SCHILLER'S MESSAGE TO MODERN LIFE
HOWEVER widely opinions may differ as to the greatness of Schiller the writer, the thinker, the historian, or even the poet, there can be no difference of opinion as to the greatness of Schiller the apostle of the perfect life. His own life was filled by one central idea. Every line written by him, every deed done by him, proclaim the fact that he felt himself to be the bearer of a sacred message to humanity, and that the consciousness of this high office inspired, ennobled, hallowed his whole existence. It seems proper at the hundredth anniversary of the passing away of this great prophet briefly to define the message to the spreading of which he devoted his earthly career, and to ask ourselves what this message means to us of to-day.
The central idea of Schiller's literary activity is bound up with his conception of the beautiful. Beauty was to him something vastly more significant than the empirical conception of it as a quality exciting pleasurable emotions implies. It was to him a divine essence, intimately allied, if not synonymous, with absolute goodness and absolute truth. It was to him a principle of conduct, an ideal of action, the goal of highest aspiration, the mark of noblest citizenship, the foremost remedy for the evils besetting an age which seemed to him depraved and out of joint. Art was to him a great educational force, a power making for progress, enlightenment, perfection; and the mission of the artist he saw in the uplifting of society, in the endeavor to elevate public standards, in work for the strengthening, deepening, and — if need be — remodeling, of national character.
What was Schiller's attitude toward the great national problems of his own age ?
Schiller lived at a time when the very foundations of German political greatness appeared to be crumbling away. Of the ancient glory of the Holy Roman Empire — the pride of former generations — hardly a vestige was left. The civic independence and political power of the German city-republics of the Renaissance had come to be nothing but a shadowy tradition. Public life was hemmed in by a thousand and one varieties of princely despotism and bureaucratic misgovernment, by class monopoly, by territorial jealousies, by local obstructions to trade and industry, by serfdom, by complete political apathy of the ruled as well as the rulers. No wonder that a nation which lacked the most fundamental prerequisites of national consciousness was powerless to withstand foreign aggression, and found itself dismembered, limb by limb, in the furious onslaught of Napoleonic imperialism.
Out of this bondage to external conditions the German spirit freed itself by retreating — so to speak — into the souls of a few great men; men faithful to the legacy of the German past; faithful to the ideal of personality held up by Walther von der Vogelweide, by the Mystics, by Luther, by Leibnitz; faithful to the ineradicable German striving for the deepening and intensifying of the inner life. The greatest of these men — builders from within, as one might call them, or renewers of the national body through reawakening of the national soul — were Kant, Goethe, and Schiller. Kant's appeal is an appeal to the conscience. In this fleeting world of appearances, where everything is subject to doubt and misrepresentation, there stands out one firm and incontrovertible fact, the fact that we feel ourselves moral beings. The moral law, residing within ourselves, is felt by us instinctively as our innermost essence, and at the same time as the only direct and unmistakable revelation of the divine. In submission to this law, therefore, not in the gratification of our desires, does man's true freedom lie; obedience to the dictates of duty is the only road to the perfect life. If Kant addresses himself to the moral sense, both Goethe and Schiller address themselves to our artistic nature; but while Goethe accentuates the receptive side of our artistic being, Schiller accentuates its creative side. To Goethe, life appeared as an unending opportunity for gathering in impressions, for widening our sympathies, for enriching our imagination, for heightening our sense of the grandeur of all existence; universality of culture was to him the goal of endeavor. To Schiller, life appeared as an unending opportunity for penetrating into the essence of things, for finding the unity lying back of the contrasts of the universe, of matter and spirit, of instinct and reason, and for expressing this unity in the language of art; striving for inner harmony, for oneness with self and the world, was to him the supreme task of man.
