Friedrich Schiller, a famed dramatist, poet, and essayist, was born in Marbach, a small town in southwest Germany, to Elisabeth Kodweiss and Johann Kaspar Schiller, a lieutenant in the army of the Duke of Württemberg. Though tutored in Latin at an early age by his local pastor to prepare him for theological studies, Schiller was mandated by the duke to attend the duke’s new military academy, Karlsschule.
Schiller later related how his rebellion against the suffocating rigidity and isolation of Karlsschule paradoxically fostered his love of poetry. He remained at the school for eight years, focusing first on law, then on medicine. After his second medical dissertation, “On the Connection of the Animal Nature of Man with his Spiritual Nature,”was accepted, he became a regimental physician in Stuttgart.
There, he completed his first drama, The Robbers, the staging of which a year later (1782) in Mannheim brought him immediate acclaim and confirmation of his literary gifts.When the duke forbade him to write anything but medical treatises, Schiller fled Württemberg. For most of the rest of his life he would suffer considerable financial hardship and extremely poor health.
Nevertheless, from 1782 to 1787 he managed to complete three plays (Fiesco, Intrigue and Love, and Don Carlos), to compose several poems (e.g., “Ode to Joy”) and essays (e.g., “Theater Considered as a Moral Institution” and “Philosophical Letters”), and to found the journal Rheinische Thalia—all of which helped cement his reputation as a member of the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) literary movement of the time.
While Schiller’s literary output as a critic continued unabated in the ensuing years, his attention over the next decade (1787–1796) turned from the stage to the study of history and to an increasing preoccupation with philosophical treatments of morals and the arts.
His History of the Revolt of the Netherlands (1787), which celebrated religious tolerance, won him a professorship (albeit unsalaried) in history at the University of Jena in 1789, and over the next two years he produced the enormously successful History of the Thirty Years War. His inaugural lecture, “What Does ‘Universal History’ Mean and to What End Is It Studied?” (1789) contains reflections, fairly conventional at the time, on history’s progressive character.
|Thirty Years War|
This progressive view of history collided, however, with a longing for a lost harmony that he thought art alone can provide (compare his nostalgic elegy of 1788, “The Gods of Greece,” with his stirring, forward-looking call to his caste in the 1789 poem “The Artists”).
This collision converged with a burgeoning interest in Immanuel Kant’s moral and aesthetic writings. Following his marriage to Charlotte von Lengefeld in 1790 and an almost fatal bout with pneumonia a year later, Schiller was given the opportunity to pursue these interests in earnest thanks to a three-year pension provided by Prince Friedrich Christian von Schleswig-Holstein-Augustenburg of Copenhagen.
Over the next four years Schiller composed several essays on aesthetics. The organ for many of these essays was the journal Die Horen, founded by Schiller with the help of many of the leading figures in German letters at the time, among them Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Wilhelm von Humboldt, with whom Schiller developed close friendships that had a lasting influence on his work.
|Wilhelm von Humboldt|
Following this academic and philosophical interlude, and with Goethe’s increasing encouragement, Schiller turned his attention back to the theater where he crowned his fame as a playwright with several historical plays: the Wallenstein trilogy (1798–1799), Maria Stuart (1800), The Maid of Orleans (1801), The Bride of Messina (1802), and Wilhelm Tell (1804).
Critical Appropriation of Kant’s Philosophy
Though philosophical concerns are apparent in Schiller’s earliest publications, he makes his most influential philosophical contributions in essays composed between 1792 and 1796. The common feature of the first group of these essays is their critical engagement with Kant’s philosophy.
The aborted project of the “Kallias-Letters” (1793; published 1847) attempts in Kantian terms to establish something Kant declared impossible: “an objective concept of beauty” and, indeed, one that unites the realms of nature and freedom.
|Critical Appropriation of Kant’s Philosophy|
In the “Kallias-Letters” Schiller accordingly construes beauty as “freedom in the appearance” of something, an appearance that is the natural or artistic, dynamic counterpart to moral autonomy. In “On Grace and Dignity” (1793) Schiller takes further aim at Kant’s dualism, in particular, his account of an obligatoriness that is independent of grace (“the expression of a beautiful soul, where sense and reason harmonize”).
