In the Gespräche über die Poesie, one of Friedrich Schlegel’s …ctional interlocutors defends the grotesque in art on the grounds that art is always the product of the soil in which it grows. Great artists who must work in times of spiritual impoverishment or turmoil will produce great art, but one cannot expect beautiful art from them, if by “beauty” is understood the “quiet grandeur and noble simplicity” that Winkelmann used to describe as classical art. Applied to philosophy, Schlegel’s point holds also for philosophical romanticism. The conditions in which it developed are essential to understanding its character, its greatness, and ultimately also the short-lived nature of its ¶ourishing. The early stirrings of this movement were set in motion in response to reactionary attacks on broadly Kantian and Enlightenment values. In 1788, a venerable old seminary in Tübingen in Württemberg, the Tübinger Stift, provided the perfect combination of intellectual stimulation and repressive conservatism from which the seeds of subsequent German literary and philosophical revolution would grow. The early motivations of German romanticism are perfectly symbolized by the early friendship of three seminarians there. All three were destined for stardom in German intellectual history, but at the time of their friendship, Friedrich Hölderlin and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, joined by the …ifteen-year-old Friedrich Schelling in 1790, were rebelling against the petty tyranny of their masters. The rebellion took the form of a staunch defense of both Kantian philosophy and the French Revolution. The Stift, a Protestant institution, was founded in 1536 for young men in Württemberg intending to become teachers and/or ministers. In his intellectual biography of Hölderlin, David Constantine describes the situation at the Stift around 1790 as a regime dedicated to a philosophy of breaking the will and the pride of its students, and he comments that such views must have been especially unbearable to students simultaneously experiencing “the heady west winds of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity blowing across from France” (Constantine 1988: 20). He continues:

By 1793, Hölderlin’s last year there, most of the students were said (by their principle, C.F. Schnurrer) to be “von dem Freyheits-Schwindel angestekt [infected by freedom-dizziness]” . . . Really there can be no doubt that among the students the preponderance of opinion was enthusiastically revolutionary and pro-French; and consequently impatient of the regime in the Stift, which they understood, quite rightly, as being the repressive state in miniature . . . the Stiftler [Seminarians] founded their political clubs, entered revolutionary slogans in one another’s autograph books, erected Liberty Trees, and behaved disrespectfully during the Duke’s visitations. He was, after all, the potentate from whom Schiller had ¶ed after writing Die Räuber, and [who] had incarcerated the radical publicist Schubart for years in the Asperg . . . . (Constantine 1988: 20)

The eventual fruit of the close bonds of friendship formed at the Tübinger Stift among Hölderlin, Hegel and Schelling was a politico-philosophical fragment titled

“The Oldest System Programme of German Idealism.” It is one of the most intriguing documents to stem from this period of German Philosophy. The manuscript, transcribed in 1795, is in Hegel’s handwriting, but its authorship is disputed, and scholars have given persuasive arguments in favor of each of the three friends as sole authors of the text. Whatever its …nal authorship, it was certainly a collaborative effort at least in its earliest stages, and the message of the essay is clearly in the spirit of the young, “freedom infected” seminarians. Most important for our purposes, it represents the spirit of early German romanticism, and in Frederick Beiser’s words, “Whoever the author was, the Programme clearly and succinctly presents some of the fundamental themes of the early romantic movement” (Beiser 1996: 3n). The System Programme is a manifesto for a new society, aimed at describing an emancipated social order built upon the ideals of Enlightenment and the French revolution. Its interest lies, however, in the way in which it expands the ideals of liberty, equality and brotherhood to encompass a vision of an emancipated, artistic, anarchist vision of community that transcends the state. Referencing Kant and in¶uenced by Fichte, this brief manifesto begins by claiming that a “complete system of all ideas” will be an all-encompassing moral metaphysics whose …rst principle “is the representation of myself as an absolute free being.” It then raises the central question: “How must a world be constituted for a moral being?” The answer rests on a metaphysics of freedom that begins by embracing a new, non-mechanistic physics with “wings” and ends with a call for social arrangements freed from the mechanical model that de…nes the state. Enlightenment political philosophers, including Kant, had often characterized the authoritarian state as a machine. Kant used the example of the hand mill (grinding out subjects) as a common and appropriate symbol of absolutism, and argued that a state ruled by constitutional law would be best symbolized as a living body (Kant 1986: 5:352). Of course, conservatives like Edmund Burke had also characterized the traditional authoritarian monarchy as an organism, but the System Programme goes well beyond both to argue that any state is mechanical and arti…cial and that the very idea of the state should be exposed as altogether a “miserable apparatus”:

We must therefore go beyond the state! For every state must treat free human beings as if they were cogs in a machine; but it should not do that; therefore it should cease to exist. (Beiser 1996: 4)

The vision of the end of the political state expressed here is by no means a supernatural or religious one. Rather, the Programme explicitly demands that all individuals replace superstition, religious authority and the pretense of reason with the natural authority of their own intellect. It then goes on to articulate an alternative vision for humanity that is at the heart of early romantic thought: the idea that truth and morality should be united in an artistic vision of beauty and that philosophy is as much an art as it is a science:

. . . the highest act of reason is an aesthetic act since [beauty] comprises all

ideas, and . . . truth and goodness are fraternally united only in beauty. The philosopher must possess as much aesthetic power as the poet . . . . (Beiser 1996: 4)

The poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller had famously claimed that aesthetic education was necessary to effectively lead people to morality, but again, the Programme document is more radical. It argues that philosophy itself must become aesthetic. In this spirit, the System Programme calls for a “mythology of reason” that will make philosophers comprehensible to everyone else, and raise everyone to the level of enlightened autonomy that is necessary for true equality. When this is achieved its authors say,

Only then can we expect equal development of all powers, of each individual as well as all individuals. No longer will any power be repressed, and then will rule the universal freedom and equality of the spirits! (Beiser 1996: 4)

The System Programme does indeed yield headings under which we can subsume the central concerns of the early German romantics: the in¶uence of Kant and the Enlightenment; the critique of mechanism and more broadly of “one-sided” approaches to philosophy and science; the centrality of beauty and artistic creativity; the elevation of poetry and “poeticizing” to the medium for producing the best social order, and the re-visioning of religion as a work of the aesthetic re¶ective spirit. A closer look at all of these topics and the key …gures who theorized them will bring this fascinating period into a clearer light. To begin, however it is important to brie¶y describe the in¶uence of a few of the philosophical giants whose work served as both soil and seed for early German romanticism.