Who is Friedrich Schiller?
And why his ideas are so important today.
A biography of the life and works of Friedrich Schiller (November 10, 1759 – May 9, 1805) produced by the Schiller Institute in 1984.
At the Founding Conference of the Schiller Institute, the Evening Panel included a biographical film on the life, work and ideas of Friedrich Schiller. This is the text of that film, with subheads added.
Friedrich Schiller: Poet of The American Revolution
For only can a great and noble cause
Arouse humanity’s profoundest nature.
In smaller spheres, the mind of man contracts;
But with a nobler purpose, grows the greater.
And as this century is gravely ending,
And even what is real to fable turns,
When we behold huge forces locked in battle
And our portentous goal is hov’ring near,
And war is waged for man’s most noble causes,
For domination and for liberty–
So now, let art attempt to soar yet higher
Upon the shadow-stage; indeed, she must,
Lest she be put to shame by life’s own drama.
What would Schiller say, were he to see us today? The great causes of mankind seem all but overwhelming; world peace and freedom hang in the balance; the less favored part of the world is threatened with extinction for lack of development; rabid Jacobinism is raging in the southeast regions of the world; indeed, our entire civilization appears to be in danger.
Would Schiller today pass the same judgment he reached upon witnessing the Jacobin terror of the French Revolution, that “a great moment has found a little people”?
Because we must find a better answer to this question, the international Schiller Institute has been founded. Its members in many nations share a fundamental belief in the reason of man, and in man’s ability to solve even the greatest of crises. In order that those who do not know this great poet should understand why the institute bears his name, we offer here a brief sketch of the history of his life and work.
Let us establish the extraordinary example of beautiful humanity, so that we may orient ourselves thereto, and, with more joy and confidence, devote ourselves to our urgent goals.
The Poet of Freedom
But let it be said from the very start that no one, to our knowledge, more perfectly embodied the humanist ideal of humanity, no one more effectively united the conception of republican freedom with the principle of poetic beauty, than Friedrich Schiller. What Beethoven was for music, Schiller was for poetry. Schiller and Beethoven were the giants of the German classics, infinitely alike in their method of thought, each having established the standards by which all art must henceforth be measured.
Schiller was the great republican poet of freedom, who could adorn the ideal of a nobler, more beautiful mankind in such powerful language, that he truly found “an infallible key to the most secret recesses of the human soul.” Like no other, he could evoke the most tender emotions within his audience, enlarge its heart, and guide it to a level of reason not previously known, because he, like no other, met the challenge he himself posed to every poet:
All he can give us is his individuality. Hence, this must be worthy of being shown off to the world and to posterity. To so ennoble this individuality, to refine and purify it into the most magnificent example of humanity–this his most important obligation he must fulfill before he can endeavor to move superior intellects.
It is the boundless merit of the German population of his time, that they loved Schiller as they never loved any other poet. One contemporary, Heinrich Anschütz, who later acted at the Burg- theater in Vienna, witnessed the premiere performance of The Maid of Orleans in Leipzig:
Young and old flocked to the theater in joyous ecstasy. The most vigorous gained the best seats in the gallery. Then a door in the loge section opens, and a tall, thin figure steps to the rail. “It’s he, there’s Schiller,” ripples through the hail, and, like a cornfield swayed by the wind, the crowd leans to catch sight of the one it adores. . . .
We are hardly able to drag ourselves away from this sight in order to follow the overture and the first act of the tragedy. Now the heroine rises, to emplant the flag of victory in Orleans; the curtain falls, and a bacchanalian cry of jubilation echoes like a storm through the house: “Long live Friedrich Schiller!,” accompanied by sounds of drums and trumpets from the orchestra. And now the stirring figure rises, visibly, moved, and bows thankfully toward the audience. Again a crescendo of applause, and only the rising curtain puts an end to the tumult.
Another eyewitness recounts what went on outside in front of the theater after the performance:
The entire square in front of the theater, all the way to the Ranstädter Gate, was choked with people. Then he stepped out, and a lane was instantly formed. Voices ordered hats to be removed. And so, the poet walked through the crowd of his admirers, their heads bared, and by his side his little Karl, who remembered it all his life. In the back, fathers lifted their children high above their shoulders and cried, “There he is!”
