Friedrich Schiller's Republic Of Art And Truth
Schiller's 1795 "On the Aesthetic Education of Man" was a call to honor both art and truth in the new modern form of society. How do his ideas look today?
Friedrich Schiller is probably best known for the words of Ode To Joy, accompanying Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with their triumphalist universalism: All Mankind are brothers. In his philosophical text On the Aesthetic Education of Man, he grapples with the major questions of the day in a more sober tone after some of the extreme violence of the French Revolution.
Can selfish individuals uphold a civilized society? How could this new modern Republican society achieve freedom and civic virtue? Could art promote virtue? Was it evidence of humanity’s inherent nobility or a tool to manage the passions of violent and flawed men? Did the development of the arts and sciences contribute to the moral improvement of humanity, or was it a source of vanity, decadence, and corruption?
He warns against the total dominance of scientific and technical imperatives. Instead, he argues for a harmonious integration of reason and emotion for a society where individuals can develop their full potential by embracing both aspects of their nature. He argues that by engaging with aesthetic experiences, individuals can cultivate sensuous inclinations while refining their rational capacities. He writes, "Man plays only when he is in the full sense of the word a man, and he is only wholly a man when he is playing." He also views the development of taste as a form of socialization and peaceful communication in modern society.
To me, the most substantial part of his analysis comes in the ninth letter. He sets out the fundamental question clearly:
“All improvement in the domain of politics should derive from the refinement of character - but how can character be refined under a barbaric state order? One would need to find a tool suited to this task that the state does not possess and with it open up sources that, for all political corruption, would remain pure and honest… this tool is fine art.”
“Art, like science, is absolved from all that is positive and that human convention has introduced; both enjoy an absolute immunity from human capriciousness. The political legislator can bar the way to its domain, but he cannot rule with it. He can despise the friend of truth, but truth prevails; he can humiliate artists, but he cannot falsify art.”
Thus, by honoring truth and art, we hold in the highest esteem these two things that corruptible power can’t ever fully control or possess because their intrinsic value lies beyond convention and power. The most powerful man in the world can ultimately be brought down by truth, and the power of great art is something beyond the control of corrupt forces. Great art, like truth, has a self-evident and potentially world-changing power within itself that can’t be wholly faked or hidden forever once it authentically emerges. And so, for this reason, these are the two things most worthy of cultivation and reverence.
This resonates still today.
“How does the artist shield himself from the corruptions of his age that surround him? By disdaining its judgment.”
His advice to the artists?
“Live with your century, but do not be its creature. Serve your contemporaries but give them what they need, not what they praise.”
On The Aesthetic Education Of Man by Friedrich Schiller. Translated by Keith Tribe with an introduction and notes by Alexander Schmidt. Penguin 2016.
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