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The importance of the Lectura Dantis for Schelling’s philosophy, at least between Das erste Systemprogramm (First System Programme) and Die Weltalter (The Ages of the World), has for many years now been clearly highlighted by Wolfram Hogrebe1 and there is no need to repeat here his reflections on it. I believe the link that ties Schelling and Dante goes beyond these limits and constitutes a special guideline to understanding general but fundamental key junctures in the maturing of his philosophical system, both in terms of Fichte and Hegel. This essay focuses on showing a viable course of investigation on this, with particular attention to Schelling’s philosophy of nature and the role assigned by him to Dante in his general concept of the myth.

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1I believe there is no prior text on Dante that can be compared to Schelling’s essay Ueber Dante in philosophischer Beziehung, published in Kritisches Journal der Philosophie. In many respects Dante’s greatness, his universal importance for the entire European civilization and beyond the abstract philosophical, theological or aesthetic-artistic categorisations, is a “discovery” made by classical idealism (and partly a Romantic one, too, if one thinks of Friedrich Schlegel in particular). How much does Giambattista Vico’s The New Science influence it? I would not know how to answer that from a strictly historical-philological point of view. Of course, neither Schelling nor Hegel would have ever agreed with Vico’s idea of Dante as the “Tuscan Homer who sang nothing but historical events” (an assertion, however, that he later revises, saying that if, “for want of reflection”, even Dante “does not know how to imagine”, he is nevertheless “a learned man of high inner knowledge”), and yet that centrality of the theme of the figure, of Dantean symbolic realism, on which their interpretation is based could in fact refer back to Vico. The essence of Schelling’s 1803 essay seems to be influenced by Vico: the important “events” of European literature should not be read as fairy tales, they do not qualify as works of fiction, but rather as myths, in the original sense of the word, that is as facts, storytelling, yes, but of real facts, whose reality is more real than any mere, contingent event. Their merit is not in the power of invention, on the contrary, it is in the ability to see and narrate something absolutely real, and real in that it is crucial to the life of a people, of a culture. Dante’s prophecy, the prophetic language of his poetry, belongs to this order of reality. The same principles that are in Systemprogramm are to be found here, aspiring to a poem that is a guide for humanity, a poem whose function and mission is to create a new mythology. For Schelling, his grandiose end would be concretely expressed in Dante. In the Divine Comedy, in fact, an era is represented in its complex totality, it universally communicates its own values, communicating them in a form comprehensible to everyone, so that an entire people can orientate their life around them. Is a future Dante impossible? Impossible in an age of disenchantment, Hegel will explain later in his Aesthetics, because in the Romantic era the exposition of the myth becomes an interrogation about its meaning, transforming itself necessarily into myth-logia. Schelling’s position is very different, and not only during the Jena period.

  • 2 A line of decisive importance for modern European culture, not just for art and philosophy of art, (...)
  • 3 I cannot explain here what he meant by this very well-known expression. I have spoken about it at g (...)

2In the lectures of the Philosophy of Art and in the essay mentioned above, Dante seems to be “the biggest personality of the modern world” because in his “divine poem” he, through the representation of figures who assume universal value because of their own singularity, gives rise to his own era. He creates a great myth, a myth that not only speaks to his own time, but consciously in-forms it about himself. Unlike the classical myth, it is a rational myth, that weaves religion and art within itself, reciprocally identifying with them in a unit so perfect as to require a specific theory, its own philosophy or aesthetics.2 The emphasis with which Schelling exalts his own “discovery” of Dante (“poem of all poems, the poem of the modern age”) stands out even more if compared to Hegel’s sober reflections in his Aesthetics, radical disenchantment of that concept of art that stemmed from the Systemprogramm: the tendency to the fusion of art, religion and philosophy proclaimed by Schelling as the very destiny of the “new Era”, would already be given as the underlying reason for his “death” in Phenomenology.3

