Schelling’s Philosophy of Mythology

Schelling’s Philosophy of Mythology

Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy, August – October 2021

Nothing upon the Earth is interesting except religions

Charles Baudelaire, My Heart Laid Bare, lxxix

Schelling’s Philosophy of Mythology

Schelling’s final philosophical system is composed of five parts:

1. The Historico-Critical Introduction to the Philosophy of Mythology (SW XI: 1-252).

2. The Philosophical Introduction to the Philosophy of Mythology, or Presentation of Purely Rational Philosophy (SW XI: 253-572).

3. Monotheism (SW XII: 1-131).

4. Philosophy of Mythology (SW XII: 133-674).

5. Philosophy of Revelation (in two volumes: SW XIII: 175-530; SW 14: 1-334).

This course is a study of the Philosophy of Mythology in particular, and of its place in Schelling’s late philosophy. It builds a picture of the Nineteenth Century context for the study of myth (Creuzer, Nietzsche, and Bachofen), but draws connections with religion and politics in the contemporary world, and develops comparisons with the psychology of Erich Neumann and the writings of Philip K. Dick.

In 1841-42, in his famous Berlin lectures, Schelling delivered an overview of his whole final system. The lectures were an intellectual event and were packed out, his audience including future intellectual luminaries such as Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Engels and Mikhail Bakunin. Kierkegaard was entranced by Schelling’s ideas, but Engels was repelled, immediately publishing three critiques of the lectures in quick succession; in 1843, Marx himself wrote to Feuerbach encouraging him to engage in a sustained critique of Schelling’s recent thought. In the same year, H.E.G. Paulus published an unauthorised transcript of the lectures, which Schelling tried to suppress. Paulus’ transcript was re-edited by Manfred Frank and published in 1977 under the title Philosophie der Offenbarung, 1841/42. An English translation of this text by Klaus Ottmann has recently been published as Philosophy of Revelation (1841-42) (Spring Publications, 2020), augmented with an abundance of supplementary texts. Finally, English readers have access to the lectures that provoked and galvanised a generation of European thinkers.

After the initial excitement about the lectures, Schelling’s late system seemed to fade into oblivion, eclipsed by the new twin theoretical and practical  tendencies spearheaded by his erstwhile auditors and their associates, Kierkegaard and Marx/Engels respectively. His trenchant ideas about power and will were soon effectively erased and supplanted by Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. This retreat into the shadows could have been warranted by the difficulty of Schelling’s ideas, the turgid style of expression, the strange formulae that recur throughout the written texts, not to mention the obscurity of their central doctrine of the potencies. Marx thought that Schelling was an arch-conservative, defending religious and political tradition against the popular surge of the newly influential Young Hegelians. Schelling had the ear of Kaiser Wilhelm and “the entire German police […] at his disposal” (Letter to Feuerbach). But how influential were these lectures on the spiritual fathers of the new currents of Existentialism and Marxism? What about the possible influence on Nietzsche (claimed by Manfred Frank in his Lectures on the New Mythology)? Might some of Schelling’s ideas even continue to exert a force in the face of the deadlocks later experienced by these currents of thought? In the case of Kierkegaard, the influence was ongoing, although this is often underappreciated. When Kierkegaard talks in The Concept of Anxiety about anxiety in the face of the infinite possibility of “being able” (which invites a German rendering with the term Seinkönnen), Schelling’s influence is palpable, even though his name is not mentioned. But what if Schelling even had things to say about power, will and politics that could challenge Marx and Nietzsche in their own domains? What if the decline of religion were to lead to the revival of myth in the sphere of politics? The contents of Schelling’s philosophy of mythology and revelation are in any case too strange and dark to support an Establishment philosophy, and his explanations of Christianity raise more problems for the Church than they solve. What if Schelling were after all ahead of his time?

