The Power of Play

Friedrich Schiller on Why Play Makes Us Whole

Can play make us whole? Friedrich Schiller thought so.

Schiller wrote the book On the Aesthetic Education of Man in the 1700s. And his argument is that play makes us whole as humans.

This is perhaps an unusual claim, but his ideas are surprisingly relevant to us today.

Here’s a bit of context on Schiller’s Aesthetic Education that is important to understand his philosophy.

Schiller lived from 1759-1805.[1] And he lived in a time of momentous change.

Revolutions were afoot in both America and France, and the world was changing dramatically.

For most of human history, people had been under the rule of absolute monarchs who often ruled tyrannically and cruelly.

For instance, throughout history, many tyrannical monarchs had thought nothing of enslaving people and taxing them exorbitantly to fund their frivolous royal projects.

It was also common for tyrannical monarchs to imprison their “enemies”, for life, without a trial, for petty offenses.

For instance in France, monarchs often unjustly imprisoned their political enemies in the Bastille, a state prison fortress.

Many such “enemies” died in prison without any trial.

This building and the French monarchy’s unjust use of it was one of the major things that catalyzed the French Revolution.

“Prise de Bastille” (author anonymous), picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

(You can read more about such crimes which caused the French Revolution here. And of course, some similar offenses catalyzed the American Revolution as well.)

Absolutely monarchy had been the rule of the day for much of history.

However, in the Age of Revolution during which Schiller lived, the idea of democracy took root.

People began to imagine that, perhaps, they could think and govern themselves.

They also began to imagine that rulers should rule for the sake of the people, rather than the other way around.

Friedrich Schiller was supportive of, and excited about, these revolutions. He had experienced first-hand the tyranny and cruelty absolute rulers could wield.

For example, Schiller was a bright and talented adolescent. And unfortunately, his talent initially brought him grief.

Portrait Schiller by Ludovike Simanowiz, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Schiller grew up in Wurtemberg, Germany in a province ruled by Baron Carl Eugen who loved hunting, collecting mistresses, and fighting unnecessary wars.

Eugen started an academy to train Germany’s finest young men to fight his wars.[2] And unfortunately, Carl Eugen admired Schiller’s talent and decided that Schiller should be in his academy.

Schiller and his parents had originally planned for Schiller to become a priest.[3]  But Eugen didn’t care about this in the slightest, apparently. Rather, Carl Eugen force-adopted Schiller to make him enter his military academy.[4]

Such behavior was common for the monarchs and aristocrats of Schiller’s day.

And so such experiences, as well as Schiller’s own curious and thoughtful nature, made him a strong supporter of the Age of Revolutions.

Nevertheless, Schilelr was also concerned about the way in which revolutions sometimes devolved into chaos and ruthless violence.

For instance, although the French Revolution started somewhat peacefully, a violent group called the Jacobins eventually took over and started the Reign of Terror.

During this reign, the folks in charge arrested and executed (usually without trial) anyone suspected of being an enemy of the revolution.

Historians estimate that folks in charge of this reign of terror executed about 17,000 people and that about 10,000 more died in prison without a trial.

Supplice de neuf émigrés en octobre 1793″ (author unknown), picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. (The guillotine was the execution method of choice during the Reign of Terror.)

While Schiller generally supported revolutionary movements, he was appalled by the extreme violence of some of them.

Such violence often perpetrated the same offenses revolutionaries were supposedly fighting to abolish.

It was in such a climate that Friedrich Schiller wrote his On the Aesthetic Education of Man.

I used this book a lot in my play class this semester, so it it well-worn. It is also one of my favorite books of all time. You can find On the Aesthetic Education of Man on Amazon or at your local bookstore or library.

The concern of this book was this. Schiller writes,

How can a free society be erected without plunging the existing order into chaos when its members are either corrupt or not prepared to live a free life?[5]

The title of this book, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, may seem irrelevant to the problems of Schiller’s day or our own.

