Johann Gottlieb Fichte was born on May 19, 1762, at Rammenau, a little village in Upper Lusatia between Dresden and Bautzen. His father, Christian Fichte, married the daughter of Johann Schurich, a ribbon manufacturer of the neighbouring town of Pulsnitz, to whom he was apprenticed, and returned to settle with his bride in Rammenau, where he managed to make a living by following his trade as a ribbon-weaver. Johann was the eldest of a family of six sons and one daughter, and at an early age showed signs of precocious intelligence, conscientiousness, and stubbornness.
By a fortunate accident the young Johann came under the notice of Baron von Miltitz, a neighbouring landowner, who took him under his protection and sent him to be educated, first at Niederau by a Pastor Krebel, with whom he remained for nearly five years, and then in 1774 to the well-known school at Pforta near Naumburg. His patron’s death early in the same year made no difference to Fichte’s education, for he received financial support from the relatives and friends of the baron until 1784, when his allowance was stopped by the latter’s widow. He remained at Pforta until 1780, when he became a theological student first at Jena and then at Leipzig. He did not complete his course, but spent the years from 1784 to 1788 as a private tutor in various families, being unable to keep any post for long owing, it is said, to his proud temper and his original ideas on education. In 1788 he was a tutor at Zurich, where he met distinguished men like Lavater, and had the good fortune to fall in love with Johanna Rahn, the daughter of the Inspector of weights and measures.
In March 1790, on the termination of his teaching engagement at Zurich, Fichte went to Leipzig and, while waiting for a suitable post, began to study Kant’s philosophy for the first time, in order to give some lessons on it to a pupil who had asked for them. This study revolutionized his ideas and converted him from determinism to a belief in moral freedom and the inherent moral worth of man. As a result of this he took the opportunity of visiting Kant at Königsberg in 1791, after an abortive journey to Warsaw where he had been engaged to act as private tutor to a Polish family. He was warmly received by the old philosopher, who approved of an essay entitled Critique of all Revelation, which Fichte had written and sent to him. This essay was published in 1792, after Fichte had gone, on Kant’s recommendation, to Danzig to act as tutor to the family of the Count of Krockow. Owing to the publisher accidentally omitting the author’s name, the essay was taken for a work of Kant, and Fichte’s reputation was made. As a direct result of this he was able to marry Johanna Rahn on October 22, 1793.
The tracts which the French Revolution inspired Fichte to write at this time, and which established the rights of the people on the basis of the inherent moral freedom of man, increased his fame; but at the same time they caused moderate and conservative men to regard him as a radical and dangerous teacher. In spite of this, however, he was called to succeed Reinhold as Professor of Philosophy at Jena in 1794. Here he won immediate success as a lecturer, owing undoubtedly in great measure to the vigour of his thought and to his moral intensity and practical earnestness. His enemies, however, especially the bigoted supporters of the traditional constitution and of the established form of religion, never ceased trying to undermine his position and to secure his removal. They first complained that the course of general moral lectures which he gave on Sunday mornings was an attempt to overthrow Christianity and to introduce the worship of reason in its stead; but, meeting with no success, they then attempted to turn to his disadvantage the efforts which Fichte was making to suppress the students’ associations. Throughout these negotiations Fichte, who saw that these associations were productive of much harm, was animated solely by the desire to develop and cultivate the moral and intellectual powers of his pupils. Though again unsuccessful, his enemies did not cease their attacks, and were at last victorious. In an article which appeared in the Philosophical Journal, of which he had been joint editor since 1795, Fichte identified God with the moral order of the universe. Immediately his enemies raised the cry of atheism against him; the Saxon government condemned the Journal and demanded Fichte’s expulsion from Jena. The Grand Duke of Weimar would probably have imposed merely a formal censure, but Fichte would not submit to anything that he thought encroached upon his liberty of teaching. He unwisely threatened to resign in case of reprimand, and his resignation was accepted in 1799, much to his own discomfiture and the delight of his enemies.
