Egotism in German Philosophy/Chapter VI

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Egotism in German Philosophy
by George Santayana
Chapter VI
Transcendentalism Perfected
CHAPTER VI
transcendentalism perfected


Fichte purified the system of Kant of all its inconsistent and humane elements; he set forth the subjective system of knowledge and action in its frankest and most radical form. The ego, in order to live a full and free life, posited or feigned a world of circumstances, in the midst of which it might disport itself; but this imagined theatre was made to suit the play, and though it might seem to oppress the Will with all sorts of hindrances, and even to snuff it out altogether, it was really only a mirage which that Will, being wiser than it knew, had raised in order to enjoy the experience of exerting itself manfully.

It would seem obvious from this that the Will could never be defeated, and that in spite of its name it was identical with destiny or the laws of nature: and those transcendentalists who lean to naturalism, or pass into it unawares, like Schelling or Emerson, actually understand the absolute Will in this way. But not so Fichte, nor what I take to be the keener and more heroic romantic school, whose last prophet was Nietzsche. The Germans, in the midst of their fantastic metaphysics, sometimes surprise us by their return to immediate experience: after all, it was in wrestling with the Lord that their philosophy was begotten. As a matter of fact, the will is often defeated — especially if we are stubborn in defining our will; and this tragic fact by no means refutes the Fichtean philosophy, which knows how to deal with it heroically. It conceives that what is inviolable is only what ought to be, the unconscious plan or idea of perfect living which is hidden in the depths of all life: a will not animated in some measure by this idea cannot exist, or at least cannot be noticed or respected by this philosophy. But when, where, how often and how far this divine idea shall be carried out is left unexplained. Actual will may be feeble or wicked in any degree; and in consequence the world that ought to be evoked in its maximum conceivable richness, may dwindle and fade to nothing.

The Will may accordingly be defeated; not, indeed, by imagined external things, but by its own apathy and tergiversation. In this case, according to the logic of this system (which is as beautifully thought out as that of Plotinus), the dissolving world will appear to be overwhelmingly formidable and real. In expiring because we have no longer the warmth to keep it alive, it will seem to be killing us; for the passivity of the ego, says Fichte, is posited as activity in the non-ego. That way of speaking is scholastic; but the thought, if we take the egotistical point of view, is deep and true.

So any actual will may perish by defect and die out; but actual will may also perish by sublimation. The true object of absolute Will is not things or pleasures or length of life, but willing itself; and the more intense and disinterested this willing is, the better it manifests absolute Will. The heroic act of dashing oneself against overwhelming obstacles may, therefore, be the highest fulfilment of the divine idea. The will dares to perish in order to have dared everything. In its material ruin it remains ideally victorious. If we consider the matter under the form of eternity, we shall see that this heroic and suicidal will has accomplished what it willed; it has not only lived perilously but perished nobly.

It is hardly necessary to point out how completely this theory justifies any desperate enterprise to which one happens to be wedded. It justifies, for instance, any wilful handling of history and science. The Will by right lays down the principles on which things must and shall be arranged. If things slip somehow from the traces, so much the grander your “scientific deed” in striving to rein them in. After all, you first summoned them into being only that you might drive them. If they seem to run wild and upset you, like the steeds of Hippolytus, you will, at least, not have missed the glory, while you lived and drove, of assuming the attitude of a master. Call spirits from the vasty deep: if they do not come, what of it? That will only prove the absolute self-sufficiency of your duty to call them.

What tightens this speculative bond between Fichte and the Nietzschean school is that he himself applied his theory of absolute Will to national life. This ego, which was identical with mind in general, he identified also with the German people. If the Germans suffered their national will to be domesticated in the Napoleonic empire, the creative spirit of the universe would be extinguished, and God himself, who existed only when incarnate in mankind, would disappear. It was evidently one’s duty to prevent this if possible; and Fichte poured out all the vehemence of his nature into the struggle for freedom. The mere struggle, the mere protest in the soul, according to his system, would secure the end desired: self-assertion, not material success, was the goal. A happy equilibrium once established in human life would have been only a temptation, a sort of Napoleonic or Mephistophelian quietus falling on the will to strive.

