Addresses to the German Nation/Twelfth Address


178. The education which we propose to the Germans as their future national education has now been sufficiently described. When once the generation that has been formed by this education is in existence—a generation impelled by its taste for the right and the good and by nothing else whatever; a generation provided with an understanding that is adequate for its standpoint and recognizes the right unfailingly on every occasion; a generation equipped with full power, both physical and spiritual, to carry out its will on every occasion—when once this generation is in existence, everything that we can long for in our boldest wishes will come into being of itself from the very existence of that generation, and will grow out of it naturally. That age is in so little need of any rules we can make for its guidance that we should rather have to learn from it.

Since this generation is in the meantime not in existence, but must first be raised up by education, and since, even if everything else should go on excellently and beyond our expectation, we shall nevertheless require a considerable interval before we pass over to that new age, the more urgent question arises: How are we to manage to get through this interval? Since we can do nothing better, how are we to maintain ourselves at any rate as the soil on which the improvement may take place, and as the point of departure at which this improvement may begin its work? When once the generation formed in this way emerges from its seclusion and appears among us, how are we to prevent it from finding among us actual conditions that have not the slightest relationship to the order of things which it has conceived as embodying the right—actual conditions under which no one understands it or has the slightest wish for, or need of, such an order of things, but, on the contrary, regards the existing state of things as entirely natural and the only one possible? Would not those who have another world in their hearts soon become confused; and in this case would not the new education be just as useless for the improvement of actual life as the former education, and lose its savour in the same way?

179. If the majority of people continue in their previous state of heedlessness, thoughtlessness, and lack of concentration, this very result may be expected as inevitable. He who lets himself go without paying heed to himself, and allows himself to be moulded by circumstances just as they please, soon accustoms himself to any possible order of things. However much his eye may have been offended by something when he first saw it, let it only present itself anew every day in the same way and he accustoms himself to it. Later, he finds it natural, and in the end he even gets to like it as something inevitable; he would not thank you for the restoration of the original and better state of things, because this would tear him out of the mode of life to which he has become accustomed. In this way men become accustomed even to slavery, if only their material existence is not thereby affected, and in time they get to like it. It is just this that is the most dangerous thing about a state of subjection; it makes men insensitive to all true honour, and, moreover, for the indolent man it has its very pleasant side, because it relieves him of many a care and of the need of thinking for himself.

180. Let us be on our guard against being taken unawares by this sweetness of servitude, for it robs even our posterity of the hope of future emancipation. If our external activity is restricted and fettered, let us elevate our spirit all the more boldly to the thought of freedom; let us rise to live in this thought and make it the sole object of our wish and longing. What if freedom disappear for a time from the visible world? Let us give it a place of refuge in our innermost thoughts, until there shall grow up round about us the new world which has the power of manifesting our thoughts outwardly. In the sphere where no one can deprive us of the freedom to do as we think best—in our own minds let us make ourselves a pattern, a prophecy, and a guarantee of that which will become a reality when we are gone. Let us not allow our spirit, as well as our body, to be bent and subjected and brought into captivity.

181. If you ask me how this is to be brought about, the only entirely comprehensive answer is this: We must at once become what we ought to be in any case, namely, Germans. We are not to subject our spirit; therefore we must before all things provide a spirit for ourselves, and a firm and certain spirit; we must become earnest in all things and not go on existing frivolously, as if life were a jest; we must form for ourselves enduring and unshakable principles which will serve as a sure guide for all the rest of our thoughts and actions. Life and thought with us must be of one piece and a solid and interpenetrating whole; in both we must live according to nature and truth, and throw away foreign contrivances; in a word, we must provide character for ourselves; for to have character and to be German [Charakter haben und deutsch sein] undoubtedly mean the same; and the thing has no special name in our language, because it is intended to proceed immediately from our very existence without any knowledge or reflection on our part.

182. We must first of all set our own thoughts to work and think about the great events of our days, their relation to us, and what we have to expect from them; and we must provide ourselves with a firm and clear view of all these matters, and a definite and unchangeable Yes or No in answer to the questions that arise out of them. Everyone who makes the slightest claim to culture is bound to do that. The animal life of man proceeds in all ages according to the same laws, and in this every age is alike. Only to the understanding are there such things as different ages; and only the man whose conception penetrates them lives in them, and only he exists in his own age; any other kind of life is nothing but the life of plants and animals. To let everything that happens pass by one unperceived, perhaps to close eye and ear diligently to its urgent message, and even to boast of such thoughtlessness as if it were great wisdom—this may be the proper thing for a rock on which the waves of the sea beat without its feeling them, or for a tree-trunk dashed to and fro by storms without its perceiving them; but in no wise does it beseem a thinking being. Even the thinker who dwells in the higher spheres is not absolved from this general obligation of understanding his own age. Everything that is on the higher plane must want to influence the immediate present in its own fashion; and he who truly lives in the former lives at the same time in the latter also; if he did not live in the latter also, it would be a proof that he did not live in the former either, but only dreamed in it. That lack of heed to what is going on before our eyes, and the artful distraction to other objects of the attention that is everywhere aroused, would be the best thing that an enemy of our independence could wish to find. If he is sure that nothing will set us thinking, he can do anything he wishes with us, as if we were lifeless tools. It is precisely this thoughtlessness that accustoms itself to anything; but where clear and comprehensive thought, and in that thought the image of what ought to be, always remains watchful, there is no question of becoming accustomed to such things.

