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  • By David B. Gosselin

From the Beautiful to the Sublime: Schiller's "Guides of Life"

Two kinds of genius may escort you throughout life. True Goodness falls on him who lets them lead as one. Beauty enlivens and makes brief the winding road; Duty and fate grow lighter with her by your side— She leads with gracefulness and laughter to the edge. And there, mortality waits by eternal seas. There, you’ll discover the Sublime—daring and grave. Never place your fate in just one: rely not on The first for dignity, nor on the last for luck!

Translation © David B. Gosselin

Reflections on the Beautiful & the Sublime

The question of Beauty and the Sublime and the relationship between these two distinct but intimately related concepts occupied much of the poet Friedrich Schiller’s time. It was explored in his dramas like The Virgin of Orleans, Don Carlos, and Wilhelm Tell, but also in his philosophical verses, including “The Guides of Life,” and writings on aesthetics.

As part of his studies, Schiller composed a series of 27 “Letter on the Aesthetic Education of Man.” There, Schiller explored the function of the fine arts and a classical education in society. He did so with recognition of the fact that human beings would always remain incomplete and often awkward or deficient beings—regardless of how many rules and laws were imposed—unless they were able to adequately cultivate the sentiments necessary for an appreciation of both the Beautiful and the Sublime in life. In Schiller’s mind, as in the mind of many of the greatest classical thinkers, the relationship between the aesthetic principles of Beauty and the moral laws of universe were not separate; they were simply distinct reflections of the same universal order and harmony characterizing a cosmos composed according to Reason, and man’s innate ability to conceptualize and act on the principles of Reason, unlike beasts which by necessity relied on instinct alone. So, Schiller writes the following in his third letter:

“Nature begins with man no differently than with the rest of its works: it acts for him where he cannot act as an independent intelligence yet himself. But just this makes him man, that he doesn't remain what simple nature made of him, but possesses the ability to retrace the steps, through reason, which nature prepared for him, to transform the work of need into a work of his free choice, and to elevate physical necessity to a moral one.”

Schiller’s reflections on the nature of art and its relationship to the development of a truly free and harmoniously composed society were in many ways spurred by the reigning philosophical system of Kant, the archetypal strict Apollonian system where virtue and morality were by and large framed as a question of “following the rules.”

So, Schiller writes in his first letter:

“Only the philosophers disagree concerning the ideas which prevail in the practical part of the Kantian system, but men, I am confident of proving, were always in agreement on them. If the ideas are liberated from their technical form, they will appear as the time-honored maxims of common sense, and as facts of the moral instinct, which wise nature appointed as the guardian of man, until his clear intelligence makes him mature. But this technical form, which renders truth visible to the understanding, in turn conceals truth from feeling, for unfortunately the understanding must first destroy the object of the inner sense, if it wants to appropriate the object as its own.”

Rather than a strict Apollonian or Kantian definition of Beauty which simply involves following “the rules” and adhering to formal principles—Formalism—Schiller introduces the idea of the “play instinct” as the mediating and transcendent mode between what he identified as a “sensuous instinct” (man’s material condition) and the “formal instinct” (man’s reason). The “play instinct” serves as the fundamental driver for any truly creative mind whose mastery of form serves no as an end, but implicit means of granting him the freedom to create and participate in a truly thriving culture driven by new creative breakthroughs (in both the sciences and arts).

In his ninth letter, Schiller writes about art’s mediating role in fully cultivating the higher faculties of man:

“The seriousness of your principles will frighten them away from you, but they will accept them in play; their taste is more chaste than their heart, and that is where you must take hold of the shy one who is fleeing you. You will besiege their maxims in vain, to no avail will you condemn their deeds, but you can try your formative hand with their indolence. Chase away what is arbitrary, the frivolity, the crudeness from their pleasures, and in that way you shall banish these, unnoticed, from their deeds and finally their beliefs. Wherever you find them, surround them with noble, with grand, with brilliant forms, surround them with symbols of what is excellent, until the appearance vanquishes reality, and art vanquishes nature.”

