Saturday, 11 June 2011

Schiller on play and nature

I always hestitate before writing anything about a classic. Classics always seem to demand half a year of research, at least. But if a classic is really alive and present in our lives, then why shouldn't we be able to jot down our impressions and the thoughts they inspire just as we would about a movie or recent novel? Well, in any case, what's a blog for if not for treating even classics like dime novels?

1955 USSR stamp celebrating Schiller
So here are some frivolous remarks about Schiller's On the Aesthetic Education of Man in a Series of Letters which I read last autumn because I was interested in theories about play.

In this work, Schiller describes aesthetics as founded on the play-drive. He celebrates play as a mediating factor that cures humankind's "fragmentation of being" by reconciling reason and nature, form and sense, formal drive and sensual drive, and freedom and necessity. The single most famous sentence in this work is probably the one in which Schiller states that "man only plays when he is in the fullest sense of the word a human being, and he is only fully a human being when he plays” (p.107).

One of the things I found interesting in this work was Schiller's portrait of nature. This is how he describes human beings in a state of captivity in nature: “self-seeking, and yet without a Self; lawless, yet without Freedom; a slave, yet to no rule. At this stage the world is for him merely Fate, not yet Object” (p.171). In passages that sound like an echo of Hobbes, he describes the world of nature as a world of fright in which man's sole concern is survival. “In vain does nature let her rich variety pass before his senses; he sees in her splendid profusion nothing but his prey” (ibid.). Wisely, Schiller hastens to add: “Man, one may say, was never in such a completely animal condition; but he has, on the other hand, never entirely escaped from it. Even among the rudest of human creatures one finds unmistakable traces of rational freedom, just as among the most cultivated peoples there are moments in plenty which recall that dismal state of nature” (p.173).

Let me now turn to the problematic concluding letter - Nr. 27 - which contains the following passage about how play exists even in nature.

When the lion is not gnawed by hunger and no beast of prey is challenging him to battle, his idle energy creates for itself an object; he fills the echoing desert with his high-spirited roaring, and his exuberant power enjoys itself in purposeless display. The insect swarms with joyous life in the sunbeam; and it is assuredly not the cry of desire which we hear in the melodious warbling of the song-bird... The animal works when deprivation is the mainspring of its activity, and it plays when the fullness of its strength is this mainspring, when superabundant life is its own stimulus to activity. (p.207)
This passage can be interpreted in two ways: either in Maslow-like fashion as a statement to the effect that we engage in play or aesthetics when we no longer need to worry about the material necessities of life, or else more narrowly – but to my mind more interestingly – as a kind of definition of what we mean by play. Play is what we do when we do something for pleasure, as a goal in its own right, without any external compulsion or ulterior motive.

I prefer the latter reading, for a variety of reasons. I believe that play is often independent of and even antithetical to material security, and I see little sense in trying to interpret Schiler as a post-materialist avant la lettre (although I admit that the question of how he thinks his ”joyous kingdom of play” will come into being is open. The latter is described near the end of the book as a state in which play and beauty will be universal and create equality. It almost made me start humming about the ”schöner Götterfunken”).

However, even if I opt for the second interpretation, the passage is still problematical. Does it mean that Schiller uses two incompatible definitions of play, on the one had seeing it as a unity of reason and sense which preserves the best of both and makes us fully “human” and on the other seeing it as an activity done for sheer “plenitude of vitality”? The problem is that according to the latter definition, play has no need of reason. As he himself states, animals and even trees can play in that sense. To be sure, on the next page, he tries to steer clear of contradiction by specifying that only the first kind is “aesthetic play” (p.208). But there are still ambiguities left. Note how his examples of “animal play” subvert his earlier bleak portrait of captivity in nature as a relentless struggle for survival. Perhaps nature is not so bad after all?

Finally, let me return to the famous sentence about human beings only being fully human when they play. Interestingly, Schiller defends this proposition by referring to how we think of the gods. The Greeks portrayed their “blessed” gods as freed “from the bonds inseparable from every purpose, every duty, every care", and as making "idleness and indifference the enviable portion of divinity" (p.109). I sympathize a lot with this portrayal of the gods, not because I believe in any, but because of the implicit - and at Schiller's time probably rather daring - assumption that we should all behave like gods. I also fully agree that there is no other way we can think of gods except as playing. That's how Jahve creates the world and the bodhisattvas save it. Think of what Krishna says in Bhagavad Gita.
There is nothing in this universe, O Arjuna! that I am compelled to do; nor anything for Me to attain; yet I am persistently active.
What is this if not playing?

This sentence, by the way, was of great comfort to me - along with some other sentences by Chuang-tzu, Musil and Benjamin - during a period when I was still young and believed that philosophical truth could be measured by the effect a statement had on your mind by making you understand things that would sound proposterous if you spelled them out literally. The idea of God is precious, because it refutes the stupid prejudice that we only work because of material necessity, fear of death or duty. During a conversation I told a friend that one must live as God would have, if he had existed. Because God isn't forced to do anything and has no duties or material worries, and yet he creates.

That, by the way, goes rather well together with the sentence by Musil I was also fond of quoting at the time:

...daß wahrscheinlich auch Gott von seiner Welt am libsten im Conjunctivus potentialis spreche (nic dixerit quispiam – hier könnte einer einwenden...), denn Gott macht die Welt und denkt dabei, es könnte ebensogut anders sein.

Schiller, Friedrich (1967) On the Aesthetic Education of Man in a Series of Letters (ed. & tr. Elizabeth M. Wilkinson & L. A. Willoughby), Oxford: Clarendon Press.


  1. I came across this while researching my own post on the "Aesthetic Education of Man." Excellent analysis. Novel interpretation too. I shall look forward to reading your other posts.

    Erik Beck

    1. Thanks (and sorry about the late reply, I really never had time to touch my blog during the autumn). I just checked your blog as well - very interesting!


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