Art and Nature
Schiller’s “Naïve and Sentimental Poetry”

On the Aesthetic Education of Man was written as a series of letters to the Duke of Augustenburg and was published in 1795 and 1801, and published just before “Naïve and Sentimental Poetry,” also written in 1795. Called “one of the greatest essays in the German language” by writer Thomas Mann, Über naive und sentimentalische Dichtung, a highly influential essay was a response to his friendship with Germany’s most celebrated Romantic poet, Göethe, comparing himself as a poet to his friend as a poet. Johann Wolfgang von Göethe had written the quintessential work of German Romanticism, the rather overwrought, Sorrows of Young Werther, the fictional version of his many youthful love affairs. However, as he matured, Göethe assumed a mantle of dignity, of near-Olympian calm, and repudiated Romanticism as “sick” and extolled (neo) Classicism as “healthy.” The famous friendship got off to a rocky start.  Göethe spurned the advances of the younger poet whose dramatic plays were associated with Romanticism. And Schiller, for his part, viewed Göethe with antipathy, distrusting the apparent ease with which poetry apparently flowed from this distinguished inhabitant of Olympia.  Nevertheless, the younger poet who experienced creative agonies and self-doubts was driven by a need to understand Göethe and pursued the poet.  The two men eventually succeeded in achieving a meeting of the minds and their consequent correspondence and collaboration is of great importance to German literature. “Naïve and Sentimental Poetry,” published in the journal, Die Horen, seems to pit Göethe, the naïve poet, against Schiller, the sentimental poet.  The essay is an early and influential effort to sort out types of artists, as makers and as psychologies.  The words “Naïve and Sentimental” refer to both poets and to poetry, not to themes, subject matter, or content. These types of artists are seen by Schiller as opposites, somewhat like Kant’s antinomies—a way of organizing the world in terms of contrasts–as personifying two different modes of creativity.

As can be seen in The Aesthetic Education of Man, Schiller was a student of human psychology and feelings and was an astute observer of states of mind long before the profession of psychology was established. Naïve and Sentimental Poetry, published just after Aesthetic Education in Die Horen, is a companion piece, expounding on some of the same themes. Once again, Schiller returned to the ideal period of ancient Greece when humans lived in harmony with nature. The poet was writing at the end of the eighteenth century, at the end of an era, the last years of a time when untouched “nature” still existed in modern Europe. Already in England, the Enclosure Movement was well underway, fencing in fields, walling in pastures, blocking the population from “trespasssing” on private property. The Commons were closing in the name of profit. The Industrial Revolution was also spreading across England, with factories springing up in the countryside, already belching smoke and cinders. The German territories were, as yet, undisturbed; but Schiller seemed to have sensed something coming, for, like his counterpart, Caspar David Friedrich, began to contemplate nature as if it were a quality with psychological implications. He begins his essay on this theme of “interest in nature:”

This kind of interest in nature takes place, however, only under two conditions. First, it is entirely necessary, that the object which infuses us with the same, be nature or certainly be held by us therefor; second, that it (in the broadest meaning of the word) be naïve, i.e., that nature stand in contrast with art and shame her. So soon as the last is added to the first, and not before, nature is changed into the naive.  

It is here that the famous “compare and contrast” methodology of art historical discourse begins, for Schiller’s comparative pairing of nature and art and of contrasting poets will be copied by the early twentieth-century art historian, Aby Warburg, who was also fascinated by psychological themes. That being said, Schiller’s ultimate purpose went beyond his purpose of understanding two kinds of genius and two means of artistic creation. He analyzed modes of perception, ways of being, and ways of living in the world, ways of relating and responding, not only to nature itself but also to one’s own inner nature, to the structure of one’s own mind. In establishing between psychological types, Schiller paved the way for later thinkers, such as Freud and Jung, Nietzsche and Dilthey, and James.  But Schiller’s aesthetic is also a moral philosophy. The essay was an examination of the human being and the human condition in a world that is so modern it had yet to be defined, discussed or understood. Schiller’s predecessor in grappling with the new place of nature in the newly industrialized society was Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) who advocated a turning away from the artificiality of French society to the simplicity of nature to rediscover the “natural” human being, free of civilization and its “discontents,” as Freud would express it later. Rousseau, a precursor of Kant on the subject of ethics and of Schiller on the subject of nature, published the Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men, or the “Second Discourse,” in 1755, where he explored not so much inequality itself but human nature and how social orders allow inequality to exist. Like Schiller after him, Rousseau returned to “natural man.” He imagined that, in a state of nature, “primitive man,” as the philosopher termed him, there was no inequality. However, in the “Second Part,” as Rousseau continued to speculate,

But from the moment one man began to stand in need of the help of another; from the moment it appeared advantageous to any one man to have enough provisions for two, equality disappeared, property was introduced, work became indispensable, and vast forests became smiling fields, which man had to water with the sweat of his brow, and where slavery and misery were soon seen to germinate and grow up with the crops. Metallurgy and agriculture were the two arts which produced this great revolution. The poets tell us it was gold and silver, but, for the philosophers, it was iron and corn, which first civilised men, and ruined humanity.

