Cultivating Beauty: Schiller on the Political Effects of Art

Cultivating Beauty: Schiller on the Political Effects of Art

True to its title, Friedrich Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man examines beauty’s role in individual and cultural development. At its most general level, the Aesthetic Letters investigates two key questions: (1) What is beauty? (2) And what are its effects on human life? Inspired by Kant, Schiller attempts to answer the first question through a transcendental deduction of the beautiful. The resulting argument is brilliant, yet complicated. As a result, I plan to explain the details of Schiller’s deduction of the beautiful more fully in another essay. But, for now, I want to focus on Schiller’s answer to the second question, the question of the effects of beauty on human life, since it presents a compelling vision for how to live with strength, hope, and integrity in a collapsing political order.

I. Responding to Art’s Cultured Despisers

Schiller begins his Letters by defending himself against an objection, an objection still murmured by today’s cultured despisers, “is it not imprudent, indeed even immoral, to think about beauty and art given the enormity of the political crisis that confronts us?” While today we are familiar with the standard slogans about poetry being impossible in view of the horrors of the 20th century or in light of abiding cultural inequities, in Schiller’s day, the crisis concerned the consequences of the French Revolution. At first, the Revolution carried the hopes of the Enlightenment, since it appeared to overthrow the seemingly arbitrary order of kings and clerics and abolish their hereditary privileges, promising instead to establish a new egalitarian order based upon the principles of abstract Reason. By destroying old customs and institutions, man now had the opportunity to create a utopia: a society of liberty, equality, and brotherhood based on science. Yet the gods laughed the Revolution’s utopian plans to scorn and destiny did not unfold as anticipated. Instead of universal brotherhood, a reign of terror and savagery ensued, and the educated classes of Europe began to realize that people were not yet morally equipped to wield their newfound political freedoms. And given that the very existence of society and the future of the ideals of the Enlightenment were at stake, cultural elites began to dismiss questions of art and beauty as, at best, frivolous, and, at worst, decadent.

Schiller responds to this objection by arguing that, far from constituting an idle luxury, beauty is, in fact, the key to solving the political dilemma of the age. People, in virtue of their degenerate characters, have proven themselves incapable of responsibly wielding their new political freedoms. Accustomed to a life devoted to animal survival, people continued to act on these animal instincts after they were given political power, and a general state of savagery ensued as a result. And those who had previously been afforded the opportunities of leisure and education proved themselves to be even worse. For, according to Schiller, “the civilized classes present the even more repugnant spectacle of lethargy and a depraved character which is all the more disgusting because culture itself is its source” (Letter 5, trans. Schmidt). So, while Revolution presents “the physical possibility” of a more just society, “the moral possibility is lacking, and a moment of such possibility finds itself confronted with an unreceptive generation” (Letter 5).

In short, according to Schiller, the Enlightenment project, as it had been pursued up to that point, had spectacularly failed. He observes:

“The enlightenment of understanding that the finer ranks not unjustly praise has on the whole had so little refining influence on resolve that it has instead tended to reinforce corruption through principle. We disown nature in its proper domain only to experience its tyranny in the moral sphere, and while we resist the impression nature makes upon us, we adopt its principles as our own. The pretended decency of our manners refuses nature the first (pardonable) word, only to give it, in our materialist moral philosophy, the decisive last word” (Letter 5).

Though the upper classes had the opportunity to devote themselves to ends beyond mere survival, their education failed to ennoble them. In fact, it made them worse. Instead of transcending materialism, they adopted it as an ideology. By transferring the dictates of animal nature from the realm of brute impulse to that of abstract principle, they managed to make themselves more corrupt than they would have been had they received no education at all. So, for Schiller, the cultural degradation of modernity extends across all classes. “They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:3).