3The way in which Schelling captures the essential character of Dante’s poetry continues to influence the subsequent development of his thought. The necessity of the artistic form, how it shows itself in the Divine Comedy, consists in giving life to universal individualities. Concept and character are not juxtaposed in order to attempt agreements or “compromises”. The figure in its singularity is extra-ordinary, so much so that it is universal and necessary. That is, eternal. All characters in the Divine Comedy, in fact, are eternal, all are rescued from contingency and fortuitousness. Hegel read Dante in an essentially metaphorical-allegorical key. Schelling does the opposite, he expounds symbols. That is, not figures that refer beyond themselves to universal meanings, that “take away” their own individuality to give space to the eternal, but universally-eternally incarnate, inseparable from this “being there”, from its face, from its presence. To talk of myth or to talk of symbol amounts to the same thing. The symbol is precisely the event in which the energy of the presence that breaks through and strikes does not change, does not become, does not cease, but remains before us as the indestructible. And such is the power of the myth itself.

  • 4 Schelling 1997: 168.

4We find the same emphasis in subsequent works decades later. It is philosophy’s job to demonstrate the possibility in general of what art has always perceived as a necessity: that real beings in themselves signify universal and eternal principles. “Every work of art stands all the higher the more it at the same time awakens the impression of a certain necessity of its existence, but only the eternal and necessary content overcomes, as it were, the contingency of the work of art”4. Those real beings are myths, or rather the gods of the myth, the places and nature of their actions. Therefore will it not be precisely the knowledge of mythology that paves the way for the shifting of art towards a more substantial ground, that frees it from that fortuitous nature, from that feeling of indulging first in subjective feeling then in sceptical disenchantment, that today seem to characterise it, in this “trostlosen Zeit, a time without any consolation, which has even grieved the poet’s heart and prevented it from believing in its Gestalten” (forms), from conceiving of them and seeing them, that is, as eternal figures? These are more or less the same words used to illustrate the epochal-ness, the epoch-making, of Dante’s poetry. It is evident that even at the end of his research Schelling does not (unlike Hegel) consider it as an extraordinary record, but rather as a living example of an art able to rise above any “fashion” and therefore capable of mythopoetic imagination.

5It is possible to follow the presence of Dante and this idea throughout Schelling’s work, starting from those writings that mark his break with Fichte. Not that Fichte suffered from that “unattractive” character that Schiller attributed to him, quite the reverse. Pareyson explained the importance of Fichte’s idea of productive imagination for the whole of the philosophy of art, not just Romantic. It is at the heart of works comparable to the first of Schelling’s works, such as Lectures concerning the difference between the spirit and the letter within philosophy. Yet, however much Fichte hoped for an “alliance” of art and philosophy against the men of letters, he would always consider the work of the artistic “genius” if not subject to the moral imperative, certainly as having a duty to recognise its advancement as its own inherent end. Dante is for him, in fact, an example of this Duty; his studies on the poet, his translations of Purgatorio, all indicate in the expression of Duty, or expression of the yearning of the spirit to immortalise itself through eternally pursuing it, the essential content of the Divine Comedy. A reading that is in some ways the opposite of Schelling’s: the symbol of the myth does not allude nor refer beyond itself, it does not find its own meaning beyond the actuality of its presence, but exposes it immediately in the singularity of its own form or Gestalt. (The deep friendship between Schelling and Goethe during the Jena period is based on such a concept of the symbol: “true symbolism is like an instantaneous and living revelation of the unfathomable”, and thanks to such a principle, according to Goethe, it resists every allegorical interpretation.)

