The Tragically Sublime: Schelling’s Metaphysics of Fate and Freedom in his Philosophy of Art

The discovery that man’s actions fail to produce their intended results, that the world does not bend itself to his will — this is the first instance of his spiritual alienation.[1] For herein lies the recognition that the world is not of man’s making, the understanding that nature obeys laws utterly removed from his desires. Such laws, insofar as they are intelligible, do not yet threaten mankind’s claim to freedom as such. Their necessity is only empirical. That is to say, the limitations they impose are of a merely physical character. In this respect, these laws do not jeopardize man’s moral autonomy. Rather, they are seen to possess a sort of brute factuality, an objective regularity. So long as man exempts himself from their mechanism, his freedom is preserved. His actions would thus simply be subject to material constraint.[2]

Another necessity presents itself to experience, however, of a far more sinister aspect. This necessity, by contrast, appears irreconcilable with man’s sense of free will. Its source is likewise external (heteronymous), but its precise origin remains shrouded in obscurity. As such, its machinery is wholly incomprehensible.[3] Where the one necessity persists in universality, the other exhibits itself as entirely particular.[4] In other words, the determinations of the first sort are understood to follow a consistent, uniform pattern; conversely, those which issue from the second variety seem hopelessly arbitrary, catastrophic. The apparent indeterminacy of the latter’s foundation does not alter its necessity, however. Its dictates must not, for this reason, be thought any less binding. On the contrary, the decrees of this invisible necessity govern the outcome of men’s actions with irresistible effect, deciding their fortunes without their consent.

This latter necessity is commonly referred to as fate. Qua absolute necessity, it is the essential annihilation of human freedom. Our activities are thus revealed in their impotence: we are not the masters of our destiny. It is on this account that the intuition of fate is always accompanied by a distinct feeling of horror. The moral freedom we so fervently assert as essential to our subjectivity is contradicted outright by the objective necessity of fate. Each side (subjective and objective alike) claims total sovereignty, and can scarcely tolerate its opposite. Yet both seem to contain an equal degree of reality. How can this be? To admit the one would surely be to negate the other. Are these two sides not incommensurable?

For the idealist F.W.J. Schelling, this paradox was definitive of the human condition. Indeed, it was viewed as the central problematic at work in transcendental philosophy, since the very possibility of this philosophy rests on the presumption that free will exists. In his 1800 System of Transcendental Idealism, Schelling explains the connection between freedom and fatal necessity as “a relationship whereby men through their own free action, and yet against their will, must become cause of something which they never wanted, or by which, conversely, something must go astray or come to naught which they have sought for freely and with the exertion of all their powers.”[5] Schelling here confirms much of what has been hitherto described: namely, that one’s free actions engender unimaginable consequences, regardless of intention; moreover, that the real results of his endeavors appear totally divorced from their ideal basis.

In this passage, the intricacy of the relationship between the two sides is quite evident. Abstracting from its particular nuances, however, what might be said more generally of its nature? The answer to this is straightforward enough. Even in its most superficial details, the relationship can be seen to be one of conflict. Absolute freedom and necessity cannot coincide without volatility. As such, the two sides enter into a violent struggle for dominance.

Here we must briefly suspend further exposition of this point, in order to effect a transition. For the centrality of this antinomical conflict to the young Schelling’s thought can hardly be overstated. Some remarks might therefore be made regarding its recurrence in other parts of his philosophy. In so doing, the congruent metaphysical structures which appear in the various “potencies” of Schelling’s absolute idealism may be discerned.

Apart from its obvious importance to the transcendental side of his philosophy, the speculative resolution of freedom and necessity was clearly an overarching goal of his early system. This held true even more so as Schelling began to come into his own, with the formulation of his Identitatsphilosophie. No longer was its exigency limited to the transcendental sphere. Viewed at the architectonic level, the dialectic of freedom and necessity now had an even broader significance. In Schelling’s new schematism, it carried with it not only ideal (i.e., transcendental), but also symbolic, implications. And just as the conflict obtains in the culminating chapters of his work on transcendental idealism, so it must also occupy the highest point in the philosophy of art. The same contradiction that arrives at its ultimate ideal unity in the person of the artistic genius, which in turn underlies all artistic production,[6] must be mirrored by a corresponding unity in the work of art. “Since freedom and necessity,” Schelling maintains, “are the highest expressions of that particular antithesis upon which all art is based [the genius], the highest manifestation of art is thus one in which necessity is victorious without freedom succumbing, and in a reverse fashion in which freedom triumphs without necessity being overcome.”[7] Schelling would find this antithesis most perfectly manifest in the literary genre of tragic drama.

The struggle between fate and human freedom, poetically rendered, is hence for Schelling the proper domain of tragedy. Only in this form is each element allowed to attain its absolute status; in this way alone can they enter into the contest that defines them. As its plot unfolds, the tragedy symbolically portrays this metaphysical conflict. This continues until it reaches its apotheosis in the moment of the tragically sublime, in which both sides emerge victorious and defeated. In Schelling’s estimation, this is “the only genuinely tragic element in tragedy.”[8] The tragically sublime thereby forms the objective trigger, as it were, for the subjective feeling of catharsis on the part of the audience. It elicits an intimation of the Absolute — the nebulous beyond into which the discrete categories of freedom and necessity disappear. By locating the essence of tragedy in this confluence of forces, Schelling ascertains the symbolic site of poetry’s absolution. In this moment, all contradiction is dissolved (or resolved, if you prefer). All semblance of difference melts into the singularity of indifference.

