Friedrich von Schlegel

The critic and author Friedrich von Schlegel (1772-1829) was one of the chief founders of the German romantic movement. He is best known for his writings in literary theory and cultural history.

Friedrich von Schlegel was born in Hanover on March 10, 1772. He studied philosophy and literature at Göttingen University and later at Leipzig. Between 1794 and 1796 he lived in Dresden, later moving to Jena, making acquaintances in the literary circles of both cities. In Jena, Schlegel was especially influenced by the philosophy of Johann Gottlieb Fichte, whose teachings he later applied to literary theory.

In 1797 Schlegel moved to Berlin, where he associated with such romantic writers as Ludwig Tieck. In 1798 Schlegel published two essays, Vom Studium der griechischen Poesie (On the Study of Greek Poetry) and Geschichte der Poesie der Griechen und Römer (History of the Poetry of the Greeks and Romans), in which he expounded the thesis that the Greeks had achieved perfect harmony in their civilization and art. With other members of the romantic movement he edited the literary quarterly Athenaeum (1798-1800). In its pages he developed his literary theories—he considered romantic poetry to be a "progressively universal poetry," expanding its subject matter to include all aspects of life. An example of such "poetry" was Schlegel's experimental novel, Lucinde (1799), in which he analyzed the psychological details of his relationship with Dorothea Veit, the daughter of the Jewish intellectual Moses Mendelssohn. Friedrich and Dorothea were married in 1804.

After teaching briefly at the University of Jena, Schlegel moved to Paris in 1802, where he studied Oriental literature and culture. In 1808 he went to Cologne, converted to Roman Catholicism, and published a study of Indian culture, Ü ber die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier (On the Language and Wisdom of the Indians).

Although Schlegel had previously taught absolute freedom in thought and action and preached free love in his novel, in later years he tended toward increasing intellectual and political conservatism. He became affiliated with the Austrian government, at that time a reactionary force in European politics. In 1809 he became court secretary in Vienna, although he continued his literary activities. Between 1810 and 1812 he gave lectures in Vienna on medieval poets as forerunners of romanticism, and he perfected his philosophy of history, which viewed national cultures as organic developments. Among his translated lectures are The Philosophy of History, The Philosophy of Life and the Philosophy of Language, and The History of Literature.

In 1815 Schlegel assisted the Austrian delegation at the Congress of Vienna. In his later years he served as editor of the conservative journal Concordia. He died in Dresden on Jan. 12, 1829.


Further Reading on Friedrich von Schlegel

The best extensive treatment of Schlegel, especially his theoretical writings, is in Oskar Walzel, German Romanticism (1932). Walzel demonstrates Schlegel's central importance as a romantic theorist. More general discussions of Schlegel's life and work are in Walter Silz, Early German Romanticism (1929), and Ralph Tymms, German Romantic Literature (1955).

Additional Biography Sources

Eichner, Hans, Friedrich Schlegel, New York, Twayne Publishers 1970.

Peter, Klaus, Friedrich Schlegel, Stuttgart: Metzler, 1978.