In the first letter, Schiller begins by stating that few would disagree on the moral maxims and “categorical imperative” of Kant’s ethical system, but that no one in reality really learns or seeks to realize their true natural human potentials and desire to do good by simply “following the rules.” For, Schiller points out that one can follow rules without desiring to do so or not because of his love of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness. In fact, for many following the rules takes the form of a blind adherence to formalism and rarefied forms of religion in which self-righteousness and virtue signalling, or simply slavishly going along with convention, either out of fear or for the purposes of maintaining appearances, upends the natural end for which The Laws and a philosophical investigation of the fundamental principles of nature were first laid out i.e. for the sake of living a happy and good life that benefits not only the individual, but society as a whole. For Schiller, anything short of performing one’s duty out of love and a desire for Truth and Goodness as ends in themselves constituted an individual’s failure to develop into a complete and whole individual—the condition of what Schiller called “the beautiful soul.”

It was by man perfecting himself as a true and whole human being that he could show his genuine love for God and be his neighbor’s keeper. Otherwise, one could technically “follow the rules,” but as Paul reminds people in 1st Corinthians 13:

“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

Schiller understood that the ugliness and deformity of human character could never be fundamentally changed by simply introducing any kind of Legalistic or tyrannical system of reward and punishment—typified by Pavlovian systems of classical conditioning, or purely religious dogmas based on faith without reason—but that were society to ever become truly free and stable, not destined to “boom and bust” cycles characterized by the vacillation between barbarism and anarchy, then a proper education of the sentiments and desires of the general population was a necessary condition for freedom. Schiller recognized that this could never be achieved by a system rules alone, however noble, diligently codified, or brutally enforced. Schiller ultimately pointed out that such systems would ultimately only enforce the notion of men as natural beasts, evidenced by the monumental and strict systems of reward and punishment established across societies to get everyone “in line.”

While one could argue that there is a high percentage of “following the rules” and “compliance” in totalitarian states and Legalistic tyrannies, one can’t necessarily say that these are “good societies,” and definitely not genuinely creative societies that thrive on the cultivation and flourishing of the highest faculties of its citizens. Additionally, despite the refining power of Beautiful forms, Schiller also recognized that there occur times in which reality requires individuals to violate the desire for their own natural self-preservation, comfort, pleasure, or self-interest. Beyond simply the question of rules and the ordered principles of Beauty, Schiller recognized that while the Beautiful in all its manifestations served as a guide for harmonizing both the sensual dimensions of man as well as his reason, in his “Guides of Life” he identified the need in both art and life for a second guide, “the Sublime.”

Schiller describes this sentiment in the following manner:

“The feeling of the sublime is a mixed feeling. It is a combination of woefulness, which expresses itself in its highest degree as a shudder, and of joyfulness, which can rise up to enrapture, and, although it is not properly pleasure, is yet widely preferred to every pleasure by fine souls. This union of two contradictory sentiments in a single feeling proves our moral independence in an irrefutable manner. For as it is absolutely impossible that the same object stand in two opposite relations to us, so does it follow therefrom, that we ourselves stand in two different relations to the object, so that consequently two opposite natures must be united in us, which are interested in the conception of the same in completely opposite ways. We therefore experience through the feeling of the sublime, that the state of our mind does not necessarily conform to the state of the senses, that the laws of nature are not necessarily also those of ours, and that we have in us an independent principle, which is independent of all sensuous emotions.”

In this respect, one can think of the opulence of richly adorned kings and their ancient palaces in which courts and rulers were everywhere surrounded by Beauty, including beautiful architecture, fine linens, lavish feasts, and illustrious speakers. However, in such cases, especially when a majority of the population still lived in deplorable conditions, the “stability” of a society depended on being able to provide the serfs and plebs with enough bread and circus for them to not revolt (as in the Roman Empire). Schiller recognized the limitations of Beauty unbridled by any higher system of lawfulness, that there were times in which a “higher system” of nature had to kick in.

