Addresses to the German Nation/Fifth Address

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58. With the object of describing the characteristic quality of the Germans we have pointed out the fundamental difference between them and the other peoples of Teutonic descent, viz., that the former have remained in the uninterrupted flow of a primitive language which develops itself continuously out of real life, whereas the latter adopted a language which was foreign to them and which under their influence has been killed. At the end of the previous address we indicated other manifestations among these peoples, who differ from each other in the way we have shown. To-day we shall deal more fully with these manifestations, which are a necessary consequence of that fundamental difference, and establish them more firmly on their common foundation.

An investigation which endeavours to be thorough can rise too high to be involved in many disputes or to arouse much jealousy. Our method of investigation in the present instance will be the same as it was in the one to which this is a sequel. We shall take the fundamental difference that has been indicated, and deduce its consequences step by step; our sole concern will be to see that this deduction is correct. Whether the various manifestations which, according to this deduction, ought to exist, are actually met with in experience is a question which I shall leave entirely to you and to any observer for decision. As regards the German especially, I shall indeed prove at the proper time that he has in fact revealed himself to be what our deduction shows he was bound to be. But, as regards Teutons in other countries, I shall have no objection if one of them, with a real understanding of the true nature of our present discussion, is subsequently successful in proving that his compatriots have been just what the Germans have been, and is able to show that they are entirely free from the opposite characteristics. In general, our description even of these opposite characteristics will not dwell on what is harsh and disadvantageous, for such a method makes victory more easy than honourable, but will merely point out what are the inevitable consequences, and will do this with as much consideration as is consistent with the truth.

59. The first consequence of that fundamental difference, I said, was this: among the people with a living language mental culture influences life, whereas among a people of the opposite kind mental culture and life go their separate ways. It will be useful first of all to explain more fully the meaning of this statement. First of all, when we speak here of life and of the influence exerted upon it by mental culture, we must be understood to mean primitive life in its flow from the source of all spiritual life, from God, the development of human relationships according to their archetype, and, therefore, the creation of a new life such as has never hitherto existed. We are by no means discussing the mere preservation from decay of those relationships in their present stage. Still less have we in mind the assistance of individual members who have fallen behind in the general development. Next, when we speak of mental culture we are to understand thereby, first of all, philosophy, for it is philosophy which scientifically comprehends the eternal archetype of all spiritual life. We must designate it by the foreign name, as the Germans have shown themselves unwilling to adopt the German name[1] that was recently suggested. For this science, and for all science based upon it, the claim is now made that it influences the life of a people who have a living language. But, in apparent contrast to this assertion, it has often been said, and by some among ourselves, that philosophy, science, the fine arts, etc., are ends in themselves and not handmaids of life, and that it is degrading them to esteem them according to their utility in the service of life. Here we must define these expressions more closely and guard against any misinterpretation. They are true in the following double but limited sense; first, that it is not the duty of science or art, as some have thought, to be useful at what may be called a lower stage of life, e.g., temporal or sensuous life, or for everyday edification; then, that an individual, in consequence of his personal seclusion from a spiritual world regarded as a whole, may be entirely absorbed in these special branches of the universal divine life without needing a stimulus from outside them, and may find in them complete satisfaction. But they are in no wise true in the strict sense, for it is just as impossible that there should be more than one end in itself as that there should be more than one Absolute. The sole end in itself, apart from which there can be no other, is spiritual life. Now this expresses itself in part and appears as an eternal stream, with itself as source—that is, as eternal activity. This activity eternally receives its pattern from science, and its ability to form itself according to this pattern from art, and in so far it might appear that science and art exist as means to an end, which is active life. But in this form of activity life itself is never completed and made absolute as a unity, but goes on into the infinite. Now, if life is to exist as such an absolute unity, it must be in another form. This form is that of pure thought, which produces the religious insight described in the third address, a form which, as absolute unity, is utterly incompatible with infinity of action and which can never be completely expressed in action. Hence both of them, thought as well as activity, are forms incompatible only in the world of appearance, but in the world beyond appearance they are both equally one and the same absolute life. One cannot say that thought exists, and exists as it does, for the sake of activity, or vice versa; one must say that both must simply exist, since life must be a completed whole in the phenomenal world, just as it is in the noumenal. Within this sphere, therefore, and according to this view, it is not nearly enough to say that science exerts an influence on life; science itself is life perpetual in itself. Or, to connect this with a well-known expression, one sometimes hears the question put: What is the use of all knowledge, if one does not act in accordance with it? This remark implies that knowledge is regarded as a means to action, and the latter as the real end. One could put the question the other way round and ask: How can we possibly act well without knowing what the Good is? This way of expressing it would regard knowledge as conditioning action. But both expressions are one-sided, and the truth is that both, knowledge as well as action, are in the same way inseparable elements of rational life.

