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Schiller and Our Times

Schmidt Number: S-1014

On-line since: 30th April, 2018


Schiller's Work and its Changing Phases

We have seen how Schiller grew up out of the ideas of the Eighteenth Century and how the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment had taken root in his soul. They had already assumed their peculiar form when he left the Karlsschule and wrote the above-mentioned theses.

If we want to describe these ideas in a word, we may say that the main problem was the emancipation of personality. This liberation from age-old tradition goes still further. When medieval man before the age of “Illumination” thought about his relation to himself, to nature, the universe and God, he found himself ready established within the universe. He worshipped the same God without, who dwelt within his own soul; the same forces which were active in the world without, were active in man's own soul; there was a certain unity to be seen in the laws of the universe and in the nature of man. We need only think of men like Giordano Bruno: This monistic conviction of the relationship of nature to man can be found in his writings.

There was thus no gulf between what we may call the moral claim and the objective laws in nature. This opposition only arose later when man excluded nature from divine influence. The attitude which has grown up in materialism, knew no relation between nature and moral feeling or what man develops within himself as a moral claim.

This was the origin of Rousseau-ism, which is fundamentally a revolutionary feeling, a protest against the whole line of development hitherto. It teaches that when we observe man's demand for freedom and his assertion of morality, a harsh discord appears. It asks whether there really can be such a difference between the objective world and human nature, that men must long to get out of it, to escape from the whole of their civilisation.

These spiritual struggles found expression in the temperament of the young Schiller; and in the three dramas of his youth this longing receives a new form. In the “Räuber,” in “Fiesco” and “Kabale und Liebe” we see depicted concretely, with a vast pathos, the demand that man must do something to produce this harmony. In the figure of Karl Moor, we see the creation of a man who bears in himself the opposition between the objective order and the demand made by his humanity, and feels called upon to produce some harmony between nature and himself. His tragedy arises because he believes that he can restore the law by lawlessness and arbitrariness. In “Fiesco” the longing for freedom crashes on the rock of ambition. The ideal of freedom fails through this disharmony in the soul of the ambitious Fiesco, who cannot find his way so far as to put order into the moral ideal. In “Kabale und Liebe” the demand of human nature in the uprising middle-classes stands opposed to the demands of the world as they were expressed in the ruling classes. The relation between moral ideals and general ideas applicable to the world had been lost. The discord echoes grandly, for all their youthful immaturity, from the first dramas of Schiller.

Such natures as Schiller's find themselves less easily than the one-line, simpler and. unsophisticated type, just as we see in natural evolution that lower creatures require shorter periods of preparation than the more highly developed animals. Great natures have to pass through the most varied phases, because their inmost qualities have to be fetched up from the deepest levels. Anyone who has much in him and comes into the world with a claim to genius, will have a hard path, and will have to work through many earlier stages — as the analogy of the embryonic development of higher animals shows us.

What Schiller lacked was knowledge of man and of the world. His first plays show him with all the defects which arise from that fact, but with all the merits which hardly appear again later so clearly. This judgment is made from a fairly high level; we have to realise what we owe to Schiller's greatness. But things could not remain thus for long. Schiller had to rise beyond this limited horizon; and we see how in his fourth play, Don Carlos, he works his way to another standpoint. We may look from a double angle, first from that of Don Carlos, second that of Marquis Posa. Schiller himself tells us how his interest at first lay with the youthful fiery Carlos and then passed to the cosmopolitan Posa. That indicates a deep change in his own personality.

Schiller had been summoned by his friend Körner to Dresden, so that he might work there in peace. There he grew acquainted with a philosophy and view of the world which was to have a great influence on his own personality. Kantianism was a necessary study for a person like Schiller, and we shall understand his standpoint yet more deeply if we delay a moment over what was then working upon him.

At that time, we can see two quite definite currents in German intellectual life. The one is that which finds most definite expression in Herder's Ideas for the history of the philosophy of mankind; the other the Kantian philosophy. In Herder we have the passion to put man into relation with the whole of nature and to understand him in that relation. It is this striving for unity which makes Herder appear so modern a man. ... Arguments brought now-a-days against Kantianism with its dualism (which is still regarded as only an academic philosophy), exist already in Herder's Metacritic. The whole embraces a mass of great ideas; there is a striving after the unification of nature and man. From the lowest product of nature right up to the thought of man there is one law. What is seen in man as the moral law, is in the crystal the law of its form. One fundamental evolution runs through all that is, so that that which forms the flower in the plant, develops in man into humanity. It is the world-picture which appeared in Goethe also and which he expressed in Faust in the words:


How all weaves itself to a whole; one thing works and lives in the other,


and which he describes in his Hymn to Nature.

Goethe is wholly permeated by this striving for unity, as it found expression in Giordano Bruno, the Pythagorean. He stands completely within the stream:


What were a God who only touches from without,
And lets the All run past in cycles?
His task it were to move the world within,
To foster nature in himself, himself in nature.


