A generic summary of the argument in Friedrich Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man would be: in order for a person to become a moral and rational being she must pass through an aesthetic education in which she harmonizes with herself and thus becomes Free to exercise her rational will univocally. The passage often quoted as a summation of Schiller’s major theme in this work is: “It is through Beauty that we arrive at Freedom.”
This passage, since I first encountered it, has been one of the few essential thoughts I carry with me through life. My superficial knowledge of Schiller, through only this famous quote and the above general argument, has had a disproportionate effect on me. When Conor Heaton, a friend from Chicago, recommended Schiller’s Letters to me, I was thrilled for the opportunity to read the entirety of the work and to test my own personalized version of the idea against Schiller’s initial conception.
Schiller, a German Romantic dramatist, poet, and essayist, wrote his Letters during the height of France’s Reign of Terror. Like so many other Romantic thinkers across the globe, Schiller cried for joy at the French Revolution’s liberation of the human spirit. But, like artists and thinkers generations before and after him, Schiller suffered great disappointment in the aftermath of the revolution when power and fear destroyed the ideals of Justice and Freedom that had sparked the revolution. In some ways his argument stems from the idea that if the revolutionaries were perfectly educated in the ideas of aesthetics they would have been able to escape their own power struggles and thus have been able to create a Just and Free French State. Instead, the French Revolutionaries, whose only education on and exposure to government came from the monarch they so despised, exponentially replicated the atrocities of the very kind they dethroned. In doing so they turned the country into an irrational, immoral mess. It is a theme not isolated to 1790’s France, and though Schiller was influenced by the events of his time, he is also picking up an ambitious argument first articulated in the Western tradition two thousand years before his time.
The idea of an aesthetic education as essential to a moral and rational life was originally Plato’s. In setting out to create the ideal civilization in his Republic, Plato’s characters conclude that banning books and particular artists (including Homer) will be necessary to ensure that young men are properly trained to appreciate Beauty. Plato’s characters felt that scenes from The Iliad about conniving and jealous gods were bad influences on young men, who may look to the gods as examples. And works that espoused ideas or styles that did not create the harmony in the soul essential to becoming a fully realized Moral man were not worthy of being taught. While laying the groundwork for regarding Beauty as essential to the human experience, Plato also put forward the first argument for censorship.
(If one finds themselves scoffing at this idea or comparing Plato to Hitler, it may be wise to remember that a major component of America’s current education system assumes that those being educated cannot decipher the language and tone of Huckleberry Finn without intolerable harm, or read of Holden Caulfield’s rampant moral downfall and sexual escapades without falling into decadence, and that 12 year olds cannot be closer than 100 yards from a condom without instigating rampant uncontrolled sexual orgies. Plato’s excuse is that he didn’t have the benefit of thousands of years of education research proving his instincts incorrect.)
Schiller never grounds his ideas by discussing or suggesting particular texts that may be suitable for an aesthetic education. His tendency to speak in shifting abstractions has cost him a more prominent position in the greater philosophical tradition. But if The Aesthetic Education of Man is read as it was written – as an artist trying to convince the world that Art and Beauty are essential to a Free and Moral civilization – then it is a wonderful and essential work whose philosophical consistency is far less important than its general spirit.
Schiller’s argument itself is also only a small component of why this text is so engaging. He never stops reaching. His every sentence embodies the Romantic belief that truth, pure Truth, is at our fingertips, and with persistence It can be held in our palms. His style fluctuates between art and philosophy. Schiller has no fear of spreading his ideas, and his grandiose style represents perfectly the abundance of thought that was flowing out of Romantic Germany during his lifetime. He makes grand and provocative historical claims: “The Romans, we know, had first to exhaust their strength in civil wars . . . before we see Greek art triumphing over the rigidity of their character . . . And among the Arabs too the light of culture never dawned until the vigor of their warlike spirit had relaxed (58).” He states complex ideas in beautiful little statements: “We know that Man is neither exclusively matter nor exclusively spirit. Beauty, therefore, [is:] the consummation of this humanity (77).” And there is much more beyond this in Schiller’s Letters. He propounds a theory of Beauty and just how it can harmonize mankind and allow moral and rational men to flourish, and so on.
Despite the sheer joy I take in reading and contemplating Schiller, I fear that his abstract and overzealous style may have hurt the cause in support of which his passages are nonetheless so often invoked, i.e. the idea that only through an aesthetic education can a human become a fully rational being. I believe that Beauty in the form of art evokes ideas and lessons essential to functioning as a fully realized rational being. Without such an education and understanding the imagination is stilted and the world is seen only as what it appears to be and certain conditions of mankind are seen as inevitable if not acceptable. An aesthetic education is superior to a purely historical education because whereas in a historical education we accumulate new facts with an old and consistent epistemological system, the lessons and ideas taken from artistic beauty invade the mind, transforming our way of understanding, and becoming components of our rationality itself. A historical education teaches us what we see; an aesthetic education liberates us from what we see, teaching us how many visions there are and have been, and finally, to choose. An aesthetic education will ultimately teach us to reach for what is right and Just in the universal sense.
My claims above may sound weak because, like Schiller, I purposefully avoid specifics. I don’t want to subject myself to the criticism of historical examples. All I can refer to as a general example is the power of myths and literature on humankind through history and how civilization often looks to the ideals of Myths to renew our failing spirits. Whether those Myths are Lincoln or Aragon, when they are embodied through education and recalled as universal examples of The Good, we are able to reach out of our restrictive temporal worldviews to envision and to aspire to create civilizations (and citizens) as Perfect as we can imagine.