Schleiermacher’s Soliloquies: An English Translation Of The Monologen. By Horace Leland Friess. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2002. 176 pages. $22.00.
Friedrich Schleiermacher penned his Monolgen or Soliloquies shortly after the appearance of his famous On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers in 1799. The latter work was well received upon its initial publication, establishing the then quite young Schleiermacher as a major religious intellectual and confirming his place within the bourgeoning Romantic movement of the day. Riding upon the success of On Religion, Schleiermacher decided to compose a series of self-reflective meditations on the examined life. The result is “an inner conversation, a series of mediations, a book of self-scrutiny,” that, according to Freiss, constitutes “one of the very few writings in the literature of German philosophic idealism, which imparts experiences and beliefs directly instead of through a medium of speculation and dialectic” (xi). Schleiermacher’s Soliloquies are thus a sort of philosophy of life, an existentialism consisting more of lyrical description of experience than the systematic analysis of existence. In this sense, Schleiermacher’s existential thought is more akin to that of Kierkegaard or Nietzsche than Heidegger or Sartre (to speak anachronistically).
However, although the Soliloquies are far more reflective than didactic, there is nevertheless a great deal of philosophy at work within the text. In attempting to interpret the philosophical undercurrents of the Soliloquies it is worth keeping in mind the deep influence of Plato on Schleiermacher’s thought. Schleiermacher was the first to translate Plato’s dialogues into German, and if one looks closely one can discern the Platonic vision of the soul and it’s ascent from the realm of finite, temporal becoming to infinite, eternal Being as a major philosophical thread running throughout the pages of the Soliloquies.
The text itself consists of five reflections, all relatively short in length, but immensely rich in content. Schleiermacher begins his text with an “offering” to his readers. He writes, “no choicer gift can any man give to another than his spirit’s intimate converse with itself. For this affords the highest boon there is, a clear and undistorted insight into a free being” (9). Schleiermacher seems well aware of the existential and spiritual potency of the ensuing meditations when he writes, “come, take the gift, ye who can understand my spirit’s thought! May my feelings here intoned be an accompaniment to the melody within yourselves, and may the shock which passes through you at the contact with my spirit, become a quickening impulse in your life” (Ibid).
The first soliloquy, titled “Reflection,” is an extended deliberation on self-examination. Schleiermacher begins by noting that, “the average individual recognizes nothing but his transient existence, and its irresistible decline from sunny heights into a dread night of annihilation” (11). However, he maintains that “meditation and contemplation are without profit” for those who are ignorant of the “inner life of spirit” (13). In good Platonic form, Schleiermacher insists that those who would attempt to transcend the temporal are doomed unless they come to recognize the eternal element within the human soul (Ibid). Those who fail to arrive at this understanding are destined to founder under the inexorable weight of “Time and Necessity” (15). As a result, their “much glorified business of self-examination” can only end in misery (14).
This leads to the fundamental theme of the Soliloquies—the self-transcendence of the human spirit by way of freedom. Schleiermacher writes, “I feel myself to be upon the holy ground of Freedom, far from every debasing limitation. I must fix my eyes upon my true self, if each moment is not to slip away as merely so much time, instead of being grasped as an element of Eternity, and transmuted into a higher and freer life” (16). He concludes that only those who understand “what man is and what the world is” can enjoy the heavenly nectar of freedom and eternity (Ibid). Schleiermacher ends his first soliloquy with a jab at religious believers, who instead of seeking to understand the eternal within the realm of the finite, reify eternity into immortality, something only accessible after the terminus finite existence (25).
The second soliloquy, “Soundings,” further expands upon aspects of the first. Schleiermacher begins by broaching the Delphic maxim “know thyself,” noting that this is in fact one of the most difficult, unpleasant and unnerving tasks for most individuals. Schleiermacher writes, “Mankind is shy of self-analysis, and many people tremble slavishly when they can no longer dodge the question of what they have done, what they have become, and who they really are. The thing frightens them; they know not what will come of it” (26). Here Schleiermacher calls attention to a problem that is addressed by virtually all of the great religious and philosophical traditions: the almost instinctive resistance to sustained self-reflection on the part of human beings. Schleiermacher contends that such refusal is not merely the result of the inertia of quotidian life: “it is only willfulness that hides a person from himself” (Ibid). Thus we must struggle to overcome this willful resistance to confronting our truest self.
