Fichte (Adamson)/Chapter II

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by Robert Adamson
Chapter II
Youth and Early Struggles




Johann Gottlieb Fichte was born on the 19th May 1762, at Rammenau, in Saxon Lusatia. The little village of Rammenau lies in the picturesque country, well wooded and well watered, between Bischofswerda and Camenz, not far from the boundary separating the district of Meissen from Upper Lusatia. Here, as the traditions of the Fichte family run, a Swedish sergeant in the army of Gustavus Adolphus, who had been wounded in a skirmish in the neighbourhood, was left by his comrades in the care of one of the kindly Lutheran villagers. Returning health did not lead the stranger to take his departure. He continued under the hospitable roof of his benefactor, married the daughter of the house, and, as all the sons had fallen in the bloody wars of religion, became heir to the small portion of ground belonging to the family. From this northern settler sprang the numerous family of the Fichtes, noted, even in a neighbourhood distinguished for simplicity of manners and uprightness of character, for their solid probity and sterling honesty.

The grandfather of the philosopher, the only descendant of the original stock remaining in Rammenau, cultivated the tiny patrimonial property, and in addition carried on a small trade in linen ribbons, manufactured at his own loom. His son, Christian Fichte, was sent at an early age to the neighbouring town of Pulsnitz, and apprenticed to Johann Schurich, a wealthy linen-spinner and owner of a factory. After the fashion of diligent apprentices in all ages, Christian Fichte wooed and won the heart of his master’s daughter, but not without much trouble was the consent of the wealthy burgher given to a marriage which he thought beneath his family rank. Only on condition that his son-in-law did not presume to settle in Pulsnitz was a reluctant permission given, and Christian Fichte enabled to bring his bride to the paternal roof. With her dowry he built a house for himself in Rammenau, still in the possession of his descendants, and established there his looms. On the 19th May 1762 was born their eldest child, Johann Gottlieb, who was quickly followed by six sons and one daughter.

From what may be gathered regarding his parents in Fichte’s letters, it is plain that the marriage was not altogether productive of happiness. Madame Fichte seems never to have been able quite to forget that in uniting herself to a humble peasant and handicraftsman she had descended from a superior station. She had all the pride and narrowness of ideas which are natural possessions of the wealthier classes in a small provincial town. Her temper, obstinate, quick, and capricious, overmastered the weaker and more patient nature of her husband, and she was, to all intents and purposes, the head of the household. Her eldest son resembled her strongly in the main features of his character, though he had in addition solidity of principle and reserve, and their wills came into frequent and painful collision. The mother, like many a Scottish matron in similar case, had the darling ambition to see her talented son invested with the dignity of clergyman, and for many years circumstances led him thoroughly to coincide with this wish. As he gradually altered his views, and felt himself less and less inclined for the clerical career, his relations with his mother became more and more strained and unpleasant. Fortune had removed him from the paternal home at an early age, and he was rarely able to visit his family; but after the final decision as to his career, even such occasional intercourse seemed to cease.

The rudiments of his education Fichte began to receive very early from his father, who, when the day’s work was over, would teach the lad to read and to repeat by heart proverbs and hymns, and would talk to him of his apprentice travels in Saxony and Franconia. Of even greater importance for his training was the curiously intense interest the boy displayed in listening to the weekly sermons in the village church. These sermons he would repeat aloud, almost word for word, in such fashion as to show that the effort was not one of mere passive retention, but of active imagination. Strength of memory, intense fondness for reading and for quiet imaginative meditation, and deep earnestness of moral character, marked him at an early age as a boy of remarkable gifts. An anecdote referring to this period of his life, when he was about seven years of age, is characteristic enough to deserve notice. His father had brought him as a present from the neighbouring fair a copy of the famous story of the Invulnerable Siegfried. The delight in this book so overmastered him that his other tasks began to be neglected, and he determined to free himself from temptation by destroying the cause of the evil. Quietly and secretly he took the little book, and, after a hard straggle with himself, summoned courage enough to hurl it into the streamlet that flowed by the house. As he saw the little treasure carried away by the stream he burst into tears; but to his father’s inquiry as to how the accident had happened he would give no explanation, preferring then, as often in later years, to endure misunderstanding and pain rather than to offer defence for what he felt was right. When, some time later, his father proposed to give him a similar book as a present, he earnestly entreated that it might be bestowed upon one of his brothers, and that he might not again be subjected to such temptation.

So gifted by nature, the boy might have grown up in his narrow surroundings, able and upright, notable perhaps among his fellows, but wasting powers fitted for greater things, had not a mere accident transferred him to a wider sphere of life, and given him opportunity for a fuller development. Freiherr von Miltitz, owner of an estate at Seven Oaks, near Meissen, chanced one Sunday in the year 1771 to visit the family Von Hoffmann in Rammenau, and arrived too late to hear the sermon by the village pastor, whom he much admired. On expressing regret, he was informed that the loss could readily be repaired, for there was in the village a little lad able to repeat verbatim any sermon that had been preached. The little Fichte was sent for, and so great an impression was made upon Von Miltitz that he at once proposed to the parents to undertake the charge of the lad’s education if they would submit him to his care. No objection was raised on their side, and Fichte was forthwith removed by his patron to Seven Oaks.

