Addresses to the German Nation/Fourth Address

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Addresses to the German Nation by Johann Gottlieb Fichte, translated by Reginald Foy Jones
Fourth Address


41. We have said that the means of educating a new race of men, which is being put forward in these addresses, must first be applied by Germans to Germans, and that it concerns our nation in a special and peculiar way. This statement also requires proof; and here, as before, we shall begin with what is highest and most general, showing what is the characteristic of the German as such, apart from the fate that has now befallen him; showing, too, that this has been his characteristic ever since he began to exist; and pointing out how this characteristic in itself gives him alone, above all other European nations, the capacity of responding to such an education.

42. In the first place, the German is a branch of the Teutonic race. Of the latter it is sufficient to say here that its mission was to combine the social order established in ancient Europe with the true religion preserved in ancient Asia, and in this way to develop in and by itself a new and different age after the ancient world had perished. Further, it is sufficient to distinguish the German particularly, in contrast only to the other Teutonic peoples who came into existence with him. Other neo-European nations, as, for instance, those of Slav descent, do not seem as yet to have developed distinctly enough in comparison with the rest of Europe to make it possible to give a definite description of them; whereas others of the same Teutonic descent, as, for instance, the Scandinavians, although the main reason for differentiation (which will be stated immediately) does not apply to them, are yet regarded here as indisputably Germans, and included in all the general consequences of our observations.

43. But at the very outset the special observations which we are now on the point of making must be prefaced by the following remark. As the cause of the differentiation that has taken place in what was originally one stock I shall cite an event which, considered merely as an event, lies clear and incontestable before the eyes of all. I shall then adduce some manifestations of the differentiation that has taken place; and these manifestations, considered merely as events, could perhaps be made just as clear and obvious. But with regard to the connection of the latter, as consequences, with the former, as their cause, and with regard to the deduction of the consequences from the cause, I cannot, speaking generally, reckon upon being equally clear and convincing to everyone. It is true that in this matter also I am not making entirely new statements which no one has heard of before; on the contrary, there are among us many individuals who are either well prepared for such a view of the matter, or perhaps already familiar with it. Among the majority, however, there are in circulation ideas about the subject of our discussion which differ greatly from our own. To correct such ideas, and to refute all the objections to single points that might be raised by those who are not practised in taking a comprehensive view of a subject, would far exceed the limits of our time and our intention. I must content myself with placing before such people, merely as a subject for their further consideration, what I have to say in this connection, remarking that in my system of thought it does not stand so separate and detached as it appears in this place, nor is it without a foundation in the depths of knowledge. I could not omit it entirely, partly on account of the thoroughness of treatment demanded by my whole subject, and partly because of its important consequences, which will appear later in the course of our addresses, and which are intimately connected with our present design.

44. The first and immediately obvious difference between the fortunes of the Germans and the other branches which grew from the same root is this: the former remained in the original dwelling-places of the ancestral stock, whereas the latter emigrated to other places; the former retained and developed the original language of the ancestral stock, whereas the latter adopted a foreign language and gradually reshaped it in a way of their own. This earliest difference must be regarded as the explanation of those which came later, e.g., that in the original fatherland, in accordance with Teutonic primitive custom, there continued to be a federation of States under a head with limited powers, whereas in the foreign countries the form of government was brought more in accordance with the existing Roman method, and monarchies were established, etc. It is not these later differences that explain the one first mentioned.

45. Now, of the changes which have been indicated, the first, the change of home, is quite unimportant. Man easily makes himself at home under any sky, and the national characteristic, far from being much changed by the place of abode, dominates and changes the latter after its own pattern. Moreover, the variety of natural influences in the region inhabitated by the Teutons is not very great. Just as little importance should be attached to the fact that the Teutonic race has intermingled with the former inhabitants of the countries it conquered; for, after all, the victors and masters and makers of the new people that arose from this intermingling were none but Teutons. Moreover, in the mother-country there was an intermingling with Slavs similar to that which took place abroad with Gauls, Cantabrians, etc., and perhaps of no less extent; so that it would not be easy at the present day for any one of the peoples descended from Teutons to demonstrate a greater purity of descent than the others.

