by Rudolf Steiner
Translated by Beresford Kemmis (slightly revised here)
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let us transport ourselves in imagination to Rammenau in Oberlausitz, a spot not far from Kamenz in Saxony, the birthplace of Lessing. The year is 1769. A house of no great size stands beside a brook. The generations inhabiting this house, as records show, had been engaged in the ribbon-weaving industry, from father to son, ever since the period of the Thirty Years' War. The standard of life prevailing at this time in the house was not even as high as tolerable comfort, indeed it was very near to poverty. By the brook that flowed past the house, in this year of 1769, stood a seven-year-old boy, fairly small, rather sturdily built for his age, with red cheeks and expressive eyes, that at this moment were showing signs of deep distress. The boy had just thrown into the brook a book that was floating away. At this juncture his father appeared on the scene from the house and must have spoken to the boy more or less to the following effect: “Why, Gottlieb, whatever are you thinking of? You are flinging into the water what your father bought for you with hard-earned money to give you pleasure!” The father was very angry, for just before this he had given the book as a present to his son, Gottlieb, who till then had had no acquaintance with books apart from the Bible and the hymn book. — Now what had really happened? Hitherto young Gottlieb had received with the most serious attention whatever had been taught him of the contents of the Bible and hymn book, and he was a boy good at his lessons at school. Wishing to please him, his father bought him one day for a present the book of folk tales called Der Gehörnte Siegfried (The Horned Siegfried). Gottlieb plunged deeply into the study of this book, with the result that he had to be scolded for his forgetfulness and inattention to all his lessons, which he had till then found so interesting. That went to the boy's heart. He was so fond of the Gehörnte Siegfried, his newly acquired book; it aroused in him such deep interest and sympathy. But on the other hand this thought was vividly present to his mind: “You have neglected your duty.” Such were the thoughts in the mind of the seven-year-old boy. So he went off to the brook and forthwith flung the book into the water. He was punished for it, because though he could tell his father the facts, he could not explain the real underlying reason.
Let us now follow the boy Gottlieb at this stage of his life into other situations. For instance, we catch sight of him one afternoon on a lonely moor far away from his parents' house, standing there from 4 o'clock onwards and gazing into the distance, utterly absorbed in the view of the solitary spaces surrounding him. And thus he was still standing at five and at six o'clock and even when the bell sounded for evensong. Then a shepherd came by, and seeing the boy standing there, gave him a cuff and told him to get along home.
Two years after this time, in 1771, Baron von Miltitz was visiting the landowner in Rammenau. He had come over from his own estate in Oberau one Sunday, in order to dine with the neighbouring squires and enjoy their society; and before the meal he had intended to hear the morning sermon. However, he arrived too late to hear the clergyman of Rammenau, well known to him as a worthy man; for much to his regret the sermon was already over. When the visitors, his host and the other persons present were talking amongst themselves about this, somebody made the suggestion: “Oh there is a boy in the village who might perhaps repeat the sermon by heart; it is known that he can do so.” And so Gottlieb, now nine years of age, was fetched, and came along in his blue peasant smock. A few questions were put to him which he answered briefly with “yes” and “no.” He felt very ill at ease in this high-class society. Then it was suggested to him to repeat the sermon which he had heard just before. He paused to meditate and then, speaking as it were from the depth of his soul, as if he felt intimately every word, he repeated from beginning to end the sermon which he had heard, in the presence of the visiting landowner and the company. And he repeated it in such a way that all felt as if everything that he said were proceeding directly out of his own heart; he seemed to have so imbibed it that it had become part of himself. Thus with inward fire and animation, which increased as he went on, the nine-year-old Gottlieb recited the whole sermon.
This nine-year-old Gottlieb was the son of Christian Fichte, the ribbon-weaver. The landowner von Miltitz was profoundly astonished at this experience, and declared that he must himself take charge of the boy's education. In view of the straitened circumstances of the boy's parents, the relief from such a responsibility was bound to be extremely welcome to them, even though they deeply loved the boy. For after Gottlieb many other children had come, till they were now a large family; and so they had no choice but to grasp the helping hand which Baron von Miltitz so generously offered. And Baron von Miltitz was so strongly impressed by his encounter with the boy that he wanted to take young Gottlieb away with him immediately. And so he took him away to his own home at Oberau near Meissen.
Young Gottlieb, however, felt by no means at home in the mansion, which formed so great a contrast with everything to which he had been accustomed in the poor ribbon-weaver's cottage. He felt indeed altogether unhappy over the whole affair, till he was sent to Niederau nearby to a clergyman named Leberecht Krebel. And there Gottlieb grew up in an environment full of intimacy and affection, in the household of this excellent minister Krebel. With his unusual gifts the boy found himself deeply attracted by all the gleams of truth which he divined in his talks with the worthy pastor. And when Gottlieb reached the age of thirteen he was able, with the support of his benefactor, to enter the Schulpforta School.
He was transferred to the strict discipline of Schulpforta, which did not by any means suit him. He observed that the manner in which the pupils lived together involved much concealment towards the teachers and officials, and much duplicity in behaviour. Further he was altogether out of harmony with the system by which the older boys were set in authority over the younger as prefects. Gottlieb had already at that time absorbed Robinson Crusoe and many other tales, and had been influenced by them. At first this school life seemed intolerable to him. He could not reconcile it with his conscience that there should be — as he felt — concealment, duplicity, deceit in any place intended to promote spiritual growth. What was to be done? He resolved to escape secretly into the world outside. Accordingly, he made ready and simply ran away. On the way there arose in his mind, prompted by his innermost feelings, the thought: “Have you done right? ought you to do this?” Where should he now turn for counsel? He fell upon his knees, addressed a prayer to Heaven and waited for a sign to be given him from the spiritual worlds as to what he should do. The sign from within urged him to turn back, and he willingly did so. Very fortunately there was then at Schulpforta an unusually sympathetic headmaster, by name Geisler, who persuaded young Gottlieb to relate the whole affair to him and showed deep understanding. Instead of punishing him, he even made it possible for Gottlieb to be on happier terms with himself and his environment, as happy indeed as he could wish. He was able also to make friends with the most gifted among the staff.
It was not easy for him to obtain satisfaction for his intellectual needs. Already aspiring, even at that age, towards the highest, he was not free to study the authors of whom he had heard so much; for Goethe, Schiller, and in particular also Lessing, were at that period forbidden fruit at Schulpforta. However, there was one of the masters who obtained for him a remarkable book, Lessing's Anti-Goeze, that inspired polemic against Goeze which contained the whole substance of Lessing's profession of faith, his lofty and valiant outlook, expressed in free and outspoken language.
Thus Gottlieb in these early years imbibed from this Anti-Goeze all that it was able to give him. It was not only the ideas which he appropriated, indeed that was the least important part; he also made his own the manner of approach towards the highest things and the attitude towards various views of the world.
And so Gottlieb's schooldays went by at Schulpforta. When he had to write his examination thesis on leaving, he chose a literary subject. It was a remarkable piece of work. It was altogether lacking in the quality characteristic of many young people who introduce all kinds of philosophical ideas into their school compositions. This essay contained no trace of philosophy or of philosophical ideas and notions. On the other hand it already betrayed the fact that the young man made it his special aim to observe human beings, to look into the depth of their heart; and it was this acquired knowledge of people which found expression above all in this school essay.