6The philosophy of nature itself, which might seem to lie in a dimension outside of Schelling’s immense interest for Dante, nevertheless continues to show its unescapable importance. The intellect – which is the central idea, for example, of the 1806 Darlegung on the relationship between the philosophy of nature and Fichte’s Doctrine of Scientific Knowledge (Wissenschaftslehre) – “abandoned” by reason, is able to attain only the negative, and thus to set its own opposite as absolutely something other than itself. In the Wissenschaftslehre, the opposition is not considered as the same movement of the unit, as Life that moves in itself, quellende und schaffende (swelling and creative). According to Schelling, Fichte felt that “knowledge of the in-itself or of the Absolute remains eternally impossible for man. We can only have knowledge of our knowledge, and only from this, because it is ours, can we move and only in this can we remain.” Therefore, nature would only ever consist of the Ego’s affections, and this could only be considered as something essentially secular, not divine, something perfectly dead in itself. Fichte’s view, Schelling insists, is lethal for nature. It is the view that says “all things around me are simple phenomena that are present only because I want them to be present, phenomena that are nothing to me except what I want them to be for myself” (Fichte, Concerning the difference between the spirit and the letter within philosophy), and in this he finds his highest Joy, that is in the eternity of the Ego as opposed to the nothingness in itself of nature. This is Joy? Schelling protests? The Anweisung zum seeligen Leben is Paradiso? he asks himself. This very work, for Fichte, was supposed to represent it, but in reality it attained only abstract exaltation of the Ego that does not live on or in the life of the All, which cannot see beyond itself except as natura naturata, res extensa. Strong echoes of Giordano Bruno in these “attacks” by Schelling (more Brunian than Spinozist, as we shall see). Just as the reference to Dante is still explicit: Joy can only be that which is expressed in Paradiso, since that is where the whole of creation is seen sub specie aeternitatis (from the perspective of eternity), each single figure is “judged” in this perspective, represented as the word of the all-life-giving Logos, redeemer of the entire nature. Paradiso is not the Joy of the Ego, the end of its route, but the Joy of the figure of the individual which is reconciled to All and that All expresses in itself. This Dante accompanies Schelling step by step in his critique of Fichte’s philosophy, and right in his most hidden spiritual words.

  • 5 The importance of Schelling’s idea of the art-myth relationship with Wagner’s musical drama was tou (...)

7For Schelling, a perfect idealistic dualism characterises Fichte’s thought, just like a “realistic stamp” characterises that of Descartes (Philosophy and Religion, 1804). A dualism that leads to a sort of gnosis, by which the Ego-Demiurge, free in itself, in the essence of its own spirit, from every external conditioning, reduces Nature itself to an ob-iectum, an ob-jection, of its own will and re-creates it as nothing but its own product. For Schelling, the philosophy of nature must, on the contrary, work as a conciliation of the subject with the reality of the natural cosmos, in its own movement, in the very forms of its production. Starting from the will to life which is everywhere, from its essential conatus to not give in to time-chronos, to resisting the “law” of the decay of its figures or creations.5 What is the human brain if not the highest of such creations and therefore the thing that is more than any other capable of discovering levels of organization that are increasingly stronger, increasingly able to persist in being? Nature is not the spirit in its be-other (and here the break with Fichte foreshadows all the themes on which the break with Hegel will happen), but it is the spirit in itself, starting with its realities that appear to be more simply materials that we call “inanimate”. Being is not the same as being-thought. Life in every fibre of its being is a transcending itself, understandable only spiritually, not at all the phenomenon of the Ego, or the non-divine opposite to the freedom of the Ego. Every element of nature is a material and spiritual symbol. Is this how it expresses itself in the myth? Does the myth talk of natura naturans? Would mythein, therefore, be the saying itself of the thing, the language of the thing itself? And would the poem therefore represents that ars capable of listening to how the thing itself says itself and in some way “imitate” it? Of what could the ultimate, unfathomable essence of the idea of mimesis consist? These are the questions that in Schelling connect or could connect the philosophy of nature, the philosophy of mythology and the philosophy of art.