183. These addresses have in the first place invited you, and they will invite the whole German nation, in so far as it is possible at the present time to assemble the nation around a speaker by means of the printed book, to come to a definite decision and to be at one with themselves in their own minds on the following questions:

(1) Whether it is true or untrue that there is a German nation, and that its continued existence in its peculiar and independent nature is at the present time in danger;

(2) Whether it is worth the trouble, or not worth the trouble, to maintain this nation;

(3) Whether there is any sure and thorough means of maintaining it, and what this means is.

184. It was hitherto a custom of long standing among us that, when any earnest word was uttered, either to an audience or in print, those who never got beyond polite conversation took possession of the word and transformed it into an amusing subject of talk to relieve their boredom. Now, I have not noticed, as I have on former occasions, that those around me have made such a use of the addresses I am now delivering; but I have not acquainted myself with the current tone of the social gatherings in the field of books—I mean the literary papers and other journals—and I do not know whether they may be expected to take me in joke or in earnest. However this may be, it has at any rate not been my intention to joke, or to set in motion once more the wit which this age of ours is known to possess.

185. A custom that took deeper root among us and became almost second nature—so much so that not to observe it was almost unheard-of—was that the Germans regarded the introduction of any topic as an invitation to everyone who had a mouth to have his own say about it, quickly and on the spot, and to inform us whether he was of the same opinion or not; and when the vote had been taken in this way the whole thing was over, and public conversation felt bound to proceed with haste to another subject. In this way all literary discussion among the Germans transformed itself, like Echo in the ancient fable, into nothing but pure sound, without any body or bodily substance. We know how it is in the personal intercourse of third-rate society, and so it was in this literary fellowship; the only thing that mattered was that the human voice should go on sounding, and that each one should take up the ball of conversation and without a pause throw it to his neighbour; but what was said did not matter in the least. Now, if that is not being without character and un-German, what is? Nor has it been my intention to do homage to this custom and merely keep alive public discussion. I have long ago sufficiently performed my own share in this public conversation—though only incidentally, my purpose having been different—and I think I might at last be absolved from any further contribution. I do not want to know on the spot what A or B thinks about the questions that have been raised here, i.e., what he has hitherto thought about them, or not thought. He must consider it for himself and think deeply about it, until his judgment is ready and completely clear, and he must take the necessary time for that purpose; if he is still lacking in the requisite preliminary knowledge, and in the full degree of culture that is required before a judgment can be formed in these matters, he must further take time to make good these deficiencies. If anyone has his judgment ready and clear in this way, we do not exactly insist that he shall deliver it publicly. Should it agree with what has been said here—well, it has been said already and does not need saying twice. Only he who can say something different and better is called upon to speak. On the other hand, what has been said here must be really lived and put into practice by each one in his own way and according to his own circumstances.

186. Least of all, in conclusion, has it been my intention to lay these addresses as an exercise in composition before our German masters of doctrine and writing, so that they may correct them and I may learn in this way what promise, if any, there is in my work. In this respect also plenty of good doctrine and advice has already been directed towards me and, if improvement were to be expected, it ought to have shown itself by now.

187. No, my intention in the first place was to be a guide among the swarm of questions and investigations and the host of contradictory opinions concerning them, in which educated men among us have hitherto been tossed about, and to lead as many men as I could to a point where they might take a firm stand, to the point which concerns us most intimately—the point of our own common interests. My intention was to bring them in this one matter to a firm opinion which might remain unshaken, and to a clearness in which they might really see their way. However much else might be a matter of dispute among them, my intention was to unite them in this one matter at least, and to make them of one mind. It was my intention, finally, to bring this out as one certain characteristic of the German, viz., that he is a man who has appreciated the need of forming an opinion for himself about that which concerns Germans; and to make it clear that a man who does not want to hear or to think anything about this subject may rightly be regarded, from now on, as not belonging to us.

