Schiller’s Poetics of Freedom

The search for freedom was the driving force behind Friedrich Schiller’s stunning poetic, dramatic and philosophical oeuvre. His plays, in particular, examine the “complex interaction between morality and politics, the difficulty of moral choices”, as John Guthrie put it. Schiller’s plays lead us into moral mazes, but there is always a guiding thread of emancipation from oppressive conditions of almost any kind. His ambition was to offer a guide to self-guidance. We have, once again after 2005, the year of the bicentenary of his death, good reason to celebrate him. In the year Georg Friedrich Händel died, 1759, Schiller was born — 250 years ago on 10 November. 

In 2004, when Michael Grandage produced Mike Poulton’s new version of Schiller’s Don Carlos at the Sheffield Crucible to great acclaim — the production was later transferred to the Gielgud Theatre in London with Derek Jacobi and Claire Price in leading roles — the theatre critic of the Guardian, Michael Billington, called Schiller “the German Shakespeare” and wondered how and why it was possible that Britain had virtually forgotten about this master of the written word for so long. 

Rediscoveries are never too late though. In fact, they tend to be curiously timely. When we are most in need, certain key texts that belong to the texture of our collective cultural memory seem to re-emerge, ideally in the case of Schiller in new translations and/or stage versions. Schiller’s conception of freedom is intriguing enough to inform even the present day’s concerns with this essential, if not existential, subject. Freedom in the age of terror is an endangered species and Schiller was able to imagine both sides, the effect of terror and political oppression (in The Robbers, Don Carlos and Wilhelm Tell) as well as the establishing of potential mechanisms to support individual freedom (through “aesthetic education”).

Schiller’s reception in Britain is curious. Was this poet of Protestant Swabian origins not forgiven by the mainstream literary establishment in this country for having sided with the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots and Joan of Arc, to whom he had dedicated two of his most political plays? The plays discuss, among other issues, the impact of religion on political decision-making and how the female reacts to male-dominated society. 

There are notable exceptions though: Coleridge, for instance, with his translation of Wallenstein. More importantly perhaps, the first major biography of Schiller, acclaimed by Goethe, was written by Thomas Carlyle (1825). But it was after the Second World War that several highly accomplished translators and producers devoted themselves to the plays of the author of The Ode to Joy, most notably Stephen Spender, Francis Lamport, Robert David MacDonald and Mike Poulton. The sheer musicality of Schiller’s verse was brought to the fore most effectively by Verdi and his librettists in I masnadieri, Luisa Miller and Don Carlos, which closely followed Schiller’s Robbers, Kabale und Liebe and Don Carlos, once casually dismissed by Kenneth Tynan as “a Spanish tragedy composed of themes borrowed from Hamlet and Phèdre“. An equally masterly accomplishment was Mary Wilkinson’s and Leonard Forster’s translation of Schiller’s highly influential treatise in letter form, The Aesthetic Education of Man, which is still debated, not only among philosophically-minded pedagogues. 

Schiller was a Shakespearian but with a clear-cut agenda that went beyond the mere depiction of the “human, all too human” in Man and his dwelling in evil. (Schiller’s adaptation of a drastically shortened but beautified Macbeth for the Weimar stage, accomplished in 1800, sees Macbeth as a self-reliant character, opposed by a female devil but inspired, not guided, by the witches that resemble Greek goddesses of fate.) It was the agenda called “freedom”. He posed in most of his plays the pertinent and ever so “modern” question, mostly by implication, of whether there was a form of society which could reconcile personal freedom with a sense of collective responsibility. 

In social, political and indeed legal terms, liberalism today finds itself once again at a crossroads. It is perceived as defeatist and weak, the seemingly elegant avenue of laisser faire has turned into a cul-de-sac in the aftermath of the credit crunch. Measured state intervention is the renewed order of the day, even among conservatives. The painful memories of Ground Zero have reawakened us to the dilemma of religious fundamentalism and our reactions to it have often been extreme in themselves.

