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The Aesthetical Education of America

American System

by Robert Trout

Part 1:

The success of the American Revolution was indeed a 'shot heard round the world.' Republicans everywhere were inspired by the possibility that similar republics could be established throughout the globe. But, after the French Revolution failed, the German poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller wrote his 'Letters on the Aesthetical Education of Man,' to argue that a people would be successful in establishing republican government, only if they had first undergone a process of aesthetical education.

What allowed the American Revolution to be a success? Was it the 'aesthetical education' of the American colonists?

Alexander Hamilton opened The Federalist Papers, which he co-authored with James Madison and John Jay to advocate the adoption of the Constitution of the United States, by challenging the American people that, "it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force."

The success of the American Revolution was indeed a "shot heard 'round the world." Republicans everywhere were inspired by the possibility that similar republics could be established throughout the globe. The German poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller described the excitement felt by many in Europe: "Full of expectation, the eyes of the philosopher, as of the man of the world, are fastened upon the political theater of action, where now, as one believes, the great destiny of humanity is treated."

These hopes were quickly dashed, however, when the attempt to reproduce the success of the American Revolution in France quickly degenerated into a Reign of Terror, in which an estimated 40,000 people were killed, including many of France's leading scientists and republican leaders. After the French Revolution failed, Schiller wrote his Letters on the Aesthetical Education of Man, to argue that a people would be successful in establishing republican government, only if they had first undergone a process of aesthetical education.

This demands an answer to the question: What allowed the American Revolution to be a success? In this essay we will demonstrate that the success of the American Revolution was the result of the "aesthetical education" of the American colonists.

Schiller's Aesthetical Letters, his "political treatise" on the requirements for establishing republican government, was written as a series on "the results of my inquiries into the beautiful and art." Schiller informs the reader that the potential for a great political revolution beckons the philosophical mind ``to engage itself with the most perfect of all works of art, with the construction of a true political freedom.'' Even though the eyes of the world were focussed on questions of the just design of new political institutions, Schiller did not focus on the political sphere according to the prevailing assumptions of his day. ``That I resist this alluring temptation and cause beauty to walk in front of freedom'' was necessary, since, he says, ``in order to solve the political problem in experience, [one] must take the path through the aesthetical, because it is beauty, through which one proceeds to freedom.''

Why does Schiller assert this? The answer to this question, points to a profound difference between the character of the American colonists, and that of the majority of their European contemporaries.

The Founding of the Nation-State

 Throughout most of its history, mankind's condition has been characterized by an aristocratic class ruling over masses of commoners through feudal institutions, where the life of the majority 95 percent was little better than that of cattle. It was only with the establishment of the modern nation-state, that it became possible to end feudalism, and uplift the population to conditions consistent with human dignity. 

 

The 1439 Council of Florence marked a watershed in the transformation of society from feudalism to the nation-state. Representatives of the Eastern and Western Christian churches wrought a unification of Christendom based upon the Nicene Creed, which contains the doctrine of the Filioque, that is, that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both Father and Son. This affirmation of the divinity of Christ, introduced the conception of man in the image of God as the principle governing affairs among men. 

 

The Renaissance in Italian, ``Rebirth'' was the creation of republicans who consciously brought back the Platonic tradition of Greek civilization, breaking the domination of the Aristotelean philosophy which had held back Europe for over 1,500 years. Teaching orders like the Brotherhood of the Common Life spread education to the children of commoners, and created geniuses like Nicolaus of Cusa and Erasmus of Rotterdam. The project for colonizing the New World grew out of the intellectual circles of Nicolaus of Cusa, who was the key organizer of the Florentine Council. 

 

The first modern nation-state was established in France by Louis XI, who ruled from 1461 to 1484. Louis made the purpose of the French nation the welfare of all its citizens, and in so doing, brought into political practice the theological precepts of the 1439 Council. Wielding a government intelligentsia educated by the teaching orders, Louis rapidly transformed France, checking the power of the aristocracy, and doubling the economic output of the nation during his reign. This success increased the military power of France, and made it impossible for the forces of feudalism to crush it. 

 

England moved to copy France under the first Tudor king, Henry VII (reigned 1485-1509). The nation, which had been devastated by feudal rivalries and dynastic wars, underwent a profound transformation. 

 

Nonetheless, even though the nation-state became thus firmly established in Europe, the power of the landed and financial oligarchies was not broken. Instead, these aristocracies continued to exist in symbiotic relationship to the institutions of the nation-state, which were distorted from their true republican purpose as a result. Beginning the Sixteenth century, Europe's financial aristocracy, which had been centered in Venice throughout the later Middle Ages, began to relocate its center of operations northward, to The Netherlands and England. The last chance to rescue England from the Venetian takeover was the battle waged by Gottfried Leibniz and his collaborators, including Jonathan Swift in England, at the beginning of the Eighteenth century. However, with the accession of George I in 1714, a Venetian-style financial oligarchy--well-characterized as the ``Venetian Party''--established firm control. America's break with England became essential.

