A review of Schiller, Hegel, and Marx: State, Society, and the Aesthetic Ideal of Ancient Greece, by Philip J. Kain
To see oneself as ugly is ugly. But it makes one dream of beauty-latent, future, but usually one's own. Philip J. Kain addresses the tradition of modern thought which reflects on modernity's ugliness in the hope of ennobling it. He does so to settle the vexed quarrel among students of Marx about the fundamental unity of his thought.
This argument hangs on scrupulous weighting of textual hints which I do not presume to judge. But Kain surely makes a strong commonsense case that Marx shifted his views, but that the shift, occurring gradually and never wholly consistently, still overlies a deeper level of "humanistic" consistency which concerns itself with human self-alienation.
Kain comes to understand Marx by comparing favorably his treatment of the problem of human fragmentation in modernity with that of his predecessors Schiller and Hegel. Schiller begins by turning nostalgically to the fabled wholeness of ancient Greece as a standard for modernity. Through a training in beauty, "aesthetic education," which will make men, now fragmented by their social functions, whole again, Schiller hopes to re-create a kind of fulfillment that science and the division of labor have destroyed. Yet he fails to move from nostalgia to practical policy because, according to Kain, he does not see how to make modern factory work beautiful or a whole man of a worker. Hence the "aesthetic state," which originally seemed to be a political state inhabited by the aesthetically educated, becomes at the end more a state of mind for an elite few than a social possibility.
Hegel, who in his youth had followed Schiller's glorification of Greece and therefore denigrated Christianity's negation of nature and its attempted transcendence of it, later reversed his views. He came to see in alienation a potentially positive force that, at the level of philosophy, could restore harmony to the relation of man and world that had, at the level of nature, been possible for the naive Greeks. That is, he saw the disenchantment of the world, the death of the Greek gods, as a sad but necessary step in human progress. This meant that the ideal of individual wholeness (of labor as playful self-expression, for example) could not be realized directly but would have to be established analogically, either in the philosopher's recognition that the apparently given and necessary was itself a product of his human freedom, or, for most of the rest of us, in the acceptance of the legitimate and just distribution of tasks in an order where each achieves full recognition as a citizen.
Like the young Hegel, the young Marx also followed Schiller in seeking, rather literal-mindedly, to restore man to wholeness by making work meaningful self-expression. As the development of the species is, under Communism, no longer distorted by need, and labor "gives rise to . . . the continuing actualization of the species, then the individual, far from finding himself either subordinate to this process or lost in it, will experience in it his own realization and development" (p. 90). Less abstractly, this seems to mean that (a) work will be pleasure because no one will be tied to one job and/or (b) the individual producer will not feel his individual work to be meaningless because, like the bee in the hive, he will not fundamentally understand it as his work in particular.
But the later Marx, in discarding the concept of "species-being" (i.e., the hope that man can become that hive-creature who lives for the social whole in all his life), also discards the hope that man can achieve the state of playful contemplation while on the job. Instead, he substitutes the possibilities of leisure-time cultivation as a way of ennobling all life, including, as much as possible, a labor already greatly improved by Communism. For Kain, Marx thus comes off best. He puts forward as practical a solution as possible, neither relapsing, like Schiller, into elitism and dreaming; nor offering, like Hegel, an essentially verbal solution wherein the facts of alienated, meaningless labor remain, but the laborers are told a story to legitimize them.
Crudely, this is Kain's account. To me, his book's considerable interest appears not when one reflects on this account directly nor in its relevance to the struggle for the possession of Marx's intellectual bones-a quarrel which, however high the stakes, always has its pedantic and otherwise unedifying sides. Rather, his book is most interesting as a treatment of the fundamental problem of the project of ennobling liberalism. Seen in this way, Schiller turns out to be more interesting than Marx.
Before one can judge solutions, one should have clarity about the problem. For Kain, there is one problem all three thinkers face: "human fragmentation"; its solution is to be an exercise in "humanistic" thought. Yet if we return to the originator of this entire line of thought, we can see how drastically the formulation of the problem has shifted between Schiller and Marx. Rousseau's demonstration that the pursuit of happiness creates misery established a dilemma for defenders of human freedom. Here begin the attempts to show that men can be free of despotic political and religious institutions and traditions without enslaving themselves to their own desires, without making a hell for themselves out of their artificially created desires and their consequent hypocrisies and dependencies.
