On the Nature of the Scholar/Lecture 2

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On the Nature of the Scholar by Johann Gottlieb Fichte
Lecture II.'. Closer Definition of the Meaning of the Divine Idea

The following were the principles which we laid down in our last lecture as the grounds of our investigation into the Nature of Scholar.

The Universe is not, in deed and truth, that which it seems to be to the uncultivated and natural sense of man; but it is something higher, which lies behind mere natural appearance. In its widest sense, this foundation of all appearance may be aptly named the Divine Idea of the world. A certain part of the meaning of this Divine Idea is accessible to, and conceivable by, the cultivated mind.

We said at the close of last lecture, that this as yet obscure conception of a Divine Idea, as the ultimate and absolute foundation of all appearance, should afterwards become quite clear and intelligible by means of its subsequent applications.

Nevertheless we find it desirable, in the first place, to define this conception more closely in the abstract, and to this purpose we shall devote the present lecture. To this end we lay down the following principles, which, so far as we are concerned, are the results of deep and formal investigation, and are perfectly demonstrable in themselves, but which we can here communicate to you only historically, calculating with confidence on your own natural sense of truth to confirm our principles even without perfect insight into their fundamental basis; and also on your observing that by principles thus laid down the most important questions are answered, and the most searching doubts solved.

We lay down, then, the following principles:—

1. Being, strictly and absolutely considered, is living and essentially active. There is no other Being than Life;—it cannot be dead, rigid, inert. What death, that constantly recurririg phenomenon, really is, and how it is connected with the only true Being—with Life,—we shall see more clearly afterwards.

2. The only Life which exists entirely in itself, from itself, and by itself, is the Life of God, or of the Absolute;—which two words mean one and the same thing; so that when we say the Life of the Absolute, we use only a form of expression, since in truth the Absolute is Life, and Life is the Absolute.

3. This Divine Life lies entirely hidden in itself;—it has its dwelling within itself, and abides there completely realized in, and accessible only to, itself. It is—all Being, and besides it there is no Being. It is therefore wholly without change or variation.

4. Now this Divine Life discloses itself, appears, becomes visible, manifests itself as such—as the Divine Life: and this its Manifestation, presence, or outward existence, is the World. Strictly speaking, it manifests itself as it essentially and really is, and cannot manifest itself otherwise; and hence there is no groundless and arbitrary medium interposed between its true and essential nature and its outward Manifestation, in consequence of which it would be only in part revealed and in part remain concealed; but its Manifestation, i.e. the World, is fashioned and unchangeably determined by two conditions only; namely, by the essential nature of the Divine Life itself, and by the unvarying and absolute laws of a revelation or Manifestation abstractly considered. God reveals himself as God can reveal himself: His whole, in itself essentially inconceivable, Being comes forth entire and undivided, in so far as it can come forth in any mere Manifestation.

5. The Divine Life in itself is absolute self-comprehending unity, without change or variableness, as we said above. In its Manifestation, for a reason which is quite conceivable although not here set forth, it becomes a self-developing existence, eternally unfolding itself, and ever advancing towards higher realization in an endless stream of time. In the first place, it continues in this Manifestation, as we said, to be life. Life cannot be manifested in death, for these two are altogether opposed to each other; and hence, as Absolute Being alone is life, so the only true Manifestation of that Being is living existence, and death has neither a real, nor, in the highest sense of the word, has it even a relative existence. This living and visible Manifestation we call the human race. The human race is thus the only true finite existence. As Being—Absolute Being—constitutes the Divine Life, and is wholly exhausted therein, so does Existence in Time, or the Manifestation of that Divine Life, constitute the whole united life of mankind, and is thoroughly and entirely exhausted therein. Thus, in its Manifestation the Divine Life becomes a continually progressive existence, unfolding in perpetual growth according to the degree of inward activity and power which belongs to it. Hence,—and the consequence is an important one,—hence the Manifestation of Life in Time, unlike the Divine Life, is limited at every point of its existence,—i.e. it is in part not living, not yet interpenetrated by life, but in so far—dead. These limitations it must gradually break through, lay aside, and transform into life, in its onward progress.