188. The creation of a firm opinion of this kind, and the association and mutual comprehension of divers persons on this subject, will do two things. It will be the direct means of redeeming our character, by removing that lack of concentration which is so unworthy of us, and at the same time it will become a powerful means of attaining our main object, the introduction of the new national education. It was just because we ourselves, individually and collectively, were never of one opinion, but wanted one thing to-day and something different tomorrow, and because each one made the clamour more confused by shouting something different—it was for this reason that our governments, who to be sure listened to us, and often listened more attentively than was advisable, became confused and swayed to and fro just like our own opinion. If our common affairs are at last to pursue a firm and certain course, what is there to prevent us from beginning at once with ourselves and setting the example of firmness and decision? When once a united and unchanging opinion makes itself heard, when a definite need announces itself as a general need and makes itself felt—the need of a national education, as we assume it will be—I am quite sure that our governments will listen to us; they will help us, if we show the inclination to allow ourselves to be helped. At any rate, if they did not, we would then, and not before, have the right to complain about them; at the present time, when our governments are pretty much as we want them to be, it ill becomes us to complain.

189. Whether there is a sure and thorough means of preserving the German nation, and what this means may be, is the most important of the questions which I have submitted to this nation for decision. My object in answering the question, and in stating the reasons for my way of answering it, was not to say what the final judgment will be—that could not be of any use, because everyone who is to have a hand in this matter must have convinced himself in his own mind by his own activity—on the contrary, my object was only to stimulate men to reflect for themselves and form their own judgment. From this point onwards I must leave each man to settle it for himself. One warning I can give and nothing more; do not let yourselves be deceived by the shallow and superficial thoughts which are in circulation even on this subject; do not let yourselves be restrained from deep reflection, and do not accept the empty consolations that are offered.

190. For example, long before the most recent events, we had to hear, in advance as it were, a saying which since then has frequently been repeated in our ears: that even if our political independence were lost we should still keep our language and our literature, and thereby always remain a nation; so we could easily console ourselves for the loss of everything else.

But, first of all, what basis is there for hoping that we shall keep our language even if we lose our political independence? Surely those who say this do not ascribe this miraculous power to their own persuasions and admonitions when addressed to their children, their children’s children, and to all the centuries to come. Those men now living and mature, who have accustomed themselves to speaking, writing, and reading in the German language, will no doubt go on doing so; but what will the next generation do, and, more important still, the third generation? What counterpoise do we propose to place in the hearts of these generations that will hold the scale against their desire to please, by speech and writing, the race with which all glory rests and which has all favours to distribute? Have we, then, never heard of a language[1] which is the first in the world, although it is known that the first works in that language are still to be written; and do we not already see before our eyes that writings are appearing in it by whose contents the authors hope to find favour? The example of two other languages is brought forward in support, one of the ancient and one of the modern world, which, in spite of the political destruction of the peoples who spoke them, continued to exist as living languages. I do not intend even to examine the manner in which they have continued to exist; but this much is clear at first sight, that both languages had something in them which ours does not possess, and by means of this they found favour with their conquerors, which our language can never find. If these vain comforters had looked about them better, they would have found another example which, in our opinion, is entirely to the point here, viz., the language of the Wends. This, too, has continued to exist during all the centuries in which the people that speaks it has been deprived of its freedom—it exists, that is to say, in the wretched hovels of the serf bound to the soil, so that he may bemoan his fate in his own language which his oppressor does not understand.

But let us suppose that our language remains a living and a literary language and so preserves its literature; what sort of literature can that be, the literature of a people without political independence? What does a sensible writer want, and what can he want? Nothing else but to influence public life and the life of all, and to form and reshape it according to his vision; and if he does not want to do this, everything he says is empty sound to tickle the ears of the indolent. He wants to think originally and from the root of spiritual life for those who act just as originally, i.e., govern. He can, therefore, only write in a language in which the governors think, in a language in which the work of government is carried on, in the language of a people that forms an independent State. For what is the ultimate aim of all our efforts even in regard to the most abstract sciences? Admitting that the immediate objects of these efforts is to propagate the science from generation to generation and to maintain it in the world, the question arises: Why should it be maintained? Obviously only in order to shape the life of all and the whole human order of things when the right time comes. That is its ultimate object; hence, every effort in science indirectly serves the State, though it may be only in a remote future. If it abandons this aim, it loses its worth and its independence. But he who sets this aim before him must write in the language of the dominant race.