From Jena Fichte went to Berlin, where he was welcomed by Schelling, the Schlegels, Schleiermacher, and other adherents of what is called the romantic school. The sentimental atmosphere and moral laxity of this school, however, did not suit his austere character and strict principles, and friendship gradually changed to coldness and ultimately to antagonism. In 1805 he was appointed Professor at Erlangen, but the French victories over the Prussians at Jena and Auerstadt drove him to East Prussia, where he lived at Königsberg from 1806 to 1807. During his stay there he studied, amongst other things, the writings of Pestalozzi, whose Leonard and Gertrude he had read and approved of as early as 1788, and whose personality and teaching methods had much impressed him at their first meeting in 1793. The Peace of Tilsit in July 1807 enabled him to return to Berlin, and during the winter of 1807-1808 he disclosed his views on the only true foundation of national prosperity in the Addresses to the German Nation which he delivered in the Academy building there. He also drew up an elaborate and minute plan for the proposed new university at Berlin, and helped in its organization, being appointed Professor in 1810 and Rector in 1811. The latter office, however, he resigned after holding it for only four months, his domineering manner preventing any close co-operation with his colleagues. In 1814 his wife caught a fever while attending sick and wounded in Berlin. Thanks to Fichte’s devoted care she recovered, but he was himself stricken with the same fever and died on January 27, 1814.
Though short and thickset in build, Fichte had nevertheless an imposing presence; this he undoubtedly owed to his sharp commanding features, his keen piercing eyes, and his high forehead surmounted by thick black hair. In speech and movement alike he was quick, impetuous, decisive, and energetic. Though inclined to be too abstract and very terse, he was a splendid orator. He tried in every way to win his audience and to make himself perfectly clear and intelligible to them; his voice was always attuned to the sentiments he expressed, and his delivery never lacked clearness and precision. His discourse swept on like the course of a tempest, rousing rather than moving the souls of his hearers and stirring them to their very depths. His flights of imagination were great and mighty, and the pictures he conjured up for his listeners, though seldom charming, were always bold and massive; his writings, though they contained little that was particularly beautiful, were always characterized by force and weight. Appearance, speech, action—all bore witness to the authority of the man and to the boldness and originality of his spirit.
The most striking features of Fichte’s character were the intensity and resoluteness with which he maintained his moral convictions, and his burning passion for activity. He loved the truth. In 1792, at the very outset of his career, he solemnly declared that he was devoting himself to truth, and throughout his life he maintained that truth was the sole object of his inquiries, and that he troubled himself very little about what was likely to please his hearers or be disagreeable to them. As a thinker, he sought first principles which were indubitably certain; as a man, he loathed lies, hated compliments and flattery, and told everyone the truth to his face. Equally he loved liberty; his whole life was spent in its pursuit and in its defence. His honesty was transparent, his disinterestedness patent, and his kindness proverbial. As early as 1775 he declared that “a theft is a theft and remains a theft.” He treated the students at Jena as honourable men, and understood how to appeal to what was best in them. He refused to canvass for the chair at Jena, or to use the good offices of his friends to clear away possible obstacles. He would not take fees from poor students, yet he always found room for them in his classes. He befriended the distressed in spite of the uncertainty of his own financial position, and imposed no condition on them save that of absolute secrecy. It is not surprising that his influence over the students was so powerful, and that his friendship was regarded as an inestimable gift. Nor is it surprising that, strengthened by the consciousness of the loftiest moral convictions, such a man in early life should have taken as his motto the words which Horace used in praise of Caesar Augustus:—
Si fractus illabatur orbis,
Impavidum ferient ruinae.
He was convinced that this world was a land not of enjoyment, but of labour and toil, and that every joy in life should be only a refreshment and an incentive to greater effort. He felt that he must, therefore, not only think but act, and he confessed to one all-engrossing passion, the desire to influence and ennoble his fellowmen, declaring that the more he acted the happier he seemed to be. His spirit thirsted for opportunity to do great things in the world, to enable him to purchase by deeds his place in the human race.
