On the Aesthetic Education of Man

Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen in einer Reihe von Briefen (1795) On the Aesthetic Education of Man In a Series of Letters

[Please note that the German word ‘Mensch’ is not gender-specific, and so the title could also be translated as ‘On the Aesthetic Education of the Human Being in a Series of Letters’].

Schiller considered these twenty-seven letters to be the most important work he ever produced (see the English translation by Wilkinson and Willoughby, p. cxcvi). It is his attempt to reinstate feeling and emotion into the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant, by means of art and aesthetics. Schiller adapts the concepts of disinterested contemplation and aesthetic autonomy which he found in Kant’s Kritik der Urteilskraft; Critique of Judgement (1790), and uses them for explicitly moral purposes.

The letters present aesthetic education as the means to help humanity to attain political freedom. Schiller regards human nature as divided between body (sensual matter) and mind (rational, moral, ideal form). For Schiller, only art has the capacity to reconcile both these opposing aspects of human nature.

The 1st letter says that art is connected to the best part of human happiness and the moral nature of human beings.

The 2nd letter declares political freedom to be the most perfect of all human endeavours, and asserts that only through beauty can humanity make its way to freedom.

The 3rd letter argues that reason, in its attempts to improve humanity, should never ignore humanity’s natural state.

The 4th letter says that a precondition for people to choose true freedom is wholeness of character (Totalität des Charakters).

The 5th letter points out that Enlightenment and culture do not necessarily make people better; often, they make people worse.

The 6th letter states that modern industry has led to the fragmentary specialization of human beings; this one-sidedness leads people into error.

The 7th letter asserts the need to balance the elemental forces in human beings.

The 8th letter quotes Kant’s dictum ‘sapere aude’ (dare to know), from Kant’s essay Was ist Aufklärung; What is Enlightenment? (1784). But the letter concludes that the way to the head is through the heart, and so the most urgent need of the time is to develop man’s capacity for feeling.

The 9th letter advises artists to resist the corruption of their age by directing their gaze towards higher moral principles, in order to improve their audience’s taste.

The 10th letter claims that empirical argument is insufficient if it is not complemented by abstract thought.

The 11th letter distinguishes between person and condition (Zustand); the former is unchanging and the latter is constantly changing.

The 12th letter introduces, and differentiates between the sensuous drive (‘der sinnliche Trieb’), which drives human beings towards sensual, material existence and the form drive (‘der Formtrieb’), which drives them towards rational, absolute existence. The sensuous drive is linked to feeling and the moment and is constantly changing; the form drive is rational and essentially unchanging.

The 13th letter states that the task of culture is to set limits to each of these drives, by developing the capacities of both reason and feeling.

The 14th letter introduces the play drive (der Spieltrieb), which mediates between the sensuous drive and the form drive.

The 15th letter defines beauty as living form (‘lebende Gestalt’), i.e. that which combines both material life and ideal form; ‘form’ here is understood in the sense of abstract, rational, ideal existence. In paragraph 9 there is the key sentence: ‘er [der Mensch] ist nur da ganz Mensch, wo er spielt’; ‘a person is only ever fully a human being when he [or she] is playing’.


The 16th and 17th letters discuss two different types of beauty: melting beauty and energizing beauty.

The 18th letter describes beauty’s function which is to harmonise the spirit and the senses by transporting human beings into a ‘middle state’ (‘einen mittleren Zustand’); this idea recurs in the 20th and 23rd letters.

The 19th letter concludes that human nature is opposed of two drives which are fundamentally opposed; a person is only free when both drives simultaneously and in concert with each other.

The 20th letter uses the key image of balanced scales (in paragraph 3): the effects of the sensual drive must be simultaneously preserved and cancelled out; this is achieved by the aesthetic disposition which acts as a counterweight. There is also a footnote which states that aesthetic education aims at the development of all human powers in the greatest possible harmony.

The 21st letter argues (in paragraph 5) that in practice man loses his predisposition for humanity with every definite condition into which he comes (sensuous or rational), and his humanity must be newly restored to him every time he wants to change between definite conditions – by means of the aesthetic life.