We thus appear to be trapped in a political dilemma. Both the state and its citizenry are corrupt, and, as a result, moral reformation seems impossible. On the one hand, we could attempt to use the power of the state to improve the character of the citizenry, enacting just laws to reform public morals. But, to do so, the state would itself have to be good. And we’ve already noted that it isn’t. On the other hand, we could attempt to improve the character of the state through the direct action of the citizenry. But, again, to purify the state, the people carrying out such a revolution would have to be good. And, again, we’ve already observed that they aren’t. We are thus confronted with a vicious circle: to improve a people’s corrupt character, a state must be good, but, in order to improve a state’s corrupt character, its people must be good. Or, as Schiller queries, “All improvement in the domain of politics should derive from the refinement of character—but how can character be refined under the influence of a barbaric state order?” (Letter 9). So, when state and people are both equally degenerate, there appears to be no way out of the death spiral; cultural collapse seems inevitable.

Yet, Schiller contends that there is, in fact, a way out of this dilemma. The solution, he claims, lies in invoking a redemptive force independent of both state and citizenry, the redemptive power of art. For he claims that fine art, like science, is an autonomous discipline beholden to its own laws and unswayed by both public caprice and state power. “The political legislator can bar the way to its domain, but he cannot rule within it” (Letter 9), and the public might fail to purchase or engage with a work of beauty, but it remains beautiful regardless of whether or not they appreciate it.

And, not only is art indifferent to the demands of citizenry and state, but it also capable of ennobling them both. Like pure reason, art acquaints us with a realm of form, thereby freeing us from the tyranny of our sensible drives. But unlike metaphysics or ethics it does not speak to our reason alone. Indeed, Schiller claims that art makes no moral or metaphysical pronouncements at all– “it discovers not one truth, [and] does not help us fulfill any special duty” (Letter 21). Yet it still succeeds in transposing us into a world of form— a world of form that is, at the same time, a world of sensation. Thus art, by leading sensible man into the domain of beauty, opens man’s heart to the possibility of something greater than the demands of the present moment. Where the rigor of the law was powerless to effect change, grace might still be capable of transforming the character of a people; Venus might prevail where Mars could not.

II. Aesthetics and Cultural Evolution

Schiller believes that beauty is born of processes inherent in Nature, and he recasts the modern myth of the state of nature to explain the emergence of the aesthetic dimension of culture. According to this evolutionary myth, man’s natural state is one of savagery, thrown into a bitter war of all against all for survival. Preoccupied with securing the physical necessities of life, people take no thought of themselves or their moral character, only the needs of the moment and satisfying their fleshly desires. From these crude beginnings, culture is then gradually refined. Schiller claims that this cultural evolution advances through three stages: “In his physical condition man suffers merely the force of nature; he detaches himself from this power in the aesthetic condition, and prevails over it in the moral condition” (Letter 24). According to his physical condition, man is concerned only with maintaining his existence as a natural object and, as a result, perceives the world to be governed by an external fate. Schiller describes this pitiable condition as follows:

“Eternally uniform in his aims, eternally capricious in his judgments, self-obsessed without ever being properly himself, footloose without being free, a slave without a rule to follow. During this era the world is for him mere fate, not yet an object for itself; everything exists for him only insofar as it lends him existence; what neither gives to him, nor takes from him, simply does not exist for him” (Letter 24).

Because he is committed solely to maintaining his physical existence, man’s aims will be uniform. No matter what situation confronts him, he will aim to ensure his own survival, acquiring and maintaining what is necessary to physical life. Yet, at the same time, because he lives within an ever shifting environment, with new resources to be exploited and threats to be avoided, his judgments will remain forever capricious. He has not abstracted to find a realm of stable laws by which to direct his life, imposing his character upon the world before him. Rather, he will simply respond to its stimuli, grasping at what seems pleasurable, and fleeing from or fending off what seems painful. Because he is “free” from the demands of reason, he, in fact, has no real freedom. And though he is a slave to his physical circumstances, he has no true rule to follow, blind as he is to the moral law. He cares only for his own individual existence, treating everything else as an instrument to be used on its behalf.

“Either he hurls himself upon things to devour them greedily, or things threaten to destroy him and he bats them away in horror” (Letter 24).