But Schiller’s “jesting and playful,” yet exalting impact was not confined to the popular masses. It would require an entire history book to demonstrate how Schiller was probably the most critical influence on all positive subsequent developments in German history. The thinking of the Prussian reformers vom Stein, von Humboldt, Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and many others, was decisively shaped by him. It was his ideas which inspired the Wars of Liberation against Napoleon. And he also influenced the best minds around the world, such as John Quincy Adams, James Fennimore Cooper, Edgar Allen Poe, and Frederick Douglass to name only a few.
The Progeny of Schiller’s ideas
If we are to comprehend Schiller’s powerful impact on his fellow men, we must try to imagine the electrifying effect such a genius has upon his fellow men. For instance, let us hear the words of Wilhelm von Humboldt, the great humanist and creator of the world’s best model of education, who lived in Schiller’s company for many years, and who, with Goethe, was one of the pillars of the Weimar classical period:
A great intellect can have no more direct and comprehensive effect, than through his own works. These works, however, illuminate merely one small part of his essential nature, which only flows back fully and clearly in its living form. In a manner which can be neither proven in the individual case, nor traced by thought alone, it is assimilated by his contemporaries and bequeathed to future generations. This quiet and almost magical effect of great minds is the principal vehicle by which an ever expanding body of thought can extend ever more broadly and powerfully from one generation, one nation to the next. In mummified form, as it were, written scientific and literary works can then transport it over chasms which the course of living affairs cannot bridge. Nations have always made major strides in their development before the written word, and in those darkest, but most important periods of human creation and formation, the only possible influence was that of the living. Thus, nothing draws our attention more than any attempt, no matter how weak, to investigate how a remarkable man of his century has, in his own individual manner, run the course of all thought, binding law with the world of appearances and striving beyond the finite into the infinite. This has often occupied my reflections on Schiller, and there is no one of his era whose internal intellectual life is more deserving of our examination.
The written reports of those who had the good fortune to have met Schiller personally, contain the most precious testimony of how their contact with him left such a lasting impression, that in many cases it altered the course of their entire lives.
Never did Germany more closely approach Schiller’s ideals than at the time of the Liberation Wars. These were not merely a patriotic uprising against Napoleon’s tyranny; they were the result of an enthusiastic republican constitutional movement; and no one inspired that movement more than the great poet of freedom, Friedrich Schiller.
The reformers of Prussia carefully studied Schiller’s History of the Thirty Years War, and applied its lessons to their battles against Napoleon during Russian campaign. Gneisenau rehearsed Wallenstein’s Camp with his soldiers; countless soldiers visited Schiller’s widow to receive lines torn from his poems, and kept them in the pockets of their jackets, near their hearts, so as to strengthen them as they marched into battle.
When Schiller’s writings were banned under the Carlsbad Decrees of the reactionary rulers of the Holy Alliance in 1819, they were secretly passed from hand to hand, and his popularity continued to grow. Schiller became the inspiration and hero of the youth. His fame soon spread throughout the world, and in 1836, Germans from every part of the world financed the statue made by Thorwaldson, the first statue ever of a German who was neither prince nor military commander!
In 1841, Goethe’s student Riemer wrote:
Schiller is the idol of the youth, the favorite of the women, the oracle of the elderly, the warrior’s inspiration in storm and battle, the motto and election slogan of the republican debaters.
The Schiller féstivals in 1859 still stand as the most powerful positive political demonstrations ever held in Germany. Schiller’s memory was celebrated in countless towns in Germany, but also among all German emigrants in America and elsewhere. In schools, universities, churches, and even in workshops, a loud call rang out for national unity, and there is no doubt that Germany’s fate would have taken a far more positive turn, had Germany been united as a republic in the spirit of Schiller, and not under Bismarck, who followed soon thereafter.
German culture, and especially Schiller’s popularity, exerted an important influence on America throughout the nineteenth century. The 100th anniversary of Schiller’s death in 1905 marked yet another Schiller renaissance, but it was also the last time when German culture was considered a genuine ingredient of America’s heritage, before it was largely suppressed by Teddy Roosevelt and the First World War.
But as long as America remains separated from Schiller by ideological barriers, it will also remain separated from its own soul. For no other poet eternalized the ideals of the American Revolution as did he.
Friedrich Schiller was born on November 10, 1759 in Marbach. He spent an extremely happy childhood there, and also later in Lorch, and then at the Latin School in Ludwigsburg. His happiness was only interrupted when Karl Eugen, the Duke of Württemburg, moved him into the Karlsschule, the “Ducal military academy.”
Although Schiller suffered immensely at this school, where he had to stay from his thirteenth to his twenty-first year, the influences which flowed in upon him during that time became a wellspring from which his poetic genius would later explode.
