The Philosophical Legacy of Robert Friedmann

Maxwell Kennel

Robert Friedmann was born into a Jewish family in Vienna on June 9, 1891, and by the time he was twenty-three years old he had earned an engineering diploma and aspired to continue his education. His father, Dr. Peter Friedmann, was a physician and wanted Robert to become an engineer or physicist. But at the beginning of World War I in 1914 Robert Friedmann’s life took a different turn, and he became an officer, and eventually a lieutenant at the Italian front, in the army of Austria-Hungary for four years until 1918. Following the collapse of Austria-Hungary after WWI, in 1920 Robert Friedmann enrolled at the University of Vienna where he studied history and European philosophy, completing a dissertation on German philosophy in 1924, and then teaching for the next thirteen years at various colleges and technical schools in Vienna.1

Robert Friedmann (Provided by Author)

In November of 1938, during the Anschluss when Austria was being annexed by Germany, Robert Friedmann was imprisoned by the SS, just after the Kristallnacht on the morning of November 10. He writes of his imprisonment in a pseudonymous account published in the Neue Wege.2 After twelve days of imprisonment he and his wife were mysteriously released, and in the early days of 1939 Robert Friedmann and his wife Susi fled Austria, first spending six weeks in Switzerland and then staying in Sussex before immigrating to the United States. Friedmann’s arrival in the United States was orchestrated by Roland Bainton, a professor at Yale University, and after a short stay at that institution Friedmann connected with Harold S. Bender.3 Bender recalls the moment when Robert Friedmann and his wife Susi stepped off of the train in Goshen, Indiana, and into a new life “at 10:30 pm on a warm July night in 1940.”4 New to the United States, the Friedmann family attended Eighth Street Mennonite Church in Goshen, although Robert and Susi had joined the Reformed Church before leaving Europe. From 1940 to 1943 Robert Friedmann was a visiting lecturer and research fellow in Anabaptist Studies at Goshen College, but in 1944 his wife Susi died after a serious illness.

From 1945 onward Robert Friedmann taught at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Although he had become interested in Anabaptism in the 1920s when he was working on Hutterite codices,5 and although he authored over two hundred articles on theological and historical themes in the Mennonite Encyclopedia, Friedmann had a long-standing interest in European philosophy and literature, particularly German philosophers like Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche and literary figures like Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky. This interest endured from his doctoral studies in the early 1920s to his time at Western Michigan College (later renamed Western Michigan University) where he taught introductory courses in history, philosophy, and ethics.

During that time, Friedmann taught a philosophy course on ethics and values called “Design for Living.”6 This course is exceptional for many reasons, not least of which is that few Mennonites taught philosophy courses in the 1950s.7 Robert Friedmann’s friend Leonard Gross recalls that Friedmann would diligently prepare for his lectures, but then would use only a few written notes instead of following his prepared material.8 His course called “Design for Living” was taught from 1948 to 1960, but in the middle of that time, in 1954, after the end of the school term, a student approach him and gave him a copy of his lectures that she had typed out. This came as a great surprise to Friedmann, and he used the opportunity to edit the text for publication, revising and rewriting the original oral lectures so that they would read well as a book. Unfortunately, Friedmann’s efforts to publish the manuscript as a book in 1956 were met with failure, and presumably he gave up on the manuscript in favor of other projects.9

Shortly before his death in 1970, Robert Friedmann gave copies of two book manuscripts to his friend Leonard Gross, with the hope that he would publish them. The first manuscript is one that he is well known for: The Theology of Anabaptism: An Interpretation, published by Herald Press in the Studies in Anabaptist Mennonite History Series in 1973. The second book manuscript, however, was Design for Living. Unlike Theology of Anabaptism the manuscript for Design for Living was rejected for publication by the Mennonite publishing house. In a letter dated March 13, 1972, an editor for Herald Press wrote to Leonard Gross, stating that they would not publish the manuscript because of the “limited market,” adding: “Now this sounds commercial, but if we can get no one to buy the book then no one will read it and it lies on our inventory shelves and this is not very pleasing to the publisher.”10 And so the manuscript for Design for Living sat in the Mennonite Church USA Archives from 1972 onward, being cited only a handful of times by Levi Miller and J. Lawrence Burkholder.11

In 2013 I began a research project on the relationship between Mennonites and philosophy, part of which meant I went looking for any use of philosophies or philosophers by Mennonite thinkers. After reading about Friedmann’s manuscript in J. Lawrence Burkholder’s entry on ‘Philosophy’ in the Mennonite Encyclopedia I acquired a digitized copy of Design for Living from the Mennonite Church USA Archives.12 In 2015 I began to work on an edited version of the manuscript, and by early 2017 I had secured a contract to publish the book with Wipf and Stock. While in contact with Robert Friedmann’s friend Leonard Gross and his sons John and Martin, I began to prepare the manuscript for publication, editing the text and adding some additional references. The more I worked on it the more I realized that the manuscript contained a wealth of insight into the very existential questions that initially spurred me toward graduate work in Religious Studies and the Philosophy of Religion. A scholarly exercise in doing editorial work on an old manuscript soon became part of my own moral convictions. In reading Friedmann’s lost manuscript I became convinced of its value because of its combination of Anabaptist and Mennonite values with the works of secular, philosophical, and literary figures.

