Friedrich von Schiller (1759)
It was on this date, November 10, 1759, that Germany’s second-greatest poet (after Goethe), Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller, was born in Marbach, Württemberg, of pious Lutheran parents. Rather than study theology, Schiller went to military school, but was dismissed for writing an essay critical of religion (On the Relation Between Man’s Animal and Spiritual Nature).
His first play, The Robbers (Die Räuber, 1781), won admiration across Europe for its praise of liberty. The theme ran through most of his plays and poems, especially in William Tell (1803). Among Schiller’s best-known works is the Ode to Joy, (An Die Freude), which was memorably set to music by Beethoven in his Choral Symphony (Symphony #9).
It was Schiller’s Don Carlos (1787) that prompted an invitation from Goethe to visit him in Jena, where he adopted an aggressive Rationalism. In their Musen-Almanach (“Muses’ Almanac”) they created a series of penetrating epigrams in the style of Martial, called Die Xenien (“host gifts”), which attacked the churches and all other “Philistines” – that is, critics generally.
Schiller died on May 9, 1805, at the age of 46 in Weimar. It was Friedrich von Schiller who said, “A healthy nature needs no God or immortality. There must be a morality which suffices without this faith.”* And, in The Maid of Orleans, Schiller wrote, “Men show no mercy and expect no mercy, when honor calls, or when they fight for their idols or their gods.”**
* Friedrich von Schiller, The Maid of Orleans (Die Jungfrau von Orleans, play), 1801. Tchaikovsky made the play into an opera, Orleanskaia deva (1878-79).
** Quoted in Rufus K. Noyes, Views of Religion, 1906.
Originally published November 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.