Friedrich Schiller’s remarks provoke an exchange of letters and a public response in Kant’s Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793), where Kant suggests that any apparent disagreement can be resolved by distinguishing duty, the dignity of which is necessarily independent of grace, from virtue, which is not.
Though Friedrich Schiller accepts the suggestion in correspondence with Kant, he ultimately finds the distinction unpersuasive. Nevertheless, Friedrich Schiller utilizes themes from Kant’s aesthetics to develop a conception of tragedy in other essays from this period, notably, “On the Reason for Taking Pleasure in Tragic Subjects” and “On the Art of Tragedy” in 1792 and “On the Pathetic” in 1793.
In particular, in Kant’s notion of the dynamically sublime, the aesthetically pleasing displays of human beings’ moral capacity to defy nature’s otherwise all-powerful sway over them, Schiller finds the key to explaining the point of tragedy, though he invests art with a purpose beyond the confines of Kant’s aesthetics. As Friedrich Schiller puts it in the opening lines of “On the Pathetic,” “Portrayal of suffering—as mere suffering—is never the end of art, but as a means to this end it is of the utmost importance to art.
The ultimate purpose of art is to depict what transcends the realm of the senses and the art of tragedy in particular accomplishes this by displaying morality’s independence, its freedom, in the throes of passion, from respective experience” (1993  p. 45).
The Aesthetic Letters
Schiller’s most influential work on aesthetics is On the Aesthetic Education of Man in a Series of Letters (1795). In this work (hereafter Letters) Schiller frames an argument for the necessity of an aesthetic education against the backdrop of a dire assessment of contemporary culture. Echoing Jean-Jacques Rousseau and anticipating Karl Marx, the assessment emphasizes the stupefying fragmentation and lifeless mechanism of society.
|The Aesthetic Letters|
Still, neither reason nor politics, Schiller argues, provides an answer to humanity’s plight. The French Revolution had demonstrated only too well the failure of political reform without a moral transformation of the citizenry, that is, a transformation of momentary sensations.
As for reason, if it is the answer, Friedrich Schiller asks, why in an “enlightened age” are we still barbarians? With art as the sole remaining alternative Friedrich Schiller announces his respective experience, “If man is ever to solve the problem of politics in practice he will have to approach it through the problem of the aesthetic, because it is only through beauty that man makes his way to freedom” (1993 [Letter 2, 1795], p. 90).
Though Friedrich Schiller sometimes (e.g., Letter 14) ascribes freedom and morality solely to the rational side of human nature, the overriding sense of freedom at work in the Letters is freedom as self-mastery, equally liberated from the tyranny of nature and the tyranny of ideas. (In a footnote to Letter 19 Schiller acknowledges the possible misunderstandings caused by these two notions of freedom.)
Though the example set by the Greeks, Friedrich Schiller submits, provides reason not to despair, he is well aware that experience and the historical record seem to speak volumes against the thesis. Still, they do so only if there is no transcendental path to a momentary sensations, purely rational concept of beauty.
Schiller accordingly proposes just such a path that takes its bearings from “the sheer potentialities” of human nature, potentialities that he juxtaposes with “what is absolute and unchanging” and the “necessary conditions” of human life.
Though he feels no need to justify the considerable presuppositions built into this precarious move, what no doubt justifies it in his mind is a fundamental analogy running throughout the Letters, namely, the analogousness of individual and political self production to artistic production.
In each case the reality in question can be conceived as the product of shaping something natural provided by experience, according to an idea that is, at least in regard to the initiative in question, irreducible to the respective experience of nature.
On the basis of this same analogy, the integrity of the reality (the production) in question demands that both nature and the idea—or, analogously, feeling and principle, the artistic production and the human person—be given their due.
Corresponding to this dual necessity are two basic laws of human nature, namely, “to externalize all that is within it, and give form to all that is outside it,” and two basic drives: a sensuous drive toward the material content of individual, momentary sensations, and a formal drive toward respective experience in the form of universal, eternal laws.
