“Beauty Alone Makes All the World Happy”: Schiller’s Aesthetic Conception of Work

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The Difference between Work and Play

The difference between work and play resides in work’s compulsory aspect: work forces itself upon us, while play attracts us. One works because one must, but one plays because one is inclined to do so. Work’s compulsory aspect gives rise to many psychological, social, and existential problems.1

Adam and Eve were free to play until God condemned them to a life of labor. Sisyphus spent his time thinking up new tricks before Zeus sentenced him to perpetual toil. Both foundational narratives portray a humanity at play before being forced to work by an omnipotent power.

Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805), German poet, historian, playwright, physician, and philosopher.

Whereas Western religion and mythology tend to depict labor as a form of punishment, Schiller focused on the energy that inclines us to play. The play impulse arises freely from within:

“Duty compels no more when inclination begins to attract.”

Schiller referred to our inclination to play as a “Play-Drive”. In contrast to work, play arises from an internal authority that does not command – it beckons.

What is Freedom?

Work gives rise to negative feelings and sentiments when we feel that it violates our freedom. We are compelled to adhere to the dictates of an external authority at work: this external force may be embodied in a person (e.g., one’s boss, client, or customer), an institution (e.g., one’s employer), the expectations of one’s culture, or necessity. To be free is to be unconstrained by the need to work to survive.

Constraint is a reality to be contended with: freedom exists only within the imagination. How can we attain freedom from established reality without impairing our contact with it? For Schiller such freedom resides in Play:

“The Play Drive annuls all compulsion and sets us free both morally and physically.”

In Play “reality loses its seriousness” and necessity “becomes light”. The Play Drive is a natural tendency that is synonymous with artistic beauty.

The Aesthetic Dimension

“Through beauty we arrive at freedom.”

What does beauty have to do with freedom? Recall that freedom constitutes play’s defining aspect. Play occurs in a realm that Johan Huizinga called the “Magic Circle”, a place where imaginal powers are unfettered by constraints imposed by reality.2 We consciously choose to enter the “Magic Circle”: while we inhabit it, we are fully conscious that the rules of ordinary reality do not apply. In these respects, Huizinga’s Magic Circle is identical to the Aesthetic dimension identified by Schiller: Only insofar as it is candid in expressly renouncing all claim to reality, and only insofar as it dispenses with all assistance from reality, is appearance aesthetic. In play and in the aesthetic dimension our apprehension of reality is rendered more pleasurable while our capacity for contact with reality remains uncompromised.

What is beauty? Beauty is defined as a quality or combination of qualities that pleases the aesthetic senses. Our working definition of beauty was articulated by Thomas Aquinas, who understood it as “that which pleases in the very apprehension of it.”

The imagination rules in play and the aesthetic dimension. Imagination, reflection, and contemplation “thrusts” necessity – and that which necessity compels us to desire – “into the distance”:

“…The necessity of nature which governed (the worker) with undivided power… abandons him when reflection begins.”

In essence, play and the contemplation of beauty lead to freedom through use of “the free range of the imagination.”

Taking Pleasure in What One Does

Beauty – i.e., the feeling of aesthetic pleasure – is a “disposition of our nature” that does not remain passive once it is cultivated. The “sensation of beauty…gives rise to freedom” that expresses itself in activity:

The animal works when deprivation is the mainspring of its activity
and plays when the fullness of its strength is this mainspring, when
superabundant life is its own stimulus to activity.”

Cultivation of aesthetic pleasure leads to free activity because the person who apprehends beauty does not wish to remain passive: she is moved to do something with the apprehension. The creative impulse and the Play impulse are indistinguishable: What we call “creativity” is the Play Drive manifesting itself outside the “magic circle”, i.e., in the ordinary world. The individual endowed with the capacity for aesthetic pleasure is inevitably a creative individual: she is impelled, not forced, to engage in productive activity:

Charles Meynier’s “Clio”. Clio is the Muse of History and Lyre Playing

“The (aesthetic) appearance of things is the work of (humanity), and a (mind) which delights in appearance and no longer takes pleasure in what it receives, but in what it does …Soon (the working individual) is not content that things should please him, he wants to give pleasure himself… through what he is.” What one produces is no longer the “mark of servitude, but the product of a “serene and free spirit which chose and established it.”

In creativity an overarching unity is realized on several levels: in the individual, creativity implies a merging of the intellect and the imagination, capacities that would otherwise remain divided. On a societal level, Schiller envisioned a place where the imagination “delights in its absolute and unfettered power.”

“In a genuinely humane civilization, the human existence will be play rather than toil, and humanity will live in display rather than need.”

