SCHILLER AND ROMANTICISM
Friedrich von Schiller (1759 – 1805)
Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetical Education of Man, were literally a series of letters written in 1793 to the Danish Prince, Friedrich Christian of Schleswig-Holstein-Augustenborg. According to William F. Wertz, some of these letters burned in a fire a year later but Schiller rewrote and published them in a journal he founded. Schiller was writing at a time that seemed only a few years away from Kant’s writing, yet despite the swiftness of the distribution of Kant’s ideas, the entire world had changed since 1790. The French Revolution, once seen as the uplifting expression of freedom had collapsed into mob rule and a bloodthirsty terror. The question was how should one obtain freedom? For Schiller, this was not a practical question to be manifested through laws, as demonstrated by the American revolution, but one of how humans can be brought to freedom. Who can rise to the challenge? One must pass through the Aesthetic and become ennobled, enhanced, improved, and uplifted by the moral experience. In viewing the exciting and terrifying French Revolution, one would be tempted to attempt to determine who deserved freedom–The dangerous mob, which was venting rage born of centuries of suffering. The aristocrats who were already elevated persons, undeserving as they seemed? For Schiller, the path to freedom and self-actuality was art. Art, in Schiller’s view, was capable of being independent–in principle–from the state and the artist could, in fact, rise above the times and express the age itself.
Schiller, then, would critique Kant for espousing freedom while at the same time making it a distinctly apolitical quality. Schiller’s mission, therefore, would be to reposition Kant’s suggestions back into the real world. “Art” and what the term means and how the object is apprehended and the discourse that surrounds its objects emanates out of aesthetics, which is a branch of philosophy. The discourse about art, art criticism, art history, and art theory all are variations on philosophy. Kant’s use of aesthetics was to establish the grounds for the viewing of art—disinterestedness—the grounds for beauty—necessity—and absolute universality of aesthetic criteria. In many ways, his philosophy is divided. On one hand, there is absoluteness and rules of judging; but, on the other hand, there is the new Romantic artist who is called upon to “play” and to create new “rules” for art by breaking rules through creative invention. It will be up to Friedrich Schiller to expound upon this gap in Kantian philosophy by concentrating on the artist.
Schiller, then, would critique Kant for espousing freedom while at the same time making it a distinctly apolitical quality. Schiller’s mission, therefore, would be to reposition Kant’s suggestions back into the real world. “Art” and what the term means and how the object is apprehended and the discourse that surrounds its objects emanates out of aesthetics, which is a branch of philosophy. The discourse about art, art criticism, art history, and art theory all are variations on philosophy. Emmanuel Kant’s use of aesthetics was to establish the grounds for the viewing of art—disinterestedness—the grounds for beauty—necessity—and absolute universality of aesthetic criteria. In many ways, Kant’s philosophy is divided. On one hand, there is absoluteness and rules of judging; but, on the other hand, there is the new Romantic artist who is called upon to “play” and to create new “rules” for art by breaking rules through creative invention. It will be up to Friedrich Schiller to expound upon this gap in Kantian philosophy by concentrating on the artist and rewriting the role for art from a subjective one to an objective (real world) endeavor.
It was Schiller who aestheticized morality, linking moral actions to the ability to appreciate the beauty of such idealism. In the Letters, which were rewritten for wider publication in 1795 for his magazine Die Horen, he stated that, “it is only through Beauty that man makes his way to Freedom.” Schiller was writing his essays at a pivotal moment in time. Germany was not yet a unified or modern country, nor did it have a powerful middle class. As a nation it had yet to be industrialized and faced another century and a half of autocratic rule, and, yet Romanticism with its emphasis on the individual somehow managed to thrive in artistic circles. He wrote to his princely patron in terms that one would not readily assume would find favor with one so powerful, yet, in Letter II, Schiller laid out his ultimate goal, stating that he wanted to direct that attention of his patron to “a loftier theme than that of art” and that “the most perfect of all works of art—the establishment and structure of a true political freedom” would be the center of his discourse.
