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Novalis, "Christendom or Europe" [Die Christenheit oder Europa] (1799)

In his short, tragedy-ridden life, Novalis (1772-1801), born Friedrich Philipp von Hardenberg, wrote masterful poems that scaled the heights of early Romanticism. In this essay, composed in 1799 but first published in 1826, Novalis deploys the burgeoning German historicist imagination to sketch out a philosophical history of western Christendom from the Middle Ages to the fraught era of the French Revolution. Novalis employs (as Hegel also famously did) a dialectical style that highlights the historical interaction of intellectual-cultural opposites and contradictions. His vision of a reunited Christendom, brought to pass through a “venerable European Council,” does not hark back in reactionary manner to an irrecoverable past, but rather offers a kind of Romantic utopia of modernity.

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Christendom or Europe


Once there were fine, resplendent times when Europe was a Christian land, when one Christendom occupied this humanly constituted continent. One great common interest united the remotest provinces of this broad spiritual realm. Without great worldly possessions, one Head guided and unified the great political forces. A numerous guild, to which everyone had access, stood directly beneath him and carried out his behests and strove with zeal to confirm his beneficent power. Every member of this organization was universally honored, and if the common people sought comfort or help, protection or counsel from this member, and in return were happy to provide generously for his manifold needs, he also found protection, respect, and a hearing among the more powerful, and everyone cared for these chosen men, equipped with miraculous powers, as for children of Heaven whose presence and favor spread manifold blessing abroad. Childlike faith bound men to their pronouncements. How cheerfully every man could fulfill his earthly labors when, through the agency of these holy persons, a secure future was prepared for him and every misstep forgiven, when every discolored spot in life was obliterated by them and made clean. They were the experienced helmsmen upon the great unknown sea, in whose keeping one might disdain all storms and count on a sure attainment of the coast and a landing at the world of the true home.

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