It is in this context that Kant's discovery of man's freedom as a rational being and his complex effort to achieve an historical reconciliation with man's desirous nature gains political meaning. For Schiller, Kant, whether properly understood or not, was the great guide, temptation, and stumbling block. Schiller was enormously attracted by Kant's prospect of a free yet noble being who, on the basis of enlightened reason, might match the dignity of a naive Greek, secure in his ensouled world. He was nonetheless acutely aware that the triumph of reason over the desires was precisely a triumph of dignity and not of grace, of sublimity and not of beauty, because it was, in some measure, tyrannical. Laocooen's dignity comes from the sublime strain put on him as he exercises his moral freedom in the teeth of his natural desire to submit to his agony. The revolt of nature, of the desires, is at every moment possible. Even worse than dire revolt is the sly seduction whereby the desirers, like the disreputable adulterers of Lei Liaisons Dangereuses, begin to philosophize and convince man that he is following the dictates of unbiased reason when he is really, unknowingly, indulging in the basest desires. Some form is needed to overcome this perpetual overcoming, to bring harmony out of the teeth-gritting domination of the desire by reason.
The political model to which all implicitly and explicitly refer and for which, it can be argued, all are seeking an improved substitute, is the "general will." That there is something elusive and even fictitious about it would be hard to deny. If it works it harmonizes individual interests by transcending them. Yet, in writing Letters on Aesthetic Education, Schiller had directly before his eyes an example of regime which thought that it embodied the general will: the Reign of Terror in revolutionary France. For Schiller, the Jacobins did not primarily pose the question of overcoming "human fragmentation" but, rather more fundamentally, the very possibility of rational liberty itself. We have left behind the "savage" who "despises Art and recognizes Nature as his sovereign mistress," but now, instead of cultured men, we find the "barbarian" who "derides and dishonors Nature, but-more contemptibly than the savage-he continues frequently to become the slave of his slave." Indeed, ". . . there seems to be a physical possibility of setting Law upon the throne, of honoring Man at last as an end in himself and making true freedom the basis of political association. Vain hope! The moral possibility is wanting, and the favorable moment finds an apathetic generation" (On the Aesthetic Education of Man, pp. 34-35).
If the general will is no guarantee against the revolt of nature, if the "sea-green incorruptible" and his ilk are actually the slaves of the vengeful desires they think they have enslaved to the general will, then the form we seek cannot be a rational one put upon the rebellious desires; it must become intrinsic to the desires. That is then aesthetic education: the training of the desires to desire the moral, hence the overcoming of dignity and the sublime in favor once more of grace and beauty.
That this proposal is breathtaking in its grandeur and subject to innumerable devastating criticisms is probably self-evident. Certainly it was plain enough to Schiller so that, as Kain notes, he seems as tentative about suggesting it as a practical solution as his conception itself is bold. To demand as much of reason as Kant does is already perhaps more than reasonable; to demand it of the desires, as Schiller does, is staggering. But Kain's criticism, that factory labor could not be made aesthetic, seems to me not one of the decisive ones, for in presupposing that of course there must be factories, producing with great efficiency consumer goods for the markets, he presupposes the givenness of precisely the uneducated desires, caught up in the throes of competitive amour propre. It is a criticism which suggests, in fact, precisely the failure to distinguish between what Schiller and Marx thought the problem was.
Schiller, faced with what seemed to be the impossibility of human liberty that was not enslaved, a la Locke or Madison, to the primitive appetites, sought, by direct and perhaps fantastic means, to ennoble, form, restrain, and make beautiful the appetites themselves. Hegel, by contrast, seems to have sought to universalize the general will in a state which would no longer be located in an out-of-the-way backwater like Corsica where the news of culture had not yet penetrated and where a Legislator could impose virtuous myths on the simplicity of the folk. Instead, after ingesting and digesting the poisonous fruits of culture, something like the general will could be established universally and perhaps unmythically. In undertaking this project, the political character of the problem, extremely and directly important for Schiller, is, no doubt deliberately, submerged. That is, after Hegel, it appears possible to dream of a human perfection in which all contradictions are overcome; no strain, no morality is required, either in reason or the appetites; no conflict need appear; and even death can be overcome, if not through medical technology then through "actualization" of our species-being.
