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Schlegel, Friedrich


SCHLEGEL, FRIEDRICH (17721829), was one of the leading figures of the German Romantic movement. Schlegel's personality was influenced by various poets and thinkers, including Schiller, Goethe, Kant, Fichte, Schleiermacher, Leibniz, and Spinoza. It was not unusual for him first to be attracted by a philosopher or poet and then to turn vehemently against him. Thus Schlegel's personal development was marked by a constant search for new intellectual horizons. He never developed a system of thinking as such, but rather turned ultimately, in 1805, to Roman Catholicism. Hence his concern with general religious history was limited to particular phases of his life.

After studying law, classical philology, and philosophy at Göttingen and Leipzig, Schlegel devoted himself to Greek classicism. In his first publications he propounded the idea that the Greek image of humanity was the most perfect expression of the human ideal of harmony and totality. Yet soon, in turning to Romantic poetry, he rejected the notion that the classical ideal was universally valid, emphasizing instead the necessity for a continuing development of the human spirit.

Of Schlegel's various intellectual activities, the most interesting for the historian of religions is his concern with Indian religion. While at Paris from 1802 to 1804, he studied Sanskrit, for he sought in India the source of human wisdom. The writings of the Indians, which he initially found dignified, sublime, and significant in their reference to God, would point, so he believed, to an original revelation of the true (i.e., Christian) God, one that might be perceived despite the superstition and error that had crept into the Indian tradition. In Schlegel's view, one of the major errors of Indian thinking was the lack of a pronounced ethical conception of the divine; another was the idea of emanation, the idea that God continually unfolds himself to create the world. Feeling a strong aversion to the pantheistic belief that God and the universe are identical in substance, he yet saw pantheism as having a provisional value in that it formed an essential stage in the development of religion, which culminated in Christianity.

Increasingly, however, Schlegel came to believe that the religion of the Indians, whose language he believed to be the world's oldest, did not yield evidence of an original, pure faith. After the publication of On the Language and Wisdom of the Indians (1808), which contains a linguistic analysis of Sanskrit, a discussion of various Indian systems of thought, and translations of portions of Indian scriptures, Schlegel abandoned Indian studies. Yet his enthusiasm for things Indian had been communicated to his brother August Wilhelm, who was to become the first professor of Sanskrit in Germany. Despite his prejudices, Friedrich Schlegel can be regarded as a pioneer in the Western study of Indian religions.


Sedlar, Jean W. India in the Mind of Germany: Schelling, Schopenhauer and Their Times. Washington, D.C., 1982. A few pages on Schlegel within a general characterization of German interest in India at the end of the eighteenth century and in the first half of the nineteenth.

Wiese, Benno von. Friedrich Schlegel: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der romantischen Konversionen. Berlin, 1927. An important study of Schlegel's "conversions" and his place within German romanticism.

Wilson, A. Leslie. A Mythical Image: The Ideal of India in German Romanticism. Durham, N.C., 1964. A short presentation of Schlegel's ideal of India in the light of German romanticism.

New Sources

Finlay, Marike. The Romantic Irony of Semiotics: Friedrich Schlegel and the Crisis of Representation. Berlin and New York, 1988.

Roche-Mahdi, Sarah. "The Cultural and Intellectual Background of German Orientalism." In Mapping Islamic Studies, edited by Azim Narji, pp. 108127. Berlin, 1997.

Hans J. Klimkeit (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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