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F Schiller discusses the nature of Beauty

September 22, 2008

This is an extract from Letter XV of Friedrich Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man.


We know that man is neither exclusively matter, nor is he exclusively spirit. Hence beauty, being the fullness of humanity, can neither be exclusively life, as some ingenious observers, favored by the taste of the age, and who have adhered too closely to the testimony of experience, have maintained; not can it be exclusively form, as has been asserted by speculative philosophers, who went too far astray from experience, and by philosophizing artists who were guided too strictly by the wants of art in their definitions of beauty; (1) it is the common object of both impulses, namely of the impulse of play. …….

But, you may object, will not the beautiful become degraded by being made a mere plaything, and it will not be placed upon a level with the frivolous things that have possessed this name from time immemorial? Is it not contrary to reason and to the dignity of beauty, which is regarded as an instrument of culture, to convert beauty into a result of mere play, and is it not contrary to the idea of play, which may exist to the exclusion of taste, to limit it to mere beauty?

But what is to be understood by mere play, after we once know that in all the circumstances in which man may be placed, it is play, and indeed only play, that completes his being, and unfolds his twofold nature at one and the same time? That which you, from your standpoint call limitation, that I call from my standpoint expansion. I would, therefore, reverse the proposition, saying,- man treats the agreeable, the good, and the perfect earnestly, but he plays with beauty. In reasoning in this wise we must not have reference to the plays which are common in life, and which generally refer to material objects; but in real life we should in vain seek the kind of beauty of which I am talking. Genuine beauty is worthy of the impulse of play; but by the ideal beauty which reason sets before us, an ideal impulse of play is likewise given , which man should never lose sight of in any of his amusements.

We shall never err, if we seek the ideal beauty of man through the same channels that he gratifies his impulse of play. If the Greek nations find their delight in the games of Olympia, in the bloodless trials of strength, swiftness, docility, and in the more noble rivalries of talents; and if the Roman people gloat over the death struggle of a slain gladiator or of a Lybian adversary, this single trait shows why the ideal forms of Venus, Juno, Apollo must not be looked for in Rome, but in Greece. (2) Now reason tell us, the beautiful should not be mere form, or mere beauty, but a living form, that is to say beauty, for man is under the double law of absolute form and absolute reality. Consequently reason enunciates the proposition: Man should only play with beauty, and with beauty he should only play.

For, in order to express my ideas at once and fully, man only plays where he is man in the full acceptation of the term, and he is wholly man only where he plays. This proposition which may seem paradoxical at this moment, will receive a great and deep significance, if we apply it to the double earnestness of duty and destiny: it will bear the whole edifice of aesthetic art and the still more difficult art – to live.


(1) Burke, in his Philosophical Disquisitions concerning the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, makes beauty mere life. It is made mere form by every adherent of dogmatic systems, who has every given his testimony on this subject; among the artists, Raphael Mengs in his Thoughts on Taste in Painting; not to speak of others. As in everything else, so in this respect, philosophical criticism has opened the way to reduce empiricism to principles, and to lead speculation back to experience.

(2) If we contrast the horse-races of London, the bullfights of Madrid, the spectacles of Paris, the gondola-races of Venice, the hunts of Vienna, and the joyous life of the Corso in Rome, there can be no difficulty of determining the shades of taste which prevail among these different nations. However, there is much less uniformity in the popular games of these countries, than we discover in the games of the more refined classes in these same countries: this is easily accounted for.

Schiller, Friedrich, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, In a Series of Letters, Letter XV. A nineteenth-century translation.

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