That is the monistic stream, to which Schiller at that period still was a stranger. For him there was still a two-ness, a dualism.

In his Critique of Pure Reason and the Critique of Practical Reason Kant had set a definite limit to human knowledge. Man's capacity for knowledge extends as far as reason goes. It can only give him the external, and cannot pierce to the real being of things. That which is the thing-in-itself, is hidden behind the appearance; man cannot even speak of it. But there is something within man which cannot be mere appearance. That is the moral law. On the one side — the world of appearance; on the other — the moral law, the categorical imperative, the “Thou shalt,” which may not be doubted, which rises above knowledge and cannot be taken as appearance. Thus in Kant's philosophy we have not merely a duality such as we saw before, but the whole world of human spiritual life is divided into two halves. That which is to be superior to all criticism, the moral law, is not knowledge at all, but a practical belief, which contains no limits of knowledge but only moral postulates. Thus Kantianism appears as the .most abrupt exposition of dualism.

Before Kant there was a science of external appearance, and then a science of reason which could penetrate by innate activity to God, soul and immortality: that is the form of the Wolffian philosophy. Kant, who had studied the English Sensationalists, Hume and Locke, was at this juncture led to have doubts: how shall we get anywhere if we have always to test the highest ideas of God, Freedom and Immortality by their reasonableness. He says in his introduction to the Critique of Pure Reason I had to destroy knowledge in order to make room for faith.” Because we must believe, and in order that we may believe, he thrust down knowledge from her throne. He wanted to start from foundations which left no room for doubt. Knowledge cannot ever reach to these things, but the “Thou shalt” speaks so decisively that the harmony which man is unable to discover, must be accomplished by God. And so we have to postulate a God. As physical beings we are enclosed in barriers, but as moral beings we must be free. This gives an unbridgeable dualism; there is no balance between man and nature.

Schiller, who in accordance with his temperament still held to the opposition between nature and man, pictures in Don Carlos the growth of man beyond nature to his ideals. He never puts the question of what is possible, but only the question of the “Thou shalt.” In Don Carlos it is not a criticism of court-life that we have: That passes into the background behind the practical moral postulates. “Man, be such that the laws of your action could become the universal laws of humanity.” That was Kant's demand; and in Marquis Posa, the cosmopolitan idealist, Schiller sets up a claim for the independence of the ideal from all that comes from nature.

When he finished Don Carlos, Schiller stood in the completest possible opposition to the view of Goethe and Herder, and therefore at the beginning of his life at Weimar no contact with them was possible. But Schiller became the Reformer of Kantianism: he strove for a monistic view, but could find the unity only in the aesthetic sphere, in the problem of beauty. He shows us how man only lives fully when he both ennobles nature up to his own level and draws morality from above into his nature. The categorical imperative does not subdue him to its sway, but he serves willingly what is contained in the “Thou shalt.” Thus Schiller reaches the heights and rises above Kant. He opposes Kant who makes of man not a free being but a slave, bowed beneath the yoke of duty. He saw clearly that there is something in man quite different from this bowing beneath the yoke of the “Thou shalt.” In monumental phrases we find expressed his approximation to the essential of Goethe's and Herder's attitude: “Gladly serve I my friends, yet alas I do it with pleasure; thus it irks me to find that there's no virtue in me.”

Kant had degraded what man does willingly from his own inclination, and set on a higher level what he did from a sense of duty. Kant apostrophises passionately the stern duty which has nothing attractive in her. Schiller raises man from his own weakness, when he makes the moral law a law of his own nature. Through the study of history, through honest inclination and devotion to human life he reached the harmony that had been lost and thus to an understanding of Goethe. Schiller describes in splendid words in the memorable letter of 23rd August 1794, what was Goethe's way:


“I have for a long time, even though from a distance, observed the course of your spirit and with ever new wonder noted the path you have traced out for yourself. You seek for the necessary in nature, but you seek it along the hardest path, from which all weaker forces would shrink. You take all nature as a whole in order to illuminate a part; and in the totality of their appearances you seek the basis of explanation for the individual.”


Here Schiller had reached the height to which he had to evolve. Though he had started from a dualism, he had now reached the unity of man and nature.

Thus he attained to that form of creation which was peculiarly his in the latest period, from the middle of the nineties onward, and to friendship with Goethe. It was a historical friendship because it did not look only for the happiness of their two selves but was fruitful for the world and for humanity.

In this friendship of Goethe and Schiller we have not merely Goethe, and Schiller, but a third something: Goethe plus Schiller. Anyone who follows the course of the spiritual life, will discern in it one being, which could only exist, because in their selfless friendship and mutual devotion something developed which stood as a new being above the single personality. This mood will give us the proper transition to Goethe and to all that he meant to Schiller.




Last Modified: 24-Sep-2018
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