8The philosophy of identity in System of Transcendental Idealism, if read in this perspective, already has some fundamental features of the coming philosophical empiricism. The passage, however, is made possible by the formidable presence of Spinoza in Schelling’s early writings (a presence that Fichte, in his polemic writings, had understood perfectly). God is natura naturans even in Spinoza, and therefore can be called both Thought and Extension (otherwise there could only be natura naturata, and that is not God). How far its power extends and what creations it is capable of, we cannot know. But we do know that the two Attributes are both infinite and inseparable, even while proceeding separately. Inasmuch as each is infinite, they cannot limit each other; both agents, they cannot endure each other’s action. But only together do they constitute the Substance, God or Nature. The res particulares, the different ways in which Substance is explained, represent in varying degrees its perfection. Perfection and existence coincide; each existent is perfect according to its particular way of existing, and this only means the energy with which it enables its own conatus to persist in the being. Does Fichte affirm that each existent gives itself only in relation to a knowing, that all we can say about an existent is precisely predicating it-knowing it? Certainly. But what he had not understood, and that is the Spinozist basis of the philosophy of nature, is that knowledge itself is a way of being. The organ of knowledge is an existent among the existents, precisely that organ for which one empirically shows the spiritual essence of nature itself. It is necessary for the thought to start from this unit; the philosophical system is called upon to show it. A “conciliation” between Ego and Nature will never be reached if the starting point consists in postulating their original opposition. Starting with the simple Ego is the fundamental error; “every thing is only of God or of All” (as we can read in the Aphorisms as an Introduction to the Philosophy of Nature, 1806 – “enthusiastic” texts where each sentence reveals the Spinozist influence in Schelling’s critique of each system that stems from abstraction, that does not develop as an exposition of the synthesis of knowing and being, of finite and infinite. In the abstracting intellect, the thing seems to be separated from its essence, thus accidental, not necessary; it is reason – or, for Spinoza, the last level of knowledge – that conceives it as eternal actu (actuality), inseparable from All: “the totality must first give itself perfectly and completely, so that the single existent can be possible and really real”).

  • 6 Exactly as Giacomo Leopardi affirmed.
  • 7 All of Schelling’s attempts at a system tend towards this end after Philosophical Inquiries into th (...)

9In On the History of Modern Philosophy, thirty years after the works which we have so far referred to, it is clear in which direction Schelling intended to develop his philosophy of identity, which actually comes across as an original revisiting of Spinozism in what I would define as a Goethean key. That idea of Nature as eternally pure and eternally creating, a synthesis of finite and infinite, is the point from which all later systems departed from – but without being able to break free, to emancipate themselves from it. In what sense should that emancipation have happened, and should still happen? In the sense of thinking about the freedom of that Substance. The Spinozist Substance does not include the idea of freedom in itself; it does not in fact have the power to be other than what it is. Its power, so to speak, gives itself without possibility. But if the Substance is Thought, and if the Extension itself is not inert hyle, given that what you think is a fact of experience,6 how can we conceive of it in that profound stillness in which Spinoza conceives it? One must arrive at a system of freedom from Spinozism and beyond its “grandiose outlines”.7 This only will be the supreme system: to think of the Substance itself as Freedom, “freeing” the great Damned from the deterministic-mechanistic chains of its vision of the physical world, which basically betrayed the very perception of nature as divine, eternal creation.

10The “supreme system” is called on to establish that passage that in Ethics has always given the impression to many of its critics of climbing onto its very own shoulders: what need is there in the transition from de servitute humana to the de libertate? How can the imbecillitas of that subject that is slave to affections and passions, described in the III and IV Part, reach the amor intellectualis, recognize it as their own end and to rejoice in it? If it has within it the energy of such a reason, this means that its nature is free in itself, and that it is about educating the anamnesis on this original being-free. But this also means that the nature of the Substance itself is in fact free, not merely in the sense of the absolute unconditionality of Causa sui. The freedom of reason, belonging to our nature, and therefore to Nature, does not exist blindly. Therefore, the Causa sui cannot be conceived as blind either, because reason is none other than one of its ways, the explanation of one of its Attributes. The philosophy of Revelation is developed on the basis of these premises, and of this implicit-explicit comparison with Spinoza. Entweder Spinozismus, oder keine Philosophie (you are either a Spinozist or not a philosopher at all), a motto that is as valid for Schelling as it is for Hegel.