The surroundings of his new home, the restraints of his new mode of life, at first weighed heavily upon the boy’s mind, and his kind protector judged it best to place him under the care of the Pastor Krebel at Niederau, near Meissen. Here he remained for nearly three years, affectionately cared for by the childless pastor and his wife, and receiving a thorough groundwork in elementary classics. In 1774 he appears to have been for a brief interval at the public school of Meissen, though there is some obscurity about this fact in his biography; and in October of that year he was entered at the famous foundation-school of Pforta, near Naumburg. His patron, Von Miltitz, had died in the early part of 1774, and we have no record to show by what means the expenses of Fichte’s education continued to be defrayed. From a chance expression in one of his letters of a later date, it would appear probable that his parents at least contributed, but undoubtedly they were not in a condition to undertake the whole charge.

The years spent at Schulpforta had a powerful influence on the development of Fichte’s character, in both a moral and an intellectual aspect. The school was even then regulated on the old monastic plan, and much resembled what in this country till recently used to be the system of the old foundation or endowed schools. The pupils were strictly secluded from the outer world; the order of daily life, of amusement, of costume, of study, was regulated by antiquated precepts. Each of the older scholars had a junior intrusted to his care, and exercised almost unlimited control over his apprentice. The happiness of the juniors thus depended much upon the qualities of the older members, and, as is inevitable in any close institution, the traditions of the place were in many respects evil, and detrimental to the character of the scholars. Such a constrained life tended only to deepen and strengthen traits already sufficiently marked in Fichte’s character. He was by nature reserved, yet opinionative—that is, little capable of altering any view of the truth of which he had become convinced, and altogether incapable of making any effort to remove misconception which might arise as to his action. The entire want of family life contributed to strengthen this habit of inner self-dependence, which could have found relief only in the manifold interests and duties, in the constant sympathy and co-operation with others, arising from the details of domestic intercourse. No substitute for this was found in Schulpforta The course of instruction, moreover, thorough but narrow—for it was almost entirely confined to the classical curriculum—was not that best suited to develop the neglected side of Fichte’s character. In his life and in his works, what one notices as most striking is his incapacity for appreciating experience. In metaphysics, in psychology, in ethics, in politics, he constructs from within. Nature, in his system, appears merely as the negative limit of mind. Nor in his practical activity, as will appear, was he more fortunate. “Fichte,” said Goethe, with much truth, “too often forgets that experience is not in the least what he has imagined it to be.” It hardly admits of question that a more realistic education, a training in physical science such as his great predecessor fortunately possessed, would have given greater weight and force to Fichte’s speculations, greater elasticity and prudence to his action.

It was some time before Fichte accommodated himself to the life at Schulpforta. He was at first unfortunate in the senior selected for him. The close restraint and the unbearable tyranny to which he was subjected preyed upon him, and, after having given warning to his senior in his naively honourable fashion that he would endeavour to escape from the school unless he were treated differently, he did begin a flight towards Naumburg, with the vague intention of making his way into the world of which he knew so little, and settling as a new Robinson Crusoe in some deserted island. Only the thought that by carrying out his exploit he would for ever cut himself off from his parents, induced him to return to the hated school A frank confession of his intention, and of the grounds for it, procured him not only pardon from the rector, but also relief from the tyranny of his former senior. He was placed under the charge of another pupil, and the years began to flow more happily for him. When at length he had reached the dignity of Primaner, he began to enjoy the greater liberty of study permitted to the senior scholars; and though the great works of recent German literature were carefully excluded from the school, he then obtained through Lieber, a newly introduced tutor, the successive numbers of Lessing’s ‘Anti-Goeze.’ The style and matter of this work made a deep impression on him, and in his enthusiastic fashion he resolved that the earliest opportunity should be taken to make himself known to the author, and acknowledge his gratitude to him. The circumstances of his life and the premature death of Lessing, however, prevented this resolution from being carried into effect.

In October 1780, Fichte’s school career closed; his final essay, ‘Oratio de recto prseceptorum poeseos et rhetorices usu,’ still existing in the archives of Schulpforta, received its meed of praise, and he was ready for the higher educational training of a university. In the Michaelmas term of that year he enrolled himself in the Theological Faculty at Jena—not, so far as we can judge, because his heart was entirely given to the theological career, but because no other seemed to present an opening to a poor and friendless student. The Jena lectures do not appear to have done much for him, and in the following year he transferred himself to Leipzig, where many of his Schulpforta comrades were settled. Here, in addition to certain lectures by Schütz on Æschylus, the course followed by him with greatest attention seems to have been that by Petzold on systematic theology. Fichte’s mind, during this period, evidently dwelt on a problem which has sorely exercised many a student in like circumstances,—the relation between divine providence or foreknowledge and the voluntary determination of human action. Of the alternatives offering themselves as possible solutions, he chose with resoluteness and complete conviction that which we call technically the doctrine of determinism. The idea of the individual will as but a necessary link in the scheme of divine government, gave a certain consistency to his thoughts, and was expressed by him in various sermons preached in villages in the neighbourhood of Leipzig. From the pastor of one of these village churches he first learned that his doctrine might be designated by the hateful title of Spinozism, and from the same friend he received the ‘Refutation of the Errors of Spinoza,’ by Wolff, through which he came to know the outlines of a system destined to play a most important part in the later development of his thought. On the whole, there seems little reason to doubt that so far as the young candidatus theologiae had formed opinions upon speculative and critical subjects, they accorded with the ‘Ethics’ of Spinoza and the ‘Anti-Goeze’ of Lessing.


