For a PDF of the entire essay, click The Re-Emergence of Schelling: Philosophy in a Time of Emergency.
The Nature of Human Freedom
The Naturphilosoph comes to understand “Nature as subject.”232 This does not imply that nature necessarily conforms to the transcendental structure of the human mind (a form of anthropomorphism), but rather that human consciousness is itself a recapitulation of the uncanny subjectivity of nature. Where Kant says we can’t know nature in itself, and Fichte says nature is my own projection, Schelling turns us back upon the strangeness of our own humanity to ask “do we really know who and what we are, or where we came from?”
Most people turn away from what is concealed within themselves just as they turn away from the depths of the great life and shy away from the glance into the abysses of that past which are still in one just as much as the present.233
In his celebrated 1809 treatise, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, Schelling begins by exploring traditional theological, cosmological, and anthropological answers to the question of human nature. He re-emerges, not with more answers, but with surprising new questions. Schelling discovers that the freedom of human reason, rather than being above or outside nature, bottoms out into the sublime tension inherent to cosmogenesis. Freedom is found to be grounded in the eternal struggle between gravity and light, the polarity originally constitutive of nature herself.
The human freedom to decide for good or evil, despite being grounded in nature’s primordial cision of forces, nonetheless irrevocably sets us apart from the animal kingdom. Human beings are conscious of their participation in original sin, making it impossible to explain sin merely as a regression to brute instincts, since this would imply a lack of consciousness and freedom. For Schelling, evil is unmistakably spiritual in origin, meaning it is a possibility only for absolutely free beings. Schelling draws approvingly upon the work of his theosophical calibrator Fr. Baader:
it would be desirable that the corruption in man were only to go so far as his becoming animal; unfortunately, however, man can stand only below or above animals.234
The spiritual freedom of the human being should not be confused with a “capacity” for freedom, e.g., the ability of a consumer to choose Corn Flakes or Cheerios for breakfast, as this characterization entirely conceals the literally decisive importance of the originating act of freedom. Freedom is not a capacity or ability, since this would imply the pre-existence of some more foundational subject who could employ freedom as a means to its own ends. Freedom is the very ground of subjectivity, the abyss from which subjectivity first emerges. As a human spirit, I just am the freedom to decide for good or evil, and nothing besides. This de-cision is the essence of my freedom–which in fact is not mine at all, since it is more correct to say that I belong to freedom.235 There is no me behind or before the spiritual crisis of this originally free deed. My personality just is the decision between good and evil, a decision made eternally time and time again. Original sin–the natural human propensity to do evil–is a necessary side-effect of our independent free will. The divine freedom in which we partake forces us to live in conflict, caught between the desire to secure our own particularity and the general will of God toward universal love. For this reason, according to Schelling,
the will reacts necessarily against freedom as that which is above the creaturely and awakes in freedom the appetite for what is creaturely just as he who is seized by dizziness on a high and steep summit seems to be beckoned to plunge downward by a hidden voice.236
Such dizzying spiritual freedom, though unique, is not best understood as a special human difference, some distinct capacity present only in our species. As Jason Wirth puts it:
the kind or species that marks the human marks the place where the discrete nature of natural kinds itself returns to its originary crisis. The human kind is the kind that can complicate the discourse of natural kinds.237
Our uniqueness as humans is that we recapitulate the very essence of nature herself; further, because she remains our ground, the reflection of our consciousness upon this ground generates self-consciousness: humanity is nature become conscious of herself as subject. While other organisms remain submerged in the unity of natural becoming, the human, like the divine, is eternally beginning, always deciding anew to erotically reproduce itself in an attempt to overcome the irreducible otherness within itself (i.e., evil). Unlike the divine, however, there is no necessary assurance that love will overcome evil, that the otherness will be dynamically re-engaged in the sacred marriage of eternal circulation. Hence the fall into history, the rise of the state, and the suffering and confusion of earthly human life wherein evil is constantly externalized and projected.
Schelling saw no hope in nationalistic politics or state bureaucracies. Our present state-supported techno-capitalist empire is justified only by the pretense that the total rationalization of human life can eliminate evil.238 Schelling characterizes secular modernity by its tendency to “[push] its philanthropism all the way to the denial of evil,”239 thereby reducing the complex theological significance of sin to the more easily manageable problems of techno-science.240 After all, evil doers can be quickly destroyed by laser guided missiles launched from remote-controlled drones, depression and anxiety can be cured with mood-enhancing psychiatric medication, and climate change can be reversed through a bit of simple geo-engineering.