60. But science is life perpetual in itself, as we have just expressed it, only when thought is the real mind and disposition of the one who thinks, in such a way that, without special effort and even without being clearly conscious of it, he views and judges everything else that he thinks, views, and judges according to that fundamental thought, and, if the latter exerts an influence on action, just as inevitably acts according to it. But thought is in no wise life and disposition when it is thought only as the thought of a life that is strange or foreign, however clearly and completely it may be comprehended as a thought that has a mere possibility of existence in this way, and however clearly one might think, as perhaps someone could think, in this fashion. In this latter case, between our thinking at second-hand and our real thinking there lies a wide field of chance and freedom—a freedom that we feel no desire to use; and so this thinking at second-hand remains apart from us; it is a merely possible thinking, one made free from us and always freely to be repeated. In the former case thought has by itself directly taken hold of our self, and made it into itself; and through this reality of thought for us, arising in this way, we obtain insight into its necessity. As we have just said, no freedom can forcibly bring about the latter consequence, which must be produced of itself, and thought itself must take hold of us and form us according to itself.

61. Now this living effectiveness of thought is very much furthered and, indeed, where the thinking is of the proper depth and strength, even made inevitable, by thinking and designating in a living language. The symbol in such a language is itself directly living and sensuous; it re-presents all real life and so takes hold of and exerts an influence on life. To the possessor of such a language spirit speaks directly and reveals itself as man does to man. But the symbol of a dead language does not stimulate anything directly; in order to enter the living stream of such a language one must first recapitulate knowledge acquired by the study of history from a world that has died, and transport one’s self into an alien mode of thought. How superabundant must be the impulse of one’s own thinking, if it does not grow weary in this long and wide field of history and in the end modestly content itself with the region of history. If the thinking of the possessor of a living language does not become alive, he may rightly be accused of not having thought at all and of having merely indulged in reverie. The possessor of a dead language, however, cannot in a similar case be similarly accused without hesitation; it may be that he has “thought” after his own fashion, i.e., carefully developed the conceptions deposited in his language. Only he has not done that which, if he succeeded in doing it, would be accounted a miracle.

Incidentally it is evident that the impulse to thinking, in the case of a people with a dead language, will be most powerful and produce the greatest apparent results in the beginning, when the language has not yet become clear enough to everyone. It is also evident that, as soon as the language becomes clearer and more definite, this impulse to thinking will tend more and more to die away in the chains of the language. It is further evident that in the end the philosophy of a people of this kind will consciously resign itself to the fact that it is only an explanation of the dictionary, or, as un-German spirits among us have expressed it in a more high-sounding fashion, a metacritic of language; and, finally, that such a people will acknowledge some mediocre didactic poem in comedy form on the subject of hypocrisy to be its greatest philosophical work.[2]

62. In this way, I say, spiritual culture—and here especially thinking in a primitive language is meant—does not exert an influence on life; it is itself the life of him who thinks in this fashion. Nevertheless it necessarily strives, from the life that thinks in this way, to influence other life outside it, and so to influence the life of all about it and to form this life in accordance with itself. For, just because that kind of thinking is life, it is felt by its possessor with inward pleasure in its vitalizing, transfiguring, and liberating power. But everyone to whose inmost being happiness has been revealed is bound to wish that everyone else may experience the same bliss; he is thus driven, and must work, to the end that the stream from which he has drawn his own well-being may spread itself over others too. It is different with him who has merely apprehended the possibility of second-hand thinking. Just as its substance yields him neither weal nor woe, but merely occupies his leisure agreeably and entertainingly, so it is impossible for him to believe that it can bring weal or woe to anyone else. In the end it is to him a matter of indifference on what subject anyone exercises his ingenuity or with what he occupies his hours of leisure.