It is not surprising that in the actual world about him, in the society of his time, Schiller found little that seemed to him to make for this ideal of inner harmony. Indeed, he felt that this ideal could be attained only in direct opposition to the spirit of his age. The despotic state of the eighteenth century, with its shallow opportunism, its bureaucratic narrowness, its lack of popular energy, seemed to him the sworn enemy of all higher strivings, and fatal to the development of a harmonious, well-rounded inner life. "When the State," he says, in his Letters on the Æsthetic Education of Man , " when the State makes the office the measure of the man; when it honors in one of its subjects memory alone, in another clerical sagacity, in a third mechanical cleverness; when in one case, indifferent toward character, it insists only on knowledge, in another condones the most flagrant intellectual obtuseness if accompanied by outward discipline and loyalty, — is it a wonder that in order to cultivate the one talent which brings honor and reward all other gifts of the mind are neglected ? To be sure, a genius will rise above the barriers of his profession; but the mass of mediocre talents must of necessity consume their whole strength in their official existence. And thus individual, concrete life is gradually being annihilated in order that the abstract shadow of the whole may drag out its barren existence." In such an age, then, this is Schiller's reasoning, the man who wants to be himself, who strives for inner harmony, must live as a stranger to his surroundings, a stranger to his time, he must remove himself from the distracting and belittling influence of the ambitions of the multitude, he must scorn all participation in the sordid quest for outward success, he must fill himself with the spirit of what the best and the finest of all ages have dreamed and accomplished, he must dwell in the idea of the beautiful.
The striving for the beautiful was to Schiller a call as sacred and solemn as the submission to duty was to Kant; nay, it seemed to him to imply a higher conception of humanity than the moral law. Is it really so, as Kant would have us believe, that reason must be absolute sovereign of the will ? that instinct must unconditionally surrender ? that it belongs to the essence of the good that it is enforced and brought about against the desires of the instinct? No, says Schiller, this cannot be. For it is impossible to assume that only by suppression of a part of our nature we could achieve its perfection ; that only by stifling our inclinations we could live up to our duty. The good consists not in the repression of our instincts, but in ennobling them; not in the mutilation of our nature, but in developing it; not in stagnation, but in the free play of our powers; not in ascetic worlddenial, but in manly world-enjoyment, — in a word, in the creation of the beautiful. Beauty is the perfect union of matter and spirit, of the senses and reason; it is the harmony of the real and the ideal, of the inner world and the outer. As spirit, we are active, determining, masculine; as beings of the senses, we are receptive, determinable, feminine. Our task is to unite these two parts of our being; to reconcile matter and form, instinct and reason; to merge the finite and the infinite. In doing this, nay, even in endeavoring to do this, we create the beautiful, we become ourselves beautiful, we fulfill the worthiest mission of humanity, we reveal the divine in man.
It is clear that from this point of view art comes to be the highest of all human activities. All other activities set only a part of our being in motion; they do not develop our fullest humanity. The pleasures of the senses we enjoy merely as individuals, without the species immanent in us being affected thereby. Nobody but I myself has the slightest part, in the fact that I enjoy — let us say oysters on the shell. The pleasures of the senses, therefore, we cannot lift into the sphere of the universal. The functions of reason we fulfill chiefly as species, without our individual self being deeply stirred thereby. If I come to understand some mathematical law, for instance, the thirty-ninth theorem, this is not so much an individual experience as a demonstration of my belonging to the species of homo sapiens. Our intellectual pleasures, therefore, cannot fully enter into the sphere of personality. The beautiful alone we enjoy both as individuals and as species, that is, as representatives of the species; and the artist who creates, the public who sympathetically receive the beautiful, thereby lift themselves to the highest plane accessible to man.
I shall not here dwell on the question whether this apotheosis of art does not do injustice to other forms of human activity. What led Schiller to these, we should be inclined to say, over-statements, was probably the absence in the Germany of his time of a healthy public life which could have taught him the value of any kind of strenuous productive work. It is, however, clear that this very exaggeration of the mission of art carries with it an inspiring force akin to the mountain-removing assurance of religious faith. And there can be no doubt that it was this conception of art as a great public agency, as the great atoner and harmonizer, as the intermediator between the spirit and the senses, as the fulfiller of the ideal of humanity, which has given to German literature of Schiller's time its unique, transcending, and enduring radiance.
No better characterization of this literature could be given than that implied in the following words from Schiller's essay, On the Use of the Chorus in Tragedy: "True art has for her object not merely to afford a transient pleasure, to excite to a momentary dream of liberty. Her aim is to make us intrinsically and absolutely free; and this she accomplishes by awakening, exercising, and perfecting in us a power to remove to an objective distance the world of the senses, which otherwise only burdens us as a dead weight, as a blind force, to transform it into the free working of our spirit, and thus to master matter by means of the idea."