Like Engels would posit a hundred years later, classes emerge when the establishment of agriculture, which, in turn, evolves into private property. Both Rousseau and Engels searched for and located an original sin which precipitated the Fall. Rousseau wrote with bitter words,

Such was, or may well have been, the origin of society and law, which bound new fetters on the poor, and gave new powers to the rich; which irretrievably destroyed natural liberty, eternally fixed the law of property and inequality, converted clever usurpation into unalterable right, and, for the advantage of a few ambitious individuals, subjected all mankind to perpetual labour, slavery and wretchedness.

As one of the originators of the notion of psychological types, Schiller led the way to the nineteenth century and to Modernism, for his world is far more “civilized” than that of R. Both philosophers (who would influence Freud on this point) understood civilization to be necessary and inevitable and unavoidable, the result of Rousseau’s “Social Contract,” but the social system has built a wall of rules, regulations, and conventions that were entirely artificial. Trapped in the social system, blindly following its customs and mores, we are alienated from nature and the natural.  We have lost our sense of oneness, our feelings of harmony with our world. Worse yet, we are alienated from ourselves, divided within our own minds, disconnected from the totality of our own being. Responding to a system that purports to be “rational,” we struggle with our irrational side, repressing it until we are alienated not only from the “natural” but also from a part of our own selves. Thus we, as humans in the modern world, are alienated from nature itself, which is neither rational nor irrational; it simply exists, as Schiller wrote, as “subsistence of things through themselves, existence according to its own unalterable laws.”  Nature is its own being in a state of purity, which we, in our divided state, can no longer comprehend or connect with.  In our alienated condition—alienated from ourselves and from our fellow human beings—we can only respond to nature through the distorting filters of civilization.  Our varying modes of perception—“Naïve“ or “Sentimental”—can never encounter nature, the pure state of being.  Such unity with us and nature must wait until we reach our own natural state of harmony within ourselves and our natural environment.

Unlike Rousseau, Schiller does not present “Natural Man” as a lost state but a goal we must aim for. This goal cannot be reached in an individual’s lifetime but can be achieved only through successive generations, which must struggle to regain wholeness, harmony, and unity, both internally, within the individual, and externally, with nature. This modern concept of the alienated human being seeking a lost unity would be of great consequence to nineteenth and twentieth Century thought. The author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, writing somewhat later than Schiller, also warned that we have become estranged and alienated from ourselves and from nature. As the allegory of the creation of Frankenstein’s monster shows, we have become deluded into playing God through the misuse of technology. G. W. F. Hegel will write of “thesis,” “antithesis,” and “synthesis,” the ultimate Absolute unity. Karl Marx will write of “alienation” of the working class from industrial products and will warn that humans have become so alienated that we are no longer aware of it and exist in a state of “false consciousness.” Marx’s “alienation” was sociological due to economic causes. Jacques Lacan will write of Lack, resulting from the human’s entry into society and the severing of the child from its mother (loss of unity and wholeness).  Alienation will become a major theme and perhaps the definition of the condition of Modernity itself.

Thus aesthetic philosophy becomes a moral philosophy and art becomes an arena for self-actualization, a way of thought to counter the evils of artificiality and civilization. For Schiller, in “Naïve and Sentimental Poetry,” all art is inferior to nature but all art must begin with nature. Art becomes a way of reacting to ourselves and a means of responding to nature.  Nature takes on a dual meaning: nature is the world surrounding us and our own individual personalities.  Art also seems to assume duality, being equated at times with that which is artificial, in other words with a wide range of artifacts, works, and activities, while, at other times, art is the natural product of a creative process. Art was a means of restoring a natural balance in personality.  Art was a journey towards a purer morality and an exposition of the nature of artistic genius that rises above artificial rules and ideas on morality.  The role of free play of imagination in art and the artist as a genius is indebted to Kant.  Six decades later, perhaps thinking of Schiller, Emil Zola famously wrote of “nature seen through a corner of a temperament” to define art, which is, in those terms, a response to nature shaped by the personality of the artist.

