On the Politics of Aesthetics in Schiller’s
On the Aesthetic Education of Man
Freedom is the alteration of the aesthetic of one’s condition. It is not by overcoming one’s condition, but accepting it as a mere facet of one’s existence that freedom is reached. Freedom in its political sense is subject to this phenomenon as well. By altering the aesthetic of the conditions into which we are each born, we can pass with Beauty into the realm of understanding, comfort, stability, confidence, and decisiveness. Just as the conditions into which we are born determine, initially, the paths of our lives, too, in nations, the political conditions into which citizens enter determine for each their prosperity. The prosperity of a nation’s people can be its measure not only of the patriotism which fuels the flames of political power and international influence, but also the means by which conflicts are resolved and avoided.
Escape from the natural world to create our own is the transition from inherent individuality to collective humanity. This escape is not an egress from the conditions into which we look and find our origin, nor is it a sacrifice of the individual. It is a development of the individual who will ensure that the nation of his home will prosper. “[B]ut Nature once rebuffed soon returns to claim her rights, to press for reality of existence . . . for purpose in our actions[,]” the actions which will bring either prosperity or destruction (Schiller, 65). Individuality is found only in how adequately one abides by one’s perception of their nature; it is not individualistic, but rather, stagnating, to live in ignorance of Nature and its beauty. A society of individuals acting in their natures—perfecting their natures—through beauty generates what is here termed collective humanity. Universality is found in individual expression, which is an extension of circumstance.
“ . . . [Y]our own free intellectual power will dictate the laws by which we shall proceed[,]” argues Schiller in his introduction not only to his collection of Aesthetic Education, but too, his introduction of his readers to the realm of their nature (Schiller, 24). As one can see developing in this examination, intellectual power is the grandest portion, the only significant portion perhaps, of individuality. This individuality is better referred to as Nature, and is subject only to circumstance. Since all beings possess an intellectual power, and it may be observed that the potency of this power is varied among any sampling of beings, it proves that intellectual power is universal in its presence, but differentiated in its distribution. Circumstance is the distributor of intellectual power, and Schiller tells us that intellectual power will “dictate the laws by which we proceed” (Schiller, 24).
Circumstance, being the determinant of man’s intellectual power—such as in a child being born into an impoverished family and having means only to receive a rudimentary education—is not necessarily its limiting force. Circumstance is comparable to nature, but nature is not the law, though, an observation, understanding, and ultimately, an appreciation of its beauty is. “Nature’s claims upon [man] are concerned merely with what he does, with the contents of his action; about the way in which he works,” the way in which man works is his personal personification of beauty, a force which is universal (Schiller, 110). An education in the forms of the beautiful is the only means by which political freedom can be sought. Circumstances of citizens in a nation where aesthetics takes a philosophical and political priority might even be elevated over the duration of such a government. If beauty is accepted as the leader of its people—each individual an astonishing facet of a universal aesthetic—then the “ . . . political problem in practice, [by following] the path of aesthetics” might be solved (Schiller, 27). This universality of freedom arises not from a confederacy of individuality, but a community of representations. Each citizen must be educated in the defined aesthetics of their nation in order to attain freedom; freedom is experienced not merely by being educated in the beauty which begets it, but fully in the citizen’s expression of that beauty. By living beautiful lives, the people conquer. It is the most peaceful and harmonious of solutions.
A necessity outside ourselves determines our condition, our existence in time, by means of sense perception. This is quite involuntary, and as it acts upon us so we must abide it. Similarly a necessity inside ourselves reveals our personality, at the direction of that sense perception and through opposition to it; for consciousness of self cannot depend upon the will, which presupposes it (Schiller, 95).
What Schiller is referring to “outside ourselves” is essentially the beautiful, or, in a political reading of its concept, the national aesthetic. Circumstance can hardly be altered, but it can be determined by the aesthetic in which it is forged (and too, from it, the births of citizens). Being an external force subjecting those in its wake to its influence, this national aesthetic is involuntary, and by virtue of it being outside us, constantly delivering its force, we must obey it. A citizen’s involvement with and obedience to the national aesthetic to which he is subject can be neither chosen nor avoided, it is not obligatory, but ever-present—eternal—so long as it supported by the political power.
In comparison, since citizens must abide by their national aesthetic, it is that which is “inside ourselves” that becomes its manifestation. That inside of us is personality, and personality contains the infinity of the aesthetic. This is the component which breeds necessity, and out of this bred necessity, citizens express themselves visually and in other senses—they typify the aesthetic, they depict beauty. This revelation of our personalities through beauty is what constitutes freedom. However, it is this veritable consciousness of the self does not, Schiller states, depend on the will, but is the consciousness which is the very force that supersedes the will. The will is not the determinant of this personal expression, but is the product of this expression.
Since “[w]e are citizens of an age, as well as of a State[,]” it is our duty to abide by the national aesthetic developed by our political leaders in seeking freedom, and to recognize that freedom can be found only in being a citizen of one’s age (Schiller, 25). Aesthetics can not be dictated by any individual, but are rather collective, and mark not only citizens who harmoniously adopt and explore the aesthetic—moreover, realize they need not adopt, and realize they already possess the beauty seeking to be expressed by the aesthetic and so must flaunt it, in a sense. We are each striving to be men of our age, and to attain such a level—that is, epitomize beauty, present one’s possession of it, become its archetype—is to unchain oneself from oppression.
Such as this explication of Schiller has sought to arrive at a solution to the present political situation, it can be observed that freedom is the basest desire of man. This is not indicative of whether it is a frivolous end or not, but an opportunity to achieve it through an aesthetic exploration on a doubly personal and national level. The condition which determines one’s place in society is inescapable, but the alteration of its aesthetic—and development of its representations of its own beauty—is crucial. Prosperity has been said to be a nation’s salvation and security, and only through a citizen’s personal outward representation and manipulation of their inward possession of the nation’s entire aesthetic can prosperity appear and become collective. How adequately a people abides by its perception is the measure and surety of a political harmony.
Schiller, Friedrich, On the aesthetic education of man. Trans. Reginald Snell. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.