This seems to be Marx's dream, and he offers us practical remedies (Communism, relatively meaningful labor, and the fruits of technology) to reach it. But, if by the overcoming of human fragmentation Schiller meant the training of the passions to an exquisite standard of moral restraint, what does Marx mean? For Marx the problem is that human beings cannot develop fully under capitalism. Of course, the standard for their development cannot be "nature." What is given, for Marx, are human "needs." As Kain says, "Human need, for Marx, is an indication of human nature, the species essence" (p. 82). But when the deformation of the struggle for existence is overcome by Communism, human perfection can be achieved, not by a final satisfaction of "needs" but by the free creation of ever-newer "needs." We have, it seems, moved 180 degrees from the origins in Rousseau. Human perfection does not come from restraint of the desires by Kantian reason or the general will or aesthetic education, but in their free development and infinite exfoliation. Marx has returned to the Hobbesian appetites with the news that the idealist Lent is over, now that capitalism has disappeared, and that they may therefore let themselves go, freer and more ardent than before.
Marx on Desire
Who can avoid thinking here of Callicles, in Plato's Gorgias, who asserted that natural justice and nobility is to allow one's desires "to wax to the uttermost" and to satisfy all one's longings, but who was ashamed to discover that he is committed to a life of perpetual itching and scratching, the life of a "catamite," as Jowett quaintly translates it? But Marx is not ashamed. It is not that his new "needs" will be nobler ones. When the standard for man is the having and satisfying of desires, intensity and quantity are the only valid measures; we need only refer to Freud's astringent estimations of the pleasures of art as a weak substitute for sex or drugs to disabuse ourselves of lingering high-mindedness in this regard. Rather it is that where Callicles is prephilosophical, Marx has philosophy to protect him from shame.
That is, Marx has it both ways. Both Marx and classical liberalism promise not only consumer goods but newer refinements on desire and satisfaction. And both Marx and the idealists promise us nobility. Only Marx promises us both. And that is the issue. It is of course true that, while the mad Fourier promised that under socialism the seas would run with lemonade and while Marx thus promises us new and tastier drinks, it is actually capitalism which, in fact, provides us with Diet Coke with new Nutra Sweet. And true, Adam Wazyk, a poet under Communism, writes, "They drink sea water,/ crying:/'lemonade!'/returning home secretly to vomit," but it is the vulgarity of Marx's promise that matters here more than its unfulfillment.
It is, of course, the common characteristic of modern utopianism that it confounds the high and the low. It is by now a cliché that you can tell you have met the Last Man when he introduces himself as Zarathustra. When we look at the problem of human fragmentation which Marx intends to solve, we see the city of pigs devising its own Olympus; not unnaturally it turns out to be Hog Heaven (only with obligatory leisure togas). One comes to long for the relative moderation of a John Stuart Mill, who merely wanted to turn the average Englishman into Pericles.
The "humanism" which seeks to trump Adam Smith's ace is a very different thing from the humanism of aesthetic education. The former is subject to the question "Why bother?" when capitalism works better than Marx ever imagined at the creation and satisfaction of desires. It is also subject to the even more scathing "What do you want, egg in your beer?" when it laments that, due to capitalism, men cannot enjoy (cf. Norman O. Brown or Herbert Marcuse) perpetual orgasm. Both in its Hobbesian vulgarity as in its longings for the infinite, it has the formlessness of a lingering dream. In that, it is precisely not "humanistic," not about human beings, but about the people of fantasy and nightmare.
Of course, Schiller's humanism has its problems. It is probable that the effort to ennoble liberalism, to reconcile it with antiquity, to cut it off from its vulgar roots in selfishness and trade, is fundamentally Utopian. Historically, the effort to raise a nation on Schillerian principles of culture and uplift ended in the most spectacular and decisive failure possible. And long before the Nazis, perceptive critics like Nietzsche noted the strain, the pathos, the falsity of tone, of a culture that had sought to overcome strain and insincerity. But it may be said that, at its best, it created a kind of human being who was capable of a high degree of moral responsibility; that it originated in an awareness of the dangers of Utopian politics and sought manfully to restrain them; and that therefore, in its manifestly Utopian character, the Schillerian project of aesthetic education remains one of the best entries into the question of the possibility of an ennobled liberalism. Finally, one should observe that Schiller saw before himself a real, not manifestly Utopian, problem: Could men be free without being utterly vile? He did not come to the problem of "human fragmentation" without a political context; he did not seek to have everything at once. His teaching is that of self-restraint by the otherwise unrestrainable. He did not seek to put the maraschino cherry of beauty on the hot fudge sundae of consumerist bliss. That he left to others.