Addresses to the German Nation/First Address

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1. The addresses which I now commence I have announced as a continuation of the lectures which I gave three winters ago in this place, and which were published under the title: “Characteristics of the Present Age.” In those lectures I showed that our own age was set in the third great epoch of time,[1] an epoch which had as the motive of all its vital activities and impulses mere material self-seeking; that this age could comprehend and understand itself completely only by recognising that as the sole possible motive; and, finally, that by this clear perception of its own nature it was becoming deeply rooted and immovably fixed in this its natural state of existence.

Time is taking giant strides with us more than with any other age since the history of the world began. At some point within the three years that have gone by since my interpretation of the present age that epoch has come to an end. At some point self-seeking has destroyed itself, because by its own complete development it has lost its self and the independence of that self; and since it would not voluntarily set itself any other aim but self, an external power has forced upon it another and a foreign purpose. He who has once undertaken to interpret his own age must make his interpretation keep pace with the progress of that age, if progress there be. It is, therefore, my duty to acknowledge as past what has ceased to be the present, before the same audience to whom I characterized it as the present.

2. Whatever has lost its independence has at the same time lost its power to influence the course of events and to determine these events by its own will. If it remain in this state its age, and itself with the age, are conditioned in their development by that alien power which governs its fate. From now onwards it has no longer any time of its own, but counts its years by the events and epochs of alien nations and kingdoms. From this state, in which all its past world is removed from its independent influence and in its present world only the merit of obedience remains to it, it could raise itself only on condition that a new world should arise for it, the creation of which would begin, and its development fill, a new epoch of its own in history. But, since it has once fallen under alien power, this new world must be so constituted that it remains unperceived by that power, that it does not in any way arouse its jealousy; nay more, that the alien power itself is induced by its own interest to put no obstacle in the way of the formation of such a world. Now if, for a race which has lost its former self, its former age and world, such a world should be created as the means of producing a new self and a new age, a thorough interpretation of such a possible age would have to give an account of the world thus created.

Now for my part I maintain that there is such a world, and it is the aim of these addresses to show you its existence and its true owner, to bring before your eyes a living picture of it, and to indicate the means of creating it. In this sense, therefore, these addresses will be a continuation of the lectures previously given on the then existing age, because they will reveal the new era which can and must directly follow the destruction of the kingdom of self-seeking by an alien power.

3. But, before I begin this task, I must ask you to assume the following points so that they never escape your memory, and to agree with me upon them wherever and in so far as this is necessary.

(a) I speak for Germans simply, of Germans simply, not recognizing, but setting aside completely and rejecting, all the dissociating distinctions which for centuries unhappy events have caused in this single nation. You, gentlemen, are indeed to my outward eye the first and immediate representatives who bring before my mind the beloved national characteristics, and are the visible spark at which the flame of my address is kindled. But my spirit gathers round it the educated part of the whole German nation, from all the lands in which they are scattered. It thinks of and considers our common position and relations; it longs that part of the living force, with which these addresses may chance to grip you, may also remain in and breathe from the dumb printed page which alone will come to the eyes of the absent, and may in all places kindle German hearts to decision and action. Only of Germans and simply for Germans, I said. In due course we shall show that any other mark of unity or any other national bond either never had truth and meaning or, if it had, that owing to our present position these bonds of union have been destroyed and torn from us and can never recur; it is only by means of the common characteristic of being German that we can avert the downfall of our nation which is threatened by its fusion with foreign peoples, and win back again an individuality that is self-supporting and quite incapable of any dependence upon others. With our perception of the truth of this statement its apparent conflict (feared now, perhaps, by many) with other duties and with matters that are considered sacred will completely vanish.

Therefore, as I speak only of Germans in general, I shall proclaim that many things concern us which do not apply in the first instance to those assembled here, just as I shall pronounce as the concern of all Germans other things which apply in the first place only to us. In the spirit, of which these addresses are the expression, I perceive that organic unity in which no member regards the fate of another as the fate of a stranger. I behold that unity (which shall and must arise if we are not to perish altogether) already achieved, completed, and existing.

