Baffled Traveller

Jonathan Rée

  • Hegel: An Intellectual Biography by Horst Althaus, translated by Michael Tarsh
    Polity, 292 pp, £45.00, May 2000, ISBN 0 7456 1781 6
  • Hegel: Biographie by Jacques D'Hondt
    Calmann-Lévy, 424 pp, frs 150.00, October 1998, ISBN 2 7021 2919 6

During the 1790s the little town of Jena, in Saxony, blossomed into colourful activity. With active support from Goethe, ducal minister in nearby Weimar, the ancient university cast off its reputation for beery rowdiness and intellectual torpor. Schiller was given a post there in 1789, and Fichte in 1794, and their passionate lectures – delivered in German rather than the customary Latin – soon attracted audiences from all over Germany, and from France and Britain as well.

What everyone wanted was philosophy. In particular they wanted to be part of the ‘critical revolution’ initiated by Kant a decade or so before. They were convinced that there could be no going back on Kant’s doctrine that the fundamental forms of experience are created by our own mental activity rather than forced on us from outside. But whereas Kant had launched his ‘critical philosophy’ in a spirit of sober enlightenment, the new romantics were determined to press it forward to the conclusion that we humans are not just creatures of our world but creators of it as well – poetic inventors of our individual and national selves. As Kant grew doddery and forgetful in faraway Königsberg, the young people of Jena were convinced that a post-Kantian future of autonomous self-creation belonged to them.

Before long August and Caroline Schlegel also settled in Jena, followed by Friedrich and Dorothea Schlegel. Then Hölderlin arrived, and in 1798 his brilliant young friend Schelling – a 23-year-old professor with an irresistible sulky pout. Together they formed ‘an eternal concert of wit, poetry, art and science’, as Dorothea Schlegel said; or, in her husband’s phrase, ‘a symphony of professors’.

In less than ten years it was all over. By 1800 a rump of older professors had reasserted the university’s pre-romantic traditions, accusing the newcomers of turning Jena into a steamy bordello. Fichte was dismissed from his post on suspicion of atheism, and the more charismatic teachers began to drift away, taking the best students with them.

And then there was politics. Napoleon’s forces defeated the Austrians at Austerlitz in 1805, and the last frayed threads that bound the German states into the Holy Roman Empire began to snap. In September 1806 the Prussian Army entered Saxony hoping to halt the French advance, but Napoleon retaliated on 13 October by taking possession of Jena. His troops ransacked the town, and the following afternoon they defeated the Prussian Army in a battle on the plains nearby.

These were gloomy days for the inhabitants of Jena, especially for anyone whose prosperity depended on the university. They were particularly bleak for a moody middle-aged philosopher called Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. He was unemployed, unmarried and unloved (although his stroppy housekeeper was five months pregnant with their child); and since the arrival of the French soldiers he was homeless as well. Though he had recently been given the title of ‘professor of philosophy’, the post brought no salary. He was 36 years old already, and it seemed likely that his intellectual arrogance and social clumsiness, together with his barrenness as a writer, his incompetence as a speaker, and his unalluring Swabian accent, would always come between him and the academic success he longed for.

His basic problem, as he saw it, was a kind of glum passivity which he referred to as ‘hypochondria’. He defined his ailment as an ‘inability to come out of myself’, but in some ways it was rather the opposite: a compulsion to wander off in his imagination and take refuge elsewhere. His sense of self was diffuse and distracted, and he would identify with almost anything except his own immediate situation. This habit of seeing things from points of view other than his own probably went back to his childhood in Stuttgart, and the never-articulated shocks he suffered at the age of 11 when his devoted mother died. A few years later, as a student in the Protestant seminary at Tübingen, he was thoroughly accustomed to wishing he were someone else – a philosophical pagan in ancient Greece, for instance, or a philosophical revolutionary in contemporary Paris. He also liked to attach himself to bold and brilliant people who could be counted on to outshine him, especially Hölderlin and Schelling, with whom he shared rooms when they were students together in Tübingen. His companions could write and speak better than he could; they could woo better, study better, and no doubt sleep better too. The only thing he excelled at was getting drunk and spending hours reading the ephemeral political press. (‘Reading the morning paper is the realist’s morning prayer,’ he once said.) He made a stab at stylishness by wearing his hair in the revolutionary fashion, short and flat, but in the company of Hölderlin and Schelling – the beautiful Grecian poet and the sensuous philosophical prodigy – he had, by the age of 20, already earned himself the nickname ‘old man Hegel’.

When he left Tübingen in 1793 his teachers said he had ‘some competence in philology’ but no great talent for philosophy. Unable to get a post in a university, he spent the next five years as a private tutor in Berne and Frankfurt, struggling to tame his excited dreams of amalgamating Kantian philosophy with popular politics to form a secular successor to the Reformation. ‘The philosophers are proving the dignity of man,’ he wrote, and ‘the people will learn to feel it.’ The diffusion of the critical philosophy was destined to create ‘a revolution in Germany’, and it was in the hope of playing an active part in the revolution that he moved to Jena in 1801.

He had left it rather late. The university was already in decline; there were very few students to listen to his courses of private lectures, and their fees did not cover his expenses. But the strange dialect, the half-finished sentences and the vicious cycles of snuff-taking, sneezing, coughing and spluttering held a fascination of their own, and Hegel gradually acquired a circle of devotees: a handful of earnest young men who were convinced that he would be the one to lead German philosophy to its future glories. Others disagreed, and as early as 1804 August Schlegel was complaining of the gangs of inarticulate young Hegeleien who swarmed the streets of Jena. But Goethe still had faith in the hapless philosopher: despite his shortcomings in ‘rhetorical technique’ (and surely some friend should whisper a word to him about it), he had a trefflicher Kopf – ‘an exceptionally sharp mind’.

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