German poet, philosopher, historian, and playwright Friedrich Schiller had some strange notions about the nature of the heroic. He singled out Medea, in Greek mythology the princess of Colchis who aided Jason in taking the Golden Fleece from her father. However, rather than the daring deed of fleecing Papa, it is boiling her own children alive that earns Schiller’s accolade of heroism. She is heroic because she “defies nature, defies her maternal instinct, defies her own affection for her children, she rises above nature and acts freely.” (Berlin, 1999) The argument is, because she is able to set aside her genetically inherited emotions and maternal instincts, she has transcended the natural limitations of being human and somehow heroically liberated herself. Observe the assumption that the natural limitations of being human are somehow undesirable.
Here is what the Oxford World Encyclopedia has to say about Medea:
Daughter of Aeëtes, King of Colchis, whom she defied to help Jason retrieve the Golden Fleece. Renowned as a sorceress, she lived with Jason for many years in Corinth but fled to Athens after his desertion of her caused her to murder their children, and his new wife, in a jealous rage.
Schiller thought Medea’s actions abominable, but believed that “in principle, she is somebody who is capable of reaching loftier heights, because she is free and not under the impulsion of nature.” (Berlin, 1999) Now we see why Schiller objected to natural limitations. He perceived them as “impulsions” or forces that curtail human freedom. To put it another way, he saw having feelings and instincts as an objectionable impediment.
The trouble with his position is obvious. Medea was motivated to commit her horrifying murders by blind hatred and wild rage directed at unfaithful Jason. Someone acting in a jealous rage (an instinctual emotion if ever there was one) is very much under the impulsion of nature. Medea was anything but free. Acting in a jealous rage is, at the instinctual and emotional level, no different from being subject to affection and maternal instincts. Schiller’s claim that Medea “… rises above nature and acts freely” is doubtful to say the least. In fact, one might argue that Medea was remarkably subject to such impulsion and lacked the ability, possessed by most people, to resist violent urges.
Now consider Schiller’s opinion of Jason, the father of those poor boiled children. Jason, “a perfectly decent Athenian of his time … not entirely blameless but not tragically sinister either … is nobody.” (Berlin, 1999) Ah yes, here we have the heinous crime of mediocrity! This is a vital clue as to where Schiller is coming from. “Medea at least is somebody and could easily have attained heights of moral grandeur.” (Berlin, 1999) Given how she began her noble moral ascent, one can only be grateful that Medea did not press on.
We must ask what Schiller was trying to liberate from the impulsion of nature. Surely, that would have to be what we now call ego. There is a thread running through European philosophy that trends towards the notion of the disembodied, unnatural ego. We see this in Sartre’s idea that freedom requires the abolition of the unconscious mind, and again in Husserl’s “transcendental ego” or pure consciousness (which even Sartre opposed), concepts prompted by his refusal to accept the need for some ultimate reference to reality. All of these attempts to free the ego to one degree or another from natural constraints promote, not heroism, but the kind of crude egotism and egocentricity that leads to amoral behaviour.
Inspiration for this post came from Isaiah Berlin’s, The Roots of Romanticism. London: Chatto & Windus, 1999.