Unfortunately Fichte showed most of the characteristic defects of these good qualities. He inherited from his mother a violent and impetuous nature which converted his principles into passions and, coupled with his absorbing desire for activity, caused him to be rash and tactless. His passion for the truth made him suspicious of the sincerity of others, impatient with those who did not understand his teaching, and intolerant towards those who did not admit its truth. Owing to the fierceness with which he maintained his convictions he always seemed despotic, uncompromising, and obstinate; he himself admitted that one of the many qualities he lacked was that of accommodating himself to those around him and to people who were opposed to him in character. The rigour of his principles was tempered by few humane considerations and led men to regard him as harsh and difficult. It was undoubtedly these characteristics which set him at variance so often with the authorities of the Church and of the State, and with his colleagues at Jena and Berlin, and which allowed it to be said of him, when he was Rector at the latter place, that he had no measure in anything, and treated the students for the smallest fault as though they were imps of hell. The independence of his spirit caused him to appear cold and proud; and the cavalier manner in which he dealt with illustrious predecessors and contemporaries, besides inducing Goethe and Schiller to nickname him the “Absolute Ego” and the “Great Ego,” earned for him the reputation of being conceited, and sometimes shocked the feelings of the most friendly-disposed persons. Thus it was no rare thing to hear him say: “Here Kant, here Reinhold is wrong, and in this I have surpassed them”; or, “No one has understood Kant; there is only one way to understand him, that which I have explained.”
He had little finesse, tact, or prudence, and could, therefore, seldom brook contradiction or interference. When attacks were made upon him he was very rash and retaliated in the most provoking way, sometimes even letting himself go into violent fits of passion. This inevitably aroused opposition and resentment against him, and led him to commit many blunders, which even his best friends could not deny, and which caused Schiller to allude to him as “the richest source of absurdities.” Thus, when the cry of atheism was raised against him at Jena, the violent threatening letter which he wrote to the minister, Voigt, irritated the Weimar government intensely, alienated the sympathies of many influential men, and effectively put an end to all possibility of retaining him at the University.
The fourteen Addresses to the German Nation were delivered by Fichte during the winter of 1807-1808 in the great hall of the Academy of Sciences in Berlin before crowded audiences, and were published in April 1808. Before attempting to estimate their significance and importance, it is necessary to consider the circumstances under which they were delivered. In 1806 Napoleon began his campaign against Prussia which, almost alone among the German States, still maintained its independence. War was declared on October 9, and on the 14th the Prussians were severely defeated at Jena and Auerstadt. So overwhelming were these defeats that further opposition was impossible; on October 25 Napoleon entered Berlin and, one after another, the Prussian fortresses fell into his hands. Fichte left Berlin hurriedly on October 18 and fled to East Prussia, remaining at Königsberg during the winter. The Russians, who had come to the aid of the overwhelmed Prussians, fought a drawn battle with the French at Eylau on February 8, 1807, but were beaten at Friedland on June 14, and made peace with France at Tilsit on July 8, 1807. The net results of the treaty for Prussia were that she was deprived of much of her territory and was forced to maintain French garrisons in her fortresses, pay large sums of money to France, and reduce her army to 42,000 men.
Fichte returned to Berlin at the end of August, 1807, to find Prussia completely humiliated and the French troops still in occupation of the city. Like many other heroic souls, however, he could not believe that all was over with Germany; and just as Stein set himself to reform the land laws, and Scharnhorst the military organization, so Fichte took upon himself the task of arousing the German people to new life by his Addresses to the German Nation. Such a course demanded considerable courage and determination, for the Addresses maintained the ideals of liberty and justice against the despotism of Napoleon in the very face of the French army of occupation. Yet the attitude of the French authorities to the Addresses was one of complete indifference; probably, as Fichte said, they considered education too insignificant and harmless a matter for them to worry about. Even among Fichte’s fellow-countrymen there were no doubt many who, like the French authorities, were completely indifferent; others perhaps did not really understand a good deal of what the Addresses contained, and it was probably the lecturer’s presence, delivery, and force of character, as much as what he said, which influenced public opinion at the time so profoundly as to draw from Stein the comment that the Addresses “had a great effect upon the feelings of the cultivated class.” Whatever the real cause, however, it is certain that the Addresses were a powerful factor in the creation of that national spirit which appeared for the first time in the War of Liberation of 1813-1815.
