Ideals or the enthusiasm for freedom

The Kantian imperative of self-determination “Determine yourself from within” is the credo of German Idealism. However, it was not a question of egocentric self-realization, but rather one of the eroticism and charisma of abandonment. A simple test: Type the word “ideal” into Google. With a click of the mouse you are hit with: “the ideal SatNav to get you to your party”, “ideal travel destinations” and the “ideal son-in-law” to the “ideal laxative”. This reveals a term that has degenerated into a word that makes things sound more appealing; a term that was once at the core of a cultural philosophy that was debated by some of the greatest names in the history of German thought: Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling. These elite thinkers were backed up by exceptional poets and authors such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, Johann Gottfried Herder, Novalis (Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg), Friedrich Hölderlin and the brothers August Willhelm and Friedrich Schlegel. They all made reference to Plato, the Greek founding father of the theory of ideas. He discovered that the “idea” was the driving force behind everything we think and do: the archetype of sensory appearance. He believed goodness to be the highest form of idea. For him, goodness formed the basis of truth and knowledge and was at one with divine rationality.

In contrast, nowadays, ideas are almost exclusively seen as the cheap, illegitimate offspring of material values, who are then the only masters they serve. Ideals, which, to some extent, represent ideas in their pure form that can also be understood as idealized concepts that have been made absolute, must succumb, like unworldly relics and extinct fossils, to sentiments ranging from contempt full of irony to cynically derisive disdain. Finally, the very word “ideality”, according to Hegel “merely a perception of Being”, gives rise to furrowed brows on all sides. Around two hundred years ago, during that era of German Idealism situated between the Age of Enlightenment, Classicism and Romanticism, which lasted no more than around sixty years, beginning in the last third of the 17th century and continuing until the first third of the 18th century; an era that embodied inspiration and intellect such as had never been seen before or since, an entire generation was roused, either directly or indirectly, by Plato’s genius to thus thoroughly renew itself. “Sapere Aude! Dare to think for yourself ”, was defined by Kant as the credo of the Enlightenment in 1784, five years before the tumultuous events of the French Revolution. “Idealism”, wrote Friedrich Schlegel, “is, in practical terms nothing more than the spirit of that revolution” and in a clearsighted summary, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, following Rousseau’s example, make freedom the mantra of the day: “My system is, from beginning to end, a mere analysis of freedom”, claims Fichte, Schelling generalizes: “The beginning and end of all philosophy is freedom.” Hegel makes a universal claim and asserts that the whole of world history is “progress in the consciousness of freedom”. At the same time, Kant's pupils revived Plato’s maxims for their rebellious generation by redefining the relationship between reality and idealism. Kant therefore used the understanding that “ideas represent nothing more than the concept of perfection that does not actually exist in reality” to develop his theory of the “transcendental idealism of all appearances”: “Space and time are merely forms of visualization in which our perception of objects appears to possess reality.” Fichte, Hegel and Schelling go one step further and define Being as an exclusively subjective state of Being and the reality of the individual as the only form of reality. Whilst Fichte understood “the individual to be the absolute subject”, Schelling describes the individual “as the beginning and end of all philosophy as it is he who is freedom”. Hegel, for whom the individual and the soul are one and the same, understands the individual to be “the universal that lies within itself ”. Finally, Arthur Schopenhauer, who was one of the most influential pioneers of the relativistic, nihilistic consciousness of the modern age and was venerated by Friedrich Nietzsche, Richard Wagner, Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann and Samuel Beckett, brings the dialectic relationship between subject and object and reality and idealism to a point that remains valid today: “The whole of the material world is, and remains, a perception, and is therefore entirely governed by subjectivity the world over; that is to say that it has transcendental ideality.”

The understanding that the measure of subjectivity is linked to ideality and therefore to the extent of the idealism in question, and not in fact to materialism, appears to have virtually disappeared nowadays. It is therefore helpful to take a closer look at the prototype of idealism and at the great genius of a poet, dramatist, philosopher and aesthetician, Friedrich Schiller. As far as the author Rüdiger Safranski, who dedicated a brilliant biography to Schiller, is concerned, Schiller virtually invented the concept of German Idealism: “Schiller had a passion for the adventure of freedom”, notes Safranski, “and this is what made him the Sartre of the late eighteenth century. Schiller’s idealism is based on the belief that it is possible to control things rather than allowing them to control you. Like Sartre, he declared: What counts is that you make the most of being who you are”.

In a truly modern fashion, Schiller captures the essence of Kant’s philosophy and moulds it into a single short sentence: “Determine yourself from within.” But neither he nor Kant understood the concept of self-determination as it is usually understood today as an all-out ego trip to satisfy more or less embarrassing consumer desires. It was not in fact a case of infantile, egocentric self-realization or of hopelessly reworking the emptiness of the self. It was more about the idealists of German classicism and romanticism pursuing their “productive imagination” (Kant) and discovering that self-determination was the necessary prerequisite in order to wrest the unending freedom of creativity from utilitarianism, the one-dimensional principle of what is useful. Hence, Schiller defines beauty as “Freedom in the phenomenon” and was followed shortly afterwards by Novalis who re-valued the whole existence in aesthetic terms: “By giving the commonplace an air of great importance, by making the ordinary appear mysterious, by giving the known the dignity of the unknown and by making the finite appear infinite, I am romanticising it.” A breath of such an enthusiasm for change and of that charisma of freedom would be highly appropriate in the present day. A breath of that gushing hymn-like temperament, which penetrates Schiller’s “Joy, thou source of light immortal … this kiss to the entire world!”, taken from his “Ode to Joy”, which was ingeniously set to music by Beethoven, could perhaps help to thaw our frozen souls. Since in a thoroughly “deidealized” way, we have become the victims of a crass form of materialism, just as Alexander Gorkow, the author of the wonderful novel “Mona”, which is full of gruff humor, characterizes the emotional state of his hero, who is a specialist in cold chain systems. Unfortunately, the reigning egotism is almost entirely purely determined by materialism and is no longer characterized by idealism. In a world where everyone and everything is turned into a brand, ideals are only interesting in terms of how they can be exploited, as strategical elements of charitable events, intended to promote image and sales.

Fortunately, a certain level of discomfort as far as the unethical nature of absolute feasibility and manipulation is concerned has emerged in recent times. What is more, in the true paradoxical irony of our fate on earth, this has been sparked off by climate change and globalization. Thus, it appears as if the melting polar ice caps, of all things, are thawing to some extent the post-capitalist frozen rigidity of our age: Eco glam rather than ego glam has been the motto of more and more of our contemporaries in recent times. Even if all this is, once again, primarily a question of overmarketed “Fair Trade” products, and ecologically “green”, that is to say environmentally conscious, business, the new, so-called ethical capitalism still offers a ray of hope. The question is, does this provide hope that a new form of idealism is emerging? In any case, we can learn from the heroes of idealism that values such as love, friendship, security and trust exist beyond marketing and feasibility. And all those who do not yet have the courage to tackle romantic idealism might begin by taking a look at Jean Paul Sartre’s existentialist idealism, the maxim of which is: “Every person embodies the entire world.”