In the meantime his benefactor Baron von Miltitz had died. The funds so generously supplied for the young man stopped. Fichte passed his final examination at Schulpforta, went to Jena, and had to live there in the direst poverty. He could take no share at all in anything that then made up the student life of Jena. Day by day he had to earn by hard toil what he required for his bare subsistence. And he could only find in rare hours the opportunity of nourishing the aspirations of his spirit. Jena proved to be too small, so that Fichte was unable to find his spiritual food there. It struck him that he would have better facilities at Leipzig, a larger city, and went there to try. He tried to prepare himself there for the situation in life which was the ideal of his father and mother, deeply god-fearing people; namely for the Saxon ministry, for a post as minister and preacher. Indeed one may say he had shown himself predestined for the office of preacher. He had proved so capable of assimilating the truths of Holy Writ that even in his father's house he was frequently invited to make comments on this or that passage in the Bible, and similarly while he was living with the good clergyman Leberecht Krebel. And whenever he was able to visit his home for a short time, in the place which contained his parents' unpretentious cottage, he was allowed to preach there, for the local minister was a friend of his. And he would preach in such a way, prompted as it were by a sacred enthusiasm, that what he was able to impart was the very word of God, in a version that was at once individual and yet altogether in conformity with the Bible itself.
So he went on trying, at Leipzig, to train himself for his calling as a country pastor. But it proved difficult. It was hard for him to secure any teaching position which he thought himself able to fill. He occupied himself with correcting work, with tutoring, but this life became very hard for him. And above all he found himself in the course of it unable to make any progress with his own intellectual aims. He was already twenty-six, and these were hard times for him. One day he had no more resources left and no prospect of securing anything during the next few days; no prospect either that, if things were to go on in the same way, he could ever secure entry to even the most modest profession which he had set himself as an aim. His people at home could support him only to a very meagre extent; for, as I have said, it was a family abundantly blessed with children.
And so one day he stood at the edge of an abyss and in his soul, like a desperate temptation, the question arose: “Have I no prospects for this life of mine?” Though it may not have been quite present to his consciousness, yet in the background of his mind was the idea of a voluntary death. Then, just at the opportune moment, appeared the writer Weisse, who had become one of his friends. Weisse offered him a post as tutor at Zurich and took steps to ensure that he should really be able to take up this post within three months. And so from the autumn of 1788 onwards we find our Fichte at Zurich. Let us try once more to picture him with the mind's eye, as he stood in the pulpit in the Zurich Minster, now completely possessed with his own conception of the Gospel of St. John, already quite intent on the endeavour to reproduce the teachings of the Bible in a form of his own. He did this in such a way that those who heard his inspiring words resound through the Zurich Cathedral must have thought that a man had arisen who was capable of rendering the scriptures with quite a new eloquence, in a new way, with a fresh inspiration. Many, doubtless, who heard him then in the Cathedral at Zurich, must have carried away this impression.
And now we can follow him again into a new situation. He became a tutor in the Ott household, in the inn “Zum Schwert” at Zurich. There he encountered a peculiar narrow-minded outlook to which he could only partially adapt himself. He succeeded in getting on good terms with his pupil, but less so with the parents. And we can trace what Fichte really was in the following incident. One day the pupil's mother received a singular letter from her son's tutor, who was living in the house. What were the contents of this letter? Roughly as follows. Education was a task, the writer said, to which he, Fichte, would willingly lend himself. What he knew of his pupil gave him an assured prospect of being able to do great things with him. But the process of his education would have to be developed in one particular point: it was essential above all to educate his mother! For a mother who behaved in such a way towards a pupil was the greatest obstacle to any education under her roof! I need not dwell upon the peculiar feelings with which Frau Ott read this epistle. However, the incident was passed over, and up to the spring of 1790, that is for about eighteen months, Fichte was able to pursue a fruitful activity in the Ott household at Zurich.
But Fichte was not by any means the man to circumscribe within the limits of his profession the thoughts which filled his soul. It was not in his nature to avert his attention from the spiritual processes taking place around him. Through his inner zeal and the close interest he felt for all the spiritual changes going on around him, he became closely absorbed also in what was going on in his own environment. There in Switzerland his thoughts turned to the ideas which were then filling the minds of all men, to the mental reactions provoked by the outbreak of the French Revolution. We can, so to speak, overhear him discussing at Olten, whenever he found any specially gifted people to talk to, the questions which were then dominating France and the world with their imperious significance; making up his mind that those were the ideas which deserved primary attention, and associating all the preoccupations derived from his deep religious feeling and acute intellect with the new ideas of human happiness, human rights and the high ideals of humanity.
Fichte was no egoist, capable only of developing his soul rigidly from within. This soul of his grew in communion with the outer world. His soul knew unconsciously the duty of existing for something beyond one's self, of standing as a personification of the world's purpose in the age in which one lives. That was one of Fichte's deepest convictions. And thus, just at the period when his spirit was most sensitively aware of the processes at work in his environment, he developed in close communion with the Swiss element. And we always find that this German-Swiss element left a permanent mark on the whole personality of Fichte in his later life and work.
It is necessary to understand the deep-seated difference between Swiss life, and life a little further north, in Germany, in order to grasp the impression which the Swiss environment, the Swiss character and endeavour made upon Fichte. For example, this Swiss element is distinguished from other forms of German life especially by the way in which it infuses a kind of self-conscious element into all the intellectual life, so that all cultural activity acquires a political expression; everything is so conceived that the current conceptions serve to put the individual into touch with immediate action, with the world. For this German-Swiss character art, science, literature are only separate tributaries of the whole river of life.
It was this element which appealed so happily to Fichte's own spiritual character. He too was a man who could not conceive any human activity or any human endeavour in isolation. For him too every individual factor had to be linked with the entirety of man's action, meditation and feeling and with man's whole philosophy. Moreover, Fichte's capacity for achievement was intimately linked with his ever unfolding personality. No one who reads Fichte to-day, who approaches those writings of his which often seem so arid in their substance, or those particular writings and treatises which radiate intelligence, can have any notion of what Fichte must have been when he poured into his discourse, upon a cause which he deeply felt and espoused, all his inner fire and intensity. For into his discourse there passed also what he was. He even attempted at that time — it was an abortive attempt — to establish at Zurich a school of public speaking. For he believed that through the manner in which spiritual things are set before people a different and more effective influence could be exerted than merely through the ideas themselves, however excellent these may be.
At Zurich, in the household of a Swiss named Rahn, then well-to-do, a brother-in-law of Klopstock, Fichte found stimulating society which made a strong impression upon him. He formed a deep attachment to the daughter, Johanna Rahn. With this niece of Klopstock he formed a close intimacy, at first a friendship, which developed gradually into love. By now his position as tutor at Zurich was no longer really tenable, and he needed to look further afield. He did not want at that moment, before he had made his way in the world — as he frequently remarked at the time — to enter the Rahn household as a member of it, and perhaps live on its resources. He wanted to make his way further in the world — with him we cannot say his “fortune” — but his way.
He returned again to Germany, to Leipzig. He thought of remaining there for a while, hoping to find what his real vocation might be, to find that form of spiritual expression which he sought as his object in life. He intended then to return after a while, to work out in freedom what he had brought into harmony within himself. But then an unexpected event happened which upset all his plans. Disaster overtook Rahn, for he lost his whole fortune. Fichte was now not only tormented by the knowledge that the people dearest to him had sunk into poverty, but he himself was compelled to resume his wanderings through the world, abandoning the cherished plans which he had nursed in his innermost heart.
The first thing that offered was a post as tutor at Warsaw. However, as soon as he arrived and presented himself there, the aristocratic lady whose house he was to enter formed the impression that Fichte's manners, which then and subsequently struck many people as downright and vigorous, were really uncouth and that he had no talent for adapting himself to social life. When this was pointed out to him, he could not endure it and took his departure.
