The German Diotima

The title of the essay Über die Diotima (hereafter, the ‘Essay’ (translation here (pp400–419))) by Friedrich Schlegel (hereafter, ‘Friedrich’) suggests it is focused on Plato’s portrayal of Diotima in the Symposium. That portrayal, though, is but a starting point for Friedrich, who attempts to demonstrate that Diotima was a particular type of woman he associates with other early Greek women, including Sappho (by ‘early Greek’ I am referring to the 5th century BCE and earlier — i.e., before Plato). The Essay is ostensibly of little relevance today, largely because knowledge of ancient Greece has evolved substantially since Friedrich’s time.

In particular, a compelling case has been made that far from being related to early Greek women, Diotima is a fictional figure used by Plato “to vanquish Sappho” (Jantzen, Foundations of Violence, p193). The misogyny of Plato that this betrays, which he passed on to his student Aristotle, is not a feminist fantasy. It resonates with the bitterness of Heidegger’s critique of Western ‘Metaphysics’ (the term he used to refer to the thought of Plato and Aristotle). The fact that Heidegger’s critique derives in part from his experience in WW I and WW II can well be taken as indicative of the truly monstrous and tragic implications of the repudiation of early Greek female spirituality Western Metaphysics constitutes. To be sure, he was himself an odious figure (his sexual predatoriness with respect to his teenage Jewish student Hannah Arendt is arguably as bad as anything he ever said or did — or did not say or do), but that should not distract attention away from the validity of his critique of Plato and Aristotle.

It is therefore fortunate that the Diotima Friedrich principally had in mind was not the one in Plato’s Symposium, but rather Caroline Schelling (hereafter ‘Caroline’), who was — for a time — his sister in law. On the third anniversary of his meeting Caroline he wrote a letter to her, reminding her of that anniversary and thanking her “for everything you have done for me and my development” (Caroline was almost a decade older than Friedrich, who was then in his early 20s and yet to establish a name for himself as a scholar). Towards the end of his letter he asks her to read the Essay “once more and mark in pencil those passages in which you believe a small change might be necessary.” While his ‘once more’ suggests Caroline had previously given him input, the fact that in a letter to her from almost a year earlier Frederick refers to her, somewhat flirtatiously, as the “independent Diotima” relative to her ‘god’ (Frederick’s brother, August) confirms his identification of her with the subject of the Essay.

An appreciation of the importance of this requires some familiarity with Caroline’s background. She was the oldest daughter of a prominent philologist (Johann Michaelis). In addition to her native German, she was fluent in French by the age of 15 and a year later had learned enough Italian to begin translating a contemporary Italian comedy. She eventually became fluent in English and went on to translate Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet into German with such skill that it was then, and still is today, considered a model for translating English into German. Her special interest in early Greek culture reflected in the help she provided Friedrich is further evidenced by the fact that she was having her daughter Auguste, who was the only one of her four children to live more than a few years after birth, learn ancient Greek — before she died of an illness at the age of 15.

The fact that Caroline wanted Auguste to learn ancient Greek is especially telling. It was rare for girls then to study Classical languages: to have her daughter do so was revolutionary. Caroline herself seems to have regretted not learning Greek, complaining in one letter of there not being a good translation of Plato. This demonstrates how keenly interested she was in some of the issues raised in the Essay. Indeed, it is worth wondering whether Friedrich’s request to Caroline was a polite way for him to have her confirm that he was quoting her accurately.

For example, in the Essay it would seem more likely that the voice of Caroline and not Friedrich is discernible in the assertion that “[t]he gift of being able to hear the tenderest sounds of nature from within and to communicate purely is . . . of immeasurable worth; and who would deny this of women?”(p410). That assertion relates to an earlier passage where one of two elements that “perhaps” define femininity is characterized as Innigkeit (a now rather antiquated German word meaning ‘inner sense’ — attested earliest in Mechthild of Magdeburg)(p408). That hardly sounds like Plato’s Diotima or Plato’s many ‘footnotes’ (Whitehead’s famous characterization of all philosophers who followed Plato) — but it does sound like Caroline. Though ‘Innigkeit’ does not appear in her letters, closely analogous principles can be found. In a letter from when she was only 15, Caroline writes to a friend about “the sensations of my heart” (die Empfindungen meines Herzens), sensations, she confesses, “I will never find the adequate words to express completely.”

In confessing to her limitations in expressing herself she ironically manifests her sophisticated sensitivity to the primacy of the experience of all sensations with respect to what she eventually says about them. She insists, however, “my thoughts are always the result of reflections that I undertake with — if at all possible — a completely cool disposition.” Thus, what she says evolves from an internal dialectic grounded in the experience of an inner sense. Accordingly, not only is there something unsaid in everything she says, but she seems to be conscious, in a manner no one before her was, of the unconscious.

Throughout her life Caroline appealed to this inner sense as what was authoritative for her and which she associated with feeling free and hence happy (German: glücklich, Latin: Faust(-us, -a)). Because of how she related happiness and freedom to “the pure innermost flame of the soul” it also meant for her an awareness of an afterlife. A few months after Auguste died Caroline wrote of when “one day [we] become omnipresent ourselves, all of us, one in the other, yet without for that reason being ‘One’ . . . since then precisely our striving [das Streben] to become One would itself cease.”

Help in understanding what this means comes from an authoritative source: the recipient of the letter, Caroline’s third husband, FWJ Schelling. In a work he published shortly after Caroline’s death, there is a ‘fictional’ dialogue about an essence within each person that survives after death, uniting the past, present and future. The female participant, Clara (surely, Caroline), identifies that essence as being “the Innigkeit of consciousness.”

Decades later, Schelling proposed that ‘yoga’ in the Bhagavad Gita (BG) be translated Innigkeit (an apt but unprecedented and unparalleled translation discussed by Jason Wirth here (p232)). Both the concept Innigkeit and the issue of translation implicate Caroline’s expertise. There is in fact evidence, albeit indirect, that Schelling’s proposed translation of yoga betrays her influence. Friedrich had included a partial and tendentious translation of BG in a book he published on ancient India in the Spring of 1808, a year before Caroline died. Notably absent from his BG are references to yogic practices. In a letter Schelling wrote to August in the Summer of 1808 he pointedly asked about Friedrich’s failure to discuss the relevance of the German pietist Jacob Boehme to BG. Boehme is relevant, especially with respect to what Friedrich excluded. Caroline would not have raised the question directly with Friedrich, but she would have relished the opportunity to have her husband criticize him. Years earlier she had complained to August about poetry by Friedrich she felt inappropriately alluded to her deceased daughter Auguste (see Letter 325 (footnote 3)) — and from shortly thereafter his name does not appear in her letters again.


I have written about Caroline with regard to a variety of topics:

Caroline Schelling On The Madonna & Child

Caroline Schelling & The Origin Of Heidegger’s “The Origin Of The Work Of Art

Like what you read? Give Stuart Dean a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.