Heinrich Heine on Art, Morality and Ideas

Schiller versus Goethe

From "The Romantic School", 1835
Posted by permission of the translator.

"...there was a craze for comparing the productions of the two poets, and opinions were divided. The Schillerians touted the moral splendor of a Max Piccolomini, a Thekla, a Marquis Posa and other Schillerian heroes of the stage, while on the other hand, they declared the Goethian roles, a Philine, a Gretchen, a Klärchen and similar pretty creatures, to be immoral images of woman. The Goethians observed smilingly, that the latter, as well as the Goethian heroes, were hardly to be represented as moral, that the promotion of morality, that one demanded from Goethe's poetry, were in no way the purpose of Art: for in Art there were no purposes, as in the design of the world itself, where only Man racks his brains over the concepts of "Ends and Means"; Art, like the world, is self-willed, and as the world always remains the same, while Man's conceptions of it incessantly change, so must Art, as well, remain independent from the transitory notions of men; Art must thus remain especially independent from morality, that continually changes on earth, as often as a new religion ascends and pushes the old one aside. In point of fact, since inevitably following the passage of a series of centuries, a new religion comes into vogue, and as it becomes the custom, it lays claim to moral authority: so would every age conduct an inquisition against the artworks of the past, if such artworks should be judged by the metric of current morality. As we have actually experienced, good Christians, who damn the flesh as devilish, have taken offence at the sight of the Greek images of the gods; chaste monks have dressed the antique Venus in a pinafore; up to the most recent times, the naked statues had a ridiculous fig-leaf pasted on; a pious Quaker sacrificed his entire fortune, to buy up the most beautiful mythological paintings of Giulio Romano, and burn them -- truly, for that he deserved to go to Heaven, and there be scourged daily with switches! A religion which, for instance, located God only in matter, and thus found holiness only in the flesh, would be compelled, when it should come into custom, to bring forth a morality, where only those artworks were prized, that glorified the flesh, and where on the other hand, the Christian artworks, that only depict the vanity of the flesh, were to be spurned as immoral. Yes, the artworks, moral in one land, can in the other, where another religion has become the custom, be considered immoral; for example, our pictorial arts arouse horror in a devout Muslim, whereas many arts that count as most innocent in the harems of the Orient, are an abomination to Christians. Since in India the social standing of a dancing girl is not disparaged by custom, the drama Vasantasena, in which the heroine is a mercenary prostitute, is not considered immoral; should one dare to present this piece even once in the Theater Francais, the entire audience would scream about immorality, the same audience, that daily views intrigue-pieces with pleasure, where the heroines are young widows, who at the end are gaily wed, instead of being cremated with their deceased husbands, as Indian morality demands.

In that the Goethians proceed from this point of view, they consider Art as an independent second world, that they place so high, that all human impulses, religion and morality, move below it. I cannot fully respect this view; the Goethians allow themselves to be carried away to the point of proclaiming Art itself as the highest, and turn away from the requirements of that first, real, world, which takes precedence.

Schiller attached himself to that first world far more securely than Goethe, and we must praise him in this regard. He, Friedrich Schiller, was seized by the spirit of his time, it wrestled with him, was conquered by him, it followed him into battle, it carried his banner, and it was the same banner under which men strove with such enthusiasm beyond the Rhine, and for which we are ever ready to shed out best blood. Schiller wrote for the great ideas of Revolution, he destroyed the spiritual Bastille, he raised the temple of freedom, and indeed that very great temple, that should encompass all nations, just like a single community of brethren: he was a cosmopolitan. He began with that hatred against the past, which we see in the Räuber, where he is like a little Titan, who has skipped school, drunk some schnapps, and thrown stones through Jupiter's windows; he concluded with that love of the future, that already blossomed forth in Don Carlos like a forest of flowers, and he himself is that Marquis Posa, simultaneously prophet and soldier, that also fights for that which he prophesies, and under the Spanish cloak, carries the most beautiful heart that ever loved and sorrowed in Germany.

The poet, the small re-Creator, resembles the dear God also in that he creates his men in his own image. If thus Karl Moor and the Marquis Posa are entirely Schiller himself, so Goethe equals his Werther, his Wilhelm Meister and his Faust, in which one can study the phases of his spirit. When Schiller plunges himself entirely into history, waxes enthusiastic for the social progress of mankind, and sings of world history: so does Goethe sink himself more into individual emotions, or in art, or in nature. Goethe, the pantheist, always had to busy himself with natural history as his chief study, and he gave us the results of his research not merely in poetry, but also in scientific works. His indifferentism was, likewise, a result of his patheistic world-view.

