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Persuasive Art and Schiller’s Aesthetics

Also Tolkien, Peter Kreeft, Inception, Jordan Peterson, and the relative value of fiction vs. nonfiction.

One of my new year’s resolutions this year was to read a Harvard Classics volume after every few other books. As part of this, I read “Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man,” a 1794 piece by German literary figure Friedrich Schiller. Aesthetics has always struck me as a pie-in-the-sky area of philosophy—yes, I’m an engineer—but Schiller made it fascinating by convincingly relating aesthetic experience to persuasion. In getting me to think about how art can persuade, he raised my relative value for fiction vs. nonfiction (reading and writing).

Schiller posits a dichotomy between sensory pleasures and rational imperatives. Some things (think chocolate) appeal primarily to the senses, in a pretty direct way, without much rational engagement. And some things (think mathematical proofs or moral imperatives) appeal to logic, without much sensory engagement. Neither sphere involves freedom; you don’t really make a conscious choice of whether to enjoy chocolate or not, nor can you choose whether a logical proof is valid or not. So working purely in either sphere doesn’t give scope for human freedom. It also isn’t likely to lead to lasting change, as sensory responses are fickle, and people tend to resist or ignore cold logical argument. As he says (full book free on PG here),

This medium situation in which the soul is neither physically nor morally constrained, and yet is in both ways active, merits essentially the name of a free situation, and if we call the state of sensuous determination physical, and the state of rational determination logical or moral, that state of real and active determination should be called the aesthetic.

This medium situation in which the soul is neither physically nor morally constrained, and yet is in both ways active, merits essentially the name of a free situation, and if we call the state of sensuous determination physical, and the state of rational determination logical or moral, that state of real and active determination should be called the aesthetic.

So art, in Schiller’s telling, operates at the intersection of the two spheres. The viewer (reader, listener) is not bludgeoned into submission by the argument, nor are they just passively consuming a sensory experience. The art blends sensory appeal and rational messaging in a way that results in something greater. When confronted with a work of art, someone can simultaneously appreciate the sensory experience, think about the rational argument, and freely react to both. So great art tends to be thought-provoking and ultimately persuasive. Thus Schiller:

In vain will you combat their maxims, in vain will you condemn their actions; but you can try your moulding hand on their leisure. Drive away caprice, frivolity and coarseness from their pleasures, and you will banish them from their acts, and at length from their feelings. Everywhere that you meet them, surround them with great, noble, and ingenious forms; multiply around them the symbols of perfection, till appearance triumphs over reality, and art over nature.

This is one answer to the question: how can you persuade someone to change their world view—actually change their mind on questions of basic importance? Obviously this question is of interest to anyone who thinks they have knowledge or insight worth sharing with the world. Many people proceed as if logical or empirical argument is the trick, but that rarely seems to work (even a little bit) for deep issues like views of human nature, belief in God, core political beliefs, etc.

Schiller’s answer is that you change someone’s view by appealing to them on multiple levels, without compelling them on any. You can open their mind with beauty while also suggesting something to their logical faculties.

To come at this from a different angle, the movie “Inception” (which is art in my book) discusses how to durably implant an idea in someone’s head: basically the question we are talking about here.

The protagonist’s key trick is doing it in such a way that the subject thinks they came up with the idea. This happens in the context of an experience, the multi-layer dream, that combines sensory and argumentative elements. The target wouldn’t buy a purely argumentative appeal (dismantle your father’s business empire because it would probably be better for you, not to mention for the world) or a purely sensory appeal (step 1: trippy dream, step 2: …, step 3: dismantle father’s empire/profit). But when the subject doesn’t realize he is being persuaded, the argument wrapped in a sensory experience works, like Schiller says.

Going deeper, consider that the movie “Inception,” as a work of art, is also itself an act of inception that durably spreads Christopher Nolan’s thinking, using exactly the technique the protagonist in the movie uses. It’s a movie where YOU are meant to dream about a reality where people have dreams within dreams within dreams, and just like Leonardo DiCaprio is planting ideas partway down that stack without his target noticing, Christopher Nolan is slipping in ideas all along the stack without you noticing. This works, again, because of the blended sensory and logical information. And so millions of people came away from the movie with a slightly deeper subliminal theory of how people change their minds. And of course Christopher Nolan’s answer is much the same as Schiller’s.

But does artistic inception work? Artists think they are influencing people, and people think they are being influenced by artists, but it’s hard to nail down. In principle you could do a study where a bunch of undergraduates’ positions on various philosophical questions are evaluated before and after experiencing various works of art, and thus hack your way to p=0.05, a PhD in psychology, and a haunting suspicion that your findings will not replicate. But what I’m really interested in are long-term subconscious effects from freely encountered artistic experiences, on a margin where quality (production value) is held constant but philosophical orientation varies. That’s not really a scientifically accessible question. However, I humbly assert that Schiller is right, and art does influence people.

