Literary Criticism of Friedrich von Schiller

Friedrich von Schiller (1759–1805) was a poet, dramatist, and literary theorist whose development of Kant’s aesthetic ideas had a great influence on other German Romantic writers and on Coleridge. He was a Romantic in many senses: writing in the aftermath of the most violent phase of the French Revolution (known as the Reign of Terror, 1793–1794), he saw art and letters as the solution to the malaise of a world corrupted by the principles of mechanism and utility; he was an advocate for freedom, staunchly opposed to authoritarianism of any kind; and he propounded a view of history as essentially divided between an ideal, harmonious past and a disintegrated present. His two most well-known pieces in the realm of literary theory are On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795) and On Naive and Sentimental Poetry (1795–1796). On the Aesthetic Education of Man consists of a series of letters addressed by Schiller to his patron, the duke of Augustenburg. In the second letter, he answers a possible objection to his focusing on aesthetic matters at a time, in the wake of the French Revolution, when Europe is faced with a challenge to create the “most perfect” of all the arts of man, political freedom.1 This question, Schiller suggests, has hitherto been decided by the “blind right of might” but is now being brought before “the tribunal of Pure Reason” (225).

In response to such an objection, Schiller urges that his own epoch is not conducive to art: it is mired beneath the “tyrannical yoke” of material needs: “Utility is the great idol of the time, for which all powers slave and all talents should pay homage” (225). In these circumstances, the kind of art Schiller advocates is an art that “must leave reality and elevate itself . . . above want.” It is an art which “vanishes from the noisy mart of the century.” What is needed, says Schiller, is to place “Beauty before Freedom”: the political problem must be approached “through the aesthetical, because it is beauty, through which one proceeds to freedom” (226).

0652007506254950b471a6c9f657ae13It is in the sixth letter that Schiller draws an idealistic, but nonetheless astute, contrast between the ancient Greek world and modern civilization. The Greeks, he says, combined both imagination and reason “in a glorious humanity.” In their world, the powers of the mind, sense and intellect, worked in harmony, and they had not yet engaged in hostile partition and mutual separation of their frontiers (232). In the modern world, however, these aspects remain fragmented, with not only individuals but also entire classes developing only one part of their potential while the rest remains stunted. Greek society, says Schiller, received its form from “all-uniting Nature,” whereas modern culture is based on “all-dividing understanding” (232). Schiller blames this divisiveness and fragmentation on the process of civilization itself. As knowledge increased, and modes of thought became more precise, sharp divisions between the various sciences ensued; moreover, anticipating Marx’s comments on the division of labor, Schiller explains that the increasingly complex machinery of state necessitated a sharper separation of ranks and occupations. All of these developments shattered the “inner bond of human nature” and a “destructive struggle divided her harmonious powers” (233). In the Greek world there was a harmony between individual and state, an organic wholeness; the modern state, in contrast, is a mechanical assemblage of “lifeless parts.” Schiller portrays poignantly the various dualisms which underlie modern social configurations: “the state and church, the laws and the customs, were now torn asunder; enjoyment was separated from work, the means from the end, the effort from the reward. Eternally chained to only a single fragment of the Whole, man only develops himself as a fragment.” And even this fragmentary participation in the state is dictated in a manner that inhibits freedom of thought. In this manner the “concrete life” of the individual is destroyed so that “the abstract of the Whole may devour his scanty existence, and eternally the state remains foreign to its citizens” (234). Anticipating the ideas of both Hegel and Marx on alienation, Schiller suggests here that human individuality is reduced to an abstract notion which takes no account of its actual range and potential.