Schiller vs. the Empiricists

In his opening Aesthetical Letters, Schiller describes the period of early civilization as the childhood of mankind. Man's existence was dominated by his natural instincts, a condition which Schiller describes as ``sensual slumber.'' In the first condition of raw nature, man sees the world only in terms of how he can use it to meet his sensual needs, or how it may present a threat to him. Since he has not ordered the world outside himself according to ``form,'' all the things in it appear to him as disconnected objects. His emotional life is dominated by greed and rage. This condition of raw nature is only an abstraction, to which man has never fully conformed, but from which he has never fully escaped. When mankind's existence more closely approximated this condition, governments may have existed, because they were necessary to achieve the requirements of physical existence, but they were based, not on reason, but on force. 

 

Writing in the aftermath of the American Revolution, Schiller raised the great hope that mankind could replace government of ``the blind right of the stronger,'' with government based on reason. Long-held conventions were now being questioned, and man was seeking to reorder government to cohere with the true nature of man:  

 

However artfully and firmly blind caprice may have founded its work, however arrogantly it may maintain it and with whatever appearance of veneration may surround it--he may, with this operation [reason], consider it as fully undone, for the work of blind power possesses no authority, before which freedom need bow, and all must accommodate itself to the highest purpose, which reason erects in his personality. In this way the attempt of a people to come of age, to transform its natural state into a moral, arises and justifies itself.  

 

Schiller asks, How can this transformation of the institutions of government come about? The transformation must be carried out by the citizens themselves. This leads to a second question: What qualities are required of the citizens, to make them capable of accomplishing this task? 

 

If mankind were still in its natural, ``savage'' state, it would be incapable of living under, much less establishing republican government. The natural character of man, selfish and violent, aims much more toward destroying, than preserving society. Therefore, the blind instincts of destructive egoism must be calmed, before society can allow multiplicity. But, at the same time, the independence of man's character from the acceptance of despotism, must be secured, before this multiplicity were made subservient to government. 

 

Schiller demonstrates that, if mankind conceives of morality in the form of abstractions, but lacks the will to put these conceptions into practice, then it will be incapable of establishing republican government. Here, Schiller has identified a problem discussed by Plato in {The Republic.} If morality is to order human behavior, it must cease being merely hypothetical, and become a force connected and driven by emotion. Man must develop what Plato described as 'agape,' the emotional commitment to fight for truth and justice. Thus, Schiller writes, in order for man to live under government and still preserve his freedom, his character must be developed, so that ``his instincts are sufficiently harmonious with his reason, in order to be of use as universal legislation.'' 

 

The French Revolution failed, because the overwhelming majority of French citizens did not possess the character required to carry out a successful transformation of their government into a republic. Schiller writes:  

 

The edifice of the natural state rocks, its worn out foundations give way, and a physical possibility seems given, to place the law upon the throne, to honor man finally as an end in himself and to make true freedom the basis of political union. Vain hope! The moral possibility is wanting; and the generous moment finds an unresponsive people.  

 

Schiller describes the lower classes as savages, and the more educated, as barbarians:  

 

In the lower and more numerous classes, brutal lawless instincts present themselves to us, which unleash themselves after the dissolved bond of the civil order, and hasten with unruly fury to their animal satisfaction.  

 

Schiller labels the cultured classes barbarian, because their culture and education has ``so little an ennobling influence on the inner convictions, that it rather strengthens the corruption through maxims.'' The educated classes are worse than the ignorant masses, since they

 

give us the still adverse sight of slackness and of a depravity of character, which revolts so much the more, because culture itself is its source.  

 

Schiller identifies the flawed ideology that had come to dominate Europe in the form of British empiricism and utilitarianism:<pa  

 

Utility is the great idol of the time, for which all powers slave and all talents should pay homage. Upon this coarse balance hath the spiritual merit of art no weight, and robbed of all encouragement, it vanishes from the noisy mart of the century.  

 

Philosophical empiricism had been consciously spread as an ideology to sabotage the effects of the Renaissance. It can be traced back to Paolo Sarpi, the Seventeenth-century Venetian who played a key role in the oligarchy's counter-deployment against the Renaissance. 

 

Sarpi preserved the basic ideological content of Plato's enemy Aristotle, but presented it under a modern cover. He argued that knowledge was based on sense perception, and claimed, following Aristotle, that the nature of man is not to be governed by reason, but to be dominated by the emotions of greed and rage. Hence, Sarpi assumed that the essence of human nature was the very bestial tendency which Schiller shows must be overcome to establish republican government. The empiricist ideologues Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Adam Smith, France's Voltaire, and numerous such others, all derived their views from this bestial conception of man. Hobbes, Locke, {et. al.} argued that society must be organized, such that each man can best achieve the object of his animalistic instincts. For example, John Locke's political theory, the Social Contract, aims at establishing government among men who are driven by greed and rage. 

