Friedrich Schiller on How Art and the Humanities Respond to the Necessities of Our Minds

“By downsizing what is most dangerous (and most essential) about our education, namely, the deep civic function of the arts and humanities”, wrote Mark Slouka, “we’re well on the way to producing a nation of employees, not citizens.” For many of us, this may seem obvious: the arts are essential in the development of vibrant, informed individuals, and free societies. For others, it will seem misguided. But why exactly does art contribute to a vibrant civic life? And why, these days, do there seem to be so many for whom that idea appears mistaken, and who are intent on reducing whatever funding and attention is still directed in the way of the arts?

The downsizing of the arts and the loss of their prominent role in public life is not a new phenomenon: it is precisely what Friedrich Schiller, German poet, philosopher, and playwright, set about answering in 1795 in his On the Aesthetic Education of Man. The book, first published as Weber die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen, is written as a series of letters to a patron who is concerned with the role that beauty and art play in the functioning of society.

Schiller writes in his second letter of the relationship that art has to free individuals:

Schiller, Slouka and Kronman on Art in an Age of Science, and How Art Responds to the Necessities of Our Minds“Art has to leave the realm of reality, and with proper audacity elevate itself above simple need; for art is a daughter of freedom, responding not to the demands of matter, but to the necessity in our minds.

“To elevate itself above simple need” implies that art must do something for our inner lives, not just our outer ones; that it must speak to our need for self-actualisation, to use Maslow’s term from his hierarchy of needs. Art responds to the “necessity in our minds”, the kind of meaning and fulfilment that we require. And yet, Schiller writes, that was impossible in his time:

“For the present, need prevails, and bends a sunken humanity to its tyrannical yoke. Utility is the great idol of the age, to which all powers are in thrall and all talent must pay homage.”

Need and utility, the key terms of Schiller’s age—and our own, two hundred-odd years later. Mark Slouka quotes an article in the Times describing how our education system is failing “to produce the fluent writers required by the new economy.” “Might there be another reason”, Slouka wonders in response, “for seeking to develop fluent writers? Could clear writing have some relation to clear thinking…?” But that is a mere micro-example of the broader reality that GDP is the structuring metric of our societies, and utility is how everything is forced to serve the need of the economy—never mind that our minds, and our planet, have their own necessities. 

Schiller concluded of his age, and it is equally applicable to ours, that,

“On this crude scale the spiritual virtues of art have no weight and, bereft of all encouragement, it disappears from the tumultuous market of our century. The spirit of philosophical enquiry strips the power of imagination from one province after another; the borders of art shrink as science extends its bounds.”

The “tumultuous market of our century”, and the way that the “borders of art shrink as science extends its bounds.” Who would have thought our own time would be best diagnosed from two hundred years ago? Perhaps former dean of the Yale Law School Anthony Kronman had Schiller’s passage in mind when writing a chapter titled “Spirit in an Age of Science” in his new book Education’s End: How Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. 

There, Kronman writes that “Science is today the greatest authority in our lives—greater than any political or religious ideal, any cultural tradition, any legal system. We depend on science and defer to it as we do to nothing else.” On the other hand, “We do not need the humanities for technology. They cannot satisfy our desire to understand with the same decisive clarity as the natural and social sciences. What, then, do we need them for? What can their purpose and value be?”

Kronman’s answer is Schiller’s answer is Slouka’s answer: we need art and the humanities, and we need to pay close attention to them, because they alone give spirit to our inner lives. Where science forces arational beings into rational boxes, leaving gaping holes, art instead fills the “necessity of our minds.” And what is more important?

I recommend reading through Mark Slouka’s Harper’s Magazine archive, and even more than that, reading his collection Essays from the Nick of Time.  His essay Dehumanized, from which I quoted above, can be found in both.

The edition of Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man that I’ve quoted from is the 2016 Penguin Classics edition translated by Keith Tribe.