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Friedrich Schiller's evolutionary way to a republic

Dr. Wilfried Noetzel

Translated by Valerie Noetzel-Gray

Germans given to nostalgic feelings on revolution like to point out the sporadic attempts at a republic by the grace of France toward the end of the 18th century. The enclaves of progress east of the Rhine must serve them as - admittedly sparse - evidence of the fitness for democracy of the Germans - who were in fact to bear the yoke of feudalism for well over a century more. However, apart from the fact that not all the behaviour manifested by the victorious people's army of their western neighbour was perceived as possessing particular charm, the massacres of the Jacobite dictatorship and the transformation of a revolutionary euphoria into a nationalistic, indeed under their megalomaniac Emperor an imperialistic one, made it difficult for many German citizens and intellectuals with republican sympathies to sustain hopes of fundamental change in the political circumstances. To begin straight away with a Schiller quotation from a letter written on 13th July, 1793, the year of the demise of the Republic of Mainz:

Indeed, I am so far from believing in the start of a regeneration in politics, that current events rather rob me of all hopes of this for centuries ... The attempt of the French people to establish its holy human rights and to achieve a political freedom has merely made manifest its incapacity and unworthiness, and flung not only this unhappy people, but together with them a considerable part of Europe back into barbarity and bondage. (Bolten p 41)

Thus Friedrich Schiller to his patron, Friedrich Christian, titular Duke of Augustenburg. The frustrating course taken by the insurrection once hailed with such hope, and his realisation that "they are not ripe for civil freedom who still lack so much that would qualify them as humans" , prompted the Swabian neo-humanist to seek a non-violent path to a republic. In the anti-feudalistic dramatic work of his youth, which had brought him such fame that in 1792 the French National Assembly had even bestowed upon him their citizenship, he had already brought revolutionaries onto the stage who were given to criminal ravaging (Die Räuber), who usurped the newly acquired freedom of the people (Die Verschwörung des Fiesko zu Genua) or proved political failures (Don Carlos). In 1789, at the beginning of the French Revolution, the newly wed civil servant Schiller had become Professor of History at the University of Jena and was for six years to concentrate exclusively on scholarly work and publishing. It proved to be a very fruitful period, despite the fact that his life was threatened by illness: during this time of intensive historical and philosophical studies and publications he also developed his reform-oriented alternatives to the violent overthrow of the political system, of which he was nonetheless vehemently critical.

The spark had been kindled in the first place by a south German Jacobite who had remained loyal to the Revolution of the French people despite the execution of the King and the excessive carnage of the year 1793. He maintained that the people had a right to revolution as had been laid down in the constitution by the French Jacobites and used by Marat as the justification for the September massacres, Robespierre for the execution of the King and Saint-Juste after the liquidation of Danton. I am speaking of the Nürnberg physician Johann Benjamin Erhard. Like his friend Schiller, who had likewise studied medicine, he came from a lower middle-class background and had, by means of intensive self-study and publications which attracted considerable attention, advanced to the upper reaches of academia. Like Schiller, whose acquaintance he made on one of his lengthy study journeys at the beginning of the 1790s, he upheld friendships or acquaintanceships with reputed intellectuals of his time, and like him, too, he was a philosophical disciple of Kant. But, much more radical than Schiller in his views, Erhard was involved in revolutionary action, which found a particularly explosive situation in impoverished Nürnberg. Erhard agitated, wrote fliers and contacted agents who were in the service of the French armies operating in the German kingdoms and principalities; he acted as a spy and upheld contacts with Jacobites abroad who were later executed or given long sentences of imprisonment, which he dextrously avoided. Like many German intellectuals who had believed in revolutionary rebirth, he finally despaired, if at a later date, after the downfall of the Jacobite dictatorship and as a result of Napoleonic imperialism. In 1797, one year after Prussia had annexed the bankrupt city of Nürnberg, Erhard was invited to Berlin by the minister Hardenberg, and there finally set up a large and profitable medical practice.

