Schiller's Ideal of Liberty

THE vitality of Schiller’s reputation is one of the noblest facts in German literature. It depends not so much on the intrinsic value of his poems and dramas, nor on his excursions into philosophy and history, as on the spirit in which he worked, the spirit which filled his life, and which he has the magic of communicating to his readers. Goethe overtops him in almost every field, and Heine surpasses him in lyric perfection, and yet it is Schiller, and neither Goethe nor Heine, whom the German people have taken into their hearts, and foreigners have agreed to honor as the spokesman of many of the finest traits in the German nature.

Schiller was an idealist. We speak that word too glibly, seldom stopping to consider what it means to be a true idealist. We usually confound our desires — which range all the way from getting a good dinner to making a fortune — with Ideals. They are as unlike as lust and love: the dinner is spent in the eating, the fortune may vanish as a bubble bursts, but Ideals endure. Desires tend downward, and are almost necessarily selfish; Ideals look up,and include the welfare of others in their scope. They abide, just as the primal forces of nature abide; and whoever comes under their influence is buoyed up and borne along by them, as by the current of a mighty river.

Among the Ideals by which mankind has been raised out of savagery, three are supreme,—Love of Liberty, Passion for Righteousness, and Zeal for Service. Were society perfect, they would act together in beautiful harmony; but history rarely shows us more than one of them inspiring a given epoch. Zeal for Service launched myriads of mediævals on the Crusades; Passion for Righteousness sent the Pilgrim Fathers to Plymouth, and ploughed deep the religious fallows of England; Love of Liberty, manifesting itself as a philosophical principle during the third quarter of the eighteenth century, gained strength rapidly, passed from the philosophical to the dynamic stage, and shattered the Old Régime in Europe.

This Ideal, Love of Liberty, dominated Schiller. He had a cheerless boyhood, but for compensation, being endowed with the idealist’s temperament, he saw visions and dreamed dreams. “O Karl,” he wrote to a schoolmate, “we have in our hearts a very different world from the real one.” And so he grew up, carrying in his heart the Ideals for which life showed him no counterparts, protests against the routine of the military academy which aimed at creating obsequious servants of the Duke of Wurtemberg, without imagination, without volition, without soul, of their own. As he approached manhood and found himself doomed to a profession he abhorred, he saw more clearly that all his ills were due to lack of Liberty. He fed his heart on Rousseau, who persuaded him that Fate had not singled him out to bear an unusual load of wretchedness, but that society was organized so unjustly that only wrong and blight could come from it.

Society must be reformed — but how ? At the age of twenty-two Schiller suggested a way in The Robbers, a wild play, which holds up brigandage and crime as alternatives to the petrifying routine of the actual social order. Smash first, — then reconstruct, was Schiller’s remedy. He himself, gasping for freedom, escaped out of the Duke’s bondage, and for several years led a wanderer’s life, dependent for the most part on private bounty. He threw off other dramas, seething with protests, yet showing here and there, as through rifts in lurid clouds, gleams of serener suggestion. He turned to history, he flung himself on philosophy. History hinted to him that mankind advances not by leaps and bounds, but by painful inches; philosophy revealed Liberty to him as the cornerstone of the moral universe.

For it happened that the year 1781, in which The Robbers appeared, saw also the publication of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, whose doctrines soon permeated the vanward minds of Germany, and had no more enthusiastic welcomer than Schiller. Rousseau had preached Liberty, involving Equality and the Rights of Man; Kant preached Liberty as a proof of the moral world, and involving the Duties of Man. From these two sources have flowed for over a century the streams of European Liberalism and Revolution — the one seeking its end from without, through politics, the other from within, through social transformation. The philosophers,dreamers,and rebels of the European Continent were strangely indifferent to the concrete examples of Liberty in the American Colonies and of England’s constitutional growth. The Germanic and Latin peoples preferred to be guided by Theory rather than by the Experience of the Anglo-Saxons. Now Experience teaches caution and compromise; but Theory, never having been tested by fact, ignores human nature, and too often, in flying at the sun, repeats the tragedy of Icarus.

