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Schiller and Our Times

Schmidt Number: S-1055

On-line since: 30th April, 2018


Schiller and Idealism
Æsthetics and Ethics

In this last lecture I want to deal with a particular question which connects up with the lecture in which I discussed Schiller's influence on the present. The problem of aesthetics in Germany comes in here because Schiller stands in close relationship to the establishment of aesthetics as a science — the science of the beautiful.

We have seen what Schiller's attitude was to the beautiful at different periods of his life. Schiller saw in the beautiful something which had a peculiar cultural value. Now a science of aesthetics such as we know to-day is only 150 years old. It is true that Aristotle had written on Poetics, but for centuries these views remained stationary. We know that even Lessing harked back to Aristotle. No real advance was made until the Eighteenth Century when Baumgarten grew up in the Wolffian philosophy and wrote a book on the beautiful called Aesthetica in 1750. He distinguishes the beautiful from the true in that, as he says, the true contains a clear idea, while the beautiful exists in unclear and confused ideas. It was only a few years before Schiller's time that ideas like this could occur.

We have a sort of aesthetics even in Kant's Critique of Judgment, but in him we have nothing but theory; he never had a living idea of what beauty is, and never got three miles away from his birthplace at Königsberg, and never saw any important work of art; and so could only write from the standpoint of abstract philosophy. Schiller, in his Aesthetic Letters, was the first to grasp the problem in any living way.

What was the position at the time? Goethe looked longingly to Greece, and Winckelmann also cast a regretful glance back at the age when men copied the divine in their art. Schiller felt the same regretful longing during his second period, as we can see from his Götter Griechenlands. Again, in Greek drama, what is it but a religious feeling that lies at the back of it. It is based on the mystery, the secret of God who becomes man, who suffers as man, dies and rises again. What happened in the soul was regarded as a purification; and even through the Poetic of Aristotle there still passes a faint breath of it. The tragic was to consist in the “production of an action which aroused pity and fear and aimed at the purification of these feelings.” It was difficult to understand what was meant by that; and Lessing meditated a good deal about it. In the Nineteenth Century a vast literature grew up around the problem, and whole libraries could be filled with books dealing with Katharsis. The idea was not understood because men did not understand from what it had grown up.

In Aeschylus we can still see something of this “drama of the God.” In the middle of the action stood Dionysos as the great dramatic figure, and the chorus round about him accompanied the action. This is how Edouard Schuré has recreated for us the mystery drama. The dramatic cult-action had the definite object of leading man to a higher level of existence. It was seen that man is gripped by passions, that his lower life makes him kin to them; but he can rise above them if the higher that lives in him is purified; he can raise himself by looking at the divine pattern. This type of representation was meant to bring man more easily to ennoble himself than could be achieved by teaching. As Schopenhauer said, it is easy enough to preach morality but very hard to establish it. It was only at a later age of humanity that Socrates' view grew up that virtue is teachable. But virtue is something that lives in man and is natural to him, as eating and drinking are; he can be led to it, if the divine is awoken within him, by the picture of the suffering god. This purification by the divine pattern was called Katharsis. Pity and fear were to be called forth; ordinary sympathy which is connected with the personal was to be raised to the great impersonal sympathy when the god was seen suffering for mankind. Then the dramatic action was humanised, and in the Middle Ages we can see how morality separated off and appeared independently. Thus in Christianity there was produced partially what lived incarnate in the Mysteries. The Greek looked with his own eyes on the god who rose again from humiliation. In the mysteries virtue was not merely preached but put before the eyes of men.

Schiller felt very intensely the desire to give men back this knowledge to unite the sense-world and the moral. The core of his poetry is the longing to reconcile these two — the senses and morality, that morality which Kant had interpreted so rigidly that duty led men away from everything which appeared as natural inclination. Schiller, on the contrary, demanded that duty should coincide with inclination; he wanted passion to be so cleansed that it could become identical with duty. This is why he revered Goethe so much, for in him he saw a perfect union of the sense-world and the moral.

He looked for this unification in the beautiful. And since Schiller possessed to an unusual degree the German quality of an aesthetic conscience, he wanted to make art a means of raising man to a higher level of existence. During the classical period there was a strong feeling that the beautiful did not exist merely to fill up idle hours but that it was the bridge between the sense-world and the divine. Schiller pushed far enough to find freedom here. Inclination is no longer to be suppressed: he remarked that a man must be very low in the scale if he has to be virtuous in opposition to his own inclinations. His inclination must be developed so far that he acts virtuously of himself. Earlier in his The Stage as a moral Institution he had preached something very like the severe Kantian morality.

