Schlegel, Friedrich von (1772–1829)

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Friedrich von Schlegel, a critic and philosopher, whose writings spearheaded early German Romanticism, started out as a devotee of Greek poetry. Born to an illustrious literary family in Hanover and classically trained, Schlegel was an unhappy and unfocused student of law at Göttingen and Leipzig from 1790 to 1793, all the while piling up enormous gambling debts. Fleeing creditors and abandoning his legal studies, he moved in 1794 to Dresden where, inspired by Caroline Böhmer, his future sister-in-law, he launched his literary career with essays extolling ancient poetry's superiority to modern poetry. In "On the Study of Greek Poetry" (completed 1795, published 1797), he echoes Johann Joachim Winckelmann by attributing the greater unity, objectivity, and naturalness of ancient works to the Greeks' single-minded pursuit of idealized beauty.

Philosophy, Criticism, and the Romantic Turn

Schlegel eventually wrote the History of the Poetry of the Greeks and Romans, but by the time the only volume was published in 1798, his view of modern poetry had changed. Already in his 1795 essay his admiration for William Shakespeare seems to belie his insistence on Sophocles' superiority. His politics, too, though inspired by the ancients, were decidedly unconventional, as evidenced by his defense of the legitimacy of insurrection in his "Essay on the Concept of Republicanism" (1796), itself a critical review of Immanuel Kant's "Toward Perpetual Peace" (1795). But it was chiefly Friedrich Schiller's On Naive and Sentimental Poetry (17951796)with its balanced judgment of the comparable virtues of ancient, "naive" and modern, "sentimental" (self-conscious) poetry and its reference to an even loftier poetrythat challenged Schlegel to reconsider his earlier views. Also like Schiller, Schlegel began to embrace Johann Gottlieb Fichte's dialectical vindication of human dignity in the face of the threats posed to it by empiricism and mechanistic materialism. A growing awareness of Fichte's impoverished view of nature eventually tempered this enthusiasm. Contrasting the "consistent empiricist" for whom everything sacred is "nonsense" with "mystics" as the real source of philosophy, Schlegel declares "Spinoza the best mystic known to us before Fichte" (Kritische Ausgabe, Vol. 18, p. 5). At the close of the eighteenth century Schlegel searched, much like Schelling and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, for a philosophical path combining Benedict (Baruch) de Spinoza's pantheistic naturalism with Fichte's idealism.

Still, neither in Spinoza nor in Fichte did Schlegel find the sort of historical sensibility already exhibited in his early neoclassicist phase. This sensibility was accentuated in 1796 when, further signaling his departure from classicism, Schlegel begrudgingly accepted Kant's argument that there are no objective rules for aesthetic judgments. Schlegel proposed that critics compensate for this lack of rules by being as comprehensively informed as possible of not only a writer's but also an entire culture's literary repertoire. At the same time he insisted that "criticism compares a work with its own ideal"(Literary Notebooks, p. 1135). This joint concern for a work's context and its sui generis character (exemplified by Schlegel's essays on Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi's Woldemar [1779], Georg Forster's works, and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing in 1797) would profoundly influence the development of hermeneutics by Wilhelm Dilthey and others.

In 1797 Schlegel moved to Berlin where close friendships with Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher, Johann Ludwig Tieck, and Novalis (Friedrich Leopold von Hardenberg) gave rise to the new literary and philosophical movement eventually known as Romanticism. Its chief organ, the journal Athenäum, edited by Schlegel and his brother, August Wilhelm, contained Schlegel's most influential contributions to Romantic theory: "Fragments" and an essay on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Wilhelm Meister in 1798, and "Ideas" and "Dialogue on Poetry" in 1800. Another important source for Schlegel's theory is "Critical Fragments," printed in Johann Friedrich Reichardt's Lyceum der schönen Künste (1797). The form of fragments is itself a testament to the new theory's defiance of traditional literary theory. In memorable fashion Schlegel contrasts "Classical" with "Romantic" poetry, which disregards the traditional insistence on preserving purity of genre (epic, drama, and lyric). The novel (Roman in German) is, at least at first, paradigmatic for this theory that applauds the highly imaginative, genre-mixing fantasies (often with a love interest) typified by such Romance language writers as Dante Alighieri, Petrarch, and Miguel de Cervantes (but also by Shakespeare). In 1799 Schlegel provides his own example of a Romantic novel: Lucinde, a celebration of a complete but extramarital love, notoriously based on his affair with his future wife, the divorcée Dorothea Veit (Moses Mendelssohn's daughter).

The Theory of Romantic Poetry

In Athenäums-Fragment 116, Schlegel's most influential account of Romantic poetry, he deems it "progressive universal poetry" because it aims not only to reunify all genres and connect poetry with philosophy but also to mingle and fuse "poetry and prose, genius and criticism, the poetry of the educated and the poetry of the people, to make poetry alive and social and to make life and society poetic, to poeticize wit, to fill and saturate the forms of art with matters of genuine cultural value" (Athenäum I, p. 220). To this end, a Romantic work is supposed to present sentimental but actual historical material in a witty, fantastic form ("an artfully ordered confusion") that is a synthesis of Eros and chaos, infinite unity and infinite fullness, mirroring nothing less than the universe as a divine manifestation. The universe itself is conceived as a poem of the Godhead at this intersection of metaphysics and literary aesthetics.

