Most praiseworthy Herr Professor!
Friend and teacher of my childhood, the great orator Cicero; Paul, beloved apostle to us heathen--and oh yes, I certainly am a heathen--do permit me to break in upon your exchange with these notables. Certainly no author could be closer to me than these two, more familiar to me, more frequently perused and pondered. How could I for so long have failed to note the complete agreement between Paul and Cicero on a topic so important to me as art?
Surely my failure must arise from my own duplicity! I have been unwilling to admit to myself that I really do not accept their view, unwilling to acknowlege my disagrement with two of the most influential thinkers in civilized history. Man searches the scriptures for confirmation of his own preconceptions, and reads the classics to cleanse them of all incorrect opinion.
Comfort! This is their criterion for excellent writing! Paul admonishes me to take comfort in scripture! Cicero derides Epicurus because he offers so little comfort! What could be clearer? And what could be farther from my own conviction and striving, these fourscore years, as an artist? I would sooner say, the purpose of writing is to discomfort the reader.
I am reminded of my poor dear protege Friedrich Schiller, one of the great critics of all time. Like many thinkers of our day, he at first greets the Revolution as a godsend--and indeed the National Assembly makes him an honorary citoyen. But then he is just appalled when democratic excesses overwhelm the sewers of Paris with blood. Surely, thinks Schiller, democracy is the one correct political form, and the wave of the future--yet he plainly sees how those who rule themselves in Paris are not even good citizens, much less competent to educate others. They have set up a viciously downward spiral as democracy, gravitating toward ever greater egalitarianism until it culminates, as in Cicero's Rome, in the ochlocracy of the great man, be he a Caesar or a Danton. So long as all begins and ends with the people, how can the people escape their recurringly catastrophic imbecility?
Every schoolboy knows Schiller's answer: art. Art is the incorruptible wellspring which forever renews the soul of man. Schiller begins by explaining how the drive to play is inherent in human nature: "We are never more human than at play, and no activity is so human as play." And what is art, he then asks, other than the free play of the human spirit? As humanity's innate teacher, art elevates mankind. Art alone can preserve us, and redeem us from brutishness. I am not going to quarrel with Schiller's thesis here. As artist myself, I like to think this high flown notion is true--but I also understand its captiousness. Let us therefore defer discussion of the narrowly artistic issue, and remain for now on the more general plane of your letter to me about the classics.
Nothing has proved more damaging to art, over the centuries, than the great causes art has served. The sure sign of the Philistine, of the banausic, of the unlearned lout posing as sophisticate, is how wonderfully useful he finds art to be. Art will serve any and all noble ends, indeed ought to serve them! Friedrich Schiller's hope that art might flow as pure spring water to refresh and cleanse the body politic is a noble hope. Paul's admonition that suffering humanity take comfort in the ancient writings is indeed a pious hope. Even more pious is the old pagan Cicero's judgment that a good philosopher will comfort suffering mankind. But in my opinion, when Schiller treats art as handmaiden to politics he himself corrupts the pure springwater. Paul is doing the same when he permits, nay commands, readers to place the ancients in the service of his own notion of God. Those ancient writings, I say, culled from mankind's best by inexorable time, are themselves as near to God as we poor beggars are likely ever to get. We dare not treat them as priestesses in our temples. Who is to assure us they have not become Temples to Astarte, whore to all comers?
Please return to: Professor Worthy's Page Home
or view the correspondence with Goethe. comments to J.W. Worthy.