THIS YEAR WAS THE 200TH anniversary of the death of Friedrich Schiller, after his dearest friend Goethe, the most superb peak in Germany's literary mountain range: dramatist, historian, philosopher, poet celebrated for An die Freude, the "Ode to Joy" that Beethoven set in his Ninth Symphony.

The Germans still treat Schiller as a revered eminence, though their appreciation has acquired some 21st-century kinks. The national tourist board promoted the bicentennial as a veritable Schiller lovefest, replete with the usual high-mindedness--museum exhibitions, theatrical productions, lofty speeches--but also with the odd emission from the dogpile: a play showing the free-spirit Schiller hassled by airport security, a comic book version of his life published by the Schiller National Museum and the Archive of German Literature.

The distinctive quality of Schiller's genius naturally prompts questions about high and low, in art, thought, politics, morality. For Schiller, born in 1759, stands among the greatest figures at the inauguration of the democratic era, when no dream of the future seemed too bold or too splendid to be realized. And Schiller's was one of the boldest minds of the time, espousing the most noble conception of freedom's true meaning for the new order. To ask how congenial that mind appears today, when the civilized world enjoys freedom, equality, and their attendant democratic goods to an unexampled degree, is to search not only Schiller's essence but also our own.

Thomas Carlyle, who literally wrote the book on hero-worship, observes in his Life of Schiller (1825) that future generations around the world will venerate him as the Germans do, "for such nobleness of heart and soul shadowed forth in beautiful imperishable emblems, is a treasure which belongs not to one nation, but to all." That Carlyle's biography remains the best-known life of Schiller available in English indicates a shortfall in the worldwide veneration market. But this neglect only makes one doubly grateful to have Carlyle, whose enthusiasm for moral, intellectual, and literary excellence--the highest nobility, he calls it--makes him Schiller's ideal biographer.

Schiller was born in Marbach, a small town in the Duchy of Württemberg. His parents were humble in station--his father's loyal service to the Duke of Württemberg as army surgeon and adjutant in war earned him a peacetime job as nurseryman--but elevated in spirit. Father and son shared a gravely joyous piety, and young Schiller envisioned a life in the church. The Duke, however, had other plans for him, and strong-armed his parents into sending the 14-year-old boy to a newly founded academy for the sons of officers. There Schiller moped and languished in the study of law, then languished and moped in the study of medicine.

History, drama, poetry--Plutarch, Shakespeare, the young Goethe--ravished him, and he began to write. He concealed this activity from the authorities--"any tendency toward poetry is an offense against the rules of the Institution," he noted--while he pursued his medical studies. In 1778 he completed the first draft of his tragedy Die Rauber (The Robbers), but kept it under wraps until 1780, when his commission as a regimental surgeon came through. No bookseller could be found to publish the play, so Schiller went into debt to publish 800 copies at his own expense. The Duke of Württemberg, a fan of Racine and Corneille, took a dim view of Schiller's Romantic extravagances, told him he would do well to stick to doctoring, and directed him to submit any future works for prior approval.

The determined Schiller went AWOL to see his first play's first production, at the Mannheim National Theater, and the audience's response confirmed him in his renegade vocation. Molten rapture overcame the theatergoers; earnest Teutonic eyes wept hot torrents, or rolled back into their sockets, and smitten ladies needed manly assistance to remain upright. The duke, however, was not smitten, and had Schiller arrested for truancy; when Schiller bolted for the theater again, dire warnings informed him he had better stay put.

The next time Schiller slipped out of the Duke's grasp for good, to Franconia, in 1782, living under an alias for a time. The Mannheim theatrical producer sent him survival funds, a gracious lady who admired his writing took him in, and he set to work with everything he had. Within a year he produced two more tragedies, Die Verschwörung des Fiesco (Fiesco's Conspiracy) and Kabale und Liebe (Intrigue and Love). The plays premiered in Mannheim, audiences loved them, and the post of poet to the theater became his. Esteemed and endowed with a sufficient living, Schiller devoted himself to literature with preternatural diligence, and pursued a life of the utmost seriousness.

