Christian Lambek (1870 – 1947)

Lambek in memoriam
af Johannes Smith 1952
Fra Lambek: Problems of Morality and Social Justice

A few months before Lambek died, he wrote in a letter to me that the manuscript of his latest and final work had now been translated into English and was ready for publication, and he added: I am now free of all care; and, as reading still gives me pleasure, time will not seem long.

When Lambek died, 77 years old, on the 28th of December 1947. This marked the close of a long and active life. Apart from the last few weeks of devastating illness, his mind was to the last as vital and fertile, as devoid of pettiness, as it had been during all the years I had known him. His whole conduct of life was living evidence that he was right in his teachings on human nature and human existence as set forth in his books.

His first publication was a book of verse, which appeared in 1892, and he has since published altogether 40 books. After some years of study at the University of Copenhagen, it became clear to him that as a thinker and philosopher he would have to go his own ways. For this reason his studies never led up to a final examination or degree, and as a rule he was in opposition to the official philosophy as represented by for instance, Harald Høffding.

During the following 30 years Lambek undertook various tasks as teacher and for several years he was headmaster of a secondary school. As a Consequence of his extremely frugal mode of life, he gradually gained economic independence, so that at the age of 56 he could retire and wholly dedicate his time and his efforts to what he considered his true calling and life-work.

His earlier works were mainly devoted to belles lettres. In 1899 he published: Bidrag til Ibsen Kritiken (Contribution to the Criticism on Henrik Ibsen), and 1902-04 he edited: Tidsskrift for Aandskultur, an intellectual and cultural periodical which brought contributions by several Danish authors and philosophers who have since become famous.

Gradually, however, his interest in the problems of life-philosophy prevailed. He often expressed his conviction that philosophy should act as a guide for those who are trying to find their way through the labyrinths of existence. Among his contributions to this subject must be mentioned: Personlig Kultur (Personal Culture), which ran to four editions in Sweden and three editions in Denmark, and his book: Dagligdagen (Everyday life). These works contain many wise and valuable reflections couched in a clear and vivid language. However, Lambek felt that these essays could only be considered as his personal, more or less subjective experiences, which he passed on to his fellow-men. He realised that he should endeavour scientifically constructed philosophy. As he proceeded in this direction his works became less popular. Eight of Lambek’s books, on subjects such as epistemology and moral rights (including the present essay[1]) he had published only in the English language, on the assumption that the small number of his compatriots who would be able to appreciate these books would also be able to read them in English. On the whole, he did not expect much encouragement from his Danish colleagues. His main object in having his books printed in a world-language was to give those who might wish to continue along the lines indicated by him an opportunity to learn the main elements in his philosophy.

Lambek was born of peasants and, being of a realistic nature, he soon saw that to issue rules for living without making an attempt to create better social conditions for the individual would not be much use. Already in 1908 he published his work: Om social Retferdighed paa Grundlag af Ejendomsretten (On social justice on the basis of the right of ownership). And in cooperation with the two Danish philosophers, Severin Christensen and Axel Dam, he worked out the Moral Right, which forms the basis of the political party: Danmarks Retsforbund, established after the first world war.

Lambek remained a bachelor all his days, and so did not live the normal family life. He had the makings of a hermit in him, but there is plenty of evidence to show that he did not become a bookish, detached, dry-as-dust theorist. When on rare occasions he took part in the political debate, his clear and concise statements always had their effect, but his influence was particularly great behind the scenes. His remarks could be both biting and caustic, but his common sense and honesty invariably created respect, and no one has ever thought, much less hinted, that he sought advantages for himself or had any kind of personal vanity.

Lambek had an experience which is very rare for political philosophers: he saw the party, which had adopted his ideas, growing and increasing from year to year, both in number of votes and influence. At the election in 1947, shortly before his death, Danmarks Retsforbund obtained nearly 100,000 votes out of just over two million, (at the election in 1950 this was increased to 166.000 votes. Only three of the political parties represented in the parliament are bigger). The fight against monopolistic exploitation of the common people, which has been wielded by the Marxists with changing luck and some undesirable consequences, now seems to have reached a critical point in many countries. It is not always to the advantage of the people when state monopolies take over private monopolies.

It may be that the ideas of Moral Right will step into the breach where Marxism failed, not only in Denmark, but in all democratic countries. In Sweden a new political association has been started along the lines of Danmarks Retsforbund.

Lambek dedicated a great part of his life and his efforts to this cause, and he left the main part of his property to be used for the furtherance of political work and scientific research in these domains.

His last word in the debate, which was the main interest in his life, is the present book.

Copenhagen, May 1952.
Johannes Smith.

[1] Problems of Morality and Moral Justice / pma