Issue #56 October 2022

The Influence of Plato on Schelling’s Living Cosmos: the “Timaeus”, the “Freedom Essay,” and “Ages of the World”

Joseph Mallord William Turner - Vesuvius in Eruption (1820)

“Long before man decided to create a system, there already existed one, that of the cosmos [System der Welt]. Hence our proposer task consists in discovering that system”

⎯ (Schelling, 1810, Stuttgart Seminars, 197).

The essay to follow seeks to investigate the spiritual and natural origins of Schelling’s living cosmology. What was it about Plato’s Timaeus that attracted both the young and old Schelling to return to this dialogue? Furthermore, how does Schelling apply the cosmological structure of the Timaeus to his own philosophy?

This essay has two main goals. First, to lay out the several points of resonance between Plato’s and Schelling’s philosophies. I am supported in this effort by the secondary scholarship of various thinkers, including John Sallis, Bruce Matthews, David Krell, and Iain Hamilton Grant. Secondly, I attempt to show how Schelling uses Platonic mythic and theogonic examples to animate his later works in both the Freedom Essay and the Ages of the World. These experimental texts can be read as presenting Schelling’s central thesis as a radically new Christianized version of the Timaeus. The Freedom Essay and the various drafts of Ages of the World represent Schelling’s creative reconfiguration of the Platonic cosmos. My reasoning for this judgement stems from the way these writings attempt to harness the natural and spiritual essence of Plato’s chaotic receptacle, turning it into a stable, organic, and unified whole. This creative reconstruction was, for Schelling, a means of displaying the developmental process of an actual living being as the revelation of God.

Schelling captures this original development in poetic language, expressing the first primordial movement of a dark, unknown, swirling Abyss, which is then dramatically awakened by the expansion of the warm breath of love and light. It is important to note that the Timaeus was not just a mythic tale for Plato. The text was both a theological and cosmological grounding of nature and the spiritual world. It is this jointure of nature and spirit (and later freedom and necessity) that interests Schelling. It is Plato’s chorological system that moves Schelling in the direction of unifying the living spirit and vital nature into one dynamic cosmos. However, what makes this project so unique to Schelling’s philosophy is that he removes the Platonic dēmiurgós of the Timaeus and replaces it with the Christian godhead.


The Platonic Schelling

It isn’t easy to point out Schelling’s influence in the Oldest Systematic Program of German Idealism, but one can only imagine the young Schelling looking to Plato along with his fellow comrades Hölderlin and Hegel. The young trio were calling for a new Mythology. We could also turn to Schelling’s 1792 Platonic notebooks most recently translated by Naomi Fisher. The early Schelling first turned to mythology valuing its narratives as an unwavering act of the symbolic imagination. The new Mythology that the Tübingen trio were calling forth was to be both sensuous and rational. Interestingly, the late Schelling of 1842 demands of his Berlin students that they pick up Plato and “exhaust their very souls with but one Platonic Dialogue” (Schelling, The Grounding of Positive Philosophy, 142).

What Schelling learns from Plato is the gesture of creating concrete philosophical concepts through mythological imagery. According to Plato, the gift of divination is a gift from the gods and goddesses. Prophetic knowledge, as divination, is bound to all philosophy, since philosophy seeks the knowledge of the whole. However, such a knowledge of the whole or absolute can only occur in a healthy, undistracted rational mind. Thus, prophetic knowledge was a kind of philosophical vision, one that intellectually grasped hold of inspired natures and visionary forms. These visionary forms could only be grasped by the intellect. It was this Platonic, and prophetic knowledge that would resonate with Schelling’s conception of the cosmos.

Bruce Matthews explains that the visionary forms grasped by the intellect seem to represent the divine aspect of philosophizing. Speculative thought can only be crafted by a seer with the gift of rational divination. With the greatest of ease, the seer or philosopher calls upon the power of the gods in order to narrate the birth of the cosmos using the power of story and myth.

The Platonic Dialogues emphasized two key causes that captured the imagination of the young Schelling: necessity and divinity. Schelling notes that according to Plato,

“the soul can descend from its original state of beatitude and be borne into the temporal universe thereby being torn away from truth by means of a falling away from the original image (Ur-bild)” (Matthews, 127).

