Friedrich Schiller – On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794)

Inspired by Schiller’s disenchantment with the violent fallout of the French Revolution, these Letters seeks to articulate how aesthetic education is only way in which true political freedom can be achieved–whereby a human can be both fully man and fully citizen.

Letter by letter summary of argument:

  1. Sets forth a summary. It will be about Art and Beauty. Excuses himself for using intellect even while he will be critiquing it.
  2. Art is distinguished from utility and science.
  3. The realm of nature, within which man lives, does not contain all of man: the work of reason allows man to transcends the bounds of nature by elevating physical necessity into moral necessity, from the state of nature to the moral state–without, however, jeopardizing the realm of nature that nourishes man.
  4. The state of nature works by compulsion, while the moral state works through freedom and rational choice.
  5. The present state is characterized by lower classes governed “animal satisfactions,” while the higher classes exhibit and even more disgusting “lethargy” in the form of unfettered egotism.
  6. Using the ideal of Greece, shows how the present world is characterizes by unrestricted competition. Wholeness has been fragmented, and the world is held together by antagonisms.
  7. Nature offers a way forward: it “points in her physical creation the way we have to take in the moral” (45), because the lower elemental forces needs to be assuaged before the nobeler things can be attended to.
  8. Introduces the languages of “drives” and “force.” Truth must itself become a force if it to compete with these other external forces. But people are too borne down by struggle for existence to develop a capacity for feeling that is the way toward Truth [yes, some jumps are made in this letter]
  9. Art is therefore necessary to develop this feeling. “Even before Truth’s triumphant light can penetrate the recesses of the human heart, the poet’s imagination will intercept its rays, and the peaks of humanity will be radiant while the dews of night still linger in the valley” (57).
  10. People object that beauty’s relationship to pure form, rather than content, could lead soem to reject reality all together. But Schiller says that perhaps Experience as such is not the best place to go looking for positions of judgment.
  11. Taking a step back, he defines the human as the combination of a PERSON and a CONDITION, that former stays the same despite the changes in the latter. Neither can remain in isolation or the man ceases to be man. It is through the SENSES that the “way to the divine is opened up.” Living in time (our condition) is purely sensual. The formal properties of personhood therefore “annul time” via the formal drive. Thus reality and formality are set in opposition.
  12. The sensual drive puts man “beside himself” by making him entirely subject to the vagaries of time. The formal drive annuls time, rendering man no longer a mere quantity, but qualitatively different. [The connection metonymy and metaphor should not be missed]
  13. However, Schiller wants to pose a more fundamental drive, which he works up to by means of the cultivation of the opposing drives: “procuring for the receptive faculty the most manifold contacts with the world…in securing for the determining faculty the highest degree of independence” (87).
  14. Introduces the play-drive, which is pulled rather obviously from the notion of judgment in Kant’s 3rd Critique…it brings together under a single drive the two other drives.
  15. The object of the sense-drive is life and the object of the form-drive is form. The object of the play-drive is living-form, or beauty as such. [One wonders why the sense-drive is not called the life-drive…one more way of dislocating the processes of self-preservation outside of the human apparatus. We can form forms, but we do not live life. We sense it.] Further, the sense-drive gets converted into the material drive, thus further  away from the dynamic processes of life. Also, interesting fn on Burke that say that he consigns “beauty to mere life,” something very similar to Hume and the empiricists]. The dialectic between form and matter, then, is such that beauty renders the burden of necessity “lightweight.” And this playful relationship to necessity is in itself necessary [relate this to Arnold’s The Study of Poetry and Wilde’s Artist as Critic]
  16. Now stuff starts to get weird. There are two types of beauty: melting beauty and energizing beauty, The former “releases” while the latter “tenses.” [Curious relationship to Bataille here].
  17. Interestingly enough, it is not so much that there are different types of beauty, but that beauty discloses its melting or energizing property according to the subject’s needs