“In the conquest of the matter by the form lies the secret of the master.” But what is, in fact, the material of the poet? In what attitude can we find the right view of the beautiful? As long as we are interested only in a single face, we have not yet got the true artistic view; there is still a clinging to matter. (“Heed the `what' but heed more the `how'!”) As long as a poet shows that he hates a villain, as if this were a personal interest, he still clings to matter and not the form; he has not yet reached the aesthetic view. He only attains that if the villain is represented in such a way that the natural order, and not the poet, inflicts the punishment. Then the “world karma” is accomplished; world-history becomes a world-judgment. The poet disregards himself and looks at world history objectively. This means moreover that what Aristotle said is realised, that poetry is truer than history. In history we cannot always survey the whole event; it is only an extract that lies before us so that we often get an impression of injustice. In this way a work of art is truer than history.

Thus was created a pure and noble conception of art; the purification, the Katharsis, stands beyond sympathy and antipathy. The spectator should stand before a work of art with a pure, almost godlike feeling, and see before him an objective, divine image of the world, and create for himself a microcosm. The dramatist shows us within a limited framework how guilt and atonement are connected, shows us in detail what the truth is, but gives this truth universal currency. Goethe means the same thing when he says that the beautiful is a manifestation of natural laws which, without the beautiful, would never find expression.

Goethe and Schiller looked for a realism, but it was an idealistic realism. Nowadays we think that we can get realism by an exact copying of nature. Schiller and Goethe would have said that that is not the whole truth; the sense-world only represents a part of what is perceptible and lacks the spiritual; nor can we regard it as truth unless we bring the whole tableau of nature simultaneously into a work. The work of art is however still only an extract of the real. In that they strove for truth, they could not admit the immediate truth of nature.

In this way Schiller and Goethe laboured to awaken an idealism, which had actually existed in earlier times. In Dante we have got a representation not of external reality but of what passes in the human soul. Later on, men demanded to see the spiritual in external form. Goethe showed in Grosskophta how anyone who materialises the spirit becomes subject to delusions; Schiller also occupied himself with this materialisation of the spiritual. At that time, there was a good deal of investigation along these lines; and much of what we nowadays call spiritualism engaged men's attention. In this, lies the occasion of the Geisterseher, which treats of these things. Before he had struggled upward, by the help of Kantianism and the artistic, to higher views, Schiller depicted the dangers to which anyone who seeks the spiritual in the external world instead of in himself, is subject. That is the origin of the Geisterseher.

A prince whose faith has become alien to him and who is not strong enough to waken the spiritual in his own soul, is greatly excited by a strange prophecy which a mysterious stranger announces to him and which is shortly afterwards fulfilled. In this mood he falls in with some tricksters who skilfully employ certain circumstances to bring him into a state of mind in which he will be receptive for the appearance of a spirit. The business is proceeding when suddenly a stranger interrupts and unmasks the trick; but himself produces an apparition in place of that of the trickster, and this apparition makes an important pronouncement to the prince. The prince is torn by doubts, for this stranger is none other than the man who had just prophesied to him; and he soon begins to think that both parties are concerned in the plot since the trickster, though he had been locked up, soon escaped. New and inexplicable incidents make him strive for an explanation of all the secrets; as a result, he comes into complete dependence on an occult society, losing all moral stability. The novel was never finished. In it the struggles of a seeker after spirits are represented in a terrifying fashion; we see how the longing for the spiritual leads men downwards when he looks for it in the external. No one who clings to the material, even if he only seeks to find the spiritual appearing in sensible form, can penetrate to the spiritual. The spiritual has to unveil itself in the soul of man.

That is the true secret of the spiritual; that is why the artist sees it first as beauty. The beautiful, conquered and permeated by the spirit, is made real in a work of art. Hence it is the worthy material of the spiritual. At first the beautiful was the only means for Schiller by which it could reveal itself. He looked with longing back to the time of the Greeks when there existed another means for the awakening of the spiritual: when man raised himself to the divine while bringing god down, making god into man and raising himself by god's means. Mankind must now rise once more to the divine by conquest over the material. Schiller in his plays was always striving higher until the physical fell away more and more until the


Und hinter ihm in wesenlosem Scheme
Lag, was uns alle bändigt, das Gemeine.


which Goethe cried to him after his death, became the full truth. The word “gemein” is not used here in any low, contemptuous sense; it is the common humanity, the common fashion of men that is meant, above which Schiller had raised himself. He had raised himself, as a true seer, to the vision of the spiritual.

He must stand as a pattern before us. That has been the whole object of these lectures; so far as it was possible in a few hours, to trace out this struggling soul of Schiller's, as it rises to greater and greater heights of spiritual insight, and seeks to grasp the spiritual, so that he may impress it upon the sense world. In this struggle we really get to know Schiller, and in him Goethe's words are in truth fulfilled:


Nur der verdient die Freiheit und das lieben
Der Täglich sie erobern muss.

Only he deserves freedom and life
Who daily must conquer them anew.


In this way Schiller fought his way upward, till he became the master of an etheric spirit-permeated form.




Last Modified: 02-Dec-2018
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