This usage of Plato’s theory of mimesis can easily be identified in Schelling’s 1804 essay Philosophy and Religion where the process of the falling-away from the absolute meant that finite reality was grounded on a counter-image of the absolute one. The counter-image was entirely real while the true moving image of the absolute was ideal. The copy of the absolute gained its independence by being entangled with necessity. This entanglement lead to the movement of it falling away from the original image. This fallenness would provide the space for individuality and true personality. Personality could only be gained by being stretched between the real and the ideal. The true cosmic task was to overcome necessity and dwell in personal freedom. The true brilliance of this essay was Schelling’s ability to merge the biblical fall with Plato’s philosophical cosmology.

According to John Sallis, the Timaeus had a very powerful influence on Schelling’s philosophy. He goes so far as to say, that Schelling’s philosophical project replicates the chorology of Platonic creation. Sallis believes that Schelling decisively reinscribes the Timaeus’ structure in many aspects of his philosophy. Sallis also implies that almost all of Schelling’s work can be seen as the ancient text re-written for modern eyes (Sallis, 159).

In Bruce Matthews’ 2012 text Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy: Life as the Schema of Freedom, Matthews draws several key connections between Plato and Schelling. According to Matthews, all knowledge for both Plato and Schelling has a divine origin (Matthews, 103). The divine origin of knowledge was attractive to Schelling’s philosophical sense. He was drawn to how Plato disseminated both the concepts of necessity and divinity throughout his dialogues. Platonic cosmology, seen through the young eyes of the philosopher, allowed him to grasp how the connective interplay of necessity and divinity can give rise to an organic cosmos. Matthews reminds us that Schelling saw a distinct universal ethics arising out of this organic cosmos. The Universal ethics was grounded on the three encircling conditions of divinity, necessity, and the human.


Schelling’s Platonic Physics

In Philosophies of Nature after Schelling, the English philosopher Iain Hamilton Grant states that a return to Schelling’s Platonism necessitates a contemporary reconstruction of philosophical cosmologies. In essence, to philosophize about nature first requires reconstructing how humanity grasps the natural world. Grant sees Schelling’s philosophical project as an attempt to rescue Plato from vulgar adaptions of idealism. Grant calls these vulgar idealistic readings of Plato a form of antiphysics (Grant, 18). As Grant states,

“a return to Schelling’s reading of the Timaeus deals with the philosophical conceptions behind being and becoming that are already a part of the Platonic physics of productive nature” (Grant, 3).

It is Schelling’s logic that intimately works out an understanding of the physics of the all or a metaphysics of nature and reality (Grant, 7). Grant affirms this conclusion by citing Schelling’s remarks that …“true philosophical science is a cognition of the universe” (Grant, 19). It is here where Grant affirms the importance of this Schellingian reading of the Timaeus that explicitly shows the relationship of nature, spirit and the cosmos to our a priori understanding (Grant, 20).

Joshua Shaw - Landscape with Figures (1838)

The Freedom Essay: the Living Ground and Platonic Matter

In the Freedom Essay Schelling begins to illustrate an investigation into a living ground, but one that is differentiated from its subject. This is the aspect of both essence and existence, which is rediscovered in the ground and pays homage to the deep influence of the Timaeus (Sallis, 163). Schelling presents us with the separation from a living ground of being whose existence it too would ground. The Freedom Essay offers us a glance into the divine origins of the cosmos. It first presents us with two formal predicates, the first being the living ground of God, which Schelling states is both God and not God, followed by the second predicate as the essence of God’s existence. The two form the main concepts of the first part of the essay of ground and existence. This ground is called nature in God and as nature, it is secluded beyond the realm of absolute identity. As Sallis states, nature in the Freedom Essay is seen as the original matter that Schelling will later refer to as the unruly form or das Regellose (Sallis, 169). According to Schelling, this unruly matter appears before all rule and understanding (Schelling, 1809, Freedom Essay, 29). However, when the logos or word is revealed to the ground’s yearning, its secluded nature and dark principle are temporarily overcome. The overcoming occurs when the dark principle is transfigured in the light (Schelling, 29).