The three years spent at Leipzig had been years of bitter poverty and hard struggle, which strengthened, and at the same time tended to harden, Fichte’s proud and reserved spirit. Even severer discipline was in store for him. The completion of his regular academic course still left him without a definite profession. Less and less inclined for the clerical life, and embittered by the reproaches and petulant urgency of his mother, he spent three years, eating his heart out, as tutor in various families around Leipzig. To his humble petition, in 1787, that the Consistory of Saxony would allot to him some small stipend such as was often given to poor Saxon students of theology, in order that he might complete his theological studies and present himself for the licentiate examination, an unfavourable answer was returned. Without a profession, without friends, without means, it seemed to him that his life had been wasted. At the deepest ebb of his fortunes he obtained through a former comrade, Weisse, an unexpected relief in the offer of a house-tutorship at Zürich. Accepting joyfully, he set out on foot, and traversing for the first time German provinces outside his native Saxony, reached Zürich in September 1788.

His pupils at Zürich were the son and daughter of Herr Ott, the proprietor of a well-to-do inn, the Gasthof zum Schwerte. Herr Ott, though somewhat surprised at the character of the education which his new tutor proposed to bestow, was not altogether unwilling that his children should receive a training superior to their station, but his wife bitterly resented all attempts to go beyond the accustomed routine. Fichte found his task no easy matter, and assuredly the means he adopted for carrying it out would not readily have occurred to any other tutor in like circumstances. He noted with care in a daybook or journal all the errors in education committed by the parents of his pupils, and submitted the record weekly. His strength of character and resoluteness of purpose enabled him to bear down any active opposition to his plans; but the situation was forced and unpleasing, and at Easter 1790 he made up his mind to go.

During his residence at Zürich he had busied himself with many literary efforts, without in any one of them manifestly finding his métier. He read and translated much of the recent French literature, mainly Montesquieu and Rousseau, completed a translation of Sallust, with an introductory essay on the life and style of the author, and wrote a rather elaborate critical paper on Biblical Epics, with special references to Klopstock’s ‘Messias,’ a paper, which, at a later date, was timidly refused by the editor of the ‘Deutsches Museum,’ in Leipzig. At various times he preached, always with marked success, and exerted himself much to have a school of oratory founded at Zürich. For this, in which he had the promise of support from Lavater, he drew out a complete plan, and the document, published by his son, presents many features of interest.

More important for his after-career than these literary efforts were the friendships formed by him at Zürich, especially with Lavater and with Hartmann Rahn, the brother-in-law of Klopstock. Rahn was a highly cultured man, of wide experience of life, and his house was the centre of the literary reunions of Zürich society. Fichte, first introduced by Lavater, was soon received as an intimate and valued friend. Hartmann Rahn’s wife had been dead for some years, and his household affairs were managed by his daughter, Johanna Maria, at this time some thirty years of age, not specially distinguished for beauty or talent, but full of womanly gentleness and tact. Fichte felt himself from the first attracted towards Fräulein Rahn, whose sympathetic nature enabled her both to understand his restless and impetuous disposition and to supply what was wanting to it. Their friendship gradually gave way to a deeper feeling of mutual affection and esteem. Secretly at first—for Fichte’s pride made him think that an obscure tutor had little right to claim the daughter of a wealthy and influential citizen—they unfolded in letters their feelings for one another; but as the time of his departure from Zürich drew near, it became necessary to make known to Hartmann Rahn how matters stood. When Fichte left, he was formally, though privately, betrothed to Johanna Maria.

The course of his life was not yet clear before him, and from one of the interesting letters to his betrothed which has been published by his son, we can judge that his own views were not decided. Many plans had been debated, and on the whole his hope then was to obtain a post as tutor to some influential person at one of the German courts, which would give him time to discover where his powers were most likely to prove successful.

“On the whole,” he writes, “what I think about it is this: the great aim of my existence is to obtain every kind of education (not scientific education, in which I find much that is vanity, but education of character) which fortune will permit me.

“I look into the way of Providence in my life, and find that this may perhaps be the very plan of Providence with me. I have filled many situations, played many parts, known many men and many conditions of men, and on the whole I find that by all these circumstances my character has become more fixed and decided. At my first entrance into the world, I wanted everything but a susceptible heart. Many qualities in which I was then deficient, I have since acquired; many I still want entirely, and among others that of occasionally accommodating myself to those around me, and bearing with men who are false or wholly opposed to my character, in order to accomplish something great. Without this I can never employ as with it the powers which Providence has bestowed upon me.

“Does Providence, then, intend to develop these capacities in me? Is it not possible that for this very purpose I may now be led upon a wider stage? May not my employment at a court, my project of superintending the studies of a prince, your father’s plan of taking me to Copenhagen—may not these be hints or ways of Providence towards this end? And shall I, by confining myself to a narrower sphere, one which is not even natural to me, seek to frustrate this plan? I have too little talent for bending, for dealing with those who are repugnant to me. I can succeed only with good and true people; I am too open. This seemed to you a further reason why I was unfit to go to a court; to me, on the contrary, it is a reason why I must go there, if any opportunity present itself, in order to gain what I am deficient in.

