Minima Moralia

Theodor Adorno

Scope – Summary

Minima Moralia is a work of Theodor Adorno in which the great philosopher writes down 153 astounding aphorisms about the modern way of living. The book takes its title fromMagna Moralia, Aristotle’s lesser known work on ethics. As Adorno writes in the Dedication, the “sorrowful science” (a pun on Nietzsche’s “The Gay Science”) with which the book is concerned is “the teaching of the good life”, a central theme of both the Greek and Hebrew sources of Western philosophy.

Today, Adorno maintains, a good, honest life is no longer possible, because we live in an inhuman society. “Life does not live”, declares the book’s opening epigram. Adorno illustrates this in a series of short reflections and aphorisms into which the book is broken, moving from everyday experiences to disturbing insights on general tendencies of late industrial society. Topics considered include the subversive nature of toys, the desolation of the family, the ungenuinness of being genuine, the decay of conversation, the rise of occultism, and the history of tact. Adorno shows how the smallest changes in everyday behavior stand in relation to the most catastrophic events of the twentieth century. [1]

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Minima Moralia

This section contains the text of the “Minima Moralia” work of Adorno.


Translation: © 2005 Dennis Redmond;

CopyLeft: translation used with permission, Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike);

Original German: from Suhrkamp Verlag as: Theodor W. Adorno. Collected Works, Volume 4; Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.

[Minima Moralia – start]