In this view of the limitations which surround Existence in Time, we have, when it is thoroughly laid hold of, the conception of the objective and material world, or what we call Nature. This is not living and capable of infinite growth like Reason; but dead,—a rigid, self-contained existence. It is this which, arresting and hemming in the Time-Life, by this hindrance alone spreads over a longer or shorter period of time what would otherwise burst forth at once, a perfect and complete life. Further, in the development of spiritual existence, Nature itself is gradually interpenetrated by life; and it is thus both the obstacle to, and the sphere of, that activity and outward manifestation of power in which human life eternally unfolds itself.

This, and absolutely nothing more than this, is Nature in the most extended meaning of the word; and even man himself, in so far as his existence is limited in comparison with the original and Divine Life, is nothing more than this. Since the perpetual advancement of this second life,—not original, but derived and human,—and also its finitude and limitation in order that such advancement may be so much as possible,—both proceed from the self-manifestation of the Absolute, so Nature also has its foundation in God,—not indeed as something that is and ought to be for its own sake alone, but only as the means and condition of another being,—of the Living Being in man,—and as something which shall be gradually and unceasingly superseded and displaced by the perpetual advancement of this being. Hence we must not be blinded or led astray by a philosophy assuming the name of natural,[1] which pretends to excel all former philosophy by striving to elevate Nature into Absolute Being, and into the place of God. In all ages, the theoretical errors as well as the moral corruptions of humanity have arisen from falsely bestowing the name of life on that which in itself possesses neither absolute nor even finite being, and seeking for life and its enjoyment in that which in itself is dead. Very far therefore from being a step towards truth, that philosophy is but a return to old and already most widely spread error.

6. All truth contained in the principles which we have now laid down may be perceived by man, who himself is the Manifestation of the Original and Divine Life, in its general aspect, as we for example, have now perceived it,—either through rational conviction, or only from being led to it by an obscure feeling or sense of truth, or from finding it probable because it furnishes a complete solution of the most important problems. Man may perceive it; that is, the Manifestation may fall back on its Original, and picture it forth in reflection with absolute certainty as to the fact; but it can by no means analyse and comprehend it fully, for the Manifestation ever remains only, a Manifestation, and can never go beyond itself and return to Absolute Being.

7. We have said that man may perceive this in so far as regards the fact, but he cannot perceive the reason and origin of the fact. How and why from the Divine Life, this and no other Time-Life arises and constantly flows forth, can be understood by man only on condition of fully comprehending all the parts of this latter, and interpreting them all, one by the other, mutually and completely, so as to reduce them once more to a single idea, and that idea equivalent to the one Divine Life. But this forth-flowing Time-Life is infinite, and hence the comprehension of its parts can never be completed: besides, the comprehender is himself a portion of it, and at every conceivable point of time he himself stands chained in the finite and limited, which he can never throw off without ceasing to be Manifestation,—without being himself transformed into the Divine Life.

8. From this it seems to follow, that the Time-Life can be conceived of by thought only as a whole, and according to its general nature,—i.e. as we have endeavoured to conceive of it above,—and then as a Manifestation of the one Original and Divine Life;—but that its details must be immediately felt and experienced in their individual import, and can only by and through this Experience be imaged forth in thought and consciousness. And such is actually the case in a certain respect and with a certain portion of human life. Throughout all time, and in every individual part of it, there remains in human life something which does not entirely reveal itself in Idea, and which therefore cannot be anticipated or superseded by any Idea, but which must be directly felt if it is ever to attain a place in consciousness;—and this is called the domain of pure empiricism or Experience. The abovementioned philosophy errs in this,—that it pretends to have resolved human life entirely into Idea, and thus wholly superseded Experience; instead of which, it defeats its own purpose, and in attempting to explain life completely, loses sight of it altogether.

9. I said that such was the case with the Time-Life in a certain respect and with a certain portion of it. For in another respect and with another portion of it, the case is quite otherwise,—and that on the following ground, which I shall here only indicate in popular phraseology, but which is well worthy of deeper investigation.

