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Schiller and Our Times

Schmidt Number: S-1033

On-line since: 30th April, 2018

What can the present learn from Schiller

We must not overlook the fact that the relationship of the general public to Schiller was bound to become something quite different in the second half of the Nineteenth Century from what it had been in the first: if only because of those facts which I have mentioned. Schiller's feeling towards Truth was expressed by his saying that “through the dawn of the beautiful you may pass into the land of knowledge.” To him truth was the beautiful; a work of art was to give form to the idea, the idea by which the world as a whole is to be imagined as being permeated. It was an idealist view of the world, a fine and subtle view which can only be grasped by a man who can rise to subtle spiritual heights. To understand Schiller requires very definite conditions.

For this reason, there is something less intense in the second half of the century, in the honour done to Schiller; the growing natural science produced a cooler attitude in men. Truth was now seen only in what was tangible: which is what Schiller never did. His ideal was always truth, but truth on a spiritual basis. We can no longer grasp as true reality what lived at the time in men's feelings. Schiller had grown up out of the greatness and breadth of his spiritual horizons: the world of Goethe, Lessing, Herder and Winckelmann. When external reality thrust forward its harsh demands, there was no real relationship left between the true and the beautiful.

A man like Ludwig Büchner has been able to build up a purely materialistic philosophy on the basis of natural science; but Schiller is not for a materialistic age, and if we appeal to his views in such an age, we are only playing with words. Thus Schiller dropped into the background. Goethe could still mean something to the second half of the century because in him the artistic can be separated from a world conception (Weltanschauung): even Herman Grimm concentrates his eulogy on Goethe as the artist. True, if we are dealing exactly with Goethe, we shall see that in his case also it will not do to separate the Weltanschauung from the man; still a purely aesthetic view is possible with him, whereas with Schiller it is not. Nowadays art is regarded as something that deals with the realm of phantasy. That, in itself, is a rejection of the world-conception, Weltanschauung.

A gulf has grown up between the spirit of the age in which Schiller lived and that of our own age: — indeed a recent biographer of Schiller, Otto Brahm, could begin his book with the words: “In my youth I hated Schiller.” He only fought his way to an understanding of Schiller by his learning and the increase of knowledge. Schiller has had many learned biographers, but the feeling of the age has become a stranger to the truly Schillerian problems; nor can it understand how what we nowadays call knowledge can be brought into harmony with what Schiller stands for. As I said, the artists of an earlier age, a Raphael or Michelangelo, grew up out of the life of their time. That was no longer the case after Goethe's death. An artist, for instance, like Peter Cornelius, creates wholly out of his thoughts, being no longer in any relation to the spiritual content of his time. He felt himself especially a stranger in Berlin; attracted towards Catholicism in which he believed that he saw the basis for his artistic ideal, he stood face to face with the life of his time, unable to take any part in it.

The gulf between life and art becomes ever greater. And so Schiller becomes more and more a stranger to the life of the Nineteenth Century. Men like Jacob Minor may write large tomes about his youth, but everything shows really how Schiller's views have become out of touch with our times.

What we recognise as true nowadays, has grown up out of the attitude of natural science. Aesthetics also have passed from an idealist to a realist attitude. Indeed, this revolution was so violent that Vischer could not make up his mind to publish a second edition of his Aesthetics which he had written from an idealist standpoint: — the very views he had formerly supported had become unintelligible to him. The ideas of the first half of the century had become so foreign to the leading thinkers of the second half that we find men criticising themselves like that.

After such a development we shall understand how Schiller stands in the present. E. du Bois Reymond, for instance, who after all derived his diction wholly from Schiller, was able to say in a speech about Goethe's “Faust,” that it was really a failure, and that really Faust ought to have married Gretchen, made some valuable discoveries and led a useful existence. The real significance of “Faust” was thus unintelligible to an important thinker of the Nineteenth Century.

This attitude was the dominant one, and no one dared to oppose it or to emphasise the rights of the ideal. Even art called itself realist. Any idealist tinge failed to find approval with the public. It was only honest for men to admit that they felt no liking for Schiller. It was no longer admitted that the beautiful was an expression of the true; for the truth was regarded as that which can be seen by the eye or touched by the hand. Schiller had never believed that; he had always found the truth in great ideal laws. Art was for him the representation of the spiritual hidden in the actual, not of the everyday things. The true which Schiller sought is recognised nowadays neither by science nor by art; no one understands nowadays what Schiller understood by the true. Hence comes that opposition; for we understand by the true what Schiller called the indigence of the sense-world. It was in the harmony between the spiritual and the poverty of the sense-world that Schiller looked for the ideal of Freedom. What we call “artistic” nowadays can never be called so in the sense in which Schiller talked of it.