So much, in an all-too-brief overview, for the German Jacobite who, and this is why I mention him here, in 1794 published a book - promptly forbidden and forgotten - "On the Right of the People to a Revolution". Unfortunately this can here be given only marginal attention. Erhard had evidently discussed this provocative topic with Schiller on a journey to Stuttgart from 7th to 10th May, and he, as an anti-Jacobite and bourgeois liberal wrote a letter on 26th May urging Erhard in a spirit of friendship to "above all follow my advice and for now leave the unfortunate, unworthy and immature human race to fend for itself. Remain in the cheerful and peaceful realm of ideas, and leave it to time to implement them. And if you are itching to have an effect on others, then begin with the physical and cure their bodies of gout and fever whose souls are beyond healing." Haasis, p. 217)

This no doubt documents a practical political abstinence which was not uncommon among the German intellectuals of the day, and which in Schiller's opinion was called for in view of the failure of the French Revolution. In the above-mentioned second of the so-called Augustenburg Letters he justifies himself thus:

Were it true, were the extraordinary case really so, that political legislation had been placed in the hands of Reason, that humans were treated with respect and as having their own value, that the Law had been elevated to the throne and true Freedom been made the fundament of the house of the state, then I would be ready to take leave for ever of the muses and devote all my activity to that most splendid of all works of art, the monarchy of Reason. But I make so bold as to doubt that this is in fact the case. (Bolten, p. 40f)

And so the only possibility left to the disappointed German poet and thinker was to retreat into the realm of ideas, the future cultural and socially critical potential of which has, unlike Erhard's apologia for revolution, to this day remained effective. Erhard had based his defence of the use of violence for revolutionary purposes on four main points: the elimination of injustice, the facilitation of justice, the elimination of the violation of human rights and the defence of these universal rights and human dignity. Honourable objectives, indeed, and sure of Schiller's approval - with, however, one crucial difference: he rejected their short-term and violent realisation: " Thus the grave doubt is that the physical society cannot stop for one moment in the time in which the moral society is being formed in the idea, that a human's existence cannot be risked for the sake of his dignity." (H.S. p. 575) Such a postulate admits only of long-term political strategies for change which if possible involve all sections of the population in sustainable reforms. However, for Schiller's socio-cultural approach, these reforms were at best of a cultural-political, but above all of a pedagogical nature. Immanuel Kant had in the spirit of the Enlightenment demanded a revolutionary reform in the way of thinking. Schiller complemented this demand with an appeal for revolutionary reforms in the way of feeling. Not until this was achieved would there be any guarantee that universal humane principles were motivationally anchored in human nature.

If Truth is to triumph in the struggle with the forces, then it must itself become a force and, appoint an urge as its agent in the realm of phenomena; for urges are the only moving forces in the feeling world. If as yet Truth has so little proved its conquering force , the reason for this does not lie in our Reason, for not knowing how to unveil it, but in our hearts, which closed themselves to it and in our urges, which did not act in its cause. (Schiller, p. 591)

In wanting to cultivate "sensitivity" in the age of Reason, Schiller was by no means following an early Romantic impulse, but rather a pragmatic psychological one: recognition of what is good and right does not automatically lead to good and right behaviour. In order to generate committed deeds, rational enlightenment must be accompanied by a person's affective involvement so that the recognition of the True and the Good can be implemented in emancipatory practice. For this purpose Schiller, with his ideas of aesthetic education, recommends that all social classes and levels be exposed to intensive cognitive and affective education processes, in order to increase their will for peace and mutual understanding. Neither scholar nor civil servant, neither trader nor labourer, neither the ruling classes nor the underprivileged were to be excepted. Schiller certainly represents the views of the educated bourgeoisie. But by no means does he forget the underprivileged minority, the "working classes", whom he already distinguishes from the educational elite of the "reflecting classes" (albeit without meaning the plebeians of the fourth class, who were to form the industrial proletariat of the 19th century).

Education requires scope, free thinking, free speech, free time. For which reason the liberal protagonist of a future German republic was also aware that material existence must be secured as a prerequisite for leisure, that is for free time for rational enlightenment and emotional sensitivity: "With a warm home and enough to eat a human being is not yet very much, but he must have that warm home and enough to eat if his better nature is to be activated." (Bolten, p.50ff). This sounds almost Brechtian: "First comes the food and then morality." How such scope for people's general education is to be pushed through politically is not the topic with which Schiller is concerned. After all, he had not yet read Marx and knew no trade unions. But that intellectual freedom was dependant on prosperity, that he knew from his own experience: as one of the first free writers in Germany our classical author struggled to gain a meagre existence from publishing and at the time of writing his Aesthetic Education would not have been able to feed himself or his family without the support of friends and sponsors, nor could he have found the free time to write his impressive life's work. His experience is not to be compared with Goethe's well-paid ministerial post, with the considerable time it left at his disposal.

