The Dignity of Man

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The Dignity of Man  (1794) 
by Johann Gottlieb Fichte, translated by Adolph Ernst Kroeger

Original title: Ueber die Würde des Menschen (1794).


Speech delivered by Fichte at the close of the foregoing Series of Lectures on the Science of Knowledge.

We have completed the survey of the human mind; we have created a foundation, upon which a scientific system, as the correct representation of the original system in man, may be built. In conclusion, let us take a glance at the whole.

Philosophy teaches us to look for every thing in knowledge—in the Ego. Only through it is order and harmony brought into the dead, formless matter. From man alone does regularity proceed, and extend around him to the boundary of his perception; and in proportion as he extends this boundary are order and harmony also extended. His observation marks out for each object of the infinite diversity its proper place, so that no one may crowd out the other, and brings unity into this infinite variety. By his observations are the heavenly bodies kept together, and form but one organized body; by it the suns move in their appointed courses. Through reason there arises the immense gradation from the worm to the seraph; in it is hidden the system of the whole spirit-world; and man expects justly that the law, which he gives it and himself, shall be applicable to it; expects justly the future universal acknowledgment of that law. In reason we have the sure guarantee that from it there will proceed, in infinite development, order and harmony, where at present none yet exists; that the culture of the universe will progress simultaneously with the advancing culture of mankind. All that is still unshaped and orderless will, through man, develop into the most beautiful order, and that which is already harmonious will become ever more harmonious, according to laws not yet developed. Man will extend order into the shapeless mass, and a plan into universal chaos; through him will corruption form a new creation, and death call to another glorious life.

Such is man, if we merely view him as an observing intelligence; how much greater if we think him as a practical, active faculty? Not only does he apply the necessary order to existing things. He gives them also that order which he selected voluntarily, wherever his footsteps led him. Nature awakens wherever his eyes are cast; she prepares herself to receive from him the new, brighter creation. Even his body is the most spiritualized that could be formed from the matter surrounding him. In his atmosphere the air becomes softer, the climate milder, and nature assumes a brighter smile from the expectation to be changed by him into a dwelling-place and a nurse of living beings. Man commands coarse matter to organize itself according to his ideal, and to furnish him the substance which he needs. What was formerly dead and cold arises at his command from the earth into the nourishing corn, the refreshing fruit, and the animating grape, and will arise into other things as soon as he shall command otherwise. In his sphere the animals become ennobled, cast aside under his intelligent eye their primitive wildness, and receive healthier nourishment from the hand of their master, which they repay by willing obedience.

Still more: around man souls become ennobled; the more a man is a man the more deeply and extensively does he influence men; whatsoever carries the stamp of pure humanity will never be misapprehended by mankind; every human mind, every human heart opens to each pure outflow of humanity. Around the nobler man his fellow-beings form a circle, in which he approaches nearest to the centre who has the greatest humanity. Their souls strive and labor to unite with each other to form but one soul in many bodies. All are one reason and one will, and appear as co-laborers in the great, only possible destination of mankind. The higher man draws by force his age upon a higher step of humanity; the age looks back and is astonished at the gap over which it has leaped; the higher man tears with giant arms whatever he can seize from the year-book of the human race.

Break the hut of clay in which he lives! In his being he is independent of all that is outward; he is simply through himself; and even in that hut of clay he is occasionally, in the hours of his exaltation, seized with a knowledge of this his real existence; in those hours, when time and space and every thing that is not himself vanish, when his soul tears itself by force from his body—returning to it afterward voluntarily in order to carry out those designs, which it would like to carry out yet by means of that body. Separate the two last neighboring atoms, which at present surround him, and he will still be; and he will be, because it will be his will to be. He is eternal through himself, and by his own power.

Oppose, frustrate his plans! You may delay them; but what are thousand and thousand times thousand years in the year-book of mankind?—a light morning dream when we awake. He continues and he continues to act, and that which appears to you as his disappearance is but an extension of his sphere; what you look upon as death is but ripening for a higher life. The colors of his plans, and the outward forms of them may vanish to him, but his plan remains the same, and in every moment of his existence he tears something from the outward into his own circle; and he will continue thus to tear unto himself until he has devoured every thing; until all matter shall bear the impress of his influence, and all spirits shall form one spirit with his spirit.

Such is man; such is every one who can say to himself: I am man. Should he not then carry within him a holy self-reverence, and shudder and tremble at his own majesty? Such is every one who can say to me: I am. Wherever thou mayest live, thou, who carryest but a human face; whether thou plantest sugar-cane under the rod of the overseer, as yet scarcely distinguishable from the brute creation; or whether thou warmest thyself on the shores of the Fireland at the flame, which thou didst not kindle, until it expires, and weepest bitterly because it will not keep burning by itself; or whether thou appearest to me the most miserable and degraded villain, thou art, nevertheless, what I am; for thou canst say to me: I am. Thou art, nevertheless, my comrade and my brother. Ah! at one time surely I also stood on that step of humanity on which thou now standest—for it is a step of humanity, and there is no gap in the development of its members—perhaps without the faculty of clear consciousness, perhaps hurrying over it so quickly that I had not time to become conscious of my condition; but I certainly stood there also at one time—and thou wilt also stand certainly at some time, even though it lasted million and million times million years—for what is time?—upon the same step on which I now stand; and thou wilt surely at some time stand upon a step, where I can influence thee and thou me. Thou also wilt at some time be drawn into my circle, and wilt draw me into thine. Thee also will I recognize at some time as my co-laborer in my great plan. Such is to me, who am I, every one, who is I. Should I not tremble at the majesty in the form of man, and at the divinity which resides in the temple that bears his impress, though perhaps concealed in mysterious darkness?

Earth and heaven and time and space, and all the limits of materiality, vanish in my sight at this thought, and should not the individual vanish? I shall not conduct you back to him.

All individuals are included in the one great unity of pure spirit. Let this be the last word with which I recommend myself to your remembrance, and the remembrance to which I recommend myself to you.

Copyright.svg PD-icon.svg This work is a translation and has a separate copyright status to the applicable copyright protections of the original content.

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.


This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.