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Schiller and Our Times

Schmidt Number: S-1018

On-line since: 30th April, 2018


Schiller and Goethe

We come to-day to one of the most important chapters in German cultural and intellectual history, the relationship between Goethe and Schiller. The attitude of the two of them is unique in the history of the world.

They approached each other from different sides. Goethe came from the side of Herder and all that could be associated with the unity of spirit and nature, while Schiller came from the Kantian philosophy and dualism. Besides that, Goethe's and Schiller's natures were fundamentally different.

If we take Goethe's Faust, we see how he tries to penetrate into nature, finding himself unsatisfied when he grasps something spiritual in abstractions and striving to create it immediately out of nature. To Schiller nature was at first something low; the ideal was something peculiar, born from the spirit and in opposition to the real. Both men were deep in quality and could only find themselves with difficulty. And thus, at the beginning of their personal meetings these two great geniuses were quite incapable of understanding each other. In fact, when Schiller came to Weimar, he felt himself repelled by what he heard about Goethe, and even a personal meeting could not alter things.

In 1788 Schiller could still write an unfavourable criticism of Egmont, that fruit of a mature artistic thought. He could not understand how Goethe could represent Egmont, not as a heroic enthusiast as Schiller himself would have done, but as a weakling who could be guided by given circumstances.

The Iphigenie too was beyond Schiller's comprehension.

At one point, Goethe and Schiller did almost touch. In an essay on Bürger's poems Schiller had said that Bürger's lack of idealism did not appeal to him; and Goethe was so much in agreement with the essay that he remarked that he would like to have written the essay himself. But there is still evidence how different the two courses ran, in Schiller's essay on Charm and Dignity. This essay shows us Schiller's whole striving after freedom. In what is necessary he can find nothing of charm; a work of nature cannot give any impression of charm. It is only in the work of art which is a symbol, a concrete picture of freedom, that we can speak of charm. And dignity is a word which we can only apply to the higher spiritual realm. Everywhere we see the old tendency to grasp the ideal as something opposed to the natural.

Even the professorship which Goethe got for Schiller at Jena is not to be taken as a service of friendship. This step was of great importance for Schiller. The study of historical character gave him a deep insight into the evolution of the spirit. Moreover, it made it possible for him to marry Charlotte von Lengefeld and start a household. History was just the subject which could help Schiller to reach maturity, as in his inaugural lecture “How should we study history in a universal sense?” In this way Schiller grew more and more into reality.

From 1790 onwards, after a visit to Körner who acted as intermediary between them, Goethe must have got a quite different idea of Schiller. But their friendship was not to mature by the ways in which average people come to feel sympathy with each other. This joint relation was destined never to come into being on the basis of personal interests. Nor, considering the difference of their personalities would their friendship have ever been of such a world-wide importance, if it had been based on that.

It was after a meeting of the Society for Scientific Research in 1794 — probably in July — that Goethe and Schiller began to discuss the lecture they had just heard, on the way home. Schiller said that he had only a mass of isolated and unrelated impressions; whereupon Goethe remarked that for himself he could imagine another form of natural observation. He then developed his views about the relation of all living things — how the whole plant kingdom was to be regarded as in continual development. With a few characteristic strokes Goethe drew the archetypal plant, as it appeared to him, on a piece of paper. “But that is not reality,” objected Schiller, “that is only an idea.” “Well, if that is an idea,” replied Goethe, “I see ideas with my eyes.” In this meeting the nature of both their thought can be seen. Goethe saw the spirit in nature. For him that which the spirit grasps intuitively was as real as what is sensible; for him nature embraces the spirit.

Schiller's true greatness as a man shows itself in the way in which he tried to discover the foundation on which Goethe's spirit was based. He wished to find the right standpoint. In unenvious recognition of all that thus came towards him, Schiller began the friendship which was to unite the two. The letter which Schiller wrote to Goethe after he had sunk himself in Goethe's method of creation, the letter of 24th August 1794, is one of the finest of human documents.


“For a long time I have, 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 harder 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.”


In this way Schiller did Goethe honour, as soon as he had recognised him. There is no deeper psychological characterisation of Goethe. And so it remained till Schiller's death. Their friendship was impregnable, though envy and ill-will used the lowest means to separate them. They worked together in such a way that the advice of the one always had a fruitful influence on the other. Schiller, with a magnificence which has not been surpassed by any other aesthetic writer, by asking how this or that idea harmonises with Goethe's spirit, came to a realisation of the various forms of artistic creation, which he put down in his essay on “Naive and sentimental art.” An artist who still stands in relation to nature, who is himself still nature within nature, creates naively. That is how the Greeks created. An artist who longs for a return to nature, after being torn from her, creates sentimentally. That is the quality of modern art. There is something grand in the way in which these two conceived of art. An old doctrine which still lives in eastern wisdom, of the transitoriness of all appearance, of the veil of Maya, finds expression here. Only he lives in reality who rises above illusion to the region of the spirit. The highest reality is not external.

In every way these two men were forced to inner activity. Goethe, it is true, made his Faust say that “in the beginning was the deed.” But in Germany at that time things were not so far advanced as in France where they could produce external effects; there was only the longing for freedom. And so these two sought their deeds in the sphere of the beautiful, of the work of art. They aimed at a reflection of higher reality, of nature within nature, in life by means of beautiful appearance. Goethe's Wilhelm Meister is of this type. Wilhelm Meister is to take us beyond what is illusion in our everyday life, to the fulfilment of personality. Thus it becomes the finest novel of education, to which Schiller's motto might be applied: “Only through the dawn of the beautiful can you penetrate to the land of knowledge.” The spirit out of which we act is the highest. In that period, it was not possible to show that the world of the spirit is born from within. Thus in Wilhelm Meister the liberation of the world had still to be expressed in the form of artistic beauty.

The continual collaboration and advice of Schiller helped to eradicate the personal element in Wilhelm Meister. On the one side we see what must be regarded as the deeper “cause” in man, what a newer spiritual science calls the “causal body”; on the other side we have the external influences. Nothing can be developed that is not there in the seed; but it needs the influence from without. This collaboration is seen also in Schiller's creative activity. His ballads and his Wallenstein would have been impossible but for Goethe's fertilising influence.

There was a sort of modesty, but combined with a real greatness, in the relation in which they stood to each other. They only became a whole by the completion of their separate natures, and as a result something of new greatness came into being. The depth and strength of their friendship drove all philistinism into opposition against them. They were pursued with envy and hatred, for the small has never been able to understand the great. It is hardly credible to-day what attacks were launched by pettiness against them. The Annals of Philosophy, for instance, spoke disparagingly of them, and someone, called Manso, described them as the “sluts of Weimar and Jena.”

They had to defend themselves against all these attacks and the “Xenien” of 1796 form a fine memorial to their friendship. In the Distichs, which were a sort of historic prosecution of all those who had offended against them or against good taste, we cannot always distinguish those that are by Goethe and those by Schiller. Their friendship was to make them appear as one person. Schiller and Goethe provide us with an example how greatness can defend itself against the everyday, and show us what should be the true attitude and bearing of a friendship which rests on the spiritual. And both were searchers after truth; Schiller in the heart of men, Goethe in the whole of nature.




Last Modified: 04-Jul-2018
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