Schiller's own poetic activity since the time when he had outgrown the turbulent storm and stress of his youth, was entirely given over to carrying out this ideal. All his ripest productions — the philosophical poems, the ballads, the five great dramas from Wallenstein to William Tell — bring out the conflict of man with himself and the world, the struggle between his spiritual longings and his earthly desires, and they all point to a reconciliation of these contrasts, to atonement, purification, peace. They all are symbols of the perfect life. Whether we think of such a poem as The Ideal and Life, with its brilliant pictures of man's endless striving for mastery over matter; or of such ballads as The Diver , The Fight with the Dragon, The Ring of Polycrates, The Cranes of Ibycus, with their wonderful suggestions of the destiny of man and the workings of Fate; or whether we review the central themes of his principal dramas: in Wallenstein the conflict between selfish ambition and moral greatness; in Mary Stuart the conflict in a woman's soul between sensual passion and repentant abnegation; in The Maid of Orleans the conflict between the human heart and a superhuman task; in The Bride of Messina the conflict between human prowess and inexorable Fate; in William Tell the conflict between popular right and despotic usurpation,—everywhere we see human nature issue forth from these struggles ennobled, exalted, glorified, even if outwardly defeated; everywhere are we accorded foreboding glimpses, at least, of that higher realm where instinct and reason have become one, where doubts, misgivings, uncertainty, have fled, where beauty, scorning that which is corruptible, has put on her incorruptible body, and shines in transcending, eternal, spiritual radiance.
I have tried briefly to show how the central idea of Schiller's life, his conception of the beautiful, was connected with his view of the society of his time, how it formed part of the inner regeneration of German national life at the end of the eighteenth century. Let me add a few words about the significance which this conception of art seems to have for our own age.
Never before has there been a greater need or a greater opportunity for art to fulfill the mission assigned it by Schiller than there is to-day. Again, as in Schiller's time, the strongest forces of social life tend to alienate man from his own self, to make him part of a huge machine, to prevent a full rounding out of all his faculties. Politically, to be sure, great strides have been made during the last hundred years; the despotic methods of government, in which Schiller saw the most pernicious bar to the full development of personality, have largely been superseded by popular participation in public affairs. But another, and perhaps graver danger to the cultivation of the best and the finest in human personality confronts us to-day: the overweening, alloverpowering influence of industrialism. The division of labor in every field of activity, brought about by modern methods of industrial production; the fierce competition in every domain of life, made necessary by the industrial struggle for existence; the rapid ascendency of huge combinations both of capital and labor, demanding complete and unconditional submission of the individual, — in short, all the most characteristic and most fundamental phenomena of modern society militate, every one of them, against the growth of a broad, generous, comprehensive, and thoroughly sound inner life. Again, as in Schiller's time, although for entirely different reasons, men before whose minds there hovers the image of ideal mankind, find themselves inevitably in direct opposition to the ruling tendencies of the age; again they feel strangers in a world whose din and confusion blur and distract the noblest powers of the mind; again they grope about for something which will heal the wounds of humanity, which will pacify the fierce tumult of social strife, which will satisfy the deepest longings of the soul, which will give us at least a symbolic anticipation of man in his fullness and totality.
Is there not, then, a great mission in the world of to-day for Schiller's conception of art to fulfill ? More than this, is not Schiller's conception of the beautiful the only artistic ideal capable of becoming a great uplifting public force, a power of redemption from the distracting, distorting, disfiguring influences of modern commercialism, a tower of strength in the struggle for an enlightened, unselfish, elevated national consciousness ?
Let us imagine for a moment what the result would be, if Schiller's insistence on the social office of art had come to be generally accepted: how different, for example, the American stage would be, if the managers of all our theatres worked for the elevation of the public taste, instead of most of them being driven by the desire for private gain; how different our literature would be, if every writer considered himself responsible to the public conscience, if the editors of all our newspapers and magazines considered themselves public educators; how different our whole intellectual atmosphere would be, if the public would scorn books, plays, pictures, or any works of human craft, which did not make for the union of our spiritual and our sensuous strivings; if, in other words, the cultivation of beauty had come to be acknowledged, as Schiller wanted it to be acknowledged, as a duty which we owe not only to ourselves, but also to the community and the country; if it had come to be a regulative force of our whole social life.
