The German Spirit in Beethoven’s Era

In the history of the human spirit, the seventy‑and‑five years of Beethoven’s lifetime span a closed period. This was a time of a future burgeoning yet not destined to ever become present, and of a past retrieved in its full specificity only to bring about sharp awareness of universal irretrievability. It was the last station on Europe’s path towards hubris of power, a rush for world dominance, and the subsequent catastrophe. This epoch is the supporting ground for all the later European efforts to pursue a purely spiritual life and world, as it represented the last serious attempt to substantiate the possibility that human beings need not strike exclusively the way of utter exteritority, that they need not opt for a controlling dominance over nature and an insertion into the realm of the colossal forces which, ultimately, leave humanity at the mercy of their own irrational raging.

Within the span of the seventy‑and‑five years of Beethoven’s lifetime, the French revolution took place and issued into Napoleon’s dictatorship and a series of wars unprecedented in Europe; the ancient order was restored; and there were glimpses of a new hope that it could be transcended. During all these disasters, the backstage belonged to a consolidation of the Western bourgeoisie and its capitalist seizure of global wealth. At this point, Central Europe followed all of this from a distance and abstractly, seeing in the events – and not illegitimately – a crisis of the established principles of modern life; and it attempted to show humanity “another country, whereto Spirit may go”._1 Pursuing this notion it created, antithetically, the literature of the German classicism and of the (more radically negative) romanticism. It created a new philosophy, unrivalled in its depth by all the previous modern thought, and it discovered new possibilities for reflection: the transcendental realm, the realm of history, the worlds of the objective Spirit. It focused on itself and created a novel philosophical discipline, aesthetics, an inquiry into that very sense of life which, in essence, it wanted to put up against the established European ideals. Not only were traditional disciplines – physics, logic, ethics, well‑established from the period of the Platonic Academy onwards – rejuvenated in an effort to attain a completely different spirit, but their ranks were also joined by aesthetics, a completely new discipline, and there was the attempt to allow philosophy to regain its keystone, its independence, and its specificity with regard to all other knowledge: the attempt to provide a metaphysics such that it could not only claim universal recognition but also back this claim and make it valid.

Our reason for putting such an emphasis on the philosophy of the period is that it rounds off the entire spiritual stage, strives to reconsider and assume its heritage and to construe a new existential basis, just like in the classical Greece of the Attica period. However, the aforementioned reconsideration could take place only thanks to a rarely witnessed spontaneous and general burgeoning of creative forces. It is true, all genuinely creative epochs are characterized by genius arriving not individually but rather in a group, and sometimes one can ask if it is due to advantageous circumstances, economic boom, political dominance, and peace and calm that a society – gifted anyway – can flourish into historically unique human figures and that these can then produce supreme achievements of the spirit. However, in this particular case it is the geniuses who create the epoch, not vice versa, and do so under disadvantageous conditions. Two generations of geniuses – not completely harmonious yet demonstrating clear convergence – cooperate in a „new expansion of the spirit“, on the task of saving once again the entire world of the spirit, as inherited from the classical and Judeo‑Christian ancestors, for the European humanity, to rescue it by a radical renewal achieved by laying out deeper fundaments.

As tragic as the ultimate result of this movement was – not only was the upstanding tendency not checked but the new movement eventually contributed to a shattering of Europe, its compartmentalization and an ideological hardening under the headline of modern nationalism –, we must not forget that its proper intention was utterly different, that it was just as universalist as all the other important events on the European scene from the beginning of modern times onwards, that its aim was an overall rupture regarding the direction taken by European humanity. It would be quite certainly unfair to identify this intended direction with a reaction against the revolutionary results so far attained by the social development of Western Europe. On the contrary, the first discoverers were enthusiastic supporters of the Enlightenment and of human emancipation; and it was only in the process of revising the fundaments that they came close to reactionary motifs – and this is by far not the most characteristic trait of the whole movement, which exhibits more radical traits elsewhere.

In the following we will attempt to sketch the overall trajectory of this magnificent movement. It is from its grave that we can still hear – even though ever less comprehensible, ever more distant – Goethe’s and Hölderlin’s poetry, Kant’s and Hegel’s ideas, and perhaps as the purest fruit of the epoch, Beethoven’s music. Our inquiry will follow these steps:

1) The European spiritual front in its movement from the 17th century onwards.
2) The new intellectual basis of German culture: Kant and Herder.
3) The new mission of poetry and the discovery of its musicality.
4) Aesthetic reflections on the epoch in the contemporary philosophical efforts.
5) The reflections on music presented by this aesthetics.

In dividing our matter in this way, we want to bring out that we intend to pursue the particular position occupied by music in this process. We would like to demonstrate that the development of music all the way to the state termed „pure music“ by Hegel and best represented by Beethoven – this art of pure inwardness which equals a sonorous world – is essentially related to the fundamental intent of this whole spiritual epoch.


Around the 1750s, shortly before the social revolution which was to represent the so far greatest upsurge of humanity in the effort of transforming its apparent eternal destiny, i.e. the fact of natural and social oppression, an extraordinary – and negative – response was given to the question that confronted the European humanity in the 17th century due to one great novelty, a powerful invention of the human reason: the new mathematics.

