After 1965, when a new English translation was published, Hermann Hesse’s Demian, together with Siddartha and Der Steppenwolf, came to be associated with America’s burgeoning counterculture. Hailed by LSD guru Timothy Leary as “the ultimate guide to the psychedelic experience”,  the recently-deceased German writer seemed a kindred spirit to the hippy protest movement, a wise precursor who shared their goals of expanding consciousness and finding alternative ways of living.
In an article published in 1970, Henry Pachter, a German-born Marxist intellectual, noted his surprise at Hesse’s new popularity and tried for an explanation. As a young man in 1920s Germany, Pachter had read Demian with great interest. Fifty years later, in a very different society, Pachter found that the powerful prophetic voice he knew from before was stirring up a whole new generation of young people, and this despite the poor quality of the translations and the unfamiliarity of many cultural references. Pachter concluded, disparaging both Hesse and his earlier self, that Hesse’s appeal lay in the author’s undemanding art. Hesse, he claims, does not ask his readers to think, but to feel. The central benefit a reader derives from the reading experience is the ability to feel herself while avoiding a cognitive challenge. Comparing Hesse to J. D. Salinger, he points to Hesse’s basic optimism, which has the existentially challenged protagonists of his novels move towards a solution to their problems. This the darker, and presumably superior, The Catcher in the Rye is unable for. 
Pachter does not inquire any further into what a reader of Demian might feel when she feels herself through reading the novel. Had he done so, he might have recognised that much of its appeal stems from its religiosity. Rebelliously Gnostic in its insistence on individual insight and on the symbolic language of the soul, Demian is permeated with the longing for a re-connection with a greater reality that is the hallmark of lived religion. In times of crisis, when sales of Hesse’s works tend to be higher, a heartfelt religious longing may be shared by a larger number of people, whether they identify themselves as religious or not. In the case of Demian, the clumsiness and incoherence we see in the protagonist’s break with Christianity may even enhance the intensity of that identification.
In its way, America in 1970 suffered from a sense of existential threat and a pull towards fratricide that were similar to Germany’s in 1919. Deep social divisions made the country unstable. The values on which American society had been built seemed to many to be false or corrupt. Unwilling to be made complicit, many young Americans were claiming the freedom to search for something new. At worst, their search could be nihilistic and destructive. At its best, it was a clear expression of what Christians call ‘conscience’: the perception of the voice of God offering intimate guidance in the challenges of life.
With most, if not all, of Hesse’s novels, the reader is invited to empathise with a protagonist as he finds a way through challenges which are also challenges of conscience. The reader of Hesse can thus feel herself to be a person of conscience. In the case of Demian, perhaps more so than with Hesse’s other works, the reader may feel herself becoming a person of conscience. A spiritual transformation through empathetic reading is, of course, one of the benefits claimed for conversion stories, hagiographies, and other declaredly religious writings. Hesse, we can say, is a writer of religious works who no longer has a religion.
A useful perspective on conscience is provided by Pietism, which was the Christianity of Hesse’s Swabian childhood. Though it may predate the Reformation in some ways, the Pietist inspiration was deeply Protestant. Originating with Johann Arndt (1555-1621) and Philipp Jacob Spener (1635-1705) Pietism aimed at a new reformation of Lutheran and Calvinist orthodoxies through the emphasis on the individuality of the believer and on the uniqueness and authority of his personal journey of conversion. This turn to religious subjectivity often brought with it an openness to non-conformism and heterodoxy. The Swabian Pietist theologian, Friedrich Christoph Oetinger (1702-1782), whom Hesse returned to in later life, was strongly influenced by Jakob Boehme and the Jewish Kabbalah, and was a practising alchemist as well as a Lutheran pastor. As Barry Stephenson has pointed out, Swabian Pietism plays a greatly more positive role in Hesse’s life and works than scholars have hitherto appreciated. Long decried as a dangerously repressive religion which Hesse could only reject, lock stock and barrel, a sustained appreciation of Pietist ideas and practices can, in fact, be uncovered throughout his oeuvre.  Demian, though it seems to break with any and all Christianity, is no exception.