46. More important, however, and in my opinion the cause of a complete contrast between the Germans and the other peoples of Teutonic descent, is the second change, the change of language. Here, as I wish to point out distinctly at the very beginning, it is not a question of the special quality of the language retained by the one branch or adopted by the other; on the contrary, the importance lies solely in the fact that in the one case something native is retained, while in the other case something foreign is adopted. Nor is it a question of the previous ancestry of those who continue to speak an original language; on the contrary, the importance lies solely in the fact that this language continues to be spoken, for men are formed by language far more than language is formed by men.

47. In order to make clear, so far as explanation is possible and necessary in this place, the consequences of such a difference in the creation of peoples, and to make clear the particular kind of contrast in national characteristics that necessarily follows from this difference, I must invite you to a consideration of the nature of language in general.

Language in general, and especially the designation of objects in language by sounds from the organs of speech, is in no way dependent on arbitrary decisions and agreements. On the contrary there is, to begin with, a fundamental law, in accordance with which every idea becomes in the human organs of speech one particular sound and no other. Just as objects are represented in the sense-organs of an individual by a definite form, colour, etc., so they are represented in language, which is the organ of social man, by a definite sound. It is not really man that speaks, but human nature speaks in him and announces itself to others of his kind. Hence one should say: There is and can be but one single language.

Now indeed, and this is the second point, language in this unity for man, simply as man, may never and nowhere have arisen. Everywhere it may have been further changed and formed by two groups of influences; firstly, those exerted on the organs of speech by the locality and by more or less frequent use, and, secondly, those exerted on the order of the designations by the order in which objects were observed and designated. Nevertheless, in this also there is no chance or arbitrariness, but strict law; and in an organ of speech thus affected by the conditions mentioned there necessarily arises, not the one pure human language, but a deviation therefrom, and, moreover, this particular deviation and no other.

If we give the name of People to men whose organs of speech are influenced by the same external conditions, who live together, and who develop their language in continuous communication with each other, then we must say: The language of this people is necessarily just what it is, and in reality this people does not express its knowledge, but its knowledge expresses itself out of the mouth of the people.

48. Despite all the changes brought about, as the language progresses, by the circumstances mentioned above, this conformity with law remains uninterrupted; and indeed, for all who remain in uninterrupted communication, and who all hear in due course whatever any individual for the first time expresses, there is one and the same conformity with law. After thousands of years, and after all the changes undergone in that time by the external manifestation of the language of this people, it ever remains nature’s one, same, living power of speech, which in the beginning necessarily arose in the way it did, which has flowed down through all conditions without interruption, and in each necessarily became what it did become, which in the end necessarily was what it now is, and in time to come necessarily will be what it then will be. The pure human language, in conjunction first with the speech-organ of the people when its first sound was uttered, and the product of these, in conjunction further with all the developments which this first sound in the given circumstances necessarily acquired—all this together gives as its final result the present language of the people. For that reason, too, the language always remains the same language. Even though, after some centuries have passed, the descendants do not understand the language of their ancestors, because for them the transitions have been lost, nevertheless there is from the beginning a continuous transition without a leap, a transition always imperceptible at the time, and only made perceptible when further transitions occur and the whole process appears as a leap forward. There has never been a time when contemporaries ceased to understand each other, for their eternal go-between and interpreter always was, and has continued to be, the common power of nature speaking through them all. Such is the condition of language, considered as the designation of objects directly perceived by the senses; and in the beginning all human language is this. When the people raises itself from this stage of sensuous perception to a grasp of the supersensuous, then, if this supersensuous is to be repeated at will and kept from being confused with the sensuous by the first individual, and if it is to be communicated to others for their convenience and guidance, the only way at first to keep firm hold of it will be to designate a Self as the instrument of a supersensuous world and to distinguish it precisely from the same Self as the instrument of the sensuous world—to contrast a soul, a mind, etc., with a physical body. As all the various objects of this supersensuous world appear only in and exist for that supersensuous instrument, the only possible way of designating them in language would be to say that their special relation to their instrument is similar to the relation of such-and-such particular sensuous objects to the sensuous instrument, and in this relation to compare a particular supersensuous thing with a particular sensuous one, using this comparison to indicate by language the place of the supersensuous thing in the supersensuous instrument. In this sphere language has no further power; it gives a sensuous image of the supersensuous thing, merely with the remark that it is an image of that kind; he who wishes to attain to the thing itself must set his own mental instrument in motion according to the rule given him by the image. Speaking generally, it is evident that this designation of the supersensuous by means of sensuous images must in every case be conditioned by the stage of development which the power of sensuous perception has reached in the people under consideration. Hence, the origin and progress of this designation by sensuous images will be very different in different languages and will depend on the difference in the relation that has existed and continues to exist between the sensuous and intellectual development of the people speaking a language.