Ancient mathematics had been a perfect system, construed exactly out of axioms, or rather: a series of systems. Euclid’s books on geometry and his thoughts on proportions, the Archimedean statics, Apollonius’ deductions concerning conic sections, the doctrine of tonal proportions and catoptrics – all these are examples of ancient exact science. As rigorous as it is conceptually, this science remained close to particular perception, insofar as it kept to certain particular cases: privileged figures, proportions of tonal height, or elementary mechanic phenomena such as balance. Modern geometry found a way of thematizing any figure; modern analysis succeeded in joining the so far distinct mathematical disciplines of arithmetics, geometry and algebra into a unified whole; the infinitesimal methods made it possible to resolve general problems of quadratures and cubatures; however, more importantly, it started to appear that mathematics is the alphabet of nature invoked by Galileo, that only upon its basis can one master motion and process in general, make force and its effects subject to reason, reduce the general process to laws and then these laws to mathematical functions. Thus behind the procedures of this new mathematical thinking appeared the outlines of a unique and unified mathematically proceeding science, successful there where the milennial tradition of philosophy had failed, which is, in creating a conceptual instrument for comprehending the universe: nature as well as man and his work.

It is no wonder that the enthusiasm over these unprecedented discoveries which had transformed the world and put it, at least in principle, in the hands of the human spirit, inspired also some supremely daring philosophical hopes. With such a foundation, are we not entitled to believe that reason is the backbone of all that is, a gateway to it and the architecture which sets forth its entire construction? Are we not entitled to the trust that reason is capable of handling all the crucial tasks of man, the knowledge of things and the regulation of both physiological and moral life? That reason, purified of all that is alien to it and guided in a methodical manner, will make us truly human and free us for our genuine essence? Several brilliant minds had pursued this way, with zeal and with genius, deeply convinced that one is ready construe a systematic and rational knowledge of everything upon perfectly secured principles whose truth will make it possible to derive the validity of judgments concerning anything there is in the world in a single intellectual performance. Descartes was the first to take up this task of mathematical reconstruction of all science; out of three principles – the first being the cogito – sum, i.e. the perfect self‑certainty regarding the existence of one’s own mind; the second being the existence of God; the third being the existence of extension – he intended to derive the entire tree of knowledge, with roots in metaphysics, trunk in physics, and branches in the mechanical arts, medicine, and morals. This enthusiastic grasp of the essence of the world and life by reason then became the stimulus as well as the faith of the Enlightenment epoch.

However, a worm was soon to gnaw at that faith. The British thinkers, having lifted from Descartes the principle of the self‑certainty of consciousness, transformed it into a psychological analysis of the inner experience, thus attaining the view that the reason which allegedly rules the world in utmost purity on the basis of sovereign principles is, in fact, of low origin, born from singular experiential data, and that its ideas, concepts and principles are valid only insofar as concepts and ideas remain among themselves – yet as soon as they are related to something beyond themselves, their validity turns problematic. All the great categories of reason whereby Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz and others sought to project the new mathematics into philosophy (for instance, the concepts of infinite substance and finite substances, of material and mental substance, of causality) became problematic for them. Thus, reason turned for them into a play of ideas in its own inner space, directed by the subjective activities of comparison, composition and differentiation, and habit. Everything law‑like, rational, and necessary now became subjective; reality itself was reduced to mere facts, its purportedly necessary relations turned into mere statements of fact. And finally, even the subjective structures of order were concluded to be based in mere facts. This analysis of the question raised by the rationalists was so coherent and so consequent that it equaled a wholesome refutation of rationalism: reason – far from being a legislative power over the world, far from being a key to it and its architecture – was now merely one among the factual structures of a purely factual world which, indeed, can be dominated in practice but never understood. Reason itself became a mere fact, bare of all demonstrable necessity.

To speak with Husserl, sciences based merely in facts breed people that count only with facts. Yet the truth is that the philosophy of British empiricism was merely reflected the people as they actually were in the 17th and 18th centuries: for the mathematical reason was an essentially practical matter, disowning itself and refusing to acknowledge itself as soon as it raised the claim to be transformed into a metaphysics. British empiricism equals mathematical rationalism in its true being. The modern mathematics of functions has turned out to be adapted not for a reconstruction of the traditional metaphysics from which it, unknowingly and uncritically, adopted its key concepts, but rather for providing a practically useful idealization, inserted by means of convention in lieu first of nature and then of life and spirit, since it is able to predict, and thus to govern the courses they take. The crucial intention of Western Europe now turned in this direction with no scruples and with all the original energy of the surge to a rational normalization, the effort to make sense of the world. The roots of the Cartesian tree withered away and all the sap rushed into the branches. Towards the close of the century, scientific findings found wide application in practical life in machines such as the automatic loom, the knitting machine, later the steam boiler; the process of the practical rationalizing of production started to find its mechanical correlate, and the industrial revolution picked up pace. This tendency towards practical power had opened new, yet unknown sources of power, including steam and the coal deposits, and thus it provided people with artificial, far better directed sources of energy than were the forces of wind and water, exposed to the whims of nature. The world market, as founded by capitalism, was to be transformed into a firmly held instrument of the European dominance over the rest of the planet. Simultaneously, the West European countries and their overseas dominions were edging ever more openly to a conflict, a struggle for world‑dominance which then became evident in the American revolution and in the pan‑European strife after the French revolution, especially in the Napoleonic period. Europe was storming onto the path of world‑dominance, a state which was to be realized – for a brief moment – in the late 19th century.


It was at this point in time that at the Eastern border of Europe – in Prussian Königsberg, one of the last outposts impacted by the Enlightenment – a serious effort was launched to rescue the metaphysical function of reason, to restore the force of the root which ultimately feeds all thinking, and thus to allow man to regain self‑control – whereas the man who merely dominates is simultaneously delivered to the powers that be and their blind mechanism.