Schleiermacher goes on to describe the realization that such self-reflection afforded him:
Thus there dawned upon me what is now my highest intuition. I saw clearly that each man is meant to represent humanity in his own way, combining its elements uniquely, so that it may reveal itself in every mode and all that can issue from its womb be made actual in the fullness of unending space and time. This thought alone has uplifted me, and set me apart from everything common and untransformed in my surroundings; it has made of me an elect creation of the godhead, rejoicing in a unique form and character (31).
Schleiermacher rejects the notion that the purpose of self-scrutiny is simply moral improvement. Though such improvement may well result from serious self-reflection, the primary aim of this activity is to see oneself and ones world rightly, too see past the superficial appearances of unreflective conventional life and view reality as it really is. According to Schleiermacher, the virtues that result from this activity are twofold: a nuanced sensitivity to the world and an active love for others, oneself and one’s world (38).
The third reflection, “The World,” shifts from a concentration on the internal realm of self-reflection to the external realm of social existence, and the troubles lying therein. Schleiermacher affirms the goodness of corporeal existence as well as the value of civilized society—he was, after all, a Romantic. However, he also discerns here the trappings and temptations of “worldly” existence. On the one hand, one’s external situation in life may be so monotonous and mundane that it utterly desiccates the spirit. On the other hand, one’s social environment may be so rich and tantalizing that it seduces one into a superficial existence—one that is dedicated more to the cultivation of ones appearance than to one’s innermost self. This for Schleiermacher seems to be more abhorrent than the former situation, as it implies a willful forgetfulness of the task of cultivating ones finite existence in light of the infinite. Schleiermacher writes,
Whoever lives at peace with the present and desire nothing further is a contemporary of those semi-barbarous people who laid the foundations of our world…but wherever I do see a spark of the hidden fire that must sooner or later consume the outworn and recreate the world, I am drawn toward it with love and true hope as to a welcome sign of my distant home (62-63).
Schleiermacher’s penultimate reflection is titled “Prospect.” In it he continues to elucidate his view that through freedom (which results from self-reflection) the human spirit is able to transcend the limits and confines of finitude. Schleiermacher refuses to downplay the major structural issues that seem to assail human existence from all sides—viz., the ever-present threat of death, our vulnerability to illness and misfortune, the dependence of human society upon the indifferent forces of Nature in order to flourish, etc. Moreover, he refuses to take or offer any easy solutions to this predicament, e.g. the promise of immortality. Instead Schleiermacher insists that we own up to the fundamentally limited and contingent character of our finite existence. He seems to intimate that doing so should function to loosen our white knuckled grip on finite things (including existence), and, in doing so, thus transcend them. Here one is reminded of the Buddhist teaching about attachment, and similarly in the Christian tradition, Meister Eckhart’s insistence upon Gelassenheit—the “letting go” of or detachment from finite entities (including God). Schleiermacher’s consideration of those who remain attached to the precarious joys of finite existence is worth quoting at length:
If he has learned to find himself nowhere but in the flux of those transient impressions and particular ideas that happen to be the realities of his life; if his whole life is preoccupied with the insecure possession of external things, and he never penetrates more deeply into his own being, because he is absorbed in dizzy contemplation of the everlasting swirl in which both he and his possessions are carried round…then, of course, he must want to know above all whether the changes that govern him are dependent on a supreme will above all wills, or whether they are a mechanical result of the combination of many forces. For this latter possibility must terrify one who has never laid hold of his true self (69).
Schleiermacher begins the final reflection of the Soliloquies, “Youth and Age,” with a meditation upon the ephemeral nature of youth and the impending shadow of death. He writes, “as the stroke of the clock tolls the hours, and the sun’s course measures out the years, my life, as I am well aware, draws ever nearer the hour of death” (89). However, despite the reality of death, Schleiermacher insists that ageing need not be a negative process. This is because for Schleiermacher youthfulness cannot be reduced to the external realm, for youthfulness is also a state of one’s spirit. He thus writes, “were I now convinced that youth would escape me with the flight of years, I should voluntarily hasten to meet an early death” (89). Schleiermacher maintains that ageing, in the pejorative sense of the term, is something that we have the power to elude insofar as we cultivate ourselves vis a vis freedom.