“I know the business of a scholar, and have nothing new to learn about it. To be a scholar by profession I have as little talent as may be. I must not only think, I must act; least of all can I think about trifles. . . . I have but one passion, one want, one all-engrossing desire,—to work upon those around me. The more I act the happier I seem to be. Is this, too, a delusion? It may be so, but there is truth at the bottom of it.”[1]

With many plans, and full of hope in his future career, Fichte departed for Leipzig in the spring of 1790. His letters of recommendation to various courts, however, produced no result; the plans which he endeavoured to realise at Leipzig, mainly the establishment of a literary journal, came to naught; and in the course of a few months he was again reduced to a state of want and uncertainty even more harassing than before his journey to Zürich. Nothing that he tried seemed to succeed. His Essay on Biblical Epics was rejected, as has been said, by the timid editor of the ‘Museum,’ because it appeared to reflect on the fame of the great Klopstock; and for the other literary efforts in which he engaged, the writing of a tragedy and some tales, he had assuredly little faculty. A last effort to effect an entrance into the Church was equally fruitless. His essay or theme, probably an expansion of the ‘Aphorisms on Deism,’ printed in the collected ‘Works,’ and dating from 1790, was received with praise by the President of the Consistory at Dresden, but at the same time with doubt. The worthy theologian thought that the author was fitter for the professorial chair than for the pulpit; and Fichte, disgusted with the narrow, jealous domination exercised over the Saxon clergy, finally gave up all hopes of carrying out his early purpose. His letters to Johanna Rahn during this troubled period sufficiently show the distress and vexation under which his proud spirit chafed. Even her affectionate counsels and earnest entreaties to return to Zürich brought small comfort to him. Towards the autumn of the year, however, we note a sudden and surprising change in the tone of his communications. He had begun to take pupils in various subjects, and among others one student presented himself to obtain assistance in reading the ‘Critique of Pure Reason.’ Fichte had made no previous study of this work, but so soon as he entered upon the new line of thought, he found his true vocation. From this time onwards the direction of his thoughts and hopes was fixed. His own words will show better than any external account what effect the Kantian philosophy had upon him.

“ My scheming spirit,” he writes to his betrothed, “has now found rest, and I thank Providence that, shortly before all my hopes were frustrated, I was placed in a position which enabled me to bear with cheerfulness the disappointment. A circumstance which seemed the result of mere chance, led me to give myself up entirely to the study of the Kantian philosophy,—a philosophy that restrains the imagination, which was always too powerful with me, gives understanding the sway, and raises the whole spirit to an indescribable elevation above all earthly considerations. I have gained a nobler morality, and instead of occupying myself with what is out of me, I employ myself more with my own being. This has given me a peace such as I have never before experienced; amid uncertain worldly prospects I have passed my happiest days. I shall devote at least some years of my life to this philosophy; and all that I write, for some years to come at any rate, shall be upon it. It is difficult beyond all conception, and stands greatly in need of simplification. The principles, it is true, are hard speculations, with no direct bearing upon human life, but their consequences are of the utmost importance for an age whose morality is corrupted at the fountain-head; and to set these consequences before the world in a clear light would, I believe, be doing it a good service.”

“The influence of this philosophy,” he writes to his friend Achelis, with whom he had had frequent disputes regarding the necessity of human actions, “and specially the ethical side of it (which, however, is unintelligible without previous study of the ‘Critique of Pure Reason’), upon the whole spiritual life, and in particular the revolution it has caused in my own mode of thought, is indescribable. To you, especially, I owe the acknowledgment that I now heartily believe in the freedom of man, and am convinced that only on this supposition are duty, virtue, or morality of any kind so much as possible, a truth which indeed I saw before, and perhaps acquired from you.”

The letters to Fräulein Rahn now begin to breathe a new tone of cheerfulness and happiness, for external circumstances were at the same time improving; indeed, so joyous do they become, that it is evident the tender heart of Johanna suspected a formidable rival in this strange Kantian philosophy. She was not altogether pleased that in absence from her he should laugh at ill health and abound in the highest spirits. Friends at Zurich did not think much of the Kantian philosophy, which was to them a thing of naught, and she feared he would waste his time on utterly unprofitable study. Moreover, the scandalous discoveries regarding life in Leipzig made in Bahrdt’s scandalous ‘Leben’ led her to distrust the influences of the place. With gentle persistence she pressed upon Fichte her favourite plan, that he should return to Zürich, be united to her, and trust to fortune to open a way whereby his talents might receive recognition. Fichte resisted for some time, wished to establish some reputation for himself, dreaded what might be said by the kindly critics of Zurich if he accepted her proposal, but ended in the spring of 1791 by yielding assent to her entreaties. “At the end of this month,” he writes on the 1st of March, “I shall be free, and have determined to come to thee. I see nothing that can prevent me. I, indeed, still await the sanction of my parents; but I have been for long so well assured of their love—almost, if I may venture to say it, of their deference to my opinion—that I need not anticipate any obstacle on their part.”

Evil Fortune, however, which had sorely wounded Fichte many a time, had still another arrow in her quiver. The failure of a mercantile house where a large portion of Hartmann Rahn’s possessions was invested, put for a time at least an absolute obstacle in the way of the projected marriage. All Johanna’s care and attention had to be bestowed upon her father, now advanced in years and feeble in health. Fichte, with a brave heart, packed his knapsack, and set off for Warsaw, where he had received an appointment as house tutor in a noble family.

During the autumn of 1790 he had been busily engaged in the first of his philosophical writings,—an Elucidation or Explanation of the ‘Critique of Judgment;’ and he had been in hopes that the publication of this little work might have preceded his proposed journey to Zürich. But publishers seem to have been chary; and, after much sending to and fro, the MS. was finally doomed to remain in its original unprinted form. It is to be regretted that some portions of this, which appear to remain, have not been included among Fichte’s literary remains, for the account of the aim and scope of the work excites some interest in it. Like most students of Kant who have really penetrated into his system, Fichte saw that it was above all things necessary to make clear the inner connection between the leading ideas of the three Kritiken. In the most difficult and yet most instructive portion of the ‘Critique of Judgment,’ the Introduction, Kant had himself done something towards this end; but much yet remained, and as Fichte’s later philosophy is in essence the attempt to carry out, with a fresh and original method, the union of theoretical and practical principles, one would gladly have known what were his first impressions on the subject. For posterity, however, as for contemporaries, the work has remained in obscurity.

