The Robbers and Contemporary Atheism

The attacks and accusations toward Schiller as a dangerous blasphemer, in relation to the content of The Robbers, is predominantly because his characters Karl and Franz asks the hard questions concerning God that even gods representatives (the priest and Pastor Moser) are unable to answer satisfactorily. The fact that Karl sees the error of his ways and returns to a life of law-abiding piety while Franz commits suicide -metaphorically as a sign of atonement for his transgressions - was unconvincing to the plays eighteenth century audience. The audience appeared to react and remember only the relentless bombardment of what is essentially atheistic rhetoric. Writing in 1869 Thomas Carlyle points out that at the time of The Robbers first short season, Schiller was “accused of having injured the cause of morality” by providing a dissenting model of behaviour for the youth to follow which can only lead to their untimely self destruction (Carlyle:36). The question then arises, how is god represented by Schiller and what is Karl and Franz’s attitude to god?

The father figure is important to both Franz and Karl and operates as a metaphor for a frail absent god. The father according to Onfray, “is the incarnate locus of religion and therefore of politics and theocracy” (203). Karl refers to his father, Old Moor, as “god-like” several times; “that man shall be my friend, my angel, my god – I will worship him!” (Act 1:Sc 2). When he thinks his god-like father has rejected him he sinks into a world of confusion and cynicism, rejecting his Christian god in the process. He is a man who has a strong complex sense of morality and fairness. He is a revolutionary whose fundamental aim is to restore balance and equality within the community by directly attacking the corrupt hierarchies of church and state. The problem he faces is that with no god on hand to provide a moral foundation or anchor he is left to his own devises to make sense of the world and along with Franz are “at the mercy of their own extreme temperaments” (Sharpe:14). In turn, he then becomes almost deified by his fellow robbers who all take the oath of “loyalty and obedience” to Karl “til death” (Act 2: Sc 1). But Karl is no god as we find out. He is continually haunted by the memory of his “god-like” father and the omnipresence of his Christian god.

Despite this, he nevertheless holds onto his strong sense of individual morality, as seen in Act 2 Scene 3, when he dismisses fellow robber Shufterle who callously makes light of throwing a screaming baby into flames. Sounding god-like himself he warns the members of his band whom he suspects are like Shufterle; “But I shall come amongst you, and terrible shall be my judgement upon you.” (Act 2:Sc 3). Immediately after this denunciation his soliloquy exposes a mere mortal struggling with the prevalence of a miserable reality of “pestilence… famine… floods, murder of children, of women, of the sick” and so on, in front of his own eyes. “How can I prevent it? How can you prevent it…?” he asks a vacant god (Act 2:Sc 3). Just as he is limited in his power to stop wanton destruction within his own microcosmic community of robbers how could god possibly make right the wrongs of the whole world? Karl makes an important realisation that the concept of a god that allows such misery to occur and doesn’t intervene to stop it is an illogical and flawed concept. Interestingly though the comforting idea of a god still has a strong grip on him contributing further to his troubled mind. Karl’s train of thought had already shifted in the direction of atheism. Unknown to Karl – and prevented by Schiller – was the concept that atheism and morality can coexist. Could atheism have been the answer Karl was really looking for?

Franz’s Machiavellian nature has little to do with the fact he ridicules god and religion at every opportunity. It is his nature and lust for power that dictates his actions. The outrage over this play is partly due to Franz’s frenzied tirade on religion and an invisible god. As the stereotype atheist, the force and length that Franz goes to make his point far outweighs his dramatic demise by his own hands, surreptitiously as a symbol of universal justice. Perhaps once again it is simply because Schiller gives voice to these poignant questions that the viewing public at the time was so outraged. Franz has no love for his father or for the almighty father. He has no desire for love from anybody and seeks power and possession – whether its Old Moor’s castle and money or Amalia (Karl’s melancholic love interest). So what does the father symbolise in
The Robbers and how is that then related to the idea of god?