Old age, soured, bare, and hopeless, fetches many prematurely, and some evil spirit breaks off the bud of their youth before it has scarcely blossomed; others keep their vigor long; though white, their heads are unbowed, a fire still animates their eyes, and happy laughter graces their lips…For what is to explain this difference in ageing, if not force of will (90-91)?
Schleiermacher is convinced that we need not wither away in the process of growing old. In fact, the reverse is quite possible: the youthfulness of our spirit may grow stronger with the passing of every year. According to Schleiermacher, that which keeps the spirit young is its striving for the infinite and the eternal. Such a task can never be exhausted, and thus the perpetual striving for the infinite keeps the soul dynamic and active long after the body becomes slow and sedentary with old age. Consequently, Schleiermacher concludes that “the usual division of life into youth and age ought never to be made” (98), because, “in beholding himself, man triumphs over discouragement and weakness, for from the consciousness of inner freedom there blossoms eternal youth and joy” (102-103).
Schleiermacher’s Soliloquies is a beautifully written and spiritually evocative book, full of probing self-reflection and deep insight. His poignant reflections indirectly and directly implore the reader to embark upon the task of honest self-reflection and committed self-cultivation.
Of course, the text is not without its problems. Sometimes Schleiermacher’s rapturous reflections seem to soar so high above finite experience that they become rather esoteric. In some cases, he is so captured by the power of freedom and eternity that he seems to gloss over the limitations and woes of embodied existence. This is clearly evident in his allusions to his difficult love affair with Eleanor in “Prospect,” where he claims, quite unrealistically, that the imagination itself is sufficient to unit two lovers separated by space. This seems like something said whilst on a “spiritual high” of sorts; and it is worth noting that Schleiermacher’s love affair with Eleanor was not able to survive the very real limitations and pressures of distance and cultural convention.
On a more personal note, I found reading the Soliloquies to be an unusually moving and surprisingly spiritual experience. I, like so many (indeed like Schleiermacher himself), came of age within a conservative religious tradition which, over time, slowly shifted from unquestionably true and existentially life giving to spiritually suffocating and intellectually untenable. Consequently, these days I tend to find spiritual sustenance in the poetry of Auden and the volumes of Proust than in the theological texts that I study academically. Thus, it was an unexpected and welcomed surprise to find in a Protestant theologian so kindred a spirit. For so many Protestant theologians parse religion in terms of a supranatural being or supernatural event that breaks into this world and saves us from the vicissitudes of finite existence, guaranteeing eternal meaning and delivering us from the finality of death. To put it in blunt, Nietzschean terms, so much of Christian religion is a negation of the finite world and mortal existence in which find ourselves—a convenient panacea for all that ails us existentially.
In contrast, I have found Schleiermacher to be profoundly affirmative of finite existence—he only insists that we plumb this finite world to its infinite depths. In On Religion and in the Soliloquies, Schleiermacher conceives of religion as a way of life—a sensitivity to the singular splendor of the finite world and the untold grandeur of its infinite ground, a discerning mindfulness that confronts reality as it really is, and comports itself accordingly, an affirmation of both life and death, youth and age, the cultivation of and affirmation one’s finite existence in light of the infinite.
Schleiermacher thus offers a conception of religion that, at least for this reader, is far more flexible and adequate to reality than most varieties of Protestant Christianity. Reading Schleiermacher, much like my experience of reading Meister Eckhart and Paul Tillich, has been like coming home, theologically. Or perhaps more accurately, discovering that amidst the vast and variegated traditions of Christian theology, there exists a home for souls such as mine.
