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Schiller and Our Times

Schmidt Number: S-1010

On-line since: 30th April, 2018


Schiller's Life and Characteristic Quality

IT will be a hundred years on 9th May, 1905, since Schiller died, and the educated world in Germany will certainly celebrate the memory of this event. Three generations lie between Schiller and us; and so our first task would appear to be to survey the meaning of Schiller to us to-day. The last great Schiller festival took place in 1859, but with quite a different significance from what ours can have to-day. Times have changed enormously. The pictures, problems and thoughts which occupy our contemporaries are quite different. The celebration held in 1859 was something which penetrated deep into the heart of the German people.

In 1859 there were still men who themselves lived wholly in the ideas which had been brought out by Schiller's poetic power. It may be that this year we shall see more exuberant festivities; but no such participation from the depths of the soul is any longer possible.

The question therefore forces itself on us, what has happened since then? and how can Schiller still mean anything to us? The grand pictures (and ideas) of the Goethe-Schiller period have vanished. In 1859 these ideas were still incorporated in individuals with whom the older among us became acquainted when we were young. These leading spirits, who were rooted completely in the traditions of the time, are now with the dead. The youngest among us have no longer any knowledge of them.

In the person of my teacher Schröer, who put the Goethe period before us in enthusiastic fashion, I had been privileged to know a man who was rooted wholly in that period. In Herman Grimm the last example died of those whose souls were completely at one with that period. To-day, all that is past history. Other problems concern us. Political and social questions have become so pressing that we no longer understand that intimate artistic attitude.

Men of that period would have a strange effect on us; we have lost their deep, “soulful” attitude to art. That is no reproach; our times have become hard. Let us take three leading thinkers of the present and see how differently they talk of the movements of their time.

First, Ibsen: we see how he deals comprehensively with the problems of our modern culture, how he has found the most penetrating melody to suit the modern heart and a civilisation which is passing into chaos. Then, Zola: What is to be the relation at the present between our art and a life which is threatening to explode in social struggles — that is the question he thrusts upon us. That life appears to us rigid and impenetrable, decided by quite other forces than our fantasy and soul. Lastly, Tolstoi, who started from art, and only later became a preacher and social reformer. To-day such a purely aesthetic culture as Schröer depicted to us for the Goethe-Schiller period seems quite impossible.

At that period the decisive problem of life was what we might call the aesthetic conscience. Beauty, taste and artistic sensitivity were regarded as problems quite as serious and pressing as politics and freedom are to-day. Art was regarded as something which must have its part in the machinery of culture. But to-day, Tolstoi, who has created masterpieces in the sphere of art, deserts his art and looks for other means of speaking to the sensibility of his contemporaries.

Schiller therefore is not to be judged in our times as he was in the Eighteenth Century. But what has remained, is the impressive depths of his “Weltanschauung” (worldview). Quantities of questions receive a wholly new light as a result of Schiller's view of the world. Our business in these lectures is to try to look at them from this standpoint.

In dealing with the various problems of our times and our culture, in science as in artistic effort, there is nowadays great confusion and obscurity. Every youthful author thinks it his business to establish a new philosophy; literature is choked with books on questions which have been long ago solved. Questions are unfolded which, in the form we see, reach no conclusion because those who are trying to solve them have not really occupied themselves with the problems. Often indeed, the questions are not even asked properly, so that the problem really lies in the way in which the questions are put.

There are two currents out of which we can see the personality of Schiller growing up: — on the one side the growth of materialism, on the other the longing for the assertion of the personality. What we call “Illumination” Aufklärung has its roots in these two currents.

Age-old traditions were tottering during the Eighteenth Century. In the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries the deepest questions of the human spirit were solved on the basis of tradition; and no shocks were dealt to man's fundamental relationship with the world and its deepest foundations.

Now came a difference; it was impossible to solve the basic problems dealing with the human life of the spirit in the same sense as had been done for centuries. In France, stimulated by English “Sensationalism,” a rationalistic, materialistic philosophy was growing up. The soul was beginning to be deduced from material conditions; everything was to be explained out of the physical. The Encyclopaedists made spirit originate in matter. The ups and downs in the world around us were a whirl of atomic movement. “Man is a machine” — that was more or less the form in which La Mettrie formulated his materialistic creed. Goethe already complained, when he grew acquainted with the writings of these French materialists (Holbach's Système de la Nature), and was indignant at men's presumption in trying to explain the whole world by a few barren ideas.

By the side of this was a second stream which derived from Rousseau. Rousseau's writings made an enormous impression on the most important men of the time. There is a story about Kant, who was a great pedant, and took his daily walk so punctually that the inhabitants of Königsberg could set their clocks by him. But there was one occasion when to the astonishment of the inhabitants the philosopher did not appear for some days: he had been reading Rousseau, whose writings had gripped him so hard that he had forgotten his daily walk.

The foundations of a whole civilisation had been shaken by Rousseau. He put the question whether mankind had risen as a consequence of civilisation; and his answer was a negative. In his view men were happier at a stage of nature than at their present stage when they allowed their personality to decay in itself.

In times when men, basing themselves on tradition, still believed they knew something of the relationships of the world, they were not so intent on the personality. Now, when the personality had cut asunder the bonds between itself and the world, men began to ask how that personality was to establish itself firmly in the world.