The intoxication which the new gospel of Liberty produced in Schiller and his contemporaries can hardly be measured. Confident that the true method of life had at last been revealed, they believed that it needed only to be applied in order to cure the evils of society and of every individual. Mankind, by nature good, had been corrupted by adopting through ignorance a wrong system; change the system, and universal health and happiness must ensue.

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven !

The meeting of the French States-General in 1789 confirmed these noble enthusiasts, who watched month by month, with ever-heightening hopes, the realization of their vision. Then came the awful revulsion: instead of Liberty, Terror reigned. While France raged, Europe drew back horrified, and many advocates of Liberty clutched desperately at the old institutions as a last refuge from chaos.

Schiller felt so poignantly the dashing of his expectations, that he could not bear to read the newspapers with their accounts of the French atrocities. He grieved at the setback to progress, at the betrayal of the holiest hopes, at the certainty that, after such a failure, it must be difficult to renew the struggle for Liberty, in whose name the Furies had set up their shambles in France. Still he did not, like his brother poets in England,— Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey, — allow himself to be stampeded into the slough of reaction.

In 1793, only a few months after the execution of Louis XVI, he wrote: “This effort of the French people to establish their sacred rights of humanity and to gain political freedom has only brought to light their unworthiness and impotence; and, not this ill-fated nation alone, but with it a considerable part of Europe, and a whole century, have been hurled back into barbarism and servitude. Of movements, this was the most propitious; but it came to a corrupt generation, unworthy to seize it, unworthy to profit by it. The use which this generation makes and has made of so great a gift of chance incontestably shows that the human race cannot yet dispense with the guardianship of might; that reason steps in too soon where the bondage of brute force has hardly been shaken off; and that he is not yet ripe for civil liberty, to the attainment of whose human liberty so much is still lacking. . . . Freedom, political and civil, remains ever and always the holiest of all possessions, the worthiest goal of all striving, the great rallying-point of all culture; but this glorious structure can be raised only upon the firm basis of an ennobled character; and, before a citizen can be given a constitution, one must see that the citizen himself be soundly constituted.”

I know of no better diagnosis, made at the time, of the degeneration from Liberty to Tyranny. It proves Schiller’s sanity; it shows also that he was a true idealist, not a doctrinaire, for doctrinaires are persons whom experience cannot teach. He saw the highroad to political Liberty blocked; very well, — undiscouraged, he would seek another way. He realized now that Liberty is not merely the key to unlock the prison door, but the principle by which alone men can attain their full stature. Deeper than the political, deeper than the industrial or social levels, lies character; he would shape that. And he kept his purpose, for the varied products of his last twelve years all served this end. His genius was, in the largest sense, didactic, devoted not so much to painting men and women as they are, as to show them what they might be. True German to the core, he was a philosopher as well as a poet, and the poet in him never went out of whispering distance of the philosopher.

His friendship with Goethe confirmed him in his resolve to uplift society by means of culture. Goethe, the many-sided and poised artist, had none of Schiller’s zeal for correcting abuses; artist-like, he concerned himself chiefly in understanding and describing the world, and he was fully aware that even abuses have their value to the artist. Toward political Liberty he held the traditional German position, which is that of Feudalism. “If a man has freedom enough to live healthy,” he said long afterwards to Eckermann, “and work at his craft, he has enough: and so much all can easily attain. Then all of us are free only under certain conditions, which we must fulfill. The citizen is as free as the nobleman, when he restrains himself within the limits which God has appointed by placing him in that rank. The nobleman is as free as the prince; for, if he will but observe a few ceremonies at court, he may feel himself his equal. Freedom consists not in refusing to recognize anything above us, but in respecting something which is above us; for, by respecting it, we raise ourselves to it, and by our very acknowledgment make manifest that we bear within ourselves what is higher, and are worthy to be on a level with it.”