The melancholy science, from which I make this offering to my friend, relates to a realm which has counted, since time immemorial, as the authentic one of philosophy, but which has, since its transformation into method, fallen prey to intellectual disrespect, sententious caprice and in the end forgetfulness: the teaching of the good life. What philosophy once called life, has turned into the sphere of the private and then merely of consumption, which is dragged along as an addendum of the material production-process, without autonomy and without its own substance. Whoever wishes to experience the truth of immediate life, must investigate its alienated form, the objective powers, which determine the individual existence into its innermost recesses. To speak immediately of what is immediate, is to behave no differently from that novelist, who adorns their marionettes with the imitations of the passions of yesteryear like cheap jewelry, and who sets persons in motion, who are nothing other than inventory-pieces of machinery, as if they could still act as subjects, and as if something really depended on their actions. The gaze at life has passed over into ideology, which conceals the fact, that it no longer exists.But the relationship of life and production, which the latter degrades in reality into an ephemeral appearance of the former, is completely absurd. Means and ends are interchanged. The intuition of this ludicrous quid pro quo has not been totally expunged from life. The reduced and degraded essence bristles tenaciously against its ensorcelment in the façade. The change of the relations of production itself depends more than ever on what befalls the “sphere of consumption,” the mere reflection-form of production and the caricature of true life: in the consciousness and unconsciousness of individuals. Only by virtue of opposition to production, as something still not totally encompassed by the social order, could human beings introduce a more humane one. If the appearance [Schein] of life were ever wholly abrogated, which the consumption-sphere itself defends with such bad reasons, then the overgrowth of absolute production will triumph.In spite of this, considerations which begin from the subject have as much that is false in them, so much as life becomes appearance [Schein]. Because the overwhelming objectivity of the contemporary phase of historical movement consists solely of the dissolution of the subject, without a new one appearing in its stead, individual experience necessarily relies on the old subject, the historically condemned one, which is still for itself, but no longer in itself. It thinks of its autonomy as still secure, but the nullity, which the concentration camps demonstrated to subjects, already overtakes the form of subjectivity itself. Something sentimental and anachronistic clings to the subjective consideration, no matter how critically sharpened against itself: something of the lament about the way of the world, which is not to be rejected for the sake of its good intentions, but because the lamenting subject threatens to harden in its being-just-so [Sosein] and thereby to fulfill once again the law of the way of the world. The fidelity to one’s own state of consciousness and experience is forever in temptation of falling into infidelity, by denying the insight, which reaches beyond the individuated [Individuum] and which calls the latter’s substance by name.Thus argued Hegel, whose method schooled that of Minima Moralia, against the mere being-for-itself of subjectivity on all its levels. Dialectical theory, averse to everything which is singular, cannot permit aphorisms to be valid as such. In the best of cases they may be tolerated, in the words of the Preface of the Phenomenology of Spirit, as “conversation.” The latter’s time however is over. Nevertheless the book does not forget the totality-claim of the system, which does not wish anyone to escape it, any more than the rebellion against the latter. Hegel does not pay heed to the subject in accordance with the requirement, which he otherwise passionately defends: that of being in the matter [Sache] and not “always beyond it,” instead of “entering into the immanent content of the matter [Sache].” If the subject is disappearing today, aphorisms take on the weighty responsibility of “considering that which is disappearing itself as essential.” They insist, in opposition to Hegel’s procedure and nevertheless in concordance with his thought, on negativity: “The life of the Spirit [Geistes] wins its truth only by finding itself in what is absolutely torn apart. It is not this power as the positive, which looks away from the negative, as when we say of something, that it is nothing or wrong, and now, done with that, pass over from there to something else; rather it is this power only when it stares the negative in the face, tarrying on it.”The dismissive gesture, with which Hegel in contradiction to his own insight, constantly runs roughshod over the individual, derives paradoxically enough from his necessary bias for liberalistic thought. The conception of a totality harmonious throughout all its antagonisms compels him to rank individuation, however many times he designates it as the driving moment of the process, as something lesser in the construction of the whole. That in prehistory the objective tendency asserts itself over the heads of human beings, indeed by virtue of the annihilation of the individual, without the reconciliation implied by the concept of the generality and the particular ever being historically achieved, this is distorted in Hegel: with lofty iciness he opts once more for the liquidation of the particular. Nowhere does he doubt the primacy of the whole. The more dubious the transition from the reflecting singularization to the glorified totality remains, as much in history as in Hegelian logic, the more enthusiastically philosophy clings, as justification of the existent, to the victorious motorcade of the objective tendency. The development of the social principle of individuation into the victory of fatality already gives it occasion enough. Since Hegel hypostatizes bourgeois society as much as its founding category, the individuated [Individuum], he could not truly carry out the dialectic between the two. Admittedly, he assures us, with classical economics, that the totality produces and reproduces itself out of the interrelation of the antagonistic interests of its members. But he naively regards the individuated [Individuum] as such solely as that which is irreducibly given [Gegebenheit], which he just dismantled in his theory of cognition. In the individualistic society however the generality is realized not only through the interplay of individuals, rather the society is essentially the substance of the individuated [Individuum].That is why social analysis can garner incomparably more from individual experience than Hegel conceded, while conversely the great historical categories, after all that has been perpetrated with them in the meantime, are no longer above suspicion of fraud. In the one hundred and fifty years which have passed since Hegel’s conception, something of the force of protest has passed over again into the individuated [Individuum]. Compared with the paterfamilial scantiness, which characterizes its treatment in Hegel, it has won as much richness, differentiation and energy as it has, on the other hand, been weakened and hollowed out by the socialization of society. In the epoch of its disassembly [Zerfalls], the experience of the individuated [Individuum] as well as what it encounters contributes once more to a recognition, which it had concealed, so long as it was construed seamlessly and positively as the ruling category. In view of the totalitarian unison, which broadcasts the elimination of difference as immediately meaningful, a measure of emancipatory social power may have temporarily withdrawn into the sphere of the individual. That critical theory tarries in it, is not only due to a bad conscience.All this is not to deny what is debatable in such an attempt. I wrote the book for the most part during the war, under conditions of contemplation. The violence which drove me into exile simultaneously blocked me from its full recognition. I had not yet admitted to myself the complicity of those who, as if in a magic circle, speak at all of what is individual, in view of the unspeakable things which collectively occurred.Each of the three parts starts out from the narrowest private realm, that of the intellectual in emigration. After this follow considerations of wider social and anthropological scope; they pertain to psychology, aesthetics, and science in its relationship to the subject. The concluding aphorisms of each section lead thematically, too, to philosophy, without claiming to be conclusive and definitive: all of these are intended to mark points of attack or to generate models for future exertions of the concept.The immediate occasion for writing this book was the fiftieth birthday of Max Horkheimer on February 14, 1945. The composition transpired in a phase in which, due to external circumstances, we had to interrupt our common work. The book wishes to proffer thanks and fidelity, by refusing to recognize the interruption. It is testimony to a dialogue interiéur [French: internal dialogue]: there is no motif herein, which does not belong as much to Horkheimer as to the person who found the time for formulation.The specific approach of Minima Moralia, the attempt to represent moments of a common philosophy from the standpoint of subjective experience, means that the pieces do not entirely measure up to the philosophy, of which they are nevertheless a part. This is expressed as what is loose and nonbinding in the form, along with the renunciation of an explicit theoretical context. At the same time, such asceticism should atone for something of the injustice, wherein one continued to work alone on something which can only be completed by both, and from which we shall not desist.

