense products of philosophy. Communism and fascism – and for that matter consumer society and technocracy – the great examples of twentieth century ideology, are the “children” of nineteenth century philosophy.
His particular “transcription” does not emerge as a linear narrative history of German thought but rather develops as a retrospective analysis of the theological and social structures that determined the work of the major thinkers of the 1800s. The book begins with a comparative examination the theological views of Goethe and Hegel, focusing especially on the image of the rose and the cross (pp.14-20). Löwith chooses this symbol, which implicitly refers both to Luther’s coat of arms as well as to the Rosicrucian sect, because its interpretation brings out the religious background of the two major trajectories of German thought at the beginning of the nineteenth century. For Hegel the cross represents estrangement, the dissociation of self-conscious spirit from the presently existing reality. But because estrangement and reconciliation “have already taken place within history in the suffering god,” Hegel identifies reason as “the rose blooming within the cross of the present.” But while Hegel unifies philosophical reason and Christianity in total system, for Goethe the symbol is a “riddle manifest” and thus remains impenetrable by rational thought. For Goethe the roses “lend softness” to the “rude wood” and together the two, far from reconciling faith and reason, serve as the symbol of mankind. Rejecting Hegel’s philosophical Christianity in favor of humanism, Goethe writes, “We shall all grow gradually from a Christianity of word and faith to a Christianity of disposition and deed.” By focusing on the ambivalence and fecundity of this image, Löwith shows how such appropriation of theological meaning formed the conceptual resources even of such seemingly non-religious thinkers as Marx and Proudhon.
What follows includes an account of the Young Hegelians, careful analyses of the concepts of education and work in the bourgeois world, and a peculiar interpretation of Nietzsche’s writings (in whose Zarathustra the image of the rose and cross is “perverted” – p.179). It is a big book, based on an impressive depth and breadth of scholarship, and is perhaps best read in pieces. In the background are always the questions concerning the intersection of philosophy and history. How do the ideas of the past give rise to the realities of the present? What resources does retrospective philosophical analysis offer us for understanding ourselves? How is the concept of history itself given a sense?
It is to this last question in particular that Löwith turns in Meaning in History. Löwith claims in this text is that theology gave rise to the modern concept of progress. More precisely, Löwith holds that progressive history combines two ancient traditions: the cyclical view of historical change originating in pagan Greek thought, and the eschatological temporality of Christian-Hebrew thought. The combination of the two forms – which is never stable because of their inherent dissonance – originates in the encounter between Rome and Christianity and is continued in the tradition of “universal” and “secular” history. Although both works share the hypothesis of theological origin of secular thought, the earlier book is a landscape, while Meaning in History is a genealogy. It is accordingly more philosophically satisfying since the evidence it provides for the hypothesis is laid out in a direct chronological order.
Löwith works backwards, beginning with Burckhardt’s historical reflections, and ending with the New Testament view of history. The backwards movement is meant to exemplify how the figures discussed – Burckhardt, Marx, Hegel, the French Positivists, Voltaire, Vico, Bossuet, Joachim, and Augustine and Orosius – gave meaning to history. For history to be meaningful, it must indicate “some transcendent purpose beyond the actual facts” (p.5). But only after examining the cases of these philosophers can Löwith conclude that “if we venture to say that our modern historical consciousness derived from Christianity, this can mean only that the eschatological outlook of the New Testament has opened the perspective toward a future fulfillment – originally beyond, and eventually within, historical existence.” (p.197) In other words, the meaning of history has itself undergone an historical transformation. Beginning as the transcendent aim of messianic religion, the meaning of history has gradually become immanent to the process of history itself. What was once god’s plan for the end of days is transformed in modernity into the concept of the progress of civilization.
Löwith was seeking the ideological roots of positivism, communism, and fascism rather than of 21st century libertarian futurism or international development when he wrote Meaning in History. But perhaps his observation that “even atheism, in post-Christian times, draws its strength from the Christian faith in salvation” (p.209) could be as easily applied to progressive movements today as it was of the ideologies of the previous centuries.
From his years as a student, Löwith was friends with Leo Strauss, another of Heidegger’s students who taught at the New School (the others being Hans Jonas and Hannah Arendt). A translation of the “infamous” letter to Löwith in which Strauss seems to endorse an openly authoritarian politics is available here . As might be expected Löwith had a complex relationship with Heidegger. Part of this relationship is detailed in short piece, “My Last Meeting With Heidegger in Rome, 1936,” which reports Löwith’s direct confrontation of Heidegger concerning the latter’s Nazism. Although it does not explicitly address the issue of antisemitism that has recently become a central problem in the discourse on Heidegger, Löwith implicitly touches on this issue, especially in the closing lines concerning his teacher’s relationship with Husserl.
Even more intriguing is Löwith’s 1939 essay “Heidegger’s Existentialism,” in which he describes himself as “indebted to his master for certain essential intellectual impulses” but is nevertheless critical of Heidegger’s work. Perhaps these impulses drive Löwith neither to denounce nor to absolve Heidegger of guilt. Rather the essay is concerned to examine the relation of Heidegger’s philosophy to national socialism. For Löwith this is not a matter of gathering evidence for or against the man but of understanding his thought given the already evident facts. The Heidegger question is thus a problem of interpretation. The essay accordingly centers meaning of a beautiful if obscure saying of Van Gogh, which Heidegger quoted in a letter to Löwith: “I feel with all my power that the history of man is like that of wheat: if one is not planted in the earth to flourish, come what may, one will be ground up for bread.” To this Heidegger added: “Woe to him who is not pulverized.”
Löwith, K. Meaning and History. The University of Chicago Press 1949.
Löwith, K. From Hegel to Nietzsche. Columbia University Press 1964.
1. Many of these biographical facts come from the Goethe Institute’s page on Löwith, which, aside from its insipid title (“German, Jew, Philosopher”), is an acceptable online introduction to his life. Although we have criticized his reading of Arendt, Richard Wolin gives a fine treatment of Löwith’s life in Heidegger’s Children, pp. 79-80 (Princeton University Press, 2001).
2. The translation comes with an interesting, though in our opinion flawed, commentary by Scott Horton, a professor of law uptown. As opposed to Horton, one should try to understand Strauss’ thinking in context and not extrapolate so much from a single personal communication from 1933. Even as a young man in a perilous situation Strauss could not be so stupid as to have thought Nazism was “not fascistic enough.” Presumably he would have something to say about philosopher kings and noble lies, notions that take one far beyond the barbarism he was facing.