It implies that Schiller is concerned about an education of feeling or an education for beauty.

Drawing and watercolor by Shelly P. Johnson.

How could such a book be helpful in a time when people are fighting for their freedom or their very lives—or both?

Beauty and feeling often seems disconnected from the everyday practical affairs of life.

But it turns out that this book is incredibly relevant both for Schiller’s time and ours.

Schiller argues in Aesthetic Education that people in his day were often only focused on politics but that they needed in fact to focus on beauty.

That’s because human beings are creatures of both sense and reason.

As such, they are born into a material world that strongly influences their senses. And yet, they possess consciousness of the state in which they live.

For example, humans realize that they are “living in a state” and that they can use their reason to arrange and rearrange this state to be more moral.

This basically means that humans realize that they don’t have to live life merely as it is.

Rather, they can arrange life and transform the world around them to be more just, humane, or beautiful.

And in fact, that is what humans have been doing ever since they arrived on the scene.

But Schiller argues that in the attempt to move from an almost purely sensuous existence (like, perhaps animals lead), humans have to move to rational and moral principles.

So, Schiller wonders how humans can achieve this passage effectively.[6]

In this process, Schiller argues, they typically err in two major ways.

First, people often neglect reason and rational principles when they first become aware of their freedom. As such, they live simply according to their passions.

But this isn’t helpful because living solely according to passions leads us to live a chaotic, contradictory life.

This is the problem of savagery, Schiller argues.

When we think of someone who is savage, we often think of someone who is violently cruel to others, motivated by unruly passions.

For instance, someone who lashed out at someone in anger and harms them acts savagely.

I submit to you the Reign of Terror as an example of savagery.

On the other hand, sometimes people neglect their sensuous, material nature and try to live solely according to rational principles.

This also is unhelpful.

Living solely according to rational principles, while neglecting physical needs and emotions, can cause us to miss the mark, living fragmented, robotic, or dogmatic lives.

And living solely according to reason while neglecting our material life, Schiller argues, causes us to develop the problem of barbarism.

People behave in a barbaric manner when they try to tyrannize over others, without regard to their emotional and physical well-being.

For instance, if a boss tries to make his employees work inhumane hours in sweltering work conditions, and he deprives them of breaks, we might say that such a person is barbaric.

In saying this, we mean that the boss enforces draconian rules without regard to people’s feelings or physical needs.

I submit to you the Bastille as a general example of barbarism.

Schiller was concerned about the problems of both savagery and barbarism, and he observed both in the age of revolution in which he lived.

If we reflect for a moment, we will likely note these same tendencies towards savagery and barbarism today, both on a political and individual level.

For instance, sometimes political leaders or other kinds of leaders still try to impose abstract principles of law or moral ideals.

They do this without regard to people’s emotions or physical needs.

And sometimes people still live purely according to their passions (often roiled by media) and rebel with unrestrained violence and cruelty.

On an individual level, most of at one point in our lives feel ruled by our passions.

For example, perhaps we wish to treat our body better, but our passions lead us to eat food that makes us feel sick or consume substances that incapacitate our thinking.

As such, we live a semi-savage existence.

And many of us, often in attempt to control our passions, go to the opposite extreme and set strict and often unrealistic goals for our life.

Such goals aim at controlling our sensuous natures but sometimes do so without regard to our emotions or physical needs.

In doing so, we relate to ourselves in a barbaric way.

But Schiller argues that a human existence should neglect neither reason nor  material, physical needs.

He writes,

But can man really be intended to neglect himself for the sake of any purpose?

Should the purposes of nature rob us of a completeness which the purposes of reason prescribe for us?

It must therefore be wrong that the development of individual powers requires the sacrifice of their totality;

or if the rule of nature strives so for this end, then it is up to us to restore, through higher artifice, the totality in our nature that artifice destroyed.[7]

Schiller believes that there must be something that can helps us reconcile our material impulse and rational impulse and help us live a beautiful life.