In a good poem, as in reality, everything seems capricious and instinctive, though it is in fact necessary and deliberate. So, too, the Romantic artist must combine deadly seriousness with playfulness in a "constant self-parody," as Schlegel puts it. The model here is Socratic irony, a sense of the limitlessness of things and one's own limited capacity to express them, combined with the utter necessity of doing so.

In the final volume of Athenäum the emphasis on criticism and universality in the "Fragments" gives way to an enthusiasm for religion ("the all-animating world-soul of culture") and mythology (how "religion must appear in the world of language"(Athenäum II, p. 734, 740). In his "Ideas," which is deeply influenced by Schleiermacher, Schlegel touts the religious complementarity of poetry and philosophy that he also counterposes as realism and idealism, respectively. While claiming that "logic can develop into philosophy only through religion" and that "only someone who has his own religion can be an artist," Schlegel also insists paradoxically that "there is as yet no religion"(Athenäum II, p. 736, 751). Returning to this theme in "Dialogue on Poetry," he attributes the isolation of modern poets to their lack of a focal point such as ancient mythology provided ancient poets. He accordingly calls for the creation of a new mythology. This new mythology, like the ancient, would represent nature symbolically, though now against the background of philosophical idealism and the new physics (Schilling's philosophy of nature) and with an openness to the mythologies of the Orient.

The Later Works

After 1800 Schlegel's fortunes initially took a turn for the worse. He failed as a lecturer on transcendental philosophy at the University of Jena and as a playwright, his collaboration with his brother ended with the publication of Characterizations and Criticisms (1801), and his relationships to other members of the Romantic movement deteriorated. Isolated and financially strapped, Schlegel moved in 1802 to Paris, where he published the periodical Europa, in which he influentially opposed classicism again, this time by championing the symbolism of early modern religious painters. Vainly looking for a professorship, Schlegel moved to Cologne in 1804, where he helped rediscover German Gothic architecture and published On the Language and Wisdom of India (1808). Seminal for the development of Sanskrit studies, comparative linguistics, and Indian philosophy, this work also contained attacks on pantheism that introduced Schlegel's final, Catholic phase of thinking.

Following his conversion to Catholicism, Schlegel moved to Vienna and worked for the Austrian government (serving as Prince Klemens von Metternich's representative at the Diet of Frankfort) but also found time to give well-received lectures: On Modern History (published 1811) and the monumental History of Ancient and Modern Literature (published 1815). From 1820 to 1823 he published the periodical Concordia, to which he contributed "Signature of the Age," a plea for an "organic" state headed by a strong monarchy and animated by "corporations," most prominently, the Church. In lectures on the philosophy of life, history, and language in his final years (published from 1828 to 1830), Schlegel challenged reigning philosophical systemsdeduced, in his view, from merely a part of human consciousnesswith a "Christian philosophy" grounded in the total, personal experience of a thinker as a believer.

See also Dante Alighieri; Dilthey, Wilhelm; Fichte, Johann Gottlieb; Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Jacobi, Friedrich Heinrich; Kant, Immanuel; Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; Novalis; Petrarch; Romanticism; Schiller, Friedrich; Schleiermacher, Friedrich Daniel Ernst; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Winckelmann, Johann Joachim.


works by schlegel

Kritische Friedrich Schlegel Ausgabe. 35 vols., edited by Ernst Behler, et al. Munich: F. Schöningh, 19582002.

Athenäum, edited in two parts by Bernhard Sorg. Dortmund: Harenberg, 1989.

Dialogue on Poetry and Literary Aphorisms. Translated by Ernst Behler and Roman Struc. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1968.

Literary Notebooks 17971801, edited by Hans Eichner. London: Athlone, 1957.

Lucinde and the Fragments. Translated by Peter Firchow. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971. Partially reprinted in Philosophical Fragments. Translated by Peter Firchow. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.

"Essay on the Concept of Republicanism." In Early Political Writings of the German Romantics, edited and translated by Frederick C. Beiser. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

On the Study of Greek Poetry. Translated by Stuart Barnett. Albany: SUNY Press, 2001.

works on schlegel

Behler, Ernst. German Romantic Literary Theory. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Beiser, Frederick C. "Friedrich Schlegel's Absolute Idealism." In German Idealism: The Struggle against Subjectivism, 17811801, 435461. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Eichner, Hans. Friedrich Schlegel. New York: Twayne, 1970.

Frank, Manfred. The Philosophical Foundations of Early German Romanticism. Translated by Elizabeth Millán-Zaubert. Albany: SUNY Press, 2004.

Daniel O. Dahlstrom (2005)

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Schlegel, Friedrich von (1772–1829)

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