Georg Philipp Friedrich von Hardenberg, who adopted the pen name Novalis, is universally considered the prototypical German Romantic. The magical idealism he developed in his literary writings remains one of the enduringly great aesthetic accomplishments of the culture of German-speaking countries. Like his poetry and novels, the few essay-like writings composed by Novalis during his short life profoundly influenced German-speaking writers of the calibre of Joseph von Eichendorff, Rainer Maria Rilke, Hermann Hesse, and Thomas Mann, to name just a few. These works contain Novalis’ inchoate attempt to develop a speculative and aesthetic synthesis of reality, which his literary writings later brought to a higher level of fruition. He dreamed of achieving a “magical” unification of major dimensions of human existence, encompassing such realms as the marital, political, historical, and mystical. In his essays, Novalis envisages a pantheistic harmonization of these constellations that springs from his perception of the mythic power of poetry to evoke and illuminate the absolute Ego (Ich), which constitutes the ground of nature.
Novalis’ first published prose work was a loose series of philosophical fragments entitled “Blütenstaub” (1798; “Pollen”). These fragments originally appeared in the Schlegel brothers’ journal Athenäum. Each short piece in this collection is written in a prose style that synthesizes abstract philosophical insights with a richly layered poetic language. Novalis’ intention in composing these speculative vignettes was not that of elaborating a systematic argument. It reflected, on the contrary, an attempt to provide poetic spirits—those endowed with the potential to discover a higher metaphysical vocation in life—with a series of hieroglyphic messages, whose symbolic content emanates from the transcendent realm of the Absolute Ego. This notion derives from Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s Grundlage des gesammten Wissenschaftslehre (1794; The
Science of Knowledge), a philosophical work that exerted a profound influence on Novalis’ speculative thinking.
For Novalis, the soteriological purpose of the tiny essay fragments in “Pollen” lay in aiding higher spirits to discover”[den] Weg nach Innen”: the esoteric spiritual path leading to the numinous, inner depths of the soul. In this sphere the soul enters into mystical communion with the true essence of nature: the universal Mind which constitutes the Being of the eternal universe. In opposition to Fichte’s idealism, however, Novalis views this epiphany not as a rationalistic Amor intellectualis Dei, but as an eminently transcognitional intuition. Novalis affirms that in the ecstasis of this beatific contemplation, the human soul apprehends the fundamental ideality of nature’s hypostatic essence. It thus becomes overwhelmed by a mystic yearning (Sehnsucht) to transform the external, material world: the tenebrous realm of the Fichtean Non-Ego (Nicht-Ich). Its spiritual vision causes the soul to endeavor to transfuse this dark, ultimately irreal sphere of sensually conditioned determinacy (Bestimmtheit) with the intelligible refulgence that radiates from its infinite ontological source. Thus, according to Novalis’ reinterpretation of Fichtean metaphysics, their experience of the Fichtean Absolute Ego impels the chosen spirits who attain enlightenment ethically and poetically to strive to transfigure the external world, reinvesting the domain of the Nicht-Ich with the ideal presence of the Absolute.
Another series of essay fragments, entitled “Glaube und Liebe” (1798; Faith and love), contains Novalis’ chiliastic reflections on politics. A dominant impetus of this work consists in the latter’s utopian vision of the ideal monarch. For Novalis, monarchy represents an essential stage in the spiritual development of humanity toward a state of being in which each individual will embody the higher virtues of Platonic love and enlightened rationality. This universal spirituality is destined ultimately to supersede all forms of human government. Novalis embraces the notion that democracy reflects a higher theory of government than monarchy. However, he also expresses the belief that European humanity is not yet ethically prepared to assume the full freedom of individual selfdetermination prerequisite to realizing this higher order. Novalis avers that if the people are not given an education that promotes their appropriation of higher virtues, democratic government will inevitably degenerate into mobocracy. On this basis, present- day kings in Europe have an important ethical role to fulfill in terms of their ability to assume a status as avatars of pantheistic virtues, such as enlightened tolerance, Christ-like gentleness, and the Spinozan intellectual love of God. By providing such an example, rulers can evoke the higher moral and intellectual nature dormant in the hearts of their subjects. This will prepare humanity for a chiliastic age in which government will be rendered unnecessary, inasmuch as all human beings will live by the law of Christ.
Hence, in Novalis’ view, a king’s power should not be based on military might or political force, but on his divine calling as a moral and spiritual guide for his subjects.
Novalis’ most coherent essay bears the title “Die Christenheit, oder Europa” (wr. 1799, pub. 1826; “Christianity or Europe”). In this work, the poet articulates a theory of history whose culmination lies in a quasi-Hegelian realization of humanity’s universal spiritual unity and peace. This represents a historical symphony divided into three major movements. The first resides in Novalis’ vision of a utopian Middle Ages. Here European civilization basked in the spiritual light flowing from the Catholic religion. In this age,
European humanity dwelt in a state of harmonious unity with God and the Church.
According to Novalis’ fairytale description of the medieval period, the Pope, like the rulers of Europe in general, represented a spiritual father of the people whose power was vouchsafed him by Christ. While the light of Christ reigned throughout Europe in the personage of the Pope, humanity remained in a state of universal peace. However, a necessary stage of humanity’s historical development came in the form of a break-up of the ecclesiastical and political harmony that pervaded the Middle Ages.
