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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Edward Franklin Buchner (1868–1929)

By Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814)

IN the 18th of August, 1791, a manuscript work entitled ‘An Attempt at a Critique of all Revelation’ was laid before Immanuel Kant by a young man twenty-nine years of age, Johann Gottlieb Fichte. This irresistible letter of introduction, composed by Fichte in four weeks, turned his life of effort and failure into the channel it had been vainly seeking, and thus profoundly modified the intellectual and political development of Western Europe in the nineteenth century.

The early childhood of Fichte, who was a descendant of a Swedish soldier of the army of Gustavus Adolphus, left by the fortunes of war within the bounds of Saxony, was passed in herding geese and in a reverie, looking into vacancy. Born at Rammenau in Upper Lusatia, on May 19th, 1762, as the son of a weaver, he was by accident removed from the bondage of parental poverty and transferred to the favor of a wealthy patron, thereby receiving the benefits of the celebrated seminary at Schulpforte. He entered the University of Jena at the age of eighteen, and pursued the study of theology for three years. His passion for influencing men was checked by poverty, whose buffetings he endured seven years longer. The outcome of a last short tutorship at Warsaw paved the way for a visit to the aged sage at Königsberg. Kant’s initial coolness to the young stranger soon gave place to a genial influence. It secured a publisher for the above-mentioned essay. Appearing in 1792, the work placed its anonymous author, when he became known, in the first rank of philosophical thinkers. The blind alley Fichte had been treading for years suddenly opened into a broad highway. Some months after his marriage, Fichte began in May 1794 a pronounced career as a professor at Jena. In the few succeeding years he displayed keen, prolific literary qualities, and rapidly brought to its first maturity one of the world’s greatest systems of reflective thinking.

By the darling wish of his mother, Fichte was destined for the ministry; but the fate of his young manhood closed the way to the pulpit after his uncompleted theological studies. He came in touch with his age through the vocation of an educator. His career as a teacher may be divided into four periods. He was a bold pedagogue, as a tutor, in various places and in connection with diverse topics from 1784 to 1793; often lecturing to parents at the end of each week on the faults they committed in training their children. At Jena he began the career of an ideal university educator, handling the most abtruse themes in a lucid manner, and winning ardent disciples. His literary activity during these years matured his exposition and defense of philosophical science. These are contained in ‘Foundations of the Whole Theory of Science’ (1794), ‘Introductions to the Theory of Science’ (1797), and a ‘System of Ethics’ (1798),—his masterpieces of this period. His unique and somewhat stormy term of usefulness, which brought forth the Sunday lectures to the student body, contained in the elevating ‘Vocation of the Scholar,’ was cut short in 1799 by an accusation of atheism from the Saxon government. The keen metaphysician was incapable of receiving and of adroitly handling the delicate charge; and an acceptance by the Saxe-Weimar court of a resignation threatened by his intense, unpractical nature, left Fichte an “atheist” outcast. The Prussian government alone did not confiscate the journal in which his views were published, and he entered Berlin, whose gates extended a welcome to the ablest expounder of the Kantian philosophy. He here continued his lecturing and literary activities, except in the summer of 1805, when he taught in the University at Erlangen.

‘The Vocation of Man’ (1800) and ‘The Way to a Blessed Life’ (1805–6) are the most important works of the Berlin period, and indicate the ethical and religious directions taken by his reflections. The fortunes of war in 1806 drove him and his King out of Germany for safety. The return in 1807 placed him in the midst of the dangers of a foreign occupancy in the Prussian capital. The bravery of the heroic teacher appeared in his public demand that the national losses should be recovered by education. He became one of the organizers of a new university in Berlin in 1809, its rector for two years, and one of its most distinguished professors until his death in 1814. His educational career closed with attention to public and practical affairs, as it had begun with the theoretical foundations of life.

