Deducing Beauty: Beauty and Human Perfection in Schiller’s Aesthetic Letters

Deducing Beauty: Beauty and Human Perfection in Schiller’s Aesthetic Letters

As I have argued in a previous essay,1 Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man seeks to establish the necessity of beauty for human life by offering two kinds of argument. The first argument turns on the salutary political effects of beauty, and the second on the concept of beauty itself, arguing that it is entailed by the very idea of human perfection. Given that I have examined Schiller’s first argument in my last essay, I would now like to explain Schiller’s second argument, his transcendental deduction of the beautiful.

Transcendental Arguments

It is important to read transcendental arguments such as Schiller’s in a Kantian context, and not confuse them with broader cultural uses of the word “transcendental” (such as the literary movement of American Transcendentalism or the religious movement of Transcendental Meditation). In this broader cultural use of the word “transcendental” is taken as synonymous with “transcendent”, that which transcends the bounds of ordinary spatio-temporal experience. But this is not what Kantians mean by the term “transcendental”. Indeed, Kant’s transcendental idealism holds that transcendent objects, such as things in themselves, are unknowable. Rather, for a Kantian, a “transcendental” approach to philosophy concerns the examination of the conditions of the possibility of a given phenomenon. For example, consider the ordinary experience of perceiving an apple and correctly judging it to be red. We might ask, “what is required for such an experience to be possible?” And we might answer, for instance, that in order to perceive something, something must somehow be given to us, since what makes something an object of perception, rather than of introspection, is its being given to us from outside of ourselves. So, in order to perceive an object, such as an apple, we must possess some kind of faculty by which external objects are given to us, a faculty Kantians call “intuition” (Anschauung). Likewise, in order to judge something to be red, we must be able to subsume things under the concepts, such as the concept of red. So, again, to be able to judge objects to be such and so, we must have a faculty of judgment. Thus, in this brief transcendental argument, we can say that the faculties intuition and judgment are conditions of the possibility of the experience of perceiving an apple and judging it to be red. Note here that we have provided no theory regarding the material or metaphysical constitution of the apple. We have not said anything about how it was caused in time or how it is ultimately grounded in a divine source of Being. Rather, we have simply analyzed a given phenomenon, and, in the process, come to see that if this phenomenon is possible, then a particular set of conditions must be met.

The Phenomenon of Humanity

Schiller sets forth such a transcendental argument in defense of beauty, taking for his starting point the phenomenon of humanity. He claims that if humanity, or, more specifically, human perfectibility, is possible, then beauty must exist as the necessary condition of that possibility.

Schiller begins with the familiar observation that human nature is both unique and paradoxical in that we are rational animals. We, like angels, partake of an intelligible nature, something eternal and unchanging. Schiller calls this intelligible aspect of man his “person”. Our person remains forever constant: “We shift from rest to activity, from affect to indifference, from agreement to contradiction; but we are always the same, and whatever follows directly from us remains” (Schiller, Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, trans. Schmidt, Letter 11).2 And Schiller identifies this eternally abiding part of ourselves with something self-grounding, and, thus with something that is, in that sense, free. Schiller contends, “The person has therefore to be grounded in itself, for what persists cannot flow from change; and this would bring us to the idea of the absolute as being grounded in itself, that is, freedom” (Letter 11).

Nonetheless, as humans, we are not pure intellects, but rational animals. As embodied beings, we live, die, and desire in time. Schiller calls this part of us which continually changes our “condition”. And since conditions are conditions in virtue of being conditioned, being grounded in something else, the human condition is, to that extent, unfree, bound to time. Schiller explains:

“Condition has to have a basis; it must follow from something, since it does not owe its existence to the person, therefore is not absolute; and this would in turn give us time as the condition of all contingent being or becoming. Time is the condition of all becoming: this is an identical statement, for it states nothing other than ‘succession is the condition of something that succeeds’” (Letter 11).

