Enlightenment, Revolution, and Romanticism: The Genesis of Modern German Political Thought, 1790-1800

By Frederick C. Beiser | Go to book overview

10
THE EARLY POLITICS AND AESTHETICS OF FRIEDRICH SCHLEGEL

10.1. The Politics of Schlegel's Early Classicism

If any single figure could claim to be the leader of the romantic circle, it would indisputably be Friedrich Schlegel. His energy, enthusiasm, and enterprise were the creative forces behind the Athenäum, the journal of the group; and his thinking laid the foundation for the aesthetics of romanticism. It was indeed Schlegel who formulated the concept of romantic poetry, from which the movement took its name and much of its inspiration. In the field of political philosophy, Schlegel was also in the very forefront of the romantic movement. He was the first to develop a general theory of the state and to criticize many aspects of modern culture, such as sexual inequality and philistinism. A close examination of Schlegel's aesthetic and political doctrines promises to shed some light, then, on romanticism in general.

The starting point for any examination of Schlegel's early thought is his reaction to the revolution in France. Schlegel was not infected by the initial wave of enthusiasm for the Revolution. His early interest in politics appears to have been slight. His first mention of the Revolution was August 26, 1791, when he wrote his brother that he had been reading Girtanner, whom he naively praised for giving an impartial account of events. 1 But such reading, he then explained, was only to serve as an aid to conversation. By June 1793 it is possible to detect the first glimmerings of an interest in politics; he told his brother that he had been studying the subject. 2 It was only in October 1793, however, that he devoted himself wholeheartedly to it. This was largely due to his meeting with Caroline Böhmer, 3 who had just been released from prison for her activism during the short-lived Mainz republic. Pregnant by a young French officer and suffering from ill health, she had been entrusted to the young Schlegel's care. Caroline had become radicalized through her friendship with Georg Forster, whom she had met during the peak of his activities in Mainz. Through Caroline, Schlegel came under the spell of the Forster circle. She served as a powerful catalyst for his budding political consciousness. On October 23, 1793, Friedrich wrote his brother

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