(b) I assume as hearers not such Germans as are in their whole nature completely given over to a feeling of pain at the loss they have suffered, who take comfort in this pain, luxuriate in their disconsolate grief, and think thereby to compromise with the call that summons them to action; but I assume such Germans as have already risen, or at least are capable of rising, above this justifiable pain to clear thought and meditation. I know that pain; I have felt it as much as anyone; I respect it. Apathy, which is satisfied if it find meat and drink and be not subjected to bodily pain, and for which honour, freedom, and independence are empty names, is incapable of it. Pain, however, exists merely to spur us on to reflection, decision, and action. If it fails in this ultimate purpose, it robs us of reflection and of all our remaining powers, and so completes our misery; while, moreover, as witness to our sloth and cowardice, it affords the visible proof that we deserve our misery. But I do not in the least intend to lift you above this pain by holding out hopes of any help which will come to you from outside, and by indicating all kinds of possible events and changes which time may perchance bring about. For even if this attitude of mind, which prefers to roam in the shifting world of possibilities rather than to stick to what must be done, and would rather owe its salvation to blind chance than to itself, did not already in itself afford evidence, as it really does, of the most criminal levity and of the deepest self-contempt, yet all hopes and indications of this kind have absolutely no application to our position. Strict proof can, and in due course will, be given that no man and no god and not one of all the events that are within the bounds of possibility can help us, but that we alone must help ourselves if help is to come to us. Rather shall I try to lift you above that pain by clear perception of our position, of our yet remaining strength, and of the means of our salvation. For that purpose I shall, it is true, demand of you a certain amount of reflection, some spontaneous activity, and some sacrifice, and reckon therefore on hearers of whom so much may be expected. The demands I make, however, are on the whole easy, and presuppose no greater amount of strength than one may, I think, expect of our age; as for danger, there is absolutely none.

(c) Since I intend to give the Germans, as such, a clear view of their present position, I shall assume as hearers such as are disposed to see things of this sort with their own eyes, and by no means such as find it easier in their consideration of these matters to have foisted upon them a strange and foreign eyeglass, which is either deliberately intended to deceive, or never properly suits a German eye, because it has a different angle of vision and is not fine enough. Moreover, I presuppose that such hearers, when looking at these things with their own eyes, will have the courage to look honestly at what does exist and to admit candidly to themselves what they see, and that they either have conquered already, or at least are capable of conquering, the tendency (frequently manifested) to deceive oneself concerning one’s own affairs, and to present to the mind a less displeasing picture of them than is consistent with the truth. This tendency is a cowardly flight from one’s own thoughts; and it is a childish attitude of mind which seems to believe that, if only it does not see its misery, or at least does not admit that it sees it, this misery will thereby be removed in reality, even as it is removed in thought. On the other hand, it is manly courage to look evil full in the face, to compel it to make a stand, to scrutinize it calmly, coolly, and freely, and to resolve it into its component parts. Moreover, by this clear perception alone is it possible to master evil and to proceed with sure step in the fight against it. For the man who sees the whole in each part always knows where he stands, and is sure of his ground by reason of the insight he has once gained; whereas another man, lacking sure clue or definite certainty, gropes blindly in a dream.

Why, then, should we be afraid of this clear perception? Evil does not become less through ignorance, nor increase through knowledge; indeed it is only by the latter that it can be cured. But the question of blame shall not be raised here. Let sloth and self-seeking be censured with bitter reprimand, with biting sarcasm and cutting scorn, and let them be provoked, if to nothing better, at least to bitter hatred of him who gives the reminder—such hatred is at any rate a powerful impulse; let this be done, so long as the inevitable result, the evil, is not fully accomplished, and so long as salvation or mitigation may still be expected from any improvement. But, when this evil is so complete that we are deprived of even the possibility of sinning again in the same way, it is useless and looks like malicious joy to continue to rail against a sin that can no longer be committed. The consideration immediately drops out of the sphere of ethics into that of history, for which freedom is ended, and which regards an event as the inevitable consequence of what has gone before. For our addresses there remains no other view of the present than this last, and we shall therefore never adopt any other.