Joseph Lawrence follows Schelling in calling for a renewed inquiry into the nature of good and evil, an inquiry now even more untimely than it was in Schelling’s day–untimely because such theologically-laden concerns run counter to the self-understanding of the secular Enlightenment, whose founding myth involves the throwing off of traditional religion in favor of the supposedly self-grounding power of instrumental rationality. Lawrence asks how we are to understand modernity’s self-contradictory elevation of rationality to a secular religion at the same time that it prohibits genuine metaphysical or theological investigation:
If reality were recognized as truly rational, we would encourage the attempt to understand its inner meaning…we would also place our trust in it, instead of relying as heavily as we do on politics and technology to hold the world at bay. Metaphysical irrationalism is thus the deep premise of modern rationality. It alone provides the explanation for why practical and instrumental reason have achieved such dominance over theoretical reason.241
It is modernity’s repressed fear of chaos and meaninglessness, in other words, that leads it to turn away from “the big questions” in favor of the simple solutions and small pleasures of techno-scientific consumerism. Inquiring into the essence of human freedom is especially terrifying for the narcissistic ego used to the pampering of consumer capitalism. The willing soul must learn, according to Schelling,
to stand alone before the infinite: a gigantic step, which Plato likened to death. What Dante saw inscribed on the door to hell must (in a different sense) adorn the entrance to philosophy: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Whoever wants truly to philosophize must be stripped of all hope, all desire, all longing. He must want nothing, know nothing, feel his naked impoverishment, and be capable of surrendering everything for the sake of winning its return…one will have to be taken quite simply into the beginning, to be born anew.242
Even the divine has to pass through the purifying fire of the abyss and overcome the fear of existence in order to realize its creative freedom.243 Unlike human beings, who have the ethical community to console them, for God, the primal being, there was no one else to come to its aid: “in its stultifying solitude…[God] must fight its way through chaos for itself, utterly alone.”244 Human beings can take refuge in the social mores of the day, which, in the consumer capitalist context, offer an untold number of options for temporary escape and diversion from the soul’s inevitable encounter with the purifying fires of eternity. When radical evil does break through the thin veneer of bourgeois social order, it is always neatly localized in a deranged criminal who can be impersonally (and so guiltlessly) executed by the state.245
Unlike Hegel, who deified the state as an end in itself, Schelling understood it as a means made necessary by the fall, nature’s way of maintaining some semblance of social order given the sinfulness of individuals.246 Schelling realized the paradoxical results of any attempt to justify the existence of the state, since if a just state were able to establish the conditions necessary for the genuine moral freedom of its citizens, this would imply that it no longer reserved the right to exercise coercive force to uphold its laws, and to that extent, that it no longer served a social function and so could be dissolved.247 Though he was dismissed as a reactionary apologist for the conservative Christianity of the Prussian state by Engels during the Berlin lectures late in his life,248 Lawrence argues for a revolutionary Schelling who consistently sought liberation for humanity through ethical renewal and authentic religiosity, rather than state politics.249 The true but greatly misunderstood task of the modern age, according to Schelling, “is to shrink the state itself…in every form.”250 Even if the state cannot be abolished outright, a redeemed humanity would at least
ensure that the state…progressively [divested] itself of the blind force that governs it, [transfiguring] this force into intelligence.251
Far from an apologist for state power, while still in Munich Schelling had openly defied the Bavarian government by lecturing on theological issues, and when he was called to Berlin by the Prussian king in 1841, he agreed only on the condition that he be granted complete academic freedom.252
True human salvation cannot lie in the false gods of the market and the state, which in their attempt to repress and deny the chaotic abyss at the root of nature only further empower it. Evil appears real precisely when a human being or society denies the evil in itself to wage war against it in others. It is precisely in order to avoid feeding this “dialectic of revenge”253 that Jesus tells his disciples, “resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”254 Love can only exist along side the possibility of evil, since both are grounded in freedom. To eliminate the possibility of evil would be to eliminate freedom and therefore love.