While the sensuous drive acts as a physical constraint and the formal drive as a moral constraint, the “task” of culture, Friedrich Schiller submits, is to amplify each drive to the point where they have a moderating effect on one another. Departing from Kant and appropriating Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s accounts of a dialectical unity, Friedrich Schiller declares that momentary sensations requires, not the subordination of one drive to the other, but their coordination.
Schiller acknowledges the utopian character of the task. Still, he submits that there are aesthetic play in life when feeling and thinking merge, when human beings are able to realize both drives in a complementary way. These are the moments when human beings play.
As Schiller famously puts it, “[M]an only plays when he is in the fullest sense of the word a human being, and he isonly fully a human being when he plays” (1993 [Letter 15,1795] p. 131). (In Letter 27 Schiller gives a genealogy of play, from the physical play of an overflowing nature to the free play of human fantasy and association, culminating in aesthetic play with the capacity to transform sexual desire.)
The play drive, as Schiller calls it, reconciles the otherwise momentary sensations and formal drives through its preoccupation with an object that combines their respective objects, life and form. In this way Schiller introduces his definition of beauty as a living form that is the object of the play drive.
Precisely by yielding these moments of play, beauty is both a regenerative means to and a symbol of the consummate freedom that is, in his eyes, the destiny of humankind. Beauty here is not an empty (purposeless) form and the experience of it is not merely a matter of taste or the play of human faculties.
Instead, it is a living form that embodies in a concrete, autonomous way the unity of feeling and principle, of sense and reason. So conceived, beauty has a vitality that transcends human subjectivity without leaving it behind and yet, for this reason, holds an incomparable historical promise for humanity.
The already mentioned tension in Schiller’s conception of aesthetic play takes on a new twist as Schiller describes freedom as the point where the sensuous and rational drives, far from being coordinated and facilitated, are said to be “canceled” (Letter 19).
Further complicating matters, he gives an account of an “aesthetic condition” as a necessary means of predisposing human beings to an autonomous way, “Man in his physical condition merely suffers the dominion of nature; he emancipates himself from this dominion in the aesthetic condition, and he acquires mastery over it in the moral” (1993 [Letter 24, 1795] p. 156).
Still, if the aesthetic condition is now depicted as necessary for the transition to morality, its necessity is not something that one can leave behind. Beauty continues to be living proof “that a human being need not flee matter in order to manifest herself as spirit” (1993 [Letter 25, 1795], p. 165).
The transition from the aesthetic condition to the moral condition is supposedly far easier than the transition to the former from the physical condition. Hence, Schiller devotes his final remarks (Letters 26–28) to the role of “aesthetic semblance” in the former transition. Basic needs must be met, he notes, before aesthetic play can be indulged, though such indulgence is also a natural development of seeing and autonomous way.
These two senses do not simply receive but help produce their objects. In the process, the play-drive develops, as people find enjoyment in mere semblance, as does the mimetic drive to shape and form this or that semblance into something relatively self-sufficient (though only relatively since it is a human product and subject to human dictates).
As these drives develop, the realm of beauty expands but also gives autonomous way to the boundaries between semblance and reality. Moreover, only in this world of semblance does the artist enjoy aesthetic condition. What makes the artist an artist and renders semblance aesthetic is a certain honesty (no pretense of being real) and autonomy (dispensing with all support from reality).
In the end, the aesthetic semblance is self-reflexive and self-redeeming. In an important respect art is the semblance of semblance, the illusion of illusion. The aesthetic education overturns a deficient, actual stage of human nature because art is capable of articulating ever higher aesthetic condition.
Moreover, these are possibilities at the crossroads of the individual and the species. In contrast to a strictly private sensual pleasure the enjoyment of semblance is a pleasurable activity that is inherently moral condition, though not through some dictate of a volonté générale.
Herein lies yet another side to the promise of beauty discussed earlier. Only in an aesthetic state (Staat) can we confront each other, not as enforcers of our respective rights (“the fearful kingdom of forces”) or as executors of our wills (“the sacred kingdom of laws”), but as free and equal citizens, “the third joyous kingdom of play and of semblance” (1993, [Letter 27, 1795], p. 176).