The Reformation and Enlightenment periods of European history signified humanity’s loss of the spiritual peace and security it had formerly enjoyed. One of the historical reasons for this loss lay in the preponderance, during the Middle Ages, of the communal spirit over that of the individual. This latter principle was rightfully posited and developed during the Reformation. This development proceeded, in particular, through Luther’s insistence upon the unmediated personal communion between the individual believer and the lux vera of Christ. Like the Protestant Reformation, modern natural science, which flourished during the Enlightenment, enhanced the life of the individual in its endeavor to promote human happiness by transforming nature. However, the dangers inherent in these historical phases of humankind’s development manifested themselves in the form of modern science’s reduction of the spirit of the Bible to the letter of the text.
This exegetical reductionism was complemented by the rationalist endeavors of science during the Enlightenment to dissect and mathematically analyze the living beauty of divine nature. This coldly analytical approach to the world sought to displace the pantheistic spirit of the universe with its mechanistic conception of nature. But the passionate aspirations of the French Revolution, which for Novalis marked the culmination of the Enlightenment as well as its end, paved the way for humanity to rid itself of the austere and spiritless rationality of the epoch of science, preparing it for a coming age. In this period humanity would once again worship the Holy Virgin and the saints in an epiphany of universal holiness and poetry. Indeed, Novalis predicts that, in this final age of history, an ecumenical Christianity will harmonize the earth’s religions into a state of all-encompassing peace and mystic adoration of the transcendent Christ. In contrast to the Middle Ages, however, this millennial period—humankind’s historical and spiritual apotheosis—will be characterized not only by the individuaPs harmony with the community of humanity in general, but also by the individual soul’s unio mystica with the divine. In consonance with the Book of the Apocalypse, Novalis specifies that the capital of the universal society at the end of history will be Jerusalem.
While Novalis’ essay on the ultimate meaning and purpose of history was neglected by his immediate contemporaries, it became viewed, not long after his death, as a manifesto of German Romanticism’s utopian-religious idealism concerning the historical vocation of humanity. The essay also came to exemplify German Romanticism’s fascination with Catholicism and the Middle Ages. Furthermore, it foreshadowed later attempts, such as those of Max Scheler in the 20th century, to develop a philosophical agenda intended to provide European humanity with a renewed vision of higher, platonistic values leading to the possibility of cultural and spiritual rebirth.
Born Georg Philipp Friedrich Leopold von Hardenberg, 2 May 1772. in Oberwiedstedt, Thuringia. Studied under Schiller at the University of Jena, 1790–91; University of Leipzig, 1791–93; University of Wittenberg, 1794; law degree, 1794; Mining Academy, Freiberg, 1797–99. Became friends with Friedrich Schlegel, Ludwig Tieck, and other early Romantics. Engaged to Sophie von Kühn, 1795 (died, 1797). Actuary for Kreisamtmann Just, Tennstedt, 1795–97; assistant in salt works, Weissenfels, 1796–97, 1799–1801; associated with Bergakademie, Freiberg, 1797–99. Engaged to Julie von Charpentier, 1798. Died (of tuberculosis) in Weissenfels, 25 March 1801.
Essays and Related Prose
“Blütenstaub,” Athenäum1 (April 1798):70–106; selections as “Pollen,” translated by Alexander Gelley, in German Romantic Criticism, edited by A.Leslie Willson, 1982, “Glauben und Liebe, oder der Konig und die Konigin,” Jahrbiicher der Preussischen Monarchie unter der Regierung von Friedrich Wilhelm III 2(July 1798):269–86
“Die Christenheit, oder Europa,” in Schriften, edited by Ludwig Tieck, 1826; as “Christianity or Europe,” translated by Charles E.Passage, in Hymns to the Night and Other Selected Writings, 1960
Fragmente, edited by Otto Michel, 1947(?)
Hymns to the Night and Other Selected Writings (includes poetry and aphorisms), translated by Charles E.Passage, 1960
“Selected Aphorisms and Fragments,” translated by Alexander Gelley, in German Romantic Criticism, edited by A.Leslie Willson, 1982:62–83
Pollen and Fragments: Selected Poetry and Prose, translated by Arthur Versluis, 1989
Other writings: poetry (including Hymnen an die Nacht [Hymns to the Night], 1800) and the unfinished novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen.
Collected works editions: Schriften, edited by Friedrich Schlegel and Ludwig Tieck, 2 vols., 1802; Schriften, edited by Paul Kluckhohn and Richard Samuel, 5 vols., 1975, revised edition, edited by Samuel, Hans-Joachim Mähl, and Gerhard Schulz, 1977–88.
Samuel, Richard, Novalis: Der handschriftliche Nachlass des Dichters: Zur Geschichte des Nachlasses, Gerstenberg: Hildesheim, 1973
Hiebel, Friedrich, German Poet, European Thinker, Christian Mystic, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1954
Neubauer, John, Novalis, Boston: Twayne, 1980
Von Molnár, Geza and Jochen Schulte-Sasse, Romantic Vision, Ethical Context: Novalis and Artistic Autonomy, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987
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