Schiller's Relevance For Us and For All Times: A Tribute to Friedrich Schiller to Commemorate the 200th Anniversary of His Death

Charlotte M. Craig



riedrich Schiller (1759-1805) is best known and remembered as a leading lyric poet, the foremost dramatist in the German language and, with Goethe, a top representative of the Classical German national literature. 

His versatility is indeed astonishing considering his foray into philosophy as master essayist influenced by Kant, and into history, with a brief tenure as a professor of history at the University of Jena.  As a historiographer he covered two major events, the Revolt of the Netherlands, and the History of the Thirty-Years’ War.  The plots of a number of operas are based on historical dramas by Schiller, e.g., Don Carlos; Luisa Miller; Maria Stuart; Turandot; Wilhelm Tell.   His Ode to Joy has become the choral portion of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and, more recently, the unofficial anthem of Europe.  His dramas and some of his fascinating short stories reflect his extraordinary skill in creating three-dimensional characters, and his interest in the criminal element.   He was labeled alternately a “philosophizing poet,” or a “politicizing philosopher,” the “poet of freedom” with an impassioned mission and an indomitable creative drive, a sound political instinct, and an unparalleled sense for dramatic representation. Later he referred to theater as a moralistic institution.

Whenever contemplating the past, even of historically significant persons or events, the issue of relevance to our time arises: what is the salience and meaningfulness of Schiller for our contemporary culture and society, and why should we read Schiller today?  Even in a good translation, some readers might shy away from language which seems antiquated and difficult to understand.  Some are repelled by the vocabulary of Kantian criticism.[i]  If, however, one realizes that Schiller himself has profitably drawn on the past (to include antiquity, in his case), and come to terms with the present, the modern reader will acknowledge him as a man for all seasons and all times.

It must be remembered  that in Schiller’s time, Germany was not a unified country, but consisted of a myriad of small, more or less independent states, mostly monarchies, with little or no reciprocity among them; consequently there were no uniform national standards in laws, medicine, education, or many other aspects of public life.  It should also be noted that in the atmosphere leading to the French Revolution, the European struggle against political injustice and tyranny, social inequality, and moral corruption, rebellion against moral restrictions, conflict between generations, and related socio-political phenomena coincided with the brief, but powerful German literary movement of the Storm and Stress (Sturm und Drang).  Both the young Goethe and Schiller were leading representatives of this naturalistic school until they outgrew it.  Understanding Schiller’s youthful, rebellious penchant should help to illuminate his artistic development. 

Schiller came to his reputation by a circuitous route.  His early ambition to take a degree in theology at the University of Tübingen and to settle down as a Protestant pastor met with intervention:  he had come to the attention of his sovereign, Karl Eugen, Duke of Württemberg (Schiller’s home state), and founder of a military academy near the regional capital.  Schiller’s father, himself a deserving military officer, greatly honored and delighted as this son’s special recognition, tuition free, prestigious education, and promising career, readily accepted the scholarship.  Less so his son, who immediately perceived in this offer a guided, guarded, uniformed effort with limited choices, theology not being an option.  Indeed, the cadets were assigned academic disciplines according to the discretion of the academy.  After an unsuccessful run in jurisprudence Schiller was transferred to the discipline of medicine in 1776, which was apparently more compatible with his ideological and temperamental leaning, especially since it allowed him closer acquaintance with concomitant subjects and promised a wider radius of intellectual satisfaction.  During his student years he found solace in younger mentors who were able to communicate to him the study of philosophy as a discipline most likely to advance abstract reasoning applicable to all academic pursuits—considering that eighteenth-century state of the art medicine still placed the emphasis on generalized speculation and experimentation rather than scientific investigation.  The convergence of physiology and psychology was being practiced in Schiller’s medical training, as was “humoral pathology,” based on a Greco-Roman foundation.  He was, however, particularly interested in mind-body relationships, which by modern standards would fall into the categories of psychological medicine, abnormal psychology, or neuropsychiatry.[ii] 

This predilection points to Schiller’s extraordinary proclivity in his later career of creating three-dimensional characters.   He devoted all his spare time indulging his interests in the study of literature—poetry and drama--, along with some studies in physiognomy,[iii] as well as writing himself.  Frequently volunteering for night duty at the Academy’s sickbay, the only locale where light was permitted to burn, gave him the opportunity to progress in his first drama, Die Räuber (The Robbers).  Such activity, however, was not in keeping with the institution’s regulations and Schiller was strictly ordered to cease and desist, but managed to complete the play, without being able to find a publisher, and seeing himself obliged to pay for the printing of the work (1781) at his own expense while preparing a stage version. 