Schiller began his analysis of artistic temperaments with a discussion on the innocence of children, writing “…the child is to us a vivid representation of the ideal, not indeed of the fulfilled, but of the commissioned, and it is therefore by no means the conception of its poverty and limits, it is quite to the contrary the conception of its pure and free force, its integrity, its infinity, which moves us. To the men of morality and feeling, a child will for that reason be a sacred object, an object namely, which through the greatness of an idea annihilates every greatness of experience; and which, whatever it may lose in the judgment of the understanding, gains again in the judgment of reason in ample measure…” Once again Schiller was prescient in writing of “childhood,” a new concept which would be fully developed in the nineteenth century. But the philosopher was writing of adults and he carefully distinguished between “childish” and “childlike.” Schiller wrote that “…the naive way of thinking excites in us. It combines the childlike simplicity with the childish; through the latter it exposes a vulnerable point to the understanding and calls forth that smile, whereby we make known our (theoretical) superiority. So soon, however, as we have reason to believe, that the childish simplicity be simultaneously a childlike one…” He used the directness of a child’s open heart and mind to define the naïve artist: “The naïve is a childlikeness, where it is no longer expected, and precisely for that reason, can not be attributed to real childhood in the strictest sense.”

For Schiller both the child and the “childlike” naïve artist are part of nature, suggesting that the adult is a rare being, surviving modern life without corruption and retaining a harmony with the natural world. He stated,

It is therefore required, that nature triumph over art, not through its blind violence as dynamical, but rather through its form as moral greatness, in short, not as need, but rather as inner necessity. Not the insufficiency, but rather the inadmissibility of the latter must procure the victory of the form; for the former is want, and nothing which originates from want can produce respect. Indeed, it is with regard to the naive of surprise, always the superiority of emotion and a want of reflection, which makes nature recognizable; but this want and that superiority still do not entirely constitute the naive, but rather merely provide the occasion, so that nature follows unhindered its moral nature, i.e., the law of harmony.

The naïve man (Schiller does not take women into consideration) is one who “overlooks their artificial and affected relations and keeps merely to simple nature.” In following Kant who popularized “genius,” Schiller sought to account for that state of creativity and determined that the ability to create is not only a natural or inborn inclination but is also rooted in nature itself:

Every true genius must be naive or it is not genius. Its naivetè alone makes it genius, and what it is in the intellectual and the aesthetical, it can not deny in the moral. Unaware of the rules, the crutches of weakness, the taskmaster of perversity, guided only by nature or instinct, its protecting angel, it walks calmly and safely through all the snares of false taste, in which, if it be not so prudent as to avoid it already from the distance, the non-genius will be unfailingly ensnared. It is only given to the genius, to be always at home outside the known and to enlarge nature, without going beyond it. Indeed, the latter sometimes happens to the great geniuses, but only because these have their fanciful moments, when protecting nature abandons them, because the power of example overpowers them, or the corrupted taste of their time leads them astray.

The genius has a “childlike character,” which is bashful and intelligent and modest, but there is another type of artist, the “sentimental” artist who experiences the “distress of culture and hear in the foreign country of art, the moving voice of the mother. So long as we were merely children of nature, we were happy and perfect; we have become free and have lost both. Therefrom originates a twofold and very unequal longing for nature, a longing for its happiness, a longing for its perfection. The sensuous man laments only the loss of the first; the moral one can mourn only for the loss of the other.” Schiller, once again, wrote expansively upon the perfection of Greece, based upon the fact that they “felt naturally,” and the consequent decline, resulting from our separation from nature: “Just as nature gradually begins to vanish from human life as experience and as the (acting and feeling) subject, so do we see it rise in the poetical world as idea and as object.” It is here that he made a profound statement that explains not just two different kinds of poets but also the modern relationship with  nature and to ourselves. Schiller wrote,

The poets are everywhere, according to their concept, the guardian of nature. Where they can no longer entirely be the latter and already experience in themselves the destructive influence of capricious and artificial forms, or indeed have had to struggle with the same, then will they appear as the witnesses and the avengers of nature. They will either be nature, or they will seek the lost nature. Therefrom arise two entirely different kinds of poetry, through which the entire province of poetry is exhausted and measured out. All poets, who are really such, will, according to the time in which they flourish, or as accidental circumstances have influence upon their general education and upon their passing dispositions of mind, belong either to the naive or to the sentimental.

