Three Hot Takeaways from Friedrich von Schiller

Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller, that fine-looking German man of letters who lived from 1759–1805, was the unofficial mascot of where I went to undergrad, Carleton College. In the late 1950s some students swiped a bust of the Romantic from the library and ever since it’s become “a thing” to steal and publicly display the bust in elaborate ways (e.g. danged it out of a helicopter at a football game) or get it in the hands of famous people (e.g. Steven Colbert, Bill Clinton, Desperate Housewives). Naturally of course, as old as the tradition of Schiller itself is the tradition of complaining about Schiller. False idolatry, uninspired guardianship, co-option by the nefarious forces of capitalism, and so forth get trotted out regularly to justify declarations that “Schiller is Dead.”

What would Schiller have said about this micro-cultural phenomenon that was to become of his marbled likeness? Hell if I knew, because what it wasn’t “a thing” to do was read anything the poet actually wrote. Not once in German, nor Philosophy, nor English, nor Political Science, nor in any other department did I ever see Schiller appear on a syllabus, and never did any teacher or administrator every include in their pep-talk name-drop of the dude any quotations or substantive comments about the Swabian’s actual importance. Toward the end of college I asked my friend Max why no teacher ever taught him, and he replied that it’s because Schiller’s writing isn’t that great. Oh, I guess that’s a good reason.

At long last I’ve been made to read Schiller in a German Idealism class I’m now taking, and Max’s reply has been partially confirmed by my professor. Schiller’s The Robbers is “doggerel and dogmatic,” he opined in his Oxfordian accent, while “Ode to Joy,” Schiller’s poem that inspired Beethoven’s final symphony that’s now the official anthem of what’s left of the EU, isoverwrought and overplayed.” But, he continued, it is indeed a shame that Schiller’s two most famous works have turned out to be no good because the rest of his stuff really is of value. So we were made to read his poem “The Greek Gods” and his Letters on an Aesthetic Education, both of which were absorbing and quite readable (especially compared with the rest of German writing, it must be said).

There are three aspects of Schiller that I found particularly noteworthy: his take on disenchantment, class struggle, and aesthetic education. Each is an integral to central teachings of later German thinkers (Weber, Marx, and Nietzsche respectively), but each also carries relevance to the contemporary moment. So if you’ve the time, let’s go through them:

1) Disenchantment

“The disenchantment of the world,” the celebrated and often-debated concept used by pioneering 20th century German sociologist Max Weber to characterize modern bureaucratized Western society, is a direct borrow from our dear friend Fred von Schills. His poem “The Greek Gods” is a eulogy to the world of Greek antiquity, a time:

When the magic veil of poetry
Still round truth entwined its loving chain, —
Through creation poured life’s fullness free,
Things then felt, which ne’er can feel again.

Life back then, Schiller describes, possessed a wholeness and vivacity that a mix of modern science and modern religion have denatured. The boundary between the human and the divine was permeable in all spheres of life, “For then were Heroes, Gods, and Mortals/United in the bond of love;/…/Men bowed with those who rule above.” Not all was hunky-dory, obviously. The magic of the ancient world also meant dark magic: demons, ghosts, monsters, and hexes terrorized towns and peoples. But these each appeared within their proper place in the larger system. Demons looked scary and were scary, there was no disunion between the inner and outer, appearance and reality, being and seeming. That world is no more, according to Schiller:

Beauteous world, where art thou gone? O, thou,
Nature’s blooming youth, return once more!
Cold and perished, sorrow now the plains,
Not one godhead greets my longing sight;
Ah, the shadow only now remains
Of yon living image bright!

In latter times, “The Gods depart, in sorrowing token/That happy childhood is outgrown;/The leading-strings at length are broken,/The ungrateful world can soar alone.” This breaking of strings is what triggers the disjunction between facts and values that Weber famously talks about. In ancient times, every object had intrinsic value, but now its value is dependent on human perspective. I like the example of numerology to illustrate: in ancient times, each number possessed certain fixed social meanings: in Greece, for example, the number 9 instantly conjured the thought of the Muses. But nowadays these connotations have receded; numbers do not contain significance except to the extent that they can be combined in useful ways. 29.394820473 is not a tapestry with its own suggestiveness but a meaningless string of digits— unless it happens to be involved in a calculation you’re doing relating to something important.

