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The Genealogy of the Romantic Symbol$

Nicholas Halmi

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9780199212415

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2008

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199212415.001.0001

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(p.170) Appendix: The So‐called ‘Oldest Programme for a System of German Idealism’ (c.1796)1

(p.170) Appendix: The So‐called ‘Oldest Programme for a System of German Idealism’ (c.1796)1

The Genealogy of the Romantic Symbol
Oxford University Press

an ethics. Since the whole of metaphysics will in future fall under the heading of morality—of which Kant with his two practical postulates2 gave merely an example, but not an exhaustive treatment—this ethics will be nothing less than a complete system of all ideas, or, what amounts to the same thing, of all practical postulates. The first idea is naturally the conception of myself as an absolutely free being. Along with this free, self‐conscious being an entire world emerges—out of nothing—the one true and conceivable creation out of nothing. Here I shall descend to the field of physics; the question is this: how must a world be constituted for a moral being? I should like to give wings once again to our physics, which paces slowly and laboriously by means of experiments.

So—if philosophy provides the ideas and experience the data, we can finally have a physics in the larger sense, which I expect from future ages. It does not seem that present‐day physics could satisfy a creative spirit [einen schöpferischen Geist], such as ours is, or ought to be.

From nature I come to human works [Menschenwerk]. First and foremost the idea of humanity—I want to show that there is no idea of the state because the state is something mechanical, just as there is no idea of a machine. Only an object of freedom is called an idea [Idee].3 Thus we must go beyond the state! For every state must treat free persons as mechanical (p.171) gears, and it should not do so; hence it should cease to be. You see for yourselves that all ideas of perpetual peace, etc. are merely ideas subordinated to a higher idea. At the same time I want to lay down principles for a history of humanity, and to strip down to the skin the whole miserable human fabrication [Menschenwerk] of states, constitutions, governments, legislation. In the end come the ideas of a moral world, divinity, immortality—the overthrow of all asinine superstition,4 the persecution, by means of reason itself, of the priesthood, which of late has been feigning reason. The absolute freedom of all spirits [Geister], who bear the intellectual [intellektuelle] world within themselves and ought to seek neither God nor immortality outside themselves.

In the end the idea that unites all others, the idea of beauty, taken in the higher Platonic sense of the word. I am now convinced that the highest act of reason is, by virtue of encompassing all ideas, an aesthetic act, and that truth and goodness are related to one another only in beauty. The philosopher must possess as much aesthetic power as the writer [Dichter]. The people without aesthetic sense are our literal‐minded philosophers.5 The philosophy of the spirit [des Geistes] is an aesthetic philosophy. One cannot be inspired [geistreich] in anything—one cannot reason inspiredly even about history—without an aesthetic sense. Here should become evident what is truly lacking in people who do not understand ideas—and who freely admit that everything becomes mysterious to them as soon as it goes beyond tables of contents and indexes.

Poetry [die Poësie] accordingly will attain a higher dignity, becoming in the end what it was in the beginning—the teacher of humanity [Lehrerin der Menschheit]. For there will be no more philosophy, no more history—literature [die Dichtkunst] alone will survive all other sciences and arts.

At the same time we hear so often that the great multitude [Hauffen] must have a sensuous religion. Not only the multitude but the philosopher too (p.172) needs it. Monotheism of reason and the heart, polytheism of imagination and art—that is what we need!6

First I shall speak here of an idea that, so far as I know, has not before entered anyone's mind—we must have a new mythology, but this mythology must stand in the service of ideas, it must become a mythology of reason.

Before we make ideas aesthetic, that is, mythological, they are of no interest to the people [das Volk], and conversely, before mythology is rational the philosopher must be ashamed of it. In the end, therefore, enlightened and unenlightened must shake hands, mythology must become philosophical and the people rational,7 and philosophy must become mythological in order to make philosophers sensuous [sinnlich]. Then eternal unity will reign among us. Never again the contemptuous look, the blind trembling of the people before their wise men and priests. Only then will the equal development of all powers await us, those of the particular person [des Einzelnen] as well as of all individuals. No power will again be suppressed, for the universal freedom and equality of all spirits [der Geister] will reign! A higher spirit sent from heaven must found this new religion among us; it will be the last and greatest work of mankind.


(1) See Chapter 5 for discussion of this document. My translation is based on the facsimile and transcript of the manuscript in Christoph Jamme and Helmut Schneider (eds.), Mythologie der Vernunft: Hegels ‘ältestes Systemprogramm’ des deutschen Idealismus (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1984), 8–14, although I have also consulted Rüdiger Bubner's edition in Das älteste Systemprogramm: Studien zur Frühgeschichte des deutschen Idealismus (Bonn: Bouvier, 1973), 261–5. Words cancelled in the manuscript are not included in the translation.

(2) In fact Kant names three postulates of pure practical reason: of the immortality of the soul, of freedom of the will, and of the existence of God (see the Critique of Practical Reason, bk. 2, ch. 2, §§4–6).

(3) Here idea is used in the Kantian sense of a non‐empirical product of reason which defines the aims of knowledge or ethical conduct (see the Critique of Pure Reason, B367–96).

(4) ‘Asinine superstition’ is an attempt to render the untranslatable neologism Afterglaube, combining After, ‘anus’, with Aberglaube, ‘superstition’, which was written first and then cancelled in the manuscript. ‘Backward religion’ would be an alternative. David Farrell Krell suggests still others: ‘anal compulsive religiosity’, ‘rectal rectitude’, and ‘belief in a hinterhaven’ (The Tragic Absolute: German Idealism and the Languishing of God (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005), 33).

(5) Buchstabenphilosophen, Buchstaben meaning ‘letters of the alphabet’: ‘pedantic philosophers’ is the general sense. The term evidently refers to the disciples of Christian Wolff who dominated German philosophical faculties in the eighteenth century and were among Kant's most outspoken critics. The contrast with Geist, ‘spirit’, recalls 2 Corinthians 3: 6 (‘Denn der Buchstabe tötet, aber der Geist macht lebendig’ in Luther's translation) and perhaps also alludes to Fichte's On the Spirit and Letter in Philosophy (1794).

(6) Cf. Goethe's aphophthegm, quoted in Chapter 4 at n. 62: ‘We are pantheists in the study of nature, polytheists in poetry, monotheists in ethics.’

(7) Although the manuscript clearly reads und das Volk vernünftig, some editors emend to um das Volk vernünftig, ‘in order [to make] the people rational’.