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The Riddle of Man

Riddle of Man: German Idealism: Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling

On-line since: 5th October, 2006

German Idealism's Picture of the World

Idealism as a View About Nature and the Spirit:
Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling

At the beginning of his search for a world view, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling is close to Fichte insofar as the same picture of the soul — whose grasping of itself in the activity of self-awakening assures it of existence — becomes for him the sure support of knowledge. But from this basic feeling in Schelling's spirit different thoughts stream forth than from Fichte's spirit. For Fichte, the all-encompassing world-will shines into the awakening soul as a spiritual realm of light; and he wants to know the rays of this light in their essential being. For Schelling, the world riddle consists in the fact that he sees himself, with his soul awakened to egohood, confronted by a seemingly mute and lifeless nature. Out of this nature the soul awakens. This fact reveals itself to human observation. And the knowing, feeling human spirit delves down into this nature and through this nature fills itself with an inner world that then becomes spiritual life within it. Could this be so if there did not exist between the soul and nature a deeply inward relatedness at first hidden from human cognition? But nature remains mute if the soul does not make itself into the instrument of nature's speech; nature seems dead if the spirit of man does not free life from the spell of semblance (Schein). The secrets of nature must sound forth from the depths of the human soul. But in order for this not to be a deception, it must be the essential being of nature itself that speaks out of the human soul. And it must be true that the soul only seemingly goes down into its own depths when it knows nature; in actuality, when it wants to find nature, the soul must travel through subconscious passages in order to delve down with its own life into the cycle of nature's weaving.

Schelling sees in nature — as it is present to ordinary human consciousness — only a physiognomical expression of true nature, so to speak, just as one sees in a human countenance the expression of the supersensible soul. And just as one lives into the soul of a person through this physiognomical expression — if one is able to take up the other person's experiences into one's own — so, for Schelling, there is a possibility of so awakening human cognitive abilities that they experience within themselves what works and weaves behind the outer countenance of nature as soul and spirit. Therefore, one cannot consider our science of this outer countenance to be a revelation of what lives in the depths of nature; nor is the cognitive power of man that is limited to such science capable of unraveling the true secrets of nature. Schelling therefore wants to bring to awakening in the human soul an intellectual beholding (intellektuelle Anschauung) that lies behind the ordinary cognitive power of man. This kind of beholding reveals itself — in Schelling's sense — as a creative power in man; but in such a way that it does not create concepts from the soul about nature, but rather, through inward co-existence with the soul element of nature, brings to manifestation the powers of ideas creating and ruling in nature. Fearful souls quake at the thought of a view of nature that is supposed to stem from this kind of an “intellectual beholding.” And the scorn and ridicule heaped upon it in the period after Schelling was great. For someone who knows how to avoid one-sidedness in these matters, there need not be the two conflicting alternatives: either to surrender to “the daydreams of nature fantasies like those of a Schelling” and bring a charge of “gross materialism” against proper, serious natural science; or maturely to take the stand-point of this science and “dismiss all Schellingian playing with concepts as childishness.” One can belong unreservedly to those who want to promote natural science to the full as demanded by our modern “natural-scientific age”; and one can nevertheless understand the justification for Schelling's attempt to create, above and beyond this natural science, a view of nature that enters an area that this natural science will not want to touch at all if it rightly understands itself. But the belief is unjustified which asserts that, besides the natural science created by our ordinary cognitive powers, there can exist no view of nature that is attained by means different from those particular to this natural science as such. Why must the natural scientist believe that his field is safe only if everyone else striving from a different point of view is silenced? For someone who will not let himself be blinded in these matters by “natural-scientific fanaticism,” the often so bitter rejection of a view of nature more in accordance with the spirit — such as that for which Schelling strove — seems no different, after all, than if a lover of photography were to say: “I make exact pictures of people that reproduce everything about them: just don't try to compare the portrait a painter makes with my kind of faithfulness to nature.”