A few decades after Schiller, the poet Heinrich Heine would write: “Nobody says it, but everyone knows it: pantheism is the secret of Germany. It is the religion of our greatest thinkers, our best artists.” Surely Schiller was among those he had in mind. This theme of polytheism is another that Weber picks up on. Once values have fragmented into facts, modern man necessarily must become polytheist. Decoupled from any unified system of theology or Goodness, man takes his bearings from innumerable sources. A bit of religion here, technology there, philosophy there, art here, advertising there, mediation here, and so forth, all in the matter of a single afternoon. But unlike the Greeks, the ends dictated by these deities are fundamentally incompatible. The Greeks were polytheists, but there was a unity to their polytheism; that is, one could worship Apollo one day, Dionysus the next, but this fluidity was accepted, the two commitments didn’t clash with one another. We however cannot move with fluidity between the heterogeneous goals we pursue. Not only do many of the ends have little if anything to do with reinforcing each other, they almost always actively chaff against each other. We are buckets of irreconcilable stuff, wrecked by self-contradiction.

2) Class Struggle

Losing the unity that man possessed in the enchanted world produces a particular political dynamic that Schiller helps us see. For without this unity, individuals are no longer have the infrastructure to express their full capacities as humans. One person can no longer contain a whole world inside of them, they are fragmented. This dynamic reproduces en masse: “We see not only individual subjects, but whole classes of men, uphold their capacities only in part, while the rest of their faculties scarcely show a germ of activity, as in the case of the stunted growth of plants. It was culture itself that gave these wounds to modern humanity.”

By “culture itself,” Schiller means the division of labor, which fixes the cosmic fragmentation into place in people’s day-to-day practice by making them perform tasks that only activate certain parts of themselves. The political theorist G.A. Cohen once cheekily remarked that all of Karl Marx is contained within the 5th letter of Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man. If Schiller looks forward to Marx, he also points us back of Rousseau. Or rather, we can say the Schiller is essentially a Rousseau who witnessed the French Revolution.

In the Letters, written right after the massive bloodshed, we can see him trying to come to terms with what happened: “One the one hand, man is seen running wild, on the other in a state of lethargy; the two extremest stages of degeneracy, and both seen in one and the same period.”

Amongst the working classes, “coarse, lawless impulses come to view, breaking loose when the bonds of civil order are burst asunder, and hastening with unbridled fury to satisfy their savage instinct.” Yet Schiller says they aren’t the ones to bear the brunt of the blame. Rather, it’s the degeneration, uncooked-egg-headedness of the elites that’s the most despicable. “A spirit of abstraction suffocates the fire that might have warmed the heart and inflamed the imagination, and so “the civilized classes give us the still more repulsive sight of lethargy, and of a depravity of character which is the more revolting because it roots in culture.”

In review: “The child of nature, when he breaks loose, becomes a madman; but the art scholar, when he breaks loose, becomes a debased character.” This image of civil breakdown in modern society repeats itself over a century later in the famous lines of W. B. Yates’s “The Second Coming,”: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

Once again, the example of the Greeks, Schiller says, shows us that such division isn’t necessarily a given. The Greeks were able to have both the simplicity of the child nature as well as depth of culture of the art scholar — at the same time in the same people.

3) The Play Drive

So how can we overcome all of this fragmentation and division? The answer is in the title of the work: aesthetic education. Human beings are governed by two fundamental drives, Schiller writes. These are the form drive and the sense drive. The sense drive is characterized by sensuality and is more pronounced in the lower classes. The form drive, on the other hand, is characterized by the desire for control and order. Schiller’s dichotomy is important for historical reasons because it will turn into Nietzsche’s distinction between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. For Nietzsche, Greek tragedy, in particular that of Aeschylus and Sophocles, was the ultimate way of synthesizing these two opposing forces, and he’ll later develop this idea into what he called into his “Gay Science.” Schiller had basically the same insight; he called his synthesis the “play drive,” The play drive is able to harness the overflowing chaos of the sense drive without killing it completely. “The cultivated human being makes nature his friend and honors its freedom, while reining in its arbitrariness,” he writes. “A human being only plays when in the full meaning of the word it is a human, and it is only completely a human when it plays.”


I hope this is somewhat helpful (or at least more interesting that the Wiki page) for giving a bit of flesh to FvS’s bone and showing him at the crossroads of a few really important discussions in modern thought. The main thing to take away is to remember that he was important for his ideas about disenchantment (Weber), class struggle (Marx) and aesthetic education (Nietzsche). We have course been overly brief, and not really discussed at the problems Schiller leaves us with — He’s been accused by various talking heads of atheism, irrationalism, fabrication of the past, nihilism and much more— but that’s something you can pursue on your own if you’re so inclined.

Thanks for reading,