49. We shall next illustrate this observation, clear though it is in itself, by an example. Anything that arises, according to the conception of the fundamental impulse explained in the preceding address, directly in clear perception and not in the first place in dim feeling—anything of this kind, and it is always a supersensuous object, is denoted by a Greek word which is frequently used in the German language also; it is called an Idea [German, Idee]; and this word conveys exactly the same sensuous image as the word Gesicht in German, which occurs in the following expressions in Luther’s translation of the Bible: Ye shall see visions [Gesichte], ye shall dream dreams. Idea or Vision, in its sensuous meaning, would be something that could be perceived only by the bodily eye and not by any other sense such as taste, hearing, etc.; it would be such a thing as a rainbow, or the forms which pass before us in dreams. Idea or Vision, in its supersensuous meaning, would denote, first of all, in conformity with the sphere in which the word is to be valid, something that cannot be perceived by the body at all, but only by the mind; and then, something that cannot, as many other things can, be perceived by the dim feeling of the mind, but only by the eye of the mind, by clear perception. Further, even if one were inclined to assume that for the Greeks the basis of this sensuous designation was certainly the rainbow and similar phenomena, one would have to admit that their sensuous perception had already advanced to the stage of noticing this difference between things, viz., that some reveal themselves to all or several senses and others to the eye alone, and that, besides, if the developed conception had become clear to them, they would have had to designate it not in this way but in some other. Also their superior mental clearness would then be evident as compared, say, with that of another people which was not able to indicate the difference between the sensuous and the supersensuous by an image taken from the deliberate waking state, but had gone to dreams to find an image for another world. It would at the same time be plain that this difference was not based on the greater or smaller strength of the sense for the supersensuous in the two peoples, but solely on the difference between their sensuous clearness at the time when they sought to designate supersensuous things.

50. Thus all designation of the supersensuous is conditioned by the extent and clearness of sensuous perception in him who gives the designation. The image is clear to him and expresses to him in an entirely comprehensible way the relation of the thing conceived to the mental instrument, because this relation is explained to him by another, direct, and living relation to his sensuous instrument. The new designation which thus arises, together with all the new clearness which sensuous perception itself acquires by this extended use of the sign, is now deposited in the language; and the supersensuous perception possible in the future is now designated in accordance with its relation to the total supersensuous and sensuous perception deposited in the whole language. So it goes on without interruption, and so the immediate clearness and comprehensibility of the images is never broken off, but remains a continuous stream. Moreover, since language is not an arbitrary means of communication, but breaks forth out of the life of understanding as an immediate force of nature, a language continuously developed according to this law has also the power of immediately affecting and stimulating life. Just as things immediately present influence man, so must the words of such a language influence him who understands them; for they, too, are things, and not an arbitrary contrivance. Such is the case first in the sensuous world. Nor is it otherwise in the supersensuous; for, although in the latter the continuous process of observing nature is interrupted by free contemplation and reflection, and at this point God who is without image appears, yet designation by language at once inserts the Thing-without-image in the continuous connection of things which have an image. So, in this respect also, the continuous progress of language, which broke forth in the beginning as a force of nature, remains uninterrupted, and into the stream of designation no arbitrariness enters. For the same reason the supersensuous part of a language thus continuously developed cannot lose its power of stimulating life in him who but sets his mental instrument in motion. The words of such a language in all its parts are life and create life. Now if, in respect of the development of the language for what is supersensuous, we make the assumption that the people of this language have continued in unbroken communication, and that what one has thought and expressed has before long come to the knowledge of all, then what has previously been said in general is valid for all who speak this language. To all who will but think the image deposited in the language is clear; to all who really think it is alive and stimulates their life.