63. Of the means of introducing into the lives of all the thought that has begun in the life of the individual, the highest and best is poetry; hence this is the second main branch of the spiritual culture of a people. The thinker designates his thought in language, and this, as we have said above, cannot be done except by images of sense and, moreover, by an act of creation extending beyond the previous range of sensuous imagery. In doing this the thinker is himself a poet; if he is not a poet, language will fail him when his first thought comes, and, when he attempts the second, thought itself will depart from him. An extension and amplification of the language’s range of sensuous imagery having thus been begun by the thinker, to send it in flood through the whole field of sensuous images, so that every image may receive its appropriate share of the new spiritual ennoblement and so that the whole of life, down to its deepest depths of sense, may appear steeped in the new ray of light, may be well-pleasing, and may unwittingly give the illusion of ennobling itself—to do this is the work of true poetry. Only a living language can have such poetry, for only in such a language can the range of sensuous imagery be extended by creative thought, and only in it does what has already been created remain alive and open to the influence of kindred life. Such a language has within itself the power of infinite poetry, ever refreshing and renewing its youth, for every stirring of living thought in it opens up a new vein of poetic enthusiasm. To such a language, therefore, poetry is the highest and best means of flooding the life of all with the spiritual culture that has been attained. It is quite impossible for a dead language to have poetry in this higher sense, for none of the conditions necessary to poetry exist in it. Such a language can have, however, though only for a limited period, a substitute for poetry in the following way. The outpourings of the art of poetry in the original language will attract attention. The new people, indeed, cannot go on making poetry in the path that has been begun, for this is foreign to its life, but it can introduce its own life and its new circumstances into the sphere of sensuous imagery and poetry in which the preceding age expressed its own life; it can, for example, dress up its knights as heroes, and vice versa, and make the ancient gods exchange raiment with the new ones. It is precisely this placing of unfamiliar vesture upon the commonplace that gives it a charm akin to that produced by idealization, and the result will be quite pleasing figures. But the range of sensuous and poetical imagery in the original language on the one hand, and the new conditions of life on the other, are finite and limited quantities. At some point their mutual penetration is completed; and when that point is reached the people celebrates its golden age and the source of its poetry runs dry. Somewhere or other there must be a highest point in the adaptation of fixed words to fixed ideas, and of fixed imagery to fixed conditions of life. When this point has been reached this people must do one of two things. It can either repeat its most successful masterpieces in a different form, so that they look as if they were something new, although they are in fact nothing but the old familiar things. Or else, if it is determined to achieve something entirely new, it can seek refuge in the unbecoming and the unseemly. In this case their poetic art will mix together the ugly and the beautiful and have recourse to caricature and humour, while their prose will be compelled to confuse ideas and to jumble virtue and vice together. This they must do if they seek new forms of expression.

64. When mental culture and life thus go their own separate ways in a nation, the natural consequence is that those classes who have no access to mental culture, and who do not even receive the results of it as they would in a living nation, are placed at a disadvantage as compared with the educated classes and are regarded, so to speak, as a different species of humanity, unequal to them in mental power from the beginning and by the mere fact of birth. Another consequence is that the educated classes have no truly loving sympathy with them and are not impelled to give them thorough aid, for they believe that their original inequality makes them quite incapable of being aided. It follows also that the educated classes are tempted rather to make use of them as they are and to let them be so used. Although even this consequence of the death of the language can be mitigated in the first years of the new nation by a humanitarian religion and by the lack of special skill among the higher classes, yet, as time goes on, this despising of the people will become more and more unconcealed and cruel. That is why the educated classes assume superiority and give themselves airs; and there is in addition a special reason closely connected with it which, as it has had a very extensive influence even on the Germans, must be mentioned here. It arises from the fact that in the beginning the Romans called themselves barbarians and their own language barbarous, as contrasted with the Greeks. In this they very ingenuously repeated what the Greeks had said about them. Afterwards the Romans handed on the description they had taken upon themselves, and found among the Teutons the same unquestioning simplicity as they themselves had shown towards the Greeks. The Teutons believed that the only possible way to get rid of barbarism was to become Romans. The immigrants to what was formerly Roman soil became as Roman as they possibly could. But in their imagination the term “barbarous” soon acquired the secondary meaning of “common, plebeian, and loutish,” and in this way “Roman,” on the contrary, became synonymous with “distinguished.” This way of looking at it affected the Teutonic languages in general and in particular; in general, since, when measures were taken deliberately and consciously to mould the language, they were directed towards throwing out the Teutonic roots and forming the words from Latin roots, and thus creating the Romance language as the language of the court and of the educated classes. But the particular result is that, whenever two words have the same meaning, the one from a Teutonic root almost without exception denotes what is base and ignoble, and the one from the Latin root what is nobler and more distinguished.

