BOOK REVIEWS (2013): Friedrich von Schiller’s (1795) Naïve & Sentimental Poetry, and (1801) On the Sublime

13 October 2013


“Thus the sublime affords us an egress from the sensuous world in which the beautiful would gladly hold us forever captive” –Friedrich von Schiller, “On the Sublime”.


Last year in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day, and now I’m not sure if I kept up. I have the same task this year, and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). These will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to provide one when I read it. In general, these amount to assessments of in what ways I found the book helpful somehow.

I may say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff. There are some in the world who expect everyone to be omniscient and can’t be bothered to engage in a human dialogue toward figuring out how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a here’s what I found helpful about this, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, this or whatever we see as potentially helpful toward making the world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To:  Friedrich von Schiller’s (1795)[1] Naïve & Sentimental Poetry, and On the Sublime

The editor of this edition of these two essays by the eighteenth-century German playwright, poet, and philosopher Friedrich von Schiller begins his introduction (1966)[2], “The presentation in English of what Thomas Mann has called ‘the greatest of all German essays’ would seem to demand little by way of apology of justification” (1). These days, one likely has to add that apology or justification becomes necessary simply because few even read Schiller or even know that he authored the too famous “Ode to Joy” still popular from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Elias opens as he does because “he is almost unknown as an aesthetician in the grand manner” (1), i.e., as a philosopher. I, in fat, only know of this essay because Jung begins his (1921) Psychological Types with an extended commentary on the first of the two essays above. Reading that impressed me with Schiller, though it remained some time before I hunted down a copy of his essay—readily available at this point on the Interwebs—but finding this particular translation (from 1966) seems a windfall. Elias’ introduction magisterially analyzes and engages Schiller’s essays, within the larger context of his work, and itself makes for insightful, helpful, and exhilarating reading. As a philosopher himself, one who must confront Schiller’s own conclusion that philosophy can only ultimately fall short as a method, Elias’ translation seems a more than typically critical contribution to how this book reads, and my enthusiasm for it (and Schiller’s thought) will not necessarily find its source in evidence if you consult some other translation—or maybe you will. Because a couple of spots in Elias’ translation confused me, I compared it with others to try to get a grip—and what I gained in appreciation for the original added at the same time to my appreciation of the translation. Happily, one may at least find Elias’ translation (uncredited it seems) for “On the Sublime” from here, albeit with an annoying background.[3]

Hopefully, one example show how valuable Elias’ introductory essay proves; he writes:

The theory of types in Naïve and Sentimental Poetry illustrates two major aspects of Schiller’s final position. First, there are, as a matter of fact, at least two radically opposed ways of viewing the world; and what has been shown of the poets is also true of men in general: as witness the extension of the theory of poetic types to the idealist and realist in the last part of the essay. Second, neither of these opposed world-views can claim objective validity, either in the “strong” sense of the rationalists, nor in the “weaker” sense of Kant (37, emphasis added).

I interrupt here briefly. I did not understand at the time, and still do not understand in any perfectly clear way, the distinction Elias intends here between objective validity  “neither in the ‘strong’ sense of the rationalists, nor in the ‘weaker ‘sense of Kant,” but for Elias’ point, one needn’t because the next sentence he writes at least hints at the sense of what he means. So if his statement reads as confusing, suspend it in disbelief for the moment and follow what he offers next.

The evidence against the strict objectivity of the rationalists is the impossibility of verifying our generalizations about the world against objective reality; and … the evidence [against Kant’s sense of objectivity] is the absence of a human consensus regarding the reality of the world as it appears to men (37–8).

But then comes the punch line.

Of two conflicting hypotheses [i.e., in this case the strict rationalists or the Kantian position], at least one must be wrong; it seems to be Schiller’s conclusion that both are wrong (38).

From the first of Schiller’s essays included here (“Naïve & Sentimental Poetry”), published in 1795, to the second (“On the Sublime”), published in 1801, Elias reads a remarkable change of position on Schiller’s part that leads him (Elias) to Schiller as anticipating what (I would call) radical constructivism. Having read Schiller’s essays, I might not go that far after all, based on Schiller’s writings themselves, but in fact the two positions (Schiller’s an radical constructivism) need not confront one another in hostile terms. Nonetheless, Schiller’s understanding that both positions don’t provide tenable foundations seems very impressive to me, particularly for when he wrote.

In general, I really find more than I want to address in detail in Schiller’s two essays—again and again I find it chock full of remarkable turns and also magnificently written prose. It also prompts  sublime response in me that induces hope and liberates from oppression. I conclude that Schiller gives us an example of a truly beautiful soul (in the terms that he means). So, I don’t mean to slight the content by not engaging it at length. Still, I at least engage this much regarding the power of art (from “On the Sublime”). Having noted, “Developed feelings for the beautiful can indeed succeed up to a certain degree in making us independent of nature as a force (196),[4] but only the sublime can fully liberate us; Schiller elaborates:

The feeling of the sublime is a mixed feeling. It is a composition of melancholy which at its utmost is manifested in a shudder, and of joyousness which can mount to rapture and, even if it is not actually a pleasure, is far preferred by refined souls to all pleasure.

This combination of two contradictory perceptions in a single feeling demonstrates our moral independence in an irrefutable manner. For since it is absolutely impossible for the very same object to be related to us in two different ways, it therefore follows that we ourselves are related to the object in two different ways; furthermore, two opposed natures must be united in us, each of which is interested in diametrically opposed ways in the perception of the object.

By means of the feeling for the sublime, therefore, we discover that the state of our minds is not necessarily determined by the state of our sensations, that the laws of nature are not necessarily our own, and that we possess a principle proper to ourselves that is independent of all sensuous affects (198).