But, I suggest, there is another dimension to the notion of freedom that is linked with science, reminding us of the fact that Schiller himself started as a student of medicine and human behaviour. We now live in the age of genes, which has turned, to a certain extent, into a genocracy: the deterministic view of the capabilities of Man has regained prominence. Traditionally, this view involved the belief in the evil of Man and the necessity to develop mechanisms to contain it. Thinkers from Immanuel Kant to David Hume, Edmund Burke, Adam Ferguson (one of the most important philosophical influences on Schiller), Max Picard (Hitler in Our Selves, 1946) and Leszek Kolakowski have all attempted to do just that. 

The genetic code appears to overrule human rights and to underwrite the genealogy of life. Bioethics informs our discussions on human dignity. We are led to believe that genes precondition whatever we undertake, which would result in new ramifications for our moral responsibility. Furthermore, the predominance of the genetic discourse challenges some fundamental principles of liberty, or rather, it has begun to condition and fashion them. Genocracy has done away for good, or so it seems, with one main assumption that has informed the agenda of liberal thought since Rousseau and Schiller: namely that Man was born free even if he found himself in chains.

Genocracy is distantly related to the so-called archetype as a model of thought and perception. We normally associate Carl Gustav Jung with it, but Goethe was in that sense Jung’s forerunner even more than Schiller. Goethe presented the concept of Urpflanze, a primordial plant which contained every conceivable aspect of botanic development, much to Schiller’s amazement, as an experience. As a Kantian, Schiller saw in this notion, rather, the expression of a philosophical principle. 

The reason why Goethe could justifiably argue for the Urpflanze being an experience and not an idea can be found in his advocacy of metamorphosis, which entails both process and experience. Metamorphosis in Goethe’s terms implied the unfolding of the potential contained in the Urpflanze. Judging by their correspondence, Schiller was distinctly ill at ease with the notion of metamorphosis. In fact, the very concept is conspicuously absent from his theoretical writings.

It is assumed that Schiller found the notion of metamorphosis too deterministic and restricting. Interestingly, he made this very point through the character of the Marquis de Posa in the famous tenth scene of the third act of Don Carlos: “Look all around at nature’s mastery, / Founded on freedom. And how rich it grows, / Feeding on freedom.” Even though de Posa emphatically denies that nature is subjected to restrictions of any kind, he nonetheless speaks of particular “laws” that only “a free mind can see”. Moreover, the “free mind” will, according to de Posa, wrap itself into such laws. 

Perhaps Schiller was reminded of de Posa’s words when he encountered Goethe’s conception of metamorphosis, in a sense one “law of nature” perceived by a truly free mind. And yet, the dichotomy between obvious evidence for law-bound phenomena in nature, whether gravity or metamorphosis, on the one hand and, on the other hand, the feeling of freedom that we associate with being in nature remained, for Schiller, unresolved. It was evidently not easy for him, the dedicated Kantian, to reject this particular aspect of the philosopher’s system of thought, namely that Man was evil by nature and that ethics was a prime instrument to ensure that he could overcome his natural dispositions. Schiller argued, with Rousseau, that freedom came first, which meant that man was free to act in a good or evil manner.

It is therefore less surprising that de Posa’s best-known phrase in relation to freedom is also his most ambiguous, for it amounts to a problem of logic that Schiller’s philosophical master, Kant, would not have condoned. Schiller’s Marquis suggests to the King of Spain: “A single word of yours can suddenly / Create the world anew. Give us the freedom / To think.” The freedom of thought, however, cannot be challenged anyway. People can only be deprived of the freedom of speech that is actual utterances, or enactions, of freedom. Therefore, in the catalogue of human rights freedom of thought does not feature, but only what can be taken away or, alternatively, guaranteed. Even the seemingly almighty Philip II cannot actually give “the freedom to think”. But why, then, does Schiller give this phrase to de Posa? Perhaps because he wanted to illustrate flaws in the character’s way of thinking. De Posa is, in a sense, too clever for his own good. He intends to set up a secret game that involves Carlos plotting against his own father from his presumed base in Flanders. De Posa thinks that he is acting freely, but for that thought and supposed freedom he has to pay with his life. 