This attitude of mind, therefore, that we consider ourselves simply Germans, that we be not held captive even by pain itself, that we wish to see the truth and have the courage to look it in the face, I presuppose and reckon upon in every word that I shall say. If, therefore, anyone should bring another attitude of mind to this meeting, he would have to attribute solely to himself the unpleasant feelings which might be caused him here. Let this then be said once for all, and finished with. I proceed now to my other task, namely, to put before you in a general survey the contents of all the addresses that are to follow.

4. At some point, I said at the beginning of my address, self-seeking has destroyed itself by its own complete development, because thereby it has lost its self and the power of fixing its aims independently. This destruction of self-seeking, now accomplished, constitutes both that progress of the age which I have mentioned and the completely new event which, in my opinion, has made a continuation of my previous description of that age both possible and necessary. This destruction would, therefore, be our real present, to which our new life in a new world (the existence of which I likewise maintained) would have to be directly linked. It would, therefore, be also the proper starting-point for my addresses, and I should have to show above all how and why such a destruction of self-seeking must result inevitably from its highest development.

Self-seeking is most highly developed when, after it has first affected, with insignificant exceptions, the whole body of subjects, it thereupon masters the rulers and becomes their sole motive in life. In such a government there arises first of all, outwardly, the neglect of all the ties by which its own safety is bound up with the safety of other States, the abandoning of the whole, of which it is a part, solely in order that it may not be roused from its slothful sleep, and the sad illusion of self-seeking that it has peace, if only its own frontiers are not attacked; then, inwardly, that feeble handling of the reins of State which calls itself in alien words humanity, liberality, and popularity, but which in German is more truly called slackness and unworthy conduct.

When it masters the rulers too, I said. A people can be completely corrupted, i.e., self-seeking—for self-seeking is the root of all other corruption—and yet at the same time not only endure, but even outwardly accomplish splendid deeds, provided only that its government be not also corrupt. Indeed, the latter may even outwardly act treacherously, disloyally, and dishonourably, if only it have inwardly the courage to hold on to the reins of government with a strong hand and to win for itself the greater fear. But where all the circumstances I have mentioned are combined, the commonwealth collapses at the first serious attack which is made upon it, and just as it first disloyally severed itself from the body of which it was a member, so now its own members, who are restrained by no fear of it and are spurred on by the greater fear of a foreign power, cut themselves off from it with the same disloyalty and go each his own way. At this, the greater fear once more seizes those who now remain isolated; and where they gave sparingly and most unwillingly to the defender of their country, to the enemy they give abundantly and with a forced look of cheerfulness. Later on, the rulers, abandoned and betrayed on all sides, are compelled to purchase their further existence by submission and obedience to foreign schemes; and so those, who in battle for their country threw away their arms, now learn to wield those same arms bravely under foreign colours against their mother-country. Thus it comes about that self-seeking is destroyed by its own complete development; and upon those who would not voluntarily set themselves any other aim but self, another aim is imposed by alien power.

5. No nation which has sunk into this state of dependence can raise itself out of it by the means which have usually been adopted hitherto. Since resistance was useless to it when it was still in possession of all its powers, what can such resistance avail now that it has been deprived of the greater part of them? What might previously have availed, namely, if its government had held the reins strongly and firmly, is now no longer applicable, because these reins now only appear to rest in its hand, for this very hand is steered and guided by an alien hand. Such a nation can no longer depend upon itself; and it can rely as little on the conqueror, who would be just as thoughtless, just as cowardly and weak as that nation itself once was, if he did not hold fast to the advantages he had won, and exploit them in every way. Or if in course of time he were ever to become so thoughtless and cowardly, he also would perish, like ourselves; but not to our advantage, for he would be the prey of another conqueror, and we, as a matter of course, the insignificant addition to that prey. If, however, a nation so fallen were to be able to save herself, it would have to be by means of something completely new and never previously employed, namely, by the creation of a totally new order of things. Let us see, therefore, what in the previously existing order of things was the reason why such an order had inevitably to come to an end at some time or other, so that in the opposite of this reason for its downfall we may find the new element which must be introduced into the age, in order that by its means the fallen nation may rise to a new life.

