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Ten (Possible) Reasons for the Sadness of Thought
by George Steiner

Schelling: Über das Wesen der Menschlichen Freiheit (1809)

"Dies ist die allem endlichen Leben anklebende Traurigkeit, die aber nie zur Wirklichkeit kommt, sondern nur zur ewigen Freude der Überwindung dient. Daher der Schleier der Schwermut, der über die ganze Natur ausgebreitet ist, die tiefe unzerstörliche Melancholie alles Lebens."

"Nur in der Persönlichkeit ist Leben; und alle Persönlichkeit ruht auf einem dunkeln Grunde, der allerdings auch Grund der Erkenntnis Sein muß."

("This is the sadness which adheres to all mortal life, a sadness, however, which never attains reality, but only serves the everlasting joy of overcoming. Whence the veil of depression, of heavy-heartedness which is spread out across the whole of nature, hence the profound, indestructible melancholy of life."

"Only in personality is there life; and all personality rests on a dark ground, which, however, must also be the ground of cognition.")


Schelling, among others, attaches to human existence a fundamental, inescapable sadness. More particularly, this sadness provides the sombre ground on which consciousness and cognition are founded. This sombre ground must, indeed, be the basis of all perception, of every mental process. Thought is strictly inseparable from a “profound, indestructible melancholy.” Current cosmology provides an analogy to Schelling’s belief. It is that of “background noise,” of the elusive but inescapable cosmic wave-lengths which are the vestiges of the “Big Bang,” of the coming of being into being. In all thought, according to Schelling, this primal radiation and “dark matter” entail a sadness, a heaviness of heart (Schwermut) which is also creative. Human existence, the life of the intellect, signifies an experience of this melancholy and the vital capacity to overcome it. We are, as it were, created “saddened.” In this notion there is, almost undoubtedly, the “background noise” of the Biblical, of the causal relations between the illicit acquisition of knowledge, of analytic discrimination and the banishment of the human species from innocent felicity. A veil of sadness (tristitia) is cast over the passage, however positive, from homo to homo sapiens. Thought carries within itself a legacy of guilt.

Full essay available in Salmagundi No. 146-147.
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