The theater does not readily lend itself to such a life--one has to deal with actors--and after the immense success of Don Carlos in 1785, Schiller turned to the more sober practice of writing history. The Spanish prince Don Carlos's 1568 plot against his father King Philip II's brutal imperial rule of Holland (the intrigue was largely Schiller's fabrication) so amused Schiller that he wrote a History of the Revolt of the United Netherlands from Spanish Rule (1788)--tribute to the early stirrings of freedom and enlightenment. He finished only the first volume, but what he had written made an impression sufficient to gain him the chair in history at the University of Jena. Getting tenure did not diminish his productivity. His History of the Thirty Years' War appeared in 1791.

The years from 1790 to 1794 were momentous in other respects. In 1790 Schiller married Charlotte von Lengefeld, imagining that an epoch of unrelenting personal happiness was about to begin; and indeed, he would always be a loving and beloved husband and father. But the next year tribulation struck: an illness, perhaps tuberculosis, perhaps chronic peritonitis, that would plague him for the rest of his life.

Besides work and family, what sustained him through his pain was his friendship with Goethe. Thomas Mann, whose extraordinary essay "On Schiller" was written for the 150th anniversary of Schiller's death, calls this friendship "the great adventure of his life." The two men first met in 1788, and each immediately rubbed the other the wrong way. Schiller wrote to a friend in 1789 that he could not possibly be happy in the regular company of this egotistical cold fish, though he loved Goethe's mind. Goethe reciprocated both the unease and the intellectual admiration; his putting in a good word with the Duke of Weimar was crucial in securing Schiller's professorship. Still, they were not quite friends until, in 1794, Schiller started a literary journal, Die Horen (The Hours) and asked Goethe to be a collaborator.

Collaboration bred sympathy and warmth and deep connection. After Schiller wrote a letter describing Goethe to himself as the perfected union of philosophical seriousness and intuitive understanding, Goethe replied, "I will be happy to share everything about myself with you." Their correspondence ran to over a thousand letters; they joined forces to write a book of satiric epigrams, Xenien; and they presided over perhaps the most distinguished literary magazine ever. As Jena was not far from Goethe's home of Weimar, they saw each other often; and in 1799 Schiller closed that distance by moving to Weimar.

Their friendship was the encounter of two contrasting types of spiritual beauty: Goethe the force of nature, blessedly vigorous in constitution, certain of his creative instincts and uninhibited by the need to explain himself to himself; Schiller the man driven to overcome his own nature, feeling himself baffled as a poet by his need to philosophize and vitiated as a philosopher by his predilection for poetry, requiring every bit of his physical and moral strength to exercise his remarkable gifts and never quite satisfied with the performance.

Schiller did not hesitate to acknowledge Goethe the superior being. Goethe, for his part, loved the incomparable courage with which Schiller confronted the ordeals that writing and living presented to him.

What Schiller accomplished in the time left him was prodigious. Under the influence of Kant, he wrote philosophical essays, most notably Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794) and On Naive and Sentimental Poetry (1795). In 1796 he returned to writing plays, mostly on historical subjects: first the magnificent trilogy Wallenstein (1799), then Maria Stuart (1800), Die Jungfrau von Orleans (The Maid of Orleans, 1801), Die Braut von Messina (The Bride of Messina, 1803), Wilhelm Tell (1804), and Demetrius, left unfinished at his death. He wrote ballads that generations of German schoolchildren learned by heart. With his left hand he translated Macbeth, Carlo Gozzi's Turandot, and Racine's Phedre for the Weimar stage. Two weeks before his death in 1805 he was suggesting emendations to the notes for Goethe's translation of Rameau's Nephew by Diderot, and disparaging the "soft character" of Louis XIV.

Death must have come as a relief, but even so it arrived far too soon.