There is little sense in going into detail here on the complex system of argument of Schiller's Aesthetic Education, inspired as it is by transcendental philosophy. However, a brief overview is worthwhile. The humanist Friedrich Schiller tried some two hundred years ago to counteract the scientification of thought, the bureaucratic trend in the feudal state apparatus, occupational specialisation as a result of the division of labour, the rapacious advance of mercantilism in the bourgeoisie, the educational misery caused by the exhausting working life of the majority of people and the moral degeneracy not less under the conditions of revolution than in the humiliating circumstances of feudalism, the decadence of courtly culture and the fundamentalist arrogance of the self-appointed elite in power - against all this he tried to set his concept for reformative education. His diagnosis of the pre-capitalist society which sacrificed the identity of the individual inspired all subsequent idealistic philosophy, and moreover Marx and Engels. With the purpose-oriented culture of pragmatic thought and action which robbed those caught up in it of their individual identity, Schiller contrasted the value-oriented culture of the global citizen attitude and the national citizen's commitment, with the self-centred hedonism of individuals the universal abstraction of the general rational principles of humanity represented by the Age of Enlightenment.

However, Schiller, like Sigmund Freud, also attempted to overcome this anthropological dichotomy of the Material and the Spiritual, Sensuality and Rationality, Inclination and Duty - ultimately the individual's satisfaction of his instinctive urges ("id") and the constraints of social norms ("super ego"), which had led Kant still to assume that human beings were characterised by an innate "unsociable sociability". Torn between the poles of a hedonistic individualism and a moralistic collectivism, human beings had to risk the game of balancing out their own identities between ethics and aesthetics. This certainly makes sense, since according to Kant (and, referring to him, Schiller, too) "aesthetic judgement" springs from a combination of people's mental and emotional capabilities. It is not far-fetched to want to use aesthetic perception and formation to make people more amiable, more sociable, more peaceful, since the rituals of interaction, the customs and traditions of people's social environment are indeed characterised by this mixture of ethics and aesthetics. The notion that the civilisation of human "dealings", the generation of public spirit, can be initiated by a comprehensive aesthetic formation of the circumstances of communication was even considered by Jürgen Habermas to be a strong hypothesis; in his view Schiller had already based his concept for a life art on communicative Reason, thus anticipating Hegel in opening the counter-discourse of the modern age.

However, aesthetic education was not intended to make people sensitive only to the harmonising "Beauty" in Nature and culture, but also to the "Sublime" which was also found there. People were not just to devote their attention to the sunny side of life, but must give thought to its shady side with its pains and misfortunes, indeed its often fatal results; they must arm themselves against the vicissitudes of fate or stand up for unrelinquishable principles. They are to learn to bear the inevitable and overcome it morally. So with his normative aesthetics of effect Schiller was not concerned with art education, but with the practice of humanist life art. In order that Beauty should not lead people, in their unceasing drive to satisfy their instinctive urges and to enjoy life, to neglect their claim to humanity, they should gain early practice in what he calls "resignation to necessity", which has evidently passed into the Marxist terminology of freedom. It is his fear that people might "growing slack as a result of uninterrupted enjoyment, lose their robustness of character", be softened aesthetically and finally fritter away the stamina needed for long-term political reforms. Schiller was counting on a citizen who was not characterised by philanthropic "Grace" alone, but also by a "Dignity" which could tolerate frustration, on one who mastered his life, his personal relations and conflicts in society, with social imagination and personal integrity.

Thus I have a double contention to defend: firstly that it is "Beauty" which refines the rough son of Nature and helps to educate and form the merely sensual human being into a rational one; secondly that it is the Sublime which improves upon the disadvantages of this education through Beauty, lending the refined art-human a supple strength and uniting the merits of refinement with the virtues of wildness. (Bolten, p 57)

So humans should sublimate their "wild" aggressiveness through culture, in order to mobilise their moral energies in the face of the Terrible and the Incomprehensible in Nature und civilisation. These energies will then feed that spiritual resistance which is indispensable for coping with the blows of Fate and the pursuit of humanist principles - not only in good times but also under adverse circumstances.