We feel, in reading Schiller, we are witnessing a tragedy of a society drifting towards complete alienation of human from nature and of human from human. We live, he explains in an “artificial age,” an age which displaced the naïve artist who was at odds with modern life “no longer in their proper place.” The “still pure” man “acts as an undivided sensouus unity and as an harmonizing whole.” The naïve poet merely follows simple nature and feeling” but “it is entirely different with the sentimental poet. The latter reflects upoin the impression…the object is here connected with an idea, and only in this connection does his poetical force rest.”  “His representation will therefore be either satirical or it will…be elegiac; every sentimental poet will adhere to one of these two modes of feeling.” Schiller admired Göethe, the ultimate naïve poet, who was able to create “naturally” with “childlike” directness, and understood himself to be a sentimental poet, who was estranged from nature. This poet is in pain, pained by the “distance” from nature, meaning that he is an alienated observer, examining the world from a point of watchfulness rather than of immersion. The sentimental poet then can see nature only as a idea. With his divided consciousness, his self-conscious self-awareness, the poet is thoroughly modern, and, unlike his the naïve poet, was not out of place, but was a product of his own time. Rather than the unreflective naïve poet, who combined reason and feeling, the “sentimentalisch,” a term coined by Schiller, was split in two, with his mind and heart, his reason and feeling, separated.

Once again, we see the dialectical at work in Schiller, with human evolution being divided into two stages: the natural and the artificial, an opposition that must be overcome in a third state or synthesis which restores the original and primal unity of the natural and the ideal. At first glance, it might seem, that in his admiration for Göethe, Schiller thought the naïve artist to be superior but the opposite is true. A child of the Enlightenment, Schiller preferred progress over regression, and, understanding the price that has been paid, considered the sentimental artist to be an advance upon the naïve artist. The question is where would the sentimental artist eventually achieve the synthesis and the answer is distinctly non-Kantian. The sentimental artist would have to work at the level of the culture in the real world, a solution worked out in Aesthetic Education. Schiller’s sentimental artist, as presented in his seminal essay on the naïve and sentimental artist is an early example of a “Romantic “artist who cannot go back in time and who can belong only to his own time, faced with the task of transcending the chasam between nature and civilization. Unlike Rousseau, who, in Schiller’s opinion was regressive, the poet does not yearn for the past, but, like the sentimental artist, struggles to move forward. “…our feeling for nature,” he said, “is like the feeling of an invalid for health.” As H. B. Nisbet pointed out, the terms “naïve” and “sentimental” are not only used in unconventional ways but are also not aesthetic terms. Eventually Schiller suggested more conventional subsitutes, “realist” and “idealist,” or modes of perception (Empfindungsweisen).

Like Kant, Schiller must present a structure or a model, and, while the essay itself proceeds from thesis to antithesis and synthesis. The sentimental artist himself was divided into three parts as well–satire, elegy, and idyll, genres of poetry. Schiller then explained these stages of the sentimental and gave examples of contemporary poets, but it is possible to propose visual artists who would fulfill the “modes of perception.” Not long after Schiller’s early death, John Constable painted elegies of a vanishing England from the safety of his little corner in Dedham Vale in an idyllic and pastoral fashion. And then, for example, Courbet would have been perhaps a good fit for a naïve artist, if one ignores his deliberate and studied performance of a country bumpkin. A decade later, his avant-garde successor, Manet was obviously the satirical sentimental artist. These various positions or approaches on the part of these artists are modern ways to deal with the modern estrangement from nature–the satrical artist looks away from the natural and dives deeply into the artificial, while the elegic artist confronts nature and attempts to inhale its perfumes. The naïve artist is oblivious that time has passed and that the age is modern. When one tries to fit artists into Schiller’s slots, as it were, it immediately becomes apparent that the deep intelligence of the essay is its expression of the modern human condition, which is prelapsian, consumed with loss and longing, but without the desire to return to a state of nature. In his two part essay, Schiller does not sum up his argument, he merely stops writing and one can select a passage in the second part as a suitable last word: Nature has shown favor to the naive poet, to act always as an undivided unity, to be in every moment a self-reliant and perfect whole and to represent men in reality, according to their full value. To the sentimental one it has lent the power, or rather imprinted a living instinct, to reestablish out of himself that unity, which has been annulled in him by abstraction, to complete humanity in himself and to pass from a limited state to an infinite.

Nature has shown favor to the naive poet, to act always as an undivided unity, to be in every moment a self-reliant and perfect whole and to represent men in reality, according to their full value. To the sentimental one it has lent the power, or rather imprinted a living instinct, to reestablish out of himself that unity, which has been annulled in him by abstraction, to complete humanity in himself and to pass from a limited state to an infinite. To give human nature its full expression, is, however, the common task of both, and without that, they would not be able to be called poets at all; but the naive poet has always the advantage of sensuous reality over the sentimental, whilst he achieves that as a real fact, which the other only strives to attain.

Also read: “Kant and Aesthetic Theory” and “Kant and the Critique of Judgment”

and “Kant’s ‘Art-for-Art’s-Sake” and “Kant, the Artist, and Artistic Freedom”


If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.  Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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