While darkness has been vanquished it still lies at the heart of all things, like a thick residue that can once again break through like a hellish fire. Schelling states:

“This is the incomprehensible basis of reality in things, the indivisible remainder that which with the greatest exertion cannot be resolved but remains eternally in the ground.” (Schelling, 29).

Although the Freedom Essay lacks the role of the Platonic dēmiurgós, this unruly principle takes its place. Schelling will later state that the unruly and chaotic principle contains a deeper yearning to give birth to itself. David Krell stresses that Schelling uses the word Sehnsucht (longing or yearning) and the unruly principle is later revealed to be a form of matter that is akin to darkness (Krell, The Tragic Absolute, 121). This original strife between darkness and light compliments the emergence of life. All birth must be born in darkness so that it can be transformed in the light (Schelling, 1809, Freedom Essay, 29).

The original longing refers back to the heart of the Timaeus which Schelling identifies as

“the seeking of an unknown nameless good as it moves divining like a wave-wound whiling sea akin to Plato’s matter” (Schelling, 31).

This Platonic Matter that Schelling is recalling is identified as the Platonic Chora with its fire, air, water and earth (Sallis, 162). The chora is filled with swirling energies that pulsate like primal forces making each other unravel in a slow unbalanced sway (Sallis, 158). The irreducible remainder as a speck of darkness in the ground, along with the Platonic chora represent the first original moments of cosmic (Platonic) matter. The flourishing of this emerging matter occurs in no other space than the receptacle. The receptacle is an enduring abyss, but also a fecund dwelling place for prime matter.


Plato’s Timaeus and the Ages of the World

The Ages of the World is Schelling’s own Christianized Timaeus, a text that Jason Wirth has called a cosmic poem (Jason Wirth, The Conspiracy of Life, 1). Mimicking Plato, Schelling explains (in his 1813 draft) that the self-activation of eternity begins with God’s longing to reveal himself. This longing for consciousness and revelation begins with God’s own self-movement as a contraction. God shrouds himself in darkness by this first contraction (Schelling, 1815, The Ages of the World, 6). This inward contractive/concealing act of God’s divinity in darkness mirrors the Platonic Cosmos. It is the grand artisan or dēmiurgós that comes out of the deep chasm and creates the first moments of time. In this dense, poetic language Schelling, following Plato, articulates the process of how the eternal principle ensouls the cosmos. The Ages of the world represents a cosmogonic transformation of the history of the universe and thus Schelling’s creative gesture in the history of philosophy is rethinking Plato’s form of non-being.


The Fertile Dynamics of the Ages of the World

In the beginning of the text, Schelling presents us with a solitary germ, a seed if you will, which initially wants its own selfish existence (Schelling, 1813, Ages of the World, 124). This first principle continually gravitates towards its own egoity. Schelling calls this contractive principle, “a will that wills nothing” (Schelling, 1813, 135). This primordial will continuously contracts inward on itself, endlessly producing its own interiority. The seed could be eternal on its own because without the necessary stimulus there is no reason for it to grow. The seed would need fertile soil to expand, and for this expansion to arise, a second principle must emerge out of the first (which is in direct opposition to it). Deep within this first principle’s being a second lingering voice yearns for the spirit/or the soil to form into an actual identity. Our seed now contains a second principle which has grown in opposition to the first. We now have two undeveloped primordial wills in the seed, one contractive while the other is expansive. This second principle, is a will that desires and yearns to expand itself in matter. Schelling calls this “a will that wills something” (Schelling, 1813, 143).

The second principle reaches outside of itself making a necessary de-cision. This de-cision is a splitting between the two principles. A rupture occurs through this process. The rupture creates a cosmogenic temporality, where the first principle forms the unconscious past, and the other principle, reaches out towards spirit in the present. Schelling uses very distinct language to play on this original scission. Schelling is playing on the dual nature of this word to represent the dynamic relationship between both principles. He makes it very clear that this process of scission is a free act permeated by the necessity of love, a love for expansion and creative attraction (Schelling, 1813, 140).