His way now led him to that place where he might expect to find a man whom he revered more than anybody, not only among his contemporaries but in his whole generation, towards whom he had been drawn when for a while he was immersed in the study of Spinoza and his philosophy; a man towards whom he had been drawn while studying his writings, with which he was now wholly in accord. As at an earlier date his thoughts were filled with the Bible and other works, so now the writings of this man, Immanuel_Kant , confronted him as a new creation. So he made his way to Königsberg and sat at the feet of the great teacher. And he found himself altogether in harmony with the image reflected in his soul of this teaching, which he held to be the greatest ever bestowed upon mankind. And in Fichte's soul, all the ideas derived from his own devout nature, from his meditation on the divine guidance of the world and on the way in which the mysteries of this guidance have been revealed throughout eternity to mankind — all this was blended with what he learned and heard from Kant. And he projected all that arose in his soul into a work which he entitled Kritik aller Offenbarung (A Critique of all Revelation). This was in 1792, when Fichte was thirty years of age. Then a remarkable thing happened. Kant immediately recommended a publisher for the book, which aroused his enthusiasm. It went out into the world without the author's name, and nobody supposed it to be anything but a work by Immanuel Kant himself. Thus favourable criticisms were showered upon it from every quarter. Meanwhile Fichte, again through Kant's intervention, had secured in the excellent Krockov household near Danzig a tutoring post which this time was very congenial to him, and in which he could freely cultivate his spiritual aspirations; and it was intolerable to him so to appear before the world that the public, when discussing his book, in fact associated it with another author. He could not endure that; and when the first edition, which was soon exhausted, was followed by a second, he published his name. And now he had a singular experience. A great many critics at least found it impossible to say the exact contrary of what they had said before; but the judgment at first passed upon the book was now toned down. This was for Fichte yet another lesson in his study of human psychology.
After he had spent some time in the Krockov household he felt able, in view of his present status in the world, not indeed in a mundane sense, but intellectually — for he had proved that he was capable of something — he felt able to prepare for his return to the Rahn household. Only thus had he resolved to win Klopstock's niece, and now he could do so. So in 1793 he went back again to Zurich, and Klopstock's niece became his wife.
He set to work now, with the utmost intensity, not only to develop in himself the ideas he had assimilated from Kant, but also to immerse himself more deeply in all that had occupied his mind during his first stay at Zurich, in all those ideas about the aims and ideals of humanity which were now permeating the world. And he mingled the substance of his own thoughts about human ideals and endeavours with the ideas now passing through the world. He was so independent a nature that he could not refrain from communicating to the world his inevitable conclusions on the ideas about human progress then held by the most radical thinkers. The book now published by him in 1793 was entitled: Beiträge zur Berichtigung der Urteile des Publikums über die französische Revolution (Suggestions for the Enlightenment of Public Opinion on the French Revolution).
Simultaneously with the elaboration of this book there went on in his mind a perpetual revision of those views of the world which he had formed for himself from contact with Kant's outlook. There must be, he said to himself, a philosophy of life which, in the light of a supreme impulse, could illuminate the whole domain of knowledge for the human mind. And this philosophy, aspiring so strongly towards the highest that no higher ideal of knowledge could ever be found, was the ideal which now hovered before Fichte's eyes.
By a singular concatenation of circumstances, while he was still engaged in working out his ideas within himself, he received a message from Jena. The impression made there by Fichte's achievement was such that on the strength of it he was invited, when Karl Leonhard Reinhold resigned his post at Jena University, to succeed him there as Professor of Philosophy. Those who were then directing intellectual life in that University welcomed with the utmost satisfaction the idea of introducing into this famous College (then the highest in prestige of any in Germany) the remarkable personality who, while in one aspect he struck them as a hot-head, in another made the impression of a man striving, especially in his quest for a philosophy of life, towards the highest levels of thought.
And now let us just attempt to view him in imagination as he discharges the duties of his new appointment. He desired to transmit to those who now from 1794 onwards were his pupils, the outlook on the world which had formed itself within him. But Fichte was not a teacher like any other. Let us first consider the results of his spiritual evolution. It would take too long to explain this in his own words, but it can be characterized out of his own spirit as follows. He aspired towards a supreme ideal of such a kind that the human spirit might apprehend the stream and mystery of the world at a point where the spirit is directly one with this stream and mystery. So that man gazing into this mystery of the universe might be able to link his own existence with it, that is to say, to know it. This result could not be attained in any exterior sensuous existence. It could not be reached by any eye, any ear, any other sense, nor by everyday human understanding either. For all that can be apprehended outwardly by the senses must first be co-ordinated by human intelligence; it has its existence in the outer world. It can only be considered as real when its existence is, so to speak, confirmed by the observations of the senses. But that is no real existence; or at least no opinion can be formed at first about the real existence of what is only apprehended by the senses. The source of all knowing must rise in the depth of the I itself. That cannot be a something complete in its existence, for a completed existence in the inner self would be equal to what appears as completed existence within the outer senses. It must be a creating reality. This is the I itself, the I which recreates itself every moment, the I which is grounded not on a completed being, but on an inward activity. This I cannot be deprived of its being, since that being consists in its creation; in its self-creation. And into this self-creation flows everything that has real being. Away then with this Self from the world of the senses, and into those spheres where the spirit moves and has its being, where the spirit works as creator; we must grasp this spiritual life and act from the point where the I unites with the spiritual processes of the world. We must plunge into that current which is not external complete being, but which from the source of the divine cosmic existence creates the I, first as I and then as human ideals, as the great conceptions of duty.
Such was the form which the Kantian philosophy had assumed in Fichte's soul. And thus he did not want to present his hearers with a ready-made doctrine. With Fichte it was not a lecture like another lecture, a doctrine like another doctrine. No; when this man took his place at the lecturer's desk, then what he had to say there, or rather to do there, was the fruit of a long meditation of many hours during which in thought he saw inwardly the divine being, the divine spiritual ebb and flow streaming through the world, and permeating in its course the I which ever recreates itself, by a sublime process above and beyond all sensuous existence. After having brooded long in self-imposed debate as to what the cosmic spirit had to impart to the soul about world mysteries, then, and only then, did he come before his audience. But then he was not concerned to convey his message, but to create an atmosphere of communion between himself and his hearers. His endeavoured to make what had come to life in his soul concerning the world's mysteries alive likewise spontaneously in the souls of his listeners. His purpose was to awaken spiritual activity and spiritual being. From the souls of his hearers, as they hung upon his words, he sought to call forth a self-renewing spiritual activity. He did not merely communicate ideas. The following is an instance of what he sought to give to his hearers.
One day he was attempting to illustrate this self-renewing faculty of the I, how all mental activity can arise in the I and how man can only reach a real understanding of cosmic mysteries by grasping this self-renewing faculty within himself; and when he was attempting to illustrate this, entering the spiritual world with his hearers, and, as it were, taking each one by the hand to guide him into the spiritual world, he said: “Now may I ask you just to fix your attention for a moment upon the wall. Well, you have now, I hope, formed a mental picture of the wall. The wall is now present in your minds as an image. And now think of a person thinking of the wall. Detach your minds altogether from any thought of the wall itself. Fix your attention entirely on the person thinking of the wall.”
This direct manner, this direct relation which Fichte sought to establish with his hearers made many of them uneasy, but at the same time impressed them profoundly. The spirit at work in Fichte had to come to grips with the spirit of his hearers.