One of the key figures to usher in the Romantic era, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) was a theologian, philosopher, preacher, professor, and highly influential friend to the Berlin Salon community. A contemporary of Hegel, Schelling, Fichte, Schlegel, and others, Soliloquies is an autobiographical portrait of a vibrant man (who happened to be a genius) in a unique cultural setting. Rich with resolutions to existential difficulties (such as finitude) in content, and eclectic in form, Soliloquies is a book that transcends genre and pierces the reader’s heart with imaginative longing and vicarious transcendence. Written at age thirty-two (1799), the emotional force of a young man approaching his prime exudes from the pages of this text. The book is divided into five sections (or five soliloquies), which I will summarize momentarily. First, it is important to mention a key to interpreting Soliloquies. In order to understand this book, it is helpful to be familiar with Plato (particularly the divided line and Allegory of the Cave). In fact, Plato’s discussion of the relation between the soul and the world is the backdrop behind Soliloquies. Plato writes:
When it [i.e. the soul] is firmly fixed on the domain where truth and reality shine resplendent it apprehends and knows them … but when it inclines to that region which is mingled with darkness, the world of becoming and passing away … [Philosophers must educate others in order to] draw the soul away from the world of becoming to the world of being. (Republic, VI 508; VII 521)
Schleiermacher does not merely echo Plato. Rather, he constructs his own unique philosophy while utilizing Platonic metaphors. If I had to summarize the entire book in one word, it would be Freedom. With these asides in mind, I will now summarize the five Soliloquies; entitled Reflection, Soundings, The World, Prospect, and Youth and Age.
Reflection is about freedom from necessity, discussing the illusory constraints of time, causality, and death. Schleiermacher overcomes the images or shadows imposed by time through meditation, contemplation, and reflection. In this way he is able to focus on his inner spirit rather than on the outer world, which makes him free:
Freedom, you are for me the soul and principle of all things. When I withdraw into myself to contemplate you, my eyes are lifted from the realm of time, and my vision free from every restriction of Necessity. Every oppressive feeling of bondage disappears, my spirit discovers its creative nature, the light of God begins to shine upon me, banishing far hence the mists in which enslaved humanity strays in error. [I am] no longer a creature of fate or fortune … I sense my free dominion over the material world … the inner life reveals itself … and its creation is an act of spiritual freedom. (18-20)
Thus connection to the inner spirit or “true being” releases one from time and necessity, ushering one into the “celestial rapture of immortal choirs”; or eternity (25). Until this mystical state is experienced, people will mistakenly think that “God” is “outside the world of time” (ibid). However, through contemplation of the free spirit within, one recognizes and actualizes the inner divine: “Be not troubled for the future, nor weep for things which pass, but take heed lest you lose yourself, and weep if you are swept along in the stream of time, without carrying heaven with you” (ibid).
Soundings focuses on conscience. Here mere morality as the purpose for conscience is refuted. Schleiermacher begins by pointing out that most people avoid “self-analysis”, or introspection, which results in both imprisonment and an inability to see the true self. The conscience is meant to yield an awareness of “true humanity” through inner reflection (27). Rather than focusing on outer moral actions, conscience when rightly perceived leads to one’s self-awareness of the “humanity within oneself”, and its connection with a “truly human way of acting” in freedom- which transcends mere morality (28). In contrast to those who claim with certainty that the highest of human attainments are reason and morality (e.g. Kant and Fichte), Schleiermacher admittedly has doubts on this issue. Nonetheless, when he engages in self-examination something greater than certainty occurs. This is freedom. To turn from the sensual life to morality is well and good, but to transcend morality and enter into the highest act of freedom gives one a unique existence. This act is the “highest intuition”, wherein “each man is meant to represent humanity in his own way, combining its elements uniquely, so that it may reveal itself in every mode” (31). This is the “initial act of free determination”, when once reflected on further develops one’s “unique nature”, culminating in “the full knowledge of individuality” (32). Further, the actualization of individuality is also and actualization of human communality. Interestingly, the latter can be manifest “works of art” (34). However, unlike the practiced skill of the artist in solitude, Schleiermacher prefers his art to involve social interaction with others in a reciprocal “mutual give and take” relationship (36). Thus the “highest condition of individual perfection” is sensitivity to others- the prerequisite of which is love (38). Love and sensitivity are greater and higher than moral law; and the proper response to consciousness should not be first and foremost moral conduct, but love.