And given that he himself conducts his affairs in this manner, driven exclusively by greed and the will to power, he attributes the same motivations to his neighbors. “He never sees others in himself, only himself in others; and society, instead of rendering him part of a species, ever more closely locks him into his individuality” (Letter 24). Each is an isolated individual competing with all the others for survival, seeking victory by any means necessary.

Schiller believes that reason cannot shine directly into this darkened state. For man is too caught up in the immediate demands of survival and the mechanistic outworkings of fate to reflect upon his condition. A mediating state is thus needed to deliver him from the domain of mere sensibility and transfer him to the moral world. And this, argues Schiller, is precisely what the aesthetic realm provides. He maintains, “there is no other way of making the sensuous man rational than by first making him aesthetic”(Letter 23). Indeed, Schiller contends that the shift from the natural stance to the aesthetic stance is greater than that from aesthetic stance to the ethical stance.

Schiller observes:

“Through the aestheticization of the soul, the autonomy of reason is opened to the domain of sensibility, the power of sensation broken even within its own boundaries, and the physical man refined to such an extent that henceforth spiritual man only needs to develop himself from the physical according to the laws of freedom. The step from the aesthetic condition to the logical and moral condition (from beauty to truth and duty) is thus infinitely easier than the step from the physical state to the aesthetic (from mere blind life to form). Man can simply make the former step by his own free will, since it involves only taking, not giving, only fragmenting his nature, not enlarging it; the aestheticized man will make universally valid judgments, and act in a universally valid way, as soon as he wants to” (Letter 23).

Schiller here argues that it is only in the aesthetic condition that man first becomes aware of the possibility of reason. Confronted by beauty, the soul realizes that there is more to life than the struggle of all against all. It comes to see the existence of form within mater, the two co-constituting a harmonious whole. And in so doing, consciousness can begin to perceive a distinction between itself and the world. Schiller explains, “it is only when he is in his aesthetic condition, standing apart from himself or observing himself, that his personality detaches itself from this world; and because he has now ceased to identify himself with that world, it is now evident to him” (Letter 25). The leap from the aesthetic to the moral stance, is thus a substantially easier than the step from the physical to the aesthetic, since, in the former, all one has to do is abstract out general rational principles, while in the latter an entirely new power must emerge. The shift from the aesthetic stance to the moral stance is merely a matter of will, choosing to use one’s reason, but the shift from the physical to the aesthetic grants man a will. Schiller observes,

“Aesthetic man often needs no more than the challenge of an exalted situation (which works directly upon his will power) to make him a hero and a wise man; sensuous man has on the other hand first to be transposed under another sky” (Letter 23).

III. The Natural Grounds of Beauty

According to Schiller, man is brought to an aesthetic condition by a grace inherent in Nature itself. The contemplation of the beautiful cannot derive from a rational choice on the part of man, because man, as yet, is not in a position to reason. Likewise, there can be no moral origin for aesthetics, since aesthetics precedes morality. Rather, for Schiller, “it has to be a gift of nature; only the favour of chance can loosen the fetters of the original physical condition, and lead the savage to beauty” (Letter 26). Schiller notes that the natural world is, in fact, not the savage war of all against all that some philosophers make it out to be. Once animals have acquired more than they need to survive, their surplus energy wells up, and they exult and play. Schiller observes:

“If the lion is not gnawed by hunger, and not challenged by struggle with other predators, his idle strength becomes something in itself; the echoing desert is filled with his defiant roar, and his luxuriant strength is displayed for no purpose. Insects swarm full of life in the sunlight; and it is certainly no expression of appetite that we hear in the melodious tones of the songbird” (Letter 27).

And again,

“The animal works when want provides the spur to its activity; and it plays when the spur is sheer surplus energy [der Reichtum der Kraft], when overflowing life is itself the spur to activity. Even inanimate nature displays the same luxuriance of energy and a laxity in purpose that one could in that material sense call play” (Letter 27).