Immanuel Kant put an end to the mathematical method in philosophy and to all the attempts to rejuvenate the old metaphysics by applying the means of the new mathematics when he delivered a new method for radical metaphysical reflection, a method specifically geared up to thought which, instead of limiting itself to the world and the worldly things it confronts, also turns towards itself, towards its own striving for truth and moral responsibility, and towards the conditions which make it possible to attain these goals. While Kant assented to the empiricist claim that reality cannot be produced by thinking and that all thought is always already bound to reality and dependent on it, he successfully defended the autonomy of thought, and by virtue of that ensuring experiential certainty and the certainty of experiential science. Instead of sharply differentiating between ideas on the one hand and things given to the senses on the other, Kant aimed at demonstrating in what manner our mind draws these givens into its own frameworks which are ready to receive and appropriately equipped. Thus he successfully uncovered a so‑far‑unknown realm, one distinct from the empiricist object of inner experience as well as the rationalist objective conceptual constructions, a realm fit for construing the experience of finite yet thinking and rational creatures. Since in this realm the human I – this autonomous act – transcends itself towards the objects of its experience on which it is dependent and which it continues to approach, Kant called it the transcendental realm.

Thus, transcendental or critical philosophy (critical by virtue of the fact that its method allowed a sharp delineation of spontaneity’s and receptivity’s contribution to experience – and within receptivity the contribution of the form and the content – and also to discern to what degree the empiricist critique of rationalism is legitimate and to what degree it fails) took up the Cartesian motif of the self‑certain I as a philosophical principle, yet it did so with a completely modified method. The I was no longer the starting point of an objective deduction out of principles that inhere in it; rather, it was the origin of an act that presently consisted in steadily maintaining the non‑contradictorily proceeding experience in a harmonious unity. This conception also allowed Kant to define philosophy as a reflection turned to the whole, crucially including a consideration of one’s own thinking of one’s own self. Even though philosophy had always practiced this second‑degree reflection, here was it for the first time defined in explicit terms.

On the basis of this new methodical turn, Kant pushed even further to find a way of resolving the age‑old question as to whether philosophy can grasp the ultimate reality of things, the world, the soul and God, to which the tradition has responded with so many ingenious notions and by building up so many disparate, irreconcilable constructions: in other words, whether philosophy can claim to be the science of the transcendent, of the ultimate and absolute reality.

Kant’s methodical inquiry had shown to him that this realm could never be grasped by anything deserving the name of science, yet he insisted that the realm exists, and pointed out that without it a rational being lacked all sense of life insofar as its principal task consisted not in merely coming to know the world but also in acting in the world in a truly human way – i.e. according to law, with consequence, morally – and thus to be a genuinely free creature, not a mere thing but rather a person. Kant was also the first to give a conceptually rigorous expression to this difference between freedom and the being of a thing, between the non‑objectifiable person who attains its own reality in a free act and the empirical “personality” considered by anthropology and psychology. Thus, his philosophy became not only a philosophy of the autonomy of reason but also, and on a deeper level, a philosophy of freedom.

However, for Kant human freedom represented not only a key to the transcendental realm but also the ultimate mystery of beauty. He was the first to express, in formulations that have become classical, the essence of the aesthetic delight as against other kinds of human delight; he was the first to subject this essentially non‑conceptual realm to the rigor of philosophical conceptuality; and at its bottom he once again found the symbol of human autonomy – the supremacy of freedom as against the purely sensually empirical side of man. On the basis of principles of judgment which lack any cognitive import yet present an indispensable heuristic guideline, nature, too, appeared to him as a gigantic and partially governable mechanism – and this mechanism gave glimpses of a higher law to which it is subject.

Thus, in Kant, European humanity was re‑confronted with a depth perspective, previously veiled by the mere facticity that had started to take up the reins of the Enlightenment. The perspective let see a new mastery of free spirit over merely instrumental nature. And in this restoration of the power of spirit, the practical sphere – the sphere of activity – took legitimate precedence over mere cognition with its limitation to the world of phenomena, the commonly encountered but not ultimate reality.

It did not take long and another thinker, Kant’s compatriot, started to consolidate a different concept and a different spiritual region. The Enlightenment energy had been aiming not only at knowledge and mastery of nature. It had also started to rationally inquire into historical and social phenomena, historical eras, cultural history, the role of religion in history, or the spirit of laws, it launched a historical inquiry into individual figures of literary history such as Homer or medieval poetry and it started to register the memorials of folklore creativity. Now arrived the moment when J. G. Herder summed all this up into a substantially historical view of the entire human reality. True, in his metaphysics he remained attached to Leibniz and his lax empiricism, as he projected the Leibnizian monadic evolution into the history of human communities and nations. Yet in the particularities required by his task, Herder was faced with so many new perspectives that the entire world of culture appeared in a new light. Even though Herder himself never got so far as to elaborate on his own terms a philosophy of the historical nature of the human world, the social universe and human productions, the appearance of his work made it imperative to face the problem. Herder never found access to the gateway to the novel spiritual world which was opened by Kant. His gift consisted in an immense and unprecedented sensibility, the art to feel and empathize with the most various attitudes, situations, historical stages and moments; he was a gigantic reproducer – which endows his literary and art criticism, otherwise eclectic and lost in Lessing’s and Winckelmann’s footsteps, with its own original tone. The concrete specificity of his approach and the power of empathy were to make him the first genuine philosopher of language: in language he was to see the essence of man and the center of human existence, language was to show him the focus point out of which one had to understand both human sensibility and human reason, both human individuality and social nature; it is in language that he came to see that particularity of the human spirit by virtue of which the animal basis is already impacted by “understanding”, considering, distancing, a width of the horizon, or as we would say today, the human being‑in‑the‑world. This vivid feeling for the paradoxical unity of the senses with the spirit in the particular forms of human experience as well as of its sediments and productions, drove Herder from one object to another, from language to history, from literature to the aesthetics of the several arts, from criticism to general concepts and on to rhapsodies in philosophy of history. It is by virtue of this feeling that Herder could echo the most various tonalities of poetry and become the sounding board of all that is vital in it, the discoverer of “the folklore”, of all that is elementary yet magnificent – thus confronting modern rationalism with the wealth owned by the poor, the ancients, the primitives, the regressives.

