II. SCHELLING: 1775–1854

Though he recognized the existence of an external world, Fichte’s philosophy mostly avoided it except as purified by perception. Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, despite his aristocratic preposition, readily accepted nature, and united it with mind in a condominion constituting God.

He was the son of a propertied Lutheran pastor in Württemberg, was pledged to the ministry, and studied in the theological faculty at Tübingen. There he, Hölderlin, and Hegel formed a lusty trio of scholastic radicals, celebrating the French Revolution, redefining deity, and making new philosophic mixtures of Spinoza, Kant, and Fichte. Schelling added a poem entitled “The Creed of an Epicurean.”23 One could safely predict, from these juvenalia, a respectably conservative old age.

Like Fichte and Hegel, he served for some years as a tutor. His essay, The I as Principle of Philosophy, published in 1795 when he was twenty, caught the attention of Fichte, and won Schelling, at twenty-three, an invitation to teach philosophy at Jena. He was content, for a time, to describe himself as a follower of Fichte, and to accept mind as the sole reality. But at Jena, and later at Berlin, he joined the Romantics, and gave the body a passing ecstasy:

I can bear it no longer; I must live once more, must let my senses have free play—these senses of which I have been well-nigh deprived by the grand transcendental theories to which they have done their utmost to convert me. But I too will now confess how my heart leaps and the hot blood rushes through my veins. … I have no religion but this, that I love a well-shaped knee, a fair plump bosom, a slender waist, flowers with the sweetest odors, full satisfaction of all my desires, the granting of all that sweet love can ask. If I am obliged to have a religion (though I can live most happily without it), then it must be the Catholic, such as it was in the olden days, when priests and laity lived together,… and in the house of God itself there was daily revelry.24

It was fitting that so ardent a lover of tangible reality should startle the idealistic nimbus that surrounded Fichte at Jena, and that remained behind him when he left for Berlin. In Erste Entwurf eines Systems der Naturphilosophie (First Sketch of a System of Natural Philosophy, 1799), and in System des transzendentalen Idealismus(1800), Schelling defined the main problem of philosophy as the apparent impasse between matter and mind; it seems impossible to think of either producing the other; and he concluded (in one more return to Spinoza) that the best escape from the dilemma is to think of mind and matter as two attributes of one complex but unified reality. “All philosophy absolutely, which is based upon pure reason alone, is, or will become, Spinozism.” But that philosophy, Schelling thought, was so rigidly logical as to miss vitality. “A dynamic conception of nature must necessarily bring about one essential change in the views of Spinozism…. In its rigidity Spinozism could be regarded, like Pygmalion’s statue, as needing to be given a soul.”25*

To make this dualistic monism more conceivable Schelling proposed to think of force or energy as the inner essence of both matter and mind. In neither case do we know what this force is, but since we see it taking in nature progressively subtler forms—from the mystery of communicated motion, through the attraction or repulsion of particles, the sensitivity of plants, or the groping, grasping pseudopodia of the amoeba, to the quick intelligence of the chimpanzee and the conscious reason of man, we may conclude that the basic reality, the one omnipresent God, is neither matter nor mind by itself but their union in one incredible panorama of forms and powers. Here Schelling was writing poetry as well as philosophy, and both Wordsworth and Coleridge found in him a fellow spirit struggling to build a new faith for souls overwhelmed by science and hungering for God.

In 1803 he left Jena to teach in the recently opened University of Würzburg. He continued to write philosophical treatises, but they lacked the vigor of his Naturphilosophie. In 1809 his stimulating wife, Caroline, died, and seemed to take half of his vitality with her. He married again (1812), and wrote incontinently, but he published nothing after 1809. Besides, by that time, Hegel had become the unchallengeable Napoleon of philosophy.

In his declining years Schelling found comfort in mysticism, and transcendental explanations for the apparent contradictions between a loving God and a nature “red in tooth and claw,” and between the determinism of science and the free will apparently needed for moral responsibility. He took from Jakob Böhme (1575–1624) the idea that God himself is a battleground between good and evil, so that nature oscillates between struggling for order and relaxing into chaos; and in man too there is something basically irrational.26 Ultimately (Schelling promised his readers) all evil will be overcome, and Divine Wisdom will succeed in transforming even the follies and crimes of mankind into good.27

He had now the long discomfort of seeing Hegel gather all the crowns of philosophy, and then to survive him by twenty-three years while the “Young Hegelians” divided their master’s dialectical remains between communism and reaction. In 1841 King Frederick William IV called Schelling to the chair of philosophy at the University of Berlin, hoping that his conservatism would stem the radical tide. But Schelling could not hold his audience, and he was left stranded and wondering by the rush of events from philosophy to revolution.

Even so, Wordsworth had already put Schelling’s pantheistic vitalism into majestic verse,28 and Coleridge had ascribed to him, with certain exceptions, “the completion, and the most important victories, of the [Kantian] revolution in philosophy.”29 And half a century after Schelling’s death, Henri Bergson, regenerator of vitalism, called Schelling “one of the greatest philosophers of all time.”30 Hegel would have demurred.

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