Friedrich von Schlegel

Karl Wilhelm Friedrich von Schlegel (10 March 1772–12 January 1829)

Today is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Karl Wilhelm Friedrich von Schlegel (10 March 1772–12 January 1829), who was born on this date in 1772.

Schlegel deserves to be mentioned in relation to the philosophy of history if for no other reason than a single aphorism he wrote:

“The historian is a prophet facing backwards.”

There is an entire philosophy implicit in this aphorism; the more we unpack it, the more we are likely to find. However, Schlegel contributed much more than this to the philosophy of history, that this compelling aphorism. A book-length study of Schlegel’s philosophy of history, The Romantic Idea of the Golden Age in Friedrich Schlegel’s Philosophy of History by Asko Nivala,

“It was Schlegel’s ambition to combine history and philosophy together without forcing human life into the deductive conceptual formation of the System. He compared the systematic aspiration of German Idealism to an army of soldiers who did conceptual violence to the surrounding reality with their disjunctive categories as they marched on. Because of this incoherence related to the age of Revolution and Restoration he was witnessing, Schlegel’s thought as a whole only forms a unity in difference comparable with a Romantic Bildungsroman, where present troubles chase the protagonist to constantly new situations of life. In contrast with the deductive certainty of the System glamourised in German Idealism, Schlegel’s Romantic philosophy of history provides a motley chaos of varied motifs. It cannot follow the hierarchical structure of a tree, but tries rather to encase the infinite variety of human life and history into an inevitable continuum of inner upheavals. No wonder Schlegel so often chose chemistry for a point of comparison for his thought, in addition to biological organisms.” (p. 260)

Nivala’s study is well worth reading for its careful attention to Schlegel’s development as a thinker and for the careful distinctions made between the Golden Age and primitivism, and among varities of primitivism.

The many periods of Schlegel’s thought, as it developed over his lifetime, resulted in a number of interesting pieces over the years, including a commentary on sections of Kant’s Perpetual Peace, the “Essay on the Concept of Republicanism occasioned by the Kantian Tract Perpetual Peace” (Versuch über den Begriff des Republikanismus, 1797), and “Fichte’s Basic Characteristics of the Present Age” (1808), both of which are relevant to his philosophy of history.

Schlegel’s most substantial work on the philosophy of history, belonging to the last period of his life (he died the following year), was a series of lectures delivered in 1828. Following is the final paragraph from his Philosophy of History that was based on these lectures:

“Turning now to that Divine aid which has supported mankind in their ever-enduring struggle against their own infirmities, against all the obstacles of nature and natural circumstances, and against the opposition of the evil spirit; I have endeavoured to shew, that in the first thousand years of Primitive History, Divine Revelation, although preserved in its native purity but in the one original source, still flowed in copious streams through the religious traditions of the other great nations of that pristine epoch; and that troubled as the current might be by the admixture of many errors, yet was it easy to trace it, in the midst of this slime and pollution, to its pure and sacred source. And with such a belief must commence every religious view of universal history. And it is only with this religious belief, and perception of the traces of divine revelation, we can rightly comprehend and judge this primitive epoch of history. We shall prize with deeper, more earnest, and more solid affection the great and divine era of man’s redemption and emancipation (occurring as it does in the middle-point of human history) the more accurately we discriminate between what is essentially divine and unchangeably eternal in this revelation of love, and the elements of destruction which man has opposed thereto or intermingled therewith. And it is only in the spirit of love the history of Christian times can be rightly understood and accurately judged. In later ages, when the spirit of discord has triumphed over love, historical hope is our only remaining clue in the labyrinth of history. It is only with sentiments of grateful admiration, of amazement, and awe, we trace in the special dispensations of providence, for the advancement of Christianity and the progress of modern society, the wonderful concurrence of events towards the single object of divine love, or the unexpected exercise of divine justice long delayed; such as I have in the proper places endeavoured to point out. With this faith in Primitive Revelation, and in the glorious consummation of Christian love, I cannot better conclude this ‘Philosophy of History’ than with the religious hope I have more than once expressed, and which is more particularly applicable to these times — the dawn of an approaching era, — that by the thorough religious regeneration of the state, and of science, the cause of God and Christianity may obtain a complete triumph on the earth.”

Here we find post-Enlightenment romanticism approximating the providential philosophy of history to be found in Saint Augustine and Bossuet, though with the idea of divine providence tied up with the progressive realization of “a complete triumph on the earth” of Christianity and a recognition of pre-Christian antecedents to the Christian revelation. Thus Schlegel embodies the idea of Carl Becker’s classic study, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, in which Becker argued for the relative orthodoxy of Enlightenment philosophers, in the face the heterodoxy customarily ascribed to them. However, Schlegel didn’t fully reach this kind of orthodoxy until the second quarter of the nineteenth century, when such things were no longer out of place, as it were, and when Schlegel arrived at this point, he had both added new ideas to a providential philosophy of history while dispensing with some old ideas of a providential philosophy of history. This potent new form of providentialism would go on to have a history of its own, still unfolding in our time.

Further Resources


The Romantic Idea of the Golden Age in Friedrich Schlegel’s Philosophy of History, Asko Nivala, Routledge, 2017

“Schlegel’s Theory of History and his Critique of Idealistic Reason” by Peter L. Oesterreich

Theory as Practice: A Critical Anthology of Early German Romantic Writings, J. Schulte-Sasse et al. (trans., ed.), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

The Early Political Writings of the German Romantics (ed., F. Beiser), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store