6. On investigating this reason we find that in every previous system of government the interest of the individual in the community was linked to his interest in himself by ties, which at some point were so completely severed that his interest in the community absolutely ceased. These ties were those of fear and hope concerning the interests of the individual in relation to the fate of the community—both in the present and in some future life. The enlightenment of the understanding, with its purely material calculations, was the force which destroyed the connection established by religion between some future life and the present, and which at the same time conceived that such substitutes and supplements of the moral sense as love of fame and national honour were but illusory phantoms. It was the weakness of governments which removed the individual’s fear for his own interests even in this life (in so far as they depended upon his behaviour towards the community) by frequently allowing neglect of duty to go unpunished. Similarly, it rendered the motive of hope ineffective by satisfying it frequently on quite different grounds and principles, without heed to services rendered to the community. Such were the ties which at some point were completely severed; and it was this severance that caused the breaking-up of the commonwealth.

Henceforth it matters not how industriously the conqueror may do that which he alone can do, namely, link up again and strengthen the latter part of the binding tie—fear and hope for this present life. He alone will profit thereby, and not we at all; for so surely as he perceives his advantage will he link to this renewed bond first and foremost only his own interests. Ours he will further only in so far as their preservation can serve as a means to his own ends. For a nation so ruined, fear and hope are henceforth completely destroyed, because control over them has now slipped from her hands, and because she herself indeed has to fear and hope, but no one henceforth either fears her or hopes for aught from her. There remains nothing for her but to find an entirely different and new binding tie that is superior to fear and hope, in order to link up the welfare of her whole being with the self-interest of each of her members.

7. Above the material motive of fear or hope, and bordering immediately upon it, there is the spiritual motive of moral approval or disapproval, and the higher feeling of pleasure or displeasure at the condition of ourselves and of others. The physical eye, when accustomed to cleanliness and order, is troubled and distressed, as though actually hurt, by a spot which indeed causes the body no actual injury, or by the sight of objects lying in chaotic confusion; while the eye accustomed to dirt and disorder is quite comfortable under such circumstances. So, too, the inner mental eye of man can be so accustomed and trained that the very sight of a muddled and disorderly, unworthy and dishonourable existence of its own or of a kindred race causes it intense pain, apart from anything there may be to fear or to hope from this for its own material welfare. This pain, apart again from material fear or hope, permits the possessor of such an eye no rest until he has removed, in so far as he can, this condition which displeases him, and has set in its place that which alone can please him. For the possessor of such an eye, because of this stimulating feeling of approval or disapproval, the welfare of his whole environment is bound up inextricably with the welfare of his own wider self, which is conscious of itself only as part of the whole and can endure itself only when the whole is pleasing. To educate itself to possess such an eye will, therefore, be a sure means, and indeed the only means left to a nation which has lost her independence and with it all influence over public fear and hope, of rising again into life from the destruction she has suffered, and of entrusting her national welfare, which since her downfall neither God nor man has heeded, with confidence to this new and higher feeling that has arisen. It follows, then, that the means of salvation which I promised to indicate consists in the fashioning of an entirely new self, which may have existed before perhaps in individuals as an exception, but never as a universal and national self, and in the education of the nation, whose former life has died out and become the supplement of an alien life, to a completely new life, which shall either remain her exclusive possession or, if it must go forth from her to others, shall at least continue whole and undiminished in spite of infinite division. In a word, it is a total change of the existing system of education that I propose as the sole means of preserving the existence of the German nation.