By metaphysically rooting evil in the darkness of divine nature, Schelling transforms the traditional moral obsession with theodicy into the aesthetics of theogonic tragedy.255 Instead of interpreting suffering as the punishment of a vengeful God, as in traditional theodicies, Schelling repeatedly emphasizes the extent to which suffering is inherent to the creative process itself, even for God. It was God who, in an eternally past act of absolute love, provided “the prototype of all suffering innocents.”256 Schelling calls us to live up to the nature of our complicated human kind by reconciling our sense of fallenness with our divine likeness, thereby finding the endurance necessary to pass through the spirit-forging fire of God’s eternal beginning to be born again, now not only of water but also of spirit.257
Devin Zane Shaw critiques what he calls Schelling’s “mythologization of politics” from a Marxist perspective, arguing that he mystifies the material conditions of social relations by emphasizing spiritual cultivation (Bildung) over democratic political engagement.258 Shaw seems to misunderstand Schelling’s call for the mythopoeic revitalization of the public sphere by conflating it with totalitarianism:
the a priori conception of universality as organic totality ignores or disregards the fact that the political space itself is the domain of the struggle over what the definition of universality (and political inclusion) is.259
While it is not misleading to refer to Schelling’s conception of the ideal relationship between individuals and their community as “organic,” this relationship need not be “totalizing” in the sense that Shaw suggests. From his time as a young professor in Jena through to his role as Secretary General of the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich (a position he held from 1808 to 1821), Schelling sought the transformation of society by way of philosophical education.260 The highest form of social organization could not be imposed externally by state magistrates pretending to some a priori knowledge of true universality; rather, Schelling saw this form emerging freely from the citizenry itself as a result of their artistic, scientific, and religious cultivation.
This rigor of enculturation, like the rigor of the life in nature, is the kernel out of which the first true grace and divinity poor forth like blood.261
Contrary to Shaw’s claim that Schelling disregards the importance of the democratic struggle for political inclusion, Schelling recognized that genuine democracy is only possible given a citizenry aware of the cosmological, anthropological, and theological complexities of authentic freedom. Without a philosophical culture capable of sustaining inquiry into the cosmic and spiritual depths of human nature, the equality rightly demanded by democratic societies can only devolve into the leveling homogenization of consumer capitalism, where freedom is reduced to the ability to identify with the corporate brand of one’s choice. The trivialization and inversion of freedom inherent to “democratic” capitalism makes human beings forgetful of their divine-cosmic ground, functioning not only to alienate individuals from their communities, but humanity from earth.262
232 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 202.
233 Schelling, The Ages of the World, trans. Wirth, 207-208.
234 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Love and Schmidt, 40.
235 Martin Heidegger, Schellings Abhandlung Über das Wesen der menschlichen Freiheit (1809), trans. Joan Stambaugh, 9.
236 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Love and Schmidt, 47,
237 Wirth, The Conspiracy of Life, 197.
238 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 167.
239 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Lawrence, 7:371.
240 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 169.
241 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 170.
242 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Lawrence, 9:217-218.
243 Schelling, Ages of the World, ed. Schröter, trans. Lawrence, 40; “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 181.
244 Schelling, Ages of the World, ed. Schröter, trans. Lawrence, 43; “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 181
245 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 172.
246 Lawrence, “Philosophical Religion and the Quest for Authenticity,” Schelling Now, 25.
247 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, 7:461-462; Devin Lane Shaw, Freedom and Nature in Schelling’s Philosophy of Art, 140-141.
248 Alberto Toscano, “Philosophy and the Experience of Construction,” The New Schelling, 106-107.
249 Lawrence, “Philosophical Religion and the Quest for Authenticity,” Schelling Now, 26.
250 Schelling, Grundlegung der Positiven Philosophie: Münchener Vorlesung WS 1832/33 and SS 1833, ed. Horst Fuhrmans, trans. Matthews, 235.
251 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Shaw, 7:464-465.
252 Schelling, The Grounding of Positive Philosophy, trans. Matthews, 10.
253 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 172.
254 Matthew 5:39.
255 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 174.
256 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 181.
257 John 3:5.
258 Shaw, Freedom and Nature in Schelling’s Philosophy of Art, 116.
259 Shaw, Freedom and Nature in Schelling’s Philosophy of Art, 117.
260 Schelling, On University Studies, 22.
261 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Wirth, I/7, 393.
262 Such freedom is “inverted” because it elevates the periphery (our animal egotism) over the Center (our spiritual potential for love); Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Love and Schmidt, 34-36.