At Warsaw, where he arrived in June, after a pleasant journey, the incidents of which are narrated with much spirit in his journal, Fichte found an impossible task before him. His patron, the Count Platen, was a good, easy-going man, though heavy; but the Countess was a veritable lady of rank, who viewed all tutors as mere servants, and whose domineering disposition exacted the most servile obedience from her dependants. She instantly found Fichte’s independent nature unbearable, and his French accent atrocious. A very few days were sufficient to bring matters to a crisis. The Countess attempted unsuccessfully to procure for the objectionable tutor a post in some other family; and Fichte, resolved not to be treated like a chattel, demanded his dismissal and a sum for compensation. The dismissal was given with alacrity, the compensation only after threat of legal proceedings. With provision for a few months, Fichte then carried out a new idea which had occurred to him. He resolved to visit Kant, and set off for Königsberg.


On the 1st July he arrived in Königsberg, and on the 4th waited upon Kant. As might have been expected, he was received but coldly by the aged philosopher, whose disposition was anything but expansive, and who required to be known for some time before disclosing any of his finer and more genial qualities. Fichte was disappointed with his interview, and equally dissatisfied with the result of attendance upon one of Kant’s lectures. He could not recognise in the professor the author of the ‘Critique,’ and thought his manner of lecturing listless and sleepy. This, too, might to a certain extent have been expected, for, as we know, Kant was invariably averse to introducing in his lectures any of those profounder speculations which characterised his published works. Fichte, however disappointed with his first reception, resolved to bring himself before Kant’s notice in a way which should be irresistible; and in the solitude of his quiet inn laboured incessantly for some five weeks on an essay developing in a new direction the principles of the Critical Philosophy. On the 18th August he forwarded his manuscript to Kant, and attended some days later to hear his opinion of its merits. Kant received him with the utmost kindness, commended such of the essay as he had managed to read, declined with his accustomed prudence to discuss either the views of the essayist or the principles of his own ‘Critique,’ and introduced him to several valued friends in Königsberg—to Borowski and Schulz. By this time Fichte’s scanty means had become wellnigh exhausted; the fatigue due to his hard labour at the essay had made him dispirited and gloomy; and there seemed no prospect of an outlet from his difficulties. On the 1st September he disclosed to Kant, in a remarkable and most characteristic letter, the state of his affairs; indicated, as apparently the one course left to him, a return to his home, where he might study in private, and perhaps obtain some humble post as village pastor; and entreated that Kant would furnish him with the necessary loan for carrying out this resolve. As we learn from Fichte’s journal, Kant declined to accede to this request, but in such a manner as in no way lessened Fichte’s feelings of esteem and admiration for him. He recommended, through Borowski, the “Essay” to his own publisher, Hartung, and did his utmost to promote Fichte’s welfare. Hartung, however, was then absent from Königsberg; another publisher, when applied to, declined to purchase the MS.; and Fichte was compelled to accept what he had resolved against, a post as private tutor. Kant’s friend, Schulz, obtained for him an appointment in the family of the Count von Krockow, near Danzig, by whom he was received, as a protégé of Kant’s, with the most distinguished kindness. It was during the period in which he was here settled, amid more genial surroundings than he had ever before known, that the surprising fate of his adventurous essay opened to him a new path in life.

The problem which Fichte had selected for treatment according to Kantian principles, was one upon which as yet the author of the Critical Philosophy had made no public utterance. Doubtless the question of religion had appeared in all the three ‘Critiques,’ but the utterances in each of these, differing slightly from one another, had not been drawn together, and their application was limited to what we may call Natural Religion. But, that a certain form of belief in a revelation or supernaturally given religion actually existed, was a fact, and a fact requiring to be explained after the Critical Method. In all the previous essays of this method, the plan of procedure had been identical Thus, in the ‘Critique of Pure Reason,’ the fact of cognition being assumed, the conditions under which this fact was possible were the subject of investigation. In the ‘Critique of Practical Reason,’ the fact of morality being assumed, the conditions under which it was possible were considered; and in the ‘Critique of Judgment’ the same query was answered with respect to the correspondence of natural elements, either to our faculty of cognition, as in aesthetic judgments, or to the idea of the whole of which they are parts, as in the teleological judgment. And, so far as religion was concerned, the following results had been attained. The theological aspect of religion,—i.e., the speculative determination of the existence, properties, and modes of action of a supernatural Being,—had been shown to be without theoretical foundation. In the forms of cognition, no theology was possible. But the necessary consequences of those conditions under which Morality or Reason as practical was possible, involved the practical acceptance of those very theological principles of which no theoretical demonstration could be given. The practical postulates of the being of an Intelligent and Moral Ruler of the world, and of the continued existence of the rational element in human nature, had appeared as necessary for any intelligence conscious of itself as Practical or Moral. Through these practical postulates a new interpretation was given of the world of sense, which no longer appeared as mere material for cognitive experience, but as the possible sphere within which the moral end of a Practical Reason might be realised. The possibility, then, of a Natural or Rational Religion, if we employ terms which have unquestionably a certain ambiguity, had been sufficiently shown, and the place determined which such a religion holds in the series of philosophical notions. But, so far, no result had appeared bearing upon the possibility of a Revealed Religion; and those fundamental features of human nature which historically have always been connected with the belief in a revelation, the consciousness of imperfection, of sin, of dependence upon Supreme powers, apparently found no place in the Kantian scheme. Here, then, was an opportunity for the application of the critical principles. The possibility of a revelation might be investigated in the same fashion as the possibility of cognition at all; the form and content of any revelation might be determined by an analysis of the conditions of its possibility, just as the form and content of knowledge had been determined by an analysis of its conditions. A lacuna in the Kantian system would thus be filled up. This problem Fichte proposed to himself, and his essay in solution of it was sent to the author of the Critical Philosophy, not originally for purpose of publication, but as proof of ability to handle and apply the critical method. Only with the approval and by the advice of Kant himself was publication resolved upon, and the work revised and prepared for the public under the title, ‘An Essay towards a Critique of all Revelation’ (‘Versuch einer Kritik aller Offenbarung ‘).