Schiller admits that civilization could have taken no other course. The spirit of abstract speculation was bound to become a stranger to sensual world; the intellect was compelled to free itself from feeling and intuition in an attempt to arrive at exact understanding (235). And the practical spirit inevitably became imprisoned within the dull sphere of material objects, judging all experience on the basis of its own narrow experience. The former stood too high to view the particular, the latter too low to see the whole (235). The damage thereby done extended beyond knowledge and production into the realm of feeling and imagination, whose range and richness were impoverished (236). Schiller concedes that this hostility of faculties and functions is the instrument of civilization: both thought and sense were obliged to usurp each other’s domains in order to develop to their fullest potential. Hence, while this one-sidedness might lead the individual astray, it leads the species as a whole to truth. Given the damage done to the unity and potential of the individual, such a movement of civilization cannot go unanswered. It must be open to us, Schiller asserts, to restore “this totality in our nature, which art hath destroyed, through a higher art” (237).

The logic behind Schiller’s argument is elaborated in the ninth letter, where he claims that all improvement in the political sphere must come from the ennobling of character, and the instrument for such ennobling is fine art, which lies beyond the jurisdiction of state activities. But how can the artist rise above the “barbarous” nature and constitution of his age? Schiller answers that the “artist is indeed the son of his time.” But he should not be its ward or minion (241). Schiller regards both art and science as free from the constraints imposed by human conventions; the sphere of art is beyond the reach and damage of political constitutions or legislation. The artist must retreat from his own times and allow his sensibility to mature under the light of a “Grecian sky.” He can then return to his own age “in order to purify it.” He will necessarily take his theme from the degraded present; but he will borrow his form from a “nobler time,” or rather, “from beyond all time, from the absolute immutable unity of his essence” (241). By way of example, Schiller says that Romans of the first century were obliged to kneel before their emperor; but statues still portrayed people erect, recalling the time of the republic when such ingratiation and obedience to absolute rule was not enjoined. In this way, where humanity has lost its dignity, “art hath saved it and preserved it in meaningful stone; the truth lives on in illusion, and from the copy the original will be restored” (241). In this way, art prepares what lies ahead.

So Schiller admonishes the artist to disdain the opinion of his age, by directing his gaze upward, away from the needs of ordinary life to his true calling and the “universal Law.” He must “abandon to the understanding . . . the sphere of the actual; let him strive however, to produce the ideal from the bond of the possible with the necessary. Let him stamp this on illusion and truth” (241). Such a recourse, for Schiller, is far more effective than yielding to the temptation of addressing the ills of the current age by immediate action. The pure moral instinct, he says, “is directed at the unconditioned” (242). The artist must impart to the world a direction toward the “necessary and eternal.” However, the changes which the artist seeks to bring about are not merely in the external world but “in man’s inner being.” He must project the form of beauty out of himself in a manner that appeals not only to thought but also to the senses, for this will be more attractive to the world. It is the leisure hours of people, not their overt principles or practice, that the artist must take as his province. For if he can banish caprice and frivolity and coarseness from their pleasures, he will imperceptibly banish these from their actions and inclinations. He must surround them with “Noble, with great, with ingenious forms, enclose them all around with symbols of excellence, until appearance overcomes reality and art, nature” (243).

Schiller’s text is a seminal point of many important Romantic doctrines. Foremost in significance is his urging of the artist to turn away from reality, to seek inspiration from an ideal world or from a bygone golden age, and to recreate the world in the artistic image of such ideality. Such a process lies at the core of Romantic irony, which will be expressed by Schlegel and numerous other Romantics. The withdrawal from the world into subjectivity and the creation of ideal forms was one of the functions attributed by many Romantics to the imagination, and this avenue of thought was continued by the French symbolist poets of the later nineteenth century. Also characteristic of much Romantic thought is Schiller’s retreat from political solutions and his effective substitution of art for religion, his delineation of the realm of art as possessing moral and spiritual functions. Notwithstanding these functions, he sees art as an autonomous domain, free from the incursions and constraints of politics and morality. The recourse to literature and art as a source of moral sensibility will be continued in writers such as Matthew Arnold and F. R. Leavis.


“On the Aesthetic Education of Man,” in Friedrich Schiller: Poet of Freedom, trans. William F. Wertz, Jr. (New York: New Benjamin Franklin House, 1985), p. 224. Hereafter page citations are given in the text.


Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Romanticism

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