Schiller, Friedrich

Assigned: Schiller, Friedrich von. From On the Aesthetic Education of Man, Letters 2, 6, 9 (494-503). Also read the editors’ introduction (492-94).

From On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795)

Second Letter

1. On 494-95 (“But should it not be possible…”), how does Friedrich von Schiller define the forces he says are threatening the production and appreciation of European art? How does he initially characterize the age in which he lives? How does he characterize the only truly worthwhile kind of art, in contradistinction to the only kind that could currently win acceptance? What does it add to our understanding of Schiller’s argument to know that these letters were written in the wake of the darkest period of the French Revolution, the so-called “Reign of Terror” that spanned from September of 1793 through mid-1794?

2. On 495 (“How tempting it would be for me…”), how does Schiller characterize the political circumstances of his own time, that of the French Revolution? Why does he evidently consider it necessary to resist the “seductive temptation” (495) of turning his letters towards political discussion? Why is it necessary to deal with the “problem of politics in practice” through consideration of aesthetics—what surprising claim for the ultimate, if gradual, power of art does Schiller thereby advance?

Sixth Letter

3. On 496-97 (“Have I not perhaps been too…”), Schiller observes that “any people caught up in the process of civilization […] must fall away from Nature by the abuse of Reason before they can return to her by the use of Reason” (496). To follow out his explanation of this paradoxical statement about how the process of civilization resolutely leads us away from the wholeness we enjoy in nature, first consider what he writes about the Greeks: how, on 496-97, does Schiller contrast the Greek model of humanity with that of modern, late-eighteenth-century Western Europeans? What was the relationship between “sense” and “intellect” among the early Greeks? According to Schiller, how did Greek religion relate to material life and to the Greeks’ sense of their own identity and powers as human beings? How does all this differentiate them from modern people?

4. On 497-98 (“It was civilization itself which…”), how does Schiller trace the fragmentation he sees in modern humanity to the very advance of civilization and government? In his view, how did advances in “empirical knowledge” and refinement in “the machinery of State” (497) give rise to the separation and isolation of humanity’s capacity for thought, imagination, and feeling? In what sense did “the new spirit of government” (497) complete this process of alienation, and turn the State itself into “a stranger to its citizens” (498)?

5. On 498-501 (“With this twofold pressure upon…”), how does Schiller explain that the undeniably “damaging effects” (499) of civilization on individuals—the alienation of people from an increasingly bureaucratic government; the split between, say, imagination and reason; between empirical philosophy and pure speculation—were all, in fact, necessary to the further development of civilization as a whole, necessary as a sacrifice to some “cosmic purpose” (500)? Why couldn’t things have been otherwise and still resulted in progress for the collectivity? Finally, what hope does Schiller express for the restoration of “the totality of our nature,” and in what way is art, or what he terms “a higher Art” (501), involved in that restoration of the human spirit?

Ninth Letter

6. On 501-02 (“But is this not, perhaps, to argue…”), what paradox does Schiller initially set forth regarding the pivotal role of the “ennobling of character” (501) in human progress? Why, in his view, must it be “Fine Art” (501) and not ethical instruction or political action that will serve as the vehicle of the restoration in store for the human spirit? Why, according to Schiller, is Fine Art the one suitable endeavor that can make this restoration, this “return to Reason” (as it was called on 496), possible? On the darker side of things, what sad truth about the complicity of “thinkers and artists” (501) in the degraded, materialistic spirit of an age like Schiller’s does he pronounce? Even so, how does Art provide people with the “form” and the “copy, or after-image” (502) of the human qualities and values that must be renewed?

7. On 502-03 (“But how is the artist to protect…”), Schiller has already pointed out that artists sometimes pursue their work in ways that make them complicit with the worst tendencies of the times. How should they protect themselves from the sullying influences of a degraded age? How must they not see themselves in connection to their own era, their own society? What, then, according to Schiller, is the appropriate way for artists to consider and relate to their specific historical and cultural circumstances, if they truly want to be of service in renewing the human spirit and advancing the ultimate cause of freedom?

8. On 503 (“To the young friend of truth…”), when Schiller turns to addressing artists directly, what burdens does he place upon the individual artist and his or her “genius,” as well as upon art more generally, in relation to the human community? What should “the young friend of truth and beauty” do—how should the zealous young artist create, so as to be part of the healing of the divisions Schiller has described? How does the sentence, “Live with your century; but do not be its creature” encapsulate his advice to the modern artist?

9. General question: Some observers (practitioners of cultural studies, Marx-influenced critics, etc.) would no doubt say that in On the Aesthetic Education of Man, Friedrich von Schiller too quickly acquiesces in the alienation of art from contemporary life and is too devoted to the Ideal. Other critics might say that Schiller, in making art a permanent repository of forms and ideals for the preservation and renewal of the human spirit, promises too much with regard to what the arts can do for humanity. What do you think of these criticisms? How do you situate your own view of Schiller’s analysis on the value of “the aesthetic education of man”? Should we think of art in the ultimately redemptive manner that Schiller prescribes, or should we follow cultural studies and other contemporary critics who insist that it is dangerous to detach the arts from their immediate social, political, and historical matrix? Or is there a position to be arrived at somewhere between these two opposing camps? Explain.

10. General question: If you have read Matthew Arnold’s essay “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” (Leitch 684-703), does Friedrich von Schiller’s 1795 On the Aesthetic Education of Man strike you as a possible precursor of Arnold’s exploration of “the critical power” or “the critical effort” (broadly, criticism in the region of culture)? If so, how? Do you find significant differences between the two authors in their arguments and expectations—between, say, Arnold’s tireless promotion of critical “disinterestedness” and Schiller’s passionate interest in art as a repository and vehicle of timeless ideals? Or do you consider them very similar in their respective stances towards the relation between art, criticism, and the rest of life? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake