The Vocation of the Scholar/Lecture 4

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The Vocation of the Scholar
by Johann Gottlieb Fichte
Lecture IV. The Vocation of the Scholar



I have to-day to speak of the Vocation of the Scholar. I stand in a peculiar relation to this subject. All, or most of you, have chosen knowledge as the business of your lives; and I have made the same choice:—all of you, I presume, apply your whole energies, to fill honourably the station to which you aspire; and I too have done and do the like. I have to speak as a Scholar, before future Scholars, of the Scholar’s vocation. I must examine the subject to its foundation; exhaust it, if I can; hold back nothing in my representation of the truth. And if I discover for the Scholar a vocation most honourable, most lofty, and distinguished above that of all other classes of men, how is it possible for me to lay it before you without exceeding the limits of modest expression, without seeming to undervalue other vocations, without being apparently blinded by self-conceit? But I speak as a philosopher, whose duty it is strictly to define all his ideas. I cannot exclude this idea from the system of which it is a necessary part. I dare not keep back any part of the truth which I recognise. It still remains true; and modesty itself is subordinate to it:—it is a false modesty which is violated by truth. Let us then consider our subject in the first place with indifference, as if it had no relation to ourselves: let us treat it as an idea belonging to a world quite foreign to our own. Let us on that account look with the greater strictness to our arguments. Let us never forget, what I hope I have already impressed upon you with some success, that every station in life is necessary; that each deserves our respect; that not the station itself, but the worthy fulfilment of its duties, does honour to a man; and that we only merit esteem the nearer we approach to the perfect performance of the duties assigned to us in the order of things; that therefore the Scholar has reason to be of all others the most modest, because an aim is set before him of which he must continually fall far short, because he has a most elevated ideal to reach, which commonly he approaches only at the greatest distance.

There are many tendencies and powers in man, and it is the vocation of each individual to cultivate all his powers, so far as he is able to do so. Among others is the social impulse; which offers him a new and peculiar form of cultivation, that for society, and affords an unusual facility for culture in general There is nothing prescribed to man on this subject; whether he shall cultivate all his faculties as a whole, unaided and by nature alone, or mediately through society. The first is difficult, and in no wise advances society; hence in the social state each individual rightfully selects his own part of the common culture, leaves the rest to his fellows, and expects that they will allow him to share the benefits of their culture, as he permits them to participate in the advantages of his own: and this is the origin and ground of the distinction of classes in society.

Such are the results arrived at in our previous discourses. For an arrangement of these different classes according to the ideas of Pure Reason, which is quite possible, a foundation must be sought in a complete enumeration of all the natural capacities and wants of man; not, however, of his merely artificial wants. A particular class in society may be devoted to the cultivation of each faculty, or, what is the same thing, to the satisfaction of each want founded on an original impulse in human nature. We reserve this inquiry for another occasion, that we may now enter upon one which lies nearer to us.

If a question should arise as to the perfection or imperfection of a state of society arranged on the principles which we have already propounded, (and every society does so arrange itself by the natural tendencies of man, without foreign guidance, as was shown in our inquiry into the origin of society), if, I say, such a question should arise, the answer to it would pre-suppose the solution of the following query: “Is the development and satisfaction of all the wants of man, and indeed the harmonious development and satisfaction of them all, provided for in the given state of society?” Is this provided for, then the society, as a society, is perfect; that is, not that it has attained its final purpose, which as we have previously shown is impossible; but that it is so arranged that it must of necessity continually approximate thereto: is this not provided for, then society may indeed by some happy chance be impelled forward in the way of culture; but that cannot be calculated on with certainty, for it may with as much probability be carried by some unlucky occurrence in the opposite direction.

A provision for the harmonious development of all the faculties of man pre-supposes an acquaintance with them all, a knowledge of all his tendencies and w r ants, a complete survey of his whole being. But this perfect knowledge of human nature is itself founded on a faculty which must be developed; for there is certainly an impulse in man to know, and particularly to know that which affects himself. The development of this faculty, however, demands all the time and energy of a man: if there be any want common to mankind which urgently requires that a particular class be set aside for its satisfaction, it is this.

