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The Politics of Aesthetic Humanism: Schiller’s German Idea of Freedom

From: Goethe Yearbook
Volume 20, 2013
pp. 223-246 | 10.1353/gyr.2013.0006

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Die deutsche Freiheit ist in der Tat etwas anderes als die westliche, als die englische und französische.

—Ernst Troeltsch, “Die deutsche Idee von der Freiheit” (1916)

The memorials of 2005 and 20091 to Friedrich Schiller invited broader assessments of his achievements and historical legacy, reminding us of his significance in modern cultural history. Celebrated in Germany as a poet, dramatist, and philosopher, whose voice, surprisingly, once again resonated with the spiritual needs of the times, Schiller is today recognized in an international academic context primarily for his theoretical work. Here his aesthetic theories are regarded as the “fountainhead of all later German critical theory”2 and as an inspiration for the “whole radical aesthetic tradition from Coleridge to Herbert Marcuse.”3 As such, Schiller’s aesthetics has played a significant role in recent Anglo-American confrontations between “humanists and theorists,”4 as well as in ongoing debates over “aesthetics and politics.”5 Yet despite such continued visibility and attention, Leslie Sharpe’s observations certainly hold true that “on many major issues in Schiller’s aesthetics, opinion is as divided as ever.”6 Notwithstanding its “enormous impact and continuing resonance in cultural debates, . . . many bones of critical contention remain.”7 This is nowhere more apparent than when larger ideological, or political, implications of Schiller’s theoretical work are at issue. In spite of a thriving industry of Schiller exegesis, which ever since its “Postwar Boom”8 has shown no signs of exhaustion, one still observes widespread disagreement over the actual nature of his political ideals and legacy.9 This discordant state of scholarship, I would submit, is especially unproductive in an international academic context, where “Schiller” frequently functions as a shorthand and jumping-off point for supposedly familiar and well-understood ideological orientations.

One obstacle that is responsible for this ongoing confusion over the politics of Schiller’s aesthetics is the legend of his political resignation, which claims that he turned his back on the ambitious sociopolitical aims of his project of aesthetic education and withdrew into the realm of art and culture, detached from the struggles of real history. Schiller’s alleged abandonment of his political ideals thus often stands as the paradigm for the political abdication of the Romantic movement, if not for the historic failure of the entire German bourgeoisie. Of course, this legend is a radical misrepresentation not only of the Ästhetische Erziehung and of Schiller’s aesthetics as a whole, but also of his immense ambitions and actual achievements as an artist, theorist, and eminent cultural figure. Far from involving any abandonment of his political ideals and ambitions, Schiller’s program of aesthetic education—Bildung to true freedom by means of Kultur under still more or less authoritarian conditions—needs to be taken seriously as the political project he so explicitly proclaimed it to be: a strategic cultural program of monumental proportions that had profound historical consequences. However, even though the leading Schiller scholars today categorically dismiss the legend of his political resignation as “einfach falsch”10 and as “gängig, aber falsch,”11 it still haunts both the German and the international academic scene, and has a decidedly negative impact not only on an understanding of Schiller but also on larger discussions of the history of aesthetics, of European Romanticism, and of German nationalism.12

Here, however, I would like to revisit another legend that obstructs an understanding and appreciation of Schiller’s aesthetic politics: the idea that in his political orientation he should be regarded as a “classical liberal.”13 This notion constitutes another drastic misrepresentation of his politics that equally flies in the face of his actual political legacy and historical impact. Insofar as the current Anglo-American debate centers on the nature of Schiller’s “republicanism,”14 scholarship has also moved away from this idea, but it has not yet adequately articulated his departure from the classical liberal tradition.15 Placing Schiller’s political ideas in the republican orbit certainly makes good sense and also locates his opposition to classical liberalism in a broad historical context. But the expansive label of “republicanism,” even when refined to an “aesthetic republicanism,”16 does not adequately capture the distinctiveness of Schiller’s position...

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