Thus for several years the man worked on, never repeating the same lecture, but continually creating anew. For he did not care about imparting in sentences this or that information, but strove ever and again to awaken a new response in his hearers. This is evident from his oft-repeated assertion: “It matters nothing that what I have to say to men should be repeated by this person or that, but rather the essential is that I succeed in kindling a flame in men's souls, a flame which shall induce every one to think for himself. Let no one repeat my words after me, but let each one be stimulated by me to deliver his own message.” Fichte's aim was to produce, not pupils, but original thinkers. If we follow out the history of Fichte's influence, we can understand how it was that this man, the most German of the German philosophers, did not train any real students of philosophy. He founded no school of philosophy. But the direct relationship which he established with his pupils again and again produced men of mark.
Now Fichte was aware — inevitably, since he sought to lead the minds of men up to a direct contact with creative spiritual reality — he was aware that he must speak in quite a special way. Fichte's whole style was indeed hard to follow. None of those who attended any of his courses at Jena had ever come into contact with such teaching before. Schiller himself was astonished at it, and Fichte once discussed with Schiller how his, Fichte's, teaching activity and his manner of presentation appeared to himself. For example, Fichte remarked; “Of course, if people just read what I have said, then it is impossible, as people read to-day, that they should comprehend what I am trying to say.” Then, taking up one of his books, he attempted to illustrate how, in his judgment, his work should be read aloud. Then he said to Schiller: “You see, people nowadays do not know how to recite inwardly. But people can only grasp the inner meaning of my lectures by really reciting them mentally, otherwise it is lost.” Certainly Fichte's own rendering of his lectures was no mere reading, it was direct speech itself. Therefore even to-day we ought in studying Fichte to recite his words mentally against the background, as it were, of his whole spiritual life, which merits our attention as representing the spiritual life of the whole German people. Even to-day we ought still to train ourselves in reciting and listening inwardly to those passages of Fichte which otherwise seem so dry and so bare.
We have now reviewed in our minds Fichte's spiritual development and reached one of the peaks of his spiritual life. It is right therefore to glance back for a moment over this remarkable evolution. We first visualised Fichte as he stood before Baron von Miltitz in his blue peasant smock, a sturdy red-cheeked peasant boy who had no other education than that open to his class, but who, even as a nine-year-old child, had assimilated that education till it had become the most fundamental possession of his soul. In him we have an example of a soul grown to maturity wholly out of the midst of the German people, without at first receiving any culture other than that which belongs to the common every-day life of the German people. We have followed this spirit through difficult phases; this spirit — whose ideal it really is to remain within the people, but yet is bound to yield to the deepest motives of his being — can be followed in his course as he rises to the loftiest heights of inner spiritual growth and work, until at last he becomes, as we have been able to illustrate, a moulder of men. We are following the road traversed by a German spirit growing directly out of the people and climbing by its own strength alone to the topmost peaks of spiritual existence.
Thus up to the spring of 1799 Fichte discharged the duties of his teaching post at Jena. Even before that time all sorts of dissensions had arisen, for it must be admitted that Fichte was not by any means the kind of man who is easy in intercourse, the kind of man willing for the sake of friendly relations to use roundabout methods and facile gestures in his dealings with other people. But here we come to an important point, which has significance for the whole of the German life of that epoch.
One person in particular felt deep satisfaction — a feeling which Goethe also shared — at having been able to call Fichte to his University at Jena: this person was the Duke, Karl August. And we may well, I think, record here the singular tolerance shown by Karl August in calling to his University the man who had most freely applied the Kantian philosophy in criticism of revealed religion; and moreover in inviting to his University the man who had most boldly and outspokenly taken a stand for the freest ideals of human development. It would be, I feel, a failure to do justice to Karl August, that noble spirit, if we passed on without pointing out what unusual broad-mindedness this German prince must then have needed, in calling Fichte into his service. This invitation was described by Goethe as a piece of audacity; and I should like to remind you of the world of prejudices which Karl August and Goethe, who in the nature of things were bound to be the chief authors of this invitation, had to face in taking it on themselves to bring Fichte to Jena. As I say, it would be almost an injustice not to point out Karl August's remarkable freedom from all prejudice. And to illustrate this I should like to read out a passage from Fichte's book entitled: Suggestions for the Enlightenment of Public Opinion on the French Revolution:
“They (Fichte is referring to the European princes, including those of Germany) are for the most part brought up in indolence and ignorance, or if they know anything it is a kind of knowledge specially concocted for them; it is a notorious fact that once they are on the throne they neglect to go on with their education, that they read no new works except perhaps shallow sophistries and that they are invariably behind their times by at least as many years as they have reigned.”
That passage is from the last book which Fichte had then written — yet the Duke Karl August invited this man to his University!
Anyone who gives a little attention to the whole situation of Fichte and those who had sent for him will come to this conclusion: that those people who held the view of the great and magnanimous Karl August and Goethe had undertaken a campaign against the people of their immediate circle, who were altogether and absolutely in disagreement with the idea of sending for Fichte. And this was a campaign which was not easy to undertake; for as already stated, it was not possible with Fichte to make use of manoeuvres such as are so generally practised in the world. Fichte was a man who by his awkwardness, by his bluntness often offended the very people whom it was most desirable to avoid offending. He was not a man to make smooth gestures: he was a man who, if something did not please him, would strike out with his fist against the world. And the manner in which Fichte was then using his whole energy to impart his message to the world was admittedly such as to cause Goethe and Karl August some distress; it was not easy for them, it was very hard for them to put up with it, and they were distressed.
And so little by little the storm-clouds gathered. First of all, Fichte wanted to give a course of ethical lectures, those which are printed under the title “Lectures on the Morality of the Scholar.” The only suitable hour that he could find was on Sunday. But this was a shocking suggestion to all who held that it would be a profanation of the holy day to address the Jena students on a Sunday on the subject of morality as Fichte conceived it. And protests of every sort and kind poured in upon the Weimar Government, upon Goethe and Karl August. The whole Senate of Jena University passed a unanimous resolution to the effect that a deplorable sensation and infinite mischief would result if Fichte were to deliver lectures on morals in the University on Sundays — he had selected the hour of the afternoon church service. In this affair Karl August was forced for the time being to leave Fichte's adversaries in possession of the field. But once again it would not be right to pass on without drawing attention to the manner in which he did it. The following is an extract from the letter sent by Karl August to the University of Jena: —
“In accordance with your request we have resolved that the above-mentioned Professor Fichte shall be permitted to continue his moral lectures on Sunday only after the close of the afternoon church service.” However, Karl August was brought to this decision only on account of “a circumstance so unusual as the arrangement of lectures of this kind during the hours appointed for Divine Service.” In the official decree sent by the Duke to the University Senate he wrote in reference to these lectures: — “We have been glad to assure ourselves that if his (Fichte's) moral lectures resemble the accompanying admirable essay from his pen, they may well prove to be of the highest value.” [See Rudolf Steiner: Sonderdruck aus dem Goethe-Jahrbuch, fünfzehnter Band 1894: Neue Mitteilungen. Sieben Briefe von Fichte an Goethe. Zwei Briefe von Fichte an Schiller. (Reprint from the Goethe Year-Book, Vol. 15: New Communications. Seven Letters from Fichte to Goethe. Two Letters from Fichte to Schiller.)]
But the attack was pressed home. The enemy never afterwards let go their hold. And so, in 1799, came about that unhappy controversy over the charge of atheism, as a result of which Fichte had to relinquish his position as lecturer at Jena. A younger man named Forberg had contributed to the periodical Fichte was then editing, an article which incurred from a certain quarter a charge of atheism. Fichte, for his part, thought that what this young man had written was rather imprudent, and wished to add marginal comments. Forberg disagreed with this suggestion; so that Fichte in that lofty manner of his which he used not alone in great matters but also in the smallest ones, would not hear of rejecting the article because he disagreed with it, and would not add marginal notes against the author's will; however, he wrote in the form of a preface some lines about the basis of the belief in the divine governance of the world. These lines of his were wholly imbued, through and through, with the spirit of genuine and deeply-felt reverence and piety, exalted to that spiritual level of which Fichte said that it was the only true reality, that we can only grasp reality when the I feels itself moving in the sphere of the spirit, immersed in the spiritual stream of the world. We must not, therefore, he added, apprehend the existence of God by any external revelation or external knowledge whatever. We must apprehend the existence of God in the living process of creation. We must sense the creative process of the world by standing in the stream of it, ourselves ceaselessly creating and so attaining our own immortality.