This tragically sublime moment, inasmuch as it constitutes “the essence and true object of tragedy,”[9] shall be the object of the present investigation as well. In mapping its configuration, recourse will be had to the conceptual apparatus which organizes Schelling’s Philosophy of Art. Key distinctions that he draws, such as the historical division between the ancient and modern epochs, will also be mentioned. Moreover, some discussion of the plays Schelling references (the material content for his formal deductions) will be included in assessing his concrete application of these abstract categories. A few final observations can be added in conclusion, regarding the relative importance of his notion of the tragically sublime to the genre of tragedy as its objective field, his system as a whole, and later philosophical interpretations of tragedy. But the most crucial task in this study, it must be remembered, will be to carefully chart the successive modulations of Schelling’s dialectic as it moves along its determinate path. Tracing its immanent logic, many of the subtler aspects of this essential moment may be captured.

Before embarking down this path in earnest, however, an adequate definition of the “sublime” must be supplied. What does Schelling mean by this term? As is to be expected, his use stems directly from the famous definition offered by Kant in The Critique of Judgment. In its broadest sense, he proposes to “call sublime what is absolutely large.”[10] Kant also deduces two separate species of sublimity: the mathematically sublime (that which is too large to comprehend) and the dynamically sublime (that which is too powerful to comprehend). In Schelling’s philosophy, the term retains these same special connotations. But he adds to this a more basic notion which he claims underwrites the other two. “Chaos is the fundamental intuition of the sublime,” Schelling writes, “for our vision perceives as chaos even the great mass that transcends our sensuous vision, as well as the sum of all the blind forces too powerful for our mere physical strength.”[11] “Chaos” might still seem a vague description. However, Schelling explains this with greater precision by means of qualitative categories. He posits that “the sublime constitutes the informing of the infinite into the finite.”[12]

This definition thus provided, and our trajectory having already been sketched in outline, we may now proceed to the explication of Schelling’s account of the tragically sublime. As suggested above, however, the most appropriate point of departure seems to lie in the notion’s metaphysical grounding. Such an approach naturally involves a digression. Fortunately, this detour turns out to be rather brief. More importantly, it proves immediately relevant to the matter at hand. For the time being, then, we must bracket our object (the tragically sublime) as not yet given, so that we might witness its formation from the more general poetic forms. After it (re)constructs the tragic genre, this process will lead to a more specific articulation of the tragically sublime.

Tragedy’s conceptual basis simultaneously shows itself to be the determination of its status as a literary genre. This simply means that the particular constellation of metaphysical categories present in a poetic work (i.e., freedom and necessity, universality and particularity) has a direct bearing on its formal identity (i.e., whether it qualifies as epic, iambic, or dithyrambic poetry, etc.). Consequently, the dialectical transfiguration of concepts in abstracto corresponds to the generic derivation of concrete literary forms throughout world history. The purely conceptual side of this dialectic can therefore be seen to be logical or atemporal, while the historical side is obviously temporal, as the various forms of literature arise gradually and crystallize over time. Understood in epistemological terms, the one is properly rational (a priori), whereas the other is empirical (a posteriori). The direction of fit, however, invariably moves from the former of these to the latter. In other words, the empirical side is patterned after the rational, which determines it.

Confounding though it initially seems, this is the methodological lynchpin of Schelling’s Philosophy of Art. Its operation can be made clearer by means of an example, however. Fittingly, this may be drawn from his deduction of tragic poetry from its epic and lyric forms. This falls under the heading of his “Construction of Individual Poetic Genres,” which appears early in his discussion of the ideal (verbal) series of art. Its mention here is almost incidental, as it is made in passing:

The epic…falls quite significantly between the two other [poetic] genres: the lyric poem where the simple conflict between the infinite and finite predominates, the dissonance between freedom and necessity, yet without full, and anything but, subjective resolution; and tragedy, where both the conflict and fate are simultaneously portrayed. The identity [of freedom and necessity] that still predominated in the epic in a concealed fashion as a gentle force, unloads itself in severe and violent blows wherever conflict is juxtaposed with it. Tragedy can indeed be viewed as the synthesis of the lyric and epic elements to the extent that in it the identity of the latter is transformed into fate by the opposition itself [my italics].[13]

The deduction offered here is basically a concise version of the more elaborate proof Schelling provides later in the text. His method, as described in the preceding paragraph, can plainly be seen at work in this excerpt: the particular arrangement of concepts and the quality of their relation in a poem determines its generic appellation. In this case, the concepts of infinity and finitude and (what for Schelling is the same) of freedom and necessity are placed into a distinct set of relations. Lyric poetry consists in the subjective non-identity (opposition, “dissonance,” etc.) of freedom and necessity. Epic poetry is, inversely, the objective identity (harmony) of freedom and necessity. The sublation of these antithetical forms would yield “[t]he presupposed genre that should be the final synthesis of all poesy[,]…[or] drama,”[14] as Schelling writes. Tragic poetry (drama’s primary form) therefore takes the dissonant metaphysical relation in the lyric and transposes it into the objectivity of the epic. Hence, it is the incongruity of freedom and necessity made objective. The two sides are manifested in open conflict with one another.

Schelling declares this struggle to be the very essence of the tragic form. “The essence of tragedy,” he asserts, “is thus an actual and objective conflict between freedom in the subject on the one hand, and necessity on the other.” Regarding the outcome, it is furthermore “a conflict that does not end such that one or the other succumbs, but rather such that both are manifested in perfect indifference as simultaneously victorious and vanquished.”[15] Since this is an essential determination, it is to be expected that this will be decisive in considering the qualification of particular poetic works as tragic or not. For in this light, tragedy (in its purest form) is predicated entirely upon the absoluteness of both sides in the conflict. Any revision whatsoever to the absolute efficacy of fate or absolute dignity of human freedom would completely disrupt the balance of forces present in the tragic genre. Schelling was positively emphatic on this point, insisting that this conflict (and the resolution that ensues) is indispensable for genuine tragedy.