 

Schiller shows that when man is dominated by this ideology, even the development of his rational faculties works merely to extend his greed:  

 

His heart remains in the sensual, so the infinity of form extends his cravings for material. The first fruits of this misdirected reason are care and fear. Man loses the happy, limited animal existence, and seeks to meet his animal desires over the infinity of time. All unconditional systems of happiness are fruits of this tree.  

 

A people dominated by this ideology would not be capable of establishing a republic,

 

because sensuousness knows no other aim than its advantage, and feels itself driven by no other cause than blind chance; so he makes the former the determiner of his actions, and the latter the ruler of the world.  

 

Hence it was, that the French Revolution succeeded in merely replacing the French monarchy, with a government that was even more arbitrary and tyrannical.

England's Tudor Renaissance

Today, it is often claimed that the theories of the empiricist Locke were the basis for the American Revolution. In fact, the roots of the American Revolution can be traced back to the Renaissance, and the spread of the Renaissance in England.

Henry VII carried out reforms to control the power of the feudal aristocracy and develop England. He brought in as advisers, men who were steeped in the Florentine Renaissance, such as John Morton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was also the patron of Thomas More. A major effort was launched by the circle of collaborators including More, More's friend Desiderius Erasmus, John Colet, and William Lily, to bring the Platonic method of Renaissance learning to England. Around 1510, Erasmus collaborated with the Platonists Colet and Lily to found St. Paul's School. The educational methods introduced at St. Paul's were then spread throughout England with the establishment of public grammar schools. Under Henry VIII, the number of grammar schools expanded dramatically, even as Henry became disoriented by Venetian intrigues. The works of Erasmus, and a textbook written by Lily and Erasmus, were used in the grammar schools thoughout England.

Desiderius Erasmus (1466?-1536), who played such a key role in launching the Renaissance in England, was the most important writer and Platonist philosopher during this period, working to reform both society and the Church. Erasmus promoted the idea that children of all classes and backgrounds should be educated. He recognized that the purpose of education was to develop the creative powers of the individual, and not to focus narrowly on learning a single skill.

Erasmus's text, On the Civility of Children's Conduct, established modern education based on republican principles. He stated that, ``[t]he possessors of true nobility are those who can use on their coat of arms, ideas which they have thoroughly learned from the liberal arts,'' and stressed that education of the entire population ``is a public obligation in no way inferior to the ordering of the army.''

Although a battle raged for control of England during the Sixteenth century, with increasing infiltration by Venetian interests, the period was characterized by efforts to develop the national economy, and uplift and educate the population. Government policies in the tradition of Henry VII consciously promoted manufactures and seafaring. Scientific advances were promoted in areas such as metallurgy and navigation. William Gilbert's {De Magnete} ({On the Magnet}), released in 1600, was the first great book of modern science to be published in England, and the first by an Englishman. Gresham College, established in 1597 as a center for scientific research, spread this knowledge into the broader population. The plays of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe stand as excellent examples of aesthetic education, using drama to create a citizenry capable of comprehending the principles of republican government.

The Tudor Renaissance had a dramatic effect in uplifting the English population, both morally and intellectually. In 1615, England's literacy rate, which was estimated at one-third, was one of the highest of any nation in the world; the literacy rate in France, for example, was then estimated to have been only 20 percent. England's literacy rate rose through the Seventeenth century, reaching a high point of about 50 percent.

The promotion of education, especially during the reigns of Edward VI and Elizabeth I, fostered the founding of new grammar schools, such that by 1600 every boy, even in the remotest part of the country, could find a place of education in his own neighborhood, competent to prepare him to enter college.

The English Puritans were the most supportive of education of any grouping in England. A statement by Cotton Mather, of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, exemplifies the emphasis of both the English and American Puritans on the necessity of literacy for salvation. Mather, in his sermon, ``What Must I Do To Be Saved?,'' answers:

Knowledge, Knowledge; To get good Knowledge, let that be the First Care of them that would be Saved. Knowledge, 'Tis a Principal thing; My Child, Get Knowledge; with all thy might, Get understanding. Oh! That this Resolution might immediately be made in the minds of all our people; I will get as much Knowledge as ever I can! The Word of God must be Read and Heard with Diligence that so you may arrive to the Knowledge that is needful for you. The Catechisms in which you have the Word of God fitted for your more early Apprehension of it must be diligently Studied. Unto all the other Means of Knowledge, there must be added, Humble and Earnest Supplications before the Glorious Lord, You must cry to God for Knowledge, and lift up your Voice to Him for Understanding; Prefer it before Silver, Before any Earthy Treasures.

It was the positive impulse of England's Tudor Renaissance which was the tradition in which the American colonies would grow toward republican self-government.

Part II: John Winthrop and the Founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony

John Winthrop

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Part III: Cotton Mather and the Aesthetic Education of the American Colonies

Cotton Mather

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Benjamin Franklin: The Playfulness of the Beautiful Soul

Benjamin Franklin

Part II: John Winthrop and the Founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony

John Winthrop

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