Friedmann’s insight in Design for Living is that the good life is about regard, concern, service, and love.13 Friedmann wants to educate the heart, and he begins by citing Ezekiel 36:26 and its promise of a new heart of human flesh rather than a cold and inflexible heart of stone (1). His first goal in the book is to make more sensitive the hearts of his readers without avoiding the challenges and complexities of life, and the seriousness of the task of living. Design for Living implores the reader to examine their values and priorities – and Friedmann defines values as those things we prioritize and put first, those things we spend our time and energy on, and those things we sacrifice other things for. For Friedmann the most important concern that we ought to have is for the meaning of life, and he thinks that the quest to understand life’s meaning requires a reorientation of the heart and the mind amidst the violent conflicts of the world (2-3). Friedmann calls out to his readers, arguing against apathy and disinterest, contending that life is about more than gaining personal pleasures like money, sex, or power (11-19), and challenging the hegemony of self-interest (20-23). Against hedonism and conventional morality, Friedmann pushes his reader to move beyond mere reception of values, and toward intentional living (23-26).

Friedmann begins by establishing a minimum ethics: a basic moral standard to which all people ought to be held. At base he argues that we should be decent to each other (26-29), although I worry that language of ‘decency’ is still too embedded in the colonial project of propriety and education. Friedmann argues within a western Jewish and Christian paradigm, suggesting that his reader should consider the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule to be basic standards of secular morality (29-36). For Friedmann, without these foundational guides we are already missing something, and he argues that we cannot afford to be indifferent, given the seriousness of our task to figure out what exactly it means to live, and to discern what is morally required of us (37-40). For Friedmann, mutual responsibility is basic, and without it we cannot ascend toward the goal of a truly meaningful life.

Preparing his reader for the ascent to his positive answer, chapter 2 of Design for Living insists that the reader look outside of themselves and consider the needs and suffering of others in the world that we share. Through confession (chapter 3) and an acknowledgment of the inherent difficulty of life (chapter 4), Friedmann builds a four-part framework upon which he argues we should scaffold our moral life, our religious life (if any), and our everyday life. Anticipating objections with a substantial preparatory section, Friedmann provides four steps that build upward toward the meaning of human life. He begins with Regard, which “means to take the other person fully as a person” (119). When we look at another person, we need to see them for who they are, rather than reducing them to an object or dehumanizing them by considering them to be less than ourselves. This is the first step, required of all people so that those from different backgrounds can live well together, both politically and socially. The next step is Concern, which “affirms our interrelatedness, our belonging together” (119-120). Concern means that we not only understand the other as a person, but that we take another step toward them by caring for them. I can see someone else as human, but it may take some effort, self-awareness, and education of desire to feel care toward them. The third step requires the first two. Friedmann writes that “service presupposes the two earlier steps: regard for the fellow human being as a person, and concern for this fellow person and their affairs by an inner participation. In service these steps now become activated into a doing” (120). When we act on our care for others by actually serving them and taking care of them, then we move to Friedmann’s penultimate step on the ladder of human meaning and purpose – his design for living.

The final step on the ladder is Love, and Friedmann understands that love cannot be commanded or legislated without defeating its aspirations. For Friedmann, love “is the crowning of all endeavors to fill life with value and meaning and to be interrelated with our fellow people.” (120). After presents his fourfold principle in summary, Friedmann concludes the book with a postscript that begins with a quotation by H.E. Fosdick: “Life consists not simply in what heredity and environment do to us but in what we make out of what they do to us.” (169).

These issues are not abstract for him, for he struggled to find work in America after he fled Austria in 1940, and many of his job applications were rejected because he was a refugee. The Mennonite Church USA Archives preserves papers that document his struggle to find work in a culture that was suspicious of European immigrants. Prejudice lived then, and it does now. Friedmann saw this and understood it. But he did not become bitter and resentful, despite the difficulty of trying to support a family on a low income. Without resorting to a cheap redemption narrative that covers over suffering and violence, and contrary to contemporary politics of resentment, Friedmann became resilient and turned his negative experiences into fuel for a critical and positive philosophy of human values, encouraging his students at Western Michigan University to consider their social responsibility for those around them.