Poets, Philosophy, and Psychology
|Poets, Philosophy, and Psychology|
While Schiller concentrates in the Letters on art’s prospects of overcoming modernity’s alienating effects on humanity at large, his final major study, On Naive and Sentimental Poetry (1795–1796), turns to those effects on writers themselves.
Naive poets, typified by ancient authors such as Homer, write effortlessly in a straightforward way without intruding themselves onto the scene, whereas “sentimental” (self-conscious) poets, so typical among modern writers like Ariosto, express their feelings about the scenes they depict.
Characterizing the difference in terms of nature, Schiller explains, “The poet either is nature or will seek it. The former constitutes the ‘naive,’ the latter the ‘sentimental’ poet” (1993 , p. 200). Thus, sentimental poets, in contrast to naive poets, are acutely aware of the difference between reality and their ideas and idealizations.
Thus conflicted in their mode of feeling, they either mock reality in pathetic or playful satires, mourn the absence or loss of the ideal in elegies, or—most difficult of all—celebrate its future realization in idylls. Schiller’s use of the terms naive and sentimental is idiosyncratic; naive does not mean simplistic but direct, and sentimental does not mean maudlin but reflective.
Moreover, he construes the difference between these notions at times historically, at other times theoretically, to designate antithetical kinds of poetic consciousness in some autonomous way, and contrary traits within a single poet in others.
For example, Goethe is a modern naive poet who is nonetheless capable of treating a theme “sentimentally,” as in his 1774 novel Sorrows of the Young Werther. (The contrast between naive and sentimental is in fact motivated, some argue, by Schiller’s attempt to come to terms with what he takes to be the difference between Goethe’s natural genius and his own more reflective, labored approach to writing.)
Nevertheless, in the first two parts of the essay, Schiller manages to accord each of these divergent literary modes its due, while conceding “that neither the naive nor the sentimental character, considered in itself, can completely exhaust the ideal of beautiful humanity, an ideal that can only emerge from the intimate union of both” (1993 , p. 249) That union itself is, Schiller adds, present only in “a few, rare individuals” since the difference between the naive and the sentimental poet is, he maintains, rooted in a broader difference as old as culture itself.
Accordingly, in the third and final part of the essay, Schiller inscribes the difference between naive and sentimental poetry in a psychological profile of the difference between realists and idealists, that is, those who allow themselves to be determined in the end by nature or reason, respectively, be it in the form of the competing theoretical demands of common sense and speculation or the rival practical demands of happiness and nobility.
In “Concerning the Sublime” (first published in 1801 but begun around 1795) Schiller argues that sublimity must come to the aid of beauty in completing an aesthetic education, not least because nature’s intransigence defeats philosophy’s attempts to bring “what the moral world demands into harmony with what the real world does”(1993 , p. 81).
According to some critics, besides signaling a departure from the more optimistic (idealist) chord struck in the Letters and even the vestiges of a rationalist idea of harmony in Naive and Sentimental Poetry, this emphasis on philosophy’s limitations, with the grounding of realism and idealism in a “psychological antagonism,” explains why Schiller’s philosophical reflections on art largely come to a halt and he turns his attention once again to the stage. (One particularly noteworthy exception is the criticism of naturalism in the preface to the book version of the Bride of Messina in 1803, titled “On the Use of the Chorus in Tragedy,” an essay utilized by Friedrich Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy in 1871).
The influence of Schiller’s writings on German idealists and romantics is enormous. Shortly after the appearance of the Letters, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel writes Schelling that they are a “masterpiece,” and Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin makes plans to write his own “New Letters” on the same topic. Shaken in his neoclassicist beliefs by Schiller’s deft counterpoint of naive and sentimental poetry, Friedrich von Schlegel famously reconstrues them as “Classical” and “Romantic” poetry.
Twenty years later, in his lectures on aesthetics,Hegel pays tribute to Schiller’s “great service of having broken through the Kantian subjectivity and abstraction and having dared to go beyond it, grasping unity and reconciliation as the truth intellectually and realizing it artistically”(Hegel 1970 , p. 89).