Reflections from the damaged life

Part One – 1944

Life does not live
– Ferdinand Kürnberger


For Marcel Proust. – The son of well-to-do parents who, whether out of talent or weakness, chooses a so-called intellectual occupation as an artist or scholar, has special difficulties with those who bear the distasteful title of colleagues. It is not merely that his independence is envied, that the seriousness of his intentions is doubted and that he is presumed to be a secret envoy of the established powers. Such mistrust is borne out of resentment, yet would usually find its confirmation. However the actual resistances lie elsewhere. The occupation with intellectual [geistigen] things has meanwhile become “practical,” a business with a strict division of labor, with branches and numerus clausus [Latin: restricted entry]. Those who are materially independent, who choose out of repugnance towards the shame of earning money, are not inclined to recognize this. For this he is punished. He is no “professional” [in English in original], ranks in the hierarchy of competitors as a dilettante, regardless of how much he knows about his subject, and must, if he wishes to pursue a career, display a professional tunnel vision even narrower than that of the most narrow-minded expert. The suspension of the division of labor to which he is driven, and which the economic state of affairs allows him, within certain limits, to realize, is considered especially scandalous: this betrays the aversion to sanction the hustle and bustle dictated by society, and high and mighty competence does not permit such idiosyncrasies. The departmentalization of the Spirit [Geist] is a means of abolishing such there, where it is not ex officio or contractually obligated. It does its work all the more surely, as those who continually reject the division of labor – if only in the sense that they enjoy their work – reveal, by this selfsame measure, their vulnerabilities, which are inseparable from the moments of their superiority. Thus is the social order [Ordnung] assured: this one must play along, because one could not otherwise live, and that one, who could indeed live, is kept outside, because they don’t want to play along. It is as if the class which the independent intellectual deserted from revenges itself, by forcibly pushing through its demands precisely where the deserter sought refuge.


Grassy seat. – The relationship to parents is undergoing a sad, shadowy change. They have lost their awe through their economic powerlessness. Once we rebelled against their insistence on the reality principle, the sobriety which was always ready to recoil into the rage against those who do not renounce. Today however we find ourselves facing a presumably younger generation, which is in every one of its impulses unbearably more grown up than the parents ever were; which has renounced, before things ever came to a conflict, and which derives their authority from that, implacably authoritarian and unshakeable. Perhaps one always experienced the parental generation as harmless and disempowered, once the latter’s physical energy subsided, while one’s own generation seemed to be threatened by youth: in the antagonistic society, the relationship of the generations is also one of competition, behind which stands naked violence. Today however things are regressing to a condition which does not know the Oedipus complex, but only the slaying of the father. One of the most telling symbolic atrocities of the Nazis was the killing of the extremely old. Such a climate produces a belated and rueful understanding with one’s parents, similar to the one between condemned prisoners, disturbed only by the fear that we, ourselves powerless, may not be able to care for them some day as they cared for us, when they owned something. The violence which is inflicted on them makes us forget the violence they committed. Even their rationalizations, the once-hated lies with which they sought to justify their particular interest as the general one, show an inkling of the truth, the urge towards the reconciliation of conflicts, which the upbeat successor generation happily denies. Even the faded, inconsequential and self-doubting Spirit [Geist] of the elders is more approachable than the quick-witted stupidity of junior. Even the neurotic peculiarities and malformations of the older adults represent character, that which is humanly achieved, compared with pathic health, infantilism raised to a norm. One realizes in horror that when one previously clashed with one’s parents, because they represented the world, one was secretly the mouthpiece of a still worse world against the merely bad. Unpolitical attempts to break out of the bourgeois family usually only lead to deeper entanglement in such, and sometimes it seems as if the disastrous germ-cell of society, the family, is simultaneously the nourishing germ-cell of the uncompromising will for a different one. What disintegrates, along with the family – so long as the system continues – is not just the most effective agency of the bourgeoisie, but also the resistance which indeed oppressed the individual, but also strengthened the latter, if not indeed producing such. The end of the family cripples the counter-forces. The dawning collectivistic social order [Ordnung] is the mockery of one without class: it liquidates, along with the bourgeois, at the same time the utopia, which at one time drew nourishment from the mother’s love.

