Sublime Borders: Schiller’s Will and Nietzsche’s Will-to-Power
Aesthetic discourse surrounding the sublime has essentially been an attempt to navigate the border between one’s self and the external world. When encountering that which is terrible or unfathomable in nature, man experiences a sense of crushing expansion. Crushing — for one’s material significance is threatened by the largess and power of the external. In response to this threat, a border is erected between one’s free, unconstrained intellect and the defeated material self. By divorcing ourselves from the physical fetters which normally bind us to the practical and concrete, we instead identify with our purely cognitive faculties which retain their independence over and above a tumultuous reality. Thus we are simultaneously forced into a state of transcendental expansion. As Schiller puts it,
“the sublime … is the occasion of a distressing awareness of our borders [das peinliche Gefühl unserer Grenzen], still we do not run away from it, but rather are drawn to it by an irresistible force. Would this be even possible if the borders of our imagination were at the same time the borders of our power of apprehension?” (On the Sublime, p. 198)
Although theorists from Longinus to Kant have pointed out this elevational response to the sublime, it’s with Schiller that the aesthetic divide is finally translated into a sublime ethic. Schiller maintains that our freedom to choose as we will is a necessary precondition for any truly moral system. And yet, it is seemingly undeniable that there are instances in which our hand is forced;
instances in which the world overrides our decisions. In order for man to retain his complete independence from an oftentimes coercive world, Schiller requires that we proactively will all of life’s eventualities, no matter what they entail. By exercising deliberate resolve, Schiller believes that man can retire from nature, “because before it reaches him it has already become his own action.” (Ibid., p. 195)
Remarkably, Schiller’s willful stance bears a strong resemblance to Nietzsche’s will-to-power; an observation which, as we will see, creates tensions for the latter’s avowed naturalism. Nietzsche’s ultimate goal is to create a philosophy which finds meaning by celebrating life, what he calls life-affirmation, in an age of nihilism and decadence. Yet, throughout his writings, Nietzsche stubbornly resists the transcendental sublime, eventually dismissing the border between “man and world” as consisting only of “the sublime presumption of the little word ‘and’” (The Gay Science, §346). But if Nietzsche is intent on undermining the border between man and world, how can he continue to employ its ethical consequences? By denying man’s independence, mustn’t he also relieve the will of its authority? In light of this problem, an accurate account of the will-to-power will require that we reexamine Nietzsche’s aesthetic position as it pertains to the border between man and world. An examination of Schiller and Nietzsche side-by-side will open the door, so to speak, to a new understanding of the sublime border.
Friedrich Schiller is referred to by Isaiah Berlin as “one of the most gifted of Kant’s disciples” (Miller, 1970), and it is in this light which he must be examined. All of Kant’s fundamental ideas are incorporated into his philosophy. Schiller operates under Kantian notions of noumena and phenomena, freedom of will, autonomy, and the elevated status of understanding over imagination. However, if Kant saw freedom as a mere prerequisite for his categorical imperative, Schiller views it as the essential characteristic of our humanity. With freedom, humanity’s very dignity is at stake. It is not simply that which makes an imperative-oriented morality possible, rather freedom’s preservation and realization is the ultimate goal of morality.
Given the primacy of freedom, it is no coincidence that Schiller does not — cannot — rest until the tension that invariably arises between free will and the outside world has been dispelled. It is in response to this problem that Schiller introduces his concept of will [Wille] in the opening to On the Sublime: “No man must must…All other things must, man is the being who wills.” And again in his essay, On Grace and Dignity, “nature would like to play the master and has to be curbed by its will.” But to understand just what is meant by Wille and how it manages to skirt the man/world border, we must first take a step back and analyze the Kantian notions of Understanding and Imagination which make such willing possible.
In the Critique of Judgment, Kant develops his aesthetic theory as a synthesis of pure and practical reason. Roughly put, Kant notices that we attribute beauty to things which exhibit a sense of purpose (what he refers to as purposiveness), although just what that purpose is cannot be conceptually located. The resultant state is therefore one in which the imagination no longer operates in the shadow of concepts, but rather in ‘free-play’ with the understanding. It is this imaginative freedom, a loosening of conceptual constraints, which is largely responsible for the pleasurable experience. And yet, not all aesthetic experience is so pleasant.
Upon concluding his analysis of pleasurable beauty, Kant moves on to account for the violent opposition which results from the sublime. When we encounter the sublime (whether it be something as concrete as the Alps or as theoretical as infinity), we encounter something which cannot be fully grasped by our imagination. This leads to those feelings of human inferiority previously mentioned. Nonetheless, the sublime is not simply frightening, but rather puts us in a state of compelling awe.
As we’ve seen, Kant explains that this counterbalance is produced by the cognitive understanding reasserting itself in the face of crushing reality. Although we may not be able to physically come to terms with the sublime, it can nonetheless be neatly conceptualized and filed away by our intellect. By means of this duality, Kant is able, perhaps for the first time, to account for both the terrible and elevational elements of the sublime.