8. That children must be given a good education has been said often enough, and has been repeated too often even in our age; and it would be a paltry thing if we, too, for our part wished to do nothing but say it once again. Rather will it be our duty, in so far as we think we can accomplish something new, to investigate carefully and definitely what education hitherto has really lacked, and to suggest what completely new element a reformed system must add to the training that has hitherto existed. After such an investigation we must admit that the existing education does not fail to bring before the eyes of the pupils some sort of picture of a religious, moral, and law-abiding disposition and of order in all things and good habits, and also that here and there it has faithfully exhorted them to copy such pictures in their lives. With very rare exceptions, however—and these were, moreover, not the outcome of this education (because otherwise they must have appeared, and that too as the rule, amongst all who received such instruction), but were occasioned by other causes—with these very rare exceptions, I say, the pupils of this education have in general followed, not those moral ideas and exhortations, but the impulses of self-seeking which developed in them spontaneously and without any assistance from education. This proves beyond dispute that the system may, indeed, have been able to fill the memory with some words and phrases and the cold and indifferent imagination with some faint and feeble pictures; but that it has never succeeded in making its picture of a moral world-order so vivid that the pupil was filled with passionate love and yearning for that order, and with such glowing emotion as to incite him to realize it in his life—emotion before which self-seeking falls to the ground like withered leaves. It also proves this education to have been far from reaching right down to the roots of real impulse and action in life, and from training them; for these roots, neglected by this blind and impotent system, have everywhere developed wild, as best they could, yielding good fruit in a few who were inspired by God, but evil fruit in the majority. It is for the present, then, quite sufficient to describe this education by these its results, and for our purpose we can spare ourselves the wearisome task of analysing the inner sap and fibre of a tree whose fruit is now fully ripe and lies fallen before the eyes of all, proclaiming most clearly and distinctly the inner nature of its creator. Strictly speaking, according to this view, the present system has been by no means the art of educating men. This, indeed, it has not boasted of doing, but has very often frankly acknowledged its impotence by demanding to be given natural talent or genius as the condition of its success. Rather does such an art remain to be discovered, and this discovery should be the real task of the new education. What was lacking in the old system—namely, an influence penetrating to the roots of vital impulse and action—the new education must supply. Accordingly, as the old system was able at best to train some part of man, so the new must train man himself, and must make the training given, not, as hitherto, the pupil’s possession, but an integral part of himself.

9. Moreover, education, restricted in this way, has been brought to bear hitherto only on the very small minority of classes which are for this reason called educated, whereas the great majority on whom in very truth the commonwealth rests, the people, have been almost entirely neglected by this system and abandoned to blind chance. By means of the new education we want to mould the Germans into a corporate body, which shall be stimulated and animated in all its individual members by the same interest. If by this means we wanted, indeed, to mark off an educated class, which might perhaps be animated by the newly developed motive of moral approval, from an uneducated one, then the latter would desert us and be lost to us; because the motives of hope and fear, by which alone influence might be exercised over it, would work no longer with us but against us. So there is nothing left for us but just to apply the new system to every German without exception, so that it is not the education of a single class, but the education of the nation, simply as such and without excepting any of its individual members. In this, that is to say in the training of man to take real pleasure in what is right, all distinction of classes, which may in the future find a place in other branches of development, will be completely removed and vanish. In this way there will grow up among us, not popular education, but real German national education.

10. I shall prove to you that a system of education such as we desire has actually been discovered and is already being practised, so that we have nothing to do but to accept what is offered us. As I promised you concerning the means of salvation that I should propose, this demands undoubtedly no greater amount of energy than can reasonably be expected of our generation. To that promise I added another, namely, that so far as danger is concerned there is none at all in our proposal, because the self-interest of the power that rules over us demands that the carrying-out of such a proposal should be assisted rather than hindered. I consider it appropriate to speak my mind clearly on this point at once in this first address.