We should then be freed from the vain pomp and senseless luxury which hold their baneful sway over so many of our rich, unfitting them for useful activity, poisoning their relation to other classes of society, ever widening the gulf between them and the mass of the people, making their very existence a menace to the republic. We should be saved from the vulgar sensationalism and the vicious voluptuousness which degrade most of our theatres and make them corrupters of morality instead of givers of delight. We should be spared the hideous excrescences of industrial competition which disfigure not only the manufacturing districts of our cities, but even deface our meadows and woods and waterfalls. We should be rid of the whims and fancies of literary fashion which merely please the idle and the thoughtless. We should be relieved from the morbid, pseudo-artistic reveling in the abnormal and the ugly, which appeals only to a superficial curiosity, without stirring or strengthening our deeper self. We should have an art which, while true to life, and by no means palliating its misery and its horrors, would hold before us the task of rising superior to life's woes, of fulfilling our destiny, of rounding out our whole being, of overcoming the inevitable conflict between instinct and duty, between passion and reason, in short, of striving for the perfect life. Such an art would indeed be a great public force for good; such an art, instead of being the servant of the rich, would come to be the spiritual leader of the people; such an art would mature the finest and most precious fruits of democracy.
It does not seem likely that views like these, fundamentally true and self-evident as they are, will ever be generally accepted. In their very nature they are views which appeal only to those to whom the conception of art as a mere opportunity for amusement or display is something utterly repulsive and contemptible. All the more sacred is the obligation of these few, — and that our own time possesses such men, the names of Tolstoi, of Björnson, of Ibsen, of Maeterlinck, of Hauptmann, are a happy reminder, — all the more sacred is the obligation of such men as these steadfastly to adhere to the harmony between the senses and the spirit as the ultimate goal of artistic endeavor.
Far be it from me to underrate what men like those just mentioned have accomplished or what they stand for. These men are undoubtedly worthy followers of Schiller. They once more have opened the eyes of mankind to the fundamental problems of art. They once more have freed art from the slavery of being a mere toy and pastime of the ruling classes; they once more have made it a mouthpiece of suffering, struggling, and aspiring humanity. But has any one of these writers attained to that thoroughly free and thoroughly lawful view of life, that generous comprehension of the rational as well as the emotional forces of man, that measured harmony of form and spirit, which make the very essence of Schiller's art ?
Nothing could be more instructive than to compare Schiller's artistic ideal with that of the two greatest of these moderns, and their most characteristic representatives, Leo Tolstoi and Henrik Ibsen. Both these men have as exalted an opinion of the mission of art as had Schiller. To them, as to Schiller, art is essentially a means for the regeneration of society; to them, as to Schiller, its office is to show the way toward a perfect state of human existence. Both are unrivaled masters in laying bare the perplexing problems, the besetting falsehoods, the secret sins, the tragic conflicts, the woes and horrors, of modern civilization, Both are inspired with an invincible belief in the society of the future, in the coming brotherhood of man, and in their own vocation to bring it about. But must it not be said that this society to come, as conceived by Tolstoi or Ibsen, is an utterly fantastic fata morgana, a purely subjective day-dream ? Can it be assumed that modern society, with its highly complex and variegated occupations, with its thousand and one gradations of national activity, will revert to the dead level of the stolid, long-suffering, uninitiative Russian peasant, whom Tolstoi would have us consider as the type of the unselfish, loving, truly Christian life of the future ? Or, on the other hand, is it possible to imagine that the brotherhood of man can be brought about by the over-individualized, tempestuous, Viking – like race of fighters and visionaries whom Ibsen makes the representatives of his own ideal of human development ? And even if either of these conditions were really to come to pass, is it not clear that neither could be brought about without a violent disruption of the existing order of things; that both Ibsen and Tolstoi, therefore, are fundamentally subversive, and only with regard to possible distant effects of their thought may be called constructive ?
What they lack is Schiller's conception of beauty as mediator between the sensuous and the spiritual; what they lack is Schiller's appeal to the best, the most normal, the most human in man: his natural desire for equipoise, for oneness with himself, for totality of character. Schiller's art does not point backward, as Tolstoi's glorification of primitiveness of existence does. It does not point into a dim, shadowy future, as Ibsen's fantastic Uebermenschen do. It guides us with firm hand toward a well defined and attainable ideal, the ideal of free,noble, progressive, self-restrained manhood: —
Sie sinkt mit euch! Mit euch wird sie sich heben.
Der freisten Mutter freiste Söhne,
Schwingt euch mit festem Angesiclit
Zum Strahlensitz der höchsten Schone !
Um andre Kronen buhlet nicht.
Erhebet euch mit kühnem Flügel
Hoch über euren Zeitenlauf !
Fern dämmre schon in eurem Spiegel
Das kommende Jahrhundert auf !
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