The Ages of the World (1811)

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F. W. J. Schelling
Joseph P. Lawrence
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
  • Albany: 
    State University of New York Press
    , April
     275 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Ages of the World is one of F.W.J. Schelling’s (1775–1854) most ambitious and experimental projects. Joseph P. Lawrence has provided the first English translation of the original draft (1811) of the work’s first installment: “The Past.” Schelling’s project was to include three parts: “Past,” “Present,” and “Future.” The first part went through several drafts while the latter two were never completed. The work is commonly noted for its speculative philosophy of time and heterodox Trinitarian theology. The Ages of the World finds its origins in On the Essence of Human Freedom (1809), where a primordial unruly principle (das Regellose) is brought to order by way of God’s self-revelation. This unruly, irrational principle is presupposed by rationality, and without the regulating power of soul, all humanity descends into this original madness. Schelling asks, what could ground the conditioned and rational if not that which is separate from it, that is, the unconditional irrational?

However, according to part 1 (65–112) of The Ages of the World, this sort of antagonism is preceded by a timeless calm (die Lauterkeit). This primordial stillness is a timeless and contentless rest, akin to the pure indeterminacy which opens G.W.F. Hegel’s Science of Logic (Cambridge: CUP, 2010).  Perhaps it is no coincidence that Schelling’s own final resting place—the Bad Ragaz Cemetery, nestled in the heart of the Swiss alps—exemplifies this pre-eternal stillness. Schelling writes: “We sense this primordial stillness in mountain ranges that seem to look down with eternal mute indifference at the life that pulses at their feet” (83). This is the sort of stillness that is ideally grasped on a clear day in the Bernese Oberland, where the elevated distance from otherwise busy towns and violent rivers reveals them in their original stillness.

Such indistinct stillness, however, does not remain as such because its self-identity means that it lacks self-consciousness. There is no difference between the thinking self and the thought self. “Unable to distinguish itself from itself, it cannot be truly aware of itself” (74). There thus arises within the stillness a desire to express itself. This is a contentful will or “the determinate will that wills something” (77). In light of this determinate will the primordial stillness is now seen as a first will, “the will that wills nothing” (76). In relationship to the first will, the second will “is of such a nature that it limits, contracts, and negates” (77). There thus arises a contradiction of two wills. One is expansive (indeterminate), and the other contractive (determinate). This is, for Schelling, the basic dynamic of the divine life.

The “second” contracting will is both object (as a limit to the first will) and subject (as actively limiting the first will). It is thus subject-object. However, the “first” will is also a subject-object as the subject and object are “posited in it as undivided and indistinguishable” (88). Both the first and second wills are subject-object and are thus identical: “We thus no longer have before us two wills to take into consideration, but rather one will that has grown together out of the two” (81). On the one hand we have the unity (identity) of the two wills, and on the other their independence from unity, or their mutual opposition (84). This is an example of identity-in-difference as the wills are not directly identical but rather that which is the first will is also that which is the second (subject-object): “The same existent that is the one is also that which is the other” (85). For Schelling, there is sufficient evidence for this sort of identity-in-difference in nature: “While it would be wrong to say either that iron is wood or the reverse, there are certainly instances where one might justifiably say of something that is iron (namely within one of its parts) that it is the same thing that is wood (within another of its parts)” (87). This interior conflict of the wills in God is the model for the exterior tension in nature—“the erratically spinning wheel of birth” (102).

It is only through the Father’s utterance of the Word, which commences part 2 of “The Past” (113–168), that this antagonism is harmonized. For Schelling the only way this divine life can remain united in distinction, is through a “second personality, different from the personality of the primordial being that has come into existence, but not different from God as such” (115). This whole antagonism must be seen by another person for it to be seen as past and thus overcome. This is also the origin of time itself: “By begetting the Son, the dark primordial force of the Father retreats into the past and recognizes itself as past in relationship to him” (119). The begetting of the Son (the Father’s Word) is the harmony of the two wills precisely because in a word the expansive will (vowels) and the contractive will (consonants) are harmonized (121). Since the highest unity in Schelling’s philosophy is the “unity of unity and opposition” (135), it only makes sense that we admit a “unity” of Father and Son. This is the principle of love which “comes into play only if, where existential independence prevails, free beings are freely drawn to one another” (124). 

Despite Lawrence’s philological prowess in accurately revealing these difficult conceptual moves, the translation is not without deficiency. Firstly, Schelling’s multiple references to scripture are not cited in the translation. This includes the important passage from Psalm 188:22: “the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (63). Secondly, Lawrence falsely cites Schelling’s direct quote from Proverbs 8:22 (almost verbatim from Luther’s Bible) as being from the Wisdom of Solomon (91). Still more seriously he completely omits Schelling’s introduction to this verse: “In a book which is rightly considered to be holy, she [Divine Wisdom] is introduced as speaking thus” (89).

All the same, Lawrence’s handling of the German text is impressive. In addition, the translation is heavily annotated with helpful explanations of technical language (Sein and Seiendes for instance) and a detailed introduction. The translation includes two chapters of notes and fragments and a helpful glossary of German terms. Lawrence’s efforts will no doubt contribute to the expanding horizons of study in Schelling and German Idealism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Harry Moore is a doctoral student in theology at the University of Oxford.

Date of Review: 
June 25, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joseph P. Lawrence is a research alumnus of the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen. He is currently an independent scholar who lives and works in Strasbourg, France. He is the author of Schellings Philosophie des ewigen Anfangs and Socrates among Strangers.


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