Thursday, May 17, 2018

Philosophers as Fiction Writers: Friedrich Schiller and Ayn Rand

Portraits of Ayn Rand and Friedrich Schiller
In Schiller as Philosopher: A Re-examination, Frederick C. Beiser notes that Schiller’s philosophy should not be seen separately from his poetry and plays. This is because the leitmotif of Schiller’s literature is to transmit his political, moral, and aesthetic philosophy. Here’s an excerpt from Beiser’s Introduction to his book:
In vindicating Schiller’s stature as a philosopher, it is important not to separate his philosophy from his poetry and drama. If we make such a separation, we simply fall victim to the academic division of labour from another direction. It is a false abstraction to think that poets cannot be philosophers just as it is to think that philosophers cannot be poets. There is indeed an important sense in which Schiller’s deepest philosophy comes not from his essays but from his plays and poems. If philosophy should come from the experience of life itself, then the best philosophy derives from those media that are closest to that experience: poetry and drama. If this is the case, then the best treatment of Schiller’s philosophy should make no separation between his poetry and discursive essays; it should show how his fundamental themes and problems are found equally in his poetic and discursive works.
I think Beiser’s viewpoint on the Schiller’s poetry and plays being a prime resource for his philosophy is also applicable to Ayn Rand’s literature. She has used the medium of novels to give her readers an almost lifelike experience of her philosophical vision. I think that her novels (We The LivingThe Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged) provide a far better insight into her philosophy than the essays that she wrote during the 1960s and 1970s when she was no longer writing fiction and was a full-time philosopher.

The writing career of Schiller and Rand has followed a similar trajectory. They began as fiction writers and their works made them immensely popular. In the later part of their life they were drawn to writing philosophical essays because they wanted to do something to improve the political and cultural condition of their society.

Schiller was a famous poet and playwright in the late 1780s when he began to prepare himself for writing a series of essays on philosophy. He read the original works of several philosophers, especially Immanuel Kant. His essays on aesthetic philosophy (Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man), on Sublime, Grace and Dignity, etc., are a masterpiece. Rand, on the other hand, made the transition from a celebrated fiction writer to a professional philosopher almost directly, with little acquaintance with the original works of the past philosophers.

It is noteworthy that Rand believed that Schiller was the greatest playwright of the Romantic School, but she has nothing to say about his philosophy. Her favorite play by Schiller was Don Carlos. Her heir Leonard Peikoff has given a lecture of around 2-hours on Don Carlos and he is full of praise for Schiller’s literary capabilities. I wonder if Rand and Peikoff read Schiller’s philosophical essays? Did they know about the intellectual debt that Schiller owed to their philosophical bête noire, Immanuel Kant?

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