Longing for the Absolute: Novalis and ‘Magical Idealism’

DURING the course of a recent introductory article about German philosophy (‘Thinking Our Way to God: Romantic Philosophy and the Coming of Absolute Idealism’), I explained that the unique thought of Romantic figures such as Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843), Novalis (1772-1801) and Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854) is often overlooked and whilst G.W.F Hegel (1770-1831) inevitably gets most of the credit for the overcoming of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814), it is the Romantics who laid the foundations for a new and exciting period in German Idealism.

Their fine eclectic cocktail of Spinozism, Platonism and Vitalism soon dissolved all notions of dualism and pluralism, transforming the subject-object dichotomy into a unification of the empirical and intellectual. The self-conscious subjectivism one finds in Kant and Fichte, therefore, was set aside in favour of a single, infinite whole. As I also explained in my previous article, the subject’s knowledge of the object becomes nothing less than the object knowing itself through the subject. I now intend to provide a brief introduction to the so-called ‘Magical Idealism’ of Novalis, which adds a very interesting twist to the overall interpretation of Absolute Idealism itself.

Novalis – whose real name was Georg Friedrich Philipp von Hardenberg – is enormously well-respected for his cultural achievements, and rightly so, but like his associates he was hugely underrated as a philosopher. It may surprise one or two of you to know that his mystical poetry and prose, not to mention his extensive writings on mineralogy, comprise just one-third of his overall work and the remaining two-thirds is made up of philosophy.

Insisting that the Absolute has both subjective and objective aspects, Novalis was discussing its relation to the divine logos as early as 1796 and agreed with Hölderlin that art has sovereignty over philosophy, despite the mutual independence of the two spheres. Novalis transcended Fichte’s struggle to overcome his own subjectivist tendencies by developing a keen interest in the work of ancient thinkers such as Plato (d. 348/7 BCE) and Plotinus (204-270 CE), as well as the contemporary Dutch philosopher François Hemsterhuis (1721-1790). Writing in his unfinished novel of 1802, Novices of Saïs, Novalis had said of the Greeks that

to those earlier men, everything seemed human, familiar, and companionable, there was freshness and originality in all their perceptions, each one of their utterances was a true product of nature, their ideas could not help but accord with the world around them and express it faithfully.

Novalis had first used the term ‘Magical Idealism’ in his Allgemeine Brouillon of 1798, suggesting that at some point in the future we humans will develop the ability to control our inner organs in the way that we presently control speech, thought and action. This, he said, will be achieved through the harmonious coming-together of activity and sensibility and enable us to live in a world of our own making. Our bodies will become tools for the education and modification of the environment that surrounds us. Not as a result of bending nature to our will in a purely selfish fashion, as Fichte had proposed, but as a regulative ideal that will make us akin to gods. This is why Novalis chose the term ‘Magical Idealism,’ because the best magic always represents an attempt to manipulate nature but without destroying it.

The fact that such a process is voluntary and not coercive, rests on the idea that the human will is “the basis of all creation”. Coupled with a Hölderlinian appreciation of Romantic aesthetics, Novalis maintained that his own ‘Magical Idealism’ should accord with prevailing standards of beauty and that the world should thus become a gigantic work of art in which it is possible to restore the attributes of mystery, elegance and charm:

To romanticise 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.

Another major influence on the ‘Magical Idealism’ of Novalis was his lifelong fascination with Kabbalah and the idea that everything in nature represents a secret language, or signatura rerum. By proposing that the world was united by a hidden chemical structure, a way of harmonising the sciences, Novalis had anticipated the discovery of Quantum mechanics long before the likes of Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961), Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976) and various others.

For Novalis, the dissolution of everything into the One was an enchanting chaos that went far beyond the rudderless descent of nihilism:

True anarchy is the generative element of religion. Out of the annihilation of all existing institutions she raises her glorious head, as the new foundress of the world.

Elsewhere, Novalis said that when we seek the unconditioned (das Unbedingte) we find only things (Dinge). What he meant by this, is that the things of experience are always conditioned and inevitably depend on other finite things. The ‘I,’ after all, is not a first principle as Kant and Fichte would have it, but part of ultimate reality. Whilst knowledge of the Absolute lies beyond our grasp, reason nonetheless impels us to trace it back to its source. All we ever come to know, however, are ‘conditioned’ things.

On the other hand, Novalis was not suggesting that our search for the Absolute must come to an end:

What do I do when I philosophise? […] All philosophy must therefore end with absolute ground. But if this is not given to us […] philosophy must be an unending activity.

Like Holderlin, of course, Novalis believed that poetry can raise this noble quest to another level and it is perhaps fitting that I wish to end this brief discussion with two verses from his celebrated Hymns to the Night (1800), lines which perfectly epitomise the Romantic longing for death and, thus, unification with the Absolute:

Into the bosom of the earth,

Out of the Light’s dominion,

Death’s pains are but a bursting forth,

Sign of glad departure.

Swift in the narrow little boat,

Swift to the heavenly shore we float.

Blessed be the everlasting Night,

And blessed the endless slumber.

We are heated by the day too bright,

And withered up with care.

We’re weary of a life abroad,

And we now want our Father’s home.

Further reading:

Ameriks, Karl (ed.); The Cambridge Companion to German Idealism (Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Beiser, Frederick; German Idealism: The Struggle Against Subjectivism 1781-1801 (Harvard University Press, 2002).

Fitzgerald, Penelope; The Blue Flower (Mariner Books, 1995).

Lacoue-Labarthe, Phillipe & Nancy, Jean-Luc; The Literary Absolute: The Theory of Literature in German Romanticism (State University of New York Press, 1988).

Pfefferkorn, Kristin; Novalis: A Romantic’s Theory of Language and Poetry (Yale University Press, 1988).

Prokofieff, Sergei O.; Eternal Individuality: Towards a Karmic Biography of Novalis (Temple Lodge Publishing, 1992).

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