But in consequence of this article the charge of atheism was now turned against Fichte himself. It is impossible to relate here the full details of this controversy. It is indeed grievous to observe how Goethe and Karl August, against their will, had to take sides against Fichte; who, however, would never be restrained, when he felt impelled to communicate his appointed message to the world, from retorting to an attack by a direct blow. So matters went on till Fichte heard that steps were to be taken against him, that he was to be reprimanded. Goethe and Karl August would have preferred to see the matter settled by a reprimand. But Fichte said to himself that to accept a reprimand for ideas drawn from the deepest sources of the human spirit, would mean an offence against honour, not his personal honour, but that of the spiritual life itself. And so he then wrote a private letter, which however was viewed as an official communication and filed among the official documents, to the Minister Voigt at Weimar, to the effect that he would never accept any reprimand, no, rather he would take his departure! And whenever Fichte wrote about matters of this kind he wrote as he spoke. It used to be said of him that he had a sharp tongue when necessary; and in correspondence too he could be cutting towards anybody, whoever it might be. Thus the authorities had no alternative, unless everything were to be turned upside down at Jena, but to accept the resignation which Fichte had not really meant to tender, for his private letter had been treated as an official communication. At any rate that was how it came about that Fichte had to give up his post as teacher at Jena, which had been blessed with such fruitful influence.
Shortly afterwards we see him appear at Berlin. He has now approached from a fresh angle the position of the I in the ever-moving stream of the world-spirit. The book which he then wrote (and which can now be bought cheaply in Reklam's Universal Library) was called Die Bestimmung des Menschen (The Destiny of Man). Into the composition of this work he threw his whole being and energy. In it he strove to show how those who only view the world of the senses from outside, co-ordinating it with the understanding, can only point the way towards a meaningless view of the world. The gist of Part I is to show how in this fashion one arrives only at a dream-reflection of life. The object of Part II is to show how the mind thus comes to regard the world as a chain of exterior necessities. And in Part III we come to the enquiry as to how the soul fares when it seeks not merely an image but a direct participation in that great creative process of all existence. After putting the finishing touches to the work, Fichte wrote to his wife, whom he had then left behind at Jena: “I have never before looked so deeply into religion as during the composition of the last part of this work, The Destiny of Man.”
Apart from a short interval in 1805, which he spent at the University of Erlangen, Fichte passed the remainder of his life in this world at Berlin. At first he gave private lectures at the various houses in which he lived, lectures of an impressive character; subsequently he was invited to assist in the newly-founded University, to which we must now turn our attention.
As I said, apart from the short interlude in 1805 at Erlangen, his work now lay in Berlin. He was still drawing from ever fresh sources in his soul the ideas which he had to impart to the public. So at Erlangen, continually recasting his ideas in a fresh mould, he presented his theory of knowledge, his outlook on the world. Strangely enough, whereas at Jena he had from the beginning of his course a fair audience which steadily increased, and similarly in Berlin, the number of his hearers in Erlangen dwindled by one half in the course of the term. Everyone knows how professors generally take such a falling-off; anyone who has any experience knows that they simply have to accept it. But Fichte did not react to it in that way. One day when his audience at Erlangen had diminished to one half, he referred to it, taking for granted that his words would reach also those who had stayed away, in one of those thundering tirades in which he demonstrated to people that, if they would not hear what he had to say, then they were good only for external historical knowledge, not for intellectual knowledge. And after going on to discuss what a man should become in life if in his spiritual strivings he rejected this intellectual kind of knowledge, he continued as follows: — “Now as to the time of my lectures. I have heard how much dissatisfaction is felt at the choice of time. I will not consider this strictly according to principles which are really self-evident and which would have to be applied here. I will take it that the persons concerned are only misinformed, and will try to put them right. No doubt they may say that there is a tradition in this matter dating from long ago. Supposing that this were the fact, I should have to reply that grave abuses must have existed in the university from the earliest times. ... I myself have held at Jena from six to seven o'clock in summer and winter a course such as this, attended by hundreds, whose numbers used to increase considerably towards the close. I must say openly that when I arrived here I selected this hour because no other was available. Now that I have realised the point of view adopted towards it, I shall select it deliberately for the coming summer.
“At the back of all these difficulties we find a deep-seated incapacity in people to occupy themselves and a great deal of shallowness and ennui, so that after a meal has been taken, by God's grace, at midday, people find it unendurable to stay any longer in the town. And even if you were to give me proofs — which I hope it would be impossible to supply — that such has been the custom at Erlangen since its foundation, in the whole of Franconia, indeed throughout South Germany, then I would not hesitate to answer that in that case shallowness and futility must have made their headquarters at Erlangen and the whole of South Germany.”
Whatever one may think of such outbursts as this, it is truly characteristic of Fichte as regards his intense concentration on the spiritual message which he was trying to deliver to mankind. Whenever he spoke he did not seek merely to say something but to do something for men's souls, to lay hold on them; thus every soul who stayed away was a real loss, not for himself but for the purpose which he was trying to realise for mankind. For Fichte the word was also an act. Since he himself dwelt within the spiritual world, it was possible for him through spiritual communion to gather others around him within that world, because he was himself within it and was no mere theoretical champion of the principles he professed when he said: “Reality is not in the outer world of the senses but in the spirit; and whoever knows the spirit can perceive behind all sensuous existence the spiritual reality.”
And to him this was no mere theory, it was also a practical reality, as was proved at a later date at Berlin by the following incident. One day when his audience was assembled in the lecture hall, which was near the Spree Canal, a terrible message was brought. Some children, with Fichte's son among them, had been playing down there; a boy had fallen into the water and it was thought to be Fichte's son. Fichte and a friend set out, and in the presence of all his students, they pulled the boy out of the water. Although the boy bore a close resemblance to Fichte's son, it was not in fact he. Yet for a moment Fichte had been convinced that it was his son. He did what he could for the child, who however was dead when taken from the water. Anybody who knows the intimate family affection in Fichte's household between him, his wife Johanna and their only son, will realise something of what Fichte went through at that moment; the terrible shock that he underwent and then the transition from this shock to the deepest joy when he was able to clasp his son in his arms. When he had done this and changed his clothes, he proceeded to deliver the remainder of his two-hour lecture just as he always did, that is, wholly intent on his subject.
This was not a unique instance. Often and often did Fichte give similar proofs of his integral loyalty to the world of the spirit. For example, it was at this period at Berlin that he delivered public lectures which were intended as a criticism and a severe indictment of his age. He passed in review one by one the various epochs of history. But it was, he said, the age in which he lived, which had brought selfishness to the extreme limit. And in that age of selfishness he found himself confronting the personality of Napoleon, in whom, in his view, this selfishness was incarnate. During all this period when the Napoleonic chaos was enveloping north and central Germany, Fichte never in his heart viewed himself otherwise than as Napoleon's spiritual antagonist. And so we get his character study of Napoleon, of which it may be said that an image of the Emperor, profoundly German in its approach and in its vigour and based on the loftiest philosophical standpoint, had shaped itself in the mind of this German thinker who had grown out of that peasant boy in a blue smock of whom earlier we had a glimpse.