The 22nd letter presents the aesthetic state as one which contains all human potentialities within it. It is valuable because it is unbiased: it does not favour one human manifestation over another. True aesthetic experience is combines freedom, vigour and impartiality.

The 23rd letter says that the aesthetic state provides a middle state, one which enables the human psyche to achieve a measure of autonomy, and thus to escape over-determination by both the sensual and rational sides of its nature.

The 24th letter discusses the state of man when he is ruled by material desires. Paragraph 2 quotes from Goethe’s drama of civilization Iphigenia auf Tauris; Iphigenie in Tauris. Paragraph 5 points out that human reason can mistake its object and apply itself solely to matter. In this way it becomes acquisitive, instrumental and destructive (this idea was later developed by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment).

The 25th letter claims that the experience of beauty can combine both passivity and activity, a sense of matter and infinity. Beauty alone can make the senses and reason seem compatible.

The 26th letter points out that one of the main characteristics of human civilization is to enjoy semblance (Schein) and play (Spiel). Paragraphs 5, 11, 13 and 14 make the distinction between semblance, which is honest, and deception, which is false.

The 27th letter says that beauty makes us sociable because it makes us forget our limitations, reminding us that we are a part of the whole. This letter introduces the idea of the aesthetic state in which all citizens have equal rights.

English Translation (Recommended)

Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man In a Series of Letters, English and German Facing, ed. and trans. with intro., commentary and glossary by Elizabeth M. Wilkinson and L. A. Willoughby [1967] (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), ISBN 978-0-19-815786-1

Further Reading

Frederick Beiser, Schiller as Philosopher: A Re-Examination (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)

Jerome Carroll, Steve Giles and Maike Oergel (eds.), Aesthetics and Modernity from Schiller to the Frankfurt School (Oxford and Bern: Peter Lang, 2012)

Terry Eagleton, ‘Schiller and Hegemony’, in Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), pp. 102-19

Jonathan M. Hess, Reconstituting the Body Politic: Enlightenment, Public Culture and the Invention of Aesthetic Autonomy (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1999), pp. 78-82

T. M. Holmes, ‘Property and Politics in Schiller’s Theory of Aesthetic Education’, Oxford German Studies 11 (1980), 27-39

Paul E. Kerry, ‘Schiller’s Political Ideas: Who Cares?’, in Who Is This Schiller Now? Essays on His Reception and Significance, ed. by Jeffrey High, Nicholas Martin, Norbert Oellers (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2011), pp. 438-50

Todd Curtis Kontje, Constructing Reality: A Rhetorical Analysis of Friedrich Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (New York: Peter Lang, 1987)

María del Rosario Acosta López, ‘“Making Other People’s Feelings Our Own”: From the Aesthetic to the Political in Schiller’s Aesthetic Letters’, in Who Is This Schiller Now? Essays on His Reception and Significance, ed. by Jeffrey High, Nicholas Martin and Norbert Oellers (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2011), pp. 187-201

Nicholas Martin, Nietzsche and Schiller: Untimely Aesthetics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996)

John A. McCarthy, ‘Energy and Schiller’s Aesthetics from the “Philosophical” to the Aesthetic Letters’, in Who Is This Schiller Now? Essays on His Reception and Significance, ed. by Jeffrey High, Nicholas Martin and Norbert Oellers (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2011), pp. 165-86

David V. Pugh, ‘How Enlightened are Schiller’s Aesthetics?’, in Impure Reason: Dialectic of Enlightenment in Germany, ed. by W. Daniel Wilson and Robert C. Holub (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1993), pp. 166-84

David Pugh, The Dialectic of Love: Platonism in Schiller’s Aesthetics (Montreal and London: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996)

T. J. Reed, ‘Kant and Schiller: The Delights and Dangers of Complexity’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 75:2 (2006), 65-81

Lesley Sharpe, Schiller’s Aesthetic Essays: Two Centuries of Criticism (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1995)

Wilfried van der Will, ‘Proto-Literary Texts and the Otherness of Art: On Schiller’s Aesthetic Letters, his Preface to Die Braut von Messina, and Nietzsche’s Die Geburt der Tragödie’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 80:2-3 (2011), 90-106