Schiller gives us a wonderful example of the Sublime in action by hearkening back to Homer’s Odyssey:

“Beauty in the form of the goddess Calypso has enchanted the valiant son of Ulysses, and, through the power of her charms, she holds him for a long time imprisoned upon her island. For long he believes he is paying homage to an immortal deity, since he lies only in the arms of voluptuousness—but a sublime impression seizes him suddenly in the form of Mentor: He remembers his better destiny, throws himself into the waves, and is free.”

Further on in his essay “On the Sublime,” Schiller reflects on the liberating power of the Sublime:

“Does one now remember, what value it must have for a being of reason, to become conscious of his independence of natural laws, so one comprehends how it occurs that men of sublime bent of mind can hold out for compensation, through this idea offered to them of freedom, for every disappointment of cognition? Freedom, with all of its moral contradictions and physical evils, is for noble souls an infinitely more interesting spectacle than prosperity and order without freedom, where the sheep patiently follow the shepherd and the self-commanding will is degraded to the subservient part of a clockwork. The latter makes man merely into a spirited product and a more fortunate citizen of nature; freedom makes him into the citizen and co-ruler of a higher system, where it is infinitely more honorable, to occupy the nethermost place, than to command the ranks in the physical order.”

With the Sublime in mind, and returning to Schiller’s ninth letter, we find the poet’s requirements for the mature and fully-ripened artist:

“The Artist, it is true, is the son of his age; but pity for him if he is its pupil, or even its favorite! Let some beneficent Divinity snatch him when a suckling from the breast of his mother, and nurse him with the milk of a better time that he may ripen to his full stature beneath a distant Grecian sky. And having grown to manhood, let him return, a foreign shape, into his century; not, however, to delight it by his presence; but terrible, like the son of Agamemnon, to purify it. The matter of his works he will take from the present; but their Form he will derive from a nobler time, nay from beyond all time, from the absolute unchanging unity of his nature. Here from the pure aether of his spiritual essence, flows down the Fountain of Beauty, uncontaminated by the pollutions of ages and generations, which roll to and fro in their turbid vortex far beneath it.”

Schiller encouraged his readers to seek out the Beautiful as a guide and surround themselves and society with it in order to educate tastes, elevate desires, and chase away deformity, but also cautioned them to not place their fate in it alone. While Beauty makes life’s journey seem briefer, more enjoyable, and desirable even in the face of major trials, on the edges of life’s uncertain pathways awaits the Sublime eternally—something which immortal and undying “Dead White European Males” like Homer, Aeschylus, Dante, Shakespeare et al were always conscious of and actively sought to capture in their works. Alas, Schiller reminds us never to trust in one guide alone, neither “the first for dignity, nor the last for luck!”

In articulating this unique two-fold relationship between Beauty and the Sublime, Schiller offers us not only a perfect theory of art, but of life itself.

David B. Gosselin is a writer, researcher, and poet based in Montreal. His latest poetry collection is entitled Modern Dreams. He also hosts the New Lyre Podcast.


May 21, 2022

As for 'dead white European males' people seem to forget about Aesop who was a black African slave (his very name meant Ethiopian) and whose fables both Socrates and Plato preferred to the poetry of Homer, because they thought them more edifying.

David Gosselin
David Gosselin
May 22, 2022
Replying to

That's a great point.


May 21, 2022

Here we have an essay on Schiller's concept of the sublime which takes us far away from the sound bites and clickbait of today's world. Indeed, if I were to use a word like "sublime" in casual conversation today I would be taken for a pretentious sophist amid snickers.

Nevertheless, I know enough about Dave to be aware that his translations provide a gifted insight into the mind of Schiller and a concept of beauty, truth and goodness that is too remote from current intellectual discussions, despite my own rudimentary knowledge of German.

In fact, after two insane world wars nurtured by outside forces, German culture has been stereotyped into a rigid prism that belies a much greater heritage.


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