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On the Aesthetic Education of Man

On the Aesthetic Education of Man

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by Friedrich Schiller

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“Essential reading.” — New Society.
A classic of eighteenth-century thought, Friedrich Schiller’s treatise on the role of art in society ranks among German philosophy’s most profound works. In addition to its importance to the history of ideas, this 1795 essay remains relevant to our own time.
Beginning with a political


“Essential reading.” — New Society.
A classic of eighteenth-century thought, Friedrich Schiller’s treatise on the role of art in society ranks among German philosophy’s most profound works. In addition to its importance to the history of ideas, this 1795 essay remains relevant to our own time.
Beginning with a political analysis of contemporary society — in particular, the French Revolution and its failure to implement universal freedom — Schiller observes that people cannot transcend their circumstances without education. He conceives of art as the vehicle of education, one that can liberate individuals from the constraints and excesses of either pure nature or pure mind. Through aesthetic experience, he asserts, people can reconcile the inner antagonism between sense and intellect, nature and reason.
Schiller’s proposal of art as fundamental to the development of society and the individual is an enduringly influential concept, and this volume offers his philosophy’s clearest, most vital expression.

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Dover Publications
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On the Aesthetic Education of Man

By Friedrich Schiller, Reginald Snell

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2004 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-11739-3


First Letter

so you are willing to allow me to lay before you, in a series of letters, the results of my enquiries into Beauty and Art. I am keenly sensible of the importance, but also of the charm and dignity, of such an undertaking. I shall be speaking of a subject which is closely related to the better portion of our happiness, and not far removed from the moral nobility of human nature. I shall be pleading the cause of Beauty before a heart that perceives and exercises her whole power, and, in an enquiry where one is compelled to appeal as often to feelings as to principles, will take upon itself the heaviest part of my labour.

What I would have begged as a favour you generously lay upon me as a duty, and impute to me the appearance of a service where I am simply yielding to my inclination. The freedom of procedure which you prescribe is no constraint, but rather a necessity for me. Being little practised in the employment of formal terminology, I shall scarcely run the risk of offending against good taste by any misuse of it. My ideas, drawn rather from the uniform familiarity with my own self than from a rich experience of the world, or acquired through reading, will not deny their origin; they will sooner incur any reproach than that of sectarianism, and sooner collapse from their own feebleness than maintain themselves by means of authority and borrowed strength.

I will, to be sure, not conceal from you the fact that it is Kantian principles upon which the propositions that follow will for the most part be based; but you must attribute it to my incapacity, not to those principles, if in the course of these enquiries you should be reminded of any particular school of philosophy. No, I shall regard the freedom of your mind as inviolable. Your own sensibility will furnish the facts upon which I build; your own free intellectual power will dictate the laws by which we shall proceed.

Concerning those ideas which predominate in the practical part of the Kantian system it is only the philosophers who are at variance; I am confident of shewing that mankind as a whole has from the remotest times been in agreement about them. You have only to free them from their technical formulation, and they will emerge as the time-honoured utterances of common reason, and as data of that moral instinct which Nature in her wisdom appointed as Man's guardian until clear insight should bring him to maturity. But it is just this technical formulation, which reveals the truth to our understanding, that conceals it once again from our feeling; for unfortunately the understanding must first destroy the objects of the inner sense before it can appropriate them. Like the chemist, the philosopher finds combination only through dissolution, and the work of spontaneous Nature only through the torture of Art. In order to seize the fleeting appearance he must bind it in the fetters of rule, dissect its fair body into abstract notions, and preserve its living spirit in a sorry skeleton of words. Is it any wonder if natural feeling does not recognize itself in such a likeness, and if truth appears in the analyst's report as paradox?

I too must therefore crave some measure of forbearance if the following enquiries should remove their object from the sphere of sense in attempting to approximate it to the understanding. What is true of moral experience must be true, in a still higher degree, of the manifestation of Beauty. Its whole enchantment lies in its mystery, and its very essence is extinguished with the extinction of the necessary combination of its elements.


Second Letter

BUT should I not, perhaps, be able to make better use of the liberty which you are granting me, than to engage your attention upon the arena of Fine Art? Is it not at least unseasonable to be looking around for a code of laws for the aesthetic world, when the affairs of the moral world provide an interest that is so much keener, and the spirit of philosophical enquiry is, through the circumstances of the time, so vigorously challenged to concern itself with the most perfect of all works of art, the building up of true political freedom?

I should not care to be living in another century, or to have worked for another. We are citizens of an age, as well as of a State; and if it is held to be unseemly, or even inadmissible, for a man to cut himself off from the customs and manners of the circle in which he lives, why should it be less of a duty, in the choice of his activity, to submit his decision to the needs and the taste of his century?

