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  • Hellenism, Romanticism, and Subjectivity
  • Dirk T. D. Held (bio)


In his essay "On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life," published two years after his Birth of Tragedy, and with the Greeks still clearly in mind, Friedrich Nietzsche called attention to what he considered

the most characteristic quality of modern man: the remarkable antithesis between an interior which fails to correspond to any exterior and an exterior which fails to correspond to any interior—an antithesis unknown to the peoples of earlier times. Knowledge, consumed . . . counter to one's needs, now no longer acts as an agent for transforming the outside world but remains concealed within a chaotic inner world which modern man describes . . . as his uniquely characteristic subjectivity. It is then said that one possesses content and only form is lacking; but such an antithesis is quite improper when applied to living things. This is precisely why our modern culture is not a living thing: it is incomprehensible without that antithesis.

(1874, 78)

Nietzsche is correct to observe that radical subjectivity is a distinctly modern phenomenon that has no role in ancient Greece. It is somewhat surprising, then, to find German thinkers of the Early Romantic period using the prism of Hellenism to help articulate a modern sense of subjectivity. In this paper I will examine two such figures, the philosopher Friedrich Schelling (1775–1854) and the poet Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843). They were close friends during their student years at Tübingen, with one another as well as with the philosopher Hegel who was their contemporary. The relationship of Hellenism to subjectivity in the works of Schelling and Hölderlin cannot be fully understood without some awareness of how Kant, with his self-proclaimed Copernican conceptual revolution, brought subjectivity to the inescapable attention of modernity. In the following section, therefore, I provide a brief but necessary account of the emergence of subjectivity as an issue: brief in the [End Page 161] hope that its contents will not strain the reader's patience; necessary to appreciate the context of Schelling's and Hölderlin's work.


Subjectivity and the self have been a fixation of Western thought since Descartes. This fixation results from the fact that the means by which we interpret and interact with the world have come to be constituted by reflection on our own thinking (Bowie 1990, 1). One recent writer has gone so far as to claim that philosophers justly summarize the whole history of modern philosophy as variations on a single theme: the metaphysics of the subject (Carr 1999, 4). The metaphysics in question is that of a self-conscious subject and unitary "I" that serves as the foundation of the ideology of the modern self. Its reach extends beyond philosophers; like ideologies generally, it is experienced as transparent, natural, even self-evident. Charles Taylor in the preface to his well-known book Sources of the Self says modern identity is characterized by a sense of inwardness, freedom, individuality, and being embedded in nature (1989, ix). Inwardness, interiority, and individuality are widely recognized as components of modern self-consciousness. They require an epistemological supposition that the unitary first-person viewpoint is in some way authoritative and fundamental to all knowledge as Christopher Gill (1996, 127) expressed it in his examination of the differing assumptions about persons in ancient and modern thought. The modern perspective on the person is bound to the belief that moral life can be grounded only in an individual stance (Gill 1996, 11). In this respect, it is far removed from the eudaemonistic suppositions underlying ancient ethics. The modern point of view originated with Kant who under the rubric of autonomy declared that the criterion for moral authenticity was an agent's self-legislation through the exercise of free will. In Critique of Judgment he argued that this freedom is the ontological ground of moral law, and that moral law is an epistemological condition for awareness of our freedom (Mohr 1995, 37). Yet Kant does not hesitate to warn elsewhere that "Only the descent into the hell of self-knowledge can pave the way to godliness" (Kant 1991, 236).

Nietzsche's reference above to the uniquely characteristic...


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