In Fichte the usual order of an impersonal system of thought is reversed. His philosophy is nothing apart from his own life. Both radiated from self-activity and crystallized in it. Externally regarded, his character was impetuous, selfish,—in short, that of a supreme ruler, often bringing him into stormy conflict with his friends and associates. So too his metaphysical speculations incrusted themselves in harsh egoistic forms, and were defended by the heavy artillery of German logic. But within the man there was a spirit of docility and reverence, and within the system a throbbing heart. What the French Revolution was in theory and blood, that was Fichte in thought and practice—an apotheosis of the human will. His structures were erected from within. This unyielding independence and moral integrity were his earliest traits. A story is told that he threw his first story-book into a brook because it unduly attracted his attention from his studies, and buried his pain at its loss under an unmurmuring sense of right.

Fichte’s first intellectual conclusion was in favor of determinism. He became entrapped in the web of cause and effect, from which his acquaintance with the Kantian philosophy soon released him. He entertained, with enthusiasm, a belief in man’s freedom, and resolved to give his energies to an extension of Kant’s teachings. He moved onward in a direction all his own, and soared into an abstruse realm, searching for that great principle which should unify both knowledge and conduct. In this way he perfected the results of the Kantian thought which were disconnected. The principle became the “ego.” All the standards of truth and virtue he found in the secrets of personal consciousness. All the contrarieties contained in experience, such as objects and thought, knowledge and volitions, were removed by deducing them strictly and logically from the activities of one and the same “ego.” This “ego” does not exist before it puts forth activity, but its being arises in its doing. All the forms of intelligence and of the world were derived from this primal principle. These exist in order that we may do our duty. Action is the mark and end of our existence. In order to act, and that duty may triumph over external and internal nature, the will must be free. This one principle of freedom as activity and activity as freedom, in the light of absolute reason, ran through his life, both theoretical and practical, in such a manner as to make him “the doughtiest man that ever lived.” His method and thinking are a climax. There have never been any Fichteans.

The stately solitariness of Fichte the philosopher stands in bold contrast with Fichte the national hero of Germany. A philosopher never goes to war, and seldom becomes involved in the administration of practical affairs. Fichte’s hardened and dignified spirit, however, was touched at the sight of his country’s humiliation in the hands of the French conqueror. In 1804 he presented, in a series of public lectures appearing under the title ‘Characteristics of the Present Age,’ a terrible arraignment of the degenerate movements of his time, from the standpoint of pure reason. In the third winter following came the inspiring balm to all smarting wounds in the famous Sunday evening ‘Addresses to the German Nation.’ Such stirring language had not been spoken to the people since the thunders of Luther. French spies, wearing dull ears within the lecture-room, and hostile troops, noisily tramping without, never suspected the glowing patriotism for the Fatherland which lay concealed in the utterances of the hero. To have delivered those ‘Addresses’ within French ear-shot was a work of the highest heroism. The prophet of German unity burst forth with the fire of thoughtful eloquence, and roused his morally dead age to an activity which hurled back the Napoleonic achievements into the victor’s teeth. The effects of these discourses are visible to-day in Germany’s better system of education, which grew out of Fichte’s recommendation. Again, in 1813, Fichte wished to accompany the soldiers and encourage them by his oratory in the camp—a desire denied a second time by his King. The solitary thinker of 1795 descended from his transcendental pedestal and gave himself to public affairs. He ended his life on the 27th of January, 1814, stricken by a fever contracted from devotion to his noble wife, who had become infected with disease in her charitable attendance upon the wounded soldiers in the Berlin hospitals.

Fichte’s fame rests not a little on his eloquent service to a nation bowed down in defeat. He must be reckoned among those who effected the moral and religious regeneration of a people. He labored with both intellect and heart to bring about a morality purer than that which flourished on the stalk of selfish and debased sentiments. His age had reached, in his eyes, the condition of “completed sinfulness.” He deviated from historical Christianity in his exposition of religion, but never forsook the qualities of the human spirit as manifested in its cravings for a life of happiness bound up with the Infinite mind. He called loudly to humanity to work out its great destiny in the light of freedom and in a consciousness of growing perfection. In this way the strong character of an ideal educator, a profound philosopher, a fiery patriot, and a lucid, prolific writer wrought itself into the making of a foremost nation of modern times, leaving to the world a heritage the result of deep insight, noble feeling, and strenuous effort. Another thought-master had lived among men.