What does universal history mean and at what end does one study?

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The only surviving original of the title page of a separate first print of Schiller's inaugural speech

The question “What does it mean and at what end does one study universal history?” Is the title of Friedrich Schiller's inaugural lecture in Jena on May 26, 1789.

The decidedly enlightened concept of world history as "universal history" (1736–65) in England, reworked and translated by Siegmund Baumgarten since 1744 , had triggered a universal historical discourse in Germany in which the most important historians, philosophers and theologians participated.

Friedrich Schiller took this discourse and August Ludwig von Schlözer's statement that world history is merely an aggregate of fragments as the starting point and topic for his inaugural lecture in Jena on May 26, 1789. His declamation and theatrical metaphor as well as the use of the elative (the absolute superlative) in his speech brought the overcrowded auditorium to a boil, which the dramatist later succeeded in doing less often in his less well-attended lectures.

Bread scholars and philosophical minds

The contrast between the philosophical mind and bread scholar forms the core of the lecture. Right at the beginning, before he even started talking about the universal story, Schiller divided that cheering auditorium into two groups in the spirit of his audience:

  1. The bread scholar : It is impossible for him to see the overall connections that exist between all scientific disciplines and if he did, he would fearfully turn away from them. It is a symbol of particularity, "slave soul in the realm of freedom" .
  2. The philosophical head : He grasps the context of all knowledge, wants to recognize what holds the world together at its core. “Where the bread scholar divides, the philosophical spirit unites.” It stands for interdisciplinarity , for universal history.

Schiller's view of history

After this previous formation of the opposition, Schiller drew up two different historical images: that of general world history and that of universal history.

World events and general world history

Like Hegel later , Schiller also makes a strong distinction between the course of the world and the course of world history. For him, the prerequisite for world history is world events recorded by objective records by contemporary witnesses. Inevitably, “the whole epoch before language, however momentous it may have been for the world” , must be excluded from history as Schiller understands it. It is "a time without history". The same applies to the "incidents before the use of script" , since the "living tradition or the oral saga [...] represent a very unreliable source for history" . By far the largest part of the events of antiquity had been lost with the multiple loss of the records for world history. Furthermore, according to Schiller, everything that has to be accepted as distorted and falsified through interpretation, passion, lack of understanding or genius must be excluded. If one assumes that world events are an uninterrupted stream, then world history, in Schiller's view, is only a wave that is illuminated here and there. The general history of the world, which opens up when the historian traces it back from the present to the drying up of its source, gives an answer about the development of man. It tells of the development of the human race, leads from one extreme, the cave dweller, to the other, today's civilized man. But - and here Schiller was referring to Schlötzer - history in this sense would not be understood as an addition of national histories, "as an aggregate of fragments" .

The universal story

At this point of knowledge pessimism, however, the enthusiast Schiller leads the universal story onto the stage of world events, the “ immortal citizen of all nations and times” who, “ by accustoming people to summarize themselves with the whole past and with their conclusions into the To hurry ahead of the future ”to create a human race out of the individual. In the first section of the lecture it initially seems that the term universal history only conceals part of general world history. The one who “had an essential, irreconcilable and easily traceable influence on today's shape of the world and the state of the generation now alive.” But it soon becomes clear that for Schiller universal history was more than the relationship between the historical date to today's world constitution. For him it was the “immortal chain that winds through all human generations” and fastened our fleeing existence” . It is the bond that ties the various histories of states together by a teleological principle, the bond that elevates the aggregate to a system.

The only question is how the universal history as a citizen of the world emerges from general world history, which cannot even be called science. With the answer to this, Schiller answered at the same time the question that remained in his lecture. To study universal history means for the individual to form a philosophical head. It is up to these philosophical minds to use their minds to create the artificial links that unite the scattered chain sections of general world history "into a reasonably coherent whole" and also to plant a superordinate, unifying sense of planting a world spirit in history.

And to what end should the philosophical mind study universal history ?

To achieve true immortality in the attempt to "resolve the problem of world order and encounter the Supreme Spirit in its most beautiful effect."


Web links


  1. CD No. 8 from a cassette of 12 Anna Amalia audio books. As a print also in the underlying Süddeutsche Zeitung edition