Egotism in German Philosophy/Chapter VII

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Egotism in German Philosophy by George Santayana
Chapter VII. Fichte on the Mission of Germany
fichte on the mission of germany

When the ancient Jews enlarged their conception of Jehovah so as to recognise in him the only living God to whom all nature and history were subject, they did not cease to regard the universal power as at the same time their special national deity. Here was a latent contradiction. It was ingeniously removed by saying that Jehovah, while not essentially a tribal deity, had chosen Israel for his people by a free act of grace with no previous merit on their part; so that the pride of the Jews was not without humility.

No humility, however, is mingled with the claim which the Germans now make to a similar preeminence. “Modern critics,” says Max Stirner, “inveigh against religion because it sets up God, the divine, or the moral law over against man, regarding them as external things, whereas the critics transform all these objects into ideas in the human mind. Nevertheless the essential mistake of religion, to assign a mission to man at all, is not avoided by these critics, who continue to insist that man shall be divine, or ideally human, or what not; morality, freedom, humanity, etc., are his essence.” Now a divinity which is subjective or immanent evidently cannot choose any nation, save by dwelling and manifesting itself more particularly in them. They can be highly favoured only in that they are intrinsically superior, and on that account may be figuratively called vessels of election. Therefore, if the spirit which is in a nation is not one spirit among many in the world (as the primitive Hebrews supposed and as a naturalistic philosophy would maintain), but is the one holy and universal spirit, and if at the same time this spirit dwells in that nation preeminently, or even exclusively, humility on the part of this nation would evidently be out of place. Accordingly, the Germans cannot help bearing witness to the divine virtues and prerogatives which they find in themselves, some of which are set forth by Fichte as follows:

The present age stands precisely in the middle of earthly time, between the era in which men were still self-seeking, earthly, and impulsive, and the coming era in which they will live for the sake of pure ideals. The Germans prefigure this better age, and are leading the rest of the world into it. They have created the modern world by uniting the political heritage of classical Europe with the true religion that lingered in Asia, and they have raised the two to a higher unity in their Kultur. From them is drawn the best blood of most other nations and the spiritual force that has fashioned them all.

The Germans have never forsaken their native land nor suffered seriously from immigration. Their language is primitive, and they have never exchanged it for a foreign one. Hence German alone is truly a mother-tongue. Its intellectual terms retain a vital and vivid connection with sensible experience. True poetry and philosophy, therefore, exist only in German. Captious persons who judge by mere crude feeling may fancy that German is not very melodious; but these matters cannot be rightly judged without reference to first principles, which in this case would prove that the sweetest language is that which exhausts all possible sounds and combines them in all available ways. Whether German or some other language comes nearest to this a priori ideal of euphony must be left for empirical observation to decide.

The German nature, being pure, deep, earnest, and bold, has instinctively seized upon the true essence of Christianity and discarded with abhorrence all the lies and corruption that obscured it. This essence is the imperative need of turning from the natural to the ideal life. The German knows that his own soul is safe; but this is not enough for him in his unselfishness. His zeal is kindled easily for warmth and light everywhere; and this zeal of his is patient and efficacious, taking hold on real life and transforming it. As he presses on he finds more than he sought, for he has plunged into the quick stream of life which forges ahead of itself and carries him forward with it. The dead heart of other nations may dream of gods in the clouds, or of some perfect type of human life already exemplified in the past and only to be approached or repeated in the future. The spirit of the German is no coinage of earth; it is the living source of all the suns, and rushes to create absolutely new things for ever. The German mind is the self-consciousness of God.

I do not see that the strain of war or the intoxication of victory could add much to these boasts, uttered by Fichte when, for the moment, he had abandoned all hope of military self-assertion on the part of his country, and relied on education and philosophy alone to preserve and propagate German righteousness. Even in detail, what he says often seems strangely like what official Germany is now saying. Even the hysterical hatred of England is not absent. In England Fichte did not see the champion of Protestantism, morality, and political liberty, nor the constant foe of Napoleon, but only a universal commercial vampire. His contempt for the Latin races, too, was boundless. In the matter of race, indeed, he entertained a curious idea that there must have been, from all eternity until the beginning of history, a primitive Normal People, a tribe of Adams and Eves; because according to a principle which he adopted from Calvinistic theology, if all men had been originally slaves to nature none could ever have become free. This Normal People were, of course, the ancestors of the Germans. Earthborn savage tribes must have existed also for the Normal People to subdue, since but for some such conquest the primitive equilibrium would never have been broken, Eden and the jungle would never have been merged together, and history, which is a record of novelties, would never have begun. The theory of evolution has rendered the reasons for such a view obsolete; but the idea that the bulk of mankind are mongrels formed by the union of blonde god-like creatures with some sort of anthropoid blacks, recurred later in Gobineau and has had a certain vogue in Germany.

Fichte, following Calvin and Kant, made a very sharp distinction between the life of nature and that of duty. The ideal must be pursued without the least thought of advantage. Trades, he says, must be practised spontaneously, without any other reward than longer vigils. The young must never hear it mentioned that any one could ever be incited or guided in life by the thought of his own preservation or well-being. Knowledge is no report of existing things or laws which have happened to be discovered. Knowledge is the very life of God, and self-generated. It is “an intellectual activity for its own sake, according to rules for their own sake.” In plain English, it is pure imagination. But the method to be imposed on this madness is fixed innately, both for thought and for morals. Only frivolity can interfere with a unanimous idealism.