In form and substance the ‘Critique of Revelation’ is purely Kantian, with here and there an admixture of those additional subtleties of distinction in which Kantian scholars like Reinhold were already beginning to revel. Starting with a somewhat dry and abstract treatment of the conditions of moral or practical reason, an analysis of the will in its twofold aspect as sensuous impulse and impulse determined by reverence for moral law, the Essay summarises briefly the main principles of the Kantian practical theology, laying stress upon the fact that the acceptance of these theological postulates is not equivalent to religion,—that in so far as reverence for the moral law pure and simple is the guiding rule of conduct, no room is left for recognition of any binding force attaching to such law as the expression of the divine moral order. If, however, there should be given in human nature a condition of the practical motives such that the force of reverence for moral law is weakened, then it might be possible that additional strength should be given by some indication, otherwise furnished, that the moral law is veritably the utterance of the divine will In such a case, the human agent would be constrained by reverence for the divine character of the moral law, and such constraint is religion as opposed to theology. In this condition of human nature is found the substratum of fact, in relation to which a revelation is conceivable.

How, then, could the human agent be made aware that the moral law is of divine origin? Not, answers Fichte, through the practical reason itself, for the laws of this practical reason are self-explanatory,—but only through some evidence supplied by the world of sense-cognition. Such evidence is not to be looked for in the general view of the sense-world as the sphere within which the moral end is to be realised, for this follows simply from the existence of the moral law in us, but in some fact, which manifests its supernatural origin, and so necessitates the conclusion that it is the direct result of the divine activity. A religion basing itself upon a supernatural fact manifested in nature is a Revealed Religion, and the conditions of the possibility of such a supernatural manifestation are the conditions of a Revealed Religion.

Such a manifestation must needs be an a posteriori fact; but in so far as it is simply an a posteriori fact—i.e., so far as the form of the manifestation is concerned—it cannot necessitate the conclusion that its origin is divine. As regards matter or content, the manifestation must be a supernatural revelation of the moral law in nature,—a revelation possible for an intelligent agent in whom sensuous impulses have overbalanced the reverence for moral law. By such a revelation moral feeling might be, as it were, awakened or implanted in the heart; for were such feeling absent, no force of reason, no play of sense-impulse, could create it. A revelation, then, is possible, if the human agent under such circumstances can regard certain facts in the world of sense as the spontaneous effects of the divine will, and as manifesting the moral purpose of the divine will This interpretation of the manifested fact, which is neither reason nor sense, but, as it were, midway between them, is the work of Imagination. The individual believes, and may believe, that the revealed fact is not explicable by natural laws; but it is impossible for him to prove that it is inexplicable by these laws. It is equally impossible that scientific proofs should be advanced that what happens according to natural laws is altogether explicable by them. The laws of the manifestation in itself are matters of indifference; for the revelation is only relative,—relative to the disturbed ro chaotic moral condition of the individual human agent. The possibility of a revelation thus rests upon the possibility of a particular condition of the moral nature; and as this condition is not in itself necessary, a revealed religion cannot be regarded as necessary in the same sense in which the forms of thought or the postulates of practical reason are necessary. If there is a revelation at all, its contents must coincide with the contents of the moral law, and we can judge of any professed revelation according as it does or does not satisfy the criteria deducible from these two conditions. It must be made to those who are in the morally imperfect state just described: it must hold out no offers which are not in themselves consistent with pure morality: it must not effect its entrance into our thought by means which contain anything beyond the moral principle: it cannot give theoretical certainty to those postulated facts which follow from the moral law. Revealed religion, then, rests upon the possible needs of the human individual in the course of his development towards pure morality. The belief in such revelation is an element, and an important element, in the moral education of humanity, but it is not a final stage for human thought.

It is not of interest at the present stage of our sketch to consider the worth of the treatment of a difficult problem here presented by Fichte, for his view of religion as a whole became deeper and fuller as his speculation slowly worked itself free from much of the Kantian formalism. What is remarkable in the Essay is merely the strength with which the requirements of pure practical reason are held as the criteria for estimating the possibility and the nature of any revealed religion. Fichte, even at this stage of his philosophical career, was beginning to lay stress upon the practical side of the Kantian system, as yielding the only complete solution of the whole speculative problem.