  18. Now he steps back, and begins in Kantian fashion to discuss beauty’s relationship to Experience and Reason, between which there yawns a chasm of infinity.
  19. Aesthetic emerges as the middle disposition when sense and reason are both fully active and therefore self-cancelling. Sense-impression determines the human mind, passively. Before we can achieve active self-determination, we must negate the realm of sensation and make way for the realm of active determination. Unlike Hegel, then, Schiller does not attempt to derive the unity of sense and substance out of the nuts and bolts of primary experience; rather, he concedes sensation and self-consciousness itself to the realm of pre-cognitive “mystery.”
  20. The freedom that comes from the collision of these two drives–the formal and the sensual–is itself a product of nature. What one fills the absence of sensual determination with is the “real and active determination” of the aesthetic as such.
  21. The aesthetic differs from mere sensuous feeling in that it is not an empty infinity, but an infinity filled with content. It is not exhausted in its relationship to natural objects; rather, the “life of the aesthetic” restores the potentiality inherent to humanity. It gives the human the ability to be human once again, again and again. This is not separate from Nature: rather, Nature confers on humans the power of becoming-human. In this way, nature is consonant with the aesthetic.
  22. He then gets into the particulars of aesthetic theory–e.g. the perfect work of art is that which transcends its material without utterly destroying those materials. The basic idea is that content limits, while form de-limits, which by now doesn’t seem counter-intuitive at all. Interestingly, though, just when content seems to entirely extirpate content all together, Schiller uses a metabolic metaphor to describe their interaction: the “form consumes his material.” 
  23. He returns to the thread of the main argument by stating, clearly: the sensuous man is made into rational man only by way of the aesthetic.
  24. These three states–the physical (sensual), the aesthetic and the moral-rational, correlate with three phases of man’s relationship to Nature. He first suffers, then emancipates himself, and then attains mastery. 
  25. Further elucidates the “moment” of the beautiful, claiming that both the perceiving subject and the object of contemplation are reciprocally beautiful. He then claims that there should no longer be a question about the transition from beauty to truth, “since this latter is potentially continued in the former, but only a question of how he is to clear a way for himself from common reality to aesthetic reality, from mere life-serving feelings to feelings of beauty” (189). [It seems to me that there is still a really big question about the realization (or not) of potential, since man is supposedly that creature which reserves potential indefinitely.]
  26. Maps out some of the pre-conditions for beauty: the hermit emerging from the hut is the Ideal: he can sense “the exuberance of matter.” Imports Kantian categories of need and satisfaction of those needs: both requirements for the emergence of the aesthetic. Also, the “tactile” sense are relegates to our animal selves. “The object of touch is a force to which we are subjected the object of the eye and ear a form we engender” (195). That which we engender is SEMBLANCE. Aesthetic semblance, as opposed to social or natural semblance, must be both honest (expressly renounces all claims to reality) and autonomous (dispenses with support from reality). Seeing something as semblance (not real or living) takes a whole lot of aesthetic education, supposedly.
  27. In the final letter, Schiller calls for “a revolution in feeling,” which would breech the cycle of our animal needs by way an attention to the formal qualities of sensual experience.This will not come about by having quantitatively more material things; rather, it comes from experiencing things differently.

    Even the animal world supposedly has this sort of freedom: “The trees put forth innumerable buds which perish without ever unfolding…living things are entitle to squander” (207). [Interesting relation to Bataille]. But this aesthetic “superfluity” does not remain content being “added” to things; rather, “the play-drive as it becomes ever freer finally tears itself away form the fetters of utility all together” (211).

    This turns into a rather unexpected critique of war and violence, and a valorization of “weakness” (213). This is matched by a a tri-partite movement from the Dynamic State (think Hobbes); the Ethical State (Kant); the Aesthetic State, which consummates the will of all in the individual. This is the kingdom of Taste, in which no privilege or autocracy is allowed. A-social appetite renounces itself seeking. Does this state exist? It exists within us.

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