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Thoughts on the Romantics part 1: transcendental idealism, Buddhism, and Novalis

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Schloß am Strom, Karl Friedrich Schinkel

Over the last few months I’ve been making a study of the early German Romantics, and I’ve been impressed by the continued relevance of their arguments on aesthetics, their analysis of the relationship of the individual to the absolute, and their critique of the totalizing rationalism of the Enlightenment. Some of the key figures I’ve focused on include the art critic Friedrich Schlegel, the poets Novalis and Hölderlin, the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, and the philosopher Friedrich Schelling.

As the scholar Manfred Frank has exhaustively chronicled, the early Romantics were extremely self-conscious of their status as the first creative generation to succeed the intellectual revolution inaugurated by Kant’s Critiques, and their subsequent elaboration by Fichte. The metaphysical, epistemological, and aesthetic concerns of the Romantics were largely shaped by the problematic of transcendental idealism, especially the relationship of the knowing subject to the unknowable ultimate ground of experience.

As a Buddhist, it has been enormously useful for me to explore a development of transcendental idealism conducted by artists and intellectuals firmly ensconced within the European tradition of psychological maturation and individuation, which differs in key respects from traditional patterns in India, Tibet, China, and Japan, where the individual ego is generally not valued in itself. The European tradition represented by the Romantics places high value on the individual development of a unique and independent perspective as integral to the process of becoming a mature adult. They likewise place a deep value on creative art which my Tibetan teachers would not have understood. I was once told by a Geshe from Drepung Loseling that the only art that has value is iconic contemplative art – all other forms of art are merely ornamental, essentially toys for children.

I know that that is false, of course – great aesthetic experiences can provide insight and illumination of a high order. Some of the most profound experiences of my life have involved great works of art – I think of my first experience seeing Wagner’s Ring cycle, or seeing the Sistine Chapel, or reading Dante’s Commedia, or Finnegans Wake, or Hamlet. Aesthetic experiences can be a vehicle for the veridical intuition of deep truths about life and the nature of consciousness. 

It is illuminating to explore the work of thinkers who are deeply concerned with the transformative and enlightening qualities of great art, while sharing a philosophical perspective that in core respects closely resembles the Buddhist philosophy with which I otherwise feel so at home. I have argued before that there are pervasive and important similarities between Buddhism and Kantian transcendental idealism, and if anything this sense has only been increasingly borne out by my deeper study of Kant in the last several years. I would emphatically recommend reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason to any serious student of Buddhism.

The early Romantics also sensed a deep kinship between their philosophical enterprise and some of the traditions of India. For example, in his “Speech on Mythology” in 1802, Schlegel wrote (my translation):

If only the treasures of the Orient were as accessible to us as those of the ancient [Greeks and Romans]! What new sources of poetry could flow to us from India if some German artists had the opportunity, with their universal scope and depth of sense, and with the genius of translation they possess. [Our] nation, which is becoming ever more dumb and brutal, scarcely comprehends the need. We must search in the Orient for the ultimate Romantic, and if we can draw from the source, perhaps the appearance of the southern glow, which so charms us in Spanish poetry, will again appear, only sparsely and in Western guise.

In this perspective, Schlegel followed Goethe, who praised the great Sanskrit playwright Kalidasa in 1792, and who would emulate the Sufi poet Hafiz in his West-East Divan in 1819. It is my belief that the “Prelude in the Theater” in Faust was modeled after the introduction of Kalidasa’s magnificent play Recognition of Shakuntala, which includes a similar introduction of the work that will follow to the audience by the director.

Transcendental idealism is ultimately focused on the limits of reason and experience, and accounting for how consciousness is made coherent by regularities which structure any possible experience, such as space, time, and causality. These are seen as necessary features of consciousness, but their ultimate relationship to reality itself, independent of how we experience it, is unknowable.

This problematic was exhaustively analyzed philosophically by Kant, Fichte, and Schelling, and also inspired a creative response from poets like Novalis and Hölderlin, who developed it from a very different center of gravity in the human psyche. Having assimilated the implications of transcendental idealism through exhaustive study (see Manfred Frank’s Unendliche Annährung), the early Romantic poets worked through the relationship of individuals to the absolute – of the knowing subject to the ineffable transcendent ground of experience – with the metaphorical tools of poetry and myth.

For example, in his celebrated “Hymns to the Night” (here in German, here’s a dated English translation), Novalis employs this problematic as a framework for rendering his deeply personal experience of mourning the death of his young betrothed. He joins the image of the lonely consciousness in the inchoate night of the Absolute with the memory of keeping vigil at the lonely grave of his beloved all night. In both cases, subjective experience is like an isolated lighthouse in an infinite, dark, and silent sea (see the Caspar David Friedrich painting below). 