The mere knowledge, however, of the faculties and wants of man, without an acquaintance with the means of developing and satisfying them, would be not only a most sorrowful and discouraging, but also a vain and perfectly useless, acquirement. He acts a most unfriendly part towards me, who points out to me my defects without at the same time showing me the means [of ?] supplying them; who raises me to the feeling of my wants without enabling me to satisfy them. Would that he had rather left me in brutish ignorance! In short, this would not be such knowledge as society requires, and for which a particular class of men is needed, to whom the possession of it may be committed; for this knowledge does not aim at the perfection of the species, and through that perfection at its harmonious combination, as it ought to do: hence to this knowledge of wants there must be added a knowledge of the means by which they may be satisfied; and this knowledge properly devolves upon the same class, because the one cannot be complete, and still less can it be active and living, without the other. Knowledge of the first kind is founded on the principles of Pure Reason, and is philosophical; that of the second, partly on Experience, and is in so far philosophico-historical; not merely historical, for I must connect the purposes which can only be recognised philosophically, with their appropriate objects revealed in Experience, in order to be able to recognise the latter as the means to the attainment of the former.

If, however, this knowledge is to become useful to society, it is not sufficient to ascertain what faculties belong essentially to man, and through what means they may be developed; such knowledge would still remain quite unproductive. It must proceed a step farther, in order to secure the wished-for benefits: we must also know on what particular grade of cultivation the society to which we belong stands at a particular point of time; to what particular stage it has next to ascend, and what are the means at its command for that purpose. Now on the grounds of Reason alone; on the supposition of Experience in the abstract, but prior to all actual Experience, we can calculate the direction which human progress must take; we can declare approximately the particular steps by which it must pass to the attainment of a definite stage of cultivation; but to declare the particular step on which it actually stands at a given point of time is impossible for Reason alone; for this, Experience must be questioned, the events of the past must be examined, but with an eye purified by philosophy; we must look around us, and consider our contemporaries. This last part of the knowledge needful to society is thus purely historical.

The three branches of knowledge which we have pointed out, when combined together—(and without such union they will be found of but little avail)—constitute what is called learning, or at least what alone ought to be so called; and he who devotes his life to the acquisition of this knowledge is a Scholar.

But every individual must not attempt to grasp the whole extent of human learning in all these three forms of knowledge; that would be impossible for most men; and therefore the striving after it would be fruitless, and the whole life of a member, who might have been of much value to society, would disappear without society reaping the slightest advantage from it. Each individual may mark out for himself a particular portion of this territory; but each ought to cultivate his part according to all the three views,—philosophically, philosophico-historically, and historically. And I now declare beforehand (what I shall further illustrate at another time) that you may in the meantime at least receive it on my testimony, that the study of a profound philosophy does not render the acquisition of empirical knowledge a superfluous labour, if that knowledge be well grounded; but that it rather proves the necessity of such knowledge in the most convincing manner. The common purpose of these different branches of knowledge has already been pointed out; viz. that by their means provision may be made for the uniform but constantly progressive development of all the faculties of man: and hence arises the true vocation of the Scholar; the most widely extended survey of the actual advancement of the human race in general, and the steadfast promotion of that advancement. I must impose some restraint upon myself, that I may not allow my feelings to expatiate upon the elevated idea which is now brought before you; the path of rigid inquiry is not yet ended. Yet I must remark, in passing, what it really is which they would do who should seek to check the free progress of knowledge. I say would do; for how can I know whether such persons really exist or not? Upon the progress of knowledge the whole progress of the human race is immediately dependent: he who retards that, hinders this also. And he who hinders this, what character does he assume towards his age and posterity? Louder than with a thousand voices, by his actions he proclaims into the deafened ear of the world present and to come “As long as I live at least, the men around me shall not become wiser or better; for in their progress I too, notwithstanding all my efforts to the contrary, should be dragged forward in some direction; and this I detest. I will not become more enlightened, I will not become nobler. Darkness and perversion are my elements, and I will summon all my powers together that I may not be dislodged from them.”—Humanity may endure the loss of everything: all its possessions may be torn away without infringing its true dignity; all but the possibility of improvement. Coldly and craftily, as the enemy of mankind pictured to us in the Bible, these foes of man have calculated and devised their schemes, and explored the holiest depths to discover a point at which to assail humanity, so that they might crush it in the bud; and they have found it. Humanity turns indignantly from the picture.——We return to our investigation.