And he goes on to elaborate,“Every situation, every particular being arises in time, and man as a phenomenon must make a beginning, although pure intelligence is eternal in him. In the absence of time, that is, without becoming a particular being, he would not be a particular being; his person would tend to exist, but not in fact. It is only in the sequence of his ideas that the persisting I becomes manifested to itself” (Letter 11). Because man, as such, is essentially embodied, humanity cannot attain perfection in the abstract, but must concretize itself in time. A disincarnate man would not be a particular being, an individual, but an empty abstraction. But, because he is also a rational soul, neither can man concern himself exclusively with embodied life, since, in so doing, he would transform himself into a mere material object. Instead, his rational nature places an injunction upon him “to remain constantly himself despite all change, to transform all perception into experience, into the unity of knowledge, and render all forms of appearance in time into law for all times” (Letter 11).

The Paradox of Human Perfection.

The concept of human perfection thus appears to entail a paradox. For, to be perfected, one must actualize one’s nature. But, since man has two natures which appear to conflict with each other, man seems torn between two contradictory demands. Each might be fulfilled on its own, but given the dual nature of man, such a life would prove to be inadequate:

“His personality, considered in itself and independently of any sense material, is merely the disposition for potentially infinite expression; and so long as he neither perceives nor feels he is no more than form and empty potential. His sensibility, considered in itself and separately from all spontaneous activity of the mind, can do no more than render him, who in the absence of sensibility is mere form, into matter; but in no respect can it unite him with matter. As long as he merely feels, merely has desires, and merely acts on his desires, he is no more than world, if we understand by this term merely the formless content of time” (Letter 11).

Other kinds of creatures have it easier in this regard. They have a single coherent nature through which their corresponding perfection can be clearly specified. For example, angels could fulfill their natures by exercising their rational faculties and contemplating God as the fundamental principle of reality. They would not unfold as incarnate creatures, but this would not undermine their perfection qua angels any more than lacking the ability to fly would undermine the perfection of a horse. And, similarly, purely embodied creatures like horses also have perfections straightforwardly dictated by their natures. A horse might lack the power to perform abstract calculations, construct syllogisms, or create a metaphysical system, but this does nothing to undermine its perfection as a horse. Because equine nature does not contain abstract reason, the fact that a horse cannot do algebra is irrelevant to how well it actualizes the potentialities of its nature.

We humans, in contrast, are pulled between two seemingly contradictory demands. Goethe’s Mephistopheles aptly describes this human predicament from a cynical perspective when he observes:

“On suns and worlds I can shed little light,/ I see but humans, and their piteous plight./ Earth’s little god runs true to his old way/ And is as weird as on the primal day./ He might be living somewhat better/ Had you not given him of Heaven’s light a little glitter;/ He calls it reason and, ordained its priest,/ becomes more bestial than any beast./ He seems to me, begging your Honor’s pardon,/ Like one of those grasshoppers in the garden/ That leg it skip-a-skimming all day long/ And in the grass chirp out the same old song./ If only he’d just lie in the grass at that! But no, he sticks his nose in every pat.” (Goethe, Faust Part I, trans. Arndt, Prologue in Heaven).

From this cynical point of view, it would have been better had man never partaken of reason, since all he does with it is use it to make himself “more bestial than any beast.” Like a grasshopper, he is capable of flying into realms of inspiration and imagination, but he always land back in the muck. Or, according to Schiller’s more neutral description of the phenomenon: “To be more than mere world he [man] must lend form to matter, and to be more than mere form he must actualize the disposition that he bears within himself. He realizes the form when he brings time into existence, and counters with the eternal unity of his self the variety of the world; he forms matter if he annuls time once more, affirms persistence in change and subjugates the variety of the world to the unity of the self” (Letter 11).

Humanity, if it is to be perfected, is forced to obey two seemingly contradictory demands: “From this flow two contrasting challenges for man, the two fundamental laws of a sensuous-rational nature. The first insists on absolute reality: he should make everything that is mere form into world, and manifest all of his dispositions. The second insists upon absolute formality: he should root up everything in himself that is mere world, harmonizing all its changes; in other words: he should externalize all that is interior, and lend form to all that is exterior” (Letter 11).