51. Such is the case, I say, with a language which, from the time the first sound broke forth among the same people, has developed continuously out of the actual common life of this people, and into which no element has ever entered that did not express an observation actually experienced by this people, and, moreover, an observation standing in a connection of wide-spread reciprocal influence with all the other observations of the same people. It does not matter if ever so many individuals of other race and other language are incorporated with the people speaking this language; provided the former are not permitted to bring the sphere of their observations up to the position from which the language is thereafter to develop, they remain dumb in the community and without influence on the language, until the time comes when they themselves have entered into the sphere of observation of the original people. Hence they do not form the language; it is the language which forms them.

52. But the exact opposite of all that has so far been said takes place when a people gives up its own language and adopts a foreign one which is already highly developed as regards the designation of supersensuous things. I do not mean when it yields itself quite freely to the influence of this foreign language and is quite content to remain without a language until it has entered into the circle of observation of this foreign language, but when it forces its own circle of observation on the adopted language, which, when it develops from the position in which they found it, must thenceforward proceed in this circle of observation. In respect of the sensuous part of the language, such an event, indeed, is without consequences. For among every people the children must in any case learn that part of the language just as if the signs were arbitrary, and thus recapitulate in this matter the whole previous linguistic development of the nation. But in this sphere of the senses every sign can be made quite clear by directly looking at or touching the thing designated. At most, the result of this would be that the first generation of a people which thus changed its language would be compelled when adults to go back to the years of childhood; with their descendants, however, and with subsequent generations, everything would doubtless be in the old order again. On the other hand, this change has consequences of the greatest importance in respect of the supersensuous part of the language. For the first possessors of the language this part was formed in the way already described; but, for those who acquire the language later, the verbal image contains a comparison with an observation of the senses, which they have either passed over long ago without the accompanying mental development, or else have not yet had, and perhaps never can have. The most that they can do in such a case is to let the verbal image and its mental significance explain each other; in this way they receive the flat and dead history of a foreign culture, but not in any way a culture of their own. They get symbols which for them are neither immediately clear nor able to stimulate life, but which must seem to them entirely as arbitrary as the sensuous part of the language. For them this advent of history, and nothing but history, as expositor, makes the language dead and closed in respect of its whole sphere of imagery, and its continuous onward flow is broken off. Although, beyond this sphere, they may again develop the language as a living language in their own way and so far as this is possible from such a starting-point, nevertheless that element remains a dividing wall at which, without exception, language in its original emergence from life as a force of nature and the actual language’s renewal of contact with life are broken. Although such a language may be stirred on the surface by the wind of life and thus present the appearance of having a life of its own, nevertheless it has a dead element deeper down, and by the entrance of the new circle of observation and the breach with the old one it is cut off from the living root.

53. We proceed to illustrate the foregoing by an example, remarking incidentally that such a language, at bottom dead and incomprehensible, very easily lends itself to perversion and to misuse in glossing over every kind of human corruption, and that this is not possible in a language which has never died. I take as my example the three notorious words, Humanity, Popularity, and Liberality. When these words are used in speaking to a German who has learnt no language but his own they are to him nothing but a meaningless noise, which has no relationship of sound to remind him of anything he knows already and so takes him completely out of his circle of observation and beyond any observation possible to him. Now, if the unknown word nevertheless attracts his attention by its foreign, distinguished, and euphonious tone, and if he thinks that what sounds so lofty must also have some lofty meaning, he must have this meaning explained to him from the very beginning and as something entirely new to him, and he can only accept this explanation blindly. So he becomes tacitly accustomed to acknowledge as really existing and valuable something which, if left to himself, he would perhaps never have found worth mentioning. Let no one believe that the case is much different with the neo-Latin peoples, who utter those words as if they were words of their mother-tongue. Without a scholarly study of antiquity and of its actual language they understand the roots of those words just as little as the German does. Now if, instead of the word Humanity [Humanität], we had said to a German the word Menschlichkeit, which is its literal translation, he would have understood us without further historical explanation, but he would have said: “Well, to be a man [Mensch] and not a wild beast is not very much after all.” Now it may be that no Roman would ever have said that; but the German would say it, because in his language manhood [Menschheit] has remained an idea of the senses only and has never become a symbol of a supersensuous idea as it did among the Romans. Our ancestors had taken note of the separate human virtues and designated them symbolically in language perhaps long before it occurred to them to combine them in a single concept as contrasted with animal nature; and that is no discredit to our ancestors as compared with the Romans. Now anyone who, in spite of this, wished to introduce that foreign and Roman symbol artificially and, as it were, by a trick into the language of the Germans, would obviously be lowering their ethical standard in passing on to them as distinguished and commendable something which may perhaps be so in the foreign language, but which the German, in accordance with the ineradicable nature of his national power of imagination, only regards as something already known and indispensable. A closer examination might enable us to demonstrate that those Teutonic races which adopted the Latin language experienced, even in the beginning, similar degradations of their former ethical standard because of inappropriate foreign symbols; but on this circumstance we do not now wish to lay too great a stress.