When not concerned with hunting food or fighting competitors, animals channel their power into play. Unconcerned with ends dictated by mere survival, they luxuriate in the excess of life. Lions roar, insects swarm, and songbirds sing—all from a sheer exuberance latent in nature.

In human culture, Schiller argues that this upsurge occurs when people begin to take an interest in appearance as appearance. Schiller observes, “and what kind of phenomenon is it that marks the entry of the savage into humanity? If we examine history, it is the same with all peoples who have been freed from the slavery of an animal existence: the pleasure in appearance, and an inclination to ornamentation and play” (Letter 26).

As in the animal world, the process begins when man acquires more than he needs to physically survive. He might, for example, come across an abundance of food, store it up, and begin to imagine enjoying it in the future, extending his pleasure beyond the present moment. But Schiller argues that the real shift occurs when man begins to observe the formal character of things, noticing how they appear, and thereby coming to derive an altogether different kind of pleasure in them.

“Since he now also includes outer form in his enjoyment, taking note from the form of things that satisfy his appetites, he goes beyond time itself, having not merely enhanced his enjoyment in extent and degree, but also ennobled the way in which he gains such enjoyment” (Letter 27).

And, beginning to relish the appearance of things, he then, comes to appreciate how he himself appears. “Soon he is no longer satisfied that things merely please him; he wants to be pleasing himself, although to begin with only with that which is his, ultimately with that which he is” (Letter 27).

Schiller elaborates,

“Now the ancient German seeks glossier pelts, more imposing antlers, more intricate drinking horns, and the Caledonian chooses the nicest mussels for his feast. Even weapons must no longer be simple objects of terror, but also be pleasing to the eye, and the highly decorated sword belt will be no less remarked upon than the deadly blade of the sword” (Letter 27).


“He adorns himself. Simple pleasure becomes one of his needs, and soon the best part of his pleasure derives from what is unnecessary” (Letter 27).

Man now cares for how he might appear and not merely for what he can obtain. And, in addition to transforming his relation to himself, this newfound concern for beauty also reconfigures his social world. For example, instead of the kind of primitive sexual marketplace dictated by the demands of natural selection, Schiller observes that, once beauty comes into play, the sexes begin to relate to each other aesthetically. “The need to please subordinates the powerful to the gentle judgment of taste; while he can steal lust, love must be a gift. He can fight for this higher prize only through form, not through matter” (Letter 27). And by relating to each other through beauty and decorum, “a free alliance” [nach dem Muster des freien Bundes] between men and women comes into being.

IV. The Aesthetic State

Such harmony and freedom is at play in what Schiller calls the aesthetic state. The state of nature constitutes what Schiller calls the dynamic state. In it, social order is established through physical force alone. The dynamic state makes society possible by “taming nature with nature” (Letter 27). But the aesthetic state, when it enters the picture, makes society real. It does so by fulfilling “the will of the whole through the nature of the individual” (Letter 27). In concerning himself with beauty and conducting himself with a sense of decorum, an individual comes to acquire a “social character” (Letter 27). In this manner, “taste alone brings harmony to society, since it endows the individual with harmony. [Der Geschmack allein bringt Harmonie in die Gesellschaft, weil er Harmonie in dem Individuum stiftet.]” (Letter 27).

“The basic law of this realm”, according to Schiller “is to give freedom by means of freedom. [Freiheit zu geben durch Freiheit ist das Grundgesetz dieses Reichs.] Here, the individual may not dispute with the whole, nor the whole with the individual” (Letter 27). Again, from this mindset, it is a relatively easy step to enter into the ethical state, the state in which one chooses to look at others through the lens of abstract duty. By adopting a universal point of view, one comes to perceive moral society as necessary, since all people are bound by the same general laws simply in virtue of being rational agents. [Der ethische Staat kann sie bloss (moralisch) notwendig machen, indem er den einzelnen Willen dem allgemeinen unterwirft] (Letter 27).