Conducting Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in Berlin to celebrate the Wall's coming down, Leonard Bernstein ordered a change in Schiller's text for the convulsive final movement: Freude, or joy, was to be sung Freiheit, or freedom. At the time, the two words did seem interchangeable, and Schiller's vision of universal brotherhood appeared a real possibility to some, as it must have to Schiller himself at democracy's dawning.

Karl Moor, the hero of The Robbers, meditates on ancient greatness and contemporary mediocrity, and envisions the new birth of freedom that will dissolve pernicious aristocratic convention and restore nature to its rightful supremacy:

The law never yet made a great man, but freedom will breed a giant, a colossus. . . . Give me an army of fellows like me to command, and I'll turn Germany into a republic that will make Rome and Sparta look like nunneries.

In Intrigue and Love, Luise Miller, a musician's daughter in love with a nobleman, longs for the egalitarian society in which character shall be the measure of nobility:

"Then, mother . . . then, when the barriers of discrimination collapse . . . when all the hateful husks of rank burst from us . . . and human beings are only human beings . . . I shall bring nothing with me but my innocence. Father has so often said, you know, that adornment and splendid titles will be cheap when God comes, and hearts will rise in price. Then I shall be rich. Then tears will be reckoned as triumphs, and beautiful thoughts as ancestors. Then I shall be aristocratic, mother!

Personal fulfillment requires political justice. For Schiller, republican freedom is the ground for every virtue and for every benefit fortune bestows. It is indispensable for the happiness of the good and the great.

In subsequent plays, Schiller works these themes on a larger stage, where the fate of entire peoples is at stake. The outstanding figure in Don Carlos is the marquis of Posa, the prophet of liberalism who implores King Philip to renounce religious absolutism and political tyranny, and to bring the new world order into being: "Give back nobility to humankind . . . Can there be any / Holier duty than equality?" Wallenstein, one of the greatest generals of the Thirty Years' War, imagines Germany free from Swedish predation and all Europe blessed with religious tolerance and peace under the imperial authority he intends to usurp.

Wilhelm Tell assassinates the viperous Hapsburg proconsul who stands in the way of Swiss freedom, and gives life to the words of one of his most eloquent countrymen, who sounds rather like one of our own most eloquent countrymen: "When men oppressed cannot find justice, when / The burden gets to be unbearable--/ Then they with confidence and courage reach / To Heaven and fetch their eternal rights / From where they hang as indestructible / And as inalienable as stars themselves."

There is no writer more rousing in the praise of the republican virtues than Schiller. Yet although his heroes and heroines do have a tendency to declaim into the megaphone, the plays are by no means mere instruments of political uplift. Indeed, with the exception of Wilhelm Tell, they are tragedies in which the noble souls struggling for freedom are overcome. The latent greatness of Karl Moor is twisted by the evil machinations of his brother Franz into a desperate perversity. Rather than lead a republican army, Karl heads a gang of robbers, and the life of crime does not sit well with his exquisite soul. Madness overcomes this innately virtuous man who has blighted his life and can never atone; he causes his father's death, murders the woman he loves, then decides to surrender to the authorities, letting a poor day-laborer claim the bounty on his head.

The noble love of Luise Miller and Ferdinand von Walter is twisted by the evil machinations of his father, President von Walter, into a mortal affliction: duped into believing Luise unfaithful, Ferdinand poisons her and himself. For King Philip II and the grand inquisitor, evil machinations are routine procedure. The dreams of liberation that Posa and Carlos entertain are crushed by the baneful conjunction of Machiavellian hunger for power and majesty with religious oppression. Wallenstein, the man who deserves to rule by virtue of his greatness in war and love of peace, is destroyed by the mediocrities who command by virtue of birth alone, and who could never have accomplished what he did.

