The publication of Schleiermacher's anonymous book On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers (1799) has been hailed as the birth of a new theological era. But even his friends found it, in some respects, a puzzling work. Friedrich Schlegel, for instance, as we know from an amusing letter of Schleiermacher to Henriette Herz (19 June 1799), demanded to know where the new author's ‘centre’ was. Over the years, as the first book grew into the collected works, the answer to Schlegel's question did not become any easier. And yet it is obviously crucial for any attempt to sum up Schleiermacher's lifetime achievement. The task calls, not for an inventory of all his writings and ideas, but for the courage to single out dominant motifs that seem to determine, if by no means to exhaust, the thoughts that have to be left out.
A pietist of a higher order
As the first division of the collected works indicates (it was planned in thirteen volumes, of which eleven were published), Schleiermacher concerned himself with virtually every branch of theological studies except Old Testament. There are titles on philosophy of religion, systematic theology, New Testament, church history, Christian ethics, and practical theology. He was, besides, a busy preacher, and the entire second division of the works consists of ten further volumes of sermons. The third division, entitled ‘philosophy’ (in nine volumes), embraces studies in the history of philosophy; in dialectic (epistemology and metaphysics), ethics, politics, psychology, aesthetics; in philology and education. In addition, Schleiermacher was an amazingly prolific letter-writer and – through his labours on Plato's dialogues – one of Germany's most eminent classical scholars.