On the Aesthetic Education of Man is a treatise written by Friedrich Schiller in a series of letters to his sponsor Frederick Christian in 1793. The letters concern the current state of mankind and ways in way mankind has lost itself in contemporary society, and suggestions on how a more utopian and equal society could be established. Schiller’s letters are fascinating and his style is enigmatic, engaging and amusing, making the text fun and easy to read in comparison to some other philosophical works.
The introduction to the edition I read (by Alexander Schmidt in the Penguin edition) was incredibly informative and interesting, and it gave the perfect context to Schiller and his work before I began reading which was useful. The letter format, although not deliberate, works really well to help the reader to grasp the concepts and sway our position. This is on top of his astute use of analogy to explain his thinking, such as the wonderful chemistry analogy in the very first letter. The difficulties you might expect from only receiving one side of the correspondence are handled effectively by Schiller before they even become a problem; he answers each of Christian’s points in full, thus giving us an indication of the sentiments he expressed in his return letters.
Although each of the 27 letters revolves around the same theme, each are unique and detail a different aspect of Schiller’s theory. In the Sixth Letter, Schiller notes his admiration of the Greeks and the society that they maintained, differentiating between their appreciation of art and contemporary society’s harmful obsession with decadence. His letters are intriguing in the way that they incorporate the major movements of the late Nineteenth Century, such as the Aesthetic Movement, a whole century before they were introduced. The way that Schiller discusses his theories are compelling because not only does he state his opinions, but he reflects on them as well, giving a dual dynamic of professional and personal interest.
What I find most thought-provoking in this work, however, is its relation to the modern world. Several of his points can be analysed from a modern perspective and raise questions about just how much has changed. For example, Schiller’s analysis of utility in the Second Letter, and his thoughts on the individual in the Sixth. It was uncanny how much I identified with Schiller’s evaluations at times. The Ninth Letter in particular I found very rousing. The constant repetition of the word ‘you’ and the quasi-militaristic tone left my mind rushing at the end of the letter, and I had to remind myself that this letter was not intended for me personally.
My favourite thing about Schiller’s work is his method of investigation. Many of his letters start with a rhetorical question which links back to his previous letter which helps the study to flow and also provides a good starting point for what is to come in that next letter. The original untranslated German also used the word ‘Mensch’ rather than the English ‘man’, which means that the original was intended to be ungendered which is refreshing for a work of that period.
Overall, Schiller’s work was a very stimulating read. Although potentially over-optimistic, he covers his topic well and anticipates flaws and pitfalls in his arguments. Any person interested in the Enlightenment movement and the major German philosophers of the Eighteenth Century should definitely read it, particularly any fans of Kant. But more generally, if you like literature which makes your mind work then Schiller is a good place to start.