Like Winckelmann, Schiller admired Greek culture and imagined that the ancient society was fully integrated with the natural, unlike modern culture which separated humans from nature, thus “alienating” men and women from the ground of their own making. Schiller died four decades before Marx would re-define alienation but the poet foresaw what the philosopher would witness, the splitting of the modern personality, rent and torn between intellect and emotion. Schiller’s stress on the emotional aspects of alienation is best understood in response to the subjectivism of the Romantic era and as an answer to the highly artificial age of the Enlightenment, which stressed reason and rationality in the name of nature, creating an overly mannered society through rules–the source of the aching alienation. Schiller took to heart that which is suggested in Kant–that art should have a higher role in society, creating a progressive society that would be “aesthectic” in itself, achieving harmony and unity in a world where nature and humans are one. Acutely aware of the modern agony of alienation, Schiller sought to lead humans towards wholeness through art, where intellect and emotions could be resolved into a healthy and united whole. Art allows all aspects of the mind to indulge in “free play” and creates a place where reason and passion can become balanced into a perfected form. In Letter IV, he compared what he called “mechanical artist,” a common term at that time, referring to the despised academic artist, to the engaged artist who works with society itself. He wrote, “The political and educating artist follows a very different course, while making man at once his material and his end. In this case the aim or end meets in the material, and it is only because the whole serves the parts that the parts adapt themselves to the end. The political artist has to treat his material man with a very different kind of respect from that shown by the artist of fine art to his work. He must spare man’s peculiarity and personality, not to produce a deceptive effect on the senses, but objectively and out of consideration for his inner being.”
Schiller followed not just the lead of Kant but also the lead of Alexander Baumgarten in writing aesthetics for the Romantic period. Kant wrote of the abstract arabesque as his ideal form of the beautiful, but Baumgarten had envisioned art as having a more central role in human life as did Schiller. “On the Aesthetic Education of Man” concerns itself with the importance of the “aesthetic” that is the sensuous as a counterpoint to the intellectual for the development of the human being. Kant’s Critique of Judgment was the capstone of his epistemological theory, but Schiller was concerned less with theory and more with the predicament of modern life. Beauty, for Schiller, is the possibility that human beings can re-create themselves into higher beings. If Kant is the “head” or “intellect” of aesthetics, then Schiller is the “heart” of art philosophy. While Kant’s discussion of art was strictly conceptual and abstract, Schiller was a poet himself and knew of the problems and rewards of creation. But Schiller was also a playwright and a philosopher who was aware of his condition as a “hermaphrodite” or a hybrid creature: the artist who was also a philosopher. Schiller the artist appeared in his philosophical writings only in his poetic and rhetorical tone, for he rarely wrote on art itself. The Letters, for example, were political and moral documents.
One of the earliest translations of Schiller’s Letters into English was presented with an elegant Preface by the translator John Chapman who wrote in 1845, the word “aesthetics” “..as used by Schiller..expresses that state of humanity which manifests a harmonious and equal development of its entire nature, exclusive of the will, comprehending the circle of its sensuous, intellectual and moral attributes. It supposes an absence of all constraints from any particular law, or more truly such an equable and perfect action of all laws of nature which centre in humanity that none dominate–there is no tendency in any particular direction–hence an equal aptness and capacity in every direction. It does not embrace the idea of any special kind of doing, but the universal ability to do. The complement of this development is aesthetic Beauty.
