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Friedrich Schiller on Beauty and Aesthetics – Philosopher of the Month

German poet and playwright, Friedrich Schiller is considered a profound and influential philosopher. His philosophical-aesthetic writings played an important role in shaping the development of German idealism and Romanticism in one of the most prolific periods of German philosophy and literature. Those writings are primarily concerned with the redemptive value of the arts and beauty in human existence. He was immensely well-known for his literary accomplishments, and his influence on German literature, having written a number of successful historical dramas, such as The RobbersMaria Stuart, and the trilogy Wallenstein. His poem, “Ode to Joy” was set in the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and later enshrined in the European Hymn.

Born in 1759, in Marbach in the state of Württemberg in southwest Germany, son of an army surgeon, Schiller attended the military academy of Karl Eugen, Duke of Württemberg and emerged as an army doctor in 1780. He however rebelled against military disciplines and developed interests in the arts and humanities, reading and writing, “Sturm and Drang,” a German literary and artistic movement of the late 18th century that rejected the prevailing neo-classicism in favour of subjectivity, emotional turmoil, artistic creativity, and the beauty of nature. His first play The Robbers (1781), the story about a nobleman turned robber on the themes of freedom and rebellion, caused a sensation on its first performance. Forbidden by Karl Eugen to pursue his literary ambitions, Schiller fled in 1782 to Manheim in Palatinate and became a resident playwright at the Manheim National Theatre from 1783-1784. From this period on, he authored many Sturm and Drang plays such as Don Carlos (1787), and two major histories, a history of the conflict between Spain and the Netherlands in the 16th century and a popular history of the Thirty Years War. In 1787, he settled in Weimar, then German’s literary capital, and was appointed, thanks to the Goethe’s recommendation, an honorary professor of history at the University of Jena, where he lectured on history and aesthetics. His health broke down from overwork in 1791, but received patrons from the Danish aristocrats allowing him to recover and turn his full attention to philosophy and the study of Kant’s idealism.

In the area of philosophy, Schiller’s works principally concern aesthetics but they also made important contributions to the fields of ethics, metaphysics, ontology, and political theory. The central influence in the development of Schiller’s aesthetics was Immanuel Kant, whom Schiller began to study in 1791 but was also influenced by many other classical and eighteenth century writers such as Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, Johann Georg Sulzer, Moses Mendelssohn, Burke, and Lord Shaftesbury. His major treatises on aesthetics written between 1791 and 1795 consist of Kallias LettersLetters on Aesthetic EducationOn Grace and Dignity, and On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry.

Graff, Anton. Porträt des Friedrich von Schiller. Between circa 1786 and circa 1791, Kügelgenhaus Museum der Dresdner Romantik, Dresden. Public Domain via Wikimedia

Kallias Letters (1793) explicates what Schiller meant by defining beauty as ‘freedom in appearance’. Schiller was disappointed with Kant’s theory which demoted beauty to a subjective quality and wanted to establish the objective concept of beauty. Kant regarded that there could be no objective principle of beauty and that aesthetic experience refers only to pleasure felt by the subject, not to any property of the object. Schiller however further developed that in order to judge something beautiful, we have to consider the inherent qualities of the object itself: namely, whether the object is self-determining, “being-determined-through-itself of the thing”, in the sense that it is free from external forces and allowed to express its inner nature. According to him, we cannot have an experience of beauty if the aesthetic object is subject to constraints, whether moral, desire or physical. We should not apply any concepts to it but should view it as if it were free. This view is in line with Kant’s Critique of Judgment which stresses that work of art is beautiful if it appears like nature and does not conform to the rules of art. In “On Grace and Dignity” (1793), he elaborated on the notion of ‘the beautiful soul’ as one in which “sensuality and reason, duty and inclination, are harmonized, and grace is its expression in appearance.” In this work, Schiller aimed to show how the concept of grace can bridge the divide between morality and aesthetic in Kantian philosophy.

Letters of Aesthetic Education (1795) is Schiller’s most influential work and the clearest expression of his belief that art, rather than religion, plays a central role in the moral education of an individual. Expressed in a series of letters to his new patron Friedrich Christian, the treatise was written immediately during the French Revolution at the beginning of the 1793-94 Reign of Terror. Like many of his contemporaries, Schiller admired the revolutionary ideas of liberty, equality, fraternity, and the sacred right of man but disapproved of its violent method and bloody executions such as the execution of Robespierre. The treatise thus blends political analysis, an account of Kant’s transcendental aesthetics and a critique of the Enlightenment to define the relationship between art, beauty, and morality. Since the revolution had not achieved a political stability, Schiller saw art as the key to the realization of morality and the establishment of a free society since art has the powers to educate sensibility, cultivate people’s moral awareness and inspire them to act morally according to the principles of reason.

At the heart of this treatise is his argument that we are driven by two fundamental drives of human natures, the “physical” or “sensuous” drive which impels man to fulfill his material and physical needs, and the “formal” drive, which proceeds from man’s rational and intellectual nature. Art and beauty come into play by ennobling his sensuous nature and harmonizing the conflicts between the two basic drives. This unity awakens the existence of the third drive, “play drive”, in which we are no longer constrained by physical needs or moral duty and are able to realize our full potential.

On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry (1795–6), which appeared in Schiller’s journal, Die Horen is also another important work in the history of aesthetics. Its poetic theory about the two different types of poetry and our relationship to nature had an impact on the development of Romanticism and also inspired Friedrich Schlegal’s ideal of Romantic poetry because of its concept of the sentimental. Schiller followed the premise à la Kant in Critique of Judgment that we take pleasure in the nature (birdsong, animals, gardens, flowers etc.) rather than artificial objects because they are natural. He further thought that our pleasure in nature is more moral than aesthetic because it evokes the feelings of harmony and unity that we have lost and to which we long to return. In contrast to the “naïve” classical poetry, which tended to realism, the modern or sentimental poetry of Schiller’s era is self-reflective and idealizes its objects.

Schiller’s remarkable period of intense philosophical output ended in 1796 when he returned to literature and play writing. This was also an extraordinary literary period in which he produced a number of successful plays, the tragic trilogy Wallenstein, and four major dramas, Maria StuartThe Maid of OrleansThe Bride of Messina and Wilhelm Tell. He also collaborated with Goethe on a literary journal Die Horen (1795-7) to raise the standard of art and literature, and also on Xenien, a series of satirical epigrams against the critics who opposed their artistic visions.

Due to poor health, Schiller died at the age of forty- five. He was admired by the dominant intellectuals of the time, Friedrich Schlegel, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, Friedrich Hölderlin, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. His essays on the role of art have been influential for their insights into aesthetics and rank among Germany’s most profound and sophisticated works.

Featured Image: Neuschwanstein Castle, Schwangau, Germany.  Photo by Ashley Knedler on Unsplash 

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