This brings us to the critical distinction to which we previously alluded — critical, insofar as it pertains to the criterion which regulates tragedy’s generic unity. Succinctly stated, this refers to the epochal division between antiquity and modernity. A number of synonyms stand in for these terms. Antiquity is coextensive with classicism and naïve forms of art; modernity is coextensive with romanticism and sentimental forms of art. This distinction was rather commonplace in scholarly discourse when Schelling wrote his work on art, the contrast between naïve and sentimental poetry having been popularized by Schiller in a 1796 article, and the dialectic of the ancients and the moderns dating back to the age of the Enlightenment. A peculiar variation on this second theme had been propagated within the influential Athenaeum literary circle, especially by one of its founding members, August Wilhelm Schlegel. Schelling, who also belonged to this group, found himself largely in agreement with Schlegel’s interpretation. While writing his own lectures on art, Schelling requested a copy of his colleague’s lectures, which had been delivered the year before.[16] Hints of Schlegel’s position on this issue can be found scattered throughout The Philosophy of Art.

The gist of this distinction is neatly summed up in the following lines, by Schlegel: “The Greek ideal of humanity was perfect concord and symmetry of all powers, natural harmony. The moderns, by contrast, have come to the awareness of inner dissension, which makes such an ideal possible…”[17] Schelling was quite aware of the anamnestic quality of this division. That is, he noticed that the separation is only realized in retrospect. To use his expression, “the naïve actually appears naïve only from the perspective of the sentimental.”[18] The Greeks were thought to have enjoyed a blissful unity with the world that surrounded them; their territory was the realm of the real, the natural, and the cyclical. Oppositely, the moderns’ native metaphysic encompasses the ideal, the spiritual, and the historical.

The significance of the division between antiquity and modernity with respect to tragedy lies in their divergent understandings of fate. In Schelling’s judgment, the ancients had a robust concept of fate. They viewed it as a property of the natural world, and saw no reason or telos in it. Fate is therefore amoral, impersonal. Because of this view, Schelling writes that “[a]ll of ancient history can be viewed as the tragic period of history.”[19] This recalls a conclusion he reached in his 1800 System, in which he described antiquity as that age “wherein the ruling power still operates as destiny, i.e., as a wholly blind force, which coldly and unwittingly destroys even what is greatest and most splendid.”[20] Its force is essentially indiscriminate; it dooms the wicked and the righteous alike, without respect for rank or virtue.

This understanding of destiny was lost with the onset of Christianity. In the modern era fate is instead replaced by providence, which holds that events are guided by a benevolent deity in the ultimate interest of the good. These occur as part of a linear progression through history. Providence is thus moral, personal. Schelling does suggest that – from the standpoint of the Absolute – fate and providence refer to the same object. Their difference depends on one’s point of reference (whether it is ideal or real).[21] As a result, however, modern tragedy is unable to employ fate in the ancient sense of the word. Schelling accordingly proposes that “modernity lacks fate, or at least that it cannot set fate into motion in the same way as did antiquity.”[22] Christianity is so invested in maintaining free will that anything which might be seen to limit it is rejected. The absolute necessity of fate is therefore diminished, instead becoming relative. “[In the modern tragedy, [d]isaster is caused by the temptation of evil and hellish powers,” Schelling explains. “[Y]et according to Christian concepts the latter cannot be invincible, and one should and can resist them.”[23]

Since Schelling pronounces that the essence of tragedy resides in the problematic encounter between fate (qua absolute necessity) and freedom, and because he judges that only the ancients had a real understanding of fate, it becomes clear that the kind of tragedy he refers to as “genuine” is of the ancient variety. Schelling does not disparage the accomplishments of modern drama, speaking approvingly of the high tragedies of Shakespeare and Calderόn. Rather, he implies that the essential relationship that inhered in ancient tragedy is no longer viable in the modern age. This being the case, the dramatic effect of the tragically sublime moment is ruled out for modern productions.[24] Henceforth, then, the term “tragedy” (without other qualification) is meant to convey ancient tragedy, which Schelling considers its purest form.

Having clarified Schelling’s notion of fate and circumscribed its application to antiquity, we return to the description of the essential conflict in tragedy. It may be noticed that only one of the two interlocking elements in this relation has been adequately communicated so far. Fate is, of course, merely the objective side of this equation. Freedom is its subjective component.[25] Because the sublimity of tragedy can only be accomplished where there is parity between these two opposites, the subjective dimension of the relation must be granted its due.

This is especially true given that the locus of the tragic conflict must be sought in human nature.[26] For there is nothing tragic about the passive suffering of non-human nature (i.e., the natural world). No conflict can ever emerge from its limited sphere; natural entities already conform to the empirical necessity of mechanical causation. Even at the level of organism (for Schelling the highest unity in the potency of the real), such creatures are little able to move beyond instinct. Strictly speaking, then, tragedy is impossible without the presence of a moral (that is, free) entity. The reason for this is obvious: unless a moral consciousness, constituted by its freedom, becomes the object of fatal necessity, no antithesis is formed. This consciousness, in order to be called free, must possess a volitional capacity which is able to act according to self-determined intentions or purposes. Such moral ability can only be found in the spirit of man, in human nature.