We have come now to a state of human existence at the present time, said Fichte, in which people have lost their consciousness of the spiritual influence which pulsates through the world and also through human existence and evolution, and which, in the form of the moral impulses, carries mankind forward from epoch to epoch; of the truth that in the march of history man is only of value in so far as he is sustained by what is permanent from age to age in the moral impulses and the moral order of the world. Of all this people no longer know anything. We have arrived at an epoch in which we see one generation succeed another like links in a chain. Even the best minds, said Fichte, have forgotten the moral principles which must pervade these links. And in such a world we encounter the personality of Napoleon, an inexhaustible source of energy indeed, but a man who, though he may have had in his soul occasional glimpses of freedom, has never formed any true notion of the real all-embracing ideal of freedom as it works from age to age in men's moral aspirations and in the moral framework of the world. And from this fundamental deficiency that a personality which is only a shell, without any true spiritual core, can yet wield such immense force, from this phenomenon Fichte traced the personality, the whole “catastrophe” as he expressed it — Napoleon.
In mentioning this and in placing side by side these two personalities — Fichte, the most forceful exponent of the German outlook with his view of Napoleon, and on the other side Napoleon himself — reference should be made to an observation attributed to Napoleon at St. Helena, after his downfall; for it is only in this light that the whole situation can be clearly grasped. At St. Helena, after his downfall, Napoleon expressed himself as follows: “Everything would have gone all right. I should not have fallen before all the Powers which ranged themselves against me. With one factor only did I fail to reckon, and it is this that really brought about my downfall, namely — the German philosophers!” Let narrow minds say what they will about the value of philosophy; this piece of self-revelation from Napoleon's own lips has more weight, I think, than all the objections that might be raised against Fichte's idealism, which indeed had a thoroughly practical aspect.
Finally, it is possible to adduce another proof, a proper historical proof, that it is not so difficult for an idealist such as Fichte to be practical when occasion demanded. It had become necessary for him to enter as a partner into his father's business, which had now been taken over by his brothers. We see him accordingly as a partner in the family ribbon-weaving business. His parents were still alive; and we may note that he proved to be a good and prudent business man, capable of lending valuable assistance to his brothers, who had remained simply men of business. A man such as Fichte has many critics who say: “Oh these idealists, they dwell in a dream-world, they understand nothing of practical life!” But it may well be imagined that Fichte from the depth of his being, and especially in his lectures on Die Bestimmung des Gelehrten (The Vocation of the Scholar), had something to say which cannot be too often repeated in the face of those who point to the unpractical nature of idealism, of the spiritual world altogether. In the introduction to this course of lectures Fichte made the following observations: —
“That ideals cannot be demonstrated in the actual world is a fact which we know perhaps as well as our critics, perhaps better. We merely assert that reality must be judged with reference to these ideals and must be modified by those who feel in themselves the strength to do so. Supposing however that our critics cannot even concede so much; well, seeing that they are what they are, this inability will mean small loss to them, and none to the world. It will simply mean that they do not count in the process towards the ennoblement of mankind, which anyway will go forward without any doubt; as to these others, may kindly nature have them in her keeping, granting them in God's good time rain, sunshine, wholesome nourishment and proper circulation of the blood, and, in addition to all these — right thoughts!”
The significance of ideals, the significance also of practical life, was something already quite clear to the mind of this German. But then Fichte's was a nature which stood by itself. He may be called one-sided; but this one-sidedness must occur sometimes in life, just as there are certain forces which must occasionally overshoot the mark in order to achieve the best results.
Undoubtedly Fichte's behaviour often had a rough side to it, as when apart from his lectures on the principles of morality, he attempted to take practical steps at Jena against the tyranny of routine, and against drinking and loafing ways among the students. He had by now a certain following in student circles. Further, as a result of his influence, petitions had been presented to the authorities asking for the abolition of this or that society which was particularly given to disorder. As we have seen, Fichte was a rugged nature, not skilful in making smooth gestures, but quite likely, metaphorically of course, to strike out fiercely with his fist now and then; and indeed matters came to such a pass that the majority of the Jena students were altogether opposed to Fichte and his practical moral influence. So they banded themselves together and smashed his windows. To Goethe, though he respected Fichte and was respected by him, the incident suggested a humorous comment. “Why yes,” said Goethe, “that is the philosopher who derives everything from the I! It is truly an inconvenient way of being assured of the existence of the non-I, to have one's windows smashed; that was not what one assumed as the contrary of the I.”
All this, however, does not mean that there was any lack of harmony between Fichte's and Goethe's philosophical outlook. And Fichte was profoundly right in the feeling he expressed in a letter to Goethe on 21st June, 1794, soon after the beginning of his lectures at Jena, when sending to Goethe the proofs of his work on the Theory of Knowledge:
“I regard you, and have always done so, as representing the purest spirituality of feeling at the point so far reached by human progress. Philosophy rightly turns towards you, for your feeling is its best criterion.”
And Goethe wrote to Fichte, after receiving the pages of the Theory of Knowledge: “There is nothing in your work which is not altogether in line with my own customary way of thinking.” Again, in another letter to Fichte, referring also to the Theory of Knowledge: “These ideas are indeed now in harmony with nature; but men's minds must also come into harmony with them and I believe that you will be able to present them in the right way.” And if anyone to-day should assert that he finds this Theory of Knowledge, as then published by Fichte, dry and unlike Goethe, or that Goethe would have had no taste for such things, one must reply to this criticism as I replied when publishing the letters of Fichte to Goethe, in the Weimar Schiller-and-Goethe Archives, in the Goethe Year-Book of 1894. [See Rudolf Steiner: Reprint from the Goethe Year-Book, Vol. 15, 1894: Further Communications; Seven Letters from Fichte to Goethe; Two Letters from Fichte to Schiller. That Goethe was keenly interested in Fichte's philosophy and by no means adopted a negative attitude towards it, is proved by a passage in a letter to Fichte of 24th June, 1794, in which he says about the first sheets of the Theory of Knowledge: “There is nothing in the pages you have sent me which I do not understand or at least believe that I understand, nothing which cannot be easily assimilated to my accustomed way of thinking.” Further evidence of this can be seen in the fact that Goethe made long extracts from this work, still preserved in the Goethe Archives.] In the Goethe-Schiller Archives there are extracts from Fichte's Theory of Knowledge in Goethe's own hand, accompanied sentence by sentence by the ideas inspired in him reading Fichte; and after all it is intelligible that Goethe, one of the most German among Germans, out of the pure spirituality of feeling with which he sought for a fresh outlook on the world, should inevitably hold out his hand to the man who as the most German of all Germans was in quest of a philosophical outlook based on the force of pure reason alone. Goethe once also, by the way, expressed very aptly his relationship towards the philosophy of Kant. What he said was — not word for word, but in substance — as follows: Kant had argued that, by turning his attention outward upon the world, man can only arrive at sense-knowledge. But his sense-knowledge is nothing but appearance, merely something which man himself by his point of view introduces into the world. Knowledge must be deposed from its seat, for it is only by a belief that it is possible to arrive at freedom, at infinity, at a conception of the divine spiritual existence. And this attempt to arrive not at a belief, but at a direct insight into the spiritual world, this attempt to bring the individual creative process into communion with the creativeness of the divine world spirit, this attempt which Kant believes to be impossible, would be, as he terms it, the “venture of reason” and Goethe's comment on this is: “Very well then, an attempt must certainly be made to undertake, undaunted, this venture of reason! And assuming that a man has no doubts of the spiritual world but believes in freedom and immortality in God, why should he not face this venture of reason and with the creative element of the soul transport himself into the heart of the creative process which ebbs and flows through the world?” In Fichte, Goethe found a conception of the same venture, only imagined in another way.
