From my “Spengler” essay at Asia Times this morning:
Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) wrote tragedies about Europe’s wars of religion that serve as Europe’s epitaph. “History brought forth a great moment,” the German poet, philosopher, historian and playwright wrote of the French Revolution, the defining event of his lifetime, “but the moment found a mediocre people.”
The 250th anniversary of his birth came and went on November 10 with less attention than it deserved. Schiller created a new kind of tragedy, in which the flaw applies to the people as much as to the protagonists. The hand of destiny is revealed as the tramp of boots on the ground worn by human beings with real needs and passions. The Chorus itself becomes a tragic actor.The Weimar Classic of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Schiller, Johann Gottfried von Herder and Christoph Martin Wieland proposed to substitute art for religion long before the Victorian schoolmaster, Matthew Arnold. Victorian aesthetics, like Victorian parlor verse, is to a great extent second-hand Schiller.
Schiller’s aesthetic philosophy is a period curiosity - academic scholarship treats it as a minor commentary on Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment. I am not sure whether this is correct, but I doubt it is worth the trouble to find out. The best reason to read it today is so as not to have to read Matthew Arnold. As a pedagogical insight, Schiller’s notion of Spieltrieb, the play-impulse that unifies form and substance through artistic beauty, still has some influence through such currents as Waldorf education.
Like Kant’s categorical imperative and schemes for universal peace, Schiller’s hopes for social improvement through aesthetic education seem quaint to us. Schiller the philosopher of art is much less interesting than Schiller the artist, though. His best work still convulses the heart, as Coleridge said.
“Only through the morning-gate of the Beautiful do you make your way into the land of cognition,” Schiller wrote in one of his most famous (and worst) poems, The Artists (1789). As a playwright, though, Schiller felicitously ignored his own aesthetic doctrine, which advanced the conceit of the “beautiful soul”, the perfected human personality who can integrate life through a Hellenistic appreciation of beauty. But the characters that still convulse the hearts of theater audiences are not “beautiful souls” but desperately flawed human beings whose residual capacity for good makes their predicament tragic rather than sordid.
Coleridge responded to the bandit Karl Moor in The Robbers, who took to a life of crime after calumny caused his disinheritance. The Catholic queen Mary Stuart, an adulteress and mariticide, becomes a figure of pathos and sympathy in his eponymous 1801 drama, which ran for months last year in London and New York in Peter Oswald’s English version.
There are few moments in theater more chilling than the concluding chorus sung in Wallenstein’s Camp, the first of the Wallenstein trilogy by the Soldateska, the “new people” whom the imperial field-marshal of the Thirty Years’ War has summoned together from every corner of Europe. A minor Bohemian noble, Wallenstein crushed the Protestant revolt against the Austrian empire by raising a mercenary army that was large enough to live off the land. But his success ruined civil society and turned the Thirty Years’ War into a horror that killed more than a third of the population of Central Europe. In Chinese terms of reference, imagine that the emperor had elevated a bandit rebel to commander of all imperial forces in order to defeat a rival.