There was some difficulty in getting the Essay brought before the public. Through Borowski’s friendly efforts, and by Kant’s recommendation, Hartung was induced to accept the manuscript, and forwarded it to Halle for printing. It thus became necessary that the work should receive the imprimatur of the Halle censor, who was Dean of the Theological Faculty. But the censor hesitated to give assent to the publication of a work in which it was explicitly stated that the divine character of a revelation could not rest upon the evidence of a supposed miracle, but wholly upon the nature of its contents. Fichte endeavoured, but in vain, to get over the difficulty by declaring that his book was philosophical, not theological, and therefore stood in no need of a theological imprimatur. With his usual resoluteness he absolutely declined to accede to the request of friendly critics that the offensive passages should be expunged, or even to the prudent advice of Kant that a distinction should be introduced between dogmatical belief, which was not in question, and moral faith or religion based on practical grounds; and, for a time, the appearance of the work seemed more than problematical. Fortunately, at the critical moment a change occurred in the censorship of the Theological Faculty at Halle. The new dean, Dr Knapp, had no scruples in giving his sanction to the publication, and the Essay appeared in 1792. By some accident, whether of publisher or printer does not seem to be known, the author’s name, and the preface in which he spoke of himself, were not given; and the accident was indeed fortunate for Fichte. The literary and philosophic public, long expectant of a work on religion by the author of the ‘Critique of Pure Reason,’ imagined that they found in this anonymous essay the clearest evidences of the handiwork of the great thinker. The ‘Allgemeine Literatur-zeitung’ with bated breath discharged its “duty to the public” in communicating to them the substance of “a work which, more than any written for a long time, was adequate to the deepest wants of the time, and which might truly be called a word in season.” “Just at the moment,” the notice proceeds, “when the most varied parties in theology are contending with one another, it is more particularly of importance that a man pietate ac meritis gravis should come forward, and show to each in what they are in error, what they exaggerate, and what they assert without foundation. And in what manner is this essential task executed! Assuredly there is to be found here much, perhaps all, that the greatest and most deservedly famous theologians of all ages have uttered regarding revelation; but so closely knit together, so thoroughly wrought into unity, so accurately denned and justified does everything appear in this admirably constructed system, that as regards the fundamental propositions nothing is left to be desired.” The reviewer, after modestly indicating his joy at seeing the thoughts which he himself had long excogitated on the same subject expressed in so masterly and complete a fashion, proceeds to give an extract, with the remark that “every one who has made himself acquainted with even one work of the great author, here recognisable beyond possibility of error,” will imagine that much more valuable must remain unexcerpted; and closes with an effusion of gratitude to the great man “whose finger is everywhere traceable,” and who had now placed the keystone in the arch of human knowledge. Other critics were not behind in their notices. The Jena coterie, already distinguished as the centre of a progressive Kantianism, commented on and discussed the Essay as veritably the work of the master, and treatises pro and con began to issue from the fruitful German press.

Kant did not suffer the error to remain long uncorrected. In the number of the ‘Allgemeine Literatur-zeitung’ following that in which the just quoted notice appeared, he published a brief statement, giving the name of the author, and expressing respect for his ability. It is true that the reviews of the second edition of the Essay in the same journal exhibit a remarkable difference of tone, but none the less Fichte’s literary fame was by this occurrence raised at once to a height such as years of labour might not have enabled him to attain. He was marked out from all the living writers on philosophy as the one who seemed able with strength and capacity to carry on the great work of Kant. His career was determined for him, and all his vague plans and projects were now consolidated. Henceforth he was a philosopher by profession.


The success of his literary venture now enabled Fichte to think of his marriage as an event no longer to be delayed by uncertainty as to his own fortunes. Some portion of Hartmann Rahn’s property had been saved from the general wreck, and in the beginning of 1793 we learn from his letters to Johanna that at last all might be regarded as settled. “In June, or at the latest July,” he writes from Danzig in the spring of 1793, “I shall be with thee; but I should wish to enter the walls of Zürich as thy husband. Is that possible? Thy kind heart will give no hindrance to my wishes; but I do not know the circumstances.” The circumstances, as it happened, were adverse to his wish. Zurich customs exacted from foreigners proposing to marry in that city a certain duration of residence, and it was not till the 22d of October that at Baden his marriage with Johanna Rahn took place. A short tour in Switzerland, partly in company with the Danish poet Jens Baggesen, is noteworthy as having introduced Fichte to the acquaintance of Pestalozzi, whose educational ideas were destined to play an important part in the after-life of the philosopher.

During this calmer period of Fichte’s life, the great events of the French Revolution had been rapidly developing themselves, and the attention of thinkers as well as of the public had been drawn to the principles involved in or endangered by such a mighty movement. Rehberg, the secretary to the Hanoverian Privy Council, published in 1792 a work entitled ‘Essays on the French Revolution,’ in which a doubtful and timid view was expressed as to its principles, and the worst consequences were predicted as likely to follow from them. This book seems to have been the occasioning cause of Fichte’s anonymous political tracts, the first of which, ‘Reclamation of the Freedom of Thought from the Princes of Europe,’ a fiery oratorical piece, was completed at Danzig. The second and more important, ‘Contributions towards the Correction of the Public Judgment on the French Revolution,’ was begun at Danzig, and finished, so far as it went, at Zürich. In both the fundamental principle is the same. Defence of the right of remodelling constitutional forms is founded on the indefeasible and inalienable right to the liberty of realising the moral end of humanity, a right which precedes and underlies all others. The argument is in substance the translation of Rousseau’s ‘Contrat Social’ into the terms of the Kantian ethical system; and as the whole question of Right or Law[2] is intimately connected with the very essence of Fichte’s philosophy, it is well to note how, at this comparatively early stage of his philosophic development, he expressed himself regarding it. As in the case of Kant’s ‘Rechtslehre,’ so in these essays, the notion of an original contract as basis of rights within the state, is accepted not as though it expressed historic fact, but as the only theoretical foundation for a union of intelligent, voluntary beings. Within a community founded on such a contract, there are various rights and degrees of rights assigned to the several individuals or classes. But of those rights, some are inalienable or indefeasible, for they express the condition in the absence of which the moral law, the supreme rule of conduct, is of no effect; others, rights regarding modes of action merely permitted, not enjoined by the moral law, are alienable, and may be resigned by the individual. Among the inalienable rights, that which is all-comprehensive is ethical freedom; but in one acceptation at least, freedom concerns not so much external acts as internal thoughts. Nevertheless the right to free expression of opinion, to free communication of thought, must be pronounced an inalienable or indefeasible right, for in its absence the possibility for acquiring the materials of thought is destroyed. No spiritual development is possible without the free interchange and communication of thought, nor is it given to any man or body of men to pronounce on the wisdom or goodness of thoughts with such confidence as to afford foundation for a supposed right to suppress freedom of thought on the ground of possible danger from, errors of thinking.[3]

