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, during which time the philhellenic ideals of enthusiastic individuals prepared the way for the institutionalisation of classical Bildung in schools and universities. Interest in the representations and myths of Hercules formed one important part of this trajectory from ‘ideals to institutions’, and this chapter touches on some of the highlights of this interest. The idealization of human beauty was Winckelmann’s great theme, from his early explorations of Herculaneum (and Pompeii) to the art histories that influenced generations of readers. Among the many who felt the pull of Winckelmann and his interpretation of (for example) the reposing Hercules were Schiller, Hölderlin, and Hegel.

Schiller’s fascination with Hercules as a benefactor, man-god, and Christ-like ‘rescued rescuer of the dead’ is evident in The Gods of Greece, comes to the fore in Das Ideal und das Leben, and would have been central in his Heracles Idyll, which he planned as a vehicle for a new, essentially modern mythology.

The struggle between new faiths and old was more acute in the case of Hölderlin, whose struggle to reconcile his Lutheranism with a quasi-polytheistic pantheism comes to expression in Der Einzige, with its central comparison of Hercules and Christ as ‘brothers’.

To a similar complex of themes Hegel adds a more systematic historical and logical framework. His lectures on art, religion, and philosophy contain remarks on Hercules as rough strong man, state-founder, tragic character, and most of all, as the man-god who in the Greek world anticipated the Christian Incarnation and the Christian ideal of redemption through suffering. Indeed, Hegel’s remarks would make Hercules an allegory of the Hegelian Spirit itself, as it raises itself up by its own effort and strength to become absolute. Thus Hegel not only crystallizes post-Kantian ideas that haunted Schiller and Hölderlin, but also adds a modern, evolutionary twist to the ancient tradition of allegorizing Hercules: his hero exemplifies the history of humanity itself, as it rises through labour, suffering, and alienation — out of Nature and towards its own self-apotheosis in Spirit. With his own life reflecting the trajectory from ‘ideals to institutions’, Hegel’s many-sided synthesis draws on a plethora of aesthetic, religious, philosophical and scholarly sources. It thus offers a perspective representative of the times, and a convenient point of comparison for other contemporary treatments of Hercules; by Goethe, Heine, Friedrich Schlegel, Schelling, and mythologists like Creuzer, Moritz, Dupuis, and Karl Otfried Mueller.

Provisional content for The Modern Hercules (Volume 1)