By this, Schiller discovers, the simultaneity of our two (or more) different positions on one object shows that any sense of necessity–before which we (by definition) have no choice–that would otherwise follow from such an object (a necessity that Schiller would, in the best sense, align with the beautiful) “breaks” the argument for necessity, and thus reveals and demonstrates the actual freedom we experience (in the apperception of the sublime).

Besides the philosophical interest of this, it (1) shows a point where our sense of powerlessness in the face of events, which is another way of saying an unchangeable necessity we can do nothing about except learn to accept it, may be contradicted and thus combated, and (2) specifically argues that only art (aesthetic, and specifically sublime, work) offers the space or the opportunity for creating the real ground of change, first of all by demonstrating people are not powerless (before necessity).

This specific utility aside, I would note how Schiller’s distinction between the beautiful and the sublime further illuminates the problems we face in our current culture. Aesthetic work created to be beautiful (in the broadest sense–call it attractive or popular) ultimate involves submission to necessity, imagined as the status quo. The violence of culture may be avoided, first and foremost, by turning the gesture of imposed violence into one we submit to voluntarily. This circumstance, of course, represents a resort in the face of a bad deal, but to maintain our dignity and the like, such submission at least seem necessary. Hence, “You can’t fire me, I quit!” and variations like it.

But the whole matrix of these issues all rest on what Schiller calls necessity, and so they are all marked by violence or submission, so that all aesthetic work that aspires to the beautiful becomes either violence of submission before the (status quo) of necessity. The sublime, by contrast, offers a way out, and thus an alternative to violence or submission, to say nothing of the realization of human freedom and the moral choice of critical thinking.

On further reflection, I want to emphasize (if not protect) what I find striking or remarkable in Schiller’s passage.

Because, on the one hand, one could read him as saying: we confront the world as a matter of necessity, but we remain free (in our imaginations) to determine how we respond to that. Or, as I have been wont to say: fate is what happens to you; destiny is what you make of it.

Sure, but of course this sounds like a mere assertion, easily suspected as whistling in the dark. Says the Enemy, “Most assuredly fate is what happens to you, but who says you’re note also fated to make such and such a destiny?” So, we’re not free after all; we just deceive ourselves that our “choices” of destiny were choices.[5] But Schiller does not say we simply assert our freedom out of our imagination. He says that the very simultaneity of position we experience proposes a (logical) contradiction that thereby “breaks” the argument of necessity.

If everything I “mind” that comes to me via sense-perception (via the world) is determined in every respect by necessity, then of course I have no freedom; I only act as I must. But if, as Schiller notes, we are of TWO minds in the presence of an object, then which one gets determined by necessity, particularly since the “minds” in this case run in contradictory feelings. If, at the same time, I find the object compelling AND repelling, then whichever of those two responses has been determined by necessity, the other (by definition) cannot have been. Besides the fact of two contradicting states of mind, necessity itself cannot have two goals (by definition).

One would have to say that in this case necessity “generates” two contradictory states (in us). To do so involves a redefinition of terms, and one can do such a thing, but chiller proposes an Occam’s razor argument, and says rather that this simultaneity demonstrates a moment of freedom from necessity, and thus a proof of our freedom.

Deny this if we would–and I would then want to know why someone would want to deny it–what again seems so essential in Schiller’s formulation involves this simultaneity, this presence or tension of opposites. So destiny is not simply what I make of fate, but arises out of some tension of opposites, some presence of a contradiction that I find reassurance from (from the contradiction itself) in the exercise of (or sheer awareness) of my essential and dignifying human freedom.

I want to know that my acts are chosen, not compulsions. That’s what Schiller is getting at; it’s not about some abstract practice of license or liberty on others. That’s a separate problem. Am I friends with you because I choose to be (want to be) or because I am compelled by circumstances to avoid the consequences of not being friends.

So Schiller gives us something more than David Hume’s admirable: it is absolutely uncertain if we have freewill but absolutely certain we must believe we do. Schiller shows us, in the power of a self-evident contradiction, where we may see our freewill demonstrated. And I don’t care much about the philosophical “accuracy” of this as for Schiller’s reasons even for bothering to make the point.

It’s not enough to say, “We are free.” Schiller shows us the condition under which we can experience a demonstration of that freedom (in the sublime, the simultaneity of contradictory AESTHETIC  impulses), and that in itself gives us a clue (and an argument) for where and how to make aesthetic objects in the world that can make a difference.

If we would produce the beautiful (understood most broadly), then we reprise the status quo ultimately, as either violence or (noble) submission. By contrast, the sublime offers the conditions by which we may resist and challenge the status quo, through the sort of (fruitful) experience of two minds that Schiller describes.


[1] Schiller, F. (1966). Two essays by Friedrich von Schiller: Naïve & Sentimental Poetry, and On the Sublime (trans., ed. JA Elias). New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.

[2] Elias, JA (1966). Introduction. In F. Schiller: Two essays by Friedrich von Schiller: Naïve & Sentimental Poetry, and On the Sublime (trans., ed. JA Elias), pp. 1–77.

[3] Schiller also has an essay “Of the Sublime”; not the same thing at all.

[4] Schiller’s text continues: “A mind sufficiently refined as to be moved more by the form than the matter of things and, without any reference to possessions, to experience disinterested pleasure in sheer reflection upon the mode of their appearance–such a mind contains within itself an inner irrepressible fullness of life, and since it does not need to appropriate to itself those objects in which it lives, neither is it in danger of being despoiled of them” (196)

[5] Apparently the biologist Humberto Maturana has gotten rather pushy on this point since his previous co-author Francisco Varela’s death.

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