This poetic work harnesses the structure of transcendental idealism as a framework for giving modern expression to the age-old motif of the Liebestod, or love-death, which has been a major feature of German literary culture at least since the time of Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan in the early thirteenth century. The image of the falling night encompasses sleep, death, the unconscious, the undifferentiated sphere of the absolute, and transcendent union with the Beloved.

Here is my rendering of Novalis’ second Hymn:

Must morning always come again?
Will earth’s dominion never end?
Profane commerce consumes
The heavenly advent of night.
Will love’s secret sacrifice never
Burn eternal?
Light and waking’s time
was measured,
But night’s dominion is timeless,
The span of sleep eternal.
Holy sleep!
Do not too seldom bless
those in Earth’s acre
who consecrate the night.
Only fools mistake you,
Knowing no sleep
But the shadow
You compassionately cast upon us
In that dawn
Of true night.
They do not feel you
In the golden flood of grapes,
In the almond tree’s
Miraculous oil
And the poppy’s brown juice.
They do not know
It’s you
Who float about the maiden’s
Tender breast,
Making heaven of her bosom;
Do not sense
That out of old stories
You open heaven coming forth to meet us
And carry the key
To the chambers of the blessed,
Silent messenger of
Infinite secrets.

In my next post on this subject I’ll look more specifically at the aesthetic theory underlying the work of the Romantics, especially as it was expressed in Friedrich Schlegel’s “Speech on Mythology.” I’ll also have a look at how this theory has been interpreted by the modern theorist Karl Heinz Bohrer.


Zwei Männer am Meer, Caspar David Friedrich


Written by Mesocosm

May 25, 2018 at 3:11 am

13 Responses

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  1. So heartening to know there are people in the world who use their intelligence to uncover the Divine in so many endless aspects of the world – with a particular orientation toward finding Delight and Joy in the greatest artistic expressions.


    May 25, 2018 at 4:30 am

  2. Novalis’ poem reminds me of the 2nd canto of Book 3, Savitri:

    A stillness absolute, incommunicable,
    Meets the sheer self-discovery of the soul;
    A wall of stillness shuts it from the world,
    A gulf of stillness swallows up the sense
    And makes unreal all that mind has known,
    All that the labouring senses still would weave
    Prolonging an imaged unreality.
    Self’s vast spiritual silence occupies Space;
    Only the Inconceivable is left,
    Only the Nameless without space and time:
    Abolished is the burdening need of life:
    Thought falls from us, we cease from joy and grief;
    The ego is dead; we are freed from being and care,
    We have done with birth and death and work and fate.
    O soul, it is too early to rejoice!
    Thou hast reached the boundless silence of the Self,
    Thou hast leaped into a glad divine abyss;
    But where hast thou thrown Self’s mission and Self’s power?
    On what dead bank on the Eternal’s road?
    One was within thee who was self and world,
    What hast thou done for his purpose in the stars?
    Escape brings not the victory and the crown!
    Something thou cam’st to do from the Unknown,
    But nothing is finished and the world goes on
    Because only half God’s cosmic work is done.
    Only the everlasting No has neared
    And stared into thy eyes and killed thy heart:
    But where is the Lover’s everlasting Yes,
    And immortality in the secret heart,
    The voice that chants to the creator Fire,
    The symbolled OM, the great assenting Word
    The bridge between the rapture and the calm,
    The passion and the beauty of the Bride,
    The chamber where the glorious enemies kiss,
    The smile that saves, the golden peak of things?


    May 25, 2018 at 7:47 am

  3. What similarities do you find between Buddhism and Kant’s transcendental idealism?


    June 26, 2018 at 6:41 pm

    • In my opinion Kant’s combination of transcendental idealism and empirical realism has close similarities to the Madhyamaka view, particularly as it has generally been espoused by Tibetan scholastic philosophers such as Tsong Khapa. I wrote about it some years ago in this post:


      June 26, 2018 at 9:28 pm

      • Wouldn’t you say that a fundamental difference, though, is that Kant concluded it is impossible for the human to have direct knowledge of Reality? (though perhaps you agree with the scholars who say that Indian Philosophy was never really concerned with “Reality” but only ‘the end of suffering”) (not that the Buddha was even remotely concerned with what white upper middle class liberal living 2500 years after him believed was “suffering”)


        June 27, 2018 at 4:56 am

      • Hi Mesocosm,

        Do you yourself agree or disagree with Kant’s transcendental idealism?