With awakened spiritual beholding Schelling wanted to find the “spirit of nature,” for which not only sense perception but also what one calls laws of nature are merely the physiognomical expression. It is important that we place before our souls the enormous impression he made in such strivings upon those of his contemporaries who had an open heart for the way this striving burst forth from his powerful, spirit-illuminated personality. There is a description, given by an amiable and gifted thinker, Gotthilf Heinrich Schubert, of the impressions he received of Schelling's effect in Jena. “What was it,” he writes, “that so powerfully drew both young and old from far and near to attend his lectures? Was it only the personality of the man or the particular charm of his speaking style that had such power to attract people? ... It wasn't that alone. ... In his lively words there lay, to be sure, an inspiring power irresistible to young souls with any receptivity at all. It might be difficult to make comprehensible to a reader in our day,” (Schubert is now writing down in 1854 what he had experienced about Schelling in the 1790's) “who did not participate in and hear this as a young person like I did, how it often affected me when Schelling spoke to us: I felt as though I were reading or hearing Dante, the seer in another world open only to the initiated eye. The mighty content that lay in his words — which themselves were measured, mathematically precise, and of an elegance suitable for inscription in stone — seemed to me like a bound Prometheus, presenting the understanding spirit with the task of loosing his bonds and receiving from his hand the unquenchable fire. ... But neither his personality nor the enlivening power of his speaking style could account for the interest and excitement — for or against his direction in thought — aroused by Schelling's world view immediately after it was made public in his writings; no other literary publication of this kind, long before or after, aroused such interest and excitement. When a teacher or writer speaks about sense-perceptible things or natural phenomena, one can tell right away whether he is doing so out of his own observation and experience or merely repeating what he has heard others say — or even what he has thought up out of pictures of his own. ... And it is the same with inner experience. There is a reality of a higher kind, whose existence can be experienced by the knowing spirit in us with the same sureness and certainty as our body, through its senses, experiences the existence of outer visible nature. This nature — the reality of bodily things — presents itself to our perceiving senses as a deed of that same creative power through which our bodily nature has also come about. The existence of the visible world is an actual fact in the same way as the existence of the perceiving senses. Reality of a higher kind, as a spiritually embodied fact, has also approached the knowing spirit in us; our knowing spirit will become aware of this reality when its own knowing activity lifts itself to a recognition of that by which our spirit is known and from which, according to a common, regular order, there emerges the reality of both bodily and spiritual evolution. And this becoming aware of a spiritual, divine reality in which we ourselves live, weave, and exist is the highest gain of earthly life and of the search for wisdom. ... Already in my day, among the young people who heard Schelling, there were some who had an inkling of what he meant by the ‘intellectual beholding’ through which our spirit must grasp the infinite primal ground of all being and becoming.”

It was the spirit in nature that Schelling sought through intellectual beholding, the spiritual that, from the power of its creativity, brought forth nature. Nature was once the living body of this spiritual, just as the human body is so for the soul. Now it is spreading out, this body of the world spirit, revealing in its traits what once the spiritual incorporated into it, and showing, in its weaving and becoming, gestures that represent the workings of the spiritual. This spiritual working within the world body had to precede the present state of the world, so that this world body could grow hard and produce in the mineral realm a bony system, in the plant realm a nervous system, in the animal realm a soul forerunner of man. In this way the world body was led out of its youth into its old age; the present-day mineral, plant, and animal realms are, so to speak, the hardened products of what once was accomplished, in a spiritually embodied way, by an evolution that is now extinguished. Out of the womb of the aged body of the world, however, the creative spirituality could allow the soul and spirit-endowed human being to arise; within his inner life there shine forth to his knowledge the ideas with which the creative spirituality first brought about the world body. As though enchanted, there lies within present-day nature the spirit that once lived and worked in it; within the human soul this spirit becomes disenchanted. (This presentation of Schelling's relationship to nature is certainly not to be found in any actual words or even in any thoughts used by Schelling himself. Nevertheless, I believe that one can truly reproduce a person's view with such conciseness only if one fixes one's eye upon the spirit of his view, and, in order to express this spirit, uses mental pictures arising in a free way to say in a few words what the original personality expressed in a series of extensive works. Used to this end, the actual words of the personality can only misrepresent the spirit of these words.)