Oetinger’s Biblical Dictionary (1759/1776) defines conscience as a ‘co-knowledge with God, others and oneself.’ In telling right from wrong, conscience appeals to the power of discernment of the post-apocalyptic Second Coming of Christ and the Last Judgment.  The idea of a co-knowledge with oneself and God brings into play the idea of a self higher than the everyday sense of personal identity. In Demian, the protagonist’s quest for himself is nothing other than the uncovering of a higher self through the intense focus on the stimuli from which he derives his sense of personal identity. The idea of an appeal to the Last Judgment in everyday moral choices places daily life in the sign of imminent sacred destruction. In Demian, the protagonist’s journey to himself embraces many destructive acts which are then framed as personally transformative and creative. His journey culminates in the annihilation of a decadent European culture with the expectation of something better about to come. Crucial to Oetinger’s view of conscience is the fundamentally Protestant stance he takes towards the present moment, which greatly empowers the individual believer. In moral choices, the present moment and the end of time come together, as do oneself, all of humanity and God, in a dialectical process of destruction and creation. There is, then, a clear sense in which the Pietist notion of conscience, in bringing to bear on any single moment the complete eschatological fulfilment of the person, can validate transgression.
Hesse seems to have understood his Demian in these terms. In a letter written in 1956, Hesse advised a correspondent in Karlsruhe that if he chose to remain a member of his Christian Church, he should stay away from Demian.  In explanation, Hesse referred to a specific moral dilemma: What should a Christian do if he is told to go to war and kill the enemy? On the one hand, Church and country will tell him to obey. On the other hand, the law of God will forbid him to kill. This dilemma was much discussed at the time, when the Cold War had come to dominate politics and international relations, and Germany was preparing for re-armament and the introduction of compulsory military service. Hesse wrote that it would be up to his correspondent’s conscience whether he obeyed the law of Church and country or the law of God. If at that moment, the young man began to doubt the absolute authority of Church and country, he would be able to profit from reading Demian. Evidently, Hesse expected his novel to have a subversive effect on the reader’s inherited moral convictions and cherished ideals. Conscience, as presented in Demian, is antinomian. Its exercise calls for disobedience towards established norms, accepting the attendant moral risks. Conscience should drive the individual onwards in doubt rather than allow her to rest in a collective certainty.
It may be noted that Hesse’s letter distorts the urgency of the moral dilemma and therefore muddies its reality. The question of conscience did not pose itself anywhere near a battlefield, but abstractly, in placid and prosperous Karlsruhe, where the talk of war may have been causing anxiety, but nobody had yet been ordered to point a gun and take a life. Distorted urgencies and muddied realities seem, however, to be characteristic of Demian. For Emil Sinclair, awareness and disposition are more important than action. Conscience is more about the awareness of a crisis in the perception of right and wrong, and less about concrete choices in concrete situations. Still less is it about actually doing something to solve a problem. Oetinger, whose Bible remained open to guide him, would not have agreed.
Such, then, is the person of conscience that the reader of Demian feels herself becoming.
When moral crisis strikes, Emil Sinclair turns for orientation to the amoral, free-flowing imagery of the psyche and the mythic imagination. As critical as he is of what the Church had previously made of much the same kind of imagery, he immediately welcomes as his own the images that well up before his inner eye. The feeling of stagnation loosening and of verification surging from within provide confirmation enough of their truth.
Is this the voice of God? Hesse must have thought so. Perhaps it is not.
 Timothy Leary and Ralph Metzner, “Hermann Hesse: Poet of the Interior Journey,” The Psychedelic Review, vol. 1, no. 2, (Fall, 1963): 181.
 Henry M. Pachter, “On Re-Reading Hermann Hesse,” Salmagundi, no. 12 (Spring, 1970): 83-89.
 Barry Stephenson, Veneration and Revolt: Hermann Hesse and Swabian Pietism (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2009), 3-49.
 “Gewissen ist in der heiligen Schrift nicht bloß ein Urteil über die Handlungen nach dem Gesetz sondern es wird nach 2 Cor. 4, 2 Röm. 2, 15. allgemeiner genommen für das Mitwissen mit Gott, mit andern, mit sich selbst, so dass es zwischen den verklagenden und entschuldigenden Gedanken eine richterliche, von des Menschen Willkür unabhaängige Oberherrschaft in Bezug auf etwas Allgemeines in allen Menschen führet, welches an dem großen Tage Jesu den Menschen aus seinen eigenen Worten heraus verdammen oder lossprechen wird, Röm 2, 16. Matth. 12, 37. Job. 12, 48.”
Friedrich Christoph Oetinger, Des Württembergischen Prälaten Friedrich Christoph Oetinger Biblisches Wörterbuch. Edited by Julius Hamberger (Stuttgart: 1849), 255.
 Letter from Hermann Hesse to N.G. August, 1956. Hermann Hesse, Briefe, erweiterte Ausgabe (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1964), 468-469.