        June 27, 2018 at 5:46 pm

      • Hey Ontological Realist, I don’t agree with every word of Critique of Pure Reason, but I strongly agree with what I take to be its core argument – that the transcendental basis of experience is unknowable; that we can posit with apodictic certainty nothing whatsoever about things-in-themselves; and that universals as we know them are universals of conscious experience, with an indeterminate relationship to the world as it exists in itself.


        June 27, 2018 at 10:52 pm

  4. Hey Don, as you of course know there’s a lot of disagreement concerning what the realization of ultimate truth consists of. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll stick to the interpretation of Tsong Khapa as I understand it, which is that the liberating insight of ultimate truth is the direct perception of emptiness, which is itself a non-affirming negative that contains or implies no content whatsoever, but is the mere lack of inherent existence that characterizes all phenomena. In a sense, that can be termed “Reality,” but in practice it merely means a direct perception of the falsity of the dualistic appearances that structure afflicted consciousness.

    This apophatic disclosure of the final nature of all phenomena bears a deep similarity to the critical limitations Kant asserts in his theory of transcendental idealism. I think he could agree with statements such as that by Jowo Atisha who said, with respect to the ultimate, that “This not-seeing is itself seeing.” That is, the whole project of Kant’s critical philosophy is to similarly deconstruct the phantoms of false consciousness that we take to be fundamental characteristics of the world itself.

    On a side note, it is said in the Vimalakirti Sutra that it is a fault to prefer to benefit the poor over benefiting the rich. In that sutra, it is said that whether we’re rich or poor, saintly or depraved, we all suffer, and we all deserve the benefit of Buddha’s teaching, that shines impartially like the light of the sun. 😉


    June 27, 2018 at 8:53 am

    • Hi, great, thoughtful answer. I’ll just tease you with Robert Thurman’s very different interpretation of Je Tsongkhapa (who, I imagine would have at least some credibility on this, being the “Je Tsongkhapa chair of Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University”!)

      He is of the opinion that the idea that ultimate Reality is “contentless” is actually a skillful means, perfectly in line with Nagarjuna’s clear intent to show that it is virtually impossible to say anything positive about reality by means of the mind. (which means, to assert as a positive that emptiness – however you define it – is the nature of Reality is an error as well.

      Thurman actually thought, along with Alan Wallace, that Je Tsongkhapa’s teaching is perfectly compatible with both Nyingma and Dzogchen teachings. Thurman goes even farther, and sees no fundamental conflict between Sri Aurobindo’s view that the Divine “hides” and then “unfolds” as this evolving universe – and the deepest teachings of Tibetan Buddhism (and Kashmir Shivaism as well, for that matter).

      But hey, I’m just a guy from New Jersey, WhaddaIknow?


      June 27, 2018 at 9:14 am

      • I think that interpretation of Tsong Khapa is absurd. One of the novel tactics that Tsong Khapa employs that is absolutely central to the entire Gelukpa approach to Madhyamaka is defining the view by identifying the object of negation, which is explained in the Middling and Greater Exposition of the Stages of the Path with respect to those who negate too much, and those who do not negate enough. The view of “not negating enough” is plainly described as those who assert the true existence of ultimate truth. He says in Lam Rim Chenmo, for example, “Even reality, the ultimate truth, has no intrinsic nature at all.” He also quotes Chandrakirti in saying that asserting a non-fabricated nature means you have missed the point of Nagarjuna’s treatise.

        This is also the entire point of the Essence of Eloquence, which Thurman himself translated. I mean, the entire purpose of that book is to differentiate provisional and definitive teachings, and he comes down after hundreds of pages of extensive analysis on the position that the Teachings of Akshyamati Sultra establishes the definitive view.

        To put it another way, if we cannot take Tsong Khapa at his word about this, then we cannot take him at his word about anything he says. There is no point in his entire corpus he makes more consistently or in greater detail.


        June 27, 2018 at 11:15 am

  5. Also, since we’re talking about the Romantics, the entire next generation of German idealists intuited that there was something kind of divine in Kant’s idea of the noumena, and developed it extensively. Schelling, for example, under the influence of Spinoza and Plotinus developed Kantian thinking into a model that has even closer similarities to Buddhism that Kant evidences.


    June 27, 2018 at 8:55 am

  6. Hi Mesocosm,

    Why do you perceive what you do perceive instead of perceiving something else? In other words, when you perceive a chair then why do you perceive a chair instead of perceiving a tiger or a tree?


    June 28, 2018 at 5:53 pm

    • That’s clearly not a question that can be answered in a comment – the reasons are manifold, involving everything from the spatial and temporal scales in which we live to the structure and behavior of our perceptual and cognitive faculties to the mechanisms of self-awareness to our interactions with the environment.


      June 28, 2018 at 9:34 pm

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