For Schiller, it is thus the advent of the aesthetic state that constitutes the decisive turning point in human history. It grants humanity to man; through beauty, man’s “humanity is constructed” [ist seine Menschheit aufgebaut] (Letter 27).

V. The Prophetic Call of the Artist

If Schiller is correct in his assessment, beauty, and beauty alone, can solve the political crisis of our age. One interesting consequence of this proposal is that artists come to play a decisive role in society. If our culture is to be redeemed, it must be redeemed through art; artists must be the prophets leading the way back to wholeness and harmony.

To fulfill such a calling, the artist, claims Schiller, must abandon his own age and cleave instead to the eternal beauty shining, however dimly, in his own breast. Only after learning to live in this other world, can the artist return to redeem his own fallen age. Schiller explains:

“The artist is certainly the child of his age, but all the worse for him if he is at the same time its pupil, even worse its minion. May a benevolent divinity tear the infant from his mother’s breast and nourish him with the milk of a better age, and allow him to grow into maturity under a distant Greek sky. When he has become a man, let him return as an alien form to his own century; not to please it by his reappearance, but instead, terrifying, like Agamemnon’s son, to cleanse it. He will take his material from the present time, but the form will come from a more refined time; indeed, beyond all time, borrowed from the absolute and immutable unity of his being. Here, from the pure ether of his daimonic nature, the spring of beauty wells, uninfected by the corruption of the generations and eras tumbling in dark eddies far below” (Letter 9).

To be successful, the artist must somehow avoid the pollution of his age, rejecting its standards, and forming himself instead according to the laws of a bygone era. According to Schiller, this must, in some sense, be a work of grace. Some benevolent deity must intervene to instruct the artist in the standards of a nobler time. And, once the artist has matured, he will not aim to please his age, but to purify it through the daimonic forces he is now capable of unleashing.

Yet, in addition to appealing to divine mercy, Schiller also offers some practical advice on how to avoid ensnarement by our dark age. He explains:

“How does the artist shield himself from the corruptions of his age that surround him on all sides? By disdaining its judgment. He should look upwards to his dignity and the law, never downwards to fortune and need. Free both of a vain activity that would gladly leave its mark in the passing moment, and of the impatient spirit of enthusiasm that applies the measure of all things to the petty creations of the time, he may leave the sphere of the actual to the intellect, where it belongs; for he may strive instead to create the ideal by connecting the possible with the necessary” (Letter 9).

To live well in the Kali Yuga one must disdain the judgment of one’s contemporaries, and one does this, claims Schiller, by looking upward, precisely in the direction one’s peers refuse to look. In so doing, one learns to orient oneself towards the lofty, acting accordance with the dignity of one’s own soul and the demands of the eternal law, and resisting the temptation to turn one’s gaze below to the realm of fortune and need. The artist must stay true to the ideal (the necessary) and connect it to the possibilities available in the earthly realm.

Schiller’s exhortation to the young artist culminates in the following admonition:

“To the young friend of truth and beauty who seeks from me knowledge of the way in which he should, despite all the century’s opposition, satisfy the noble impulse in his breast, I say: guide the world upon which you act towards the good, and the calm rhythm of time will bring about its fulfillment. You have given the world such guidance if your teaching raises its thoughts to the necessary and the eternal; if, by action or example, you transform the necessary and eternal into an object of its impulses. The edifice of delusion and capriciousness will fall, it has to fall, it has already fallen as soon as you are certain that it is tending towards this; but this tendency must be within man’s inner self, and not merely in his external appearance. Raise up victorious truth in the modest calm of your soul, project it in beauty so that not only thought pays homage to it, but sense might lovingly grasp its appearance” (Letter 9).