On the more positive side, his mind developed under the influence, still felt in the eighteenth century, of Leibniz, Lessing, and Shakespeare, and conspicuous among his teachers was a professor of philosophy who polemically challenged his students to develop into geniuses–Friedrich Abel.
Schiller developed a passionate aversion to the oligarchical despotism of the nobility, who brutally and thoughtlessly crushed the aspirations of their subjects, and who would carelessly squander their peasants’ entire year’s work, if it pleased them to stage a hunt with 300 horses. In these early years, Schiller developed an absolutely uncompromising disgust for every form of philistinism and mediocrity, an attitude without which he would have never attained greatness. But he also developed acute political insight, enabling him to expose the most intricate and covert operations run by the oligarchical faction of his time, and he shed ever new light upon them in such works as “The Ghost Seer” or his “The Jesuit government of Paraguay,” or in his poem “The Evil Monarchs,” to name only a few. With that unique insight exclusive to genius, he exposed every method of psychological warfare, every activity they directed against the idea of republican freedom. Whoever reads his works today will quickly discover to his gre4t amazement, that these forces remain essentially unchanged to this day.
Drama and Poetry
In his first drama, The Robbers, secretly written by the 20-year-old Schiller when he was still in the Karlsschule, a dramatic talent erupted, that has no parallel in the German language. While dramas greater than The Robbers were to follow, Schiller had already demonstrated what it was that distinguished him from all other playwrights–his ability to compose in such a gripping way that each line is born of necessity from the previous one, so that it is impossible to put down one of his dramas, no matter how many times one might have read it, not to speak of the overwhelming effect of his dramas performed on the stage, which only a fool could possibly evade.
Schiller’s fellow students, who secretly attended the first performance of The Robbers, excitedly acted out entire scenes at night in the woods. This drama established Schiller’s fame throughout Germany at one stroke, and soon throughout Europe.
When Duke Carl Eugen forbade Schiller to write, forbade him any contact with “foreign countries,” and even arrested him, so that Schiller must have thought he would soon share the same horrible fate as the poet Schubart, he decided to flee. His good friend, the composer and later collaborator of Beethoven; Andreas Streicher, made great sacrifices to help Schiller escape.
These experiences were woven into Schiller’s third drama, Cabals and Love, the first play in which he makes direct reference to the American Revolution. Not only did he put the entire duplicity and perfidy of contemporary life at court ruthlessly upon the stage; here he also attacks the sale of Hessian soldiers to the English, who were in the habit of throwing such soldiers as cannon-fodder into the war against the renegade American colonies. But even the English could not prevent some of those soldiers from deserting to the side of the young American republic.
Cabals and Love was to be Schiller’s last drama to make such drastic references to his own time. The play was immediately forbidden after its premiere performance, and a flood of letters attacking the poet flew back and forth between the authorities. prom the Prussian to the Bavarian court, the word was that this dangerous subject would have to be neutralized and prevented from obtaining any employment.
To escape censorship, Schiller never wrote another drama dealing with his own time. Instead, he used the trick of shifting the great affairs of the present to earlier historical times. But all of his many subsequent works, ranging from dramas, poems, historical to theoretical works, were still borne by the great idea of political freedom, and they all mirrored the ideals successfully realized in the American Revolution, ideals that united all of Europe’s ardent patriots. The famous Rütli oath from William Tell was directly taken from the American Declaration of Independence.
After Schiller had escaped from his personal difficulties, with the aid of Christian Gottfried Körner in Leipzig, whose house was a gathering place for republican networks, he was filled with optimism about the future of mankind. It was in Körner’s house that Schiller composed the world-famous lines:
Freude, schöner Götterfunken.
Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten, feuertrunken,
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum.
Deine Zauber binden wieder,
Was die Mode streng geteilt,
Alle Menschen werden Brüder,
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.
Joy, immortal incandescence,
Daughter of Elysium!
Breathing fire from thy presence
To thy temple-ground we come.
Whom the world estranged from others
Thy enchantments reunite,
Making mankind into brothers
Where thy gentle wings alight.
This poem appeared in 1786, in that very decade when all Europe’s republicans were gazing, full of enthusiasm, upon the successful American Revolution, a success in which they had a large share, through the networks of Lafayette, Steuben, Franklin, Washington, and the League of Armed Neutrality. The American Revolution had really been their joint project to establish, for the first time, a free republic in the New World.
