Thursday, May 15, 2014

Schlegel on the Zeitgeist

Christianity is the emancipation of the human race from the bondage of that inimical spirit who denies God, and, as far as in him lies, leads all created intelligences astray. Hence the Scripture styles him, "the prince of this world;" and so he was in fact, but in ancient history only, when among all the nations of the earth, and amid the pomp of martial glory, and the splendour of Pagan life, he had established the throne of his domination. Since this divine era in the history of man, since the commencement of his emancipation in modern times, this spirit can no longer be called the prince of this world, but the spirit of time [Zeitgeist], the spirit opposed to divine influence, and to the Christian religion, apparent in those who consider and estimate time and all things temporal, not by the law and feeling of eternity, but for temporal interests, or from temporal motives, change, or undervalue it, and forget the thoughts and faith of eternity.

[Friedrich von Schlegel, The Philosophy of History, James Baron Robertson, tr. Bohn (London: 1846) pp. 474-475]

Schlegel, of course, was one of the major German Romantic philosophers of the early nineteenth century. His wife Dorothea was the daughter of Moses Mendelssohn, he was roommates with Schleiermacher for a while, he quarreled with Schiller, and he knew many of the major philosophers of the day. He converted to Catholicism in 1808. Philosophie der Geschichte was published in 1829. One of the theses of the book is that one can define a direction of progress in history, and it is in terms of understanding, both speculative and practical, of human beings as being in the image of God, when this is itself worked out historically. One of the things the Zeitgeist does is try to shortcircuit this natural progress, leading Schlegel to reflect that error is always unhistorical and the Zeitgeist is always motivated by passion rather than calm judgment. In particular, it involves a certain kind of idolatry, taking one aspect of the image of God and raising it up as an excuse for every kind of usurpation. The idolatry of the modern age, according to Schlegel, is an idolatry of freedom, which becomes an excuse of perverting reason itself into a kind of partisanship, or expecting it to take its marching orders from the passions of the day.


  1. Timotheos4:28 PM

    It seems like this process began with Ockham, since he made God's freedom so absolute that he could create contradictions, if he so wished. If Schlegel is right, then the modern age is a result of transferring Ockham's ideas about God onto ourselves, since we are made in his image.

    In other words, moderns don't believe we are made in God's image because we are...

  2. Adams3:40 AM

    Whatever his influence may or may not have been on the moderns, it is not true that Ockham claimed that God could create contradictions.
    The clearest example I can think of off the top of my head is from the Quodlibetal Questions, sixth quodlibet, question 6, where he is discussing intuitive cognition, specifically whether there can be an intuitive cognition of a non-existing object. He says:
    "I prove this, first, through the article of the faith, 'I believe in God the Father Almighty.' I understand this to mean that whatever does not involve an obvious contradiction is to be attributed to the divine power."
    In the first quodlibet, question 9, he is discussing the possibility of indivisible parts of a quantum. He says:
    "And so I claim that God cannot make an indivisible of this sort, since it involves a contradiction for such a thing to be made."
    And one more: in the second quodlibet, question 9, he says:
    "For by reason of the fact that a created will is defective, it is able to will the impossible and that which involves a contradiction, e.g., that infinitely many things should exist. Thus, if it is able by its willing to create everything it wills, then it is able to create infinitely many things. However, God's will is not defective in this way, and it cannot efficaciously will any impossible thing which involves a contradiction."
    The examples are from the Quodlibetal Questions because I have my Freddoso and Kelley handy, but these are not isolated statements and this principle pervades all of his philosophy from ontology to ethics. Of course there can be disagreement on what exactly constitutes a contradiction (clearly the scholastics disagreed on this point) but Ockham was in line with all the rest on this point.

  3. Adams3:42 AM

    This was meant to be a reply to Timotheos. Insomnia...

  4. branemrys7:17 AM

    Schlegel himself ties it to the infinite perfectibility of man, and thinks it has suddenly explodes onto the scene (although, of course, it has precursors) in the eighteenth century. Part of this is that he thinks it gets its full expression in the French Revolution, which was still looming quite large in the recent past.


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