Further, if in speaking to the German, instead of the words Popularity [Popularität] and Liberality [Liberalität], I should use the expressions, “striving for favour with the great mob,” and “not having the mind of a slave,” which is how they must be literally translated, he would, to begin with, not even obtain a clear and vivid sense-image such as was certainly obtained by a Roman of old. The latter saw every day with his own eyes the flexible politeness of an ambitious candidate to all and sundry, and outbursts of the slave mind too; and those words vividly re-presented these things to him. Even from the Roman of a later period these sights were removed by the change in the form of government and the introduction of Christianity; and, besides, his own language was beginning to a great extent to die away in his own mouth. This was more especially due to Christianity, which was alien to him, and which he could neither ward off nor thoroughly assimilate. How was it possible for this language, already half dead in its own home, to be transmitted alive to a foreign people? How could it now be transmitted to us Germans? Moreover, with regard to the symbolic mental content of both those expressions, there is in the word Popularity, even at the very beginning, something base, which was perverted in their mouths and became a virtue, owing to the corruption of the nation and of its constitution. The German never falls into this perversion, so long as it is put before him in his own language. But when Liberality is translated by saying that a man has not the soul of a slave, or, to give it a modern rendering, has not a lackey’s way of thinking, he once more replies that to say this also means very little.

Moreover, into these verbal images, which even in their pure form among the Romans arose at a low stage of ethical culture or designated something positively base, there were stealthily introduced during the development of the neo-Latin languages the idea of lack of seriousness about social relations, the idea of self-abandonment, and the idea of heartless laxity. In order to bring these things into esteem among us, use was made of the respect we have for antiquity and foreign countries to introduce the same words into the German language. It was done so quietly that no one was fully aware of what was actually intended. The purpose and the result of all admixture has ever been this: first of all to remove the hearer from the immediate comprehensibility and definiteness which are the inherent qualities of every primitive language; then, when he has been prepared to accept such words in blind faith, to supply him with the explanation that he needs; and, finally, in this explanation to mix vice and virtue together in such a way that it is no easy matter to separate them again. Now, if the true meaning of those three foreign words, provided they have a meaning, had been expressed to the German in his own words and within his own circle of verbal images, in this way: Menschenfreundlichkeit (friendliness to man), Leutseligkeit (condescension or affability), and Edelmut (noble-mindedness), he would have understood us; but the base associations we have mentioned could never have been slipped into those designations. Within the range of German speech such a wrapping-up in incomprehensibility and darkness arises either from clumsiness or evil design; it is to be avoided, and the means always ready to hand is to translate into right and true German. But in the neo-Latin languages this incomprehensibility is of their very nature and origin, and there is no means of avoiding it, for they do not possess any living language by which they might examine the dead one; indeed, when one looks at the matter closely, they are entirely without a mother-tongue.

