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

By Frederick C. Beiser | Go to book overview

11
THE POLITICAL THEORY OF NOVALIS

11.1. Historical Significance

The most innovative political thinker of the romantic school was Friedrich von Hardenberg, or, to use his more familiar pen name, Novalis. His influence on the development of romantic political theory was profound. 1 All the essential doctrines of romantic political thought are anticipated in his writings: the comparison of the state with an organism, the idea of a monarchy based on faith and love, the belief in the Middle Ages as the height of Western culture, the criticism of philistinism and economic society, the affirmation of the cultural mission of the German people, and the concept of the monarch as the symbol for all the beliefs, values, and traditions of a nation. For these reasons his writings have been described as "le bréviarie de la pensée politique des romantiques." 2

Novalis' significance in the 1790s is not easy to define and has sometimes been misunderstood. It has been said that he was the first thinker in the modern German tradition to break with the Aufklärung's mechanical conception of the state. 3 In fact, his originality in this regard was rather limited. His organic theory of the state actually built on some earlier eighteenth- century precedents, particularly the writings of Möser, Rehberg, and Herder. Novalis' historical significance lies more in his break with "legalism," the view that all authority in the state should derive from the law. One of Novalis' most striking and characteristic doctrines is that political authority should be based not only on the law but also on the personality of the ruler. In this regard, Novalis differed from the dominant trend in the political philosophy of the Aufklärung, which usually stressed the authority of the law; but he also departed from the historicism of Burke, Mueller, Herder, and Möser, who emphasized the authority of tradition. To adopt the typology of Max Weber, 4 Novalis insisted on the value of not only 'legal' and 'traditional' but also 'charismatic' authority. For the first time in the 1790s charismatic authority was given an importance equal to rational and traditional.

Although Novalis' stature as a political thinker has been frequently rec-

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