The German poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) is known for his philosophy of man’s relationship with transcendence and the sublime. Schiller believed that only through concrete life, that is, individual existence as differentiated persons, could man fulfill social and political potential. Human reflection on the nature of beauty gives rise to freedom.
Schiller was concerned that throughout history a decisive, existentially revealing moment often arrives for mankind, but that people in that moment lack the rational, moral, and spiritual wherewithal to understand its significance. This was Schiller’s great realization after witnessing the destruction and murder brought about during the reign of terror of the French Revolution.
Schiller argues that the state does not engender values that promote existential reflection. Instead, the state fosters false values that originate in abstraction. Schiller writes in the Fourth Letter of On the Aesthetic Education of Man: “Gradually concrete life is extinguished, in order that the abstract life of the whole may prolong its sorry existence, and the state remains eternally alien to its citizens because nowhere does feeling discover it.”
At the core of Schiller’s now-classic dictum, “A great moment has found a little people” (which was his response to the French Revolution) are his concepts of Stofftrieb (the sense drive) and Formtrieb (the form drive). Man, he tells us, must learn to understand and balance these forces, which tug at our dual nature as physical beings and existential persons. Man’s animal nature is driven by the sense drive. This is equivalent to man’s sensual self, our existence as a spatial-temporal being who lives among other sensual entities. This sensual drive, Schiller warns us, always threatens to overrun the form drive.
The form drive is man’s rational capacity. Through this drive man makes sense of the principles of human existence. Yet the cultivation of the form drive necessitates that man live in the sensual world; the form drive, in other words, is no mere abstraction but must be integrated with the sensual world.
When the sense drive continually overrides the form drive, Schiller warns, this is when man should become concerned that a great moment, an indispensable opportunity, has evaded a little people. What telling parallels can we find for postmodernity in this philosopher of life?
We live in an age of mass communication and mass media. Ours is a sensual world, where people naively believe they are “connected.” This makes our age an overtly external world. In other words, postmodernity leaves little time for contemplation and reflection on existential concerns. As a consequence, sensuality determines man’s choice-making and morality and thus how we live as individuals as in community. Perhaps more so than during any previous age, the colossal mechanism that runs man’s external world is fueled by massive deception and moral fraud.
The proliferation of mass media makes it difficult for postmodern man to apprehend the essence of human reality. We are left instead with the embrace of simple appearances, and disingenuous for-show values. Human beings like to save appearances because this is more soothing than having to contemplate the meaning of what French philosopher Gabriel Marcel has referred to as the bite of reality. Traditionally man has recognized that human existence can be difficult, and this truth was embraced with grace.
Postmodernity can be defined as a cultural, social-political, and spiritual milieu that is infatuated with empty sensuality—sense perception disconnected from the form drive. Because ours is an age that promotes the sense drive ad nauseam, our milieu has expanded a penchant for lying and self-deception in a manner such that now falsehoods no longer appear to us as lying. Postmodern man’s ability to rationalize nauseous vulgarity has found normalization in a dizzying array of cultural, religious, and state-run institutions.
The politicization and radicalization of human existence makes it impossible for virtuous persons to view life today other than through a politicized spectrum. Politicization means the displacement of cultural, religious sentiment, and the moral-spiritual realm of human life. Politicization is what is left when the hierarchy of human values is obliterated. The logical result of politicization is an aberration that displaces man’s cultivation for the sense of life. This is also a fine example of Schiller’s conception of the form drive, which cultivates a sense for life, and the sense drive, which in its aberrant form, consumes life.
With the destruction of awe and wonder and the consequential loss of a sense for life, what becomes of the human person? Science is not equipped to answer this question. Science is not philosophy, and its focus must be on externals that can be measured or calculated. The social/political effects of scientific and technological development come as unintended consequences of the alleged practicality of the scientific enterprise.
Schiller’s aesthetic contemplation runs counter to man’s postmodern predicament. Schiller refuted the premises and promises of philosophical materialism and scientism. Rarely does man act otherwise than what his conditioned view of reality allows. This is why politicization is anathema to the exercise of free will. The degree of will needed to execute our primal freedom determines our negative freedom. That is, freedom must be seen as a checks and balances, mostly of what we ought not to do. Freedom is the ability to refrain from doing what is easy and inauthentic. Here, words like fashionable, modish, and trendy come to mind. Postmodernity discourages man from embracing acts that originate in creative freedom.
Schiller’s existential form drive, by its very nature, is a human response to man always finding himself in a singular circumstance. Existential reflection means concrete, individual existence, as this pertains to the subject who engages in reflection. According to Schiller, this entails embracing responsibility for our beliefs and actions.
Schiller’s concern that “a great moment has found a little people” is the culmination of the strife between the form drive and the sense drive. The following quote may make this clear. He writes in the Sixth Letter: “With this twofold force pressing on it from within and without, could humanity really take any other course than the one it actually has taken? While the speculative spirit strove after imperishable possessions in the realm of ideas, it had to become a stranger in the material world, and relinquish matter for the sake of form.”
Pedro Blas González is a professor of philosophy at Barry University.
González looks at lessons for today’s postmodern culture in the German Romantic’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man.