I am not sure how far Fichte, in his romantic and puritan tension of soul, would have relished the present organisation of Germany. He was a man of the people, a radical and an agitator as much as a prophet of nationalism, and the shining armour in which German freedom is now encased might have seemed to him too ponderous. He might have discerned in victory the beginning of corruption.

Nevertheless we should remember that a perfected idealism has a tendency to change into its opposite and become a materialism for all practical purposes. Absolute Will is not a natural being, not anybody’s will or thought; it is a disembodied and unrealised genius which first comes into operation when it begins to surround itself with objects and points of resistance, so as to become aware of its own stress and vocation. What these objects or felt resistances may be is not prejudged; or rather it is prejudged that they shall be most opposite to spirit, and that spirit shall experience its own passivity — one mode of its fated and requisite experience — in the form of an influence which it imputes to dead and material things.

The whole business of spirit may, therefore, well be with matter. Science might be mechanical, art might be cumbrous and material, all the instruments of life might be brutal, life itself might be hard, bitter, and obsessed, and yet the whole might remain a direct manifestation of pure spirit, absolute freedom, and creative duty. This speculative possibility is worth noting: it helps us to understand modern Germany. It is no paradox that idealists should be so much at home among material things. These material things, according to them, are the offspring of their spirit. Why should they not sink fondly into the manipulation of philological details or chemical elements, or over-ingenious commerce and intrigue? Why should they not dote on blood and iron? Why should these fruits of the spirit be uncongenial to it?

A theoretical materialist, who looks on the natural world as on a soil that he has risen from and feeds on, may perhaps feel a certain piety towards those obscure abysses of nature that have given him birth; but his delight will be rather in the clear things of the imagination, in the humanities, by which the rude forces of nature are at once expressed and eluded. Not so the transcendentalist. Regarding his mind as the source of everything, he is moved to solemn silence and piety only before himself: on the other hand, what bewitches him, what he loves to fondle, is his progeny, the material environment, the facts, the laws, the blood, and the iron in which he conceives (quite truly, perhaps) that his spirit perfectly and freely expresses itself. To despise the world and withdraw into the realm of mind, as into a subtler and more congenial sphere, is quite contrary to his idealism. Such a retreat might bring him peace, and he wants war. His idealism teaches him that strife and contradiction, as Heraclitus said, are the parents of all things; and if he stopped striving, if he grew sick of ambition and material goods, he thinks he would be forsaking life, for he hates as he would death what another kind of idealists have called salvation.

We are told that God, when he had made the world, found it very good, and the transcendentalist, when he assumes the Creator’s place, follows his example. The hatred and fear of matter is perhaps not a sign of a pure spirit. Even contemplatively, a divine mind may perfectly well fall in love with matter, as the Moon-goddess did with Endymion. Such matter might be imagined only, as if Diana had merely dreamt of her swain; and the fond image might not be less dear on that account. The romantic poet finds his own spirit greeting him in rocks, clouds, and waves; the musician pours out his soul in movement and tumult; why should not the transcendental general, or engineer, or commercial traveller find his purest ideal in trade, crafts, and wars? Grim work, above all, is what absolute Will demands. It needs the stimulus of resistance to become more intensely conscious of Self, which is said to be its ultimate object in imagining a world at all. Acquisition interests it more than possession, because the sense of effort and power is then more acute. The more material the arts that engage it, and the more complicated and worldly its field of action, the more intense will be its exertion, and the greater its joy. This is no idealism for a recluse or a moping poet; it does not feel itself to be something incidental and fugitive in the world, like a bird’s note, that it should fear to be drowned in the crash of material instruments or to be forced to a hideous tension and shrillness: shrillness and tension are its native element. It is convinced that it has composed all the movements there are or can be in existence, and it feels all the more masterful, the more numerous and thunderous is the orchestra it leads. It is entirely at home in a mechanical environment, which it can prove transcendentally to be perfectly ideal. Its most congenial work is to hack its way through to the execution of its World-Plan. Its most adequate and soul-satisfying expression is a universal battle.