But this decision seems to turn out by no means to the advantage of Art, at least the Art at which alone my enquiries are going to be directed. The course of events has given a direction to the spirit of the age which threatens to remove it even further from the Art of the Ideal. This Art must abandon actuality and soar with becoming boldness above necessity; for Art is a daughter of Freedom, and must receive her commission from the needs of spirits, not from the exigency of matter. But today Necessity is master, and bends a degraded humanity beneath its tyrannous yoke. Utility is the great idol of the age, to which all powers must do service and all talents swear allegiance. In these clumsy scales the spiritual service of Art has no weight; deprived of all encouragement, she flees from the noisy mart of our century. The very spirit of philosophical enquiry seizes one province after another from the imagination, and the frontiers of Art are contracted as the boundaries of science are enlarged.

The eyes of the philosopher are fixed as expectantly as those of the worldling upon the political arena where at present, so it is believed, the high destiny of mankind is being decided. Would it not betray a culpable indifference to the welfare of society not to share in this universal discourse? And nearly as this great action, because of its tenor and its consequences, touches everyone who calls himself a man, so, because of its method of procedure, it must especially interest every independent thinker. A question which was formerly answered only by the blind right of the stronger is now, it appears, being brought before the tribunal of pure reason, and anyone who is capable of putting himself in a central position, and raising his individuality to the level of the race, may regard himself as an assessor at this court of reason, seeing that he is an interested party both as human being and as citizen of the world, and finds himself implicated, to a greater or lesser degree, in the issue. Thus it is not simply his own cause that is being decided in this great action; judgement is to be given according to laws which he, as a rational spirit, is himself competent and entitled to dictate.

How attractive it would be for me to conduct an enquiry into such a subject with one who is as genial a thinker as he is a liberal citizen of the world, and to press home the decision to a heart that is dedicated with a fine enthusiasm to the welfare of humanity! What an agreeable surprise, in spite of the difference of worldly station and the wide separation made necessary by the circumstances of the actual world, to meet your unprejudiced mind as it arrives, on the field of ideas, at the same conclusions as my own! The fact that I am resisting this delightful temptation, and allowing Beauty to have precedence of Freedom, I believe I can not merely defend by inclination but justify on principle. I hope to convince you that this subject is far less alien to the need of the age than to its taste, that we must indeed, if we are to solve that political problem in practice, follow the path of aesthetics, since it is through Beauty that we arrive at Freedom. But this proof cannot be adduced until I have reminded you of the principles by which Reason is in general guided in political legislation.


Third Letter

NATURE begins with Man no better than with the rest of her works: she acts for him where he cannot yet act as a free intelligence for himself. But it is just this that constitutes his humanity, that he does not rest satisfied with what Nature has made of him, but possesses the capacity of retracing again, with his reason, the steps which she anticipated with him, of remodelling the work of need into a work of his free choice, and of elevating physical into moral necessity.

He comes to himself out of his sensuous slumber, recognizes himself as Man, looks around and finds himself——in the State. An unavoidable exigency had thrown him there before he could freely choose his station; need ordained it through mere natural laws before he could do so by the laws of reason. But with this State based on need, which had arisen only from his natural endowment as Man, and was calculated for that alone, he could not and cannot as a moral being rest content—and woe to him if he could! With the same right, therefore, by which he becomes a man, he leaves the dominion of a blind necessity, since he is parted from it at so many other points by his freedom, as—to take only a single example—he effaces through morality and ennobles through Beauty the low character which the needs of sexual love imprinted on him. He thus artificially retraces his childhood in his maturity, forms for himself a state of Nature in idea, which is not indeed given him by experience but is the necessary result of his rationality, borrows in this ideal state an ultimate aim which he never knew in his actual state of Nature, and a choice of which he was not then capable, and proceeds now exactly as though he were starting afresh and substituting the status of independence, with clear insight and free resolve, for the status of contract. However artfully and firmly blind Lawlessness has laid the foundations of her work, however arrogantly she may maintain it and with whatever appearance of veneration she may surround it—he may regard it during this operation as something that has simply never happened; for the work of blind forces possesses no authority before which Freedom need bow, and everything must yield to the highest ultimate aim which Reason sets up in his personality. In this way the attempt of a people that has reached maturity to transform its natural State into a moral one, originates and vindicates itself.