There speaks Feudalism, which was the great contribution of the German race to the methods of government.

But neither Goethe’s influence, nor racial tradition, nor the disenchantment wrought by the Reign of Terror, could quench Schiller’s enthusiasm. He held that Beauty, to which he more and more devoted himself, was only Liberty made visible, and in his last dramas he either exalted Liberty directly, by setting up shining examples, or indirectly, by revealing the naked ugliness of Tyranny. In William Tell, his final message, Liberty has become to him an ecstasy, a religion. The spirit of free - rushing, unpolluted streams, of untrodden Alpine peaks, of chainless winds, sweeps through that play, — the most popular of his works, — and in it he gives specimens of all grades of Liberty, and of her counterfeits.

Schiller died in 1805. The next year came Jena, with the crushing of Prussia and the humbling of Germany by Napoleon. During the dark period that followed, Tell was an inspiration to the Germans, who won their liberation in 1813, and at Waterloo dealt Napoleon his deathstroke. But liberation did not mean Liberty : it meant return to despotic rule. The Germans have been noted since the days of Cæsar for their love of independence, which is indeed equivalent to a staunch patriotism; but this has never checked that feudalizing instinct which has shaped their political and social institutions.

But the great movement toward Liberty, which thrilled Schiller in his youth, had for its political goal the abolition of Feudalism. Although the Reign of Terror checked it, and the genius of Napoleon turned it aside; although after the Restoration all the conservative forces of Church and State rallied to destroy it, still it persisted, and in the next generation it seemed, as in 1789, about to usher in the perfect day. The Revolutions of 1848 were its work, and they accomplished much; the freeing of Italy and the abolition of American slavery accomplished still more; but with them the second wave of Liberalism spent itself.

Since 1870 a tide of reaction has spread through Europe and America. Liberty, the divine impulse which once enabled its disciples to endure all things gladly,— persecution, imprisonment, exile, death, — has fallen under suspicion. We hear much about the failure of republican forms of government. Many observers are skeptical of regeneration through political means. The excellence of mediæval methods is chanted. Militarism has infected the blood. Was Liberty after all only a siren to lure men and nations to destruction on the reefs of Democracy ? Ah no! Democracy — which has never yet had a fair trial—must be the ultimate political system, when Liberty comes to her own.

But the ideal of Liberty stops not at the political: it is at work as a solvent in every province, —business, education, philosophy, morals, religion. It rests on the fundamental truth that, since every human will emanates from the Universal Will, its health requires free access to the Universal Will. The moment a ruler or an institution thrusts between them, and substitutes his own interests for the Universal, tyranny begins. All the highest human manifestations presuppose freedom. Compulsory loyalty, compulsory love, compulsory worship, compulsory heroism, —the very terms are a contradiction. Human evolution is a succession of emancipations: first from natural conditions, then from bodily servitude, then from political, ecclesiastical, social, economic, and industrial tyrannies, from vicious habits, from disease, from ignorance. We stand only on the threshold of the new dispensation of Liberty; the old feudalities still control many of our methods and tinge our ideals; but to her, if the world is to grow better, the future belongs.

Because Schiller saw this and bore witness to it, he is the best loved of German poets. His voice, with its burden of Liberty, finds an echo in every heart; for no human being is too debased to understand that message, which, like an oriole’s song of a May morning, needs no interpreter. That Schiller identified himself with this supreme ideal will long keep his name alive. Posterity reveres its emancipators, be they inventors or statesmen, teachers or artists, prophets or poets.

“ We are both idealists,” Schiller wrote a few weeks before his death to his dear friend, Wilhelm von Humboldt, “we are both idealists, and should be ashamed to have it said of us that we did not form things, but that things formed us.” To that utterance every spirit will respond which consecrates itself to the service of Liberty.