They hoped that the beginning of the French Revolution would take a similarly happy turn, that this would act as a lever for all of Europe, so that Germany, too, which was still a collection of 300 small principalities, could become a nation.
In his “Letters On Don Carlos,” Schiller describes discussions on this perspective as the favorite topic of the decade: the establishment of a new nation, wherein the utmost flourishing of the state would coincide with the maximum development of the individual.
The drama Don Carlos, along with William Tell, are perhaps his most direct celebration of the American Revolution. Even though the scene of Don Carlos is shifted to the court of Philip II of Spain, when the Marquis of Posa takes up the cause of justice for the province of Flanders, this “emissary of mankind” speaks, in ideal form, the words which also moved the Founding Fathers. When Philip hears the Marquis refuse to become a servant of princes, and the King attempts to force him into his service, the Marquis seizes the opportunity to hurl the truth directly at the most powerful monarch of his time:
Yes, almighty God!
Yes–yes–I will repeat it. Give us back
What you have taken from us! Let there be
An endless flow of human happiness
From your incessant spring–let minds mature
Within your universal structure. Give us back
What you have taken from us, and become
A king who rules a million other kings.
And oh! If only words of eloquence
Of all the thousands who are taking part
In this great hour, were hov’ring on my lips,
Then could I take that spark within your eye
And kindle it to flames!–Relinquish this
Perverse, unnatural idolatry
Which crushes us. Become for us a model
Of truth whose reign is timeless. Never– never
Has one sole mortal ever had so much
To use toward goodness and divinity.
All Europe’s kings acclaim the Spanish throne;
You are the first among the kings of Europe.
From you, a single pen-stroke, and the world
Is new, is re-created. Sire, O give us
The freedom of ideas.
Yet, Schiller’s dramas are far more than a celebration; they are really strategic studies containing universal truths, revealing the mistakes that republicans simply must not make, if victory is to be theirs.
In the case of the Marquis of Posa, for example, his mistake is flight forward. Embroiled in a complicated plot, the Marquis flees forward, first to save the prince, Don Carlos, by sacrificing himself, but also—as Schiller points out–so that by sacrificing himself, he can remain “pure.” But by doing so, the Marquis has lost precisely what had to be won– freedom for Flanders.
Time and again, Schiller’s dramas demonstrate how a man’s duty lies above his own personal inclinations, how he must be both a patriot and a world citizen–which can never imply a contradiction, for the true interests any one nation can never be at odds with the interests of the world as a whole.
Schiller’s dramatic method is at the same time a method of education into reason–not didactically, with a raised, moralizing finger, but rather by forcibly confronting the individuals on the stage with the great cause of mankind, “which elevates men, even as it crushes them.”
In his prologue to the Bride of Messina, Schiller remarks that
True art . . . is not intended as a mere passing fancy; its earnest endeavor is not to transport man into a mere momentary dream of freedom, but rather to make him actually free, and to do so by awakening, exercising and developing within him his power to achieve an objective distance from the sensible world, which otherwise weighs down upon us like a dead object, pressing us like a blind force. This distance gives us the power to transform the material world into the free work of our own intellect, and to exert dominion over it through ideas.
In another place, Schiller says,
The stage is the common channel through which the light of wisdom streams down from the thoughtful, better part of society, spreading thence in mild beams throughout the entire state. Truer ideas, more refined precepts, purified emotions then flow into the veins of the population; the clouds of barbarism and dark superstition disperse; night yields to victorious light.
Schiller was not only the greatest German dramatist; he also developed a philosophy of history, that has not been surpassed to this day in its high principles and its truth of insight.
All previous ages, without knowing or intending it, have endeavored to prepare the advent of our own human century. Ours are all the treasures which industry and genius, reason and experience, have conquered over the world’s aging span. It is from history that you will first learn to value of these possessions, which the force of habit and unassailed possession all too readily incline us to take for granted–these precious goods, stained with the blood of our noblest and best, the hard- won fruits of the heavy toil of generations! Who among you, where clear mind and feeling heart are closely wed, can be cognizant of this high obligation without also being moved by a silent wish to repay the coming generation for that debt which the past can no longer receive? Within us there must burn a noble desire to contribute from our own means to the rich legacy of truth, morality, and liberty, which our ancestors have bequeathed to us, and which we must now pass on to our successors–a desire to link our fleeting existence with the imperishable chain that winds through all generations of mankind. As diverse as your destinies may be in the great world, still every one of you can contribute something to that end! With every worthy act, a pathway is opened to immortality, to that true immortality where the deed lives and hurries on, even should the name of its author remain behind.
