Schiller and Play

The famous line from Friedrich Schiller on play: “…man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man, and he is only completely a man when he plays..” This statement comes from the fifteenth letter of “On the Aesthetic Education of Man.” Play is the principal expression of the human spirit. It reconciles the divisions which civilization has carved into the mind. Schiller divides the creative impulse into three sense drives: desire for sense, desire for form and desire for play. He names play (Spieltrieb) the salvation of the other two. It unites reason and sensation and synthesizes from their correspondence absolute essence and spirit:

“The sense-drive demands that there shall be change and that time shall have a content; the form-drive demands that time shall be annulled and that there shall be no change. That drive, therefore, in which both the others work in concert (permit me for the time being, until I have justified the term, to call it the play-drive), the play-drive, therefore, would be directed towards annulling time within time, reconciling becoming with absolute being and change with identity.” (On the Aesthetic Education of Man, Letter 14)

Schiller’s description of the creative impulse corroborates a previous post I have written on the matter. I divide creativity by intellect, sensation and spontaneity, and cite the classical totems for these faculties: the laurel branch, the myrtle bough and the ivy vine. For Schiller, the creative subject thinks, feels and plays. The typical and arduous labor of the mind in workaday life and stolid social interactions activate only one of these faculties at a time. We seek freedom from dreary obligation in play. Play reconstitutes our potential and human strengths into the vigorous gesture, the triumphal transgression.

I’ve considered these qualities that Schiller describes myself at great length, before having ever encountered these ideas in “On the Aesthetic Education of Man,” and I’ve viewed the situation differently, perhaps it is no more or less correct. I find all of the impulses to be equally at odds with each other and that each one is just as capable as the others at wedding them together into creative synthesis. Play is wild and heedless whereas sensuality is tender and quite. The intellect in its strength can tame play and encourage sensuality to assert itself more externally. Thought and play have a competitive relationship: one can work or one can play. Sensitivity assuages the antipathy that exists between the two. It makes each aware of its own fallibility.

Would that all it took to produce great artists is a penchant for play. The different formulae of interaction between the three great muses are endlessly vacillating and complex.

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