Human nature is dramatically represented in the person of the tragic hero. He alone is made subject to the impersonal objectivity of fate; only he (who is capable of freedom) can grapple with this alien necessity. Within the world of tragedy, the tragic hero is the very incarnation of human freedom, epitomizing the steadfastness of its will, its ethical culpability. In asserting his moral autonomy against the raw necessity of fate, the two elements catastrophically converge in his person. As they are resolved therein, his personality comes to stand for their unified indifference in the Absolute. Schelling writes: “The hero of tragedy, one who nonetheless calmly bears all the severity and capriciousness of fate heaped upon his head, represents for just that reason that particular essential nature or unconditioned and absolute itself in his person.” Through his spiritual integrity, moreover, the moment of the tragically sublime is made possible. It is the tragic hero’s character itself that facilitates the symbolic reconciliation of freedom and necessity. “The genuinely tragically sublime,” Schelling continues, “depends…on two conditions, namely, that the moral person capitulate to the forces of nature and simultaneously be victorious through his inner character.”[27]

Absolute fate and absolute freedom, the objective and subjective ingredients of the tragic conflict, have thus been established. These may be considered the transcendental conditions for the realization of the tragically sublime. However, Schelling notes that a specific set of circumstances is required in order to provoke the struggle between the two sides. On the one hand, fate needs to impose misfortune. On the other hand, the free moral agent affected by this misfortune must be of a certain political magnitude — i.e., he must have previously enjoyed great fortune.

To begin with the first: “[O]nly when necessity imposes misfortune can it genuinely manifest itself as being in conflict with freedom.”[28] This proposition demands little argument in order to demonstrate its truth. It will be agreed that freedom does not often protest when fate brings about a situation in which the agent’s desires are satisfied. Good fortune presents no ground for a conflict to develop. For this reason, fate must impose misfortune.

Secondly, the dramatic subject implicated in this misfortune need not be exceptionally virtuous or depraved. In fact, an excessive degree of either characteristic would only complicate the tragic effect. Rather, the sole requirement for the moral agent is that he must have been fortunate before his misfortunes befell him. “The person to whom this happens,” Schelling relates, “is one who earlier stood in fortunate circumstances and was held in high esteem, as was Œdipus.”[29] This follows a line taken from Aristotle’s Poetics. After discussing the various personalities that are not well-suited to tragedy, Aristotle asserts that the protagonist must be an “intermediate kind of personage, whose misfortune…is brought upon him not by vice and depravity but by some error of judgement, of the number of those in the enjoyment of great reputation and prosperity; e.g. Œdipus, Thyestes.”[30] In other words, the tragic hero must archetypically possess a great deal of “fame and fortune,” or belong to a family which once did.

Schelling importantly parts ways with Aristotle’s judgment in one respect, however. This concerns the notion that the tragic hero suffers misfortune on account of an error he committed. For he could not but have committed the “error” — this because “the tragic person is necessarily guilty of a transgression.” The hero cannot escape his fate. What is more, Schelling states that this alone “is the highest possible misfortune: by fate to become guilty without genuine guilt.” Aristotle is therefore mistaken in attributing tragic guilt to the hero’s error, as if the catastrophe might have been avoided. Instead, “it is…necessary that this guilt itself be necessity, and that it be contracted not through error, as Aristotle says, but through the will of destiny and an unavoidable fate.”[31] Since it is impossible that the outcome could be altered, it would seem that the tragic hero is neither praiseworthy nor blameworthy. In any case, one cannot say that he erred.

This would naturally seem to run counter to our ascription of free will to the tragic hero, however. At the very least, a paradox is apparent. After all, how can a person compelled by heteronymous forces to commit a crime still be considered free? This contradiction had preoccupied Schelling well before he took to writing The Philosophy of Art. In his 1795-1796 Philosophical Letters on Dogmatism and Criticism, he mused over the way that in Greek tragedy “[a] mortal, destined by fate to become a malefactor and himself fighting against this fate, is nevertheless appallingly punished for the crime, although it was the deed of destiny!”[32]

Here the deontologist arrives at an impasse. No dramatic hero of antiquity could be said to have intended the tragic consequences which result from his actions. To assign guilt to such a figure would be to implicitly follow a form of consequentialism. Schelling’s speculative solution to this problem, however, showcases his true dialectical brilliance. For at the end of fate’s interaction with the hero’s freedom in its concrete context lies the very object we have been seeking: the moment of the tragically sublime.

His answer reads thus: “[T]he struggle between freedom and necessity actually obtains only where the latter undermines the will itself, and freedom is thus attacked on its own ground.”[33] Fatal necessity must infiltrate the tragic hero’s freedom, prompting the hero to freely act in such a way that the necessary outcome is brought about. In attempting to resist the consequences that fate has preordained, he unwittingly condemns himself to act toward their realization. Schelling cites Œdipus Tyrranos as the main justification for this view. In Sophocles’ famous play, the characters (Œdipus’ parents, Laius and Jocasta, but most of all Œdipus himself), knowing the oracle’s dreadful pronouncement, do everything in their power to prevent the foretold events from coming to pass. They exercise their freedom in opposition to destiny. Little do they know, however, that they are playing directly into fate’s hand.[34]

Examining this relationship closely, one sees that it was the characters’ knowledge of what fate had decreed to be inevitable that actually prompted them to freely act against it. Only by doing what they think will save them are they inexorably drawn toward their tragic fate. The main protagonist (Œdipus, in this case), “struggling against fate and fleeing this guilt, nonetheless is frightfully punished for a transgression that was actually a work of fate.”[35] The misdeed could not have been avoided; nothing could have been otherwise. It is as if fate, in making some set of consequences known to the moral agents involved in its execution, calculates in advance the way they will react to such knowledge and determines that their reaction will in fact produce what had first been prophesied. Cognizance of fate’s dictates provokes freedom to produce the “entanglement” from its own energies. The tragic hero is helpless to resist its necessity, yet for the sake of his freedom he must not surrender without a fight. His free act of defiance itself engenders the ineluctable (fatal) result.

