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Arts & Letters

Creating the Beautiful Society

Francis Akpata explains how Schiller saw art as a path to utopia.

The Athenian soldier and statesman Themistocles (523-458 BC) once said, “I cannot fiddle but I can build a great state out of a little city.” How do we build, better than a great state, a beautiful society?

When one hears the term ‘beautiful society’ it may conjure images of a well-designed city, highly educated people dressed in elegant garments, or somewhere people glamorously affirm their higher social status. This was not, however, the vision of the German Romantic philosopher Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805). Friedrich Schiller’s beautiful society is one where humanity has progressed from a state where people are primarily motivated by their natural needs – he calls this the sensuous will – to a higher state where their primary incentive is the moral will – that is, where citizens behave in a harmonious, unified manner out of a natural inclination. More specifically, in the beautiful society, people no longer experience the conflict between the sensuous will and the moral will. The absence of this conflict makes them stand apart from people in other societies because they now possess what Schiller describes as a ‘beautiful soul’. And they are able to develop beautiful souls by being exposed to great works of art, since great art sets them free from their sensuous wills and enables them to embrace the rational and moral will.

An Architectural Fantasy
An Architectural Fantasy by Dirck van Delen, 1634

The Artist Recreation of Character

This was a new idea about the function of art. Schiller’s predecessor Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) described art very differently, arguing that a beautiful work of art produces pleasure in a disinterested observer. Kant argued that a great work of art objectively stimulates this pleasurable feeling. That is to say, for us to see that an object is beautiful is not just to give in to our personal inclination; rather, the pleasure we feel is something anyone will experience if they approach the work of art in the right fashion.

If like Kant we come to see art primarily as a source of pleasure, we need to ask, “What’s so special about that? How do we distinguish art from football, cricket, bird-watching or eating a good meal? Why is art different from other pleasurable endeavours? To put it bluntly, why should we care about art?”

Schiller’s answer is that continual exposure to art has a significant effect on the individual. It brings about a balance between our two fundamental drives – between our desire for sensation and our desire to reason as manifest in the moral will. Anyone able to achieve this harmonious balance is a beautiful person. A beautiful person has developed the capacity both to act morally and to enjoy the pleasures the world has to offer. This internal equilibrium sets them free because they are not dominated either by strife or by puritanical moral rectitude. According to Schiller, a person who has achieved this balance is complete. So Schiller had moved away from Kant’s experiential account of beauty to a functional one, although he had chosen a function we would not normally associate with art. And unlike Kant, who in his Critique of Judgement (1790) concentrated on the beauty of natural objects, Schiller was more interested in the inner beauty of the human soul.

Schiller recommended this exposure to the arts in his most substantial philosophical work, Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794), where it is part of a developed political theory. In every person there is a ratio of the sensuous will to the moral/rational will, and it is detrimental for either will to dominate the psyche. Yet governments seem either to tolerate or enhance this imbalance. To Schiller, most societies do not have true political and economic freedom, and this absence of true freedom prevents people developing the rational/moral will. Political regimes either directly or indirectly encourage their citizens to live in an overly sensuous manner that corrupts their moral growth. Exposure to aesthetic experience brings the balance about. Exposure to art brings about the good person because during our artistic experience we are shielded from the deleterious pressures of society. When we look at a painting or listen to music, for example, we go through a period of non-practical engagement with the world, and in this way can improve the equilibrium of our character.

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) reinforced this view, arguing that the aesthetic experience is one way we can achieve a hiatus from the harsh realities of existence. Every day we struggle and compete, we experience loss and have to live with dissatisfaction. Schopenhauer believed that when we read a poem or contemplate a wonderful painting we experience a break from the continual strife which dominates life.

Why Art Works Work

Schiller stressed that we are not merely physical objects, nor animals whose primary objective is survival. Rather, we are self-conscious beings who describe ourselves through our experiences, and we can express self-consciousness only by achieving some balance among the varied multitude of experiences with which our environments confront us. As human beings we function by adopting ideals, which to different degrees focus the drives to sense or to reason. The expressions of different ideals may oppose each other. Some ideals might demand absolute practicality, whilst others demand contemplation. We are able to achieve a good sense of self only by attaining a sense of harmony. As Schiller wrote, we aim to “bring harmony to the variety of appearances and to affirm [our] person amid all the changes of [our] condition.” I would add that human beings have the unique ability to imagine or visualise: we look at the world around us and contemplate how to bring new things into existence. Art encourages that ability: the poet achieves it using words, the director through film, and the sculptor by bringing figures to life from stone. This ability to imagine, facilitated by art, is beneficial to society. Through art, the artist expresses better ways that humanity can exist. A reflection on art leads to an internal discussion through which we re-examine our society and its values. After watching Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, we are compelled to reconsider the way in which we typecast people. When we read Wilfred Owen’s poetry, we sympathise with soldiers and the victims of war. Bob Marley’s music encourages us to disregard our differences and unite. During an artistic experience, we are able to utilise the breadth of our imaginative capacity. The experience of a work of art (especially I think in fiction or drama) brings to life the notion that other people are as real as ourselves, and so we are able to better identify with other individuals. Works of art enable us to see the world from the perspective of others. The world no longer revolves around us: we can hold a balance between achieving our own goals, acknowledging the struggles of others, and contributing to society.

Because neither fundamental human drive – to the senses or to reason – dominates the beautiful person, he or she is self-determining. He or she can decide when to strive for (say) wealth, and when to be virtuous. It is art that enables anyone to achieve this control. During an artistic experience we change our response to things in the world. Therefore it is the job of the artist to present improving ideas in a manner attractive to the perceiver who, in turn, must develop sensitivity to what is placed before them. When we read a well-written novel or poem, or really look carefully at some beautiful painting or sculpture, it may open us towards new and positive social ideals, which we will recognise and internalise.

Schiller’s goal in encouraging exposure to art was always the aesthetic state that can lead to the formation of the beautiful society. The beautiful society is a place where people are moved by love, virtue, benevolence, honour and chivalry. He said the “aesthetic state makes society possible because it satisfies the will of all through the nature of the individual”. Through exposure to art, individuals are no longer simply self-regarding; they become capable of internalising other people’s realities. Schiller also thought that we must achieve an aesthetic state before we can achieve a moral state. It is the imaginative leaps taken in the aesthetic state that allow us to reach the freedom of the moral state. People are free in the moral state because their wills are dominated neither by their sense nor by mere arid calculation. A whole society of such people would strive for social improvement.

If Schiller is correct both in his goals and in the means to them, then the way forward is clear. To achieve the beautiful society we need to recognise the importance of our artistic experience. We must not be obsessed solely with mundane or political or economic issues. Instead we must achieve a balance between our desire to succeed in worldly affairs and the desire to engage with works of art that enables us to develop beautiful souls.

© Francis Akpata 2018

Francis Akpata is Chief Executive Officer of Majlis Energy. He studied philosophy and theology at King’s College London.

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