Two Drives: Sensual and Formal

Schiller claims that there are two distinct drives (Triebe) in human nature dedicated to carrying out these demands. The sensual drive (sinnlicher Trieb) seeks to satisfy the demand for absolute reality, and the form drive (Formtrieb) seeks to satisfy the demand for absolute formality. Schiller explains:

“For the realization of this dual task: to lend reality to the necessity within us, and subordinate the reality external to us to the rule of necessity, we are driven by two contradictory forces which, because they impel us to realize their object, are quite properly called drives (Triebe)” (Letter 12).

The sensual drive seeks to place man “under the constraints of time, making him matter” which is here defined as change, the content of time. So, the sensual drive “demands that change shall occur, that time shall have a content (Inhalt).” And, claims Schiller, since time is governed by the principle of succession, its contents are determined by the principle of exclusion. “Since everything that is in time occurs as a succession, the fact that something exists excludes all else” (Letter 12). Consider for example, the moment, now. What makes a now this now, is the fact that it is distinguished from all past nows and future nows; a moment is the determinate moment that it is precisely in virtue of excluding all other moments. The sensual drive thus operates through a principle of restriction. Schiller observes, “There is necessarily therefore the highest degree of restriction (Begrenzung) where the sensual drive has exclusive effect; in this situation man is no more than a unit of quantity, a fulfilled moment of time—or rather, he is not, for his personality is suspended for as long as he is ruled by sensation and swept along by time” (Letter 12).

Man is governed by this drive to the extent that he is finite, and, so, is ultimately bound to it; since he possesses a physical nature, man is essentially finite. “The domain of this drive reaches as far as man’s finite being does; and since all form appears only as material, everything absolute only through the medium of constraint, it is certainly this sensual drive to which the entire phenomenon of mankind (die ganze Erscheinung der Menschheit) is ultimately bound” (Letter 12).

The form drive, in contrast, seeks to realize man’s nature as a person. It is “based upon the absolute existence of man, or upon his rational nature; it seeks to set him at liberty, bring harmony to the variety of his appearance and affirm his person amid all change of condition…. [It] can never demand anything other than what it must for all eternity claim; it decides for ever as it decides for the present, and commands for the present what it will always command. With this it unfolds the entire succession of time, which is to say: it annuls time, and annuls change; it wishes to make the actual necessary and eternal, and the eternal and necessary actual, in other words, it insists upon truth and right” (Letter 12).

And, in operating in the domain of truth and right, the form drive concerns itself with the normative. When reason dictates, for example, that 2 + 2 = 4, it posits an eternal normative standard by which to evaluate all possible empirical objects that could be grouped arithmetically. If 2 + 2 = 4 is true, then these two apples and these two apples must make four apples when added, these two rocks and these two rocks must make four rocks when added, and these two people and these two people must make four people when added. The truths dictated by reason function as an eternal standard that remains constant amid all the flux of sensation. And the same holds for the moral truths insisted on by the form drive. If reason demands that I treat people as ends in themselves, and never as merely means to an end, then this moral truth is binding for all possible phenomena that might confront me in the material world. So, for example, even if one were given a tempting offer to employ some new marketing strategy that would ensure business success, that strategy would nonetheless be immoral if it required treating people as mere means to an end. Schiller explains this normative dimension of the form drive as follows:

“While the sensual drive only provides cases, the form drive provides laws; laws for every judgment if it concerns knowledge, and laws for every will if it concerns actions” (Letter 12).

And these laws are eternal and unchanging, serving as a fixed standard by which to evaluate and shape the changing world of time; to the extent that we identify with them, we make ourselves abstract and universal. Schiller elaborates:

“Where therefore the formal impulse rules, and the pure object acts within us, that is the supreme extension of being, all barriers disappear; man has elevated a unit of quantity, to which meager sense had limited him, into a unity of ideas that comprehends the entire realm of phenomena. With this operation we are no longer in time, but instead time is within us, with its never-ending succession. We are no longer individuals, but a species; the judgment of all minds is expressed by our own, the choice of all hearts is represented by our deed” (Letter 12).

