Matthew Bell ponders the life of a playwright who found acts of grace where Kant could not
Friedrich Schiller, the pre-eminent European playwright of the Romantic era, should also feature in any list of the most important theorists of modern culture. His contributions include the classification of literature into the "naive" and the "sentimental", insights into professional specialisation and the division of labour, an anthropology of the cultural "play drive", and the identification of art with freedom in appearance. In 2005 - the 200th anniversary of his death - Schiller's dramas returned triumphantly to the British stage. Frederick Beiser's penetrating new study attempts a more difficult rehabilitation; that of the philosophical underpinnings of Schiller's insights into art.
The problem is Schiller's Kantianism. To take his mature philosophy seriously, we have to view it as an attempt to move beyond Kant - a tall order that most philosophers have thought him incapable of. Schiller's inspiration was the prospect of finding for aesthetics an objective criterion of validity of the kind that Kant had found for ethics. Kant had, however, foreclosed this route; in The Critique of Judgment , he insisted that aesthetic propositions are mere subjective judgments of taste. After an unsuccessful attempt in his difficult Kallias Letters , Schiller gave up trying to find universalisable judgments of taste and instead devoted himself to finding some special, non-empirical element in beauty itself.
The special quality of art is that it represents freedom. Traditionally, Schiller's philosophy has been seen as an analysis of the concept of beauty. But why should freedom be part of our concept of beauty? Beiser convincingly shows that Schiller's real achievement is, in fact, a new account of freedom.
Again, traditionally Schiller is held to have objected to Kant's rigorous view that in acting morally we must completely disregard our inclinations.
For Beiser, Schiller's objection is not that Kant was too rigoristic about moral actions, but rather that he did not accept the benefit of a character that has made itself moral and so is able to do good with grace. Freedom incorporates the idea of moral action in graceful harmony with sensibility: freedom is the ability of the will to determine actions in accordance with selfhood as a whole. The will is not constrained by the senses; nor, once we have jettisoned Kant's injunction that the will must disregard the senses, are the senses constrained by the will. Freedom consists not only in why we act but also in how we act. To act with grace is to act with no more moral force perhaps, but with more moral reach.
Why should grace benefit morality? Schiller would say that moral actions done with grace can speak to our sensibility and are liable to encourage morality in others. The Kantian moralist might object that morality without the blandishments of grace has greater clarity and is less likely to be confused by appearances, or indeed with them. Here, we return to the question of art. Schiller's clinching argument is that art is the most powerful medium for human communication, ethical or otherwise. If art cannot promote morality, what can?
Beiser is right to argue that rhetorical readings of Schiller's philosophy ought not to diminish its philosophical quality. The care Schiller took over his writing deserves recognition alongside the subtlety of his thought. To read Schiller's philosophy is to walk with angels, albeit often determinedly elusive ones. Reading Kant, by contrast, for all the occasional glints of gold, is like wading through gravel.
Matthew Bell is senior lecturer in German, King's College London.
Schiller as Philosopher: A Re-examination
Author - Frederick Beiser
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 304
Price - £40.00
ISBN - 0 19 928282 X