Enlightenment, Revolution, and Romanticism: The Genesis of Modern German Political Thought, 1790-1800

By Frederick C. Beiser | Go to book overview

4
THE POLITICAL THOUGHT OF FRIEDRICH SCHILLER, 1781-1800

4.1. The Problem of Schiller-s Political Thought

Of all the classical figures of the 1790s none would seem to be closer to the spirit of the French Revolution than Friedrich Schiller ( 1759- 1805). The plays that he wrote as an "angry young man" in the 1780s-- Die Räuber ( 1781), Die Verschwörung des Fiesco ( 1784), Kabale und Liebe ( 1784), and Don Carlos ( 1787)--appear to proclaim the ideals and methods of the Revolution before it happened. They preach the gospel of liberty, equality, and fraternity; they excoriate the privilege, oppression, and intolerance of the ancien régime; and they glorify revolt against the established order. Just as Kant's moral philosophy provided the philosophical foundation for events in France, so Schiller's plays were their dramatic anticipation.

Such parallels make it seem inevitable that, after the outbreak of the Revolution, Schiller would become a radical on a par with Fichte. Strangely, the opposite is the case. After the storming of the Bastille, Schiller was reserved, even suspicious, about the Revolution. Although he struggled to maintain objectivity amid the welter of events and the din of party strife, he gradually became more critical of the Revolution.

Here, then, lies a problem. How could the author of the "revolutionary plays" of the 1780s disapprove of the reality of revolution in the 1790s? Understandably, this question has provoked widespread debate and commentary. Faced with an almost inexplicable discrepancy between Schiller's early plays and later attitude, some scholars believe that it is necessary to distinguish between the early and later Schiller. 1 The source of this discrepancy, it is argued, lay in Schiller's growing conservatism, his disillusionment with politics, and his accommodation to court life in Weimar. Accordingly, Schiller's political development from 1781 to 1800 has been described as a movement from "insurgent radicalism to philosophical quietism." 2

The discrepancy between the early and later Schiller has often been taken as a prime case of the gulf between theory and practice in German political thought in the 1790s. Though happy to proclaim revolution in his plays, Schiller was not willing to countenance it in practice. Supposedly, he became

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