There is a further gulf between present-day views and those of Schiller. Our age has lost the intense passion to penetrate into the world's inner core. This deep seriousness which broods over all Schiller's views no longer exists. Hence in our times we try to compare, quite superficially, two so fundamentally different men as Tolstoi and Nietzsche.

Materialism has become a world philosophy, a gospel, an integral element of our times. Particularly, it is the great masses of people who think like that and admit no other philosophy; they will only admit as true what natural science allows them to call so. Let me tell you a little story to illustrate what that leads to: It was the last time when a philosophy appeared, which though pessimistic, had an ideal colouring; Eduard von Hartmann's Philosophy of the Unconscious. The book was attacked a good deal; and there was one particularly effective criticism under the title of The Unconscious from the point of view of the theory of descent and of Darwinism. This book was anonymously published. The scientists welcomed it as the best refutation of Hartmann's work. In the second edition the author's name was given: it was Eduard v. Hartmann. He wanted to show that it is easy to drag oneself down to the materialistic view when one has reached a higher view. Men at a higher level can understand a lower level, but not vice versa. You will always find that men whose standpoint is that of idealism are ready to admit the materialistic view to a considerable extent. A man whose standpoint is that of Schiller can judge modern art in its materialist view, but the materialist cannot, contrariwise, understand the idealist.

Schiller was a believer in the ideal. There is a deep saying of his: “What religion do I subscribe to? None of all those that you name. And why none of them? Because of religion.” That is the greatness in the man, that his aesthetic creed is also his religious and that his artistic creation was his form of religious worship. The fact that his ideal lived in this way within him is part of his greatness. We should not ask if Schiller can mean anything to us nowadays; on the contrary he must come to mean something for us again, because we have forgotten how to understand what goes beyond the purely material. Then we again shall be able to understand an art which seeks to unveil the secrets of existence.

But there is a new ideal of freedom we can learn to understand through him. We hear a good deal of talk just now about freedom, and we all want to be free from political and economic bonds. Schiller looked at freedom in a different way. How can man become free in himself? How is he to become free from his lower desires, free from the necessities of logic and reason? Schiller — who wrote about the State and life in society — found a new aim and a hint of new ideals, which still he in the future. If we want to claim with justice, at the present time, that the individual should develop freely, we must understand harmony in Schiller's sense, het us measure the demands of to-day with Schiller's; let us compare what we expect nowadays with what Schiller demanded; take two instances, Max Stirner and Schiller. What could be more unlike, more diametrically opposed than Stirner's The Individual and his Property and Schiller's Aesthetic Letters: When Schiller's influence was declining, Stirner's was increasing. Stirner had remained neglected all the time until he was re-discovered in the 1890's and his work became the foundation of what buzzes about as individualism. There is a good deal of justification in this attitude of to-day, but the particular form which it takes must strike us as immoderate. In Schiller's Aesthetic Letters the demand for the liberation of human personality is put forward still more radically. Schiller's ideal was much less provincial than Stirner's. The ideal of men working together who have become inwardly free, appears to others as an exhortation. When men live in such freedom there are no laws and commandments.

Nowadays we seem to think that chaos must result where men are not hemmed in by police regulations; yet we must remember that an enormous proportion of things goes on without laws. Every day you can see how men make way for each other in the most crowded streets without our having to have a law about it. Ninety-eight per cent, of our life goes on without laws; and someday it will be possible to get on completely without law and force. But for that man must be inwardly free. The ideal which Schiller puts before us is one of infinite sublimity. Art is to lead man to freedom. Art, growing out of the substance of our culture, is to become the great educator of the world. Artists are not to provide us with photographs of the external world, but to be the heralds of a higher spiritual reality. Then artists will once more create, as they did formerly, from, out of the ideal. Schiller wanted to lead men through art to a new comprehension of reality; and he meant it very seriously.

If this age of ours is to understand Schiller properly, it must unite all that it has won of knowledge, into a higher idealism which shall in time raise that knowledge to spiritual reality. Then there will be men who can speak in the spirit of Schiller from the depths of their hearts. It is of little use to open the theatres in Schiller's honour if the people who sit in them have no understanding for him. Only when we have attained to such an understanding of Schiller will there be men, who, like Herman Grimm about Goethe, will be able to speak about Schiller from the depth of the heart.

Last Modified: 04-Jul-2018
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