An Introduction to Friedrich Schiller: Theater Considered as a Moral Institution

by Cynthia Chung

I know of only one secret to guarding man against depravity, and that is: to arm his heart against weakness.

– Friedrich Schiller’s Theater Considered as a Moral Institution

As within any period of time, the question is repeatedly asked “What is the Role of the Artist?” That is, what is the value of Art and can it play a role in the betterment of individuals and even societies? If this were even possible, how does an artist go about accomplishing this? How is an artist to offer up their work as a guide towards self betterment for not only those of their time but for those in the future? How are they to avoid the delusions and falsehoods circulating around them that are popularly believed by their peers?

Due to all these complications and complexities, it is believed by many, that this is actually an impossible task. That no one can escape being ultimately, a product of their time, and thus are subjugated to the prejudices and fallacies of such a time; they conclude that the great writers of the past will always be limited in their use and influence on the present and the future.

Well first off, we should begin with the question: “What is Art and what does it encompass?” As you will see is often the case in studying these great writers of the past, they often had more than one field of study that they were productive in, this is especially the case looking at the 19th century and further back. Friedrich Schiller for instance, could be called a poet, philosopher, physician, historian and playwright. Was Schiller only an artist as a poet and playwright, or could we say he was an artist in every one of these fields? His studies of history and philosophy influenced his understanding of humankind and inspired the poems and plays he wrote, and not in the least also shaped who he was. As Shelley wrote in his A Defense of Poetry “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. What Shelley is saying by this is that Art herself plays a central role in the good governance of societies and thus the good governance of its citizens. Therefore, Art is placed as the kernel in all subjects of study. Let us thus keep it in our minds for now as a hypothesis, and if there is indeed no field that is not affected by Art herself, then the study of Art and its importance changes significantly.

Schiller was 30 years old when the French Revolution started in 1789, it would last 10 years and would become known as The Terror for the amount of bloodshed it caused, resulting in over 40, 000 executions. The intention was originally to set up a Republic and render the monarchy obsolete, as the Americans had done against the British monarchy, however, in the case of France it quickly descended into chaos and anyone representing what was considered the “elite” were being sentenced to death, including their scientists and artists. The anarchy of the Jacobin terror left the people of France ultimately leaderless and allowed for the entrance of Napoleon, who envisioned himself as an emperor of not only France but Europe. The Napoleonic wars ensued and the bloodshed increased.

Schiller wrote in response to the loss of the French Revolution, “How could it be that such a pregnant moment, such a moment full of opportunity, failed?…This great moment had found a little people.” In other words, the objective condition for political change was there, but the subjective moral condition was lacking, and therefore, Schiller said from now on, all improvements in politics must come through “the ennoblement of the individual.” for which he wrote “The Aesthetical Letters” as an education on this.

Therefore, if such a tantamount role is not only possible but necessary for Art, how does the artist accomplish such a feat?! Schiller understood that for Art to have influence for the good over people, there must be a certain degree of freedom in how an audience interacts and reflects upon the Art. Schiller named this the play instinct. What he meant by this, is that Art cannot directly instruct, or dictate dryly, what is the good and how to be good but rather presents itself in a somewhat playful way, for we are best educated when we are at play and not when we feel unnaturally constrained by rules. Art thus beckons its audience to reflect upon what the lesson was through a discovery within their hearts or their sensuality in this sense. That is, Art moves the heart first and then the mind and because it moves the heart first it must be presented as something free and not something caged.

Let us focus here on the Art of theatre to showcase this. Schiller wrote in his paper Theater Considered as a Moral Institution:

The stage brings before us a rich array of human woes. It artfully involves us in the troubles of others, and rewards us for this momentary pain with tears of delight and a splendid increase in our courage and experience…What our soul only senses as distant premonition, here we can hear audibly and incontrovertibly affirmed by the startled voice of nature…

Eternity leaves its dead behind, so that they may reveal secrets which the living could never divine, and the cocksure villain is driven from his final ghastly lair, for even graves blurt out their secrets.

