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Judex! Blasphemy! and Posthumous Conversion: Schiller and (No) Religion

From: Goethe Yearbook
Volume 19, 2012
pp. 143-163 | 10.1353/gyr.2012.0027

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In Geschichte des Abfalls der vereinigten Niederlande von der Spanischen Regierung (1788), Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805) wrote: “Das gemeinschaftliche Ziel des Despotismus und des Priestertums ist Einförmigkeit, und Einförmigkeit ist ein notwendiges Hülfsmittel der menschlichen Armut und Beschränkung.”1 Like Schiller, many of the foremost canonical thinkers and doers of the Late Enlightenment rose to prominence as political, philosophical, and literary enemies of coerced uniformity—despotism and priestcraft— be it in the form of feudal tyranny, foreign occupation, violation of freedom of political thought and expression; or church-state violation of freedom of, to, and from religion. Revolutions in deed are preceded and accompanied by revolutions in thought, and just as every revolution in thought needs a Locke, a Jefferson, a Rousseau; every revolution in deed needs a William of Orange, a Washington, a Danton. As an enemy of tyranny, the German dramatist, theorist, historian, and poet Schiller belongs in a political-rhetorical class with these thinkers,2 and, by association, in a class with his own dramatic creations—the doers Karl Moor, Marquis Posa, Joan of Arc, and William Tell. Such liberation heroes, the legendary and the fictional as well as the historical, are fairly destined to become mythologized objects of tribal fetish worship. But what is a tribal-law-abiding idol-worshipper to make of such complicated requisite liberal rebels, once the reformed—and subsequently static-conservative—tribal state has been established, only (hopefully) to plod along through the anti-constitutional trials of relentlessly retarded constitutional progress? Most all groups, groups being tribal-Darwinian enterprises,3 are wont to reform, tame, and co-opt the difficult defining geniuses of their cultures to adhere to evolving forms of what the US Supreme Court has termed “compulsory unification of opinion.”4 Indeed, subordination to one tribal tradition, coerced hero worship, necessitates the repression of a complementary tribal taboo, the criticism of meanwhile hypocritically inappropriate heroes. Thus, the most conservative and puritanical political movements can cling to liberal, secular, founding rebels—long after the schism between ancient liberal thesis (autonomy) and revised conservative antithesis (uniformity) has become embarrassingly self-evident.5 The mere acknowledgement of a contradiction can result in a patriotic identity crisis, such as the one that accompanied renewed assaults on the “wall of separation between church and state” and the Texas School Board’s attempted curricular exile of the ideologically suspect author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, in 2010.

As is the case with Jefferson (and many revolutionary icons worldwide), confusing and shifting ideological turf-wars mark the reception history of the secularist Schiller and his works, from the earliest Christian critics of his poem “Die Götter Griechenlandes” (“The Gods of Ancient Greece,” 1788) to his many later literary, political, and philosophical worshippers and critics, who represent the most contradictory beliefs. Schiller’s “religion” (Sell 1904),6 “essentially religious” mind (Bulwer-Lytton, 1844),7 or “religiosity” (von Wiese 1959);8 his active “unbelief” (Gostwick 1882)9 and “utter indifference” toward religion (Meinhold 1956);10 his “undogmatic Protestantism” (Fricke 1927),11 “closet Catholicism” (Rehm 1951),12 “anti-Catholic prejudice” (Robertson 2006),13 or “Pietism” (McCradle 1986);14 and his posthumously limited choice between either “organized religion” or “a direct relationship to God” (Jansa 1998)15—broadly, “Schiller and Religion”—has been the hotly contested object of an ideological struggle for Schiller’s Geist (the appropriately ambiguous German term for soul, spirit, mind, and intellect). Although Schiller himself had mostly only negative things to say about religion, this has not stopped critics, admirers, and even close personal friends from attempts at posthumously converting Schiller to a “religion”—by implication or explication, some form of Christianity. Though any religious conversion efforts would logically need to establish evidence of Schiller’s belief in a personal supernatural God, and specifically Christian conversion efforts would have to demonstrate Schiller’s belief in Yaweh and the prophets Moses and Jesus Christ, none of them do so. Where cold scholarship and reason prevail, as is the case in a number of recent efforts by prominent Schiller scholars,16 the arguments raised by historical conversion efforts still receive more neutral space, “undeserved respect,”17 and credulity than they warrant. The...

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