The meaning of beauty has fallen from a state of grace. No longer is it connected to goodness or truth, to the mind and the spirit. Instead, in today’s popular culture, beauty is overwhelmingly associated with the body. Corporeal beauty has become an emblem of a particular global value system, one that perpetuates an economy of desire focused on appearances, money, and fame, sought by most, but acquired by few. The quality of Beauty has been reduced to the shallow, the ephemeral, the transient. But it was not always that way.
During the Enlightenment, the concepts of Bildung, self-cultivation, and die Schöne Seele, the Beautiful Soul, blossomed in German philosophy. Bildung as a concept and a practice first emerged in 16th century theology, but was most rigorously developed in the 18th and 19th centuries. Die Schöne Seele emerged from Bildung in the 18th century. Both concepts were inspired by Greek aesthetic philosophy, especially Platonic ideas of beauty and goodness and by the Neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus’s ideas on kalokagathia, a hybrid word synthesizing the quality of kalos (beautiful) with that of agathos (noble, good).
In the 17th and 18th centuries, Bildung was defined as education, or, more precisely, the rigorous cultivation of one’s intellect and self. Education in this sense has a rich, holistic meaning: a poetic process of intellectual, spiritual, and cultural development that conjoins advancement of one’s own faculties with the objective of contributing to the commonweal. Bildung was ultimately an aesthetic ideal focused on developing human capacities, knowledge and culture. Similarly, the concept of die Schöne Seele, entailed a rigorous pursuit of personal cultivation to create a convergence of the individual aesthetic impulse with a collective, ethical ideal. The Beautiful Soul was a virtuous soul, one that possessed a sense of justice, pursued wisdom, and practiced benevolence through an aestheticized proclivity for the Good. Together they may be defined as the sensory-aesthetic cultivation of one’s intellectual, moral, and imaginative faculties for the purpose of self-realization, cultural refinement and collective human flourishing.
Many of the most prominent intellectuals, including Immanuel Kant, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich von Schiller, Christoph Martin Wieland, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Friedrich Nietzsche and Thomas Mann, were deeply committed to advancing the concepts and practices of Bildung and die Schöne Seele. They devoted a substantial part of their intellectual careers to the definition and development of these concepts through philosophical tracts, essays, letters, literary works, and theatre. Their ideas were disseminated and proliferated throughout Europe, engaging overlapping circles of intellectuals, artists, educators, politicians, and a critically debating public for over two centuries.
At the core of Bildung and die Schöne Seele was the idea that the individual possessed an innate cognitive potential. When stimulated by the right environmental and educational conditions, personal desire, and self-directed action, this latent potentiality could be realized, much like a dormant seed induced to blossom. The realization of individual potential demanded engaged, rigorous, and sustained activity directed at a purposeful end that contributed to society. Such activity was a process, but also a disposition of the spirit that could be cultivated, stimulated by a genuine motivation to pursue knowledge for its own sake and for its contribution to humanity.
In viewing Bildung from a contemporary perspective, we might interpret it simply to mean education in an instrumental sense, but this does not capture the spirit of the word, Bildung was not a practical end per se, such as a student who sought university education to gain a prestigious job, or a painter who learned the techniques of his or her métier merely to sell work. Rather, Bildung was a deep commitment to knowledge itself, and, according to Schiller and Goethe this commitment, deserved to be honored as an exemplary human goal.
Likewise, the Beautiful Soul was the symbol of self-directed activity intended to release pure human potential without regard to a person’s ego. Some actions of a Beautiful Soul that were often cited in the 18th century were, for instance, a good deed that was performed without the public knowing of its existence and pursued for no other reason than to do good, or an instrument that was played without the intent to receive accolades from an audience, or a subject that was mastered without seeking adulation for one’s erudition. A Beautiful Soul was not seduced by fame, power, or recognition. Those who craved immediate gratification and social admiration were thought to lose the motivation and qualities necessary to perfect their soul.
By removing self-cultivation and the Beautiful Soul from external forms of validation, Goethe, Schiller, and Humboldt believed that the individual was freed to follow a true course necessary for his or her personal development and to overcome the superficiality of intellectual artifice and social façade. In so doing, one moved beyond evanescent pursuits derived from fashionable social preferences and transitory circumstances that had no reference to or significance for the ultimate ends of human existence. In practicing Bildung and die Schöne Seele one submitted to a rigorous set of values and conduct that were complete, all-encompassing and defined the worth, meaning, and purpose of Being. Like the Platonic forms, however, Bildung and die Schöne Seele, promoted abstract ends of beauty, truth, and goodness that could never fully be attained—to approach their realization and be guided by their principles was reward enough. The aspiration and actions directed towards these ends, not the ends themselves, validated the concepts and honored the life that was lived in their pursuit.
Despite these stringent demands, the pursuit of self-cultivation and the Beautiful Soul was not considered a burden to Goethe, Schiller, and Humboldt, but rather a joy and a privilege because they affirmed subjectivity, induced a profound sense of happiness, and promoted personal exploration, adventure, wanderlust, and curiosity, all of which were part of the process of becoming cultivated. The proponents of self-cultivation, most especially Humboldt, advocated for this enlightened understanding of the good life because they believed it ensured a more reflective and stable society. They advanced ideas of education and the state that afforded individuals the greatest opportunities to pursue these experiences and find fulfillment in the products of culture.
