Schiller ‘in the deepest dungeons’

German writer Friedrich Schiller was educated in a military academy dedicated to French Enlightenment education reforms, writes Michael Lipkin in the Paris Review. Schiller, who became a noted playwright, poet and literary critic, absolutely hated it.

The Hohe Carlsschule was founded by Carl-Eugen, Duke of Württemburg, “to create a bureaucratic class free of the aristocracy’s tangled family loyalties,” writes Lipkin.

From a young age, the students learned Greek, Latin, French, philosophy, and were set on a professional path as doctors, lawyers, or civil servants—all extremely enviable positions. They studied rhetoric and contemporary literature and learned, through style exercises, to write poetry. The teachers were scarcely older than the students, and instead of lecturing held informal chats in which the students were invited to participate. The Carlsschulers were encouraged to look on them as their friends and confidants, to whom closely guarded secrets could be trusted. Schiller enjoyed a particularly close relationship with Jakob Friedrich Abel, a philosophy teacher only seven years his senior. He credited Abel with the deep moral and aesthetic convictions that would run through his plays and his poetry, even as Abel reported on Schiller to the duke.

. . . classes were given regular essay assignments like “Which student among you has the worst moral character?” Time was set aside for the students to write detailed studies of another’s characters and habits. The first existing piece of Schiller’s writing is one such essay, written when the poet was fifteen years old. Asked to analyze an older student named Karl Kempff, the young Schiller pulls no punches. With an astonishing mix of eloquence, astuteness, and coldness for a fifteen-year-old, Schiller accuses Kempff of mediocrity, egotism, crudeness, envy, malice, and false modesty.

Isolated from their families and from women, the boys were encouraged to look on the duke as their father and his young mistress as their mother.

Schiller’s writing was obsessed with “rape, patricide, the abuse of power, betrayal, imprisonment, and suicide,” writes Lipkin. In a letter to a critic, he wrote, “it’s in the deepest dungeons that the most beautiful dreams of freedom are dreamt.”

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  1. George Larson says:

    Oops! Michael Lipkin wrote the aricle in the Paris Review not George Larson

    • I’ve fixed it. I think the tip came from you — or I’m totally losing my mind.

  2. A troubling post on a distasteful, ill-conceived article. I really wondered what the point was. An apologia for allowing children to be put in dreadful situations in the name of “education?” I couldn’t say.

    The author fails to note that Schiller himself was plagued by severe psychosomatic illnesses his entire life, and he understates the degree of physical violence employed against the students, which would make even the most cold-hearted corporal punishment advocates blanch.

    The point of the article seems to be that people need to stop whining about cruelties inflicted on them; that those cruelties are for their own good, and that nattering about human freedom and dignity is pointless. Given our educational policies, I can certainly see how many teachers, parents, and armchair policy wonks would find this an attractive position. It lets them off the hook for their own bad ideas and behavior.

    The author quotes Theodor Adorno (not a man generally remembered as a great libertarian) as saying that “Schiller’s passionate pleas for human dignity were at heart totalitarian. Someone who presumes to speak for humanity secretly wants to subjugate it.” It would be nice to know Joanne’s opinions on this peculiar phrase. Most of us generally don’t think of the Founding Fathers, who had a few things to say about human digntiy, as being “closet totalitarians.” But Theodor Adorno, a now-forgotten architect of the Nurse Ratched-style nanny state, definitely was. The author is tad bit confused, methinks.

    Mr. Lipkin also states that Schiller’s works were “easily… repurposed by the Nazis” and uses this as proof that Schiller’s message was a bad one. I wonder if Mr. Lipkin is a good Darwinist, and is blissfully unaware of how gleefully the architects of the Holocaust pointed to Darwinism and Malthusianism as justification for their crimes. Probably not.

    • GEORGE LARSON says:

      Mike E
      I did not read it the way you did. I thought it showed the risk of allowing a powerful and wealthy person to design and run a school created a cruel tyranical environment. I saw it as a description of a bad school yet somehow Schiller managed to survive and grow from his very painful experience. Maybe it could be described as post traumatic growth. Unfortunately his peers appeared to be broken or destroyed by it.

      • I’m with George on this. Lipkin describes students informing on each other, teachers informing on students, boys committing suicide . . . He’s not endorsing this method of education.

        I haven’t read Adorno, so I don’t know if he makes his case on Schiller’s secret totalitarianism. It sounds like a stretch on the face of it.