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Fish in water. – Since the comprehensive apparatus of distribution of highly concentrated industry has dissolved the circulation-sphere, this latter begins an astonishing post-existence. While the economic basis for the occupation of go-betweens disappears, the private life of innumerable people becomes that of agents and go-betweens, indeed the realm of the private is wholly swallowed up by a mysterious enterprise [Geschäftigkeit: business, activity, busyness], which bears all the marks of the commercial kind, only in a situation where nothing is really being done. Those who are afraid, from the unemployed to professionals who in the next moment may come to feel the wrath of those whose investments they represent, believe they can win over the ubiquitous company executive only through sensitivity, assiduousness, accessibility, by one way or another, through the qualities of traders, and soon there is no relationship which is not seen in terms of other relationships, no impulse which is not subjected to prior censorship, in order not to deviate from approval. The concept of relationships, a category of mediation and circulation, never prospered best in the actual circulation-sphere, in the market, but in closed, monopoly-like hierarchies. Now that the entire society is becoming hierarchal, opaque relationships adhere everywhere, wherever there was still the appearance [Schein] of freedom. The irrationality of the system is expressed not less in the economic fate of particular individuals [Einzelnen] than in the parasitic psychology of such. Earlier, when there was still something like the disreputable bourgeois separation of occupation and private life, whose passing one would almost like to regret, whoever pursued goals in their private life was eyed with distrust, as a loutish gatecrasher. Today whoever engages in something private, which does not have a discernible goal, appears as arrogant, foreign and improper. Whoever isn’t “out” for something [wer nichts “will”: literally, whoever doesn’t want, wish, intend to do something] is almost suspect: no-one trusts anyone else to help them get by, without legitimating themselves through counter-claims. Myriads of people make their living out of a condition, which follows the liquidation of occupations. These are the nice people, the popular ones, who are friends with all, the just ones, who excuse every sort of meanness as “human” [in English in original] and incorruptibly defame every non-normalized impulse as “sentimental” [in English in original]. They are indispensable thanks to their knowledge of all the channels and back doors of power, they guess its most secret judgments and live off the dexterous communication of such. They are to be found in all political camps, even there, where the rejection of the system is taken for granted and for that reason a lax and cunning conformism of its own has developed. Often they win over people through a certain benevolence, through the sympathetic sharing of the life of others: selflessness as speculation. They are clever, witty, sensible and flexible; they have polished the old trader-spirit with the achievements of the day-before-yesterday’s psychology. They are ready for anything, even love, yet always faithlessly. They betray not from instinctual drives, but from principle: they value even themselves as a profit, which they do not wish to share with anyone else. They are bound to the Spirit [Geist] with affinity and hate: they are a temptation for the thoughtful, but also their worst enemies. For they are the ones who subtly apprehend and despoil the last hiding-places of resistance, the hours which remain free from the demands of the machinery. Their belated individualism poisons what still remains of the individuated [Individuum: individual, the individuated].


Final clarity. – The newspaper obituary for a businessman once read: “The breadth of his conscience competed with the goodness of his heart.” The lapse committed by the mourners in the rarefied, elevated language called for at such times, the involuntary admission that the kind-hearted deceased was devoid of a conscience, expedites the funeral procession on the shortest path to the land of truth. When a man of advanced age becomes famous for being especially benign [abgeklärt: clarified, mellowed], one can presume that his life represented a series of scandals. He has gotten used to outrage. The broad conscience passes itself off as greatness of mind [Weitherzigkeit], which forgives everything, because it understands it all too well. A quid pro quo steps between one’s own guilt and that of others, which is resolved in favor of whoever got the best of the deal. After such a long life, one just can’t distinguish who did what to whom. In the abstract representation of universal injustice, every concrete responsibility collapses. The scoundrel twists it around, as if he experienced it himself: if you only knew, young man, what life is really like. Those however who are already distinguished in the middle of life by special benevolence, are usually drawing an advance on such benignity [Abgeklärtheit]. Whoever is not evil, does not live benignly [abgeklärt], but in a peculiarly bashful manner, hardened and intolerant. Due to a lack of appropriate objects, the latter hardly knows any other expression of their love than the hatred of inappropriate ones, through which they admittedly come to resemble what they hate. The bourgeoisie however is tolerant. Their love for people, as they are, originates in the hatred of rightful human beings.