Knowledge is itself a branch of human culture; that branch must itself be further advanced if all the faculties of man are to be continuously developed; hence it is the duty of the Scholar, as of every man who has chosen a particular condition of life, to strive for the advancement of knowledge, and chiefly of his own peculiar department of knowledge; it is his duty as it is the duty of every man in his own department; yes, and it is much more his duty. It is for him to watch over and promote the advancement of other departments; and shall he himself not advance? Upon his progress, the progress of all other departments of human culture is dependent: he should always be in advance to open the way for others, to explore their future path, and to lead them forward upon it; and shall he remain behind? From that moment he would cease to be what he ought to be; and being nothing else, would then be nothing. I do not say that every Scholar must actually extend the domain of knowledge, that may not be within his power: but I do say that he must strive to extend it; that he must not rest, that he must not think his duty sufficiently performed, until he have extended it. So long as he lives he may yet accomplish this. Does death overtake him before he has attained his purpose? then he is released from his duties in this world of appearances, and his earnest endeavour will be accounted to him for the deed. If the following maxim be applicable to all men, it is more especially applicable to the Scholar: that he forget what he has done as soon as it is accomplished, and constantly direct his whole thoughts upon what he has yet to do. He has advanced but little way indeed, whose field of exertion does not extend its boundaries at every step he takes in it.

The Scholar is destined in a peculiar manner for society: his class, more than any other, exists only through society and for society: it is thus his peculiar duty to cultivate the social talents, an openness to receive, and a readiness to communicate knowledge, in the first place and in the highest degree. Receptivity must already be developed in him if he has thoroughly mastered the requisite empirical sciences. He must be thoroughly conversant with the labours of those who have gone before him in his own department, and this knowledge he cannot have acquired otherwise than by instruction, either oral or literary; he cannot have arrived at it by mere reflection on the principles of Reason. But he should at all times maintain this receptivity by means of new acquirements, and endeavour to preserve himself from a growing insensibility to foreign opinions and modes of thought, which is so common even among the most independent thinkers; for no one is so well informed but he may still continue to learn, and may have something very necessary yet to learn; and it is seldom that any one is so ignorant that he cannot teach something to the most learned, which the latter did not know before. Readiness of communication is always needed by the Scholar, for he possesses his knowledge not for himself, but for society. This he must practise from his youth, and keep in constant activity, through what means, we shall inquire at the proper time.

The knowledge which he has acquired for society he must now actually apply to the uses of society; he must rouse men to the feeling of their true wants, and make them acquainted with the means of satisfying these. Not that he should enter with them into the deep inquiries which he himself has been obliged to undertake, in order to find some certain and secure foundation of truth: that would be an attempt to make all men Scholars like himself, which is impossible, and of no advantage for the purposes of life; the other forms of human activity must also be prosecuted, and to that end there are other classes of men; if they devoted their time to learned inquiries, the Scholars themselves would soon cease to be Scholars. How then can he spread abroad his knowledge, and how ought he to do so? Society could not subsist without trust in the honesty and skill of others; this confidence is deeply impressed upon our hearts, and by a peculiar favour of Nature we never possess it in a higher degree than when we most need the honesty and skill of others. The Scholar may securely reckon upon this trust in his honesty and skill, as soon as he has earned it as he ought. Further, there is in all men a feeling of truth, which indeed is not sufficient in itself, but must be developed, proved, and purified; and to do this is the task of the Scholar. This feeling is not sufficient in itself to lead the unlearned to all the truth of which they stand in need; but when it has not become artificially falsified (which indeed is often the work of some who call themselves Scholars) it is always sufficient to enable them, even without deep argument, to recognise truth when another leads them to her presence. On this intuitive feeling of truth the Scholar too may rely. Thus, so far as we have yet unfolded the idea of his vocation, the Scholar is, by virtue of it, the Teacher of the human race.

But he has not only to make men generally acquainted with their wants, and with the means of satisfying these wants; he has likewise, in particular, at all times and in all places, to teach them the wants arising out of the special condition in which they stand, and to lead them to the appropriate means of reaching the peculiar objects which they are there called upon to attain. He sees not merely the present, he sees also the future: he sees not merely the point which humanity now occupies, but also that to which it must next advance if it remain true to its final end, and do not wander or turn back from its legitimate path. He cannot desire to hurry forward humanity at once to the goal which perhaps gleams brightly before his own vision; the road cannot be overleaped; he must only take care that it do not stand still, and that it do not turn back. In this respect the Scholar is the Guide of the human race.