The World is a monologue pinpointing both the corporeal world and the world of society. The latter are described as trapped in “chains of ignorance” (50). This condition is oppressive to one who seeks to attain freedom (50). The “inner development” of an enlightened person can be stifled by the temptation of the outer world (e.g. sensual desires and outer attachments), rather than the inner world of spirit and freedom (53ff). More specifically, the world encourages a false view of friendship, marriage, the state, which lead to “spiritual slavery” (57). Schleiermacher hopes for a better world in the future, and understands himself as contributing to such. Last, language is discussed. One of the problems with language is that the “slaves of the age” (i.e. the masses of the world) will always misunderstand the “wise” (66). Regardless, Schleiermacher wants to contribute to the progress of humanity and hopes to be an artist with language (68ff).
Prospect opens in similar fashion to each of the soliloquies; with a discussion of the blindness experienced by those under the constraints of time, necessity, and fate, and the praise of freedom attainable by knowledge of the “true self” (70). Here Schleiermacher claims that he has broken the yoke of anxiety over the future through the “cherished assurance of freedom … I am its [the future’s] master, it is not mine” (70). Those whose main concern is self-development are not subjected to the claws of fate. The only true limitation is the impossibility of altering a previous decision. But this is not a negative limitation (as some suppose). Instead it is the very condition for “existence” (71). With this in mind, the proper emphasis of our acts should be on the individual “will” over and above “fate” (72). Further, the actions of free humans in community will affect one another, and Schleiermacher acknowledges the importance of community. In contrast to the “slaves of necessity”, whose “vulgar natures” never change, those mastered by reason, freedom and self-knowledge will grow (70, 73). An autobiographical account of how this process has occurred follows. Through overcoming indoctrination, discounting appearances, and recognizing the “superficialities” of humanity, he recognized the “essence” of human nature (74-5). The past yields evidence of personal liberty gained. He will thus continue on his path of self development, benefiting from the “galaxy of individuals” and “learned men” of history and his immediate context (76-7). So long as a desire for the shadows of avarice and sensuality are avoided, the wonderful life of individual development will not be jeopardized. Next friendship, love, and Schleiermacher’s great desire for marriage and parenthood are discussed (78ff). Through an ostensibly hypothetical scenario (which highlights the tension between freedom and fate), a picture is painted of a married woman our author has fallen for (well known among Schleiermacher scholars, the likely reference here is to a married woman named Eleonore, with whom he was in love). What would happen if they could not be united? The resolution lies in the “imagination”, thorough which he could be mentally united with his love (80). This soliloquy concludes with a discussion of the role the imagination plays in freedom (and its superiority in making moral judgments), the importance of friendship, and the unavoidability of death.
Last, Youth and Age offer a corrective to a negative attitude towards aging. When one realizes the immortality of the spirit, the decay of the body will no longer be a discouragement. Freedom over temporality occurs through the will. In short, those under the spell of the shadows and illusions of the world fear aging and squander their youth. But the “true reality” is that through a courageous will and an active imagination, one can maintain a youthful attitude throughout life: “Thus is my inner life joyous and untrammeled … in beholding himself, man triumphs over discouragement and weakness, for from the consciousness of inner freedom there blossoms eternal youth and joy” (93, 103).
This book is without doubt one of the most beautiful, moving, and personally inspiring that I have ever read. Schleiermacher is an exceptional writer and a deep thinker. It is difficult to review a work so high above review, and I hesitate to criticize a work so precious. Nonetheless, I will offer two critiques. First, at times Schleiermacher gets a bit too esoteric to follow. I certainly agree that the way in which societies function is not conducive to the philosopher's way of thinking and functioning, but at times the world is painted so negatively as to seem hopeless. This may not be a fault, but it surfaces as a point of criticism. Second, the discussion in Prospect on the way in which the imagination can unify our author with a lover he is not in proximity to seems a bit of a stretch (c.f. 82-83). At any rate I highly recommend this book. Theologians beware! Some will have theological issues with Schleiermacher. However, I doubt those issues will outweigh the inspiration and utter joy of reading the Soliloquies.
Roy L. Smith
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