65. This endemic disease of the whole Teutonic race, as it might be called, attacks the German in the mother-country too, if he is not armed against it by a high earnestness. Even in our ears it is easy for Latin to sound distinguished, even to our eyes Roman customs appear nobler and everything German on the contrary vulgar; and as we were not so fortunate as to acquire all this at first-hand, we take much pleasure in receiving it at second-hand through the medium of the neo-Latin nations.[3] So long as we are German we appear to ourselves men like any others; when half or more than half our vocabulary is non-German, and when we adopt conspicuous customs and wear conspicuous clothes which seem to come from foreign parts, then we fancy ourselves distinguished. But the summit of our triumph is reached when we are no longer taken for Germans, but actually for Spaniards or Englishmen, whichever of the two happens to be the more fashionable at the moment. We are right. Naturalness on the German side, arbitrariness and artificiality on the foreign side, are the fundamental differences. If we keep to the former we are just like all our fellow-Germans, who understand us and accept us as their equals; only when we seek refuge in the latter do we become incomprehensible to our fellows, who take us to be of a different nature. This unnaturalness comes of itself into the life of foreign countries, because their life deviated from nature originally and in a matter of the first importance. But we Germans must first seek it out and accustom ourselves to the belief that something is beautiful, proper, and convenient, which does not naturally appear so to us. The main reason for all this in the case of the German is his belief in the greater distinction of romanized countries, together with his craving to be just as distinguished and artificially to create in Germany too that gulf between the upper classes and the people, which came about naturally in foreign countries. I shall content myself with having indicated the main source of this love of foreign ways which is to be found among Germans; on another occasion I shall show how widespread its effects have been, and how all the evils which have now brought us to ruin are of foreign origin. Of course it was only when united with German earnestness and influence on life that such evils were bound to bring destruction in their train.

66. In addition to these two manifestations resulting from the fundamental difference—firstly, that mental culture either does or does not influence life, and, secondly, that between the educated classes and the people a dividing wall either does or does not exist—I cited the following manifestation, that the people with a living language will possess diligence and earnestness and take pains in all things, whereas the people with a dead language will rather look upon mental activity as an ingenious game, and will be easy-going and guided by its happy nature. This circumstance is a natural result of what has been said above. Among the people with a living language investigation proceeds from a vital need, which is thereby to be satisfied; hence, investigation receives all the compelling impulses which life has in itself. But among the people with a dead language investigation seeks nothing more than to pass away the time in a manner that is pleasant and in keeping with the sense of the beautiful, and it has attained its object completely when it has done this. With foreigners the latter course is almost inevitable, but when a German boasts about his genius and his happy nature he displays a love of foreign ways which is unworthy of him and which, like every imitation of foreign ways, arises from the craving to be distinguished. It is true that nothing excellent will be produced in any nation in the world without a primitive impulse in man which, as something supersensuous, is rightly called Genius, to give it the foreign name. But this impulse in itself only stimulates the power of imagination, and brings forth in it figures that hover above the ground but are never completely defined. To bring these down completed to the ground of actual life and to fix them firmly therein, this requires thought, diligent, deliberate, and in accordance with a definite principle. Genius delivers to diligence the stuff to be worked upon, and the latter without the former would have to work upon either what had been worked upon already or else upon nothing at all. But diligence brings this stuff, which without it would remain an empty game, into life; and so it is only when united that the two can achieve anything; divided they can do nothing. Moreover, in a people with a dead language no truly creative genius can express itself, because they lack the primitive power of designation; they can only develop what has already been begun and convey it into the whole existing and completed system of designation.