And indeed it had to emerge sooner or later, albeit in a rough form, this urge towards spirituality, towards the apprehension of the all-creating cosmic intelligence, towards the state where the creative I indwells in the creative world-being and is one with it. And in Fichte's view the impulse in this direction was to be given by his Theory of Knowledge. In this theory the very spirit of the German people produced before the world what it had to utter about life and the world and the aims of mankind; it was as it were a direct gesture from the German people, from out of which we see Fichte's soul mount upwards to the heights. Indeed he himself was aware that his philosophy was always rooted in his living intercourse with the spirit of the German people. This spirit found here, it is true, only such expression as it could, seeing that it had first to emerge through the medium of such a rough-hewn personality as Fichte's. No, truly, his was not a personality easy to deal with. Of this we find again another illustration in the following connection. When a University was to be founded at Berlin, and it fell to Fichte to work out a scheme for it, his plan, worked out to the smallest details, showed what his conception of a University was like. And what was his idea? In this University to be started at Berlin he wanted to build something so fundamentally novel, especially for the beginning of the nineteenth century, that — we may say it without the slightest fear of contradiction — this novelty is as yet unrealised anywhere in the world, and the world is still waiting for it. Needless to say, Fichte's scheme was not put into practice, though indeed he was aiming at nothing else than, as he expressed it, to make the University into a “School of training in the scientific application of intelligence.” What was this University to become? A place of nurture, which might be termed a school of training for the scientific use of the intelligence! Accordingly, it was to turn out, not specialists in this subject or that, such as philosophers or natural scientists or physicians or jurists, but human beings so closely fitted into the structure of the world as to have entire command over the art of using their intelligence. Only imagine what a blessing it would mean if such a University really existed anywhere in the world! if actually we could find realised anywhere a school that would turn out people who have made their inner soul so vital that they could move freely within the essential logic of existence!
But truly this personality was not easy to deal with! It was something massive which existed in order to leave a distinctive mark on history. Fichte became the second Rector of the new University. He filled the position so energetically that he was only able to remain Rector for four months; for neither the students nor the authorities concerned could tolerate any longer what he was attempting to accomplish. All this however, just as with Fichte himself, is typical of German feeling. For when he delivered his Reden an das deutsche Volk (Addresses to the German People), to which, and indeed to the whole great phenomenon of Fichte, I have already repeatedly referred here, not only during the war but also before it — when he delivered these Addresses he knew that he was trying to communicate to the German people what he had, so to speak, overheard in his meditative conversations with the cosmic spirit. The only response at which he was aiming was to arouse in their souls whatever can be aroused out of the deepest sources of the German being. This manner which Fichte adopted towards his time and towards those whose souls he hoped to raise to a level sufficient for the tasks of the wider universe, all this was unlikely to make any impression on idlers or superficial people, except perhaps to excite their curiosity. But this latter response was the last which Fichte sought to evoke. Needless to say, when such an intellectual phenomenon as Fichte appears in the world, the very easiest course is to turn it into ridicule; there is nothing easier than to play the critic and to laugh at it. People did this a good deal, and the result was sometimes to place Fichte in difficult situations. For example, immediately after his arrival at the University of Jena, he found himself in quite a serious dilemma through his inability to agree with others who after all were also philosophers. Thus there was at the Jena University a man who was the traditional professor of philosophy, a man by the name of Schmid. This man had expressed such vehement condemnation of Fichte's previous work that it was really outrageous that Fichte was now to become his colleague. Thereupon Fichte in turn published a few remarks in the periodical in which Schmid's criticism had appeared. And so the affair went on, backwards and forwards. Fichte assumed his position at Jena just at the time when he was writing in the Jena periodical to which Schmid had contributed “I declare that for me Herr Schmid will no longer exist in this world.” It was a serious matter to take his place beside his colleague in such an atmosphere. A less serious, but no less characteristic incident, was as follows: at that time there was appearing at Berlin a periodical called Der Freimütige (The Independent) directed by the “celebrated” German writer Kötzebue and another man. It was impossible to make out (indeed I believe that even by the most intimate clairvoyance it would not have been possible) the reason why this Kötzebue attended Fichte's lectures. But these doubts lasted only for a while, and presently the reason became clear when Der Freimütige, then a very prominent magazine at Berlin, began to publish the most vicious attacks upon Fichte's lectures. One day Fichte found it more than he could stand. Thereupon he took a number of this magazine Der Freimütige and dissected it before his audience, ridiculing the opinions expressed in the article with the inimitable humour which he had at his command. The countenance of one member of the audience, whose presence there so far had been unexplained, grew longer and longer. And finally Herr Kötzebue stood up with a very long face and announced that he did not see why he should listen to this any longer; so he went off and did not return. But Fichte was heartily glad to be rid of him.
Through the way in which he adapted himself in practice to life, when he was trying to remould the innermost depths of human existence, Fichte knew how to find the tone precisely adapted to the situation before him. Even though he dwelt altogether in the spiritual world, he was yet no otherworldly idealist, but he was a man standing altogether by himself and was accustomed to pay earnest heed to what he felt to be the innermost promptings of his own nature. Accordingly, at a certain time when Napoleon had conquered Berlin and the French were in occupation, he was unable to remain in the city. He did not choose to remain in a city which was under the French yoke. He went therefore first to Königsberg, subsequently to Copenhagen, returning only when he was ready to come forward as the German who could put before his compatriots the very soul of his nation and its national characteristics, in his Addresses to the German People.
Fichte is rightly regarded as a direct expression of German national sentiment, as an expression of that spirit which eternally and profoundly dwells in our midst — and not merely in thought. A philosopher, Robert Zimmerman, by no means in accord with Fichte in his philosophical outlook, has finely characterised this aspect of Fichte in the following passage:
“As long as there beats in Germany a heart capable of feeling the shame of foreign domination, so long will the memory of this brave man persist among us; at a moment of the deepest humiliation, amid the ruins of the monarchy of Frederick the Great, in the midst of the French occupation of Berlin, within sight and hearing of the enemy, surrounded by spies and informers, there was a man who yet undertook the task of regenerating from within by the spirit the energies of the German people which had been broken from without by the sword; and at the very moment when Germany's political existence seemed as if annihilated for evermore, this man undertook to recreate it for future generations by the inspiring thought of universal culture.”
It is true that to-day we may think quite differently as to the substance of many of the ideas expressed in the Addresses to the German People, and indeed in Fichte's other writings; but that, as I should like to repeat once more, is not the main question. The main thing is that we should feel the German spirit which pervades his productions, and the renewal of the German spirit in its relations with the world at large, the revival which breathes forth from the Addresses to the German People. The main thing is that we should feel this as the spirit which is now alive amongst us and which we can perceive only in this one instance of Fichte, who has thus taken his place in German evolution — at first, indeed, in a style which attracted widespread notice. Power and energy combined with profound introspection — such were the qualities with which this soul strove to take his place in world evolution. Accordingly, at the period when the end of his life was approaching, in the autumn of 1813, Fichte again found an opportunity of repeating in the most intimate form before his Berlin audiences his whole Theory of Knowledge, after remoulding and recasting it, as a result of further meditations, till it embodied his deepest thoughts. In these Addresses, once more penetrating the souls of his hearers in the way described earlier, he considered again the impossibility for man to go behind the veil of his existence unless he be willing to embrace this existence in the spirit, beyond all sensuous reality. But to those men who believe themselves able to apprehend the truth of existence through the sense-world and the results of sense-experience alone, to these people Fichte proclaimed in these lectures, which are among his last:
“All their knowledge only leads to misunderstanding and vain words; and for that they praise themselves and think all is well. For example, as regards sight: the image of an object is thrown on the retina. Similarly the image of an object is reflected in the surface of still water. Do we therefore hold that the surface of the water can see? What is that further factor which makes the difference between that image in the water and real seeing, the factor which exists in us but not in the water? But these people have not even an inkling of this, for their minds do not reach so far.”
