May 9: Monstrousness in the Harvard Classics

I almost didn't post on this, because I'm kind of feeling like a day off, and when you see this in the third paragraph:


In truth, I will not keep back from you that the assertions which follow rest chiefly upon Kantian principles;
It only emboldens the "take a day off" voice in your head. However, I persevered, had that sixth cup of coffee, and was then able to actually be somewhat offended by a dangerous doctrine that has lurked unread in my family for generations.

The author today is Schiller, and the work is enticingly titled "Letters Upon The Aesthetic Education of Man". He is also the lyricist of the hit tune "Ode To Joy" (the 11 o'clock number from Beethoven's Scandals of 1824), and there is also a statue of him in Lincoln Park in Chicago, apparently. I find myself touched that the people of Chicago, or some subset of them, put up a statue to Schiller. I have the same emotion when I go on a college campus, or even to a high school building from, like, the 1920s, and there are all the names of The Greats carved into the frieze -- Moses, Plato, Newton, etc. How quaint it seems now, the thought that everyone in this college would know who Hammurabi was! It's like the belief in jet cars -- a failed optimism concerning the human project. Sorry, people who built this auditorium or library or classroom -- you were hoping we'd get smarter, but instead we only got taller. (And fatter.)

But to the outrageousness! I apologize in advance because I found every third sentence or so incomprehensible, so I may be misreading things indeed. Sentences like these:
But when the survey taken is complete and embraces the whole man (anthropology), where the form is considered together with the substance, and a living feeling has a voice, the difference will become far more evident.
Despite trying this sentence a couple of times without success, I will attempt to summarize Schiller's argument. It goes like this:

• Beauty is great.
• But political beauty (freedom) is better, because more moral ("the most perfect of all works of art—the establishment and structure of a true political freedom.")
• But a moral political establishment, available to reason, is going to be hard to get to, because we can't just wreck the existing, more primitive political establishment. ("When the mechanic has to mend a watch, he lets the wheels run out, but the living watchworks of the state have to be repaired while they act, and a wheel has to be exchanged for another during its revolutions.")
• So (this is the fourth of our four letters, and the one that's hardest for me to follow), we need a force besides reason to mold the people into a moral political establishment ("and he must be led by natural impulse to such a course of action as can only and invariably have moral results.") This, I guess, is where the artist would come in -- it's not in our excerpt.

Well, I think this is monstrous. It's weakly monstrous to place artists in the service of a moral agenda, but it's strongly monstrous to place the state there. Here's a money quote -- I'm going to give it line breaks in the hope of making it clearer:
If the internal man is one with himself, he will be able to rescue his peculiarity, even in the greatest generalisation of his conduct,
...and the state will only become the exponent of his fine instinct, the clearer formula of his internal legislation.
But if the subjective man is in conflict with the objective and contradicts him in the character of the people,
so that only the oppression of the former can give the victory to the latter,
...then the state will take up the severe aspect of the law against the citizen, and in order not to fall a sacrifice, it will have to crush under foot such a hostile individuality, without any compromise.
Doesn't this sound, I don't know, totalitarian? Here's another quote: "The state... will only respect [its citizens] subjective humanity in the same degree that it is ennobled to an objective existence."

In other words, if you don't ennoble the state, the state does not have to respect your humanity. Or maybe it just has to take measures against you in order to make you see the light.

(Political note: one of the reasons the U.S.'s torturing is so pernicious is that it fails to respect the prisoner's humanity, and America's supposed to stand for something better than that, particularly when we are in a hearts-and-minds battle.)

Schiller was writing this...actually it doesn't say when he wrote this, but it was well before states had the technology to crush hostile individualities as effectively as they later did. So maybe he didn't see the conclusions of his writing as clearly as we can see them. (Nor could the editors of the Harvard Classics, for that matter.) But I think this is a pernicious doctrine; one shudders to think what it would be like if it were written more comprehensibly.

2 comments:

scudbucket said...

Doesn't this sound, I don't know, totalitarian?

Proto-fascist... where the highest form of human existence is the complete harmony of the subjective (desires/beliefs/etc) with the objective (the role you play in society). Anyone who deviates from a complete (internal) identification with his objectively determined role constitutes a threat to the state's survival. And then he concludes somewhat paradoxically - since the state presumably enjoys its existence due to the (internal) will of its citizens - the state has the right (or is it an obligation?) to crush him.

Simpler Schiller: those who don't give complete allegiance to the state are enemies of the state.

But what is Schiller's definition of the state? How can it be non-circular?

Delicious said...

Yeah, "facist" was the first thing I thought of too (maybe because of the Germanness of it all) -- but Mao's China was no different.

I wonder if Schiller idealizes the state so much because Germany was still fragmented at that time (I believe).