Old Moor and god are two traditional representatives of patriarchal established order in the world. Old Moor is weak and old and no longer has the ability to restrain either son; the same is inferred in relation to god. Lesley Sharpe observes what Old Moor “represents to them is more important than what he is”. For Franz, she continues, he represents an order “which deprives him of power, money and rank” while to Karl he represents “stability, continuity and a haven from the turbulent world” (Sharpe:16). But Franz tries to kill Old Moor and Karl accidentally succeeds in causing his sudden death upon revealing his disguise. And since both brothers continually try to provoke a response from god, the ultimate father, there is a direct correlation between Old Moor and god and their respective inept weaknesses. Old Moor can be seen as a metaphor for god who also comes under intense scrutiny. And perhaps the frightening thing for its original eighteenth century audience was the very suggestion that god was weak, ineffectual and powerless; in affect non existent. This idea, observes Sharpe, poses “an existential question” for Franz and Karl (18) and, we can presume for the audience. It postulates the idea that a world without a father or god leaves individuals and societies without a moral compass though, at the same time, illustrates the vast range of free, unrestricted thought is possible, as imperfect as it may be at times.

The moral compass that religion claims to hold appears, to contemporary atheists, to have been lost sometime ago, if it ever held it at all. The world’s woes are not linked to atheism in fact, exclaims Onfray, it’s “because of God’s existence (that) everything is permitted”(42). Historically, he further asserts, if religious leaders had actively chosen a path of “peace love and tolerance, we would have known of it, witnessed it” and thus be compelled to “support the three religions on the basis of their principles” (175). History, he says, tends to prove quite the opposite. Hitchens scoffs at the idea that the devoutly pious “possess moral advantages that others can only envy” (32). For example, the
Bible he declares, contains “a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre”, just for starters (102). Dawkins remarks that humankind must have significantly “low self-regard” to think if our world was without god or religion everybody would automatically become “callous and selfish hedonists, with no kindness, no charity, no generosity”; basically void of “goodness” (227). If this perception, to an extent, is true today, it was even more so the case in 1783.

The Robbers presents a reflection of a society in the grips of a dense intellectual flow of new ideas through the community, one that invariably includes the concept of god being non-existent. Unfortunately this community has no idea or vision of how to live without god’s instruction. This may be why Karl, in the end, returns to the very order that he knows is corrupt and callous. There is a sense of the unresolved in The Robbers here, of “social criticism having led into a blind alley” (Sharpe:23). The world of The Robbers clearly has some serious socio-economic problems that need addressing but how is it to be done? Part of the answer may be to dispose of an ineffectual absent god and its corrupted representative institutions and replace it with a new secular system. Schiller’s preoccupation with individual autonomy and freedom in his writings would suggest that both Karl and Franz exercise this freedom but are led astray by their own unchecked emotions and actions. Karl is by far the most destructive and dangerous of the two but this path is clearly not necessarily the only option. Is it that Schiller couldn’t possibly even conceive that Karl could realise the error of his murderous ways, not believe in god yet still be a good and moral person? Was this too scandalous a thought to even entertain in eighteenth century Germany? It would be about one hundred years before Nietzsche would propose that “we can choose not to choose” (Onfray:35). Perhaps without a viable, readily available, easily digested alternative, religion continues to hold it ground and powerful sway despite its defiance of logic and reason. Was Schiller’s Karl heading toward atheism but, like many atheist-like characters before him, was required to capitulate back to the established order or (like Franz) die, before the curtain fell?

In many respects Schiller presents Franz as the stereotype atheist. He constantly lies and deceives his father and attempts to deceive and steal Amalia from Karl. He emotionally manipulates Hermann – the bastard son of a nobleman – to swear his allegiance and help destroy Karl. He tries to hurry the immanent death of Old Moor and imprisons him in order to become the power-crazy Master of the house. And that’s only in the first two acts. Once in power Franz proceeds to blackmail Amalia to be his wife. He forces himself onto her only to be met with a slap in the face. Franz mocks and denounces god with great vitriolic fervour, though not without a sense of uncertainty. Realising his fate is sealed, both earthly and beyond, he strangles himself with wire from his clothing with his final words to god(?), “Ha! You then, take pity on me!” (Act 5:Sc 1). His behaviour is clearly manipulative, callous, degenerate and selfish to the point of his own destruction but can we blame Franz’s atheism for his actions or is it simply his own distorted reasoning? Atheism according to Onfray is “the product of a verbal creation by the manufacturers of God” (16). Franz, the stereotype atheist was in no sense the first in this mould to appear on stage.

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