I remark here expressly, that in this as in all his other avocations, the Scholar is subject to the rule of the moral law, of the requisite harmony of his own being. He acts upon society; it is founded on the idea of freedom; it, and every member of it, is free; and he dares not approach it otherwise than by moral means. The Scholar will never be tempted to bring men to the adoption of his convictions by coercion or the use of physical force: in the present age it ought to be unnecessary to throw away a single word upon this folly: neither will he deceive them. Setting aside the fact that he would thereby offend against himself, and that the duties of the man are in every case higher than those of the Scholar: he would also thereby offend against society. Each individual in society ought to act from his own free choice, from his own mature and settled conviction; he ought to be able to look upon himself as a joint object of all his actions, and be regarded as such by all his fellow-men. He who is deceived, is used only as a means by which another may attain his purpose.

The ultimate purpose of each individual man, as well as of all society, and consequently of all the labours of the Scholar in society, is the moral elevation of all men. It is the duty of the Scholar to have this final object constantly in view, never to lose sight of it in all that he does in society. But no one can successfully labour for the moral improvement of his species who is not himself a good man. We do not teach by words alone, we also teach much more impressively by example; and every one who lives in society owes it a good example, because the power of example has its origin in the social relation. How much more is this due from the Scholar, who ought to be before all others in every branch of human culture? If he be behind in the first and highest of them all, that to which all the others tend, how can he be the pattern which he ought to be, and how can he suppose that others will follow his teachings, which he himself contradicts before all men in every action of his life? The words which the founder of the Christian Religion addressed to his disciples apply with peculiar force to the Scholar,—“Ye are the salt of the earth: if the salt have lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted?”—if the chosen among men be depraved, where shall we seek for moral good? Thus, in this last respect, the Scholar ought to be morally the best man of his age; he ought to exhibit in himself the highest grade of moral culture then possible.

This is our common vocation,—this our common destiny. A happy vocation it is which calls upon you to do that, as your own peculiar occupation, which all men must do by reason of their common destiny as men; to employ all your time and powers upon that alone for which other men must hoard up time and power with wise parsimony; to have for your employment, your business, the sole everyday labour of your life, what only comes to others as sweet refreshment after toil! It is an invigorating, soul-elevating thought which each one among you, who is worthy of his calling, may entertain, “To me also, for my part, is entrusted the culture of my own and following ages; from my labours will proceed the course of future generations, the history of nations who are yet to be. To this am I called, to bear witness to the Truth: my life, my fortunes are of little moment; the results of my life are of infinite moment. I am a Priest of Truth; I am in her pay; I have bound myself to do all things, to venture all things, to suffer all things for her. If I should be persecuted and hated for her sake, if I should even meet death in her service, what wonderful thing is it I shall have done? what but that which I clearly ought to do?”

I know how much I have now said; I know too, that an effeminate and nerveless generation will tolerate neither these feelings nor the expression of them; that with a timorous voice which betrays its inward shame, it stigmatizes as extravagance everything which is above its reach; that it turns away its eyes with agony from a picture in which it beholds nothing but its own enervation and disgrace; that everything vigorous and elevating is to it as every touch to one diseased in all his limbs. I know all this; but I know too where I speak. I speak before young men who are at present secured by their youth against this utter enervation; and along with a manly morality, and by means of it, I would deeply impress such feelings on their souls as may preserve them for the future also from such effeminacy. I avow it freely, that from the point on which Providence has placed me, I too would willingly contribute something to extend in every direction, as far as my native tongue can reach and farther if possible, a more manly tone of thought, a stronger sense of elevation and dignity, a more ardent zeal to fulfil our destiny at every hazard; so that when you shall have left this place and are scattered abroad in all directions, I may one day know in you, wherever you may dwell, men whose chosen friend is Truth, who adhere to her in life and in death, who receive her when she is cast out by all the world, who take her openly under their protection when she is traduced and calumniated, who for her sake will joyfully bear the cunningly concealed enmity of the great, the dull sneer of the coxcomb, and the compassionating shrug of the fool. With this view I have now spoken; and in everything which I may address to you in future, I shall have the same ultimate design.