The centrality of language in the world of spirit also made Herder notice the significance of the acoustic sphere for man as such. Herder started to consider hearing the most human of all the senses, the center of human contact with the world, establishing the very possibility of language, poetry and music in their shared origin. Even though this unity with language and poetry remained for him the binding norm for meaningfulness in music, still it was the case that once the acoustic sphere was considered as central, music must have shifted towards the focus of attention and one simply had to notice its spiritual significance, its philosophical character.


Herder is the first dilettante of genius who would familiarize himself with the entire history of the spirit. Yet another force – a creative force – was needed in order to embody this new universal sensibility in vital forms; a universal echo of the spirit of all times had to be converted into a new form of the spirit; in lieu of humanity evolving as if it were a single being there had to come up a single being capable of comprising the humanity which evolves and struggles as a whole; the new awareness of the historical world had to be transformed into something that could be called world‑poetry. This was Goethe’s achievement, and in a different way Schiller’s – whereby Goethe takes his cue from Herder and Schiller from Kant.

Goethe metamorphosed Herder’s premonitions into a creative achievement. His lyrical poetry made playfully real the dream of many: to go back to pure song, to immediacy, a somnambulistically self‑assured and precise expression. In Faust, humanity became equal to man on his erratic, guilt‑ridden and – even in all the byways of negation – positive journey to oneself. Goethe’s novel‑writing, first prolonging with a new pungency the sentimental tradition of the 17th century, eventually became a great manifestation of the times entire spiritual striving after human self‑realization and an analysis of the relationships between the natural and the moral universe in man.

This is not the place to analyze the Goethe phenomenon in its own proper significance, as the name Goethe refers both to a world and an autonomous problem. We only intend to highlight the musicality which his poetry attained and which is not to be found anywhere before him. Gundolf’s remarks on Goethe’s lyricism deserve here a direct quote: “Goethe’s New Lyric no longer assumes a split between the feeling pertaining to the treatment and the feeling treated‑of by the poem, between love and what is loved, between desire and that which is desired. Whereas those previous poets [= Shakespeare and Dante] wanted to grasp their rapture in one limited figure, and thus they had to bind even the irrational forces of life within forms that could be apprehended by the senses and by reason, Goethe was able to provide the irrational feeling, trembling and glowing with an irrational linguistic expression, to avoid any transposition of a state into an object and to comprise the soul’s movement in speech immediately and independently from any object.”_2 Lyric poetry thus approached the essence of music, having turned into a pure energy of rhythm which expresses, with no mediation, the oscillations of life in its immense scale of qualities and its creative tension. “Goethe was the first to discover – as a poet – change, movement, development everywhere: not as a causal link between two states, a resting line that connects two fixed points, but rather as essential flow, as ‘defluence’.”_3

The centrality attributed by Herder to the acoustic sphere in the world of the senses and – via Besonnenheit, „considered advance“ – to the entire mental activity of man, was here transformed into a poetic achievement. This was not just one poetic program next to others; this was a discovery of the inner nature and the very element of poetry: that poetry is an idea, soul, word reabsorbed into the oscillations of the original song and process; that the center of spiritual existence is this musical time.

Another poet of the time – one not destined to directly embody this nascent spiritual energy – chose another way and another element, namely the demonstration of the inner conflict of one’s own times as the essence of all times, the demonstration of all historical tragedies as the one single tragedy of human freedom in the world which is its scene of action, wherein freedom sins in a thousand ways and then finds a way back. The manifestation of this struggle is, understandably and necessarily, accompanied by reflections concerning the manifested content, reflections which are compulsive, sharp‑contoured and hard, requiring a pathetic and rhetorical expression which sometimes reaches paroxysm. Just like Kant had become the thinker of freedom and its rediscovered it, Schiller became the freedom’s poet. Freedom, this purely spiritual element, became for the first time for Schiller what it was to be for the larger part of later literature from Dostoyevsky on to Sartre: the key theme of poetic embodiment, poetic grasp of the world. One has to read young Dostoyevsky’s enraptured letters about Schiller in order to understand Schiller’s central significance for the entire literary future of the 19th century. His cothurnus is distant to us, yet the Schillerian will, the Schillerian dilemmas of freedom, guilt and reconciliation, of the boundless enchantment by the mundanity of the world and an engagement in it, in instincts and perversions, and on the other hand the capacity to come together, arise and unite in a single achievement which can, in its failure, break through the gates of heaven – all this remained and has remained with us, perhaps challenging us to more immediate, less talkative, more successful realizations. Even though Schiller does not equal music, he challenges us to music. Schiller’s poetic greatness consists in the inexhaustible riches of the problem‑ridden content which he manages to embody in figures, actions, “myths”. Phenomena such as Schiller’s dramas simply had to bring Hegel to the concept of “figures of the Spirit”; and indeed, we only need to compare the Phenomenology passage devoted to The Robbers (in the chapter on the law of the heart and the frenzy of self‑conceit) with the part on Faust I (Pleasure and Necessity) to see where does Hegel find a closer spirit, better adapted for his intent.

