Friedrich Schiller’s Essays

Schiller's EssaysFriedrich Schiller was a German poet, philosopher and playwright, hugely influential in his day but far less widely read now, his star eclipsed by his contemporaries Goethe and Kant. His Essays, a posthumous cobbling together of his various writings on aesthetics, including the famous Letters On The Aesthetic Education Of Man and the less-famous On Naive And Sentimental Poetry, make a case for the power of art not merely to delight or instruct but to elevate our moral character. It’s difficult to envisage a contemporary critic talking as earnestly as Schiller about such concepts as beauty and the sublime; the very idea of aesthetic criticism, of a shared response to art based on qualities inherent to the work, is snickered at by many modern academics. And then there’s that word “education,” with all its promises of gradual improvement and a transitioning from ignorance to knowledge, and the implied (and stubbornly un-egalitarian!) dichotomy between the ignorant and the learned it creates. Opening with essays treating the concept of tragedy, the sublime and the pathetic, Schiller locates art’s power at the intersection between our animal instincts and our rationality. The purely rational or spiritual, argues Schiller, is impotent to provoke genuine response: “[…] those very artists and poets who believe that pathos is achieved merely by the sensuous force of passion and by the most vivid possible depiction of suffering have a rather shabby understanding of their art. They forget that suffering itself can never be the ultimate purpose of the depiction or the immediate source of the pleasure we feel in what is tragic.” It is in our resistance to suffering, to the outside forces that impact our lives, that we are given the opportunity to display our humanity, and this only in proportion to the strength of the attack on us: the more powerful our suffering, the greater our potential for resistance. “Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?” asks Keats in one of his letters, expressing a sentiment akin to Schiller’s. Our resistance to suffering is soul-creating, an affirmation that we are human and at liberty to transcend our circumstances, however harrowing. Schiller continues:

In the disharmony between those features of the animal nature stamped by the law of necessity and those determined by the spirit in its spontaneousness, the presence of a principle transcending the senses in a human being becomes recognizable, a principle that can set a limit to the workings of nature and thus, precisely for that reason, makes apparent its distinctness from nature.

Art elevates us because it forces us to contemplate our humanity. The sublime, argues Schiller, is achieved at the point where the contrast between our animal and human natures is most stark. But art is unique in offering us this perspective, precisely because it is vicarious rather than first-hand. Schiller gives the example of a powerful storm which, if contemplated from the safety of the shores, brings to mind our own frailty; if, however, you’re the fisherman caught at sea, fear and self-preservation – both animal instincts – crowd out all other thoughts.

For Schiller, it therefore follows that the poet’s greatest duty is the purification of his own humanity, for any defect of character will find its way into the poet’s works. This is an interesting notion, though it might be said that it is often these same defects of character that make a writer’s work interesting. “Full oft ’tis seen / that our means secure us, and our mere defects / prove our commodities.” Regardless, Schiller’s essays offer keen insight into the uplifting power of art, how it works and why it can hold such sway over us.