The Time-Life does not enter into Time in individual parts only, but also in entire homogeneous masses; and it is these masses, again, which divide themselves into the individual parts of actual life. There is not only Time, but there are times, and succession of times, epoch after epoch, and age succeeding age. Thus, for example, to the deeper thought of man, the entire Earthly Life of the human race, as it now exists, is such a homogeneous mass, projected at once into Time, and ever present there, whole and undivided,—only as regards sensuous appearance spread out into world-history. When these homogeneous masses have appeared in Time, the general laws and rules by which they are governed may be comprehended, and, in relation to the whole course of these masses, anticipated and understood; while the obstacles over which they take their way—that is, the hindrances and obstructions of life—are only accessible to immediate Experience.

10. These cognizable laws of homogeneous masses of Life, which may be perceived and understood prior to their actual consequences, must necessarily appear as laws of Life itself, as it ought to be, and as it should strive to become, founded on the self-supporting and independent principle of this Time-Life, which must here appear as Freedom:—hence, as laws for the free action and conduct of the living being. If we go back to the source of this legislation, we shall find that it lies in the Divine Life itself, which could not reveal itself in Time otherwise than under this form of a law; and, indeed, as is implied in the preceding ideas, nowise as a law ruling with blind power and extorting obedience by force, such as we assume in passive and inanimate nature,—but as the law of a Life which is conscious of its own independence, and cannot be deprived of it, without at the same time tearing up the very root of its being; hence, as we said above, as a Divine Law of Freedom, or Moral Law.

Further, as we have already seen, this life according to the law of the original Divine Life, is the only True Life and ground of all other; all things else besides this Life are but hindrances and obstructions thereto, existing only that by them the True Life may be unfolded and manifested in its strength:—hence, all things else have no existence for their own sakes, but only as means for the development of the True Life. Reason can comprehend the connexion between means and end only by supposing a mind in which the end has been determined. The thoroughly moral Human Life has its source in God: by analogy with our own understanding we conceive of God as proposing to himself the moral Life of man as the sole purpose for which He has manifested himself and called into existence every other thing; not that it is absolutely thus as we conceive of it, and that God really thinks like man, and that Existence itself is in him distinguished from the conception of Existence,—but we think thus only because we are unable otherwise to comprehend the relation between the Divine and the Human Life. And in this absolutely necessary mode of thought, Human Life as it ought to be becomes the idea and fundamental conception of God in the creation of a world,—the purpose and the plan which God intended to fulfil by the creation of the world.

And thus it is sufficiently explained for our present purpose how the Divine Idea, lies at the foundation of the actual world, and how, and how far, this Idea, hidden from the common eye, may become conceivable and attainable by cultivated thought, and necessarily appear to it as that which man by his free activity ought to manifest in the world.

Let us not forthwith restrict our conception of this ought,—this free act of man, to the familiar categorical imperative, and to the narrow and paltry applications of it which are given in our common systems of Morality,—such applications as must necessarily be made by such a science. Almost invariably, and that from causes well founded in the laws of philosophical abstraction through which systems of Morality are produced, it has been usual to dwell at greatest length on the mere form of Morality,—to inculcate simply and solely obedience to the commandment;—and even when our moralists have proceeded to its substance, still their chief aim seems to have been to induce men to cease from doing evil, rather than to persuade them to do good. Indeed, in any system of human duties, it is necessary to maintain such a generality of expression that the rules may be equally applicable to all men, and for this reason to point out more clearly what man ought not to do, than what he ought to do. This, too, is the Divine Idea,—but only in its remote and borrowed shape—not in its fresh originality. The original Divine Idea of any particular point of time remains for the most part unexpressed until the God-inspired man appears and declares it. What the Divine Man does, that is divine. In general, the original and pure Divine Idea that which he who is immediately inspired of God should do and actually does—is (with reference to the visible world) creative, producing the new, the unheard-of, the original. The impulse of mere natural existence leads us to abide in the old, and even when the Divine Idea is associated with it, it aims at the maintenance of whatever has hitherto seemed good, or at most to petty improvements upon it; but where the Divine Idea attains an existence pure from the admixture of natural impulse, there it builds new worlds upon the ruins of the old. All things new, great, and beautiful, which have appeared in the world since its beginning, and those which shall appear until its end, have appeared and shall appear through the Divine Idea, partially expressed in the chosen ones of our race.