There is one more author we have to mention. As against these immense, immediately overwhelming titans of poetry, Hölderlin was able to utter only a word of utmost calm, almost imperceptible, as he came to understand that all perceptible and visible words draw their nourishment from a single “invisibility” and inexhaustibility, that beyond language there is a depth of silence, that beyond sonorous music there is the inexpressibility of soundlessness. In his last works, Beethoven pursues not a world of sound as a center of contact with things, nor a conflict of the inner soul with this world of variety; he pursues the sonorous silence.


There have been frequent attempts to show how the gigantic construction of this era’s philosophy developed out of the unbearable Kantian conflict between the supremely real freedom which lacks objective reality and the objective reality understood in all the earnestness of its sober rationality, lacking all freedom. Less common are efforts to show that the inner dialectics of the immense Kantian tension necessarily includes the task to integrate the historical world into philosophy, to catch up with Herder’s historicism at a new level and with a renewed range of metaphysical instruments. And even more distant is a resolution of the third problem, which is, to demonstrate the guiding role played in this last great and tragic upswing of the European inwardness by the idea of beauty‑as‑truth: a guideline not failing there where the world of objects ceases to provide those criteria of theoretical correctness that direct objective knowledge as pertaining to both rational science and everyday life practice.

To overcome the abyss between objective nature and metaphysics as it had been opened by the moral law, this guarantee of freedom; and in doing so to attribute priority to the metaphysics of freedom – this was the program of Fichte’s gigantic attempt. The realm of the conditions of the possibility of knowledge became, for Fichte, a creative reality, the reality of the infinite divine spirit which, underneath our finitude, creates both natural objects and the islets of finite minds as the working ground and the material for the free activity of moral beings. Fichte’s philosophical boldness lies in his direct jump into the world of freedom by means of absolutizing the moral sphere and raising transcendental, methodical reflection to the status of an absolute and creative reflection of the divine; and even though with his method of positing and counter‑positing he became the impulse and the example to be followed by the subsequent period, he did not satisfy minds thirsting to attain the whole, the all‑encompassing being, the absolute in its closure and perfection. In the impression of these inquisitive minds, it was only seemingly that Fichte’s philosophy eliminated the difficulties connected with the Kantian dualism of the world of appearances and the world of things‑in‑itself, while in truth it maintained the duality of what is and what ought to be and it absolutized the “ought”, so that in effect, the identity with the absolute is not attained here: for a philosophy of the eternal “ought”, such satisfaction is not an option.

To attain the divine, the ultimate ground of all things such that it is not a mere postulate but rather truly the being of everything, all in all, freedom not in the human sense of autonomy regarding everything given but in the sense that its own boundaries run along the boundaries of being as such: this was the goal whose slow clarification was to fully open the depth dimension of the whole era and to reestablish a spiritual grounding for man, and it pursued a path different from the one struck by Fichte. It was first glimpsed not in the light of moral freedom, freedom behind the world of appearances, but of another phenomenon: the glimpse lay in the recognition that besides the freedom behind appearances there is also freedom in appearing, and that this freedom is beauty. The conquering of the absolute – the only act capable of acquiescing the excitement aroused by Kant and his splitting of the human world into the mechanisms of nature and the heroism of freedom – at first proceeded with the guideline of the idea of beauty and via a reflection on the proper seat of the realization of beauty: art. However, the art that this reflection focused on presented itself for the first time as history, as fruits of history, as a pantheon of spiritual figures wherein spirit shows forth in a perceptible manner. Quite understandably, this reflection initially and primarily turned to the great artistic phenomena produced by the immediate present, the genius of Goethe and Schiller – and we have already mentioned how their poetry is permeated by a deeply historical spirit, how their poetry is essentially world poetry, how it encompasses an elaboration and revivification of past artistic achievements. It is a new and specific feature of these works of art that they confront other artworks not as templates, models, as thoughtless tradition but rather always as a thematized tradition: past art is reborn in these artworks; they are conscious evocations; the antiquity, the East, the medieval animal epic, Shakespeare and so on live in them as part of the subject. Beauty, art and history thus provide intellectual reflection with a unified theme, a most original one and conducive to philosophical elaboration – since in this context, art did not arouse interest by itself, it was not a mere object of aesthetic and artistic interest; rather, it attracted attention as a higher form of truth with respect to the truth of the natural and scientific necessity and mathematical regularity of empirical appearances.

It is then no accident that the advances towards a metaphysical grasp of the absolute led to the birth of a proper metaphysics of beauty and art. We have already seen that its preliminaries were provided by Kant in his theory of the aesthetic judgment, in his penetrating concept of delight in the beautiful as that which delights by itself, not in connection with our interests which make things subject to an alien purpose, in his theory of delight without concept and purposefulness without purpose and in his theory of the universality of delight without any objective criterion, based on a mere fit with the interplay of our cognitive faculties. However, all these descriptions are viewed by Kant as a mere manner of judging, one which exhibits intersubjective binding force yet lacks any metaphysical content. Still, we have here a definition of a peculiar attitude to reality: the “disinterested” attitude, a distance which “lets things be” in a way completely different from the one pertaining to science, with its setting of laws and explaining things away.

It is no accident that along this path we reencounter Schiller’s name. It was he who, while remaining loyal to the Kantian dualism, struck the path towards de‑subjectifying Kant’s ideas on aesthetics, so that behind a mere subjective interplay of powers there started to appear that absolute fulfillment, that self‑purpose which is, in an artwork, the expression of deeper being. Besides phenomena separated from their own being, there are also phenomena of being itself – and these are the works of art: achievements of genius, realizing a unity between the given and the claimed, between necessity and freedom.