But, not satisfied with merely acquainting us with the fates of mankind, the stage also teaches us to be more just toward the victim of misfortune, and to judge him more leniently. For, only once we can plumb the depths of his tormented soul, are we entitled to pass judgement on him.

Only here [on the stage] do the world’s mighty men hear what they never or rarely hear elsewhere: Truth. And here they see what they never or rarely see: Man.

As with any teaching, any education, for our instruction on how to determine a good course of action from a bad, a good constitution or philosophy from a terrible one, we need it to stand the test of action. There is no safer arena for this than in Art. This is why in Plato’s writings of philosophy, the lessons are always presented in the form of stories or a dialogue amongst characters that all hold different perspectives, such as in his book Republic. The answer is never directly given. Through Art we can put to the test what we think we know. It is through this method that we also save ourselves from committing the error of the times. Because Art does not rigidly dictate but when done well, reflects honestly and truthfully as a mirror back onto its audience, its lessons are not held in a fixed state but rather hold living fluid layers that develop even past the sight of the original artist themselves and which inspires future artists to continuously build and improve upon. This can be seen with Aeschylus from Homer, Plato from Socrates, Schiller from Shakespeare, Schubert from Beethoven.

I will end here with the final paragraphs of Schiller’s Theater Considered as a Moral Institution:

Such a person lets all previous generations pass in review, weighing nation against nation, century against century, and finds how slavishly the great majority of the people are ever languishing in the chains of prejudice and opinion, which eternally foil their strivings for happiness; he finds that the pure radiance of truth illumines only a few isolated minds, who probably had to purchase that small gain at the cost of a lifetime’s labors. By what means, then, can the wise legislator induce the entire nation to share in its benefits?

For, judging from its consequences, no subject has greater importance for the future of the republic, than education; and yet, no area has been more neglected, and none so completely abandoned to the individual citizen’s illusions and caprice. The stage alone would be able to confront him with touching, soul stirring scenes depicting the unfortunate victims of neglected education…False notions can lead even the finest heart astray; and what a disaster, when these begin to boast a method, and systematically spoil the tender stripling within the walls of philanthropic institutes and academic hot-houses.

The stage is the institution where instruction and pleasure, exertion and repose, culture and amusement are wed; where no one power of the soul need strain against the others, and no pleasure is enjoyed at the expense of the whole. When grief gnaws at our heart, when melancholy poisons our solitary hours; when we are revolted by the world and its affairs; when a thousand troubles weigh upon our souls, and our sensibilities are about to be snuffed out underneath our professional burdens – then the theater takes us in, and within its imaginary world we dream the real one away; we are given back to ourselves; our sensibilities are reawakened; salutary emotions agitate our slumbering nature, and set our hearts pulsating with greater vigor. Here the unfortunate, seeing another’s grief, can cry out his own; the jolly will be sobered, and the secure will grow concerned. The delicate weakling becomes hardened into manhood, and here the first tender emotions are awakened within the barbarian’s breast. And then, at last – O Nature! what a triumph for you! – Nature, so frequently trodden to the ground, so frequently risen from its ashes! – when man at last, in all districts and regions and classes, with all his chains of fad and fashion cast away, and every bond of destiny rent asunder – when man becomes his brother’s brother with a single all-embracing sympathy, resolved once again into a single species, forgetting himself and the world, and reproaching his own heavenly origin. Each takes joy in others’ delights, which then, magnified in beauty and strength, are reflected back to him from a hundred eyes, and now his bosom has room for a single sentiment, and this is: to be truly human.

Feature Image: Joan of Arc by John Everett Millais (Schiller wrote a play on Joan of Arc titled “The Maid of Orleans” which was turned into a beautiful opera by Verdi.)


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One Comment Add yours

  1. irene eckert says:

    Thank you so much Cynthia for this beautiful and very timely introduction to our greatest poet and dramatist Friedrich Schiller! With love from Germany Irene

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