We must become aware, says Fichte, of a special sense, a new sense within one's self, if we mean to experience that existence in the spirit which alone makes all other existence intelligible. “I am, and I am with all my aims only in a super-sensible world.” These words are Fichte's own, and they run like a leitmotiv through all Fichte's utterances throughout his life, which he again confirmed in another way in that autumn of 1813. And what was it that he spoke of then? Of the necessity for men to become conscious that with the outlook on things and the world current in ordinary life and ordinary knowledge one could never get behind the reality of being. We must, he said, become aware that a super-sensible mind dwells in every one of us, and that man can merge his being in a world beyond the senses, and with this super-sensible mind can become, as a creative I, one with the stream of the creative pervading world-spirit. It is, he says, as though a seeing person comes to a world of the blind and tries to explain to the inhabitants colour and form, and the blind people deny that these exist. Even so the materialist denies, because he does not possess the requisite sense, like the man who knows: “I am, and I am with all my aims and deeds in the super-sensible world.” [“Imagine a world of people blind from birth, for whom therefore only those things and their relationships are known which can be apprehended by touch. Go among these, and talk to them of colour and the other relationships which are present only through light to the sense of sight. You will be talking to them of nothing, and it is all the better if they say so; for thus you will soon perceive your error and, unless you have the power of opening their eyes, you will desist from useless explanation.”] And with such emphasis did Fichte then impress upon his hearers this existence in the super-sensible, this life in the spiritual, that he said: “Accordingly the new sense is the sense of the spirit; the sense for which only spirit and nothing else whatever has being, and for which also that other, the every-day existence assumes the form of spirit and is transformed into it, for which therefore being as such has actually disappeared.”
It is a glorious fact that in German spiritual development there should have been someone to bear witness in this way to the life of the spirit, in the presence of those who were eager to hear what the German nation, on its highest level, and speaking from the depth of its being, has to utter. For that is what this German nation communicated through Fichte, and it is true of Fichte more than of any other man, that he represented the German soul speaking, at the level it had then reached, to the German nation itself.
Whether we consider this Fichte externally, or whether we look with the inner eye into his soul, always he appears to us as the most direct expression of the German nation itself, not that which is present only at a particular time within the German people, but what is ever present, what is ever there in our midst, if we only know how to perceive it. Through his personality Fichte presents himself to us in such a way that we desire to have his image pictured before our souls; and with the mind's eye clearly to see him and hear him as he creates that atmosphere which rises as he speaks between his soul and that of his hearers, so that we seek to draw quite close to him. The result is that we can feel his presence, as I would put it, like that of a legendary hero, a hero of the spirit, who with the eyes of the spirit can always be seen as a leader of his people, if this people only know itself aright! His own people can visualize him, by bringing his image before their souls as one of their chief spiritual heroes.
And to-day, in this age of deeds, in this age when the German people is wrestling as never before for its very existence [during the First World War], we shall do well to evoke with the vision of the spirit the image of this man, who was able to depict German nature and character from the loftiest point of view, but also in the most vigorous individual style, so that of him more than of any other we may believe that, if we understand him rightly, we still have him actually among us. For everything in him is cast so wholly in one mould, he comes forward so directly towards us that as we look at him, he seems to stand before us in his fashion as he lived; whether each single feature stands out from his complete being, or whether we let ourselves be influenced by the most intimate aspects of his soul, in either case he stands before us as a whole. We cannot comprehend him else, for otherwise we comprehend him only blunderingly and superficially.
Yes, we can catch a glimpse of him at his work of kindling among his compatriots the souls of men to surrender themselves, creative in the stream of creation, to the vital forces of the world; ascending, in company with those others, to spiritual experience and entering as a living influence into the process of development of his people. We need but to open the eyes of the spirit. It is only thus that he can be understood; but if we open the eyes of the spirit to his greatness, then we shall find him standing in our midst. He endeavoured, as we have seen, to produce effects different from those of other teachers by using language as a medium of doing rather than saying when he came before his audience; in such a way that it was indifferent to him what he said, because he aimed solely at kindling the hearer's soul to deeds of his own, because something had to take place in the souls of his hearers to make them undergo a change between entering and leaving the hall. All this has the quite unusual result that we find his living image, that of a man of the people moulding his fellows, present to our minds; and that we seem to hear him transforming into the words which are themselves deeds those thoughts overheard, as it were, in the solitary meditations and dialogues with the world-spirit, whereby he prepared himself for every single lecture; so that when he had finished speaking, he dismissed his audience as changed people. They had become other beings, not through his strength but through the awakening and kindling of their own. If we understand him rightly in such a way, then we may believe that we hear him clairaudiently as he strives to reach with the sharp edge of his words the spirit which he has already apprehended in the soul, seeking ever — as was said of him — to send out into the world, through his cultivation of the soul, not merely good but great men.
If we indeed form within us a living image of what he was, we cannot fail to hear his words, those words which seemed to be but using this Fichte to communicate a message from the heart of the world, kindling as it came fire and warmth and light. Fortitude vibrated in his words, and moral energy emanated from them. In others too fortitude was kindled by his words as they poured through the ears into the souls and hearts of those who heard him, and from these utterances streamed out into the world a flow of moral energy, when Fichte's followers, with their souls thus aflame with the fire of his eloquence, went out into the world, as we so often learn from contemporaries, as the most capable men of their time. By opening the ears of the spirit we can hear Fichte, if we understand him at all, directly as if he were a living presence speaking out of the heart of his people. And whoever has any ear for such greatness will hear it still in our midst.
It is rare indeed to find ourselves confronted with any spirit in whom we can trace all that he is into every single act of his life. That sense of duty, of the moral order the world, which he embodied at the climax of his philosophical development, can it not already be noted in the seven-year-old boy who threw the Gehörnte Siegfried into the water, because he had conceived a passion for it which he felt to be in contradiction to his duties? The brooding man preparing by meditation for his lectures, with his spirit intent on the mysteries of the world, can he not be found already in embryo in the boy who stood for hours on the moor with his eyes fixed in one direction, lost in the mysteries of nature till the shepherd passed and led him home? That intense fire which inspired Fichte in his teacher's chair at Jena and later when, as he said, he was speaking to the representatives of his whole nation in the Addresses to the German People — can we not feel it already in the incident when he so impressed Baron von Miltitz by his reproduction of the country clergyman's sermon? And if we possess even a little spiritual divination, can we not feel this spirit very near to us in every single act, even in the slightest act of his life? Can we not feel how fortitude of soul, moral energy stream out from this spirit throughout the whole subsequent German development? Can we not feel the lasting vitality, even if we can no longer agree with the ideas in detail, in the Addresses to the German People? Although the work was twice confiscated by censorship in 1824, it could not be killed; it is alive more than ever to-day, and is destined to live on in men's souls.
How clearly we can see him, this Fichte, standing in our midst! How clearly we can hear him, if we understand him rightly! If we use our spiritual sense we can feel how he thrilled the hearts of his followers, and beyond that of the whole German people in all its subsequent evolution; and we can feel that what he created, the stream of spiritual energy which he contributed to the ever-moving current of his nation's development, must remain something imperishable! We cannot help ourselves, if we understand him aright, we must feel this spirit of Fichte to be present in our midst.
Thanks to the Rudolf Steiner Archive