Contact with Wolfgang H. von Dalberg, the impresario of the “National Theater” at Mannheim, put Schiller on the road to a new career, albeit haltingly: numerous changes in content and language had to be made before the drama—a piece in the manner of the Sturm und Drang—was performed, attended by Schiller, absent from duty without leave, and a resounding success with the audience.  Subsequent performances in Hamburg, Leipzig and Berlin also earned enthusiastic acclaim.  A further surreptitious attendance of the play drew a two-week prison sentence for the author, who was already crafting his next stage work, Fiesco.  

At the conclusion of his formal studies, on December 15, 1780, Schiller was discharged from the Ducal Academy, but not from military service.  A “utilization tour” of duty as uniformed Regimental Physician was to follow.  The dim promise of a rewarding career at a meager salary—hopes for a private practice requiring additional qualifications for which he had no support had been dashed--social isolation and, chiefly the suppression to write, drove Schiller to the desperate act of desertion.  On September 23, 1782, he and a friend, under assumed names, managed to evade the guards, leaving Stuttgart and more:  his parental ties, his fatherland, his piece of mind, a regular albeit modest source of income, with a likelihood of prosecution looming which, however, never occurred.  This ended the “medical phase,” comprising approximately one-quarter of his adult life; it also initiated a series of itinerant years, which eventually led to his fame.

Following the acclaim of his first play, Schiller was offered “asylum” by a circle of admirers, which helped him through years of exile, with some felicity and lots of adversity.  His temporary employment as dramatist in Mannheim carried with it an agreement that he produce three plays per year, until non-renewal of his contract.  His theater periodical Rheinische Thalia, enabled him to establish contact with the literary world of prominence.  One fortuitous event was his meeting Karl August, Duke of Weimar, on the occasion of presenting the first act of his play, Don Carlos, and the resulting appointment as Councillor of Weimar.  Leipzig and Dresden were stations of Schiller’s professional and social progress, including re-acquaintance with Goethe whom he had met fleetingly while a student at the Ducal Academy.  He also met his future wife, Charlotte von Lengefeld, daughter of a Lady in Waiting at the Court of Weimar.  In a rural setting, Schiller was fully occupied producing reviews, translations, and various literary works interrupted by occasional respiratory indisposition accompanied by fever.  A regular contributor to the important periodical Der Teutsche Merkur improved his pecuniary situation. 

Thanks to Goethe’s influence Schiller obtained a position as professor of history at the University of Jena in May 1789, followed by his engagement, his appointment as Privy Counselor, and marriage.  Hardly ever was Schiller from physical affliction—at times, spasmodic coughs, asthma, and inability to speak, among other complaints—or the need of asking for an advance from his publishers.

Even with frequent bouts of illness he staunchly pressed on with his literary production, his “itching pen,” and work on an intellectually demanding journal, Die Horen, edited by Schiller from January 1795.  One of the most important influences in his intellectual development was provided by Kantian philosophy which fascinated him.  His ill health, however, abrogated his lecturing at the University, also causing another appointment to the University of Tübingen to be rejected. Yet, as Wilhelm von Humboldt stated in the preface of his correspondence with Schiller, while stimulating him, Kant “could not mold him.”

During the “years of fame” hardly a day passed without seeing Goethe, his senior friend and mentor, for mutual profit, for exchange of ideas, critical appraisal of their respective work, or socially, often in the company of others, with frequent invitations to the court at Weimar.

1802 was an eventful year—and only three years left to go.  Schiller was finally in the position to purchase a house in Weimar, after selling his home in Jena in order to be closer to the “scene of action.”  It was the property owned by the Englishman, Joseph Charles Mellison, who was to translate Schiller’s Maria Stuart into English.  In the same year a revised version of his important essay on theater seen as a moralistic institution was published.  Schiller was elevated to the ranks of the aristocracy under date of September 7, 1802.  In 1803 Schiller fleetingly experienced impatience with his residency in Weimar and he articulated the desire to “look about the world for another domain and sphere of activity.”[iv] Occasional frustration is understandable even in the “rarified” circle of lesser and higher aristocracy.   He made an attempt to approach Queen Luise of Prussia, who invited his move to Berlin, to consider him for a position in the theater or as the Crown Prince’s tutor in history.  Still, breakfast in Sans Souci with the royal couple, followed by discussions of an eventual lucrative pension for Schiller let him postpone his decision on return to Weimar.  Ultimately, he opted to remain in Weimar.

The above biographical sketch reflects Schiller’s adult life in two major segments, the first ending with the epilogue to his aborted medical studies, which comprised one-quarter of his life span, and which became a “prologue” to the second, far more illustrious part, eventually leading to immortality.   While his “first love”—literature—prevailed, there is no doubt that his years at the Ducal Academy prepared him in the discipline of physiology, along with early psychology, which proved to be invaluable preparatory training for dramatically casting characters and scenes to best advantage.  Schiller is known also for taking liberties with history, such as ameliorating characters if the issue was to demonstrate where his sympathies lay and if such maneuvers behooved the drama, to invent characters for the purpose of advancing the plot, or to “bend” history when he deemed such a distortion indicated for stage effect.

