Monday, February 15, 2010

Goethe and Schiller and the French Revolution

Safranski's book on the friendship between Schiller and Goethe is becoming denser. The first four chapters chart the parallel paths of the two before the important encounter in the summer of 1794, which would lead to frequent meetings and correspondence, on their works and on aesthetic matters generally. Chapter 4 concerns their reaction to the French Revolution, one that differentiated them from many of their contemporaries.

Herder, Wieland, Klopstock, Georg Forster were all early enthusiasts of the events in France. Klopstock planted an "arbré de la liberte" (modeled after the "liberty trees" of the American revolutionary period). As Safranski points out, Schiller was more reserved in his response. During the summer of the French Revolution he began his professorship at the university in Jena. His inaugural lecture was "To what purpose and to what end do we study 'universal history'?" The lecture hall was packed. Schiller, after all, was known as the poet of liberty. And, as Safranski writes, the events in France seemed to embody the dreams for personal freedom and liberty of the Marquis Posa.

For Schiller the revolution prompted him to reflect on the effect of great events on the public. He discerned among the masses in France an "experience deficit" and concluded that "the sense as well as the taste for public life must be learned." To make use of political freedom, one must first be free inwardly. By the end of 1789 he had begun work on his history of the 30 Years' War: in the mirror of the past, one might see the lineaments of the present.

The events in France led him to great philosophic reflection, and by the end of 1792 involved him in two ventures. The first was a letter to the French Chamber of Deputies asking them to spare the life of the king. A few weeks earlier, the French Chamber of Deputies had made him an honorary citizen of the new French Republic. The second was the "Kallias" letters, a theory of the beautiful, which would lead to On Grace and Dignity and Letters on Aesthetic Education.

Beauty is not merely an aesthetic experience for Schiller; it is also a moral one. Both beauty and politics must obey laws. Beauty unites two opposing human drives (Triebe). One is the sensual drive. This would be the mobs in Paris yelling for the king's head. The other is the form drive, the recognition of a higher law. The "aesthetic" encompasses both of these phenomena. It is through beauty that we are led to the aesthetic, and through "aesthetic education" we learn to harmonize the two drives. This harmony is the precondition for true political freedom. As Schiller writes: "If we are to have a practical solution to the problem of politics, we will have to approach it through the aesthetic; it is only through Beauty that man makes his way to Freedom."

If the French Revolution led Schiller to philosophical reflection and important writing, it had a different effect on Goethe. His well-known disinclination for explanations of natural phenomena that involved catastrophic or radical breaks is well known, e.g., his opposition to volcanic theory for explaining features of the earth's surface. The French Revolution represented a societal volcano. Goethe doubted that the masses were capable of political maturity and thus did not devote any time to contemplating the circumstances under which such maturity might be furthered or drawing higher philosophical and historical sense from the events. He believed that people, when energized politically, lose perspective on what is important. And Goethe was a person who did not spread his energies around. Moreover, by the end of 1793 Goethe had already experienced war at first hand. He had accompanied Duke Carl August in the wars against France and emerged, as he wrote, "from the maelstrom of history" and landed safely on the shore.

Obviously Schiller's letter on behalf of the French king arrived too late or had no effect, as the king was executed in January of 1793. An interesting footnote to this is that the proclamation making Schiller an honorary citizen did not reach him until 1798, by which time the men who had signed the document had themselves gone to the guillotine. By 1798 Goethe and Schiller were fast friends, and Goethe responded "laconically" to the arrival of the proclamation "from the realm of the dead": "I can only congratulate you insofar as it has reached you among the living."


Anonymous said...

I'll never forget Gadamer's comment, among many memorable ones, when he graced our campus in 1976: "Germany has always retained its 'pre-Revolutionary' spirit," or words to that effect. In other words, Germany has been and still is somewhat more conservative than France and others. Germany, obviously, does not have this experience of Revolution and certain kinds of mindsets that attend such a world-historic experience--and the aftershocks of such an event. In particular, perhaps, German educational traditions were not altered as were the French. Even more particularly, the German "way of life" is not so enchanted by "egalitarianism." By the way, I've got to see Christof Waltz's performance in that Tarantino flick after watching the interview tonight with Charlie Rose. This is one exceptional actor.

Goethe Girl said...

I would love to have heard Gadamer. How fortunate you were! I am behind on German movies. What else is Christof Waltz in?

Anonymous said...

You know, I had not heard of him till this interview with Charlie Rose. (The movie, "Inglorious Bastards," is not around anymore, so we'll maybe see it with Netflix.) He's been a stage and TV actor in Germany, apparently, but this film for him, his work with Tarantino, amounted to a huge personal and professional milestone, an exponential breakthrough. One amazing comment he made in answer to one of those dig-down-deep Charlie Rose questions, was this: "Is language something that creates reality, or is it rather something that adapts to reality?" I've never encountered in my life a more intelligent, perceptive actor. Maybe Robin Williams.