Friedrich Schiller’s Letters investigate the function of beauty within the process of civilisation. Reflecting upon the limitations of political freedom as experienced in the historical context of the French Revolution, for Schiller aesthetic experience becomes the means to achieve freedom.
Schiller draws a parallel between aesthetic experience and political freedom, where aesthetics form the basis of a true and functioning res publica, understood as the negation of the state of nature dominated by the right of force. Aesthetic experience helps to overcome the state of nature. In addition to his disillusionment with the outcomes of the French Revolution, his concept of aesthetic education was a response to the debates of the Enlightenment, which discussed political ideas mostly on an abstract theoretical level and failed to touch upon the particular (psychological) disposition of human beings as pre-conditions of social and political life. According to Schiller, it is through their sense of beauty that human beings reach freedom, drawing a parallel between aesthetic representation and political forms.
Historically, the division of labour resulted in technological progress, but with dramatically alienating consequences for the individual involved in this process. The division of labour instrumentally advanced material development, but at a high price for the human being itself. In this sense we can read Schiller’s analysis as an investigation into humans’ modern condition.
Schiller’s response takes into account contemporary debates about the homo ludens, revealing dimensions of human nature that go beyond the instrumental needs of society’s technological advance and political organisation. Aesthetic education serves the purpose of recovering aspects of human existence lost in the process of civilisation. Humankind lives of more than its rational-instrumental needs, reflected in the difference between art and craft, education and instruction; comprehension and knowledge. As a consequence, the human passions become a key to political freedom.
© Axel Körner, 2015
The Passionate Politics on-line Archive has two related entries, accessible here (The grant Schiller received from Prince Christian to work on his aesthetic treatises was in recognition of his Don Karlos) and here (Madame de Stael played a major role in the wider European reception of Schiller’s works).