They believed that it was impossible to know anything about the deepest foundations of the world and the soul. But if, as a result, there was nothing any longer secure in the world, the longing towards better material conditions was bound to increase in everyone. The revolutionary efforts of the Eighteenth Century had their origin here; connected with the materialistic current. A good Christian of the Seventeenth Century could not have spoken thus of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. This striving after liberty (freedom) must be regarded as the fundamental current of the time.

Schiller was young when these ideas of freedom were ripening. Rousseau's ideas had, as we have just said, a colossal influence on the most important men in Germany, like Kant, Herder and Wieland. The young Schiller was also fascinated; and we find him, even at the Karlsschule, engaged in reading Rousseau, Voltaire, etc.

The age had reached a dead end. The upper classes had lost all moral soundness. An external tyranny dominated in school as well. In Schiller there was a peculiar depth of temperament which appeared, even in boyhood, as a tendency towards religion. For that reason he had, moreover, originally intended to study theology; his whole disposition urged him to the deepest problems of existence. The peculiar form taken in Germany by this striving for freedom was in the union of piety with an infinite longing for emancipation. The urge towards the freedom of personality, and not merely religion, is also the atmosphere of Klopstock's Messiah: it is in his religious feeling that the German wants to be free. The Messiah made a great impression on Schiller.

Schiller chose the faculty of medicine; and the way in which he tackled the subject, is related to the questions which were particularly occupying him. He tried to reach some conclusion on these questions by a serious study of nature. The teaching in the Karlsschule was to have a deeply comprehensive and all-round effect on him. The weaknesses to be seen in modern secondary education did not exist in that school. The natural sciences were studied thoroughly; and the centre of study was philosophy. Deepest questions of metaphysics and logic were discussed.

Thus Schiller entered on his medical studies with a philosophic spirit. The way in which he took them is important and significant for his life. We cannot understand Schiller wholly if we do not read the two dissertations which he wrote after finishing his studies. They deal with the questions:

What is the relation between spirit and matter?

What are the relations of the animal and spiritual natures in man?

Of the first only little survives. In the second Schiller puts to himself the question how we have to understand the working of the material in the human body.

For Schiller, even the material body has something spiritual. There are men who see in the body only something low and animal. There is no depth of content in a view which thus lowers and abominates the body; nor was it the view of the young Schiller. For Schiller the body is the temple of the spirit, built by wisdom, and not to no purpose possessing influence on the spirit.

What is the significance of the body for the soul? that is the question which Schiller, who felt the physical also to be holy, sought to solve. He describes, for example, how the quality of soul expresses itself in gesture and in feeling. He seeks to explain to himself, in fine and illuminating fashion, what remains permanently of the movement of soul thus expressed. He says at the close of his dissertation: —


Matter breaks up again, at death, into its ultimate elements, which henceforward wander through the kingdoms of nature in other forms and relationships, to serve other purposes. The soul departs, to exercise its power of thought in other spheres and to observe the universe from other sides. We may say, of course, that it has by no means exhausted the possibilities of this sphere, that it might have left this sphere more perfect; but do we know that this sphere is lost to it? We lay aside many a book which we do not understand, but which we may perhaps understand better some years hence.


This is how Schiller tries to make clear to himself the eternal of the spirit in its relation to physical nature — without however under-estimating the physical. That remained the central problem for all Schiller's life: How is man born from out the physical and how does his soul and the freedom of his personality stand towards the world? How is the soul to find its centre now that the old traditions have gone?

After having in the dramas of his youth thundered forth all his passion for emancipation, and won over the heart of his people, he busied himself with history and philosophy, and we touch the deepest problems of the history of civilisation or cultural history when we study the dramas of Schiller. Everyone had a piece of Marquis Posa in himself, and so Schiller's problem took on a new feature. The deepest questions in relation to the human soul and the meaning of life were discussed. He saw how little had been achievable on the external plane. In Germany the effort was being made to solve the problem of freedom in an artistic way; and that resulted in what we may call the “aesthetic conscience.” Schiller, too, had put the question to himself in this way; and he was sure that the artist could give man of the highest. He dealt with this problem in later years. In his “Letters on the aesthetic Education of Man” he says: Man acts unfreely in the external world from necessity; in the world of reason he is subject to necessity, to logic. Man is thus hedged in by the real world and by his ideal of reason. But there is another, middle condition between reason and the sense world, the aesthetic. Anyone who has artistic sensibility, appreciates the spirit in the sensible; he sees spirit enwoven in nature. Nature is to him a beauty-filled picture of the spiritual. The sense world is therefore only the expression of the spirit; in a work of art the sensible is ennobled by the spirit. The spirit is removed from the kingdom of necessity. In beauty man Eves as in freedom. Art is thus the intermediary between the senses and reason in the realm of freedom.

Goethe felt the same in presence of the works of art in Italy. In the beautiful the impulse of mankind towards freedom finds its satisfaction; here he is raised above iron necessity. Not by force or state-laws. In aesthetic enjoyment Schiller saw an education into harmony. As man, he feels himself free through art; and so he would like to transform the whole world into a work of art.

Here we see the difference between that time and our own. To-day, art is kept in a corner; then, Schiller wanted to give life an immediate impression through art. To-day Tolstoi has to condemn art, while Ibsen, in his art, becomes the critic of social life. At that time Schiller wanted to interfere direct on life by means of art. When he wrote his pamphlet on “The Stage as a moral Institution,” during the period when he was acting as reporter at the Mannheim theatre, he did it because he wanted to give a direct impulse to civilisation by means of art.




Last Modified: 04-Jul-2018
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