To the extent that we follow the eternal and necessary laws of reason, we act as any other rational agent would. Any rational person would judge that 2 + 2 =4 or that we ought to love our neighbors as ourselves, and so, by conducting our lives in this way, we live as a member of a species, not as an individual. Thus, as noted earlier, for humans, despite the virtues of the form drive, following it exclusively can be detrimental, since it eliminates individuality, and individuality is essential to human perfection.

The Play Drive

Man, then, in order to perfect his twofold nature, must find a way to harmonize both drives. To perfect himself he must allow the sensuous drive to bring him into “the most varied contact with the world” and intensify “as far as possible passivity in feeling”, receptivity to the sheer givenness of experience (Letter 13), but he must also allow the form drive to attain “the greatest independence” from receptivity and to develop “reason to the greatest possible degree of activity.” (Letter 13). Schiller claims that,

“Where both qualities are united, man will combine the most abundant existence with the greatest autonomy and liberty and, rather than losing himself in the world, instead draw himself the sheer infinity of its phenomena and subordinate it to the unity of his reason” (Letter 13).

This, then, is the task of man’s perfection. “It is in the most proper sense of the word the idea of his humanity, consequently something infinite to which he can in time approach ever more closely, without, however, ever reaching it” (Letter 14). Ideas, in the Kantian sense of the term, concern representations that cannot be given in experience, representations such as God, the soul, or free will. This is why Schiller claims that the idea of humanity could never be fulfilled at a time, but can only be approximated through an endless approach to its ideal in time, perhaps requiring some commitment to a doctrine of reincarnation.

So, the actual attainment of human perfection is impossible and remains an ideal to be perpetually striven for. However, Schiller argues that one can still catch a glimpses of its possible attainment. He contends:

“If, however, there were cases in which he were to have this dual experience simultaneously, where he was both conscious of his liberty and sensed his existence, where he felt himself to be matter while knowing himself as mind, then he would have in these cases, and only in these cases, complete perception of his humanity; and the object that this perception gave him would become for him a symbol of his accomplished destiny, consequently serving as a representation of the infinite (since this can only be attained in the totality of time)” (Letter 14).

While man cannot experience this literally at a moment in time, he can nonetheless grasp it symbolically, when he is brought to an awareness of both drives operating together. In this manner, one could have grounds for believing in the possibility of human perfection, though it itself is an infinite task that can never be fulfilled. And Schiller claims that this experience of the unity of both drives occurs through the mediation of a third drive, the play drive (Spieltrieb). He explains: “This new drive, the sensuous and formal working within it….this play drive aims at the annulment of time within time, uniting becoming with absolute being, and change with identity” (Letter 14). It is thus through this drive that the possibility of human perfection can be seen, since it allows for the harmonious outworking of both of the other drives at the same time. Schiller elaborates upon the integrative function of the play drive as follows:

“The sensuous drive seeks to be defined, it seeks to receive its object; the form drive seeks to define itself, it seeks to create its object; and so the play drive will strive to receive as if it had created itself, and create in such a way as to be received by the senses as such” (Letter 14).

The sensuous drive wants to be defined through the experiences it undergoes in time, and, as a result, it seeks to receive its determinacy from outside of itself. For example, this moment in my conscious experience of time, as opposed to other moments, is defined by the particular sensory array that is given to me right now. And, in contrast, the form drive seeks to define itself by positing universal metaphysical and moral laws. The form drive rejoices when it posits general rational principles such as modus ponens (A > B, A, Thus B) or that one should always treat rational agents as ends in themselves and never as merely means to an end. In this sense, the form drive creates its object, since according to Kantians such as Schiller, rational laws are grounded in the activity of reason itself. And, after creating its objects, the form drive can then impose them on the objects of sensory experience.

