Literature At The End Of The Eighteenth Century
Poets Of The War Of Liberation
The Reaction Against Romanticism
Read More Articles About: German Literature
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Speculative philosophy had direct as well as indirect effect upon German literature, but it is impossible here to do more than glance at this vast and profound subject. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the son of a saddler, rose to be a great metaphysician at Königsberg, his native city. He set himself in opposition to John Locke, who had maintained that the mind has no ideas except what it gains, through sensation and reflection, from the external world. Kant, on the other hand, asserted that besides the ideas thus obtained, the soul has certain ideas which it perceives by intuition. His system was set forth in his "Critique of Pure Reason" (1781), and later works. By determining the laws and limits of reason he sought to guard against the dogmatism which overestimates the power of the human intellect and against the skepticism which under-estimates the same. Johann G. Fichte (1762-1814) was the second great metaphysician of Germany, but he was also an orator and public agitator. He began his career as philosopher by an "Attempt at a Criticism of all Revelation" and developed his system in his "Doctrine of Knowledge." He rejected sensation altogether as a source of knowledge, and held that the only thing of whose existence we are sure is the ego, the thinking soul. The external world has no existence except in the mind perceiving it. Fichte was charged with atheism, and resigned his professorship at Jena, but made an appeal to the public. He really held an idealistic pantheism. In 1810 he was made professor of philosophy in the newly-founded University of Berlin. In the War of Liberation he used all his influence and eloquence to arouse the patriotism of his country-men and finally entered the ranks himself. He died in January, 1814, at the age of fifty-two. The third great philosopher was Friedrich W. J. Schelling (1775-1854), who was for a time associated with Fichte at Jena. He passed to Munich in 1826, and thence to Berlin in 1841. From the pure idealism of Fichte he developed a new system, according to which the external world is not derived from, or dependent upon, the ego, but exists along with it; and further that the opposition in which they stand to each other is united and reconciled in the Absolute or God. Another great philosophical leader was Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), who succeeded to the chair of Fichte at Berlin in 1818. His system has been pronounced more logical, complete, and comprehensive than those of his predecessors. But his followers have been divided into several groups, some maintaining that Hegelian philosophy is perfectly harmonious with Christianity, while others deny the personality of God as well as the doctrines of Christianity.
Another philosopher, who seemed to start with the extreme individualism of the Romantic movement, but departed from it later, was Friedrich Ernst Daniel Schleiermacher (1768-1834). An "Essay on the Immorality of All Morals" first attracted attention to him. In his "Discourses on Religion" he placed the true aim of life in becoming filled with the Divinity. This pantheistic religion he presented as the fulfillment of Protestantism. His translation of Plato did much to elucidate the ancient philosopher, and apply his principles to modern thought. Schleiermacher was active in founding the University of Berlin in 1809, as part of the new national system of education in Prussia. His later work was chiefly theological.
Kant had considerable influence on Schiller, who, in order to represent the working of the passions, made many of his characters untrue to nature, and many scenes untrue to life. The Romantic writers carried this subjective tendency to still greater excess, and some, by utter carelessness for external form, made their works mere dreams. Following Fichte, young men of genius regarded the ideal as all-in-all, and demanded for their own will unlimited freedom. The form is dependent altogether upon the idea, and cannot be regulated. In poetry, fancy is the creative principle and the poet follows wherever it leads. As Schelling had said, "Every phenomenon in nature is the embodiment of an idea," another class of men of genius made it the poet's task to point out the ideas to be thus found in nature. Poetry therefore became symbolical and allegorical. Some early examples of this may be found in Schiller, but it became the moving principle of inferior poets. In their attempts to explain these phenomena, many fell into an abyss of mysticism. Goethe rejected the mysticism and enthusiasm for the Middle Ages, and retained his love for the ancient classics, so that he was reproached as "the great heathen."