11How can one not perceive once again the Dantesque stamp, the signs of the ancient flame, in this development of Spinozism from de servitute to de libertate? Schelling had criticized in Fichte the gnostic idea of Knowing or of Science, which absorbs in itself the love for the universal animation of the existent – that “orderly disquiet” that demonstrates in every thing, to varying degrees, its derivation from the eternal Substance and its re-turn, re-conversion to it. And the Divine Comedy is the great myth, consistent with the spirit of its time, able to express such an idea universally. Schelling disputes the possibility in Spinoza of understanding the freedom of reason by detaching it from the nature of the Substance. The dynamics of human nature which explains the possibility of arriving at amor intellectualis has to end up in the Substance itself, suffer the reduction to accidental contingency, or to a ghostly possibility. And once again his mind had to turn to Dante: to the God of Love, the God who suffers the force of Love. So the transcending itself from the “being there” to the Divine, the ekstasis nature of our “being there” (the Dantesque trasumanar), ceases to seem mere exception, ceases to escape every rational arrangement, since the freedom that shows in our power has eternal roots in the Freedom of the Cause itself. In what else can the rational Dantean myth consist if not in expressing real possibility (which philosophy is called upon to build discursively, but which could never communicate to everyone on its own) or power on behalf of the finiteness of our “being there” to “overcome” those virtues or capabilities that belong to things regarded only according to their empirical connection and their duration, to express its participation in All, to conceive its very own sub specie aeternitatis individuality?

12The individual, the figure, its own becoming, do not cancel out in the End, but in “touching it”, they are fulfilled, they are under way. What is annulled is the abstract egocentrism, what falls is the abstract separateness between the finite and the infinite. Nothing, really, is annulled if not the imagination or the confused thought which conceives res singularis (singular things) as separate from the eternal Substance, as an oscillating contingency between being and could be. Fichte is forced to see it like this, assigning genuine substantiality only to the Ego; and so, in the end, does Spinoza, since in the need and eternity of the Causa sui he cannot find any of the traits of reason-love, which should also express a mode. But not Dante, not the exemplum that he represented, and that continued to affect Schelling’s thought: the myth, expressed in the terms and within the limits of the Christian west, of the non-fortuitousness of the finite, of the eternity of the individua figure. The first push for a system of freedom also comes from the Divine Comedy.

13Such a provenance is even more evident if one considers certain distinctive traits of the philosophy of nature, just as, for example, it is exposed with particular energy in the aforementioned Aphorisms. Think of the theme of the relationship between light and gravity, as an essential element of Natura naturans. The universe is the scene of their copulation. Each force is only relative to the Relationship that unites them. Neither light nor gravity constitute a finite supremacy. Their relationship reigns everywhere, and yet the nature of light and gravity is perfectly determinable. Light and gravity are intangible energies, but each existent participates in it concretely and intimately, indeed, its life is a direct expression of it. The universe in its entirety is an explication of the intangible relationship between light and gravity, of the polemos thanks to which light always tends to “ascend” on the force of gravity, to “free itself” from it, and thanks to which gravity tends to always re-appropriate light. For Schelling, the problem of law being able to explain such a polemos, the harmony-conflict between the two major Powers, constitutes the problem itself of a philosophy of nature. How not to notice, in the urgency with which it is expressed, the memory of Dante’s symbolism? Does it not consist precisely in the unfathomness of the principle whereby the “being there”, that absolutely cannot supervincere (overcome) the spirit of gravity, is nevertheless capable of light, capable of harmonizing the spirit of light with that spirit? Dante’s poetry, in this perspective, could become a model for a rational myth not only in terms of the relationship between art, religion and philosophy, but also in terms of the relationship of these three with the science of nature itself. There is no doubt, on the other hand, that Schelling understood, and exalted, Goethe the “scientist” in exactly in this perspective: the separation between philosophical consideration and scientific consideration of nature is a mere intellectual abstraction. The more that science frees itself from its deterministic paradigms, the more it becomes “big physics”, its principles become philosophical, and it manages iuxta propria principia to overcome the opposition between thought and being, between matter and spirit, between the finite and the infinite. Each science could certainly develop according to its own methods and analyse different dimensions of being, and yet the more it is science, the more it will be con-science, knowledge, that is, of being only insomuch as it is in correlation with the others and everything is in correlation with the All.