Some contemporary critics argued that Schiller himself was caught in a relatively small circle of thoughts, including the idea of freedom. Even freedom, if thought and written about obsessively, could cause a writer to lose it. But they overlooked Schiller’s radical departure from Hobbes’s and Locke’s state-centred concept. This still rings true in today’s discussions on liberty, which range from John Rawls’s conception of “political liberalism” as a basis for government without a comprehensive moral consensus, to Ronald Dworkin’s view that liberty can only be secured by a constant interaction between politics and morality, with human dignity as the “sovereign virtue” in this complex relationship.

The obvious shortcoming in Schiller’s concept of freedom was his reluctance to codify freedom in the shape of civil liberties that could be secured and, depending on the state system, guaranteed legally and politically. He remained convinced that “aesthetic education” paved the way to a genuinely civil society, for it made use of anthropological insights, such as Man’s delight in “playing”, in building up the fabric of social interaction. From Schiller’s point of view, “playfulness” equipped humans to communicate with each other freely. 

Schiller’s intention was, as far as one can tell, to support the cause of “continuous education” through an appreciation of art and the way in which art “works”. He established a link between education and the artistic process by singling out in some of his other prose writings how a sense of the tragic or the sublime can be evoked. It was the freedom of (artistic) choice that mattered most to Schiller. Self-development suggested to him enabling oneself to make those choices that are within our reach, even though we should strive to attain ideals beyond our limitations. At the same time Schiller pointed, mainly in his plays, to the reality of unpredictable and inescapable fate, as well as the need to equip ourselves to cope with its impact. But he also showed us characters who are not free to emancipate themselves from their own natures. Wallenstein, for one, is “by nature” reluctant-his reluctance is, ultimately, the reason for his downfall. 

From today’s point(s) of view the perceived downside in Schiller’s concept of freedom is his lack of commitment to securing civil liberties politically and legally. At the same time, his notion of freedom shows considerable radicalism, if this word is to mean “going to the roots of matters”. Schiller illustrated in his art how important it is to found a liberal society on the principle of education. We have to educate ourselves and each other, Schiller implies, in order to act responsibly but without forgetting what is innate in many, namely to strive to attain the unattainable. 

In turn, part of Schiller’s anthropological realism was his recognition of fundamental “drives” or desires in Man. They were of a lesser physical denomination than Freud was to posit later, even though the subconscious and sexual drives are addressed in some of his plays, most importantly in Don Carlos. But the two main drives that Schiller identified in his theoretical writings are what he called the Stofftrieb and Formtrieb. They refer to Man’s desire to accumulate matter, “stuff”, substance, but also to the necessity to give shape to the amassed material. Again, the issue is how these drives relate to, or are compatible with, Schiller’s concept of freedom. He did not suggest that we could, or should, attempt to emancipate ourselves from those urges. Freedom means that we make use of them “freely”. We should “play” with them, for they should not govern or even overpower us. 

Schiller’s concern about how we can preserve our freedom in the face of conflicting interests, external pressures and expectations was echoed some 200 years later when Heinrich Böll, the 1972 Nobel Prize winner for Literature, said in his last major interview: “Every day one segment of our liberties passes away.” These concerns are today more relevant than ever. We need to be careful not to turn into captives of our ever-growing desire to increase self-protectionism. To live means to be exposed to risk. We can try to minimise it but we will never eliminate it. Fate and failure strike when we least expect them. We should remain free in the way we deal creatively with risk. The risk assessors and managers of today, who failed so blatantly prior to the recent credit crash, should read more Greek and Shakespearian tragedies, and a great deal of Schiller before they start assessing risks again. In short, we cannot afford ever to forget Schiller again, in this country or anywhere else. 

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