Written during the revolutionary era, and often set centuries earlier, Schiller's plays reckon the terrible price of freedom--a freedom that many yearned for but never enjoyed, and that was not a secure possession in Schiller's own time. Schiller's heroic souls trying to break free from the stifling aristocratic order are not equal to the evildoers who wield power under an ancient regime. Conventional nobility knows just where to insert the knife into natural nobility.

The perfectly named Wurm, minion to President von Walter in Intrigue and Love, sums up the plight of ethereal liberalism as he instructs his master how best to separate Ferdinand from the unsuitable Luise: "What good would fanciful dreams about greatness of soul and personal nobility be anyway at a court where the greatest wisdom is that of being great and small in proper tempo and in a skillful way?"

Conventional nobility in Schiller's world comes armed with Machiavellian intelligence, which loves power and privilege, and which knows what it must do to keep them. Natural nobility is the dreamy child of Rousseau-style sentiment, which reveres the primacy of love, beginning with the erotic and the familial, then expanding to embrace one's nation, and eventually all humanity. The Machiavellian is superior to the disciple of Rousseau in cunning and strength, inferior in the moral essentials. Schiller tends to present the two in stark, even lurid, contrast.

But his most complicated moral portraits disclose the need even of the power-loving for a finer love, and register the pathos of their failure to sustain the requisite purity of heart. King Philip is aflame with admiration for Posa, the real man and true friend he prays God to send him, but he orders Posa's death just the same. Queen Elizabeth in Mary Stuart wants Leicester to love her more than he does Mary, but in the end forces him to be complicit in Mary's execution, and thereby provokes him to leave England. As terrible as the spectacle of innocence broken is that of corrupt power longing for innocence, and unable to recover it from the ruins of one's soul.

Still, Schiller's heart bleeds not nearly so much for morally ambivalent rulers--however painful their turmoil--as for the ordinary people who must endure their overlords' destructive whims. The Thirty Years' War examines the difference between what princes are willing to expend their subjects' lives for, and what those subjects think they are killing and dying for: Schiller declares that the greatest war of religion, between Catholic and Protestant, was in fact fought principally for the usual worldly ends, though most of the participants failed to realize it.

That faith can so easily be turned into an instrument of ambitious violence is perhaps the most damning indictment of religion there is. Schiller rails at this unholy folly after the Enlightenment fashion of Voltaire and Diderot, though his consternation is a far cry from their clever sneering. The 1631 massacre at Magdeburg, in which some 30,000 civilians were butchered, shows holy wars for what they are: "Here commenced a scene of horrors for which history has no language, poetry no pen. Neither innocent childhood, nor helpless old age; neither youth, sex, rank, nor beauty could disarm the fury of the conquerors. Wives were abused in the arms of their husbands, daughters at the feet of their parents; and the defenseless sex exposed to the double sacrifice of virtue and life. . . . In a single church fifty-three women were found beheaded. The Croats amused themselves with throwing children into the flames; Pappenheim's Walloons with stabbing infants at the mother's breast."

It happened to be the Catholic forces that did these things on this particular occasion, in the name of Christ; but to Schiller it really does not matter. Both sides committed similar atrocities, and--although Schiller does honor the comparative decency of certain generals, most notably King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden--both are condemned.

From this descent into unreason, however, a more rational political order emerged: " . . . [O]ut of this fearful war Europe came forth free and independent. In it she first learned to recognize herself as a community of nations; and this intercommunion of states, which originated in the Thirty Years' War, may alone be sufficient to reconcile the philosopher to its horrors." The "general sympathy" among nations that the war indirectly encouraged has kept the peace ever since, Schiller exults--somehow overlooking the general conflagration ignited by Louis XIV and, of course, unaware (as he was writing in 1791) that Napoleon was just coming into his full growth.

Yet surely he is correct in discerning a relative tolerance and peaceableness, however misshapen and incomplete, in Europe after the Thirty Years' War. And that led him to nurse hopes for the unexampled future in which, as he writes in the "Ode to Joy," Alle Menschen werden Bruder--all men become brothers.