Each of these desires, to define and to be defined, seems to conflict with the other. But Schiller argues that this tension can be overcome in the play drive which incorporates both of the other drives at once. Like the sensuous drive, it strives to receive something, to be defined, but only by something that it has itself created. Consider, for example, looking at a painting in an art museum. Here one receives a sensory manifold and is thus defined by it, but this particular manifold has already been ordered by reason. The painter has worked upon the canvas to communicate something from one consciousness to another. And like the form drive, the play drive seeks to define, to create something from itself, but it creates so as to be received by the senses as such. Consider, for example, a composer seeking to create a musical work. He wants to be creative, just as he would be in the abstract realm when positing logical or moral laws, but now his creativity is directed towards making something that can be sensibly perceived, specifically, towards crafting something to be heard. Thus, the play drive, and the aesthetic phenomenon that it grounds, seems capable of unifying what at first appeared to be essentially divided. “The play drive will bring about the multiplication in time of the unity of the idea; making law into feeling; or what is much the same, unite diversity in time in the idea, making feeling law” (Letter 14). In the realm of aesthetics, eternity and time, law and feeling, activity and passivity come together in the experience of art.

Schiller goes on to argue that in unifying man’s nature in this manner, the play drive emancipates man from both the empty abstractions of the form drive and from the material tyranny of the sensuous drive.

“Hence the play drive, in which both of these drives work in tandem, constrains the soul both morally and physically; since it annuls all contingency, it therefore annuls all constraint and sets man physically and morally free” (Letter 14).

He illustrates this point with an example from the social world, observing:

“If we embrace someone passionately who deserves our contempt we are pained by the compulsion of nature. If we feel enmity towards someone who demands our regard, then we are pained by the compulsion of reason. As soon as he has both engaged our affection and gained our regard, the compulsion of both sensation and conscience disappears, and we begin to love him, that is, play with both our affection and our regard” (Letter 14).

In the first scenario, we are taken in by someone’s charm and charisma. We might know that a man is untrustworthy and that we are only harming ourselves by interacting with him, but nonetheless feel that we were compelled to follow him anyway. We are thus not acting with freedom in this case, since our feelings overwhelm our better judgment. In the second scenario, we are confronted by someone whom we have rational and moral grounds to esteem, but for some reason rubs us the wrong way. We nonetheless do our duty and try to engage with him, knowing that he will have a positive influence on our life. We follow reason, and suppress the passions. Yet Schiller claims that we are not free in this scenario either, for we are compelled by reason to do something that we really don’t want to do at an instinctual level. Rather, according to Schiller, it is only in the third scenario, the one in which the play drive is operative, that we experience a truly human kind of freedom. When both our reason and our sentiments lead us to befriend someone, we are free to act from love, rather than merely sensible compulsion or rational duty.

In an earlier work, “On Grace and Dignity”, Schiller ascribes this kind of fully human freedom to what he calls “the beautiful soul.”

“It is said of a man that he is a beautiful soul when the moral sense has finished assuring itself of all the affections, to the extent of abandoning without fear the direction of the senses to the will, and never incurring the risk of finding himself in discord with its decisions. It follows that in a beautiful soul it is not this or that particular action, it is the entire character which is moral. Thus we can make a merit of none of its actions because the satisfaction of an instinct could not be meritorious. A beautiful soul has no other merit than to be a beautiful soul. With as great a facility as if the instinct alone were acting, it accomplishes the most painful duties of humanity, and the most heroic sacrifice that she obtains over the instinct of nature seems the effect of the free action of the instinct itself. Also, it has no idea of the beauty of its act, and it never occurs to it that any other way of acting could be possible; on the contrary, the moralist formed by the school and by rule, is always ready at the first question of the mater to give an account with the most rigorous precision of the conformity of its acts with the moral law. The life of this one is like a drawing where the pencil has indicated by harsh and stiff lines all that the rule demands, and which could, if necessary, serve for a student to learn the elements of the art. The life of the beautiful soul, on the contrary, is like a painting of Titian; all the harsh outlines are effaced, which does not prevent the whole face being more true, lifelike and harmonious” (Schiller, On Grace and Dignity).

The beautiful soul fulfills the moral law, not as a matter of duty, but because the law has become so ingrained in one’s character that it flows naturally from it.