We must not suppose that this prescription of austere and abstract aims implies any aversion on Fichte’s part to material progress, compulsory Kultur, or military conquest. German idealism, as we have seen, is not Platonic or ascetic, that it should leave the world behind. On the contrary, its mission is to consecrate the world and show that every part of it is an organ of the spirit. This is a form of piety akin to the Hebraic. Even the strictest Calvinists, who taught that the world was totally depraved, were able, in every sense of the phrase, to make a very good thing of it. They reclaimed, they appropriated, they almost enjoyed it. So Fichte gives us prophetic glimpses of an idealistic Germany conquering the world. The state does not aim at self-preservation, still less is it concerned to come to the aid of those members of the human family that lag behind the movement of the day. The dominion of unorganised physical force must be abolished by a force obedient to reason and spirit. True life consists in refashioning human relations after a model innate in the mind. The glorious destiny of Germany is to bring forth and establish the world anew. Natural freedom is a disgraceful thing, a mere medley of sensual and intellectual impulses without any principle of order. It is for the Germans to decide whether a providential progress exists by becoming themselves the providence that shall bring progress about, or whether on the contrary every higher thought is folly. If they should fail, history would never blame them, for in that case there would be no more history.

The sole animating principle of history is the tendency towards a universal Christian European monarchy. This tendency is deeper than the plans of men and stronger than their intentions. “That a state, even when on the very point of making war, should solemnly assert its love of peace and its aversion to conquest, is nothing; for in the first place it must needs make this asseveration and so hide its real intention if it would succeed in its design; and the well-known principle Threaten war that thou mayst have peace may also be inverted in this way: Promise peace that thou mayst begin war with advantage; and in the second place the state may be wholly in earnest in its peaceful assurances, so far as its self-knowledge has gone; but let the favourable opportunity for aggrandisement present itself, and the previous good resolution is forgotten.”

If the people are disinclined to obey the Idea, the government must constrain them to do so. All the powers of all the citizens must be absorbed in the state. Personal liberty could be turned to no good use when such individuality and variety of training as are good for the state have been provided for by its regulations. Nor must any idleness be tolerated. An ideal education must make men over so that they shall be incapable of willing anything but what that education wills them to will. The state may then rely upon its subjects, “for whoever has a well-grounded will, wills what he wills for all eternity.”

As to foreign relations, the state, in obedience to its ideal mission, must conquer the surrounding barbarians and raise them to a state of culture. It is this process almost exclusively that has introduced progress into history. “What impels the Macedonian hero . . . to seek foreign lands? What chains victory to his footsteps and scatters before him in terror the countless hordes of his enemies? Is this mere fortune? No; it is an Idea . . . The civilised must rule and the uncivilised must obey, if Right is to be the law of the world. . . . Tell me not of the thousands who fell round his path; speak not of his own early death. After the realisation of his Idea, what was there greater for him to do than to die?”

This enthusiasm for Alexander (which Hegel shared) is not merely retrospective. “At last in one nation of the world the highest, purest morality, such as was never seen before among men, will arise and will be made secure for all future time, and thence will be extended over all other peoples. There will ensue a transformation of the human race from earthly and sensual creatures into pure and noble spirits.” “Do you know anything higher than death? . . . Who has a right to stand in the way of an enterprise begun in the face of this peril?”

It may seem curious that an uncompromising puritan like Fichte, a prophet sprung from the people, a theoretical republican who quarrelled with his students for forming clubs and fighting duels, a fierce idealist full of contempt for worldlings, should have so perfectly supplied the Junkers and bankers with their philosophy. But the phenomenon is not new. Plato, divine and urbane as he was, supplied the dull Spartans with theirs. Men of idealistic faith are confident that the foundations of things must be divine, and when, upon investigating these foundations, they come upon sinister principles—blind impulse, chance, murderous competition—they fanatically erect these very principles into sacred maxims. All strength, they are antecedently convinced, must come from God; therefore if deception, wilfulness, tyranny, and big battalions are the means to power, they must be the chosen instruments of God on earth. In some such way the Catholic Church, too, for fear of impiety, is seen blessing many a form of deceit and oppression. Thus the most ardent speculation may come to sanction the most brutal practice. The primitive passions so sanctioned, because they seem to be safe and potent, are probably too narrowly organised to sustain themselves long; and meantime they miss and trample down the best things that mankind possesses. Nevertheless they are a force like any other, a force not only vehement but contagious, and capable of many victories though of no stable success. Such passions, and the philosophies that glorify them, are sincere, absorbing, and if frankly expressed irrefutable.

The transcendental theory of a world merely imagined by the ego, and the will that deems itself absolute are certainly desperate delusions; but not more desperate or deluded than many another system that millions have been brought to accept. The thing bears all the marks of a new religion. The fact that the established religions of Germany are still forms of Christianity may obscure the explicit and heathen character of the new faith: it passes for a somewhat faded speculation, or for the creed of a few extremists, when in reality it dominates the judgment and conduct of the nation. No religious tyranny could be more complete. It has its prophets in the great philosophers and historians of the last century; its high priests and pharisees in the government and the professors; its faithful flock in the disciplined mass of the nation; its heretics in the socialists; its dupes in the Catholics and the liberals, to both of whom the national creed, if they understood it, would be an abomination; it has its martyrs now by the million, and its victims among unbelievers are even more numerous, for its victims, in some degree, are all men.