67. When we consider the question of taking greater pains, it is natural that this can be done by the people with the living language. A living language can stand on a higher level of culture in comparison with another, but it can never in itself attain that perfection of development which a dead language quite easily attains. In the latter the connotation of words is fixed, and the possibilities of suitable combinations will also gradually become exhausted. Hence, he who wishes to speak this language must speak it just as it is; but, after he has once learnt to do this, the language speaks itself in his mouth and thinks and imagines for him. But in a living language, if only life in it is really lived, the words and their meanings increase and change continually, and for that very reason new combinations become possible; and the language, which never is, but eternally is becoming, does not speak itself, but he who wishes to use it must speak it himself in his own fashion and creatively for his own needs. The latter undoubtedly demands far more diligence and practice than the former. Similarly, the investigations of a people with a living language go down, as we have already said, to the root where ideas stream forth from spiritual nature itself; whereas the investigations of a people with a dead language only seek to penetrate a foreign idea and to make themselves comprehensible. Hence, the investigations of the latter are in fact only historical and expository, but those of the former are truly philosophical. It is quite plain, too, that an investigation of the latter kind may be completed sooner and more easily than one of the former.

So we may say that genius in foreign lands will strew with flowers the well-trodden military roads of antiquity, and weave a becoming robe for that wisdom of life which it will easily take for philosophy. The German spirit, on the other hand, will open up new shafts and bring the light of day into their abysses, and hurl up rocky masses of thoughts, out of which ages to come will build their dwellings. The foreign genius will be a delightful sylph, which hovers in graceful flight above the flowers that have sprung of themselves from its soil, settles on them without causing them to bend, and drinks up their refreshing dew. Or we may call it a bee, which with busy art gathers the honey from the same flowers and deposits it with charming tidiness in cells of regular construction. But the German spirit is an eagle, whose mighty body thrusts itself on high and soars on strong and well-practised wing into the empyrean, that it may rise nearer to the sun whereon it delights to gaze.

68. Now let us sum up in one main point of view all that has hitherto been said. In general, when we consider the history of civilization in a race of men which is split up in history into an age of antiquity and a new world, we shall find on the whole that the function of these two main branches in the original development of this new world is as follows. That part of the vigorous nation which has gone abroad and adopted the language of antiquity thereby acquires a much closer relationship to antiquity. At the beginning it will be far easier for this part of the nation to grasp the language of antiquity in its first and unchanged form, to penetrate the memorials of its culture, and to bring into them enough fresh life to enable them to be adapted to the new life that has arisen. In short, it is from them that the study of classical antiquity has taken its way over modern Europe. In its enthusiasm for the unsolved problems of antiquity it will continue to work at them, but, of course, only as one works at a problem that has been set, not by the needs of life, but by mere curiosity. It will take them lightly and not whole-heartedly, grasping them merely with the power of imagination, and solely in this medium giving them, as it were, an airy body. The very wealth of material bequeathed by antiquity, and the ease with which the work can be carried on in this fashion, will enable them to bring an abundance of such images into the field of vision of the modern world. Now, when these images of the ancient world in their new form reach that part of the original stock which, by its retention of the language, has remained in the stream of original culture, they will arouse the attention of the people and stimulate them to activity on their own part; though, perhaps, these images, if they had remained in the old form, would have passed before them unheeded and unperceived. But as soon as they have really grasped them and not, as it were, merely passed them on from hand to hand, they will grasp them as their nature impels them to do, not merely as knowledge of a foreign life, but as an element of their own life. So they will not only derive them from the life of the new world, but also bring them into it again, incarnating the hitherto merely airy figures in solid bodies that will endure in real life.

These figures, thus transformed in a way that would never have been possible to foreign countries, the latter now receive from them again. Through this channel alone is a development of the human race possible on the path of antiquity, a union of the two main portions, and a regular progress of human evolution. In this new order of things the mother-country will not actually invent anything; but, in the smallest as in the greatest matters, it will always have to acknowledge that it has been stimulated by some hint from abroad. The foreign countries themselves were in their turn stimulated by the ancients, but the mother-country will take earnestly, and bring into life, what other countries have only superficially and hastily sketched out. As we have already said, this is not the place to illustrate this relationship by striking and far-reaching examples. This we reserve for our next address.