It is no wonder that a metaphysical seed struck out from here, from Schiller’s desire to bridge, in aesthetic phenomena, the Kantian opposition and to find rest in being and in bliss – the bliss which is being. It is true that Schiller himself never set foot on this ground (suggested as it was in his Philosophical Letters from Julius to Rafael and in the Theosophy of Julius) – but it was entered by Hölderlin and Schelling. The melancholy Hölderlin was the first to identify beauty and love with the divine which, for him, adopted the forms of a new myth, prolonging the Hellenic myth. Schelling took up the opportunity to complement Fichte’s moral jump into the absolute with a philosophy of the unconscious spirit seeking itself in nature, and to establish art as “the organ of the absolute” while interpreting the scale of creatures as an odyssey of the spirit in nature. Art and its forms were discovered as a new guideline needed for the metaphysical speculation, which could no longer – as it had done in the pre‑Kantian period – find support in science, now understood as a phenomenal field lacking all metaphysical content.

In the period of his searching for his own, Hegel took up all these impulses; and even though eventually he came to understand that not even art is a candidate for providing access to the absolute and that artistic divination (precisely by virtue of being divinatory, intuitive and essentially pertaining to the power of genius) is destined to be a genuine yet crucially non‑absolute and finite manifestation of the absolute, his logico‑metaphysical speculation – his attempt to unify concept and time, to create a new organ for thought that would make it possible to apprehend the world in its eternal generation, a movement which is always already at its end – will forever bear marks of this passage via art. In his Phenomenology of Spirit – this work of genius where the absolute itself writes, by means of Hegel’s hand, a history of its eternal coming‑to‑its‑own – the figures of artworks serve, besides other historical phenomena, as indispensible forms of the spirit: quite indubitably, metaphysics has anchored itself here (knowing it to be a fully legitimate procedure) in works of art in order to lift out of their depths their absolute content, their significance for the absolute as such. Here, then, metaphysics of art is transcended only so that Sophocles’, Schiller’s and Goethe’s art could find its equal place within the series of the founding achievements of spirit, including the birth of the world of masters and its dissolution in Roman despotism, the inner liberation of Stoicism and Skepticism, the contradiction of the unhappy consciousness, the Enlightenment, the revolution, and Kant’s philosophy.

This transcending of metaphysics of art in the direction of metaphysics of the absolute self‑thought of the divine Logos produced one more great result: the single deeply original system of philosophical aesthetics as a finite and sensible self‑revelation of the absolute. The intent of the German aesthetics – which was to constitute another great essentially philosophical discipline besides logic, ethics and physics (this last restored, as Naturphilosophie, in an opposition to the mechanical science) – was fulfilled here in the most complete way. Art was simultaneously presented as a system of all possible revelations of the infinite in finite, sensible forms (revelations of a spirit who keeps employing nature as its native tongue) and as a history of its several disciplines which, at the same time, express the spiritual content of entire eras: the era when art essentially cannot yet be a religion of beauty, the era when it indeed is such a religion, and the era when it leaves this option forever behind, handing the task of expressing the absolute over to more perfect options of revealing it. In the Greek religion of beauty, in the Greek plastic sculpture and plastic poetry, art is the pinnacle of spirit; in Christian (“romantic”, says Hegel) painting and music and in modern poetry, art itself becomes more spiritual, yet its leading role is already transcended, and by virtue of this spiritualization which eventually resigns upon all external reality and concentrates on the pure energy of spirit, art also exhausts all its essential possibilities and attains the status where it remains an object open to comprehension yet only as an essentially past form of the spirit.

This brief and dry attempt to demonstrate a link between the new metaphysical speculation and the aesthetic reflection – a link consisting in the effort to establish art as the organ of truth in a strong sense – hopefully proves with sufficient clarity that art stands at the center of the entire era and that this central position is inconceivable if dissociated from metaphysical meaning; the exclusive role of art is here to communicate truth such that scientific objectification fails it. Art resumes in itself the whole world of morality and its significance; it represents a happy attainment of the end, an entelechic bliss of the spirit which is all in all. The artist who works in such an era occupies its very center, and in the times’ ultimate ripeness feels to be a heroic representative of a moral freedom such that it strives to dissolve in absolute freedom; far from being a mere connoisseur, master, virtuoso, creating harmonious forms and formulas of the universe of signs, he is the one who provides these symbolical forms with their absolute significance and content. When Schopenhauer returns to Kant in order to transform the philosophy of two worlds into the irrational vitalism of a blind will to life, art still remains for him an appropriate gateway to salvation, a redemption from the traps of the blind will and a purification from its irrational guilt.


We have tried to show that the center of the period of Beethoven’s education and work is occupied by art as a metaphysical factor, and that this status corresponds to the birth of aesthetics as an ontology of art. Let us now see which place this kind of reflection attributes to music, in what manner it thematizes music, what it succeeds to apprehend about it and how it evaluates music within the system of the arts.