Similarly, the Beautiful Soul encouraged self-exploration and individual freedom to shape personal identity. Emphasis on the individual was not intended to remove him or her from the world but rather to integrate into the full human experience. Schiller believed that if persons pursued actions out of mechanical obedience to moral principles, they would only temporarily postpone an inevitable deviance from morality. But if they felt the freedom to choose and to pursue a Beautiful Soul and, in so doing, transform their minds, spirit, and actions, then they would reach a more perfect state of morality. The emphasis on disciplined, hard work in a search for truth and self-improvement, yet equally on pleasure and freedom to explore and learn from the world was liberating and affirmed both the immediate experience and future potential of the individual.
The principal attributes of the Beautiful Soul were goodness and justice. Coming closer to attaining the state of a Beautiful Soul required a human-centered approach that affirmed the fundamental goodness of humanity and demanded its concerted practice. The Good was considered a source of great meaning and absolute happiness while moral frailty and fallibility was seen as a deviation from natural law. The Beautiful Soul was, to Schiller, a representation of perfected morality, a state of ultimate virtue that overcame the unsavory human qualities of greed, envy, anger, and vanity in exchange for the values of kindness, courage, patience, honesty, loyalty, and nobility of spirit.
According to these concepts, the Good was attained through Beauty. The beautiful, in its relationship to Truth touched upon the form of the Good and the Good possessed the essential characteristics of Beauty. For Kant and Schiller, Bildung and die Schöne Seele attained the Good by cultivating the subjective, sensory experience of beauty which, by opening one’s horizons and developing the senses, strengthened faculties of empathy that led to a deeper compassion for others and attentiveness for the wellbeing of the social collective. The act of looking at a beautiful painting, for example, elevated a person beyond ego and self-absorption into a realm of universal concern and contemplation. Beautiful experiences offered an exquisite interlude from a quotidian world of blunted emotions, weakened morals, inexplicable forces, human shortcomings, and unlived possibilities that might otherwise degrade one’s spirit and relationships with others. They provided a lens through which to perceive the elegance of the universe, to revive the idealistic hope and curiosity of youth, and to illuminate from within the ultimate purpose of life.
Beauty also brought clarity to understanding the nature of Being and the value of human association in the collective pursuit of Truth. The sublime knowledge derived from the humbling experience of the Beautiful inspired the desire for the Good and awakened the sense of possibility necessary to live in its image. Beauty became not only an object of philosophical interest but also a mode of living, a way of looking at the world and existing within it. By self-cultivation in the name of the Good, one’s life literally became a beautiful art form, the individual parts elements of an integral composition. Goethe was particularly occupied with portraying life as a work of art that reflected ethical principles and he explored ideas for forming a more “beautiful humanity.” This artistic process of moral refinement gave grandeur and significance to that which might otherwise be taken for granted as mundane; it heightened sensitivity to every action that constituted reality.
The aestheticization of Bildung and die Schöne Seele had a moral urgency, for if every action painted the ultimate canvas of a person’s life, each stroke was critical to the value of the final composition. Creating and engaging with art became a logical path towards the social good and a metric for the Beautiful Soul. However, the good that music or the visual arts produced could never compare to that of the Beautiful Soul itself, for the latter was the ultimate art form, the amalgamation of all creative energies. Other arts were merely tools used to stimulate and pursue the Beautiful Soul. The obvious critique, therefore, that an evil person could produce something beautiful, like a symphony and that this disproved the connection between beauty and goodness did not hold. A person who created beauty did not necessarily possess a Beautiful Soul. Art and aesthetic experience were beneficial and enlightening for all and assisted in this process but they were not the ends; the art of thinking and living beautifully was the end.
Many people during the 18th century from the educated elite to the peasants, from intellectuals and politicians to artists, believed that life was a work of art, a moral poetics, and felt empowered to live it as such through the aestheticized practice of self-cultivation. Bildung did not define the person who should pursue it or demand that he or she excel in everything. Rather it advanced the notion that all people must choose a métier or life course that suits their own needs and nature and was useful in the world. In finding a relevant and meaningful path of cultivation, one’s activities became a symbol of human potential and elevated the individual as a contributor to a collective social good. Bildung was democratic because every person had a skill, passion, or talent that could be applied.
Like self-cultivation, the Beautiful Soul was a widespread and popular concept in elite, bourgeois and working class circles because it was meritocratic and offered the promise of happiness to all who pursued it. It did not depend upon social status, inheritance, or inherent states of being, but rather was formed through a strong work ethic, diligence, and personal commitment that resided in individual agency. Since even the act of thinking beautifully was considered a pathway towards self-cultivation, all could pursue it, even those who did not have the time or resources to engage with art. Its followers formed a new collective cultural lineage that was universal and inclusionary.
These characteristics of Bildung and die Schöne Seele promoted social harmony across divisions of class, status and gender.