14But if science and philosophy start from the idea of the unity of Substance and proceed up to placing in this latter the finished manifestation of the existent, thus proving that it is, that it is concrete totality, Dante docet (teaches) that poetry sees infinity in the finite, resolves the infinite in the figure. The path is the same, travelled from its opposing poles and necessarily joined together. Everything, science, philosophy and art, Regine (Queens), let us say with the Convivio, since they are all scholars and images of the universal Poiesis, of Nature as Acting, Creating eternally at the beginning. Poiesis are science, philosophy and art, very concrete forms of action, that see, represent, know the Natura naturans, insomuch as they are con-nate and co-growing with it (and having the same etymon as gignosko – perceive – and gignomai – be produced). The higher the Natura naturans is and thus the more it distances itself from suffering, though without ever being able to eliminate it, the more it is in their actions that nature and spirit meet each other. A meeting that has nothing comforting about it, nothing of the quiet homeliness. Between nature and spirit, between mind and body there is competition, agon, like there is between gravity and light. To create, to act, has a restless heart in every existent. And yet real is this only: the energy that each being manifests, that only in the existent is given, even if always transcending it. This is how an old Goethe put it in Eins und Alles: “Wirkt ewiges, lebendiges Tun”: reality has the name Do, the real is only das Wirkliche. No knowledge has a monopoly over it. Science, philosophy and art make, create; to separate them means to not understand Reality, just as it means to engulf them in an undifferentiated Unum. For Schelling, only the system capable of exposing their common origin or arche together with the rules of their relationship can be called the supreme system. Only the most important open onto this route, whose oblivion for him would coincide with the death itself of philosophy, and among the permanent destinies, the experience, the journey, Dante’s Erfahrung would continue to endure through all the twists and turns of his investigation.

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Hogrebe, W. 1989, Prädikation und Genesis. Metaphysik als Fundamentalheuristik im Ausgang von Schellings “Weltalter”, Frankfurt a.M., Suhrkamp.

Schelling, F.W.J. 2007, Historical-critical Introduction to the Philosophy of Mythology, tr. by M. Richey, M. Zisselsberger, Albany, Suny Press.

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1 See Hogrebe 1989.

2 A line of decisive importance for modern European culture, not just for art and philosophy of art, starts here. Richard Wagner’s “project” finds its philosophical-political origin in this context.

3 I cannot explain here what he meant by this very well-known expression. I have spoken about it at great length in numerous essays. It is certainly, however, not about a “chronological” end, but rather a fulfilment of both the classical and romantic forms of artistic representation or mimesis.

4 Schelling 1997: 168.

5 The importance of Schelling’s idea of the art-myth relationship with Wagner’s musical drama was touched upon earlier, and now one must mention his philosophy of nature’s underlying influence on Schopenhauer’s system, despite how much the latter tried to erase its traces in every way possible (just as he did even for his obvious debts to Spinoza).

6 Exactly as Giacomo Leopardi affirmed.

7 All of Schelling’s attempts at a system tend towards this end after Philosophical Inquiries into the Essence of Human Freedom, revolving around the “revaluation” of the category of the possible.

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Massimo Cacciari, «Schelling’s Dante»Rivista di estetica, 74 | 2020, 12-21.

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Massimo Cacciari, «Schelling’s Dante»Rivista di estetica [Online], 74 | 2020, online dal 01 février 2021, consultato il 16 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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