If the play impulse were to gain ascendancy as a principle of civilization, we would continue to work, but our activity would not be driven by want and anxiety. Our work would rather “display” the “free manifestation of potentialities.”

The Aesthetic Dimension in Utopia and Dystopia

“Indifference to reality” reflects freedom from want and a “true enlargement” of humanity. The reality that “loses its seriousness” is the inhumane reality of want and need. When want and need no longer rule, we are free to use the imagination to play. Indeed, only in playing can we achieve freedom, for only through use of the imagination can we be liberated from “enslavement by constraining matter”. Freedom from want and necessity implies abundance.

Schiller’s vision is Utopian insofar as it assumes the absence of scarcity. It is predicated on abundance and a society governed by “laws of display and beauty” rather than by need. This society becomes possible “only at the highest maturity of civilization, when all basic needs can be satisfied with a minimum of physical and mental energy in a minimum of time.” 3

With an increasing reduction in the need for human labor, and with the anticipated capacity for Automation and Artificial Intelligence to produce superabundant wealth, Schiller’s vision becomes, from a purely technological standpoint, potentially attainable.

While Schiller’s vision remains aspirational, his understanding of the centrality of the aesthetic imagination is repeatedly demonstrated in the real world. History reveals that the aesthetic imagination is conspicuously absent in societies characterized by extreme lack of freedom. As Iain McGilchrist observes, “Obviously and worryingly, totalitarian movements have had none of the characteristics that would lend themselves to making good art.” 4 Lenin reportedly said that art should be cut out as useless – “snip, snip” – once there is no longer a need for propaganda. After the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, suicide was “astonishingly common” for creative people, as “imagination was no longer needed or welcome”. The Kremlin “was bent on wiping out originality”. Later in the twentieth century the Nazis and Stalinists discouraged imagination, as it was considered “decadent and useless”, and, as with Leninism, glorified art only where it might coincide with a political purpose beyond art. Current headlines feature similar themes: Taliban authorities ascendent in Afghanistan have recently declared that “Music is not in our religion” and that “music has no place here”. 5

Cultivation of the aesthetic imagination is antithetical to systems predicated on total control because the aesthetic imagination opposes repression, regardless of whether repressive force has its origin in scarcity or political power.

“Liking Without Wanting”: The Neurocognition of Aesthetics

Cognitive Science also demonstrates the “real world” significance of Schiller’s ideas: The most substantial contributions that have emerged from study of the neurocognition of aesthetics are consistent with Schiller’s characterization of aesthetics as a way to achieve freedom from want:

“While the valuation of art, music, and other cultural objects, such as money, relies on the same neural mechanisms that mediate reward derived from food or drink”, there are two forms of reward – liking and wanting – and “aesthetic pleasure is characterized as ‘liking without wanting’, i.e., as a reward that is unrelated to the satisfaction of desires.” 6

Productive activity no longer “bears the traces of servitude” when it occurs in a context that is “beyond want and anxiety.”

The apprehension of beauty also “unites society, because it relates to what is common in us all.” While consumption is based on individual appropriation,

“Beauty alone makes all the world happy, and every being forgets its limitations as long as it experiences her enchantment…in the realm of aesthetic appearance is fulfilled the ideal of equality…”

In a society that fully embraces the aesthetic dimension, Work becomes a space where “the free manifestation of potentialities” is realized. Schiller reminds us of a form of free activity that may be deeper and more fulfilling than that which is driven by compensation and consumption. If his vision impresses us as impractical, if not utterly fanciful, it is not because we have no experience of it – practically everyone has played and created. Schiller reminds us, moreover, that such a space already exists “in every finely tuned soul” and wherever one’s “own lovely nature … governs conduct” . If his vision remains difficult to imagine it is rather because it is antithetical to an economy predicated on ceaseless stimulation of consumer demand.


Unless otherwise indicated, all italicized quotations are from Friedrich Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man. Yale University Press. 1954. (Originally published in 1795).

  1. https://workosophy.org/2021/10/02/the-paradox-of-play/
  2. Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Human Culture. Beacon Press. Boston. 1955. (Originally published in 1938). See also: https://workosophy.org/2021/10/02/the-paradox-of-play/
  3. Marcuse, Herbert. Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud. Vintage. New York. 1955.
  4. McGilchrist, Iain. The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press. 2012.
  5. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/10/10/afghanistan-zohra-orchestra-taliban/
  6. Pearce, Marcus, et al. “Neuroaesthetics: The Cognitive Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience”. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 11 (2) March 2016.

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