The Romantic Philosophy of Novalis
The Latinized “de Novali,” the pen name of romantic poet and author Georg Phillip Friedrich Hardenberg, means “the one who clears new ground.” He adopted it in 1798, only three years before his death at age 28, and it was a fitting one. It was a statement of the times; the American colonies had declared their independence just a few decades prior, the French revolution descended into chaotic violence, the Haitian slaves were fighting to liberate themselves from colonial rule – much of the world was, indeed, “clearing new ground.”
Novalis was born in 1772 to a low German noble family in modern-day Arnstein, Germany. He spent much of his childhood on the family estate and was particularly fascinated with nature. He began his education through private tutors and then attended a Lutheran grammar school in Eiseleben where he became educated in standard rhetoric and the classical Western canon. He went on to pursue law at multiple locations, passing his exams with honors, and befriending many poets and philosophers who later influence German Romanticism. It was after these studies that he fell in love with Sophie von Kuhn in November of 1794, who was twelve years old at the time. Although their “relationship” was elevated to mythical heights by later German Romantics, it was largely uneventful and short. They became engaged when she was thirteen, a few months after which she became deathly ill. She passed away in 1797 at only 15 years old. This tragedy had a huge impact on Novalis and further radicalized his conceptions of beauty, freedom, and religion. To him, Sophie represented a romanticized ideal. This ideal, mixed with grief, would become the basis of his poetic work Hymns to the Night, published in 1800.
II. The Realm of the “Infinite”
Novalis’s work vividly intersects with individualism through his romantic imagery. Part of his “revolutionary” ethic was his adoption of a new identity to represent his romanticist prose. Dennis F. Mahoney writes in his book review of Novalis: Signs of Revolution by William Arctander O’Brien, “Novalis and his unique blending of literature, philosophy, politics, religion, and science are ‘Signs of Revolution’ in that they simultaneously hearken back to the past while announcing a new beginning” (Dennis, 313). The creation of the “new beginning” is what separates the character of “Novalis” from the man, Georg Phillip Friedrich Hardenberg. And moreover, the cause of his shift is explained through his love for Sophie, who fuels his work more so after her death as a myth.
Much of Novalis’ philosophy can be explained through the distinction of “infinite” and “finite,” a radicalization of his Christian Protestant upbringing. He writes in Pollen (Blüthenstaub), “we seek everywhere the unconditioned and we always find only things” (Versulius). Leonard P. Wessell, Jr. argues in Novalis’ Revolutionary Religion of Death that the quote fully encapsulates “the whole of [his] religious thinking” in that it captures Novalis’ repeated desire for “the infinite” but being held down by the “limited and transitory things.” (Wessell, 425). For Novalis, the problem of finiteness brings about grief, pain, and suffering. And it through his interactions with “things” that he discovers its ultimate destruction – the death of Sophie. Wessell, Jr. writes:
Novalis had sought to transcend to solitude of his own finiteness (i.e. his own ‘thing-ness’) by reaching out and touching, in an act of love, the finite solitude of Sophie and then had lost her. Sophie’s death – the destruction of a “thing” – threatened to cast Novalis into a vortex of despair (Wessell, 426).
Thereby, Sophie’s death represents the ultimate end of meaning in the “finite” for Novalis. He writes in Hymns to the Night:
I shed bitter tears… dissolved in pain, my hope dissipated and I stood alone by the [grave of Sophie], which hid the form of life in a narrow dark room – alone as ever a person was alone, drive by unspeakable fear – powerless, only a thought of misery (Wessell, 426).
More broadly, the “finite” is symbolic of everything beyond Novalis’ self. It is here that Novalis’ romanticism finds solace in 20th century existentialism. To Novalis and everyone else, Sophie is an object; she is finite. Although he wishes to fully understand her, the only reality he knows is his own. The irony for Novalis is that it is only through the Other (i.e. Sophie) that he is able to actually achieve his conception of being “infinite.” He is dependent on Sophie to reach the ideal, but will tragically never comprehend her completely.
It is through Sophie’s passing that Novalis views death as a “specter haunting man’s entire history, his highest cultural achievements.” For Novalis, death is the ultimate apocalypse (i.e. the end of our “finiteness”). It is the end of the only reality which we know. Therefore, while under the shadow of death, man is left frustrated and meaningless. Novalis furthers this idea by connecting time and displeasure as complicit in life’s end.
Time originates with displeasure. Thus, all displeasures [are] so long and all joy so short… displeasures are finite like time. Everything finite originates out of displeasure (Wessell, 427).
It is through this lens that Novalis places the death of Sophie in perspective; the absolute joy he experienced while with her negated the despair which time brings upon anybody. For Novalis, this is the cure for existential crisis – the reflective ability to escape one’s finiteness by achieving “absolute joy” that is profoundly “eternal – outside all time.” He saw the existentialist solution as one of turning “displeasure into joy, and with it time into eternity.”
III. Defining the “Self”
The struggle, then, is realizing how to live within the finite and with the specter of death constantly looming.