Taking this stance toward the “spirit of nature” and its relationship to the human spirit, Schelling felt himself faced by the necessity of learning how to understand that element in the world which intrudes upon and disrupts the course of world events. Insofar as the soul gives itself over to the world of ideas holding sway in everything, the soul will knowingly experience the progressive creativity of this world of ideas. But, as though from a different direction of world existence, a disruptive, evil, malevolent element forces its way in. With the world of ideas the knowing soul does not at first enter this different field; this field borders on the world of ideas as the shadow borders on the light. Just as the light cannot be present in a shadowed space, so also the activities undertaken by the soul in its first attempts in knowledge cannot be present in the realm of disruption, evil, and malevolence. In seeking a possibility of penetrating into this region, Schelling received a stimulus from that personality who, out of the simplest feeling life of the German people, sought the solution for lofty riddles of the world: Jakob Böhme. To be sure, Jakob Böhme did read a lot about questions concerning world views and also did take up a great deal in other ways through the educational channels available to a simple man of the people in the German culture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; but the best thing that pulses through Jakob Böhme's writings in such an unlearned way is a popular path of knowledge; what is best there comes from the deeper heart (Gemüt) of the people itself. And Schelling lifted up into the mode of thinking contemplation what was seen by this deeper heart of the people in Jakob Böhme's unlearned but enlightened soul. It belongs to the most magnificent observations one can make in world literature to see Jakob Böhme's elemental heart's view shining through the philosophical language of Schelling's Treatise on the Essential Being of Man's Freedom. [1] Within this elemental heart's view, the profound insight holds sway that no one can arrive at a satisfying world view whose only means on the path of knowledge are those of thinking comprehension. Out of the depths of the world, something bursts into the circumference of what thinking comprehension is; this something is more far-reaching and powerful than thinking comprehension, but not more powerful actually than what the soul can experience within itself when thinking comprehension appears to the soul only as a part of the soul's own essential being. If one wants to comprehend something, one must understand how this something is necessarily connected with something else. The things of the world are indeed connected to each other necessarily on the surface, but not in the deepest foundation of the world's essential being. Freedom holds sway in the world. And only he comprehends the world who beholds free, supersensible spirituality holding sway within the necessitated course taken by the laws of nature. Freedom as a fact can always be refuted by logical reasons. Whoever realizes this is not impressed by any refutation of the idea of freedom.

Jakob Böhme's thoroughly healthy way of knowledge — his original deeper heart's knowledge, so in accordance with the feeling of the people — beheld freedom as weaving and working through everything necessitated, working even through natural necessity. And Schelling, ascending from a view of nature in accordance with the spirit to a beholding of the spirit, felt himself in harmony with Jakob Böhme.

And with this the path was given him for beholding the historical evolution of the spirituallife of mankind in his own way. The deed of Christ fitted into this evolution as the greatest event on earth. Through his Philosophy of Mythology Schelling sought to understand what had occurred before this deed. Whoever believes that in history only ideas that follow necessarily from each other are revealed, does not understand the course of the world. For with freedom supersensible being reaches into this course from stage to stage; and what freedom accomplishes at each new stage can only be beheld as a fact revealed to the deeper heart (Germüt); it cannot be thought up beforehand, by logical deduction from the evolution of ideas until then, as a necessitated next stage. And what supersensible worlds, in the evolution of the earth, have let stream in through Christ must be taken as a completely free fact; not as a revelation needing illumination by ideas, but as a revelation shining out over any world of ideas. Schelling wants to speak about this world view of his in his Philosophy of Revelation.

Certainly, the “contradiction” in which this way of picturing things gets entangled is easy to point out. And this “contradiction” was held up to Schelling in every possible form, both well-meaning and malicious. Nevertheless, whoever raises this “contradiction” only shows that he does not want to recognize the reigning of free spirituality in the course of a world process that seems necessitated. Schelling did not want to deny the working of natural necessity; but he wanted to show how even this necessity is a deed of the spirituality that works through the world with freedom. And he did not want, as it were, to renounce comprehension just because the first attempts of this comprehension shatter upon the boundary of world freedom; he wanted to ascend to a comprehension of what the world of ideas holding sway in everything does not have within itself but can take up into itself. The ideas that want to know the world do not need to bow out just because mere thinking comprehension is inadequate for knowledge of life. One need not say: Because ideas, with what at first lies within their own being, do not penetrate into the depths of the world, therefore the depths of the world cannot be known. No, when ideas give themselves over to these depths and become permeated by what ideas do not have in themselves, then these ideas rise up from the ground of the world, newborn and wafted through by the essential being of the “spirit of the world.”

From the seventeenth century, the deeper heart of the German people in the Görlitz shoemaker Jakob Böhme, working on in Schelling's philosophical spirit, arrived at a world view like this in the nineteenth century.


1. Freiheit literally means “freehood.” Freiheit does not focus so much on “freedom” from something. It means activating the spiritual forces of one's own “I.” For Rudolf Steiner, freedom is “action, thinking, and feeling from out of the spiritual individuality of man”; it is “spiritual activity.” – Ed.

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