In his crusade for freedom, Schiller came to notice two sorts of freedom: freedom in accordance with nature and freedom in the face of nature. When life proceeds according to plan, falling in line with our every desire, we are free to follow our will. For Schiller, this is a beautiful freedom. It is agreeable, calm, and steady. But what happens when nature seems determined to destroy everything you set your mind to? For all of your planning, nature swoops in and lays everything flat. It becomes clear that a beautiful freedom is not enough to ensure man’s autonomy in the face of nature. For this, there is a sublime freedom.
Our freedom is sublime when things do not turn out the way we wish, but when in the face of it all, we retain our moral agency. It is sublime when all sensuality is chaotic, but our cognitive powers escape unscathed. By relinquishing control over nature, and accepting the hand which we’re dealt, we achieve a freedom which elevates us above nature. We need not seek accordance with nature, for nature cannot help but accord.
We are now ready to reassess Schiller’s doctrine of the will. In On the Sublime he tells us that “the morally cultivated man, and only he, is wholly free. Either he is superior to nature as a force, or he is at one with her. Nothing that she can do to him is violence because before it reaches him it has already become his own action” (p. 195). The morally cultivated man is he who embodies both the beautiful and the sublime, the comic and the tragic. There are therefore two eventualities. Either he is “superior to nature as a force;” that is, circumstances go according to plan, and he’s free to act as he wishes; or, in the event that he loses control over nature, “he is at one with her.” “Nothing that she can do to him is violence” because he has risen above nature and reclaimed his moral superiority. Since this newfound identity is wholly autonomous, there can be no natural disturbance. On the contrary, difficulties will only serve to highlight this superiority, thus becoming constitutive of “his own [moral] action.”
Returning to Nietzsche, the similarities between the will-to-power and Schiller’s Wille are readily apparent. In the charmingly titled “Why I am so Clever,” Nietzsche tells us that his “formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different… Not merely to bear what is necessary, still less to conceal it… but [to] love it” (Basic Writings of Nietzsche, p. 714). Moreover, Nietzsche has Zarathustra unambiguously proclaim:
“I led you away from these [religious] fables when I taught you, ‘The will is a creator.’ All ‘it was’ is a fragment, a riddle, a dreadful accident — until the creative will says to it, ‘But thus I willed it.’ To recreate all ‘it was’ into a ‘thus I willed it’ — that alone shall I call redemption.” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, sec. 2.20)
Both Schiller and Nietzsche are responding to the same problem: how can we retain human dignity in the face of compulsion? For Nietzsche this is a crises of nihilism, while for Schiller is a struggle for freedom. But for both, the answer is the same: will it thus.
However, as we’ve seen, Schiller retains this moral evaluation of the sublime, Nietzsche takes a more suspicious stance. For Nietzsche, the sublime is yet another “god” which western philosophy has created in its attempt to distance itself from the brutal reality of nature. Because we are afraid of the irrationality of nature, we desperately seek to rise above it. It makes no difference whether this god is a deity or an aesthetic ideal, for Nietzsche it is symptomatic of a certain cowardice.
Beginning with §33 of Dawn (1881), Nietzsche writes that it is a man who despises his life that “weaves all his higher feelings (reverence, sublimity, pride, gratitude, love) into an imaginary world: the so-called higher world.” If Kant and Schiller cleansed the sublime of its religious features which dominated much of the earlier discourse, Nietzsche sets out to rid it of all moral undercurrents. As he hints in Human, All Too Human, morality is an essentially religious construct, and must therefore also be purged from our aesthetic lexicon: “the inner world of the sublime — affected, tremulous, contrite, expectant states — is born in the human being through the cult” (§130).
We must remember that Nietzsche refers to himself as the “destroyer of idols” (Ecce Homo, sec. 1.3) in an age which he diagnoses as the “Twilight of the Idols.” An age in which the shadow of god lingers much after god himself has departed. As such, the cleansing of the world from religion’s shadowy presence must ultimately lead to a standoff between the Übermensch and “all higher sentiments.” Indeed, “of all the gradual purifications which await humanity, the purification of the higher feelings will be one of the slowest” (§33 of Dawn).
But perhaps Nietzsche’s fullest iteration occurs in §423 of Dawn, titled In the Great Silence. It begins with a by now familiar description of the sublime experience. “Here is the sea, here may we forget the town.” The sea, often used as the paradigmatic example of the sublime, enables us to “forget,” or transcend, the “town”; a reference to the phenomenal, natural, individuated world. Nietzsche goes on to describe a scene of picturesque beauty and sublimity. A sky “glistening with its eternal mute evening hue” and “cliffs and rocks which stretch out into the sea.” Together with Schiller, he exclaims how “beautiful and awful indeed is this vast silence, which so suddenly overcomes us and makes our hearts swell.”
However, it is at this point that Nietzsche soberly deflates these “higher sentiments.” “What deceit lies in this dumb beauty…oh sea, oh evening, you are bad teachers! You teach man how to cease to be a man…Shall he become as you are, pale, brilliant, dumb, immense, reposing calmly upon himself? — exalted above himself?”
