Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Queries, More Queries: On Friedrich von Schiller's "Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man"

Reading Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man requires dissection of our thoughts concerning “art and beauty”. However, for the mere mortal in me, to arrive at a complete understanding of his thoughts requires undertaking a mental journey towards the land of abstract ideas. For this, I do not fault Schiller’s elaborate language or his tedious explication of aesthetics; after all, launching an inquiry towards the abstract requires further abstraction, not to mention the need for a laboring imagination. Schiller, in dissecting the “phenomenon” called beauty, aims particularly at demystifying and dissolving “the essential amalgam of its elements”. In reading his letters, as such, we are transported towards the realm “beyond the reach of the senses” — and given this, comes an understanding within the reach of my own. Indeed, this paragraph worth explanation is necessary, in my view, to avoid misconceiving his thoughts; which goes this way:

My reading of Schiller’s letters comes with an understanding that it presents how the French Revolution and its violent aftermath affected his thoughts on beauty and the moral dimensions of art. As such, he explores, in his letters, the role of aesthetics in achieving true political freedom. For Schiller, it is only through aesthetic education by which freedom – the mother of all art – is achieved. He starts out by explaining how man, in his natural state, is composed of physical compulsive forces; while in his moral state, he is guided by reason. Here, Schiller introduces the opposition between the law of nature and the law of reason, citing that while the former involves feelings and compulsions; the latter affects the consciousness and thoughts. 

Throughout his letters, this duality between the natural and rational state is present in his exploration of the body – being the temple of the sensual form – versus the mind, where the rational, moral, and hence ideal form resides. In other words, Schiller introduces two fundamental laws of the “sensuo-rational nature” of man consisting of his sensuous drive or his sensual nature, and the formal drive or his rational nature. The challenge for Schiller, it seems, is to reconcile the conflicting and opposing dimensions of these drives through the play drive, which he conceives as “the most perfect possible union and equilibrium of reality and form”. For Schiller, the simultaneous existence and development of the rational and the sensuous through play, allows one to become a fully realized man of aesthetic. 

Beyond this simplified understanding of Schiller’s letters are the pertinent questions and ruminations which, at the very least, challenge his thoughts on aesthetics. First, though Schiller claims that both sensuous and form drives exist in a simultaneously equal and united one plane, it seems that there is privileging of the form to dominate the senses. When Schiller speaks of nature as an expression of plurality and individuality, and reason as an exercise of unity and conformity, how can it be assured that the individual maintains his singularity as opposed to his confirmation of the “moral” laws idealized by the state? In Schiller’s words, the archetype of the ideal man is embodied by the state – and so, how can it be assured that this “moral” state would not suppress man’s individuality by its relative conception of the ideal man? Lastly, because the aim of Schiller’s letters is towards the ultimate achievement of freedom, how can it be assured that this freedom will not be mis-used? When I think of freedom as an end goal, I cannot help but compare it with the type of “freedom” espoused by capitalist ideology that encourages relentless consumption.

These questions above, for all I know, may have already been refuted brilliantly by Schiller and perhaps only misconceived by me, but then these throbbing queries represent the mental journey I undertook to painstakingly understand the great philosopher’s interest to demystify beauty as an idea, which is of course, “beyond the reach of our senses”. 

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