Schiller : On the aesthetic education of man, Letter V


Portrait of Schiller by Ludovike Simanowiz





Friedrich Schiller

On the aesthetic education of man

(1795)





Fifth Letter



Is this the character which the present age and contemporary events reveal to us? I direct my attention at once to the most prominent object in this vast picture.


It is true that deference to authority has declined, that its lawlessness is unmasked, and, although still armed with power, sneaks no dignity any more; men have awoken from their long lethargy and self-deception, and by an impressive majority they are demanding the restitution of their inalienable rights. Nor are they merely demanding them: on every side they are bestirring themselves to seize by force what has, in their opinion, been wrongfully withheld from them. The fabric of the natural State is tottering, its rotten foundations are yielding, and there seems to be a physical possibility of setting Law upon the throne, of honouring Man at last as an end in himself and making true freedom the basis of political association. Vain hope! The moral possibility is wanting, and the favourable moment finds an apathetic generation.


Man portrays himself in his deeds, and what a form it is that is depicted in the drama of the present day! Here barbarity, there enervation: the two extremes of human degeneracy, and both of them united in a single period of time !


Among the lower and more numerous classes we find crude, lawless impulses which have been unleashed by the loosening of the bonds of civil order, and are hastening with ungovernable fury to their brutal satisfaction. It may be that objective humanity had some cause of complaint concerning the State; subjective humanity must respect its institutions. Can we blame the State for disregarding the dignity of human nature so long as it was defending its very existence, for hastening to separate by the force of gravity, and to link together by the force of cohesion, where there could as yet be no thought of building up? The extinction of the State contains its vindication. Society uncontrolled, instead of hastening upwards into organic life, is relapsing into its original elements.


On the other hand, the civilized classes present to us the still more repugnant spectacle of indolence, and a depravity of character which is all the more shocking since culture itself is the source of it. I forget which ancient or modern philosopher made the remark that what is more noble is in its corruption the more abominable; but it is equally true in the moral sphere. The child of Nature, when he breaks loose, becomes a maniac, the disciple of Art an abandoned wretch. The intellectual enlightenment on which the refined ranks of society, not without justification, pride themselves, reveals on the whole an influence upon the disposition so little ennobling that it rather furnishes maxims to confirm depravity. We disown Nature in her rightful sphere only to experience her tyranny in the sphere of morality, and in resisting her influences we receive from her our principles. The affected propriety of our manners refuses her the first vote — which would have been pardonable — only to concede to her, in our materialistic moral philosophy, the decisive final say.


Selfishness has established its system in the very bosom of our exquisitely refined society, and we experience all the contagions and all the calamities of community without the accompaniment of a communal spirit. We submit our free judgement to its despotic sanction, our feeling to its fantastic customs, our will to its seductions; only our caprice do we assert against its sacred rights. Proud self-sufficiency contracts, in the worldling, the heart that often still beats sympathetically in the rude natural man, and like fugitives from a burning city everyone seeks only to rescue his own miserable property from the devastation.


Only in a complete abjuration of sensibility may we think to find protection against its abuse, and the ridicule which is often the salutary chastener of the fanatic, lacerates the noblest feelings with equally little consideration. So far from setting us free, culture only develops a new want with every power that it bestows on us; the bonds of the physical are tightened ever more alarmingly, so that the fear of loss stifles even the burning impulses towards improvement, and the maxim of passive obedience passes for the supreme wisdom of life. So we see the spirit of the time fluctuating between perverseness and brutality, between unnaturalness and mere Nature, between superstition and moral unbelief, and it is only the equilibrium of evil that still occasionally sets bounds to it.



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