In the same year of 1789, when Schiller delivered that inaugural address as Professor of History in Jena, he also composed a poem called “The Artists,” a hymn to the reason of man:
How beautifully, O man, with your branch of palm,
You stand on the century’s slope
In proud and noble manliness,
With open mind, with spirits high,
Stern yet gentle, in active stillness,
The ripest son of time– Free through reason, strong through laws,
Through meekness great, and rich with treasures
Long lain dormant within your breast;
Lord of nature who loves your chains,
Who tests your strength in countless battles,
Who under you emerged resplendent from the wilderness!
When Schiller wrote those lines, he was still firmly convinced that mankind stood on the threshold of the Age of Reason. But as the Jacobin Terror began to crush the hopes offered by the French Revolution, he increasingly vented his horror at that scene of barbarity. And so, Schiller, who had just composed the lines, “How beautifully, O man, with your branch of palm, you stand on the century’s slope,” later reflected upon the Paris massacre in “The Song of the Bell”:
Yet the most terrifying of terrors
Is man in his folly.
The outcome of the French Revolution occasioned Schiller to make his famous remark that “A great moment has found a little people.” Since for the moment there was no hope of establishing a political order in Europe based on the principles of reason and freedom, Schiller turned his attention to the question of how this “little people” could now be educated. His “Aesthetic Letters” deal with this issue, and proceed from the thesis that any improvement in political affairs can only result from an improvement in the character of individuals. Many other invaluable works, such as “On Grace and Dignity,” deal with the same subject.
Schiller attributes the most decisive role to art itself. Art can never be a mere ornament or a passing mood. It must be the expression of a higher lawfulness, and of freedom at the same time. But how can the artist predetermine the effect of a work of art upon his audience, without himself violating that principle of freedom?
By dictating to our imagination no other course but that which it would have to take in full freedom and according to its own laws, so that it accomplishes its purpose through nature and will transform external into internal necessity. . . . Both criteria do not simply cancel each other out, but rather, each is contained within the other; it is only through the greatest determinateness that the greatest freedom is possible.
Schiller’s challenge to artists is the greatest one conceivable. The poet “must have extinguished the individual within himself and have elevated himself to his species character. Only thus is he capable of formulating a universal truth, which can win the reader to a higher order of thought.”
This period of the early 1790s also saw Schiller’s reckoning with the work of Immanuel Kant, whose categorical imperative required that man must do his duty, should any contradiction between necessity and inclination arise. Such a “Kantian” approach necessarily aroused the indignation of our freedom-loving poet, and so he wrote:
What crime have the children of the house committed, that he cares only for the servants?
A Beauriful Soul
Schiller counterposed the Kantian fulfilment of duty to the idea of the “beautiful soul,” an emotional condition in which “reason and sensuousness, duty and inclination, coincide.”
We call a soul “beautiful” when its moral sense of all human experience has become so steadfast, that it can confidently let its emotions serve to guide its own will, without any risk of coming into contradiction with its own decisions. The individual actions of the beautiful soul are therefore not moral in themselves, but rather are so by virtue of its entire nature. No single one of its actions can be counted as a specific merit, since the mere satisfaction of an impulse could never be called meritorious. The beautiful soul possesses no other merit than its own existence. It performs humanity’s most odious duties with the ease of someone acting out of pure instinct, and the most heroic sacrifices it extracts from its natural impulse, appear to the observer as the mere free play of that impulse. Hence the beautiful soul is never cognizant of the beauty of its own acts; it no longer occurs to it that one could act and feel otherwise.
Friedrich Schiller died too young, on May 12, 1805. There were so much more, infinitely more to quote from Schiller, so much more to say about him. But let this brief sketch be a stimulus for those who wish to read and study Schiller for themselves.
Just as Schiller set forth a program for his own era to elevate endangered and ruined humanity through classical art, by reaching back to the heritage of the Greeks, today we, too, must link up with the ideal of mankind set forth in the Weimar classics, in order to unfold anew the whole of human nature with Schiller’s method.
If we leave all the confusion of later history to one side, and ourselves become those “honest discoverers” whom Schiller once hoped for, we will then have found the key to overcoming the inner fissures of modern man. But not only this. If we learn to think great thoughts as Schiller did, we will have also found the strength to master the great causes of mankind today.
Great is he, who overcomes the terrifying;
Man is greater than his fate.