A German jurist and writer on criminal law. He was born at Hainichen near Jena on the 14th of November 1775. He received his early education at Frankfort on Main, whither his family had removed soon after his birth. At the age of sixteen, however, he ran away from home, and, going to Jena, was helped by relations there to study at the university. In spite of poor health and the most desperate poverty, he made rapid progress. He attended the lectures of Karl Leonhard Reinhold and Gottlieb Hufeland, and soon published some literary essays of more than ordinary merit. In 1795 he took the degree of doctor in philosophy, and in the same year, though he only possessed 150 thalers (£22 : 10s.), he married. It was this step which led him to success and fame, by forcing him to turn from his favourite studies of philosophy and history to that of law, which was repugnant to him, but which offered a prospect of more rapid advancement. His success in this new and uncongenial sphere was soon assured.
In 1796 he published Kritik des natürlichen Rechts als Propädeutik zu einer Wissenschaft der natürlichen Rechte, which was followed, in 1798, by Anti-Hobbes, oder über die Grenzen der bürgerlichen Gewalt, a dissertation on the limits of the civil power and the right of resistance on the part of subjects against their rulers, and by Philosophische, juristische Untersuchungen über das Verbrechen des Hochverraths.
In 1799 he obtained the degree of doctor of laws. Feuerbach, as the founder of a new theory of penal law, the so-called “psychological-coercive or intimidation theory,” occupied a prominent place in the history of criminal science. His views, which he first made known in his Revision der Grundsätze und Grundbegriffe des positiven peinlichen Rechts (1799), were further elucidated and expounded in the Bibliothek für die peinliche Rechtswissenschaft (1800–1801), an encyclopaedic work produced in conjunction with Karl L. W. G. Grolmann and Ludwig Harscher von Almendingen, and in his famous Lehrbuch des gemeinen in Deutschland geltenden peinlichen Rechts (1801). These works were a powerful protest against vindictive punishment, and did much towards the reformation of the German criminal law. The Carolina (the penal code of the emperor Charles V.) had long since ceased to be respected. What in 1532 was an inestimable blessing, as a check upon the arbitrariness and violence of the effete German procedure, had in the course of time outlived its usefulness and become a source of evils similar to those it was enacted to combat. It availed nothing that, at the commencement of the 18th century, a freer and more scientific spirit had been breathed into Roman law; it failed to reach the criminal law. The administration of justice was, before Feuerbach’s time, especially distinguished by two characteristics: the superiority of the judge to all law, and the blending of the judicial and executive offices, with the result that the individual was practically at the mercy of his prosecutors. This state of things Feuerbach set himself to reform, and using as his chief weapon the Revision der Grundbegriffe above referred to, was successful in his task. His achievement in the struggle may be summed up as: nullum crimen, nulla poena sine lege (no wrong and no punishment without a remedy).
In 1801 Feuerbach was appointed extraordinary professor of law without salary, at the university of Jena, and in the following year accepted a chair at Kiel, where he remained two years. In 1804 he removed to the university of Landshut; but on being commanded by King Maximilian Joseph to draft a penal code for Bavaria (Strafgesetzbuch für das Königreich Bayern), he removed in 1805 to Munich, where he was given a high appointment in the ministry of justice and was ennobled in 1808. Meanwhile the practical reform of penal legislation in Bavaria was begun under his influence in 1806 by the abolition of torture.
In 1808 appeared the first volume of his Merkwürdige Criminalfälle, completed in 1811—a work of deep interest for its application of psychological considerations to cases of crime, and intended to illustrate the inevitable imperfection of human laws in their application to individuals. In his Betrachtungen über das Geschworenengericht (1811) Feuerbach declared against trial by jury, maintaining that the verdict of a jury was not adequate legal proof of a crime. Much controversy was aroused on the subject, and the author’s view was subsequently to some extent modified. The result of his labours was promulgated in 1813 as the Bavarian penal code. The influence of this code, the embodiment of Feuerbach’s enlightened views, was immense. It was at once made the basis for new codes in Württemberg and Saxe-Weimar; it was adopted in its entirety in the grand-duchy of Oldenburg; and it was translated into Swedish by order of the king. Several of the Swiss cantons reformed their codes in conformity with it. Feuerbach had also undertaken to prepare a civil code for Bavaria, to be founded on the Code Napoléon. This was afterwards set aside, and the Codex Maximilianus adopted as a basis. But the project did not become law.
During the war of liberation (1813–1814) Feuerbach showed himself an ardent patriot, and published several political brochures which, from the writer’s position, had almost the weight of state manifestoes. One of these is entitled Über deutsche Freiheit und Vertretung deutsche Volker durch Landstände (1514).
In 1814 Feuerbach was appointed second president of the court of appeal at Bamberg, and three years later he became first president of the court of appeal at Anspach. In 1821 he was deputed by the government to visit France, Belgium, and the Rhine provinces for the purpose of investigating their juridical institutions. As the fruit of this visit, he published his treatises Betrachtungen über Öffentlichkeit und Mündigkeit der Gerechtigkeitspflege (1821) and Über die Gerichtsverfassung und das gerichtliche Verfahren Frankreichs (1825). In these he pleaded unconditionally for publicity in all legal proceedings. In his later years he took a deep interest in the fate of the strange foundling Kaspar Hauser, which had excited so much attention in Europe; and he was the first to publish a critical summary of the ascertained facts, under the title of Kaspar Hauser, ein Beispiel eines Verbrechens am Seelenleben (1832). Shortly before his death appeared a collection of his Kleine Schriften (1833).
Feuerbach, still in the full enjoyment of his intellectual powers, died suddenly at Frankfort, while on his way to the baths of Schwalbach, on the 29th of May 1833. In 1853 was published the Leben und Wirken Ans. von Feuerbachs, 2 vols., consisting of a selection of his letters and journals, with occasional notes by his fourth son Ludwig, the distinguished philosopher.