Transcendental Deduction of the Beautiful

After understanding how the play drive harmonizes the sensuous and form drives, we are now in a position to understand Schiller’s transcendental deduction of the beautiful. He sets forth the argument as follows:

“Expressed as a general concept, the object of the sensual drive is called life, in its widest meaning: a concept signifying all material being, everything directly present to the senses. The object of the form drive, expressed again as a general concept, is called form, both in the figurative and the literal sense of the word: a concept that includes all the formal properties of things, and all of their relations to the powers of thought. The object of the play drive, presented in general outline, can consequently be called living form: a concept serving to characterize all aesthetic properties of phenomena, what is in a word most generally called beauty” (Letter 15).

Schiller’s definitions of the objects of the sensual and form drives seem straightforward. The sensual drive concerns life as it unfolds in time and the world, and the form drive concerns abstract form. But the argument gets more confusing when Schiller identifies living form with the object of the play drive, and then goes on to equate this living form with beauty. Apparently, the fact that living form is the object of the play drive is derived from the fact that the play drive concerns itself with harmonizing the objects of the other two drives, and since the object of one of these drives is life, and the other is form, the object of the play drive must concern both life and form, or living form.

Yet Schiller’s point can perhaps be better clarified by considering an example. Consider the case of playing a game such as basketball. On the one hand, playing basketball concerns life in the material world. To play, you will need some kind of court, a ball, and other players, and you will need to move your body around and interact with all of these in particular ways, having a set of determinate experiences in the process. But, on the other hand, basketball also concerns the formal features of the world. It has, for example, a set of normative rules. To play basketball one must throw a ball into hoops. If one proceeded to hit a ball with a bat or kick it into a goal, one would no longer be playing basketball but baseball or football. Yet, the actual playing of basketball is not encoded in this set of abstract rules. One could contemplate these rules all day, while never actually playing the game. And neither does playing basketball consist of a set of disorganized sensory experiences. One might, for example, sit on the ball, and use it as a meditation cushion while your friends stand around in astonishment. Such an activity would involve the same physical objects as those involved in a game of basketball, but it would not constitute playing the game. To play basketball, you need to incarnate its living form. You must act in the sensory world in a way that is informed by the rules of the game. Only in this manner can the game really come to life. And, from here, it is not hard to see why Schiller connects living form with beauty. Consider someone who has mastered the game of basketball. Such a person, when he or she plays, acts gracefully, without having to think of the rules of the game or the situation at hand. Instead, the expert movements all seem perfectly natural. And this, we might think, would be a kind of beauty.

In short, then, Schiller’s transcendental deduction of the beautiful can be summarized as something like the following:

1. Human nature is internally divided. Unlike other animals, we don’t just have one nature, but two: a rational nature and a sensible nature.

2. To be perfect, something must actualize its nature. A perfect horse, for example, would need to be able to run swiftly, a perfect bird, to fly and sing, a perfect panda to nap and eat lots of bamboo, etc.

3. So, to be perfect, humans must actualize their natures (from 2).

4. But humans have two natures, each actualized by a corresponding drive, a form drive and a sensual drive (from 1).

5. And these natures and their corresponding drives appear to be in conflict. Eternity seems to conflict with time, determining with being determined, the law with pleasure, etc.

6. Therefore, if human nature is to be perfected, there must be some way of harmonizing the form drive with the sensual drive (from 3-5).

7. The only way of harmonizing these two drives is through a mediating third drive, the play drive.

8. Thus, if human perfection is possible, a satisfied play drive is a condition of its possibility. (from 6-7).

9. Beauty is the essential object of the play drive, and drives are satisfied only when they attain their corresponding objects. “Man should only play with beauty, and he should play only with beauty.” (Letter 15).

10. Therefore, if human perfection is possible, beauty must exist.

And so, by examining the concept of human nature as such, Schiller takes himself to have proven that beauty is of the upmost importance for human life. For, it is only the satisfaction of the play drive that “completes the concept of mankind” and creates a community between sensation and form. “Man plays only when he is man in the full sense of the word, and he is only a complete man when he plays” (Letter 15). Schiller can thus summarize his conclusion as follows:

“Accordingly, as soon as reason has pronounced let mankind exist, by so doing it has created the law: let beauty exist. Experience can tell us whether a beauty is such, and we still know it as soon as it has taught us whether a mankind exists. But how a beauty can exist and how mankind is possible, this neither reason nor experience can teach us” (Letter 15).