To lead the world, the artist most have strength. And this strength is gained by living in light of the eternal and trusting time to bring it to fruition, confident that “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion” (Phil 1:6 ESV). To redeem the times, one must operate in a world outside of ordinary time, and have faith that the effects of one’s endeavors will ripple out into the world of appearance with the force of fate. Strength, then, flows from faith, faith that one’s corrupt age cannot last, since its own inner principles guarantee its downfall. One’s age, viewed sub specie aeternitatis, has already fallen. The artist need only wait, biding his or her time, knowing that the bolt will flash and the tower fall. Again, everything turns on staying close to the eternal beauty perceived with the eyes of the soul, and then projecting that beauty outward into the empirical world.

VI. Aesthetic Education in the Helping Professions

From a personal perspective, I’m interested in how Schiller’s account might provide an alternative framework for understanding the helping professions, professions such as clinical psychology, social work, therapy, coaching, pastoral counseling, astrology, or tarot. For our dominant frameworks tend to address people exclusively according to either their physical condition (as a physical object to be manipulated) or their moral or rational condition (as subjects of an abstract law). And, worse yet, they do so using the debased intellectual currency of our age. The psychologist, for example, might apply some quasi-medical mental health diagnosis to a patient and then attempt to employ some form of allegedly “evidenced based intervention” to modify that patient’s behaviors. In this manner, the psychologist relates to people in terms of their physical condition. In contrast, the life coach might foist an allegedly rational belief system or moral framework upon clients, claiming, for instance, that they must believe in their potential for unlimited growth and discard all their limiting beliefs. In doing so, such coaches relate to their clients in terms of their rational condition, though the beliefs they attempt to inculcate are often far from rational. And a similar narrowness is evinced in the more exotic, yet possibly morally and epistemically superior, fields of tarot and astrology. Here practitioners are similarly constricted into viewing their clients in terms of their physical condition (by attempting to divine the outworkings of fate) or their rational/ moral condition (by attempting to guide them in the spiritual laws of the universe).

Schiller’s account of the beautiful opens up the possibility of a different approach: relating to clients through their aesthetic condition. In so doing, we make no attempt to explain the historical or causal antecedents of their situation or to alter it through “evidence based interventions” or astral magic. Nor do we try to instruct them in our beliefs about the proper mindset for success or the secret laws of manifestation. Instead, our goal is to call their attention to the beauty which surrounds them within and without. When a client, for instance, shares their suffering with us, we would not attempt to explain it through serotonin levels, a dis-regulated nervous system, or an ill dignified Saturn. Nor would we attempt to instruct them in how they ought to use their suffering to atone for past sins and learn the lessons needed to ascend to a higher level of consciousness in their next life. We could, however, try to present them with a picture or a story in which their suffering is Tragic. Their pain is real and visceral, but it is also tinged with beauty. And the soul who bears it does so with nobility and grace. “Creatures of a day! What is man? What is he not? He is the dream of a shadow; yet when Zeus-sent brightness comes a brilliant light shines upon mankind and their life is serene” (Pindar, Pythian 8).

In addressing our clients in their aesthetic condition, we have a better chance of establishing an authentic connection and of transporting them from their current constricted world to a life under freer more open skies. As Schiller observes,

“The gravity of your principles will scare them off, but they will be able to bear them in play; their taste is purer than their heart [ihr Geschmack ist keuscher asl ihr Herz], and here you have to grasp the timid fugitive” (Letter 9).

And again,

“Their principles you will attack in vain, their acts condemn to no effect; but you can try your creative hand on their leisure. Chase from their pleasures all caprice, frivolity and coarseness; so will you imperceptibly banish them from their actions, and finally from their convictions. Wherever you find them, surround them with refined, great, inspirational forms, encircle them with symbols of excellence, until appearance conquers reality, and art nature. [Wo du sie findest, umgib sie mit edeln, mit grossen, mit geistreichen Formen, schliesse sie ringsum mit den Symbolen des Vortrefflichen ein, bis der Schein die Wirklichkeit und die Kunst die Natur überwindet]” (Letter 9).

Peter Yong, Ph.D.

[The image used in the thumbnail of this essay is Jacob Encountering Rachel by Joseph von Führich. It is in the public domain and can be found here:].

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