This natural State (as we may call every political body whose organization is ultimately based on force and not on laws) is now indeed opposed to the moral man, for whom mere conformity to law is now to serve as law; but it is still quite adequate for the physical man, who gives himself laws only in order to come to terms with force. But the physical man is actual, and the moral man only problematical. Therefore when Reason abolishes the natural State, as she inevitably must do if she wishes to put her own in its place, she weighs the physical and actual man against the problematical moral man, she ventures the very existence of society for a merely possible (even if morally necessary) ideal of society. She takes from Man something that he actually possesses, and without which he possesses nothing, and assigns to him in its place something which he could and should possess; and if she has relied too much upon him she will, for a humanity which is still beyond him and can so remain without detriment to his existence, have also wrested from him those very means of animality which are the condition of his humanity. Before he has had time to hold fast to the law with his will, she has taken the ladder of Nature from under his feet.

The great consideration is, therefore, that physical society in time may not cease for an instant while moral society is being formed in idea, that for the sake of human dignity its very existence may not be endangered. When the mechanic has the works of a clock to repair, he lets the wheels run down; but the living clockwork of the State must be repaired while it is in motion, and here it is a case of changing the wheels as they revolve. We must therefore search for some support for the continuation of society, to make it independent of the actual State which we want to abolish.

This support is not to be found in the natural character of Man, which, selfish and violent as it is, aims far more at the destruction than at the preservation of society; as little is it to be found in his moral character, which ex hypothesi has yet to be formed, and upon which, because it is free and because it is never apparent, the lawgiver can never operate and never with certainty depend. The important thing, therefore, is to dissociate caprice from the physical and freedom from the moral character; to make the first conformable with law, the second dependent on impressions; to remove the former somewhat further from matter in order to bring the latter somewhat nearer to it —so as to create a third character which, related to these other two, might pave the way for a transition from the realm of mere force to the rule of law, and, without impeding the development of the moral character, might serve rather as a sensible pledge of a morality as yet unseen.


Fourth Letter

THIS much is certain: only the predominance of such a character among a people can complete without harm the transformation of a State according to moral principles, and only such a character too can guarantee its perpetuation. In the establishment of a moral State the ethical law is reckoned upon as an active power, and free will is drawn into the realm of causes where everything coheres with strict necessity and stability. But we know that the dispositions of the human will always remain fortuitous, and that only with absolute Being does physical coincide with moral necessity. If therefore we are to count upon the moral conduct of Man as upon natural consequences, it must be his nature, and Man must be led by his very impulses to such a mode of life as only a moral character can have for its result. But the will of Man stands completely free between duty and inclination, and no physical compulsion can or may encroach upon this sovereign right of his personality. If therefore he is to retain this capacity for choice and nevertheless be a reliable link in the causal concatenation of forces, this can only be achieved if the operations of both those motives in the realm of phenomena prove to be exactly similar, and if the subject matter of his volition remains the same through every variation of its form, so that his impulses are sufficiently consonant with his reason to have the value of a universal legislation.

Every individual man, it may be said, carries in disposition and determination a pure ideal man within himself, with whose unalterable unity it is the great task of his existence, throughout all his vicissitudes, to harmonize. This pure human being, who may be recognized more or less distinctly in every person, is represented by the State, the objective and, so to say, canonical form in which the diversity of persons endeavours to unite itself. But two different ways can be thought of, in which Man in time can be made to coincide with Man in idea, and consequently as many in which the State can affirm itself in individuals: either by the pure man suppressing the empirical—the State abrogating the individual—or by the individual becoming State—temporal Man being raised to the dignity of ideal Man.

It is true that on a partial moral estimate this distinction disappears, for Reason is satisfied when her law alone prevails unconditionally; but on a complete anthropological estimate, in which content counts as well as form, and living feeling at the same time has a voice, the distinction is all the more evident. Reason indeed demands unity, but Nature demands multiplicity, and both systems of legislation lay claim to Man's obedience. The law of the former is impressed upon him by an incorruptible consciousness, the law of the latter by an ineradicable feeling. It will therefore always argue a still defective education if the moral character can assert itself only through the sacrifice of what is natural; and a political constitution will still be very imperfect if it is able to produce unity only by suppressing variety. The State should respect not merely the objective and generic, but also the subjective and specific character of its individuals, and in extending the invisible realm of morals it must not depopulate the realm of phenomena.


Excerpted from On the Aesthetic Education of Man by Friedrich Schiller, Reginald Snell. Copyright © 2004 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Meet the Author

Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805) was one of the founders of German Romanticism and one of the greatest playwrights, poets, and theorists writing in German. Some of the most productive years of his short life were spent in Weimar, where his creative friendship with Goethe has taken on a mythic status. His poem “Ode to Joy” became the basis for the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and is now the European Union’s anthem.

Alexander Schmidt (introducer) teaches at the Friedrich Schiller University, Iena, Germany, and is currently the Feodor Lynen Fellow at the University of Chicago.

Keith Tribe (translator) has studied and taught at universities in Germany and the UK and is a distinguished author and translator.

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