Doctor, that is kind of you. – Nothing is harmless anymore. The small joys, the expressions of life, which seemed to be exempt from the responsibility of thought, not only have a moment of defiant silliness, of the cold-hearted turning of a blind eye, but immediately enter the service of their most extreme opposite. Even the tree which blooms, lies, the moment that one perceives its bloom without the shadow of horror; even the innocent “How beautiful” becomes an excuse for the ignominy of existence, which is otherwise, and there is no longer any beauty or any consolation, except in the gaze which goes straight to the horror, withstands it, and in the undiminished consciousness of negativity, holds fast to the possibility of that which is better. Mistrust is advisable towards everything which is unselfconscious, casual, towards everything which involves letting go, implying indulgence towards the supremacy of the existent [Existierende]. The malign deeper meaning of comfort, which at one time was limited to the toasts of cozy sociability, has long since spread to friendlier impulses. When in the chance conversation with a man on the train, one acquiesces, in order to avoid a quarrel, to a couple of sentences which one knows ultimately certify murder, is already an act of treachery; no thought is immune against its communication, and uttering it at the wrong place and in the context of a false agreement is enough to undercut its truth. Every visit to the cinema, despite the utmost watchfulness, leaves me dumber and worse than before. Sociability itself is a participant in injustice, insofar as it pretends we can still talk with each other in a frozen world, and the flippant, chummy word contributes to the perpetuation of silence, insofar as the concessions to those being addressed debase the latter once more as speakers. The evil principle which has always lurked in affability develops, in the egalitarian Spirit [Geist], into its full bestiality. Condescension and making oneself out as no better are the same. By adapting to the weaknesses of the oppressed, one confirms in such weaknesses the prerequisite of domination, and develops in oneself the measure of barbarity, thickheadedness and capacity to inflict violence required to exercise domination. If, in the latest era, the gesture of condescension is dispensed with, and solely adaptation becomes visible, then it is precisely in such a perfect screening of power that the class-relationship, however denied, breaks through all the more irreconcilably. For intellectuals, unswerving isolation is the only form in which they can vouchsafe a measure of solidarity. All of the playing along, all of the humanity of interaction and participation is the mere mask of the tacit acceptance of inhumanity. One should be united with the suffering of human beings: the smallest step to their joys is one towards the hardening of suffering.


Antithesis. – For those who do not play along, there exists the danger of considering themselves better than others and misusing their critique of society as an ideology for their own private interest. While feeling their way towards making their own existence into the flickering picture of the right one, they should remain aware of its insubstantiality and know how little the picture can replace the right life. Such considerations however contradict the gravitational force of what is bourgeois within them. Those who are at a distance are as entangled as those who are actively engaged; the former have nothing over the latter, except the insight into their entanglement and the happiness of the tiny freedom, which lies in the recognition as such. Their own distance from business as usual is a luxury, solely spun off by that business as usual. That is why every impulse towards self-withdrawal bears the marks of what is negated. The coldness which it must develop is not to be separated from the bourgeois one. In the monadological principle, even where it protests, lurks the ruling generality. Proust’s observation, that the photographs of the grandfathers of a duke and a Jew from the entrepreneurial class look so similar, that no-one thinks of the social ranking order, strikes at a far more comprehensive state of affairs [Sachverhalt]: all of those differences which comprised the happiness, indeed the moral substance, of individual existence, objectively disappear behind the unity of the epoch. We detect the decay of education, and yet our prose, measured against Jacob Grimm or Bachofen, has phraseologies in common with the culture-industry which we did not suspect. Moreover we no longer know Greek or Latin like Wolf or Kirchhoff. We point out the transition of civilization into analphabetism and ourselves forget to write letters or to read a text of Jean Paul, as it must have been read in his time. We abhor the coarsening of life, but the absence of any objectively binding common decency [Sitte: morals] compels us at every step into modes of conduct, speech and calculation which are barbaric, measured by humane standards, and tactless, even by the dubious standards of the good society. With the dissolution of liberalism, the authentic bourgeois principle, that of competition, was not overcome, but passed over from the objectivity of social processes into the composition [Beschaffenheit: character, constitution] of pushing and shoving atoms – into anthropology, as it were. The subjugation of life to the production-process degradingly inflicts something of that isolation and loneliness on every single person, which we are tempted to consider the matter of our superior choice. The notion that every single person considers themselves better in their particular interest than all others, is as long-standing a piece of bourgeois ideology as the overestimation of others as higher than oneself, just because they are the community of all customers. Since the old bourgeois class has abdicated, both lead their afterlife in the Spirit [Geist] of intellectuals, who are at the same time the last enemies of the bourgeois, and the last bourgeois. By allowing themselves to still think at all vis-a-vis the naked reproduction of existence, they behave as the privileged; by leaving things in thought, they declare the nullity of their privilege. The private existence, which yearns to look like one worthy of human beings, simultaneously betrays the latter, because the similarity of the general implementation is withdrawn, which more than ever before requires an independent sensibility [Besinnung]. There is no exit from the entanglement. The only responsible option is to deny oneself the ideological misuse of one’s own existence, and as for the rest, to behave in private as modestly, inconspicuously and unpretentiously as required, not for reasons of good upbringing, but because of the shame that when one is in hell, there is still air to breathe.

[Minima Moralia – end]

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Adorno lived in difficult times. Modern times are difficult times. And Adorno’s logos is most relevant to todays demise of ethics and humanity as a result of the modern way of living and thinking. Technology has started consuming everything, starting from our own nature. Only if we understand that can we actually “live”…

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