And thus, as the Life of Man is the only immediate implement and organ of the Divine Idea in the visible world, so is it also the first and immediate object of its activity. The progressive Culture of the human race is the object of the Divine Idea, and of those in whom that Idea dwells. This last view makes it possible for us to separate the Divine Idea into its various modes of action, or to conceive of the one indivisible Idea as several.

First,—In the actual world, the Life of Man, which is in truth essentially one and indivisble, is divided into the life of many proximate individuals, each of whom possesses freedom and independence. This division is an arrangement of nature, and hence is a hindrance or obstruction to the True Life,—and exists only in order that through it, and in conflict with it, that unity of Life which is demanded by the Divine Idea may freely fashion itself. Human Life has been divided by nature into many parts, in order that it may form itself to unity, and that all the separate individuals who compose it may through Life itself blend themselves together into oneness of mind. In the original state of nature, the various wills of these individuals, and the different powers which they call into play, mutually oppose and hinder each other. It is not so in the Divine Idea, and it shall not continue so in the visible world. The first interposing power (not founded in nature, but subsequently introduced into the world by a new creation) on which this strife of individual powers must break and expend itself until it shall entirely disappear in a general morality, is the founding of States, and of just relations between them; in short, all those institutions by which individual powers, single or united, have each their proper sphere assigned to them, to which they are confined, but in which at the same time they are secured against all foreign aggression. This institution lay in the Divine Idea; it was introduced into the world by inspired men in their efforts for the realization of the Divine Idea; by these efforts it will be maintained in the world, and constantly improved until it attain perfection.

Secondly,—This Race of Man, thus raising itself through internal strife to internal unity, is surrounded by an inert and passive Nature, by which its free life is constantly hindered, threatened, and confined. So it must be, in order that this Life may attain such unity by its own free effort; and thus, according to the Divine Idea, must this strength and independence of the sensuous life, progressively and gradually unfold itself. To that end it is necessary that the powers of Nature be subjected to human ends, and (in order that this subjection may be possible) that man should be acquainted with the laws by which these powers act, and be able to calculate beforehand the course of their operations. Moreover, Nature is not designed merely to be useful and profitable to man, but also to become his fitting companion, bearing the impress of his higher dignity, and reflecting it in radiant characters on every side. This dominion over Nature lies in the Divine Idea, and is ceaselessly extended by the power of that Idea through the agency of all in whom it dwells.

Lastly,—Man is not placed in the world of sense alone, but the essential root of his being is, as we have seen, in God. Hurried along by sense and its impulses, the knowledge of this Life in God may readily be concealed from him, and then, however noble may be his nature, he lives in strife and disunion with himself, in discord and unhappiness, without true dignity and enjoyment of Life. Only when the consciousness of the true source of his existence first rises upon him, and he joyfully resigns himself to it till his being is steeped in the thought, do peace, joy, and blessedness flow in upon his soul. And it lies in the Divine Idea that all men must come to this gladdening consciousness,—that the otherwise aimless Finite Life may thus be pervaded by the Infinite and so enjoyed; and to this end all who have been filled with the Divine Idea have laboured and shall still labour, that this consciousness in its purest possible form may be spread throughout the race of man.

The modes of activity which we have indicated,—Legislation,—Science (knowledge of nature—power over nature)—Religion,—are those in which the Divine Idea most commonly reveals and manifests itself through man in the world of sense. It is obvious that each of these chief branches has also its separate parts, in each of which, individually, the Idea may he revealed. Add to these the Knowledge of the Divine Idea,—knowledge that there is such a Divine Idea, as well as knowledge of its import, either in whole or in some of its parts,—and further, the Art or Skill actually to make manifest in the world the Idea which is thus clearly recognised and understood,—both of which, however,—Knowledge and Art—can be acquired only through the immediate impulse of the Divine Idea,—and then we have the five great modes in which the Idea reveals itself in man.

That mode of culture by which, in the view of any age, a man may attain to the possession of this Idea or these Ideas, we have named the Learned Culture of that age; and those who, by this culture, do actually attain the desired possession, we have named the Scholars of the age;—and from what we have said to-day you will be able more easily to recognise the truth of our position, to refer back to it the different branches of knowledge recognised among men, or to deduce them from it; and thus test our principle by its applications.

  1. Schelling's "Natur-Philosophie" is here referred to.