In the concept of Bildung, harmony was a multidimensional process starting first with the individual developing a personal concordance of mind, body and spirit. Harmony existed both on the level of individual activity as well as in the totality of actions that came to define a person’s life. For example, the act of writing a poem engaged first with the body, the representation of an idea embodied in the act of writing, then with the mind, the process of thinking critically, the use of the imagination and sensory faculties, and finally with the spirit, the nourishment of the soul in the very goodness of the activity. Through the sustained practice of Bildung over the course of one’s life, the mind, body and spirit were integrated, not just in a singular, ephemeral moment but in a state of transcendence that harmonized the individual with the world and, indeed, the cosmos. Self-cultivation and the pursuit of a beautiful soul were portrayed, especially by Goethe, as a subjective undertaking that aligned with a larger cosmological ordering, an impulse grounded in the essential ontological categories and processes of nature.
This cosmological harmony had religious connotations, especially in the earlier history of the Bildung concept. To self-cultivate was a spiritual exercise, a technique for salvation that led not only to a harmony of the mind but also to harmony of the soul. During the 16th and 17th centuries, Bildung was considered harmonious on two levels: on the subjective level of the mind, body, spirit and soul of the individual, and on the objective level, integrating God, nature and the universe. One could make the analogy that pursuing self-cultivation was like praying in a secular sense. Self-cultivation had a ritualistic quality and daily significance, providing a framework for living and a coherent structure of action. But it was above all a symbol for a commitment to a greater Good. Its’ very utility rendered it transcendental.
That something as pragmatic as self-cultivation could enter the domain of the abstract, symbolic and metaphysical is significant. Bildung superseded mere pedagogical ends and became an entire belief system and philosophical doctrine in its own right. This was one of its great strengths and arguably the reason why it occupied the minds of so many important intellectuals. Both Bildung and die Schöne Seele as concepts remained dynamic, transformative ideals connected to an appreciation of culture and not a permanent system of fixed and inflexible rules of conduct that were impervious to change. They were specific enough to be binding and character building for individuals, but at the same time, abstract enough to reflect upon the human condition writ large, and thereby to remain relevant in an ever-evolving social milieu.
As the concept of Bildung evolved, so too did this transcendental end. By the mid to late 18th century, a third level of harmony in a societal sense was emphasized that provided a conceptual link between personal harmony and objective harmony in a time when humanistic ideas were quickly becoming a pervasive ideology. This gravitational pull towards the collective social good saved Bildung from remaining unserious, at least to philosophy, as a practical ideology and a form of pedagogy with no larger ambitions. Equally Bildung was rescued from its other extreme as an overly ambitious, unfounded utopian ideal without empirical validity. Bildung was able to engage larger ideals and remain socially relevant.
Because Bildung and die Schöne Seele espoused the good and unified the individual, society, and metaphysics in a way that was pragmatically appealing, spiritually convincing and had the potential for social effect, they ultimately became politicized. Bildung’s universality, its abstractness, its concern for the good life, its meta-reflections on the implication of our actions and its intention to engage higher values in everyday experience in a spirit of egalitarianism made it an emancipating philosophy ripe with political potential. Its particular strength during the Enlightenment was that it offered a counter-narrative to a rigid social and political order, providing a new conception of orienting individual action and human agency that embraced quickly changing views. Bildung and die Schöne Seele were seen as radical without inciting revolution. They were practicable concepts on a larger social scale and in the political realm precisely because of their abstract and aesthetic nature.
There were a number of thinkers, most especially Wilhelm von Humboldt, who developed pragmatic plans for Bildung’s implementation on a larger scale. Humboldt’s model of higher education advanced the principles of Bildung in the school system. It promoted accessibility to cultural goods, such as museums, concert halls, and libraries, for all of the German public no matter what their socio-economic position. It institutionalized the subjects and activities that Bildung espoused such as philosophy, literature, and the arts, and encouraged opportunities for personal exploration. Likewise, the Enlightenment salonnières, promoted Bildung by creating a space in their salons where a diverse public came together to self-cultivate by discussing ideas and experiencing culture in a spirit of egalitarianism. Humboldt’s visionary contributions to the educational system, the lineage and impact of which still exists today, and the Enlightenment salon are two of the strongest examples of Bildung’s potential to induce and direct socio-political change. Thus, Bildung and die Schöne Seele became a social and philosophical doctrine, a politicised ideal and a secular metaphysics of human goodness that aligned with the basic belief system of the Enlightenment.
In the 21st century Bildung and die Schöne Seele may appear to be antiquated concepts in a world dominated by instrumentality. But the essential elements of this philosophy are timeless; they have remained vital and relevant from Ancient Greece to Florentine Humanism to the German Enlightenment and continue to offer valuable insights into the human condition today. Reviving such a virtue ethics, and the institutions that promote it, may help us find purpose in our own lives, in our relationships with others, and in our responsibilities to the collective wellbeing. Perhaps now, more than ever before, in the face of an unsustainable and inequitable economy of desire, there is hope, meaning and poetry in the pursuit of the Beautiful Soul.