Some of the ideas and opinions expressed in the Addresses are obviously false and cannot be accepted, while others are gross exaggerations and require considerable modification. Little comment need be made on Fichte’s conception of the German language as the sole living language, or on his notion of the part that Germany has played and must still play in the process of the salvation of the world. His whole-hearted enthusiasm for things German inclines him at times to regard everything genuinely German as necessarily good, and everything foreign as necessarily bad. It is obvious what evil results would accrue from the logical development of such a conception. He greatly exaggerates the part played by Luther and by Germany in the reformation of the Church; and it may be that his forecast of some of the good results that would follow upon the adoption of his educational reforms is fantastic and overdrawn. The fact, however, remains that these false and exaggerated ideas are but small blemishes in the work; they are easily explained, if not justified, when we consider the desperate state of the times, the exalted aim of the lecturer, the peculiar difficulty of his task, and his enthusiastic personality. In any case they do not affect to any considerable extent the tremendous influence of the Addresses at the time, and their great importance for the understanding of subsequent periods.
It is impossible within the limits of this introduction to do anything like justice to the historical and political importance of the Addresses both for Germany and for the world. It would be a most interesting and profitable study to trace, for instance, the development and practical consequences of Fichte’s idea of the closed commercial State, or to consider the influence of the principle of nationality, which he so emphatically champions, upon the course of political development in Germany and in the rest of Europe during the nineteenth century. In these and other directions it would be found that the Addresses are of the utmost importance, and fully justify Seeley’s reference to them as “the prophetical or canonical book which announces and explains a great transition in modern Europe and the prophecies of which began to be fulfilled immediately after its publication.” They certainly mark a definite stage in the political evolution of modern Germany, for in them Fichte appears as one of the founders of a united Germany, and from them date the regeneration of Prussia and the awakening of a national spirit in Germany. They mark, too, an epoch in the history of the world, for they show Fichte as an apostle of the gospel of liberty, and proclaim that principle of nationality which had far-reaching effects on the political development of Europe in the nineteenth century.
Nor is it possible here to do justice to their tremendous effect on the development of education in Germany. Stein was certainly influenced, especially by those Addresses which deal mainly with education; he became an ardent advocate of the reforms urged by Fichte, as the educational schemes of his ministry testify. That part of his political testament which concerns itself with education seems also to have been inspired by Fichte’s influence. More important still, however, is the fact that the Addresses influenced Wilhelm von Humboldt, whose ideas and plans for German education were carried into effect in 1809 and 1810, and who selected Fichte to be Professor of Philosophy in the new University of Berlin in 1810. Humboldt’s work laid the real foundations of modern German education, and it would be interesting to show how Fichte’s ideas helped to mould that education in its origins and subsequent development.
It is not just because of their great significance in the political and educational evolution of Germany and of the rest of Europe, however, that the Addresses are important and demand attention. The ideas they contain are of value to-day as they were in 1808, and are applicable not to one country alone but to every nation. The Addresses are essentially modern both in outlook and in content. This is particularly true in regard to the educational principles they embody, many of which are only now being gradually accepted and put into practice. On these grounds too, therefore, the views which Fichte puts forward in his Addresses deserve close scrutiny and careful consideration.
- Odes, iii, 3, 7-8.
- Life of Stein, ii, 41.
- Ibid., p. 28; cf. p. 292.
- It is interesting in this connection to note the conclusion of Ebert’s speech at the opening of the National Assembly at Weimar, reported in the Times, February 8, 1919: “In this way we will set to work, our great aim before us: to maintain the right of the German nation, to lay the foundation in Germany for a strong democracy, and to bring it to achievement with the true social spirit and in the socialistic way. Thus shall we realize that which Fichte has given to the German nation as its task. We want to establish a State of justice and truthfulness, founded on the equality of all humanity.”
The following books may be recommended to the general reader who desires to know more of Fichte’s life and ideas.
The Popular Works of J. G. Fichte. Translated, with a memoir, by William Smith. 2 vols. Chapman, London, 1848-9. 2nd edition, Trübner, 1873.
The Vocation of Man. Translated by William Smith. 2nd edition. Open Court Publishing Co., Chicago, 1910.
Fichte. Article, by R. Adamson, in Ency. Brit., 11th edition.
Fichte et son Temps. By X. Léon. vol. I. Armand Colin, Paris, 1922.