That unifying power in our life, Schiller argues, is a third impulse called the play impulse.

The play impulse helps us harmonize these aspects of our existence:

The material side which is[8]  . . .



Occurring in time


And the rational side which is . . .[9]





The play impulse does this by helping us understand the beautiful in our day-to-day lives and strive to live accordingly.

An example will help to illustrate Schiller’s point.

Think back to a time when you were young, playing with your friends, and it was awesome.

You might have been riding your bikes, playing basketball, or playing a massive game of hide-and-seek or capture-the-flag.

When a game is good, it has rules that create a sense of order and rationality but that allow a great deal of freedom as well.

A good game or play environment provides both structure and freedom.

In doing so, games and play help children or people playing achieve a more excellent version of themselves.

Games and play elicit the greater excellence of people in their material condition.

It does this through joyful and rational competition, creative innovation, and skill development

For instance, I used to love playing capture the flag at a summer camp I worked at when I was in college.

Capture the flag operates according to certain rules all players must honor for the game to exist.

Your goal is to capture the opponents’ flag, and if you get caught trying to do so, you must go to jail.

Nevertheless, the game allows a lot of freedom. Such freedom inspires  teammates to create ingenious strategies for capturing their opponents’ flag without getting caught.

Some of these strategies require high levels of cooperation and creativity.

Through innovating within the rules of the game, Capture-the-Flag, or any game, can become a beautiful, well-played game in the process.

And in doing so, the players feel their physical and rational sides harmonized in a play impulse that helps them become whole.

This is what all excellent games and play experiences do: they help us feel whole by harmonizing our rational and material side.

Schiller writes that

The playful impulse aims at the annulment of time within time, uniting becoming with absolute being, and change with identity.[10]

By this, Schiller means that good play is unified diversity, timelessness captured in time, and structured freedom.

And he notes further that play combines happiness and perfection in humanity in the “deepest community”.[11]

Drawing and watercolor by Shelly P. Johnson.

This unifying, beautiful aspect of play is why it feels so good to us and why all people in all time periods have played.

So here is a question: Why can’t life in general be this way?

Of course, life can sometimes be painful and hard and overwhelming.

But what if we took Schiller seriously and believed that life, despite its difficulties, is meant to be play?

If we took such an idea seriously, it would mean that we aren’t meant to live purely according to our passions or purely according to rational principles.

Rather, our goal is to catch a vision of beauty in our daily condition, a vision that the play impulse reveals to us.

In pursuing such a vision, we unite our physical and rational side and feel whole.

And when we live in such a way to honor this capacity in both ourselves and other people, we live moral lives.

Living this way won’t always look like playing capture-the-flag. Living a playful life is more of a vision we have of life or an orientation we adopt towards it.

I think of this kind of life as the ludic life.

Schiller writes,

Man plays only when he is a man in the full sense of the word, and he is only a complete man when he plays.[12]

By the way, the historian Johann Huizinga wrote an entire book called Homo Ludens which takes Schiller’s notion of the play impulse seriously.

 This is a challenging but fascinating book. You can find Homo Ludens on Amazon or at your local bookstore or library.

Huizinga argues that “Culture arises in the form of play . . .  it is played from the very beginning.”[13]

You might also like these posts on play:

Aristotle on Eutrapelia, the Virtue of Playfulness

Playfulness and Performance

Playfulness is Next to Godliness


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Works Cited

[1] Schiller, Friedrich. On the Aesthetic Education of Man. Keith Tribe, trans. Penguin Classics. UK.

2016, pg. viii.

[2] Ibid, ix.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, vii.

[6] Ibid, 7

[7] Ibid, 23.

[8] Ibid, Letters 11-13

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid, 51.

[11] Ibid, 52.

[12] Ibid, 56-57.

[13] Huizinga, Johann. Homo Ludens. Martino Publishing. Mansfield Centre, CT: 2014, pg. 46.


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