According to Markus Gabriel, Schelling uses the necessity of mythology to aid in understanding the hidden content behind this unprethinkable dynamic cosmos. Gabriel states that the process of “the mythology of mythology” revealed in Schelling texts is his attempt at a supplementation for this creative excess deep within the well of being (Gabriel, The Mythological Reflection of Being, 21). Schelling’s reflection on the unprethinkable bares an indelible mythological remainder, which attempts to get hold of its own pre-conditions and can be compared to what Schelling calls the deepest Abyss or void (Gabriel, 21).

What Schelling sees in the development of a cosmological mythology is the same uncanny expression disguised in all origin stories (Gabriel, 21). The unprethinkable is somehow always the necessary cause behind each and every origin story. It is unprethinkable because it is unknown to cognition. The cosmological mythos becomes a transparent solution for Schelling’s cosmological poem because what is needed in his metaphysics is a bridge that can reach back into the past and close the gap on the content that has not been humanely experienced or thought of … for “what is intimated can only ever be prophesized” (Schelling, 1813, The Ages of the World, xxxv).

This Schellingian organic cosmo-mythology unfolds as a system that contains the unregulated and unconditioned forces for both human, and world. There is an inherent logic at play in the system that Schelling refers to as the living copula or logos (Schelling, 1813, 164). The living logos leads to the awakening of all that is dormant; where each slumbering force is born a new and becomes expressive, and aware of its being. Schelling will reveal that the conclusion of this fecund cosmogenesis is the birth of spirit and Freedom, for all germinal life must emerge from mute ineffective forces and be lifted into an active unity (Schelling, 1813, 165). To conclude, I end this essay with a quote from Jason Wirth who sums up this systematic and cosmological project of Schelling by stating that “Schelling did not turn to the future by looking directly to the future to imagine what otherwise might be. Instead, he looked to the future by turning to the concealed depths of the past” (Jason Wirth, Schelling’s Practice of the Wild, 40).

Christopher Satoor is a doctoral candidate (ABD) in the Department of Humanities at York University. He is also currently a Sessional Instructional Assistant at the University of Toronto. Christopher’s main research centers around 18th and 19th-century German idealism and German Romanticism (Kant, Herder, Maimon, Reinhold, Fichte, Hölderlin, and Novalis), with a special concentration on Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling. His writings can be found in the Deleuze Studies Journal from Edinburgh University Press, Environment Space and Place (University of Minnesota), and Epoché Magazine. Christopher has a forthcoming publication with Bloombury in 2023. He creates philosophical content on YouTube which can be found here.

Works Cited

Grant, Iain Hamilton, Philosophies of Nature after Schelling (London: Continuum International Pub. Group, 2008).

Gabriel, Markus and Slavoj Žižek, Mythology, Madness and Laughter: Subjectivity In German Idealism (London: Continuum International Pub. Group, 2009).

Krell, David Farrell, The Tragic Absolute: German Idealism and the Languishing Of God (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2005).

Matthews, Bruce, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy: Life as the Schema of Freedom (Albany: State U of New York, 2011).

Sallis, John, Chorology: On Beginning in Plato’s Timaeus (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1999).

Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von, Philosophical Investigations Into the Essence of Human Freedom Trans. Jeff Love and Johannes Schmidt. (Albany: State Uof New York, 2006).

Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von, Idealism and the Endgame of Theory: Three Essays by F.W.J. Schelling Trans., Ed Thomas Pfau (Albany: State U of New York, 1994).

Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von and Slavoj Žižek, The Abyss of Freedom & Ages Of the World (second draft, 1813) Trans. Judith Norman (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997).

Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von, The Ages of the World (Third Version c. 1815). Trans. Jason Wirth, (Albany: State U of New York, 2000).

Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von, The Grounding of Positive Philosophy: The Berlin Lectures Trans. Bruce Matthews (Albany: State U of New York, 2007).

Wirth, Jason M. The Conspiracy of Life: Meditations On Schelling and His Time (Albany: State U of New York, 2003).

Wirth, Jason M. Schelling’s Practice of the Wild: Time, Art, Imagination (Albany: State U of New York, 2015).


October 2022


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