Schelling finally draws together all the intertwining elements of this concrete relation at once and, through their unfolding, reveals the sublimity of tragedy:

[A] genuine struggle between freedom and necessity can occur only in the situation…in which fate itself makes the guilty person into a transgressor. That this guilty person, a person who after all only succumbed to the superior [material] power of fate, nevertheless is punished, was necessary precisely in order to show the triumph of freedom, and constituted a recognition of freedom and the honor due it. The protagonist had to struggle against fate; otherwise there was no struggle at all, no expression of freedom. He had to succumb to that which is subject to necessity. Yet in order not to allow necessity to overcome him without simultaneously overcoming it, the protagonist also had to atone voluntarily for this guilt — guilt imposed by fate itself. This is the most sublime idea and greatest victory for freedom: voluntarily to bear the punishment for an unavoidable transgression in order to manifest his freedom precisely in the loss of that very same freedom, and to perish amid a declaration of free will.[36]

This is in many ways a paraphrase of what he had expressed in his Philosophical Letters. The simultaneous victory and defeat of both forces is expressed with uncommon lucidity here. Fate is materially triumphant: all that it had necessitated really comes to pass. In the sphere of the real, the hero’s freedom is thus defeated. Yet at the same time freedom is spiritually triumphant: the hero ideally claims the consequence as his own by holding himself to be morally culpable. In the sphere of the ideal, fate’s heteronymous necessity is thus defeated. In both cases, however, the one side recognizes the other. The two thus move toward unity.

The philosopher Emil Fackenheim sums up Schelling’s point here clearly. For Schelling, “it is not enough for the tragic hero merely to suffer, or even to suffer unjustly…Fate must attack freedom at its very source and yet, in the very act of destroying it, recognize it. This it can only do by making the hero innocently guilty. The tragic condition in its purity is innocent guilt.”[37] This condition Fackenheim speaks about is moreover directly linked to the moment of the tragically sublime. The tragic hero did not passively resign himself to the blind edict of fate. On the contrary, he fought with all of his being to overcome it. The hero’s physical capitulation to its absolute necessity confirms his suffering, but does not stamp out his freedom altogether. His free acceptance of guilt – guilt for a deed he could not but have committed – itself reaffirms his freedom. The hero proves himself indefatigable. In this moment, in this absolute intersection of forces, the tragically sublime is realized. As Schelling himself writes, it is precisely “that this guiltless guilty person accepts punishment voluntarily — this is the sublimity of tragedy; thereby alone does freedom transfigure itself into the highest identity with necessity.”[38]

The feeling of misfortune is immediately eradicated by this act. For “[m]isfortune obtains only as long as the will of necessity is not yet decided and apparent. As soon as the protagonist himself achieves clarity, and his fate lies open before him, there is no more doubt for him.” The relation of this epiphanous moment to the definition of the sublime provided earlier is here divulged. Remembering that the sublime “constitutes the informing of the infinite into the finite,” one can observe the way in which Schelling matches this notion to its tragic manifestation. He first sets the stage, so to speak: “[P]recisely at the moment of greatest suffering [the tragic hero] enters into the greatest liberation and dispassion.” From here Schelling immediately aligns this moment with his previous definition. “From that moment on,” he writes, “the insurmountable power of fate, which earlier appeared in absolute dimensions, now appears merely relatively great, for it is overcome by the will and becomes the symbol of the absolutely great, namely, of the attitude and disposition of sublimity.”[39]

Elucidating this, we see that the infinity of forces, which flows forth from fate’s dark nexus, is compressed into a single point in the tragic consciousness. That is, it is finitized. This by itself qualifies the moment’s sublimity. Furthermore, however, in accepting guilt for his fated transgression, the tragic hero domesticates the foreign necessity of fate. The dissonance between freedom and necessity is thereby harmonized. Both sides become indistinguishable from one another in the all-encompassing identity of the Absolute. As the catalyst for this intuition, the tragic hero’s symbolic character is thus disclosed: “The courageous person engaged in a struggle with misfortune, a struggle in which he neither wins a physical victory nor capitulates morally, is only the symbol of the infinite, of that which transcends all suffering.”[40]

This might serve as an epigraph for our exposition of the tragically sublime. With this understanding of Schelling’s notion, however, what might be said of the place it occupies within his greater philosophical system? Surveying the corpus of his published works (which does not run much further than his early career), one swiftly notices the recurrence of the motif of freedom and necessity’s identity in the absolute. The prominent German critic Peter Szondi pointed out the vital importance of this notion to Schelling: “Schelling’s entire system, whose essence is the identity of freedom and necessity, culminates in his definition of the tragic process as the restoration of this indifference in conflict.”[41] It is difficult to disagree with this appraisal. In The Philosophy of Art, as it was in the System of Transcendental Idealism, the antinomy of freedom and necessity again appears as the penultimate contradiction in Schelling’s philosophy. This point, which we described at the outset, is beautifully expressed by Fackenheim in summation: “Both the contradiction and the resolution reach their highest form in the tragic drama…It symbolizes in the most perfect form the identity of the deepest tranquility and the most bacchantic frenzy which is the essence of the Absolute.”[42]

While Schelling’s philosophical interpretation of tragedy was soon overshadowed by sub-sequent accounts (Hegel’s, Nietzsche’s), echoes of his reading of tragedy can nevertheless be heard in more recent writings. His analysis of the precise nature of tragic guilt has been especially noted by several philosophers and literary critics after Schelling. Also, tragic guilt’s relation to sublimity has been revisited by some.