Kant had not gotten far enough in order to attempt a system of the arts – which is probably linked to his underestimation of sensibility, as he puts it fully on the side of receptive content, and therefore contingency. He mentions music among examples of free beauty, when forms and their combinations are delightful with no regard to what they mean and what is their vehicle. However, Schiller – this great Kant‑inspired animator of the entire classicist period – elaborated ideas about the special status of music. Even though he never devoted a special treatise to the issue, his occasional remarks are insightful and penetrating: “The path of the ear is the best‑trod and the shortest to our heart: music overpowered the rude conqueror of Bagdad, whereas Mengs and Correggio would expend all the force of their painting in vain here.” (On Present‑Day German Theatre)_4 In his review of Matthison’s poems, we find an interesting parallel between two arts which Hegel will later designate as specifically romantic, namely painting and music (and their pairing will be adopted by Hegel into his own system of the arts as well). There are two distinct ways for lifeless nature to become a symbol of human nature: as presentation of feelings and as presentation of ideas. Feelings cannot be presented – expressed – in their content, but only in their form. Only the art of music has, among all the arts, no other object but this form of feelings. And as long as painting is an expression of feelings, it is musical, too – which is why we require of it harmony, tonality, modulations. In every poem we can distinguish the unity of the idea and the unity of the feeling, the logical attitude and the musical attitude, so that all poetry also impacts us with its music. Evidently music is understood here so formally that we can follow step by step as it permeates, as the form of feeling as such, all the arts where pure inwardness assures a prominent position for the expression of feeling: music penetrates both painting and poetry – it is, for them, a kind of vital center. We have already mentioned Herder’s notion that makes the ear, the acoustic sphere, into the vital center of human capacity for consideration, the Besonnenheit, the feature that permeates the sensible‑cum‑spiritual nature of man as an omnipresent predetermination. However, in Schiller this suggestion was blended with the Kantian doctrine of time as the form of the inner sense and as the encompassing environment employed by the creative imagination for schematization, i.e. for letting purely intellectual principles penetrate into the sensible realm. „The entire impact of music (as a beautiful and not merely pleasing art) lies in its capacity to accompany and sensibly represent the inner movements of the soul by analogical outer movements. And since these inner movements (pertaining to human nature as they do) proceed according to rigorous laws of necessity, this necessity and determinate character is also transferred to the outer movements that express the former ones. […] Now, if the composer and the landscape‑painter penetrates the mystery of those laws that govern the inner movements of the human heart, and if he studies the analogy obtaining between these movements of the soul and certain outer phenomena, he turns from an imitator of common nature into a genuine painter of souls. He steps over from the realm of abritrariness into the realm of necessity, and can confidently take up a place next – not to the plastic artist, who takes his object from outer man, but rather – to the poet who takes his object from the inner one.” Here, music is something like the center of the art of inwardness in between painting, which operates in an ideal yet still external space, and poetry which already enters the content of ideas. Although music expresses no ideas, it makes one apt to receive them: “In minds which are active and have awoken to the awareness of their moral dignity, reason never simply and passively observes the play of imagination; rather, it is continuously striving to make this arbitrary play harmonious with its own doings. Now, if among these phenomena there occurs one that can be treated according to the reason’s own (practical) rules, then for reason this phenomenon becomes a sensible image of its own actions, the dead letter of nature turns into a vivid language of minds, and the outer and inner eye read the very same script of phenomena in completely different ways. The delightful harmony of shapes, tones and light which enraptures the aesthetic sense now simultaneously satisfies the moral sense, too, […] and in the beautiful attitude of a picturesque or a musical piece is painted the even more beautiful attitude of a morally attuned soul.”_5 Who would not recall Beethoven here, in whose work the formal harmony is indubitably subject to a glimpsed higher law, even though one which is, for a merely formal analysis, imperceptible? However, Schiller immediately adds that the composer and the landscape‑painter do no more but attune the soul to certain areas of feeling and to the reception of certain ideas, while leaving the content of these ideas up to the imagination of the addressee, the perceiver. Poetry has a certain advantage here insofar as it can make the step into content as such – yet only a step: it must not overuse this privilege, since aesthetic ideas are attractive in virtue of the fact that we look into them like into a bottomless depth. – Is it not evident, however, that under such circumstances, the suggestivity of music is much closer to this bottomless depth than many a poetic piece which talks about the depth, and thus objectifies it?


Hegel’s aesthetics of music has been recently analyzed by H. Heimsoeth. Whereas the wider public knows among the products of this era primarily from Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of music (closely aligned with late romanticism and adopted by R. Wagner as the theoretical support of his artistic work), Heimsoeth persuasively demonstrates the insightfulness of Hegel’s aesthetic of music. We will follow the general plan of Heimsoeth’s monograph, even though the content of our own sketch does not always overlap with his views.

It seems clear to me that in aesthetic of music, just like in so many aesthetic matters, Hegel draws on Schiller. “The principal task of music is to provide an echo of the movement performed by the innermost I in its subjectivity and in the ideality of its soul.”_6 This definition of the task of music is, in essence, identical with what we have quoted from Schiller. The definition does not claim that we drown in a chaos of notes and feelings; quite on the contrary, it calls for a clear distinction between the movement of the soul and the movement of notes wherein the former movement finds its objectification and its image – but an image different from itself. Unlike in late romanticism, soul does not blend with the tonal realm here; on the contrary, the effect of music is such that the soul recognizes itself while adopting a distance from the image; music uncovers one’s own inner movement for this very movement – it takes a step back from this view into inwardness.

More explicitly than Schiller ever did, Hegel emphasizes the temporal character of the art of music. On the one hand this means that music is by far the most fleeting among all the arts, but on the other, the temporal nature of music is a pre‑requisite of its close relationship with the nature of spirit – for spirit is time, as Hegel puts it in one passage. However, for Hegel, time is on the one hand the quasi‑movement of a series of moments which always suppresses the present now by a new one and constantly expands, and on the other hand it is that constant structure of temporality whose firmly set framework of temporal dimensions makes possible all happening and its structure. Time, the I, freedom, activity, the process of happening as the source of everything – all this is supremely closely interrelated, which allows music to be the art of pure inwardness, unconfronted by any independent object. No other art touches the very center and the mystery of spirit just as music does.