It is unfortunately true, we must admit it, not seldom has pantheism made men into indifferentists. They think: if everything is God, then it is all the same, whether one busies himself with clouds or antique gems, with folk-songs or ape-bones, with humans or with comedians. But that is precisely the error: everything is not God, but rather, God is everything; God manifests himself not in equal measure in all things, he manifests himself much more to various degrees in various things, and each carries in itself the impulse to attain a higher degree of godliness; and that is the great law of progress in nature. The understanding of this law, that was shown in the most profound way by the Saint-Simonians, now makes pantheism a world-view that leads by no means to indifferentism, but rather to self-sacrifice-addicted forward-striving [aufopferungssüchtigsten Fortstreben]. No, God does not manifest himself equally in all things, as was believed by Wolfgang Goethe, who became a thorough-going indifferentist, and instead of concerning himself with the greatest interests of humanity, he concerned himself only with artistic playthings, anatomy, color-systems, knowledge of plants, and observations of clouds: God manifests himself more or less in things, he lives in this continual manifestation, God is in the movement, the action, the time, His holy breath riffles the pages of history, and the latter is the actual book of God; this was felt and divined by Friedrich Schiller, and he became a backward-turning prophet, and he wrote the Revolt of the Netherlands, the Thirty Years War, and the Virgin of Orleans, and the Tell.

To be sure, Goethe celebrated some great emancipation-histories, but he celebrated them as an Artist. Because he peevishly disclaimed the Christian enthusiasm, so fatal to him, and did not grasp the philosophical enthusiasm of our time, or did not want to grasp it, because he feared that he might be torn from his inner serenity: so he handled the enthusiasm entirely historically, as a given, and the spirit became matter in his hands, and he gave it a beautiful, agreeable form. So he became the greatest artist in our literature, and everything he wrote became a well-rounded artwork.

The example of the master led the disciples, and thus arose in Germany a literary period, that I once designated the "art period," and which I have subsequently established as an adverse influence on the political development of the German people. I would never deny the sovereign worth of Goethe's masterworks. They decorate out dear fatherland like beautiful statues decorate a garden, but they are statues. One can fall in love with them, but they are barren: the poetry of Goethe does not bring forth the deed, like that of Schiller. The deed is the child of the word, and the beautiful words of Goethe are childless. That is the curse of all that arises merely out of Art. The statue, that Pygmalion made, was a beautiful woman, and what is more, as the master fell in love with her, she came to life under his kisses, but as far as we know, she never had children. I believe that Mr. Charles Nodier once said something similar in this regard, and this crossed my mind yesterday, while wandering through the lower chambers of the Louvre, as I contemplated the old statues of the gods. There they stood, with mute white eyes, a secret melancholy in their marble smiles, a dim memory perhaps of of Egypt, the land of the dead whence they sprang, or a sorrowful yearning for the life, from which other deities have now elbowed them aside, or also pain over their dead immortality: - they seem to await the word, that were to give life back to them, that would release them from their cold, stiff motionlessness. Strange! These antiquities remind me of Geothe's poems, that are just as perfect, just as glorious, just as serene, and even so seem to feel wistful, that their stiffness and coldness separate them from our present warm and animated life, that they cannot sorrow and rejoice with us, that they are not human, but rather, unfortunate half-breeds of divinity and stone."

Posted by permission of the translator ~ © 1997

Goethe-Schiller monument in Weimar

Plato versus Aristotle

From "On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany", 1834

"Plato and Aristotle! These are not merely two systems, but rather two types of human nature, that stand, since time immemorial, in hostile opposition. Across the entire middle ages, to the greatest degree, and up to the present day, this battle was waged, and this battle is the essential content of Christian church history. Plato and Aristotle are always the issue, though other names may be used. Schwärmerisch, mystical, Platonic natures manifest, from the depths of their souls, the Christian ideas and corresponding symbols. Practical, systematizing, Aristotelean natures build from these ideas and symbols a fixed system, a dogma and a cult. The church ultimately encompasses both natures, which entrench themselves on the one hand in the clergy, and on the other, in the monasteries, and feud without respite."

Posted by permission of the translator ~ © 1997

The famous "School of Athens," by Raphael, places Plato and Aristotle at the center, in disputation: Plato points heavenward, indicating the world of ideas as the source of truth, while Aristotle gestures toward the earth, indicating that truth is found through the senses. This fascinating painting is full of references to important battles of ideas -- for a closer look, click here.

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