Concluding Reflections

I’d like to conclude with a couple of final reflections on Schiller’s account of beauty. First, it is worth calling attention to how Schiller’s theory grounds a unique definition of culture. According to Schiller, culture is meant to ensure that human nature can satisfy both of its drives. In short, the function of culture to cultivate beauty.

“The task of culture is to watch over them [i.e. the two drives], securing the limits of each drive; it has an equal duty of justice to both, not simply the latter in regard to the former. It therefore has a dual task: Firstly, preserving sensibility from the encroachments of liberty; secondly, securing personality against the power of sensations. The first is achieved by developing the capacity for feeling, the second by developing the capacity for reason” (Letter 13).

Note that culture here, like human nature itself, has a twofold task. It is not sufficient for culture to merely subordinate the senses to reason, or, as in certain late capitalist cultures, to subordinate reason to sensation. For if the goal of culture is to promote human flourishing, then human nature must be able to flourish in its duality. This characterization of culture separates Schiller from latter psychoanalytic accounts such as those articulated by Freud in which culture is said to be primarily concerned with suppressing the desires of the id.

Second, it is worth contrasting Schiller’s account of the goal of life with more traditional philosophical accounts. For, whereas Platonists and other traditional philosophers would rouse us to strive to perfect our souls, Schiller exhorts us to perfect our humanity—our twofold nature as both body and soul. So, where the Platonist might portray embodied life as a life of imprisonment in the realm of becoming, something which could be transcended should we put our souls in order, Schiller would define embodied life as essential to our distinctively human flourishing. And these contrasting orientations towards life lead to two contrasting accounts of beauty. For the Platonist, beauty will be found most fully in the realm of the forms. At its highest level, the form of the beautiful is not something that can be sensibly perceived with the eyes. In contrast, for Schiller, beauty must involve the senses and cannot find its fullest expression exclusively in the conceptual realm. For example, in his Kallias Letters, Schiller argues:

“I must remark that to give a concept of beauty and to be moved by beauty are two completely different things. I would never think of denying that a concept of beauty could be given…but… I deny that beauty pleases through a concept. To please through a concept presupposes the existence of the concept before the feeling of pleasure arises in the mind [Gemüt]… The fact that our pleasure in beauty does not depend on a pre-existing concept is made clear by the fact that we are still searching for one.”

This is an important contrast, both in aesthetic terms, and in view of how humans should direct their lives. Which path is superior: the perfection of soul or the perfection of humanity?

I’ll conclude with a few lines from Schiller’s poem, The Artists:

“High over your own course of time

Exalt yourselves with pinion bold,

And dimly let your glass sublime

The coming century unfold!

On thousand roads advancing fast

Of ever-rich variety,

With fond embraces meet at last

Before the throne of harmony!

As into seven mild rays we view

With softness break the glimmer white,

As rainbow-beams of sevenfold hue

Dissolve again in that soft light,

In clearness thousandfold thus throw

Your magic round the ravished gaze,–

Into one stream of light thus flow,–

One bond of truth that ne’er decays!”

[Erhebet euch mit kühnem Flügel

Hoch über euren Zeitenlauf;

Fern dämmre schon in euerm Spiegel

Das kommende Jahrhundert auf.

Auf tausendfach verschlungnen Wegen

Der reichen Mannigfaltigkeit

Kommt dann umarmend euch entgegen

Am Thron der hohen Einigkeit.

Wie sich in sieben milden Strahlen

Der weiße Schimmer lieblich bricht,

Wie sieben Regenbogenstrahlen

Zerrinnen in das weiße Licht:

So spielt in tausendfacher Klarheit

Bezaubernd um den trunknen Blick,

So fließt in einen Bund der Wahrheit,

In einen Strom des Lichts zurück!]

Peter Yong, Ph.D.

[The image used in the thumbnail of this essay is Titian’s “Bacchus and Ariadne”. It is in the public domain and can be found here:]


2 Translations have been modified throughout to more clearly reflect Schiller’s technical terminology in German.

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