It is true that in ancient as in modern times the arts of corrupting and of morally degrading the conquered have very frequently been used with success as a means of ruling. By lying fictions, and by skilful confusion of ideas and of language, princes have been libelled to the people, and peoples to princes, in order that the two parties, because of their dissension, might the more surely be controlled. All the impulses of vanity and of self-interest have been cunningly aroused and fostered, so as to make the conquered contemptible, and thus to crush them with something like a good conscience. But it would be a fatal error to propose this method with us Germans. Apart from the tie of fear and hope, the coherence of that part of the outside world with which we have now come into contact is founded on the motives of honour and of national glory. The clear vision of the German, however, has long since come to the unshakable conviction that these are empty illusions, and that no injury or mutilation of the individual is healed by the glory of the whole nation, and we shall indeed, if a wider view of life be not brought before us, probably become dangerous preachers of this very natural and attractive doctrine. Without, therefore, taking to ourselves any new corruption, we are already in our natural condition a harmful prey; only by carrying out the proposal that has been made can we become a wholesome one. Then the outside world, as certainly as it knows its own interests, will be guided by them, and prefer to have us in the latter state rather than in the former.

11. Now in making this proposal my address is directed especially towards the educated classes in Germany, for I hope that it will be intelligible to them first. My proposal is first and foremost that they become the authors of this new creation, thereby, on the one hand, reconciling the world to their former influence, and, on the other, deserving its continuance in the future. We shall see in the course of these addresses that up to the present all human progress in the German nation has sprung from the people, and that to it, in the first instance, great national affairs have always been brought, and by it have been cared for and furthered. Now, for the first time, therefore, it happens that the fundamental reconstruction of the nation is offered as a task to the educated classes, and if they were really to accept this offer, that, too, would happen for the first time. We shall find that these classes cannot calculate how long it will still remain in their power to place themselves at the head of this movement, since it is now almost prepared and ripe for proposal to the people, and is being practised on individuals from among the people; and the people will soon be able to help themselves without any assistance from us. The result of this for us will simply be that the present educated classes and their descendants will become the people; while from among the present people another more highly educated class will arise.

12. Finally, it is the general aim of these addresses to bring courage and hope to the suffering, to proclaim joy in the midst of deep sorrow, to lead us gently and softly through the hour of deep affliction. This age is to me as a shade that stands weeping over its own corpse, from which it has been driven forth by a host of diseases, unable to tear its gaze from the form so beloved of old, and trying in despair every means to enter again the home of pestilence. Already, it is true, the quickening breezes of that other world, which the departed soul has entered, have taken it unto themselves and are surrounding it with the warm breath of love; the whispering voices of its sisters greet it with joy and bid it welcome; and already in its depths it stirs and grows in all directions towards the more glorious form into which it shall develop. But as yet the soul has no feeling for these breezes, no ear for these voices—or if it had them, they have disappeared in sorrow for the loss of mortal form; for with its form the soul thinks it has lost itself too. What is to be done with it? The dawn of the new world is already past its breaking; already it gilds the mountain tops, and shadows forth the coming day. I wish, so far as in me lies, to catch the rays of this dawn and weave them into a mirror, in which our grief-stricken age may see itself; so that it may believe in its own existence, may perceive its real self, and, as in prophetic vision, may see pass by its own development, its coming forms. In the contemplation of this, the picture of its former life will doubtless sink and vanish; and the dead body may be borne to its resting-place without undue lamenting.


  1. [In accordance with his fundamental conception that the aim of human life on earth is that mankind may consciously and voluntarily order all its relations according to reason, Fichte distinguishes five epochs in the life of the human race: (1) that in which those relations are ordered by reason acting in the human race as blind instinct, i.e., without man having any insight into the grounds of its activity; (2) that in which those relations are ordered by reason acting as an external ruling authority upon the human race through its more powerful individual members, in whom reason appears as the desire to raise the whole race to their level by compelling blind faith and unconditional obedience; (3) that in which mankind frees itself, directly from the rule of reason as an external ruling authority, indirectly from the dominion of reason as instinct, and generally from reason in any form, and gives itself over to absolute indifference towards all truth and to unrestrained licentiousness; (4) that in which mankind becomes conscious of reason and understands its laws with clear scientific knowledge; (5) that in which mankind, with clear consciousness and by its own free act, orders all its relations in accordance with the laws of reason. See Lectures I. and II. on the Characteristics of the Present Age in Smith’s translation of Fichte’s Popular Works.]