Among them, Walter Benjamin was almost undoubtedly familiar with his work, having written extensively on the Athenaeum circle. Benjamin generally agreed with Schelling’s judgment regarding the unique guilt borne by tragic heroes. “That guilt which has often been the focal point of the theory of the tragic has its home in fate and the drama of fate,” he writes in his 1927 work on the German Trauerspiel. “A paradox, like every manifestation of the tragic order, this guilt consists only in the proud consciousness of guilt, in which the heroic character escapes from his enslavement, as an ‘innocent.’”[43] An even eerier similarity can be noticed in a shorter article Benjamin published in 1921. In this, he draws the same parallel as Schelling between freedom and necessity’s indifference in the artistic genius as in the tragic hero, which we mentioned previously. Establishing this, he moreover provides a brief account of the tragically sublime which is strikingly reminiscent of Schelling’s: “The paradox of the birth of genius in moral speechlessness, moral infantility, is the sublimity of tragedy. It is probably the basis of all sublimity…Fate shows itself, therefore, in the view of life, as condemned, as having essentially first been condemned and then become guilty.”[44] Schelling’s name is nowhere explicitly cited, but the source of this notion seems unmistakable.

Georg Lukács also conceives of tragedy along some of the same lines as Schelling. And while Hegel’s interpretation of tragedy was a more direct influence, Lukács shares Schelling’s attention to relation of the tragic hero to fate. “[Fate] is the mystical moment of union between the outer [i.e., objective] and the inner [i.e., subjective],” writes Lukács. “It is as mystical as the moment of destiny in tragedy when the hero meets his destiny[,]…when the soul and its world meet and coalesce into a new unity that can no more be divided, either in the past or in the future.”[45] The absolute unity of necessity and freedom (the objective and subjective) made possible through the tragic conflict is likewise discerned by Lukács. He also comes to a remarkably similar understanding of the tragic hero’s prerogative in accepting guilt for the action necessitated by fate: “From an external point of view there is no guilt and there can be none…But in the assumption of guilt, man assents to everything that has befallen him…Exalted men…let go of nothing, once it has become part of their lives; tragedy is their prerogative.”[46] Surely, this can be seen as a reference to Hegel, who wrote that “[i]t is a point of honour with such great characters that they are guilty.”[47] But make no mistake: Hegel himself most likely borrowed this interpretation from Schelling.

An oft-repeated postmodern banality holds that systematic treatments of phenomena introduce arbitrary distinctions and generalizations to the organization of their objects. Attempts to schematize the available information into universal categories, it charges, do violence to the objective particularity and qualitative difference of the items under review (Procrustes’ name is recklessly thrown about). Genre theory is a common target of such a criticism. And though there is doubtlessly some truth to this point, it all too often becomes only a tedious reminder that one must waste ink in anticipating.

This said in his defense, Schelling’s metaphysical deduction of tragic guilt and his theory of the tragically sublime in general are certainly best suited to Sophocles’ Œdipus. One might easily find other plays from antiquity which do not fit so elegantly into his model. Objections like this should by no means to be taken lightly; real problems are sure to be found. But the relevant point is not one of refutation or validation: rather, the investigation of such notions as the tragically sublime should be taken on with an eye to the system and context from which it sprang. As has hopefully been demonstrated by now, this concept sheds light on Schelling’s system as a whole, and has moreover had a significant (if subterranean) impact on later theories of tragedy. One must not dismiss the possibility of its symbolic truth out of hand, either. Instead, it should just be noted that Schelling had the confidence to generalize and recognize the broader connections which link particular works of literature to one another. At an even more universal level, it may even be found to resonate throughout the entire spectrum of human action and suffering.


Table 1.

Ancient Modern



Table 2.

Ancient Modern



[1] Such failure is, as Lukács would put it, “a symptom of the rift between ‘inside’ and ‘outside,’ a sign of the essential difference between the self and the world, the incongruence of soul and deed [my italics].” Georg Lukács. The Theory of the Novel. Translated by Anna Bostock. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1975). Pg. 29.

[2] To be sure, man’s activity is circumscribed within a finite set of possibilities. Since the laws which define these possibilities can be made known to him, however, they are manipulable (i.e., man can use them for his ends). For this reason, I suspect, Schelling rejected empirical necessity as qualifiedly tragic.

Though it might seem unwise to draw upon a source which does not speak directly to Schelling’s theory of tragedy, the point he I believe him to be gesturing at is directly made in a 1923 article by the philosopher Max Scheler: “Tragic necessity is not the necessity of the course of nature, a necessity which lies beneath freedom and the power of the will and which may be conceived as the free essence which permits the best linking of events in nature. Rather is tragic necessity of such a kind that it lies above freedom: it is to be found only in the conclusion of free acts or of “free causes” in the total sphere of causality…” Max Scheler. “On the Tragic.” From Moderns on Tragedy: An Anthology of Modern and Relevant Opinions on the Substance and Meaning of Tragedy. Edited and introduced by Lionel Abbel. (Fawcett Publications, Inc. New York, NY: 1967). Pg. 259.

[3] Schelling is clear on this point: “That particular necessity that appears in tragedy can accordingly only be of an absolute sort, and can only be one that empirically is sooner incomprehensible than comprehensible.” Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling. The Philosophy of Art. Edited, translated, and introduced by Douglas W. Stott, with a foreword by David Simpson. (University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis, MN: 1989). Pg. 255.

[4] “All opposition between necessity and freedom is possible only within particularity, in difference.” Ibid., pg. 212.

[5] Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling. System of Transcendental Idealism. Translated by Peter Heath, with an in-troduction by Michael Vater. (University Press of Virginia. Charlottesville, VA: 2001). Pg. 204.

