German “Bildung” and French “Le Seduction” – The Heroic and the Picturesque as Ways of Life

Both the classic German intellectual and cultural ideal of “Bildung” and the contemporary French aesthetic and expressive ideal of “Le Seduction” are complex cultural visions and values that do not translate easily into the English language. Nevertheless, they express a complementary relationship between the “heroic” and the “picturesque” as ways of life.

Two the best book length discussions of “Bildung” are to be found in Peter Watson’s “The German Genius” and W.H. Bruford’s “The German Tradition of Self-Cultivation: ‘Bildung’ from Humboldt to Thomas Mann. The latter introduces us to the evolving concept of ‘Bildung’ through Wilhelm Von Humboldt, Goethe, Schleiermacher, Schopenhauer, Stifter, Vischer, Nietzsche, Fontane, and Thomas Mann. All of Hermann Hesse’s novels embody the German spirit of ‘Bildung’ – expressing the heroic courage to become who one true is as a self-reflective and culturally literate individual rather than conform to society’s banal and leveling institutional collectives, whether in religion, education, commerce or the state.

There are a number of books that explore the French aesthetic and expressive spirit of “le seduction” but perhaps the idea is better approached through viewing classic French films and novels in which everyday life is portrayed in its sensuous, evocative, lustrous and seductive beauty. This we might describe as the genre of the picturesque. It is often sunny, bright, flirtatious and whimsical rather than brooding and dark, melancholic and gothic, as is the case with the German romantic “storm and stress” movement. For the German soul “Bildung” is a heroic struggle of the soul to liberate itself from the leveling of the masses and the banality of existence. It is a reaching for transcendence, even after the cultural ‘death of God.’ Education, culture and experience replace the traditional role of religion, but there is still something of Lutheran pietism implicit in its aspiration for human greatness and nobility of spirit. By contrast, the French ideal of “Le Seduction” is more secular, sensuous, playful and this-worldly. It is not aspiring to save one’s soul, much less the world, through education and culture, literature and philosophy. It is more at home in the world of art and painting, fashion and design. It is concerned with “presentation” and “style,” “verve” and “allure.”

Rather than treat “Bildung” and “Le Seduction” as opposing cultural forces I would rather suggest that they represent complementary polarities in the human psyche and in the potentialities of any society. Each of us can make room in the inner world of our being for both the heroic and the picturesque, the stoic and the epicurean, the ascetic and the hedonic, the sublime and the beautiful.

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