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Saturday, May 12, 2018

Thomas Carlyle on Schiller and Kant

Portrait of Schiller by Ludovike Simanowiz
In the Life of Friedrich Schiller, Thomas Carlyle goes into raptures about Friedrich Schiller's noble life and achievements in literature, but his account of the development of Schiller’s philosophical beliefs is tasteless. This, I think, is because Carlyle is not ready to acknowledge the debt that Schiller owes to Immanuel Kant.

Carlyle allows his own biases to creep into the biography, and devotes several pages to attacking Kant’s writing style and philosophy. He briefly mentions that Schiller was enthusiastic about Kant’s aesthetic philosophy, but he does not point out that Schiller’s On The Aesthetic Education of Man is inspired by Kant’s The Critique of Judgement.

In one of the passages, Carlyle is blaming the makeup of the German mind as an explanation for Schiller’s enthusiastic response to Kantian thought:
The air of mysticism connected with these doctrines [Kantian] was attractive to the German mind, with which the vague and the vast are always pleasing qualities; the dreadful array of first principles, the forest huge of terminology and definitions, where the panting intellect of weaker men wanders as in pathless thickets, and at length sinks powerless to the earth, oppressed with fatigue, and suffocated with scholastic miasma, seemed sublime rather than appalling to the Germans; men who shrink not at toil, and to whom a certain degree of darkness appears a native element, essential for giving play to that deep meditative enthusiasm which forms so important a feature in their character.
On the difficultly of reading and understanding Kant, here’s what Carlyle has to say:
To an exoteric reader the philosophy of Kant almost always appears to invert the common maxim; its end and aim seem not to be 'to make abstruse things simple, but to make simple things abstruse.' Often a proposition of inscrutable and dread aspect, when resolutely grappled with, and torn from its shady den, and its bristling entrenchments of uncouth terminology, and dragged forth into the open light of day, to be seen by the natural eye, and tried by merely human understanding, proves to be a very harmless truth, familiar to us from of old, sometimes so familiar as to be a truism. Too frequently, the anxious novice is reminded of Dryden in the Battle of the Books: there is a helmet of rusty iron, dark, grim, gigantic; and within it, at the farthest corner, is a head no bigger than a walnut. 
Carlyle calls Kant’s system a laborious dream, and its adherents crazy mystics. He claims that in England (the country to which he belonged) Kant has been rejected, perhaps with enough reason. He also talks about the night of Kantianism which perplexes rather than enlightens. On the whole, this is a strange biography which does not do any justice to Carlyle and is certainly unfair to Kant. 

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