[6] The intimacy of the relation between the genius (himself the highest ideal unity of conflicting forces) and the work of art which he produces is made clear toward the end of the System of Transcendental Idealism. Notice the comparison of the genius to “the man of destiny” at the end of this passage, suggesting an affinity with the tragic hero: “The fact that all æsthetic production rests upon a conflict of activities can be justifiably inferred already from the testimony of all artists, that they are involuntarily driven to create their works, and that in producing them they merely satisfy an irresistible urge of their own nature; for if every urge proceeds from a contradiction in such wise that, given the contradiction, free activity becomes involuntary, the artistic urge must proceed from such a feeling of inner contradiction…Just as æsthetic production proceeds from the feeling of a seemingly irresoluble contradiction, so it ends likewise, by the testimony of all artists, and of all who share their inspiration, in the feeling of an infinite harmony; and that this feeling which accompanies completion is at the same time a deep emotion, is itself enough to show that the artist attributes that total resolution of his conflict which he finds achieved in his work of art, not to himself [alone], but to a bounty freely granted by his own nature, which, however unrelentingly it set him into conflict with himself, is no less gracious in relieving him of the pain of this contradiction. For just as the artist is driven into production involuntarily and even in spite of himself (whence the ancient expressions pati deum, etc., and above all the idea of being inspired by an afflatus from without), so likewise is his production endowed with objectivity as if by no help of his own, that is, itself in a purely objective manner. Just as the man of destiny does not execute what he wishes or intends, but rather what he is obliged to execute by an inscrutable fate which governs him, so the artist, however deliberate he may be, seems nonetheless to be governed, in regard to what is truly objective in his creation, by a power which separates him from all other men, and compels him to say or depict things which he does not fully understand himself, and whose meaning is infinite.” Ibid., pgs. 222-223.

[7] Schelling, The Philosophy of Art. Pg. 249.

[8] Ibid., pg. 254.

[9] Ibid., pg. 255.

[10] Immanuel Kant. The Critique of Judgment (Including the First Introduction). Translated and introduced by Wer-ner Pluhar, with a foreword by Mary Gregor. (Hackett Publishing Company. Indianapolis, IN: 1987). Pg. 103, §25.

[11] Schelling, The Philosophy of Art. Pg. 88.

[12] Ibid., pg. 89.

[13] Ibid., pg. 213.

[14] Ibid., pg. 250.

[15] Ibid., pg. 251.

[16] Douglas W. Stott. “Translator’s Introduction.” From The Philosophy of Art. Edited, translated, and introduced by Douglas W. Stott, with a foreword by David Simpson. (University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis, MN: 1989). Pg. xxvii.

[17] August Wilhelm Schlegel. Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature. Pg. 184.

[18] Schelling, The Philosophy of Art. Pg. 93.

The conception of the ancients as having lived in a state of blithe homogeneity, in contrast to the moderns (who live in a state of fractured heterogeneity), is not such a foreign notion. A similar nostalgia appears in the work of the young Lukács, as well as in a host of other prominent twentieth-century interpreters (Goldmann, Benjamin, etc.). Lukács writes, for example, that “[t]he circle within which the Greeks led their metaphysical life was smaller than ours: that is why we cannot, as part of our life, place ourselves inside it.” Lukács, The Theory of the Novel. Pg. 33.

[19] Schelling, The Philosophy of Art. Pg. 61.

[20] Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism. Pg. 211.

[21] “Fate, too, is a form of providence, except that it is intuited within the real, just as providence is fate intuited in the ideal.” Schelling, The Philosophy of Art. Pg. 61.

[22] Ibid., pg. 257.

In recent times, a similar thesis regarding the difference between ancient and modern tragedy has been put forth by W.H. Auden in a 1945 article: “Greek tragedy is the tragedy of necessity; i.e., the feeling aroused in the spectator is ‘What a pity it had to be this way’; Christian tragedy is the tragedy of possibility, ‘What a pity it was this way when it might have been otherwise.’” W.H. Auden. “The Christian Tragedy: Contrasting Captain Ahab’s Doom and Its Classic Greek Prototype.” From Moderns on Tragedy: An Anthology of Modern and Relevant Opinions on the Substance and Meaning of Tragedy. Edited and introduced by Lionel Abbel. (Fawcett Publications, Inc. New York, NY: 1967). Pg. 40.

[23] Schelling, The Philosophy of Art. Pg. 269.

Emil Fackenheim summarizes Schelling’s position well: “Ancient tragedy represents the finite or subjective as in clash with the infinite or objective. But in the modern world the infinite is eternal Beyond, and such a clash is therefore impossible. Christianity cannot permit a fate which destroys freedom. It can at best permit a devil. But the devil can only tempt freedom; he cannot destroy it. There is no room for the notion of innocent guilt, and the tragic conflict between human freedom and divine fate is here impossible.” Emil L. Fackenheim. “Schelling’s Phil-osophy of the Literary Arts.” From The Philosophical Quarterly (Vol. 4, No. 17). (Blackwell Publishing. Pg. 323

In this case, his view appears markedly similar to the one held by Friedrich Schlegel, the brother of A.W., who observes that “[i]n modern tragedy, fate is sometimes replaced by God the Father, more often by the devil himself.” Friedrich Schlegel. Critical Fragments. Pg. 3, §30.

[24] Using Shakespeare as an example of the modern dramatist and Christian (specifically Protestant), Schelling writes: “If we now summarize our findings and express succinctly Shakespeare’s relationship to the sublimity of the tragedy of antiquity, we must call him the greatest creator of character. He cannot portray that sublime, purified, and trans-figured beauty that proves itself in the face of fate, a beauty that coincides with moral goodness.” Schelling, The Philosophy of Art. Pg. 270.