At its best, this is exemplary of the underground tradition of philosophical and secular humanism in the Anabaptist Mennonite tradition. As I looked into his life, I found that Friedmann’s identity was much more complex than it is often presented, and cannot be fully captured by the Mennonite name. Throughout his career Friedmann’s identity shifted and changed and I explore some of these changes in my preface to Design for Living.14 But there is more work to be done exploring the complexities of Friedmann’s self-understanding. He identified as a “Jew who sides with Christ” in the 1930s, he situated himself between religious socialists and Anabaptists in the 1950s, and he regularly attended a Quaker meeting in his late life.15 In a footnote to his work on Hans Denck, Clarence Bauman makes an intriguing suggestion:

Robert Friedmann, more than any other Anabaptist scholar, recognized in his own educated heart [a reference to the first chapter of Design for Living, which Bauman read] the implicit Jewishness of Anabaptist spirituality, though in his writings he himself hardly dared to make this connection explicit – possibly for personal reasons – and, instead, identified the genius of Anabaptist ‘existential Christianity.’16

It is not out of the question, then, to consider Bauman’s suggestion that Friedmann’s identity may have been more than just primarily Mennonite, but also may have been akin to the Jewish Marrano phenomenon. Elsewhere, in a forthcoming book chapter titled “Secular Mennonite Social Critique: Pluralism, Interdisciplinarity, and Mennonite Studies”, I argue that complex identities like Friedmann’s must be considered within the scope of Mennonite Studies, both because they challenge the dominant narrative of Mennonite identity from within and because they show the entanglement of philosophical and secular sensibilities within a Mennonite figure.

Maxwell Kennel is a PHD candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at McMaster University where he has taught courses on religion and violence and methodological approaches to the study of religion. He has published articles on postsecular approaches to time and history in Studies in ReligionTelosrhizomes, and Political Theology, and articles on Mennonite topics in Literature & TheologyMennonite Quarterly Review, and Journal of Mennonite Studies. In 2017 he edited Mennonite historian Robert Friedmann’s manuscript Design for Living: Regard, Concern, Service, and Love (Wipf & Stock), and in 2021 he will edit a special issue of Political Theology on Mennonite Political Theology. His dissertation is on ontologies and epistemologies of violence in the works of Jacques Derrida, Mennonite philosophical theologians, and the late work of philosopher of religion Grace M. Jantzen. 

1. Robert Friedmann, Das Harmonieprinzip in der Metaphysik, ein problemgeschichtlicher Versuch, dargestellt an Haupttypen [The Principle of Harmony in Metaphysics: A Study in the History of Philosophy] Doctoral Dissertation, University of Vienna, 1924. 128 pp. Examined by J. Döller, F.E. Suess, and R. Much. A copy of the dissertation can be found in Box 20 of the Robert Friedmann Papers, housed in the MCUSA Archives, in Elkhart, Indiana.

2. Robert Friedmann (pseudonym Peter Worb), “Gott shuf den Menschen nach seinem Bilde [God Created Man in his own Image].” Neue Wege (1939): 335-337. Trans. Elizabeth Bender. Mennonite Quarterly Review 48 (April 1974): 174-176.

3. “Conversations with Robert Friedmann,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 48 (April 1974): 141-173.

4. See Steve Nolt, “The Spiritual Journey of Robert Friedmann,” (

5. See his description in Robert Friedmann, “Ein persönlicher Bericht als Vorwort,” in Die Schriften Der Hutterischen Täufergemeinschaften: Gesamtskatalog Ihrer Manuskriptbücher, Ihrer Schreiber, Ihrer Literatur 1529-1667. Zusammengestelt von Robert Friedmann, unter mitarbeit von Adolf Mais (Hermann Böhlaus, 1965).

6. For his lecture notes see Box 60, 4/48 “Ethics, Design for Living Course” and 4/49 “Design for Living,” Robert Friedmann Papers.

7. See the brief survey of Mennonites who taught philosophy courses in Delbert Weins, “Philosophy and Mennonite Self-Understanding” in Mennonite Identity: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Ed. Calvin Wall Redekop with Samuel J. Steiner (London: University Press of America, 1988), 117-135.

8. See Leonard Gross, “Foreword: Robert Friedmann: His Life, His Philosophy,” in Robert Friedmann, Design for Living: Regard, Concern, Service, and Love. Ed. Maxwell Kennel (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2017), x.

9. The Friedmann Papers collection, Box 28, contains reader reports for the publisher Rider and Co. (then an imprint of Ebury publishing, which is now a part of Penguin), dating from June 1956. Of the two reports, one recommends publication and the other recommends rejection. Presumably, the manuscript was rejected by Rider and Co.

10. Box 25. Letter from Herald Press to Leonard Gross, dated March 13, 1972.

11. Levi Miller, “Leo Tolstoy and the Mennonites.” Journal of Mennonite Studies 16 (1998) 163-180.

12. I have since written an update to this entry: “Philosophy” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. (April 2020).

13. Robert Friedmann, Design for Living: Regard, Concern, Service, and Love. Ed. Maxwell Kennel. Foreword by Leonard Gross (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2017), page references in-text.

14. “Discovering the Other Friedmann,” in Friedmann, Design for Living, xv-xx. (

15. Astrid von Schlachta, “Robert Friedmann—Searching for the Meaning of Faith for the World,” in Robert Friedmann, Hutterite Studies: Celebrating the Life and Work of an Anabaptist Scholar. Ed. Harold S. Bender. 2nd Ed (MacGregor, Manitoba: Hutterian Brethren Book Centre, 2010).

16. Clarence Bauman, “Denck’s Spirituality,” in The Spiritual Legacy of Hans Denck: Interpretation and Translation of Key Texts (Leiden: Brill, 1991), 44, note 139. I am grateful to Jamie Pitts for bring this to my attention.

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