Skip to main content

Desmond Abstract Hercules Among the Germans

Will D. Desmond

Hercules among the Germans: From Winckelmann to Hegel

The period of c.1776-1831 witnessed in German-speaking lands what has been termed a ‘third renaissance’ of Greek studies, and in its trajectory ‘from ideals to institutions’, the figure of Hercules continued to fascinate. This chapter touches on highlights of this fascination: Winckelmann’s aestheticism, Kant’s aesthetic theory, Schiller’s philosophical poems, Hegel’s philosophical system, and Hölderlin’s lyrics. Spanning a range of discourses, these nevertheless share a family resemblance: each tends to construe the archaic hero as a paradigm of human freedom – of the willful struggle through natural limitations to an absolute self-determination. The keynote of this appropriation is sounded in Winckelmann’s reflections on the Belvedere Torso: the sculptor was uniquely able to represent Hercules as god, made blessed after his Labours. Winckelmannian themes find parallels in Kant's aesthetics, where Hercules can symbolize human beings’ liminality, ever caught at the crossroads between natural inclination and the moral law. Both writers shape Schiller’s Hercules: central poems like ‘The Gods of Greece’ and ‘The Ideal and Life’ see human beings ‘transfigured’ and apotheosized by Herculean struggle. Comparisons between Hercules and Christ become more explicit in Hegel’s philosophical system: in the transition from Nature to Spirit, Hercules finds his niche as a proto-Christ, whose Labours are rewarded with happiness, but not true spiritual beatitude. Hegel’s work, like that of a Creuzer or Müller, belongs most to the new ‘sciences’ of mythology and comparative religion. With Hölderlin, by contrast, the longing for a living, modern mythology looks back to Schiller’s Hercules and forward to Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy: his earlier Hercules poems continue to idolize the hero’s transformative Labours, but later poems such as ‘Chiron’ and ‘Der Einzige’ express an existential anguish at the painful ‘absence of the gods’. Hercules haunts Hölderlin’s poetico-religious imagination, but Schiller is perhaps the pivotal figure for our period, and so the article ends by glancing at his parodic poem that portrays Hercules as ‘Shakespeare’s Shade’.