“The Robbers”: A Checkup with Dr. Schiller

Quæ medicamenta non sanant, ferrum sanat,
quæ ferrum non sanat, ignis sanat.  ∼ Hippocrates

It doesn’t take a sociologist to know man is morally ill. It doesn’t even take one to know he suffers from moral diseases of two varieties, hidden and manifest. To the latter group belong tragedies great and small. To treat the small, it is sufficient to treat the symptom. Try a man for killing his wife’s lover, and he’ll never do it again. However, some symptoms cannot be treated so easily, because merely punishing the offender would not solve the real problem. He or someone like him would return, bringing with him seven other men more wicked than himself. In these cases, the visible symptoms are nothing but signs of the underlying, hidden disease. Friedrich Schiller’s play “The Robbers” (1781) is an exploration of how such underlying moral illness occur.

Having begun to write the script when he was only nineteen, Schiller found immediate notoriety for this work of Sturm und Drang. As one would expect of a play belonging to this German romantic movement, every element is designed to dominate the audience’s emotions. The dark and empty ancestral castle and the forest full of anarchic bands of robbers create an atmosphere of dread and despair, and frequent Hamlet-like soliloquies sustain the Angst. Even when the characters themselves experience a resurgence of hope, the audience must know that all will not be well.

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“The Robbers” tells the story the Moor family, made up of the father, Count Maximilian (throughout referred to as Der alte Moor, “the old Moor”), the elder son, Karl, and the younger son, Franz. Prior to the action of the play, the old Moor had always favored Karl, who was intelligent, charismatic, and poetic. Franz, who in the script describes his own physical appearance as a “burden of hideousness,” possessed none of his brother’s magnetism or love of poetry. Franz’s secret hatred and envy of his brother intensified as Karl won the love of the beautiful Amalia.

When Act I, Scene 1 begins, we find Franz feigning internal conflict over the duty of relating to the old Moor a letter detailing Karl’s prodigality in Leipzig, where the elder had gone to study. Claiming that there is a bounty on Karl, Franz laments the insult to his father’s name. The old Moor blames himself for his son’s erring and begs Franz to be a consolation to him. Insisting that Karl would never repent as long as his father appeared too indulgent, Franz convinces him to disinherit Karl. Having driven a wedge between the Count and his heir, Franz becomes the next in line to inherit the title and property of the Moor family.

Though Franz had invented the crimes of which he had accused Karl, we find in the second scene that Karl’s debauchery isn’t entirely fictitious. However, Karl recognizes his moral failures and resolves to give them up and to return to his father’s home. There he will marry his beloved Amalia. These rosy intentions wilt when the post announcing his father’s condemnation arrives. No longer worthy of Amalia’s love and convinced that it is his moral duty to leave for her sake and for the sake of his father, Karl agrees to captain a band of robbers who go on to terrorize Bohemian forests.

Most of his robbers attack nobles and travelers and plunder villages and convents for the fun of it, but Karl’s motives are more mixed. He claims to be interested in punishing the nobles who have treated the poor so badly, and his thoughts are always with his Amalia and the life he lost. Karl experiences moments of mania when he drives his men to burn whole villages, then he shrinks from the consequences when he hears of his men stabbing women in the back and tossing babies into flames. Horrified, Karl still cannot pull himself away from his new life. Out of love for and duty towards his men he even swears an oath never to leave them.

Back at the Moors’ castle, Franz hears of his brother’s exploits and takes the opportunity to manufacture a story about Karl’s death. Hoping to win Amalia’s heart and the old Moor’s title, Franz pays an old rival of Karl’s to tell them that he held Karl as he had died of wounds received in battle. The old Moor collapses and apparently dies of shock, and Franz’s plan succeeds. Though things are bleak, there remains one reason to hope. Karl and Amalia are both still alive and have remained true to one another. The rest of the play is a fulfillment of the Hippocratic dictum that heads Schiller’s script (and this essay).

Throughout his life, Schiller wrote of the concomitance of beauty and morality, and he believed the best way to come to understand the relationship between the two was to read the classical Greek and Latin authors. “The Robbers” is brimming with classical references, the most prominent of which is the famous parting of Hector and Andromache in Book VI of The Iliad. Schiller uses this tragic moment as a symbol of the splintered relationship between Karl and Amalia, and therefore as a symbol of the divorce of morality from beauty. Reminiscing on the past and hoping for the future, Amalia sings Schiller’s poem “Hektors Abschied,” or “Hector’s Farewell.” The final two stanzas of the poem imply that love of beauty, that is, of Amalia, is the one thing from Karl’s early life that will survive the moral suicide he commits with the robbers:

You go away to where no day will shine,
To where the Cocytus through the desert winds,
Your love will die in the Lethe.

All my hopes, all my thoughts,
By black Lethe will be quaffed
But not my love!
Listen! the savage thunders at the walls,
Gird me my sword, leave off your wails,
Hector’s love will not die in the Lethe!

As in Hector’s departure for certain death at the hands of Achilles, there is a sense of fatalism in Karl’s decision to join the band of robbers. Karl believes that because of his blackened name and his disinheritance, he is doing his duty in leaving his home and his love. However, unlike Hector, Karl will find that the danger to his happiness comes from within. “Ich bin mein Himmel und meine Hölle,” he will say, “I am my heaven and my hell.”

And so, Dr. Schiller diagnoses the divorce of beauty from morality as the primary disease that causes tragedies great and small. Beauty without morality is empty sentimentality, while morality without beauty is cold and inhuman. As he would later write in his “Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man,” the cure must reunite the two or it is no cure at all. Although the play had opened with Hippocrates’ hope for healing, Schiller abbreviated the aphorism. At the end of the play he lets the audience discover for itself the truth of the missing final clause: quæ vero ignis non sanat, insanabilia reputari oportet.


  • Jonathan Shoulta

    Jonathan Shoulta has a degree in philosophy from Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. He currently teaches high school Latin and philosophy, translates poetry, and lives in northwest Arkansas with his wife and children.

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