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F Schiller on the relationship between aesthetics and morality

September 22, 2008

This is an extract from Friedrich Schiller’s On the Moral use of Aesthetic Manners.

The Author of the Essay entitled “On the Danger of Aesthetic Manners”, in the eleventh number of the Horen published in 1795, has very justly expressed doubts concerning a morality which is exclusively founded upon aesthetic sentiments and proclaims taste as her highest authority. But an active and pure sense of the beautiful has the happiest influence upon mans moral conduct, and it is of this influence that I purpose to speak.

If I attribute to taste the merit of promoting morality, my opinion is certainly not that the part which taste has in a good action, imparts to it a moral character. Morality should never have any other foundation than its own righteousness. Taste may favor the morality of human conduct, as I shall show in the present essay, but the influence of taste alone can never bring forth morality.

The same reasoning applies to man’s internal and moral liberty, which may be applied to his external physical freedom; in the latter sense I act freely if I follow my own will without being dependent upon any foreign influence. But as to the possibility of following my own will without any restrictions. I may at last become indebted for it to some cause outside of myself, provided this same cause might have restrained my will. In the same way I may finally be indebted for the possibility of acting morally to some cause outside of my reason, provided we represent to us this cause as a power which might have restrained my moral freedom. In the same sense as it is perfectly proper to say that one man receives freedom from another, although freedom itself consists in being able to dispense with the necessity of complying with the rules and regulations of other people: in that sense we may likewise say that taste is a means to virtue, although the essence of virtue consists in being abler to do without any body’s help.

An action does not forfeit its claim to being called free, because he who might have restrained it, happens to remain quiet; provided we know that the acting agent obeyed his own will without regard to any person’s will outside of his own. Nor does an act of the will cease to be to be a moral act because the temptations are wanting which might have interfered with, or prevented it; provided we feel satisfied that the acting agent followed the direction of his own reason, to the exclusion of foreign motives. The freedom of an external act depends upon its immediate origin in a person’s will; the morality of an internal act upon the direct determination of the will by the laws of reason.

We may find it more or less difficult to act as free beings according as we meet influences that are contrary to our freedom, and have to be controlled. So far we have degrees of freedom. Our freedom is greater, at any rate more visible, if we maintain it in spite of the fiercest resistance of hostile forces; but it does not cease, even if our will should not meet with any resistance, or if some foreign power should interfere, annihilating this resistance without our aid.

The same is true of morality. We may have to struggle more or less to obey reason directly, according as we have to contend against impulses that are contrary to her precepts, and against which it behoves us to battle. So far there are degrees of morality. Our morality is greater, or at any rate more prominent, if we grant a direct obedience to reason in spite of the most violent impulses to the contrary; but it does not cease to be morality; if there is no great inducement to violate its rules, or if this inducement should be weakened by other influences than our own willpower. We act morally provided our act is a moral act, and without first inquiring whether it is pleasant; even supposing it probable we might have acted differently in case the act should cause us pain or deprive us of a pleasure.………

Taste demands moderation and propriety; it rejects every thing angular, harsh, violent, and favours every easy and harmonious combination. Good breeding demands of us that, even amid the tumult of passion we should listen to the voice of reason, for the tone of good society is an aesthetical law for every educated person. This constraint which the civilized man imposes upon himself in the manifestation of his feelings, gives him a sort of control over them, develops at any rate a certain readiness to interrupt the passive condition of his soul by an act of moral independence, and to arrest by a process of reflection the sudden transition from feelings to acts. But all that breaks the blind violence of passion, although insufficient to realize virtue (for this has to be the offspring of her own unaided efforts) yet prepares for the will a channel through which it may come into possession of virtue. This victory of taste over the crude instinct is no moral act, nor is the liberty which the will here obtains by taste, a moral liberty. Taste frees the mind from the yoke of instinct so far as the latter holds the mind chained in bondage, and after disarming the first and evident enemy of moral freedom, taste frequently remains as a second enemy that may become so much more dangerous under the mask of friendship. Taste rules the mind by the simple incentive of pleasure — undoubtedly a more noble pleasure since it originates in reason — but where the will is determined by pleasure, no morality can as yet be said to exist.………

Suppose the first person who, being tempted to commit a bad act, but omits the same from a sense of justice, has such a refined taste, that all scenes of violence excite feelings of horror which nothing can subdue: at the very moment when the instinct of self-preservation insists upon something infamous, the aesthetic sense alone will repudiate it — hence the matter will not even appear before the forum of conscience, but will be condemned even by an inferior tribunal. The aesthetic sense only governs the will by feelings, not by laws.……

Obedience to the moral law being so uncertain, it becomes the more necessary to arrange a system of conventional rules, the neglect of which might be imputed to us as immorality. As the maniac, when suspecting the approach of his paroxysm, removes all cutting instruments and voluntarily submits to being tied in order not to be held responsible in his sane state for the crimes of his disturbed brain: so it is our duty to bind ourselves by religion and aesthetic laws in order to prevent the physical order from being violated by our passions during a moment of insane excitement.

It is not without design that I have here placed religion and taste in one category, because both, as far as the effect is concerned, though not by their internal essence, may serve as a substitute for true virtue, and may secure the government of law where no moral influence can be depended upon. Although he who neither requires the charms of beauty, nor the prospect of immortality in order to act always in conformity with the precepts of reason, no matter what may happen, would occupy a higher place in the hierarchy of spirits; yet the well-known limits of humanity oblige even the most rigorous ethical philosopher to abate a little from the rigidity of his system in its practical application, although he ought not to omit anything in his theory; and, for more safety, to attach the welfare of humanity, which might fare badly considering our precarious virtue, to the strong anchors of religion and taste.

Schiller, Friedrich, On the Moral Use of Aesthetic Manners. A nineteenth-century translation.

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