I offer The Lord of the Rings as a classic example. (Obviously the book, not the movies.) I recently read Catholic scholar Peter Kreeft’s The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind the Lord of the Rings. Kreeft marshals a book’s worth of examples to show that LotR is shot through with Christian themes: its heroes are Christian heroes, its events follow Christian patterns, and so forth. And thus without ever preaching, it has relevance to a host of topics. Kreeft quotes C. S. Lewis: “It is a master key; use it on what door you like.” Few readers will explicitly consider the underlying philosophy, but nonetheless, they’re subliminally absorbing it.

And if the artist has philosophical depth, that tends to leak into the story regardless of authorial intent. Kreeft gives one example:

If the reader at first does not realize the centrality of death to the story, and then later, upon reflection, does, Tolkien himself seems to have gone through the same two stages of awareness. He writes that “it is only in reading the work myself . . . that I become aware of the dominance of the theme of Death” (Letters, no. 208, p. 267). Aware not only of death but of immortality, and the contrast between true and false immortality, “the hideous peril of confusing true ‘immortality’ with limitless serial longevity” (ibid.).

There is subliminal philosophy leaking all over: from the writer into the book, and from the book into the reader. This may also be how “Inception” ended up with the themes I discussed above. I don’t suppose that Christopher Nolan sat down and wrote on his notepad “todo: communicate my philosophy of aesthetics and cognition via a blockbuster movie,” but I do imagine that he is more thoughtful than your average guy, and that his musings about all sorts of things are working their way into his movies.

The whole idea of subliminally absorbing a worldview from art feels a little bit squishy. But where else do worldviews come from? Obvious suspects include physical environment, genetics, family environment, school, peers, and the broader cultural environment. If we’re thinking about how to convince people, a genetic component (however large or small) can be set aside. Wholesale modification of others’ physical environment has been tried, but I don’t think many individuals wield great influence through that channel, and those who do very often generate adverse side-effects (think Robert Moses). There are impersonal aggregate factors like demography and economic change, but again, tough to influence others by changing them, at least in any predictable, specific, positive way.

The other cultural and interpersonal factors largely reduce to “people get their worldviews from other people,” so where did those people get them? Ultimately from some combination of art and direct argument. So now you’re back to picking between direct argument and art, and it isn’t so hard to imagine that art has a great deal of influence.

I also believe that God influences human affairs. From the not-yet-struck-down status of various humans, I conclude that God does not intend to dispense cold, logical proof of his own existence. His methods are more along the lines Schiller proposes. Beauty in the world, in scripture, and in art opens souls to the influence of the Holy Spirit, and related truths (true knowledge of the world, true scripture, truth expressed in art) then suggest His existence. Thus we read that “all things denote there is a God,” and that the word of the Lord is given “line upon line; here a little, and there a little.” Without compelling anyone to believe, he draws people in. Great religious art works the same way; I have felt God’s influence through the work of Jorge Cocco, for instance. I view all this as further support for the idea that art and beauty are powerful influences.

Obviously this is not just a descriptive theory; it has implications for how we ought to try to influence. Thought experiment: consider person 1, who engages with the Bible almost wholly on a logical or imperative level, and person 2, who engages with it almost wholly on an aesthetic level—mentally playing around with the stories. Who would be more influential? Person 2 is Jordan Peterson. Person 1 is the pedantic missionary who expects to convert someone by argument, one Biblical verse at a time.

And of course to really convince in Schiller’s method, art really has to be art. Browbeating allegory doesn’t work for this purpose; a certain degree of playfulness is required. And the artist need not necessarily insert any particular theme; if he has interesting knowledge in his soul, it will tend to end up in his work. Aiming at influence is not necessarily a good way to make art, but aiming at art can be a good way to influence.

Internalizing all of this, I have become more interested in reading fiction relative to nonfiction. I’m also more interested in maintaining high standards for the fiction I read, as I increasingly recognize that reading a work of fiction lets its author pull on you in all sorts of ways. Since the most important influence could be exactly the one I don’t realize is happening, picking worthy authors also gains importance. I’ve also become even more enthusiastic about my wife’s writing, and more tempted to try my own hand at writing fiction. Finally, this experience helps validate my original Harvard Classics goal; I would not have picked up Schiller’s work if it hadn’t been part of the Harvard Classics bundle, but I’m glad I did.

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