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Schiller's moral -philosophical concept of rebellion prior to 1789 applied to his reactions to the French Revolution

Jeffrey Louis High, University of Massachusetts Amherst


The tendency to assume that Schiller's early works follow a pro-revolutionary program and from there to assume Schiller's positive uncritical anticipation of the French Revolution show great disregard for Schiller's highly articulated moral-philosophical concept of rebellion prior to 1789 and accordingly obscures the interpretation of Schiller's specific reactions to the French Revolution. Schiller's first writings on aesthetics and moral philosophy comprise a moral philosophical and teleological system with which Schiller analyzed the moral dynamics of political rebellions. This concept stem from Schiller's categorization of action dominated by either sensual drives or abstract reason and his use of these categories for the critical analysis of rebels and rebellion. These early categories reveal that Schiller's distance from the French Revolution should have come as no surprise, on the contrary, in light of this highly articulated concept of rebellion, anything more than ambivalence would have marked a surprising change of direction. In Chapter I, this system provides the basis for the analysis of Schiller's judgement of his own dramatic portrayal of rebels and rebellion and of those in his historical works. Schiller's portrayals of rebellion up to the execution of Louis XVI will be analyzed in order to demonstrate that his later concept of rebellion corroborates his early moral philosophy and teleological theories, and thus was not notably altered by the French Revolution. Schiller's distance shows no change in his written reactions at any point in the early French Revolution. In Chapter II examples from Schiller's most famous quotes regarding the French Revolution are discussed in context, in order to demonstrate that none of these letters, conversations, and events indicate anything but Schiller's ambivalence toward the French Revolution, in contrast to the ideologically polarized interpretations they have inspired, which have in turn clouded the understanding of Schiller's politics in general. Chapter III analyses Schiller's biography and publications from the years 1788–1796, in which Schiller's poetic and dramatic production decreased and during which Schiller undertook a study of aesthetics, years which coincidentally correlate with the French Revolution and the publication of Kant's Kritik der Urteilskraft (1790). This approximate synchronicity led to the theory that Schiller, disappointed by the political reality and under the dominant influence of Kant, turned his back on politics and sought refuge in the abstract world of philosophy. Since, however, Schiller was not shocked, and since his preoccupation with politics was never documentably stronger than directly after the execution of Louis XVI, it is evident that the disregard of Schiller's early writings is the prerequisite for the misleading canonical periodization of Schiller's concept of rebellion into the phases (1) hope for, (2) disappointment in, (3) flight from political rebellion.

Subject Area

Germanic literature|Philosophy|European history

Recommended Citation

High, Jeffrey Louis, "Schiller's moral -philosophical concept of rebellion prior to 1789 applied to his reactions to the French Revolution" (2001). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3027206.