The same fundamental principle, that the ultimate foundation, and consequently the criterion, of all state rights, is to be found in the conditions necessary for the realisation of the ethical end, the spiritual development towards moral freedom, gives an answer to the more complicated problem of the right of revolution. Constitutional forms must needs be alterable; they cannot continuously correspond to the requirements of a developing moral culture. No original contract can be of a final nature, can prescribe limits to the moral and legal development of a community. The right to state reform is inalienable or indefeasible.

Nevertheless the dissolution of a constitutional form implies withdrawal from the original state contract, and such withdrawal appears almost in terms to contradict the very notion upon which state rights are founded.[4] Fichte boldly faces this difficulty, contends that in all cases withdrawal from contract is possible, and that law or justice requires only compensation for such breach of pact, not unconditional fulfilment of it. If injury has been done by dissolving the contract on which the existing form of state government rests, let due compensation in kind and amount be rendered. Now the injury may be inflicted on the state itself, or on certain privileged classes in it. So far as the state itself is concerned, the only relations of life in respect of which compensation could be demanded, are those which rest upon or are secured by the assistance of the state—e.g., rights of property or right to development of one’s own culture. But the smallest consideration enables us to see that these rights and relations are prior in nature to state arrangements. They do not spring from the state, but the state is the mechanism whereby they are protected and regulated. No penalty, therefore, can be exacted by the state in consequence of the withdrawal of one or all of its members from the original contract. These dissentient wills may combine and form a state within the state: this is the essence of political revolution.[5]

The consideration of the possible injury to privileged classes in the state, consequent on revolution, leads Fichte, in the second Heft of the Beiträge, into a somewhat elaborate discussion of the origin of privileges in general The principles of social economy involved in his treatment are not so distinct as they afterwards became; and as in dealing with his later writings some attention must be paid to them, it is sufficient here to remark that he subjects to the most trenchant criticism the grounds for the privileges of the nobility and the Church, absolutely rejects these as theoretically indefensible, and foreshadows the semi-socialist doctrine which is worked out in his later politico-economical treatises.[6]

These political writings, breathing the warmest enthusiasm for the French Revolution, not unnaturally drew attention to Fichte. He was marked as a dangerous political character, and accused, both at the time and afterwards, of democratic tendencies. The influence of this feeling regarding his political sympathies is a notable fact in all the events of his after-career. As we shall see, much of the bitterness that was poured out against him at Jena on account of his theological views had its root in hatred for his advanced political doctrines. In substance the pamphlets are still interesting, both in themselves and as indicating the strong practical bent of Fichte’s thinking; in form, however, they are somewhat hard and pedantic. As in the ‘Critique of Revelation/ so here, the language is full of Kantian technicalities, the structure and progress of the argument are determined by the abstract forms of the Kantian system. In both works, Fichte had advanced to the limits drawn by the Critical Philosophy. He was now prepared to push beyond them.


  1. Leben, i. 55-58. The whole letter, as there given, is translated by Dr Smith.
  2. It is impossible to give any exact single equivalent in English for the term Recht, which in different references may mean either law or the rights of the individual about which law is concerned, may be either an abstract or a collective notion, and may signify either positive enactments or the ultimate ethical foundation for such enactments. In Fichte’s writings a right is the specific mode of action, or realisation of a motive in external fact, which is indispensably necessary under the supposition of a common ethical law or supreme ethical end. Assuming such moral end, we can point to specific modes of action which must be approved by the community, unless violence is done to the very notion of ethical law. Alongside of this, however, there are rights which are mere specific modes of action approved by the community as a whole, though not indispensable for the realisation of the ethical end.
  3. Fichte’s argument here may be compared with the fuller and more concrete treatment of the same problem in J. S. Mill’s tract, “On Liberty.”
  4. This contradiction is left as a kind of unsolved problem by Kant (see ‘Rechtslehre,’ § 49, ‘Allgemeine Anmerkung,’ A.)
  5. It is interesting to note that Fichte supports his argument in favour of a state within the state, by pointing to examples of such dual formations. These are mainly the existence of Jews in a Christian community, and the existence of a military class. His expressions with regard to the Jews are hardly exceeded in bitterness by any of the modern assailants of the Semitic element in Germany. See specially ‘Werke,’ vol. vi. pp. 150, 151.
  6. Especially the ‘Geschlossene Handels-staat’ and the ‘Staatslehre.’