However, the temporal character of music is also the cause of its particular – and especially emphasized by Hegel – central position among the spiritualized arts of the “romantic” period, among arts where ideality and subjectivity dominate over the objectively given (as in the classical plastic sculpture and plastic poetry). Just like Schiller, Hegel finds musicality already in painting, and even in poetry he perceives it as a separate aspect. The novelty introduced with regard to Schiller is the opposition (also based on the temporality of music) between independent and “accompanying” music. Accompanying music is attached to the text and indissolubly bound to the poetic word whereas independent music is the music of instruments – and Hegel is presented, by the contemporary developments, with a shift of focus from accompanying to independent music, this being the last constitutive stage of music in its musicality, the last constitution of the art of music as attaining self‑awareness of its pure essence. Who would not recall Beethoven with his overwhelming dominance of instruments as against vocals! Yet, remarkably, Hegel – vividly interested in the world of the arts and a student of it as he was – never mentions Beethoven by name and his aesthetics, I believe, includes not a single line which could be interpreted as an indirect reference to Beethoven’s music. Quite obviously, Beethoven was no admired model for him; Bach, Pergolesi, Gluck, Mozart – are the musicians that he thinks about the most. Yet in one point Beethoven’s music would provide him with a confirmation of his central idea: that music, as perhaps the only one of all the arts, expresses the primal law of all that is – the dissolving tension, the resolving disharmony as it develops into a consonance; the harder the strife, the bigger the need of reconciliation. Pain and conflict are no unknowns for music, yet its ultimate effect is an inner serenity that transcends them.

After all we have said it ought to be clear that Schopenhauer’s aesthetics of music – this elevation of music above all the other arts as the unique expression of the essence of the universe – transgresses the key intent of Beethoven’s music along all axes. And as for Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of music, with its irrationalism its Dionysian accent, its immersion in the vital confusion of the all‑devouring primal will, it emphasizes far more the magic of music as against its moral character as analyzed by Schiller and Hegel. We feel no doubt as to which metaphysics would be closer to Beethoven’s heart.


As we said at the outset of this essay, the impulse provided by Beethoven’s music never attained its end and in its ultimate political consequences it in fact served as one of the motives for a particularization of Europe, its split into mutually rival 238 societies whose envy, incomprehension, distrust and angst contributed to the imperialist contest and the final struggle wherein Europe’s status as the governing world power was destroyed.

The strong current of exteriority and exclusive attention to facts that had erupted in the 18th century West rushed soon after Hegel’s, Goethe’s and Beethoven’s death into Central Europe and forced the entire public to focus its attention on social struggles and the political tensions within particular European powers. Under these pressing needs and to the sober style of thinking which proved necessary in these troubles, the spiritual upswing of those extraordinary sixty years soon started to appear as an incomprehensible, sometimes even harmful and blinding fata morgana, leading astray from the true material reality. Even worse were the attempts to appropriate the external heritage of these unique years for the “new” spirit of the power vision and the thought of might, and to make it into a proof of the particularity of the German spirit and culture and their superiority with regard to the “materialistic” European West.

Certainly, the original movement had exhibited features that made such an interpretation possible. Already Fichte had called Germans “the original nation with the original language” and contrasted them with the artificial French, speakers of a derived language. Hegel’s philosophy of history saw history as a succession of “national spirits” that pass the scepter of dominance from one to another, since it belongs to each only once in the whole course of history (with the proviso, however, that by “nations” Hegel meant whole cultural regions, not nations in the ethnic or narrowly political sense). His concept of the state and its absolute sovereignty and the related view that the state, as he described it, already is the full reality of freedom, are among motives later exploited by 19th century Europe, this period of power and might, for its own goals.

Yet by far the largest part of the legacy of this era entered the new period of essentially effect‑geared thinking via the radical inversion of Hegel’s metaphysical logic that was performed by Karl Marx. Marx’s concept endowed the critique of the adopted direction of Europe with the character of social revolution. It does prolong one of the fundamental intentions of the entire movement – yet not at the level of metaphysical potentials but rather at the level of empirical social forces.

The question remains whether such a transposition resolves the problem in its entirety; and whether the new conditions and the new possibilities of 239 dominating the external circumstances of life do not oblige us to take a turn precisely towards the depth to which we are directed by the era of Beethoven, Goethe and Hegel.

Translated by Martin Pokorný.

From: Jan Patočka: Umění a čas I, Sebrané spisy Jana Patočky, vol. 4, ed. Daniel Vojtěch – Ivan Chvatík. OIKOYMENH, Praha 2004, pp. 468–488.


Cf. G. W. F. Hegel: Phenomenology of spirit, trans. A. V. Miller, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1977, p. 363: “[A]bsolute freedom … pass[es] over into another land of self‑conscious Spirit […]” (Translator’s note)
Friedrich Gundolf: Goethe, Georg Bondi, Berlin 1916, p. 99.
Ibid., p. 100. [The last word of the quote is “Entwirkung”, a neologism with a play on Einwirkung (impact, influence, affecting); Patočka translates this with od‑skutečňování“ – “the elimination of real being”. Translator’s note].
Friedrich Schiller: Über das gegenwärtige teutsche Theater (1782). Translator’s note.
Friedrich Schiller: Über Matthisons Gedichte, in idem: Sämtliche Werke, vol. V, ed. G. Fricke – H. G. Göpfert, Munich 1959, pp. 999–1000. Translator’s note.
Cf. G. W. F. Hegel: Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, trans. T. M. Knox, vol. II, p. 891. Patočka, who had published a complete translation of the Aesthetics in 1966, re‑translated the phrase for this essay – with considerable differences. (The original text also gives no reference.) Knox’s version, not too different from Patočka’s 1966 rendering, goes as follows: “[T]he chief task of music consists in making resound […] the manner in which the inmost self is moved to the depths of its personality and conscious soul“ (Translator’s note).