René Wellek, the famous twentieth-century critic, skillfully captured Schelling’s sentiment in commenting upon this distinction: “[L]ike August Wilhelm Schlegel[,] [Schelling] decides that in Shakespeare character replaces ancient fate, character becomes fate for the Shakespearean hero.” René Wellek. A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950, Volume II: The Romantic Age. (Yale University Press. Forge Village, MA). Pg. 81.

[25] “The original and absolute manifestation of this [tragic] conflict…is that in which necessity is the objective, freedom the subjective element.” Ibid., pg. 251.

[26] “Since only human nature is subjected to necessity on the one hand, yet capable of freedom on the other, both concepts must be symbolized in and through human nature, which itself must be represented by individuals who – just as such natures in which freedom and necessity are bound to one another – are called persons. Yet precisely in human nature, too, do the conditions of possibility obtain for necessity to be victorious without freedom succumbing, and in a reverse fashion for freedom to triumph without the course of necessity being interrupted. For the same person who succumbs to necessity can elevate himself above it through his disposition such that both – conquered and victorious at the same time – are manifested in their highest indifference.” Ibid., pg. 249.

[27] Ibid., pg. 89.

[28] Ibid., pg. 251.

[29] Ibid., pg. 252.

[30] Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by Ingrid Bywater. From The Basic Works of Aristotle. Edited by Richard McKeon, introduced by C.D.C. Reeve. (The Modern Library. New York, NY: 2001). Pg. 1467.

[31] Schelling, Philosophy of Art. Pg. 252.

[32] Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling. Philosophical Letters on Dogmatism and Criticism. From The Unconditional in Human Knowledge: Four Early Essays (1794-1796). Translated and commented upon by Fritz Marti. (Associated University Presses, Inc. Cranbury, NJ: 1980). Pgs. 156-218. Pg. 192

[33] Schelling, The Philosophy of Art. Pg. 253.

[34] Ibid., pgs. 252-253.

[35] Ibid., pg. 253.

[36] Ibid., pgs. 253-254.

[37] Fackenheim, “Schelling’s Philosophy of the Literary Arts.” Pg. 320.

[38] Schelling, The Philosophy of Art. Pg. 255.

[39] Ibid., pg. 254.

[40] Ibid., pg. 89.

[41] Peter Szondi. An Essay on the Tragic. Translated by Paul Fleming. (Stanford University Press. Stanford, CA: 2002). Pg. 10.

[42] Fackenheim, “Schelling’s Philosophy of the Literary Arts.” Pg. 321.

[43] Walter Benjamin. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. Translated by John Osborne. (NLB. New York, NY: 1977). Pg. 131.

[44] Walter Benjamin. “Fate and Character.” Pgs. 203-204.

[45] Georg Lukács. “On the Nature and Form of the Essay: A Letter to Leo Popper.” From Soul and Form. Trans-lated by Anna Bostock. (London:1974). Pg. 8.

[46] Georg Lukács. Quoted in Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama. Pg. 131.

[47] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. The Philosophy of Fine Art. Translated by F.P.B. Osmaston. From On Tragedy. Edited by Anne and Henry Paolucci. (New York, NY: 1962). Pg. 70.


Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by Ingrid Bywater. From The Basic Works of Aristotle. Edited by Richard McKeon, introduced by C.D.C. Reeve. (The Modern Library. New York, NY: 2001). Pgs. 1453-1487.

Benjamin, Walter. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. Translated by John Osborne. (NLB. New York, NY: 1977).

Fackenheim, Emil L. “Schelling’s Philosophy of the Literary Arts.” From The Philosophical Quarterly (Vol. 4, No. 17). (Blackwell Publishing. Oct., 1954). Pgs. 310-326.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. On Tragedy. Edited by Anne and Henry Paolucci. (New York, NY: 1962).

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment (Including the First Introduction). Translated and introduced by Werner Pluhar, with a foreword by Mary Gregor. (Hackett Publishing Company. Indianapolis, IN: 1987).

Lukács, Georg. Soul and Form. Translated by Anna Bostock. (The MIT Press. London:1974).

Lukács, Georg. The Theory of the Novel. Translated by Anna Bostock. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1975).

Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph. Philosophical Letters on Dogmatism and Criticism. From The Unconditional in Human Knowledge: Four Early Essays (1794-1796). Translated and commented upon by Fritz Marti. (Associated University Presses, Inc. Cranbury, NJ: 1980). Pgs. 156-218.

Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph. The Philosophy of Art. Edited, translated, and introduced by Douglas W. Stott, with a foreword by David Simpson. (University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis, MN: 1989).

Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph. System of Transcendental Idealism. Translated by Peter Heath, with an introduction by Michael Vater. (University Press of Virginia. Charlottesville, VA: 2001).

Schlegel, August Wilhelm. Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature. Translated by Ralph R. Read. From German Romantic Criticism. Edited by Leslie Willson, with a foreword by Ernst Behler. (Continuum. New York, NY: 1982). Pgs. 175-218.

Szondi, Peter. An Essay on the Tragic. Translated by Paul Fleming. (Stanford University Press. Stanford, CA: 2002).

Various. Moderns on Tragedy: An Anthology of Modern and Relevant Opinions on the Substance and Meaning of Tragedy. Edited and introduced by Lionel Abbel. (Fawcett Publications, Inc. New York, NY: 1967).

Wellek, René. A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950, Volume II: The Romantic Age. (Yale University Press. Forge Village, MA). Pgs. 74-82.

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