Given his precarious constitution and his early medical training he displayed a lifelong familiar if uneasy relationship with death, whose manifestations he was prone to vary: in accordance with dramatic demands, death  could be glorified, cast as a sacrificial act for an idea or an ideal, or an act of atonement.  In keeping with his theory of sublimity and tragic dignity (1790) he shifted the scene of death from the stake to the more honorable field of battle, and even dedicated his Anthology for the Year 1782 to “his master, Death.”  Death as a “hunter of mankind” and terminator may, on the other hand, be able to spare mankind untold suffering.

The plots of his poems repeatedly reveal—often in the guise of antiquity or in  medieval costume—timeless themes of friendship, loyalty, praise of noble acts performed by persons from any social stratum, and likewise condemnation of evil characters and acts of  which tyrants of whatever description are capable.  The reader is presented convincingly a veritable catalog of misdeeds from minor infractions to the seven deadly sins, with which modern man can identify.   Generation after generation of Gymnasium (University prep schools) students in German speaking countries “grew to their maturity” to the lyrics of Schiller—memorizing, analyzing, freely quoting within the context even of informal conversation as he appealed to the younger generation, especially in the development of German idealism.  Even if Schiller’s reception has fluctuated over the years as mentioned earlier, his position in intellectual history is secure in spite of the mixed aspect accorded the force of his creativity by critics of literature and historians of philosophy. 

By reading some of Schiller’s profound messages in verse and his philosophical essays and letters we will appreciate the ethical and aesthetic concepts which pervade his dramatic masterpieces.  On the topic of “virtue” and what constitutes a moral act, Schiller came to grips with the issue, transcending Kant’s rigorous moral philosophy with respect to the idea of all too strict conformity to duty.   In his essays Űber Anmut und Würde (On Grace and Dignity) Schiller seeks to mellow Kant’s position by pointing to the desirable duality of inclination and obligation, which renders duty more acceptable.  Virtue, then, is understood as a favorable inclination to duty.  He describes the character of the “schöne Seele” (“beautiful soul”), an “ideal” person in whom sensuousness, rationality, obligation and inclination are harmonized through man’s Spieltrieb (play-instinct).  

Schiller’s principal contribution to aesthetic philosophy[v] is his essay Űber die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen in einer Reihe von Briefen (On the Aesthetic Education of Man, in a Series of Letters) (1795).  In twenty-seven letters he elucidates his concept of aesthetic education—the refinement of the instinctive element of man achievable through the beauty of art.  The process of playing, creating, and enjoying the beautiful will help man to develop ethically.

This fusion of aesthetics and ethics brings Schiller to the notion of the aesthetic Schein (realm of beautiful semblance, which does not seek to replace reality nor imperil the truth of moral law.  The beautiful is the source of reconciliation between the citizen and society.[vi]  He concludes his essays by citing the metaphor of a harmonious political state founded on individuality having recovered humanity through beauty.  Schiller allows that this theory was only an ideal, but that in this realm “no one is a mere instrument, no one a serf.”[vii]  The progression had led to conclusion not through violence, but through the mind by aesthetic education.  This is a valuable lesson for our and all times.


[i]  Lesley Sharpe.  Schiller’s Aesthetics Essays: Two Centuries of Criticism (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1995) 35.

[ii] Kenneth Dewhurst and Nigel Reeves.  Friedrich Schiller.  Medicine, Psychology and Medicine (Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987) 89.  Hereafter cited as Dewhurst.

[iii]   Andreas and Andreas, eds.  Die Grossen Klassiker. Friedrich Schille  (Salzburg: Verlagsbuchhandel. 1997) 27.

[iv]   Gero von Wilpert.  Schiller-Chronik.  Sein Leben und Schaffen (Stuttgart: Kröner, 1958) 282.

[v]   Schillers Werke.  Nationalausgabe, Vol. 20, ed. Benno von Wiese (Weimar: Böhlau, 1962) 287-288.

[vi]   German Essays III.  Schiller, eds. Max Dufner and Valentine C. Hubbs (New York: Macmillan, 1964) 4.

[vii]  Dewhurst 360.


Charlotte M. Craig is professor of German at Kutztown University of  Pennsylvania and also teaches at Rutgers University. She has published Christoph Martin Wieland as the Originator of the Modern Travesty in German Literature. She has served as General Editor of the series The Enlightenment: German and Interdisciplinary Studies, and currently serves as Secretary-Treasurer of the NE American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies.