Beauty is Freedom in Appearance. Friedrich Schiller’s Aesthetics, Part II

Table of Contents

This essay re-evaluates Schiller’s idea of beauty as “freedom in appearance,” as brought forward in his Kallias or On Beauty (1793), against the backdrop of early modern and modern thinking that based itself on a fundamental split between nature and freedom, world and man. Schiller’s claim that natural beauty results from freedom in nature bridges this gap. His suggestion is confirmed by modern science. Schiller’s view is recommended and defended as a way of escaping modern bigotry.

Schiller: beauty and freedom

Let us now turn to Schiller. He, too, shared the discomfort with Kantian subjectivism; he insisted on beauty’s objectivity. Particularly interesting is the way that Schiller tried to demonstrate this objectivity. He did so by connecting beauty to freedom. Beauty, according to Schiller, is “freedom in appearance.” If this formula holds water, then one can say in advance that the problem of the Critique of Judgment dissolves, for a nature that produces beauty does itself already contains traits of freedom Hence the realization of human freedom amidst nature is no problem at all; rather, freedom represents a continuous factor between the world and humans. Consequently, aesthetics can help to overcome the dead end of modern dualism.

Let us now see in detail how Schiller made this plausible. I am referring to letters he wrote to his friend Gottfried Körner in 1793, letters which he gave the title Kallias or on Beauty. [9] In my opinion, the concept developed in these letters (which unfortunately were published only much later, in 1847) is of utmost importance, much more than the view uttered in the more famous Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man published in 1795.

two orange parrots
Leadbeater’s Cockatoo (Cacatua Leadbeaterii) illustrated by Elizabeth Gould (1804–1841) for John Gould’s (1804-1881) Birds of Australia (1972 Edition, 8 volumes). Digitally enhanced from our own facsimile book (1972 Edition, 8 volumes).

a. Regularity, freedom and beauty

First, Schiller states that we experience those natural things as beautiful whose formation is based on a rule. When we regard a leaf, we immediately get the impression that the manifold parts of the leaf achieved their artful arrangement by following a rule. [10] If this orderliness were to disappear, we would no longer judge the leaf as beautiful. So, first, the experience of beauty is based on the impression of regularity.

Second, this rule must not be imposed on the object from the outside but stem from the object itself. [11] One has to have the impression that the rule and the corresponding formation “had flown freely from the thing itself.” [12] In this case, the object appears as self-determined, as self-regulated, as free. [13]

If both conditions are fulfilled, that is, if we perceive the object as following a rule imposed by itself, then we experience the object as beautiful. Therefore the experience of beauty registers freedom. Beauty is a cryptogram of freedom. [14] Schiller’s formula for this reads, “Beauty is freedom in appearance.” [15] This formula does not have a restrictive meaning. Schiller does not want to say that, in the case of beauty, freedom occurs only in the improper form of a phenomenon (whereas, in its essence, freedom is something intelligible) but that, in an absolutely positive sense, freedom is actually appearing, is coming to the fore, manifesting itself, becoming evident. Beauty is real experience of freedom via perception. [16]

b. Objectivity

It is important for Schiller that his explanation of the perception of beauty as freedom guarantees, contrary to Kant, the objectivity of beauty. This is because the regularity that is the testimony of freedom and simultaneously the reason of beauty is an objective trait of the object itself, belonging to it regardless of whether we perceive it or not. [17] Hence it is a subject-independent, a truly objective trait.

c. Freedom everywhere, or “In the aesthetic world each natural being is a free citizen”

Schiller, then, makes two moves. First, he unmasks the experience of beauty as an experience of freedom. We call those objects beautiful that show freedom. Second, he transfers the character of freedom from the human sphere into the natural world; he sees that it already occurs there. So the experience of beauty leads us beyond anthropic strettos; freedom is by no means just a human but already a natural phenomenon. Schiller develops a general ontology of freedom that comprises not only the sphere of human action but also the realm of things, of natural as well as of cultural entities.

To quote a longer passage: “When indeed does one say, that a person is beautifully clothed? When neither the clothing through the body, nor the body through the clothing, suffers anything in respect to its freedom; when the clothing looks as if it had nothing to do with the body and yet fulfills its purpose to the fullest. Beauty, or rather taste, regards all things as ends in themselves and by no means tolerates that one serves the other as means, or bears the yoke. In the aesthetical world, every natural being is a free citizen, who has equal rights with the most noble, and may not even be compelled for the sake of the whole, but rather must absolutely consent to everything. In the aesthetical world, which is entirely different from the most perfect Platonic republic, even the jacket, which I carry on my body, demands respect from me for its freedom, and desires from me, like an ashamed servant, that I let no one notice that it serves me. For that reason, however, it also promises me, reciprocally, to employ its freedom so modestly that mine suffers nothing thereby; and when both keep their word, so will the whole world say that I be beautifully dressed.” [18]

two yellow birds
Bird of Paradise; Paradisea apoda (1804–1908) print in high resolution by John Gould and William Matthew Hart. Original from The National Gallery of Art. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

So Schiller suggests, as I stated earlier, an extension of freedom. He expands its occurrence beyond human morality to nature and artifacts. Aesthetically, one will discover freedom everywhere: “The taste will consider all [my emphasis] things as ends in themselves.” [19] The whole of nature is a realm of freedom: “Every beautiful creature of nature” is “a lucky citizen who calls out to me: Be free like I am.” [20]

Freedom is already a natural phenomenon before being a human phenomenon. Accordingly, each natural being is to be recognized and to be respected as a “free citizen.” The difference between human and nature is not the difference between freedom and unfreedom but both possess freedom. Everything is, strictly speaking, an instance of freedom. That freedom is not a human privilege but already a natural fact is what the aesthetic experience discovers and strongly recommends to take into account.

In this way, aesthetic experience leads to an ethics of freedom. We ought to see all things as figures of freedom and accordingly treat them with respect. Freedom is the basic character of Being. The aesthetic attitude grasps this basic character and recommends an ethics of universal respect. Here Schiller obviously transcends occidental limitations and advocates an ethical perspective that is better known in East Asia (cf. Daoism and Buddhism). We ought to treat all beings, all our natural fellow-citizens in this world, with equal respect. Typically enough, Schiller also reverses the occidental pattern according to which freedom is, in the first place, one’s own freedom (just remember Fichte’s conception), and only subsequently the freedom of the other, when he states: “The first law of good manners is: Spare others’ freedom. The second: Show freedom yourself.” [21] And Schiller comments, “The accurate fulfillment of both is an infinitely difficult problem, but good manners require it continuously, and it alone makes the accomplished man of the world.” [22]

two humingbirds
Eriocnemis vestitus (Glowing Puff-Leg) (1804–1902) print in high resolution by John Gould and Henry Constantine Richter. Original from The National Gallery of Art. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.


Wolfgang Welsch, Professor emeritus, was Professor of Philosophy at a number of German and international universities (Berlin, Jena, Stanford, Emory) and received the Max Planck Research Award in 1992. His main fields of research are: epistemology and anthropology, theory of evolution, philosophy of culture, aesthetics and art theory, contemporary philosophy, Aristotle, and Hegel. In recent publications he has developed a strictly evolutionary conception of the human, comprising both biological and cultural evolution. He has published twelve books and edited eight.

Ode to Joy – Beethoven & Schiller

Beethoven wrote his “Ninth Symphony” to accompany Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy”. It is also the hymn of the European Union.


John Gould (1804-1881) was a naturalist and one of London’s leading ornithologists. He began his career working as a gardener, where he learned about taxidermy and gained knowledge of birds in their natural habitat. At only 23 he became a curator and preserver at the Zoological Society of London. He was never a very good illustrator, and many of his 3000 plates were in fact illustrated by or collaborated on with other artists. Including his wife Elizabeth and the quirky poet Edward Lear. Gould helped Darwin classify finches and mockingbirds, connecting location with speciation. This discovery was the starting point to Darwin’s theory of natural selection.


Original Title: Schiller Revisited – “Beauty is Freedom in Appearance” – Aesthetics as a Challenge to the Modern Way of Thinking. This article was first published 2014 in Contemporary Aesthetics. Title and subtitles are altered. Part I you can find here. Part III here.


For references see Original Article.

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