Neither is this the place nor do we have time here to go into further details of this fascinating humanist concept of life art. So we have to leave it at that! However I am convinced that the time has come to leave behind us the excessive hedonism and uncontrolled aestheticism of our designer civilisation and to recollect the "limits of humanity". We should make ourselves aware again that we are still dependent on the external and internal forces of Nature and should accept the fact that our fates are chained to inevitable constraints. These we will never escape, however hard we sound the trumpet of self-determination.

Mental enlightenment, which the cultivated classes - not unjustifiably - vaunt, shows overall so little refining influence on the disposition that it rather confirms that vitiation is caused by maxims ... right in the bosom of the most refined company egoism has set up its system, and unless we take a social heart out with us we must experience all the contagion and affliction of society. Our free judgement we subject to its despotic opinion, our feeling to its bizarre customs, our will to its seductions; only our arbitrary will do we assert against its holy rights. (Schiller, p. 580 f.)

If the cap fits ... Do we have to relate this to ourselves? Here, of course, Schiller is referring to the feudalist society of his time and not to our late capitalist one, in which department stores offer citizens a princely range of products which would have been the pride of any ruler's table. It is not our globally linked information society that is meant - in which we do not know whether Reason is not befogged rather than illuminated by the plethora of its communicative turnover. Or is it not also true of the citizens of our bureaucratic constitutional state that they also have difficulty in "bringing a social heart with them"? And do they not also constantly run the risk of subjecting their "free judgement" to advertising and the manipulative effect of the mass media on their taste? The neo-humanist Schiller replaced religion by aesthetics and drafted a moralizing concept of life art for secularised republics. In order to ensure that these would endure in the long term he considered it indispensable that technical and economic progress be accompanied by an equally strong socio-cultural one. Our faith in progress may also have its limits after the experiences of the last two hundred years. As we can hardly find the way back into the pre-modern age, swathed in nebulous myth, and the post-modern, with its "anything goes", leaves the economy-adjusted individual in splendid isolation, the lonely victim of the mass communication media, we have the task of civilising human "dealings" and fitting our society out with a humane "sociability". In the case of "medium-sized" catastrophes we can cope with, like the flood of the century, a rebelling Nature may be of assistance to an ailing sense of solidarity. If we are to have any measure of success in coping with the worldwide upheavals in the conditions of our existence, then we shall have to complement the individualist principle of "self-determination" in a long-term and sustainable way with the public-spirited principle of "responsibility". These two must be kept in a state of balance; our legitimate desire for a happy and pleasing life cannot be allowed to jeopardise the acceptance of necessity of a "sublime conviction", that is to say, it must live up to the obligatory claims to being reasonable and morally reliable. That is the message of Schiller's Aesthetic Education - one which can hardly go out of date. Even taking into account that we must be sceptical of idealistic enthusiasts: Schiller's notion of a human being who is fit for a republic, who combines charm with character, who is characterised not less by his capacity for enjoying life and his sociable amiability than by his steadfastness in misfortune and his commitment to public-spirited action, has its merits. At least it endures, in my opinion, as a suitable yardstick by which to measure humane and democratic life practice.


Bolten, Jürgen (Hrsg.): Schillers Briefe über die ästhetische Erziehung. Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt/M 1984

Haasis, Hellmut G. (Hrsg.): Johann Benjamin Erhard, Über das Recht des Volks zu einer Revolution und andere Schriften. Reihe Hanser 36, München 1970

Schiller, Friedrich : Sämtliche Werke, Hanser Verlag, Band 5, 6. Auflage, München 1980

Noetzel Wilfried: Humanistische Ästhetische Erziehung. Friedrich Schillers moderne Umgangs- und Geschmacks pädagogik. Deutscher Studien Verlag, Weinheim 1992

Noetzel, Wilfried: Mit Charme und Charakter. Geschmackserziehung für die Republik? In: D.Grünewald / W.Legler /

K.-J. Pazzini: Ästhetische Erfahrung. Perspektiven ästhetischer Rationalität, Friedrich Verlag, Velber 1997, S. 397-409