On Schelling's Promethean Grace

[The Christian idea of the inner return to God] is bent by Schelling in a new direction by “tones” in the experience of the double life that opens the insight into other dimensions of existence. The return is precarious and the moment of grace is fleeting. Man cannot escape the finiteness of his particular existence. His will to perfection in life is frustrated insofar as the nature under him can never by completely spiritualized. The independent ground in him resists conquest.

This aspect of existence is revealed experientially in the “tone” of melancholy . “The darkest and deepest in human nature is yearning (Sehnsucht) , as it were the inner gravitation of the soul; hence in its deepest it is melancholy (in German Schwerkraft and Schwermut). In this melancholy is founded the sympathy of man with nature. The deepest in nature also is melancholy; nature too mourns a lost good, and to all life attaches an indestructible melancholy because it has something under it that is independent of it. “ In God there would be a ground of darkness too if he did not make this condition unto himself, if he were not united with it to an absolute personality.

Man, however, never brings his condition completely into his power, even if he wickedly strives to do so; his condition is independent of him; hence his personality and selfhood can never rise to the perfect actus. “This is the sadness attaching to all finite life; and even if in God this condition is at least relatively independent, still there is in God himself a source of sadness though it never rise to actuality but is overcome in eternal joy. Hence the veil of melancholy that is spread over all nature, the deep, indestructible melancholy of all life.”

From the sadness attaching to all life there is no escape except in a fleeting moment. The moment of happiness over the ground of sadness is the utmost that can be reached; and it arises only as the culmination of an austere religious life.

Schelling’s idea of religiousness is intimately connected with the Promethean experience. “We do not mean by religiousness what a diseased age so calls, that is lazy brooding, pietizing, surmising, or a velleity of feeling the divine.” “ Religousness is a conscientiousness, or that one acts as one knows and does not contradict the light of knowledge in one’s action.”

A man to whom such contradiction is impossible is religious or conscientious in the highest sense of the word. “ He is not conscientious who, when the occasion arises, has first to remember his rule of duty and then decides to do the right thing out of respect for the rule.” Virtue in this sense of conscientiousness does not have to be enthusiastic; on the contrary, it is the austerity of sentiment from which blossom forth true gracefulness and godliness. If, however, in the austerity the divine principle breaks through, the virtue will become enthusiasm, the heroism in the fight against evil. Enthusiastic virtue is faith.

Schelling is regaining the existential meaning of faith against the decadent Christianity of the enlightened middle class. Faith is not a belief that something is true; that was Voltaire’s conception of faith, and this faith succumbed to the attack of rational and historical critique. For Schelling there is no merit in such belief. Faith has to be restored to its original meaning (fides) as trust and reliance on the divine that excludes all choice. And only when into this solid seriousness of sentiment, which always must by presupposed, “ should fall a ray of divine love, will arise the highest transfiguration of human life into gracefulness (Anmut) and divine beauty.” The implication of this moment of grace becomes still clearer in the sentence, “ The grasping of this eternity, recognized in oneself, can appear from the point of view of action only as the effect of grace, of a peculiar happiness.”

The idea of the grace that falls in as a ray of divine love but still is grasped from the bottom of the eternal unconscious reveals the non-Christian character of the Promethean experience. The tension between creaturely finiteness and infinity, the tension between life and death, is solved in the Christian experience by grace that grasps man from above and annihilates him into the happiness beyond; the Promethean grace is grasped by man and releases the tension of life and death in a flash of immanent happiness.

CW 25 (HPI-VII),
The Last Orientation Chapter 2, Schelling
§ 6 Promethean Existence, pp 220-222.

Note: All quoted phrases are from Schelling, Werke (1804) , Volume I. See HPI VII for annotations.