It is these crucial last lines which serve to explicate Nietzsche’s entire objection to the sublime. He does not object from epistemological grounds, nor from psychological, aesthetic, or metaphysical grounds. He rejects the sublime because it dehumanizes man. By forcing man to align himself solely with his cognitive faculties — be it Kant’s understanding or Schiller’s freedom — the sublime has pitted man against his natural self, against his very being-in-the-world. In his idealization of the sublime, man has become exalted above himself.
In summary, Nietzsche has grouped the sublime together with all other “higher feelings” which are bred from an attitude of life-negation. As such, he pits himself against all previous theorists including, of course, Schiller. However, as we’ve seen from our treatment of the latter, his endorsement of the sublime was a consequence of his very Nietzschean life affirmative stance! We are left with a problem: How can Nietzsche endorse an approach of amor fati, a position which, as we’ve seen from Schiller, places the will in a position to judge nature — in other words, a moral position — without also accepting man’s place exalted above nature? In order to begin to resolve this problem, we need to take a closer look at how Nietzsche himself evaluates the existence of nature all together.
In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche tells the story of how “the ‘true world’ finally became a fable” (The Portable Nietzsche, p. 485). From the outset, it is assumed that the “true world,” what might be equated with the noumenal, is in fact a myth. In other words, by surrounding “true world” in scare quotes, Nietzsche is referencing his perspectivalistic1placeholder position that claims that there is no world-in-itself. In this particular aphorism, Nietzsche recounts the evolution of western metaphysics; from Greek attempts to provide a full account of the true nature of the world up until our current, perspectival retreats into principled ignorance. The final step, Nietzsche’s own, states that “[t]he true world — we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we have also abolished the apparent one.” Once the true world has been revealed for what it is (that is, non-existent), we can no longer say that there is any one apparent world either. All that is left is the world as each of us experiences it; that is, we are left with interpretations, none of which is the true appearance. In this somewhat hermeneutic approach to ontology, metaphysics becomes an aesthetic endeavor, indeed “it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified” (The Birth of Tragedy, sec. 10). On this theory, the belief in an objective world-in-itself resulted from the Socratic estrangement of reason from art. It is their re-alignment that constitutes much of Nietzsche’s own thought and lays the foundation for his existence.
Let’s now return to amor fati. “To recreate all ‘it was’ into a ‘thus I willed it’ — that alone should I call redemption” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, sec. 2, “On Redemption”). We asked how such a position can possibly operate outside of the sublime. After all, don’t we need to remain independent and somewhat removed from nature in order to reinterpret it and make it our own? But this was because, until now, we had assumed that a rejection of the sublime border must ultimately lead to submission. For if we are not exalted above nature, then we must remain subject to its power.
Nietzsche’s (anti)metaphysics tells us that this assumption is wrong. The world we experience is only an element of the self. Instead of rising above nature in an act of affirmation, we must incorporate the world into ourselves and (re)create it. What we are left with is a complete reevaluation of the spirit behind amor fati. The doctrine of amor fati is not interested in reconciling two opposing parties. We need not overpower nor make peace with the world; the world is at is it for we have allowed it to be so. The forces of nature are the forces of our will-to-power. Amor fati is not nature-affirmative, but rather self-affirmative. It is loving the narrative which we alone have created; loving it, for it is our own.
In his Notes from the Underground, Dostoevsky complains that “You cannot rebel: Nature doesn’t ask you for your opinion; it couldn’t care less about your desires, about whether you like its laws or whether you don’t… It means that a wall is a wall.” While the Underground Man continues to “beat [the] wall with [his] fists,” refusing to admit defeat, he forgets that resistance is only a feeble form of rebellion (I. III-IV). Both Schiller and Nietzsche recognize that in order to avoid bitter opposition, a more affirmative stance must be obtained. Rather than repeatedly hitting against it head-on, Schiller charts a course along the wall: “To destroy the very concept of a force means simply to submit to it voluntarily.” Nietzsche, on the other hand, chooses to expand his notion of the self, incorporating the very border which threatens his power. “I myself am fate and have been conditioning existence for eternities” (Works, XIV, 331). This pronouncement disturbs the very border between man and nature which Schiller’s Wille sets out to reconcile. Accordingly, it does not imply transcendence of the man/world divide, but rather its destruction.
Dostoevsky, F. (2014). Notes from the Underground. Peterborough: Broadview Press.
Kant, I. (2000). Critique of the Power of Judgment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Miller, R. D. (1970). Schiller and the Ideal of Freedom. Gloucestershire: Clarendon Press.
Nietzsche, F. (1967). Basic Writings of Nietzsche. New York: Modern Library.
Nietzsche, F. (1974). The Gay Science. New York: Vintage.
Nietzsche, F. (1977). The Portable Nietzsche. New York: Penguin.
Nietzsche, F. (1996). Human, all too human: A book for free spirits. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nietzsche, F., & Kennedy, J. M. (2007). The Dawn of Day. North Chelmsford: Courier Corporation.
Schiller, F., & Elias, J. A. (1966). Naive and Sentimental Poetry; and, On the Sublime: two essays. New York: Ungar Pub Co.
For more on this, see Will to Power, §481: “In so far as the word “knowledge” has any meaning, the world is knowable; but it is interpretable [emphasis in original] otherwise, it has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings. — ‘Perspectivism.’”