Novalis makes it a point in his writing to define individualism. His definition of the “self” has its influences from the work of philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte. The concept of “self” can be divided into two parts. On the one hand, there is just mere consciousness. This is what Novalis calls the “pure I” in that it is universal, regardless of the conditions that surround us. The other, more crucial, aspect of the self is that which we are not. Novais calls this the “empirical I.” He writes, “for the ‘I’ to be able to establish itself, there must be a ‘non-I’” (Gasparov, 13). Therefore, one’s sense of self is a reflection of all the things one is not. Each individual is dependent on social forces to develop as an “I.” For Novalis, the simple Cartesian equation of “I am I” is a tautology since we are all creations of society. Therefore, the statement does not reveal the essence of identity; it only rhetorically proves our mind exists.
The two aspects of the “self” – the pure “I” and the empirical “I.” Both are equally crucial, but second category is of particular interest to the young poet. Since identity is a construction of conditions around oneself, is not language also a similar creation? Novalis viewed language, to put it most simply, as “a multitude of fragments involved in never-ceasing commotion” (Gasparov, 13). Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin had the same idea over 100 years later. Called “dialogics,” Bakhtin also viewed language as an endless process of re-describing the world, building off others, and a constant flurry of change. Novalis was keen to recognize this fact in the late 18th century and was able to go beyond constant dialectics to a more understanding, democratic method of engaging others through dialogical discourse.
By universalizing this mode of analysis, Novalis establishes the precursor to Hegelian dialectics. Wessell, Jr. writes of his ideas:
Dialectical thinking… denies that any determinate category can exist in isolation, rather it [requires] its opposite. For instance, small is only meaningful placed in the context of large. Affirmation is only possible because of negation. Indeed, the very mean of any A entails the meaning of non-A as part of its essence (Wessell, 430).
Furthermore, each of these descriptors is found in a greater totality. To give one example, “small” and “large” are both located in the context of “size,” which unites these two contrary terms.
Thus, any conception of “freedom” must be viewed as being either a totality in and of itself, or as an opposite to another category. Making the distinction, Novalis writes, “the opposite of all determinateness is freedom” (Wessell, 430). Thus, the concept of freedom cannot be conceived without its opposite, one’s life being determined for them (i.e. oppression). Both of these concepts, freedom and oppression, exist in a greater totality – in contemporary society, this totality is our socio-economic reality: capitalism. However, the point that can be derived from Novalis is that this contradiction is not constant and unchanging. Rather, it is held together the socio-economic reality. The point is, therefore, to break this contradiction – the point is to reach an existence where these words lose their meaning, where freedom is not described, it simply is. In order for true freedom to exist, it must be a totality all by itself.
Novalis’ descriptions of the “infinite” are poetic interpretations of absolute freedom. All of his philosophy – discussions on self, dialectics, language, death – is merely reflections of his desire to transcend the bounds of the physical world. Novalis worked to universalize meaning; he wished to find the means to create individual essence while living life in the specter of death. Thus, he could be called one of the first existentialists, although a romantic poet at heart. He writes:
To romanticize the world is to make us aware of the magic, mystery and wonder of the world; it is to educate the senses to see the ordinary as extraordinary, the familiar as strange, the mundane as sacred, the finite as infinite (Rorty, 294).
Novalis romanticized his environment and found solace by doing so. Just with the imagery alone, he is able to capture authentic individualism in poetic form. He describes it as something “infinite” and “extraordinary,” which fully encapsulates the beauty of liberty in every sense of the word. Perhaps, more importantly are the implications of Novalis’ idealism and how it should induce us to act.
– Mahoney, F. Dennis. “Novalis: Signs of a Revolution Review.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 96, No. 2. 1997.
– Versulius, Arthus. Novalis. “Pollen and Fragments.” Phanes Press. 1989.
– Wessell Jr., Leonard P. “Novalis’ Revolutionary Religion of Death.” Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 14, No. 4. 1975. pp. 425.
– Higgins, Dick. Novalis. “Hymns to the Night.” McPherson. 3rd Edition. 1988
– Gasparov, Boris. “Speech, Memory, and Meaning.” De Gruyter Mouton, 2010 pp. 13
– Rorty, Amelie. Novalis. “Philosophers on Education: New Historical Perspectives.” Routledge. 1998
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This may not have been mentioned in Mahoney’s review of Arctander’s book, but a central part of his project there is taking down this (posthumous) myth of Novalis and his idealized love of Sophie. He also more or less explicitly rejects your reading of the 3rd Hymn.
Thank you for this comment. It has been a while since I read Novalis. I will need to read his text then and perhaps rework this text to suit that, if it is indeed all myth. That being said, why was it that this myth was perpetuated — and in whose interest?
The claim in Arctander’s book is that the cult of Sophie was a result of Tieck and Schlegel’s posthumous restyling of Novalis as a kind of visionary-mystic Romantic poet. As to their ends, I don’t recall the particulars, but I would presume that it was a mix of perpetuating a certain image of their friend, the cultivation of a particular vision of (German) Romanticism, etc.
It is also claimed in Arctander’s book that the very famous portrait of Novalis was modified to make him appear dreamier / younger / more boyish.