“Aesthetic education” is the education of feelings, which had been sidelined by the Enlightenment, resulting in the corruption of moral sensibility and sensitivity. The instrument of aesthetic education is art, and artists, Schiller says, should devote themselves to creating “symbols of perfection.” If such symbols become ubiquitous, and constitute a people’s main cultural diet, so to speak, they will be inspired to raise themselves to art’s implied standards of integrity, harmony, and wholeness.
The implied standards are captured in a theory of human nature, which is to be deduced from the nature of the human mind. Human beings are constituted by two seemingly opposed principles, namely personal autonomy and freedom on the one hand, and its determining conditions on the other; in more familiar terms, mind and body or reason and appetite. The growth to maturity of any individual consists of bringing the two elements into a harmonious relationship with one another.
Growth of this kind is organized by two drives, one directed to satisfying the immediate needs of the moment and the other devoted to an enduring sense of personhood grounded in necessary and eternal truths – or in more familiar terms, what is required for sheer life and what is required for a fully human or virtuous life.
When these drives are perfectly balanced, a new one emerges: the Spieltrieb or play drive, which characterizes a personality dominated neither by the pleasures of the senses nor by abstract principles of reason and morality. Instead of experiencing morality as requiring us to suppress our sensuous desires, or the life of the senses as lawless and selfish, we will seek forms that exhibit reason in concrete and sensuous form, which for Schiller constitutes beauty.
Aesthetic education in this sense is learning to appreciate beautiful forms, which awakens in us the drive to harmonize and integrate the elements of the self. Schiller offers the example of the Juno Ludovisi:
Here, timeless truths of reason are given an immediately sensuous form, and in contemplating it our two drives converge on and are fully satisfied by one and the same object. In the presence of such beauty, we experience complete freedom to follow reason or the senses as our will directs; neither dominates the other. The emergence of the play drive, then, coincides with freedom in the sense of individual autonomy and self-sufficiency. “[M]an only plays when he is in the fullest sense of the word a human being, and he is only fully a human being when he plays.”
In practice, different individuals, whose drives may be “out of balance” in different directions, will require different kinds of art and aesthetic experience. Some will need to learn to appreciate works of rational serenity, while others will need to become familiar with works that stimulate the senses.
Schiller also advances a vision of the “aesthetic state,” but it isn’t clear whether such a state emerges when humanity has been perfected by aesthetic education, or whether an aesthetic state must first be founded in order to provide an aesthetic education.