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Friedrich Schiller, Excerpts from On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795)

Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) attained great renown as a poet, playwright, historian, and philosopher, and also as Goethe’s intellectual partner and equal. In this epistolatory book, he expressed his conviction that humanity’s path to reason and self-government had to pass first through an education to aesthetic self-consciousness and an understanding of art’s role in molding the mind and psyche. In these excerpts, Schiller depicts a contemporary humanity unable, as the tragic course of the French Revolution seemed to show, to attain communal harmony. Society, as Schiller writes, is riven by inequality. The state imposes internal order with its own violence and self-servingly engages in war, and “business” chills the heart. Hence, he argues for the necessity of an aesthetic self-awareness that would bring about a modern version of the balance between art and life attained in ancient Greece, a balance that Schiller, like many other German intellectuals of his day, regarded as ideal. Schiller’s text prefigures the vision of many influential nineteenth-century writers, including Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche.

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On the Aesthetic Education of Man

Friedrich Schiller

Third Letter

Nature begins with Man no better than with the rest of her works: she acts for him where he cannot yet act as a free intelligence for himself. But it is just this that constitutes his humanity, that he does not rest satisfied with what Nature has made of him, but possesses the capacity of retracing again, with his reason, the steps which she anticipated with him, of remodelling the work of need into a work of his free choice, and of elevating physical into moral necessity.

He comes to himself out of his sensuous slumber, recognizes himself as Man, looks around and finds himself—in the State. An unavoidable exigency had thrown him there before he could freely choose his station; need ordained it through mere natural laws before he could do so by the laws of reason. But with this State based on need, which had arisen only from his natural endowment as Man, and was calculated for that alone, he could not and cannot as a moral being rest content—and woe to him if he could! With the same right, therefore, by which he becomes a man, he leaves the dominion of a blind necessity, since he is parted from it at so many other points by his freedom, as—to take only a single example—he effaces through morality and ennobles through Beauty the low character which the needs of sexual love imprinted on him. He thus artificially retraces his childhood in his maturity, forms for himself a state of Nature in idea, which is not indeed given him by experience but is the necessary result of his rationality, borrows in this ideal state an ultimate aim which he never knew in his actual state of Nature, and a choice of which he was not then capable, and proceeds now exactly as though he were starting afresh and substituting the status of independence, with clear insight and free resolve, for the status of contract. However artfully and firmly blind Lawlessness has laid the foundations of her work, however arrogantly she may maintain it and with whatever appearance of veneration she may surround it—he may regard it during this operation as something that has simply never happened; for the work of blind forces possesses no authority before which Freedom need bow, and everything must yield to the highest ultimate aim which Reason sets up in his personality. In this way the attempt of a people that has reached maturity to transform its natural State into a moral one, originates and vindicates itself.

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