69. In this way both parts of the joint nation remained one, and only in this simultaneous separation and unity do they form a graft on the stem of the culture of antiquity, which otherwise would have been broken off by the new age, and so humanity would have begun again from the beginning. The two parts have these vocations laid upon them, different at the starting-point but coming together at the goal; each part must recognize its own vocation and that of the other, and in accordance therewith each part must make use of the other. It is especially necessary for each part to consent to assist the other and to leave its characteristic quality untouched, if good progress is to be made in the general and complete culture of the whole. The recognition of this ought to come first from the mother-country, which has been endowed in the first place with the sense of profundity. But if ever foreign countries, in their blindness to this relationship, should be so far carried away by what appears on the surface as to attempt to deprive their mother-country of its independence and so to destroy and absorb it, they would thereby, if their attempt succeeded, sever for themselves the last vein connecting them with nature and with life, and fall defenceless into spiritual death, which indeed, apart from this, has been revealing itself to be their true nature more and more clearly as time has gone on. Then the hitherto continuous stream of the development of our race would be in fact at an end; barbarism would be bound to begin again and to go on without hope of deliverance, until we were all living in caves again like wild beasts and, like them, devouring one another. That this is really so and must inevitably follow, only the German can see, of course, and only he shall see it. To the foreigner, who, since he knows no foreign culture, has unlimited scope to admire himself in his own, it must and it may always appear preposterous blasphemy proceeding from ill-educated ignorance.

Non-German countries are the earth, from which fruitful vapours detach themselves and arise to the clouds, and by which even now the old gods condemned to Tartarus keep in touch with the sphere of life. The mother-country is the eternal sky enveloping the earth, the sky in which the light vapours are condensed to clouds which, impregnated by the lightning flash of the Thunderer from the other world, descend in the form of fertilizing rain, uniting sky and earth and causing the gifts whose home is in the sky to germinate in the lap of earth. Do new Titans once more want to take heaven by storm? It will not be heaven for them, for they are earth-born, and the very sight and influence of heaven will be taken from them. Only their earth will remain to them, a cold, gloomy, and barren habitation. But, says a Roman poet, what could a Typhœsus do, or the mighty Mimas, or Porphyrion with his threats, or Enceladus, the rash hurler of uprooted tree-trunks, if they flung themselves against the resounding shield of Pallas? It is this very shield that will undoubtedly cover us too, if we understand how to betake ourselves to its protection.


  1. [Wissenschaftslehre, i.e. Theory of science.]
  2. [Fichte seems to refer here to Molière’s Tartuffe.]
  3. [Fichte adds this note here: In our opinion the decision as to the greater or less euphony of a language should not be based upon the direct impression, which depends on so many matters of chance. Even a judgment of this kind should be founded on definite principles. The merit of a language in this respect should undoubtedly be, first of all, that it exhausts and comprehensively presents the possibilities of the human organs of speech, and, secondly, that it combines the separate sounds in a natural and convenient unity. Hence it follows that nations who only half develop their organs of speech, and that in a one-sided fashion, who avoid certain sounds or combinations under the pretext of difficulty or cacophony, and who esteem euphonious only what they are accustomed to hear and can themselves pronounce—such nations have no say in an investigation of this kind.

    This is not the place to deliver judgment according to those higher principles on the German language in this respect. Latin itself, the parent language, is pronounced by each neo-European nation in its own way, and it would not be easy to restore its true pronunciation. There remains, therefore, only this question, whether the German language when compared with neo-Latin languages sounds so bad, hard, and harsh as some are inclined to think.

    Until this question is thoroughly decided, we may meanwhile at least explain how it happens that it does seem so to foreigners, and to Germans too, even when they are unprejudiced and free from preferences or hate. A people as yet uncultivated, with a very lively power of imagination, and at the same time childlike in mind and free from national vanity (the Teutons seem to have had all these qualities) is attracted by what is far away, and likes to make remote countries and distant islands the habitation for the objects of its desires and the glories of which it dreams. Such a people develops a sense of romance (the word explains itself and no more suitable one could be invented). Sounds and tones from those regions touch this sense and awaken its whole world of wonders; hence they are pleasing.

    This may be the reason why our countrymen who emigrated gave up their own language for a foreign one so easily, and also why we, their kindred so very far removed, find even now such wondrous pleasure in these tones.]