Schiller believed that if that future was to be realized, its spiritual life would have to be based on some more stable foundation than the old-time religion. He longed for a democratic age in which experience of the highest things was readily available, and he thought aesthetic rapture, of a profoundly reasonable sort, the surest means of such transcendence--the safest means as well, for he did not suppose men would slaughter each other over poems or pictures.

In "On the Pathetic" (1703), Schiller rhapsodizes on poetry's capacity to transform one's entire being, to irradiate one with the full sense of possibilities, and to steel one's resolve to make the best of those possibilities real. "Poetry can come to be for the human being what love is for the hero," he wrote. "It can neither counsel him nor join him in battle nor otherwise do any work for him, but it can develop him into a hero, call him to action, and equip him with the strength to be everything he ought to be."

Certainly that is what it did for Schiller. In Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, he dilates eloquently on art and beauty as indispensable to human happiness and to the formation of "what is noblest in our moral nature." At a time when political practicality--"the construction of true political freedom"--preoccupies thinkers and seems to leave no room for thoughts about art, Schiller insists that this very democratic temper, which increases the emphasis on utility and quashes imagination, makes art all the more essential. Poetry is greater, even than philosophy, the philosopher-poet declares, for only art can make man whole, harmonizing his sensual and rational natures.

"We know that it is precisely play and play alone, which of all man's states and conditions makes him whole and unfolds both sides of his nature at once," says Schiller. True freedom is conditional upon this wholeness; it "arises only when man is a complete being." The same word freedom describes both the great political virtue and the great moral virtue; but the political freedom that claims every man's every thought is only the means to moral freedom, which is the highest end of democratic politics. Schiller hopes to found a republic of whole men and women, noble and beautiful souls. Ideally, he writes in his closing passage, aesthetic rapture is available to all, and makes each the equal of every other; in reality, he goes on, it is the preserve of those who have cultivated the noblest strain in themselves.

In his emphasis on the meaning of nobility for democratic times, Schiller joins the three supreme artists of the republican era: Mozart, Goethe, and Beethoven. When the artificial hierarchy that defined aristocratic society has crumbled, the natural distinctions among men remain, and a new order of rank emerges, based on moral quality. Mozart's greatest operas expose the mores of the old regime as a patchwork of vanity and injustice, show the delusional self-regard of hereditary nobility fading to black, and assert the moral supremacy of nature as truly noble hearts know it.

In Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, 1795), the hero is an ordinary man who wants to live a noble life but doesn't really know how. Receiving invaluable guidance from a secret brotherhood, he ends up far removed from his youthful fantasies, but finds genuine nobility in love, work, and fraternity.

With the Razumovsky quartets (1806), Beethoven breaks from the aristocratic tradition of decorous sentiment decorously expressed, and introduces into chamber music the nobility of democratic fellow-feeling, torrential and overwhelming. In his only opera, Fidelio (1805), he honors the indomitable love of Leonore for her husband, Florestan, a political prisoner whom she frees from the dungeon, along with others suffering unjustly. And in the Ninth Symphony (1824), from the launching pad of the contented bourgeois order, he hurtles in the direction of the ultimate mysteries, with Schiller's assistance.

It was during the earliest days of the democratic age that these voices rang out, announcing "the universal eligibility to be noble," in the phrase of that spiritual aristocrat, Augie March. Schiller was of that company--living a noble life, and wanting nobility for as many men as possible. There is no voice like his today.

Two magnificent achievements stand out from the early democratic days. The first is the American founding, which established, on modest but solid grounds, a regime of the rarest decency; security--a government and social fabric made to last--was the watchword of the authors of the Federalist Papers, and it remains the best thing we have. The second magnificent achievement is the art and thought of Friedrich Schiller and those few other men of like quality. They remind us of the nobility that our freedom makes possible, and ask us to think hard about the way we live now, and about the way we don't live now.

Algis Valiunas is a writer in Florida.

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