Authors: Friedrich Schlegel

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

German literary theorist and philosopher

Author Works


Über das Studium der griechischen Poesie, 1797

Die Griechen und Römer, 1797

Lyceums-Fragmente, 1797 (English translation, 1968)

Athenäums-Fragmente, 1798 (English translation, 1968)

Geschichte der Poesie der Griechen und Römer, 1798

Gespräch über die Poesie, 1800 (Dialogue on Poetry, 1968)

Charakteristiken und Kritiken, 1801 (with August Wilhelm Schlegel)

Über die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier, 1808 (On the Language and Wisdom of the Indians, 1849)

Über die neuere Geschichte, 1811 (A Course of Lectures on Modern History, 1849)

Geschichte der alten und neuen Litteratur, 1815 (Lectures on the History of Literature, Ancient and Modern, 1818)

Philosophie des Lebens, 1828 (The Philosophy of Life, 1847)

Philosophie der Geschichte, 1829 (The Philosophy of History, 1835)

Philosophie der Sprache, 1830 (Philosophy of Language, 1847)

Literary Notebooks, 1797-1801, 1957

“Dialogue on Poetry” and Literary Aphorisms, 1968

Long Fiction:

Lucinde, 1799 (Lucinda, 1913-1915)


Alarcos, pr., pb. 1802

Edited Text:

Athenäum: Eine Zeitschrift, 1798-1800 (3 volumes; with August Wilhelm Schlegel)


Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel (SHLAY-guhl) was a founding member of Jena Romanticism. Enormously erudite, Schlegel published and lectured on an immense range of topics, established literary and philosophical journals, and wrote in numerous genres. His father, Johann Adolf Schlegel, a pastor, had literary interests, and his brother August Wilhelm was a critic and translator; the two brothers collaborated on several projects.{$I[A]Schlegel, Friedrich}{$I[geo]GERMANY;Schlegel, Friedrich}{$I[tim]1772;Schlegel, Friedrich}

A restless young man, Schlegel unhappily studied law in Göttingen and Leipzig between 1790 and 1793. He made friends with Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg) and, influenced by Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s studies on classicism, Schlegel quit law in 1793 to study philosophy and literature, resulting in his monumental treatments of Greek and Roman poetry. Moving to Dresden in 1794, then Jena in 1796-1797, and then living in Berlin from 1797 to 1799, Schlegel had contact with leading German intellectuals and writers, among them Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and Friedrich Schleiermacher. His early work contributed to the debate as to the relation between classical Graeco-Roman writing and modern poetry and prose. At a time when literary scholars paid scant attention to contemporary writing, Schlegel read widely in modern European literature; his essays and reviews on this work pioneered the relatively recently developed field of literary criticism.

Dismayed by the rigid generic constraints enforced by neoclassicism, Schlegel believed that writers should be free to make their own rules. He maintained not only that writers should devise unfamiliar generic combinations but also that they should engage in formal innovation. Athenäums-Fragmente embodies this aesthetic. Although the bulk of the text was written by Schlegel, his brother August Wilhelm and friends Novalis and Schleiermacher also contributed to its 451 aphoristic sections, creating a democratic authorship. An aggregate of mini-essays and psychological and ethical observations, Athenäums-Fragmente is also a self-conscious manifesto of Romanticism, Fragment 116 famously defining the movement’s aesthetic ethos. Schlegel’s experimental novel, Lucinda, furthered his explorations in literary theory and ethical critique. Part roman à clef, part allegory, Lucinda is a thinly fictionalized philosophical treatise in which Schlegel delineated his aesthetic and metaphysical beliefs. Because the novel contains a symbolic paean to sex, it guaranteed Schlegel’s reputation as a libertine. Lucinda took on a special significance as a philosophical work when Søren Kierkegaard attacked it in his The Concept of Irony in 1841.

The character Lucinda was based on Dorothea Veit, a married woman whom Schlegel met in 1797. They had an affair, began living together the following year, and eventually married in 1804. They traveled widely in Europe, taking up residence in Paris, Cologne, and finally Vienna in 1808. During this period, Schlegel wrote the play Alarcos, started the journals Athenäum (1798-1800) and Europa (1803-1805), and delivered public and private lectures (to which audiences subscribed) on literature, “Transcendental Philosophy” and “Universal History.” His final collaboration with his brother August Wilhelm was their joint Charakteristiken und Kritiken (characteristics and critics), a collection of essays on writers, painting, and theory.

Schlegel was skeptical of the rationalism expounded by Enlightenment thinkers. To offset this tradition, he praised the inspirational capacity of wit and investigated the strategic uses of irony. Always energetic in his intellectual passions, from 1802 to 1808 Schlegel devoted himself to reassessing his period’s denigration of medieval art and studied Oriental culture, particularly that of India. Schlegel had initially supported the French Revolution, but as he aged, and witnessed the Napoleonic wars, his beliefs became more conservative. He and Dorothea converted to Roman Catholicism in 1809. Gaining employment with the Austrian civil service in 1809, Schlegel served in diplomatic posts until 1818. Living on a small pension, he founded the journal Concordia (1820-1825) and lectured while revising early editions of his collected works. Suspicious of systematic thought, Schlegel nonetheless produced such all-encompassing works such as The Philosophy of Life and The Philosophy of History in the late 1820’s.

Schlegel’s letters suggest that he was afflicted with what twentieth century doctors would call clinical depression. Given that he suffered an abiding sense of sadness for most of his life, it is astonishing that he produced the massive amount of writing that he did. His collected works, a large portion of which has not been translated from the German, comprises thirty-five volumes. Schlegel died from a stroke in 1829, at work on Philosophy of Language. Initially, his conservatism and idiosyncratic religious views tarnished his reputation. Twentieth century thinkers, however, frequently returned to Schlegel’s penetrating aesthetics. His seminal experiments with the “fragment” and his complex meditations on irony have secured him a place in literary studies that goes far beyond a historical interest scholars might pay him as a leader of German Romanticism.

BibliographyBehler, Ernst, and Roman Struc, trans. Friedrich Schlegel: Dialogue on Poetry and Literary Aphorisms. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1968. Places these works within the Romantic tradition and provides biographical information on Schlegel.Critchley, Simon. “Unworking Romanticism.” In Very Little . . . Almost Nothing: Death, Philosophy, and Literature. New York: Routledge, 1997. Analyzes Schlegel’s contributions to Jena Romanticism and offers an incisive philosophical interpretation of his commitment to irony and the “fragment” as a genre.Eichner, Hans. Friedrich Schlegel. New York: Twayne, 1970. A complete biography of Schlegel; this study is indispensable.Firchow, Peter, trans. Friedrich Schlegel’s “Lucinde” and the Fragments. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971. Offers historical background and in-depth critical analysis of these works.Handwerk, Gary J. “Friedrich Schlegel’s Irony: From Negation to Conscience.” In Irony and Ethics in Literature: From Schlegel to Lacan. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985. A compelling and sophisticated analysis of Schlegel’s enigmatic approach to irony.
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