In this 1845 English edition of The Philosophical and Aesthetic Letters and Essays of Schiller, the translator, J. Weiss, provided his own Introduction. “These Letters,” he said, “stand unequaled in the department of Aesthetics, and are so esteemed in Germany, which is os fruitful upon that topic. Schiller is Germany’s best Aesthetician, and these letters contain the highest moments of Schiller.” Schiller was not a follower of Kant, but he was an astute reader of the last Critique and he picked up on the Kantian term “play,” or the inventiveness of the genius. Schiller himself coined the phrase “play impulse” a theory that Weiss regards as “the chief nerve of his aesthetic system.” Schiller wrote in Letter XV, “The object of the sensuous instinct, expressed in a universal conception, is named Life in the widest acceptation: a conception that expresses all material existence and all that is immediately present in the senses. The object of the formal instinct, expressed in a universal conception, is called shape or form, as well in an exact as in an inexact acceptation; a conception that embraces all formal qualities of things and all relations of the same to the thinking powers. The object of the play instinct, represented in a general statement, may therefore bear the name of living form; a term that serves to describe all æsthetic qualities of phænomena, and what people style, in the widest sense, beauty.” And then he states emphatically and movingly, “For, to speak out once for all, man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man, and he is only completely a man when he plays.”
Schiller was concerned about the fullest development of human potential through Aesthetic Education. He understood that as a civilization lost refinement (Beauty), and, in drifting away from taste, the culture began to decline. Indeed, after the horrifying experience of watching the deterioration of the Revolution into violence, Schilller gave up on the idea of reforming society through overthrowing one government in favor of another and looked instead to the re-formation of people, society, into evolving humans who would be informed (reformed) through aesthetics, which would, eventually, enoble the citizens. People would change and evolve through an elevation of morals and ethics, which in and of themselves were a form of beauty of becoming something greater. The question of improving society is a practical one, combining the rational side and the sensuous side, overcoming the duality or the dialectic through a third force, the play-impulse or the Spieltriech. Anticipating and inspiring Hegel, Schiller suggests a play, as it were, of opposites, a dialectic, thesis, antithesis, to be reconciled by a third force or synthesis. He suggested that the Stofftrieb or the material drive and the Formtrieb or the form drive would be mediated by the Spieltrieb. As Weiss explained, “The aesthetic Art-impulse will never unfold itself, if the Play-impulse has not first become active.”
While Kant set up charts and establishes oppositions, Schiller established evolution through activities of the dialectical. In Letter XX, he wrote, “Thus, to pass from sensation to thought, the soul traverses a medium position, in which sensibility and reason are at the same time active, and thus they mutually destroy their determinant power, and by their antagonism produce a negation. This medium situation in which the soul is neither physically nor morally constrained, and yet is in both ways active, merits essentially the name of a free situation; and if we call the state of sensuous determination physical, and the state of rational determination logical or moral, that state of real and active determination should be called the æsthetic.” In his A Companion to the Works of Friedrich Schiller, Steven D. Martinson remarked, “For Schiller, the salvation of the human species lies neither in religion nor in science but, in art. Art alone is capable of effecting a balance between all of one’s individual faculties. Clearly, Schiller’s work marks a profound shift in German culture. He is the first to replace religion with art explicitly in theory…One of Schiller’s foremost contributions is the knowledge that practical reason operates in concert with aesthetics. The actualization of moral knowledge in the present that is gained in the process of aesthetic education means that the ideal of humane humanity serves as a regulative idea for the improvement of individuals and societies over time. Schiller’s ideas are not mere abstractions that await their realization in a distant and unforeseeable future. Rather one strives to enact the moral knowledge that one has acquired affectively in and through aesthetic education.”
Later Georg Lukács would complain that Schiller avoided political involvement by denying the State any role in this “aesthetic” education. But presumably humans would never evolve on their own if this education was controlled by the state. It is possible, therefore to free the arts from the state for the artist to achieve an aesthetic education, while at the same time the artist can put art to practical and political purposes. From a Kantian perspective, Schiller is internally contradictory but from a Schillerian perspective, the freedom of art from the state and its use in culture–practical use–is a resolution of the dialectic through the play-impulse. Thus for Schiller aesthetics and politics become seamlessly entwined into a synthesis.
If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.