In religious philosophy the melancholy of the gods is tied to their destiny. They know that they are doomed to end. Mythology too, centred on the pair Demeter-Persephone, is a protracted cry of mourning, a quest for the “lost god, infinite trace” (Rilke), a repeated threnody (XII 273), an “empty moan” [vide nénie (Mallarmé)] that laments the death of the god (XII 48, 297, 346, 375). “That is precisely what is tragic, the trait of deep sorrow that runs through the whole of paganism, that in the midst of total dependence on the gods, whom an insurmountable delusion compels people to serve, the feeling of the finitude of these gods attends them” (XII 346). Better, it haunts the gods themselves. “Mythology is sweet death, the euthanasia” of the gods (XIII 406) – It is their crepuscle, the “great night of the gods of Scandinavian mythology (XIII 511; XII 346), the distant prophecy of Prometheus. The ultimate thought of the Hellenic consciousness, communicated to those who are nostalgic for disappeared divinities: Schiller and Hölderlin, Heine and Nietzsche, Nerval and Swinburne, Louis Ménard and Louis Bouilhet, Leconte de Lisle and Pierre Louÿs, up to W.F. Otto and Lévi-Strauss, “explains that melancholy, which like a sweet poison is infiltrated into veins of marble, into the most remarkable works of Greek sculpture, where grace and supreme vivacity seem to be penetrated by the sadness of the insurmountable finitude of their existence, and to silently mourn their own past. This secret pain glorifies, ennobles and sanctifies, as it were, the beauty of Greek images, it is the talisman that still irresistibly attracts us, we who are endowed with such different sensations, living in the milieu of such different notions” (XII 512; paraphrased translation). It is pagan melancholy, which struck Kierkegaard, Renan, Péguy in different ways.

Xavier Tilliette, La Mythologie comprise: Schelling et l’interpretation du paganisme, 107.


1. The Positive Philosophy and its Reception

2. Mythology and Monotheism

Reading: Historical-Critical Introduction to the Philosophy of Mythology, lectures 1-4 (extracts)

3. The Potencies and the Theogonic Process

Reading: Monotheism, lecture 6; Philosophical Introduction to the Philosophy of Mythology, lectures 2, 17 (extracts).

4. Monotheism: God and Being

Reading: Monotheism, lectures 2, 6 (extracts)

5. Creuzer: Neoplatonism and Mythology

Reading: Creuzer, Symbolism and Mythology of Ancient Peoples, Volume III, extract on Dionysus and Apollo

6. Myth, Ecstasy, and Evil

Reading: Philosophy of Mythology, lecture 17

7. Ouranos and Ourania: Sexual Difference

Reading: Philosophy of Mythology, lecture 10

8. The Kronian Insurgency

Reading: Philosophy of Mythology, lecture 14

9. The Three Mythologies

Reading: Philosophy of Mythology, lectures 17, 20

10. Dionysus: Creuzer, Schelling and Nietzsche

Reading: Philosophy of Mythology, lecture 13

11. Persephone and Greek Mystery Religion

Reading: Philosophy of Mythology, lectures 8, 27.

12. Dionysus, Prometheus and Christ

Reading: Philosophical Introduction to the Philosophy of Mythology, lecture 20; Philosophy of Revelation (1841-2), 23-25, 27 (extracts)

There is something strangely uncanny, spectral in all Indian being, as well as the Indian gods (XII 572)

The Homeric world of the gods silently encloses in itself a mystery, but it is a mystery fashioned over an abyss, as it were, which it covers over as with flowers. The Homeric multiplicity of gods is itself a One transformed into multiplicity. If Greece possess a Homer, it is because it has the Mysteries, that is to say because it has succeeded in fully vanquishing that principle of the past which was still dominant and manifest in the Oriental systems, and to place it back into the secret, into mystery (from which it originally came). The pure Heaven which hovers over the Homeric poems could only span out over Greece in the wake of the dark and darkening power of that strangely uncanny principle (one calls strangely uncanny everything which should remain in mystery, in the hidden, the latent, but which has emerged out of it) – that aether which vaults over the world of Homer could only stretch out after the violence of that uncanny principle, which was dominant in the earlier religions, had been pushed down into mystery; the Homeric age could only think of cultivating that purely poetic history of the gods once the actual religious principle was hidden in the interior, leaving the spirit completely free on the outside (XII 649)

This course and website are created by Christian Kerslake. Courses taught at the Mary Ward Centre in the past few years include: Nihilism, Existentialism and Phenomenology, Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, Schelling and the Philosophy of Nature, The Philosophy of Klossowski, Lacan and Philosophy, Georges Bataille and the College of Sociology, and The Philosophy of Nietzsche.


Image credits

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Louvre_Dionysus-and-Ariadne_sarcophagus.jpg#filelinks  CC-BY-SA-4.0

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ptolemy_before_Isis_%26_Osiris,_Dendera_Temple.jpg  CC-BY-SA-4.0

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Large_relief,_marble,_torso,_Hades_and_Persephone,_100-90_BC,_AM_Eleusis,_081150.jpg  CC-BY-SA-4.0

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Locri_Pinax_Of_Persephone_And_Hades.jpg  CC-BY-SA-4.0

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Heracles_with_the_dragon_-_Castle_square_Karlsruhe.jpg CC BY-SA-3.0

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https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Neon_orbitals.png,  public domain

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