Can art make us better people? Musician Markus Reuter joins Mark, Wes, and Seth to discussion the first half of On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795). Schiller was a famous poet of early German Romanticism, and this book is partly political philosophy and partly philosophy of art. The work takes the form of a series of letters. We read 1-15 for this discussion and will cover 16-27 in ep. 219.
Schiller is reacting to the French Revolution and has similar concerns to Kant (whose theory of art Schiller read just before writing this) in wondering what will make people enlightened enough to be good citizens in a truly representative government. We begin as savages, unreasoning, unfree because we’re just controlled by the causal web of our desires. Government then serves only to keep us from killing each other, and per Hobbes, doesn’t actually have to represent our interests beyond serving this function. Then the Enlightenment came along and gave us science and “modern” philosophy, and indirectly the Industrial Revolution. But this hasn’t made the masses more philosophical. Instead, we might end up being cogs in a machine, driven by “reason” in the sense that an industrial society is a creation of reason and science, but we’d still be basically slaves, just well behaved ones rather than the slaves-to-desire that society needs to keep in check. Schiller refers to these too-“reasonable” people as “barbarians” as opposed to pre-Enlightenment “savages.”
The goal, though, is Enlightenment in Kantian terms: We should all recognize the moral law as given by our own minds, so we’re each self-legislating: We impose moral requirements on ourselves by recognizing that we all have an obligation to perform our duty. Though we of course learn about this due to our experience of other people telling us, it only really becomes morality when we recognize it as binding on each of us independent of any social pressures. This is what Kantian freedom amounts to: Choosing morality instead of being forced into it via the carrots and sticks of social pressures (in which case being moral could still be a matter of being a slave to your desires, e.g. not to be punished and to have others approve of you). Understanding morality in Kantian terms requires the ability to think abstractly and put aside one’s pressing desires to ask what’s really right.
Though it takes all the way until letter #9 to get to this, Schiller’s solution is Beauty: Beauty is something that is pleasurable to us, so it does still act on our animalistic/savage side, but true beauty (again, per Kant) is disinterested: I don’t appreciate a beautiful painting of grapes because I want to eat those grapes, but because they are presented with a beautiful form. Form is an abstract thing, and contemplating Beauty makes us reflect (according to Schiller, following Plato) on perfection, on forms that are so beautiful that we’ve never actually seen them in the real world. (We considered a similar ascent from sensuous appreciation to abstract aesthetic contemplation in considering Ficino’s take on Plato’s Symposium).
So the way to civilize people, to make them able to appreciate abstract morality and thus make them worthy of citizenship in a democracy, is to teach them about Beauty (both natural beauty and artistic beauty). Art uplifts us, pulling us away from the immediately sensuous and merely “useful.” And for cogs in the Industrial Revolution, as well as 21st Century Schizoid Man (did I mention that our guest Markus is part of the extended King Crimson family?), music can rescue us from a hollow, utilitarian “reasonableness” by reintroducing feeling to our lives.
Despite Schiller’s very abstract, Kantian language and the fact that most of what we read was about politics, we did our best to get Markus talking with us about actual artistic practice and education (he’s also a creative educator). Markus identified “interest” (as in being interested in art or really anything else) as a key component of making us more human. This is compatible with Schiller’s and Kant’s description of artistic appreciation as “disinterested,” because they don’t mean this is in the sense of “uninterested” (like I don’t care about that painting at all) but in the same of something being just interesting to experience, and not tied to particular interests in the sense of having to use it to make money, obtain food and sex, protect oneself, etc. Art is needed to ignite the specific desires that are not necessary for mere survival; it’s about something that’s superfluous in a good sense.
The discussion continues with part two.