54. This single example will serve to demonstrate what could with ease be followed up throughout the whole range of the language and found present everywhere. It is intended to explain to you as clearly as is here possible what has so far been said. We are speaking of the supersensuous part of the language, and not immediately or directly of the sensuous part. This supersensuous part, in a language that has always remained alive, is expressed by symbols of sense, comprehending at every step in complete unity the sum total of the sensuous and mental life of the nation deposited in the language, for the purpose of designating an idea that likewise is not arbitrary, but necessarily proceeds from the whole previous life of the nation. From the idea and its designation a keen eye, looking back, could not fail to reconstruct the whole history of the nation’s culture. But in a dead language this supersensuous part, which, while the language was still alive, was what we have described, becomes with the death of the language a tattered collection of arbitrary and totally inexplicable symbols for ideas that are just as arbitrary; and with both idea and symbol there is nothing else to be done but just to learn them.

55. With this our immediate task is performed, which was to find the characteristic that differentiates the German from the other peoples of Teutonic descent. The difference arose at the moment of the separation of the common stock and consists in this, that the German speaks a language which has been alive ever since it first issued from the force of nature, whereas the other Teutonic races speak a language which has movement on the surface only but is dead at the root. To this circumstance alone, to life on the one hand and death on the other, we assign the difference; but we are not in any way taking up the further question of the intrinsic value of the German language. Between life and death there is no comparison; the former has infinitely more value than the latter. All direct comparisons between German and neo-Latin languages are therefore null and void, and are obliged to discuss things which are not worth discussing. If the intrinsic value of the German language is to be discussed, at the very least a language of equal rank, a language equally primitive, as, for example, Greek, must enter the lists; but such a comparison is far beyond our present purpose.

56. What an immeasurable influence on the whole human development of a people the character of its language may have—its language, which accompanies the individual into the most secret depths of his mind in thought and will and either hinders him or gives him wings, which unites within its domain the whole mass of men who speak it into one single and common understanding, which is the true point of meeting and mingling for the world of the senses and the world of spirits, and fuses the ends of both in each other in such a fashion that it is impossible to tell to which of the two it belongs itself—how different the results of this influence may prove to be where the relation is as life to death, all this in general is easily perceived. In the first place, the German has a means of investigating his living language more thoroughly by comparing it with the closed Latin language, which differs very widely from his own in the development of verbal images; on the other hand, he has a means of understanding Latin more clearly in the same way. This is not possible to a member of the neo-Latin peoples, who fundamentally remains a captive in the sphere of one and the same language. Then the German, in learning the original Latin, at the same time acquires to a certain extent the derived languages also; and if he should learn the former more thoroughly than a foreigner does, which for the reason given the German will very likely be able to do, he at the same time learns to understand this foreigner’s own language far more thoroughly and to possess it far more intimately than does the foreigner himself who speaks it. Hence the German, if only he makes use of all his advantages, can always be superior to the foreigner and understand him fully, even better than the foreigner understands himself, and can translate the foreigner to the fullest extent. On the other hand, the foreigner can never understand the true German without a thorough and extremely laborious study of the German language, and there is no doubt that he will leave what is genuinely German untranslated. The things in these languages which can only be learnt from the foreigner himself are mostly new fashions of speech due to boredom and caprice, and one is very modest when one consents to receive instruction of this kind. In most cases one would be able, instead, to show foreigners how they ought to speak according to the primitive language and its law of change, and that the new fashion is worthless and offends against ancient and traditional good usage.

57. In addition to the special consequence just mentioned, the whole wealth of consequences we spoke of comes about of itself.

It is, however, our intention to treat these consequences as a whole, fundamentally and comprehensively, from the point of view of the bond that unites them, in order to give in this way a thorough description of the German in contrast to the other Teutonic races. For the present I briefly indicate these consequences thus:—

(1) Where the people has a living language, mental culture influences life; where the contrary is the case, mental culture and life go their way independently of each other.

(2) For the same reason, a people of the former kind is really and truly in earnest about all mental culture and wishes it to influence life; whereas a people of the latter kind looks upon mental culture rather as an ingenious game and has no wish to make it anything more.

(3) From No. 2 it follows that the former has honest diligence and earnestness in all things, and takes pains; whereas the latter is easy-going and guided by its happy nature.

(4) From all this together it follows that in a nation of the former kind the mass of the people is capable of education, and the educators of such a nation test their discoveries on the people and wish to influence it; whereas in a nation of the latter kind the educated classes separate themselves from the people and regard it as nothing more than a blind instrument of their plans. The further discussion of the characteristics indicated I reserve for the next address.