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Journal of the History of Ideas 63.3 (2002) 501-519

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Nietzsche and Early Romanticism

Judith Norman

Nietzsche was in many ways a quintessentially romantic figure, a lonely genius with a tragic love-life, wandering endlessly (through Italy, no less) before going dramatically mad, taken by his gods into the protection of madness (to quote Heidegger's epithet on Hölderlin, one of Nietzsche's childhood favorites). 1 But this is to be a romantic in an uncapitalized manner, and has nothing to do with the literary movement of Romanticism, a movement from which, as is well-known, Nietzsche distanced himself loudly and vigorously. Nietzsche famously follows Goethe in his verdict that Romanticism is a form of sickness and classicism a form of strength, and commentators, for the most part, have accepted this self-description. 2 That is, they do not blithely identify Nietzsche with that nineteenth-century artistic movement, whose proponents include Victor Hugo, Eugene Delacroix, and Richard Wagner. 3

But Romanticism is a plural phenomenon. When Goethe made his famously dismissive remark, he was clearly not talking about Hugo and Wagner; he meant Romanticism in an earlier incarnation. Commentators have been less reticent about finding all sorts of affinities between Nietzsche and some of these earlier movements. In particular Nietzsche is frequently and positively compared to Jena Romanticism (also known as early Romanticism), a movement whose principal figures included August and Friedrich Schlegel, Novalis, Tieck, Schleiermacher, and Schelling, and the writings they published in the 1790s, principally in the journal, Athenaeum. It is this romantic movement that will be the focus of my paper. Jena romantics, while Grecophile, had nothing to do with Rousseauean primitivism (they were well aware that their image of the [End Page 501] Greeks reflected contemporary fantasies more than historical reality), they had no cult of the genius, and they did not valorize emotion above reason. 4 What was central to their movement was profound skepticism about the viability of traditional attitudes towards truth, an intellectually rigorous theory of art that gave particular weight to playfulness, fragmented writing, the notion of literary irony, a sense that the philosopher ought to be or become more of an artist (though not a genius)—and, correlatively, that philosophy is or ought to become more artistic. All of which sounds decidedly Nietzschean.

Romanticizing Nietzsche

While Nietzsche himself never makes the connection, he never explicitly distances himself from the authors of Jena romanticism in the way he does from later romantic figures. 5 Indeed, he barely mentions the Jena romantics by name and probably never read Friedrich Schlegel, the figure most closely associated with this romantic movement. 6 As such, there is certainly space for commentators to argue for a close if tacit intellectual connection between Nietzsche and Jena romanticism; indeed, one commentator speaks of a fundamental affinity, 7 another calls Nietzsche the last romanticist, and yet another claims that "[Nietzsche's] story makes sense only when read in the larger context of his Romantic predecessors' history." 8

It is undeniable that Nietzsche came out of a philological tradition inaugurated by the Schlegels (and developed by Schelling) which juxtaposed the Dionysian and the Apollinian in Greek tragedy. According to Lacoue-Labarthe, "an entire tradition of academic philosophy (which, on his own initiative, Nietzsche had joined) revolved around precisely this opposition." 9 At least in [End Page 502] his earlier works Nietzsche's view of the Greeks was influenced by (if not predicated on) the scholarly research and interpretative theories of figures associated with Jena romanticism. How profound and enduring this influence might have been is an interesting question, but not one I will explore at present. I will not discuss the influence of the Jena romantics in their scholarly capacity as classical philologists, but rather focus on any impact they may have had as philosophically minded literary critics during the 1790s. Similarly, I will not look at The Birth of Tragedy but rather focus on claims made concerning the romantic tendencies of Nietzsche's later work. A body of scholarship has been building which claims that the critical theories of Jena...


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