191. Just as it is true beyond doubt that, wherever a separate language is found, there a separate nation exists, which has the right to take independent charge of its affairs and to govern itself; so one can say, on the other hand, that, where a people has ceased to govern itself, it is equally bound to give up its language and to coalesce with its conquerors, in order that there may be unity and internal peace and complete oblivion of relationships which no longer exist. Even a semi-intelligent leader of such a mixture of races must insist on this; and we may be quite sure that in our case the insistence will not be lacking. Until this amalgamation has taken place, approved school-books will be translated into the language of the barbarians, i.e., those who are too stupid to learn the language of the dominant race, and who thereby exclude themselves from all influence on public affairs and condemn themselves to lifelong subjection. These persons, who have sentenced themselves to silence concerning actual events, will be permitted to exercise their oratorical skill on the disputes of a fictitious world, or to imitate in their own way obsolete and ancient forms; proofs of the former condition may be found in the case of the ancient language that was cited above as an example, and of the latter in the case of the modern language. Such a literature we might perhaps retain for some time yet; and with such a literature let him console himself who has no better consolation. But, as to those who might be capable of playing the man, of seeing the truth, and of becoming aroused by the sight of it to decision and action—that they should be kept in indolent slumber by such a worthless consolation, which would be the very thing to serve the purpose of an enemy of our independence, that is what I should like to prevent if I could.

192. So we are promised the continuance of a German literature for future generations! In order to form a better judgment of the hopes that we can entertain in this matter, it would be very profitable to look about us and see whether we still have at this moment a German literature in the true sense of the word. The noblest privilege and the most sacred function of the man of letters is this: to assemble his nation and to take counsel with it about its most important affairs. But especially in Germany this has always been the exclusive function of the man of letters, because Germany was split up into several separate States, and was held together as a common whole almost solely by the instrumentality of the man of letters, by speech and writing. In the most special and urgent way does it become his function at the present time, now that the last external bond which united the Germans, the imperial constitution, has also been destroyed. If it should now be evident—we are not speaking here of something we know or fear, but only of a possible case, which we must nevertheless take into consideration in advance—if it should, I say, be evident that State officials in the separate States were already so obsessed by anxiety, fear, and terror, that they first forbade such voices to make themselves heard or prohibited the spreading of the message, voices which assumed that a nation was still in existence and addressed themselves to it; then, that would be a proof that we already had no German men of letters at work, and we should know what our prospects would be for any literature in the future.

193. Now, what could it be that these people are afraid of? Perhaps that this man or that will not be pleased to hear voices of that kind. Then, at any rate they would have chosen the time badly for their tender consideration. Pamphlets libelling and degrading the fatherland, insipid praises of what is foreign, they are plainly unable to prevent; then let them not be so strict against a word for the fatherland which makes itself heard in between. It is quite possible that all are not equally willing to hear all things; but at this time we cannot concern ourselves with that; we are urged on by necessity, and we must say just what necessity orders us to say. We are fighting for life; do they want us to walk delicately, lest some robe of state be covered with the dust we may raise? We are sinking in the water-floods; are we to refrain from calling for help, lest some weak-nerved neighbour may be alarmed?

194. For, who are they who might not like to hear it, and on what condition might they not like to hear it? In every case it is only obscurity and darkness which cause alarm. Every terrifying vision vanishes when one gazes at it firmly. With the same unconcern and directness, with which we have hitherto analysed every subject that has occurred in these addresses, let us look this terror, too, in the face.

We must assume either that the being[2] to whom at the present time the conduct of a great part of the world’s affairs has fallen is a truly great soul, or we must assume the contrary; no third assumption is possible. In the first case: on what is all human greatness based, if not on the independence and originality of the person and on the fact that the person is not an artificial product of his age, but a growth out of the eternal and spontaneous spirit-world, which has grown up just as it is? Is not greatness based on the fact that to one person a new and individual view of the universe has dawned, and that this person has the firm will and the iron strength to impose his view on the actual world? But it is quite impossible for such a soul not to honour in peoples and individuals external to himself that in which his own internal greatness consists, viz., independence, constancy, and individuality of existence. In proportion as the great soul feels sure of his own greatness and trusts thereto, he disdains to rule over a people with a wretched servile spirit or to be a giant among dwarfs; he disdains the thought that he must first degrade men in order to rule over them; he is oppressed by the sight of degeneration round about him. Not to be able to respect men causes him pain; but everything that elevates and ennobles his brother men and places them in a worthier light is a cause of satisfaction to his own noble spirit and is his greatest delight. Are we to believe that such a soul would note with displeasure that the upheavals which the present times have brought about are being used to arouse an ancient and honourable nation from its deep slumber—a nation that is the stem from which most of the peoples of modern Europe have sprung, and which is the creator of them all—and to induce it to lay hold of a sure means of preservation in order to raise itself from ruin—a means which ensures at the same time that it will never sink again, and that it will raise all the other peoples along with itself? We are here not inciting people to riotous measures; we are rather warning people against them as sure to lead to ruin. We are pointing out a firm and unchangeable foundation, on which the highest and purest morality, such as was never yet seen among men, may be built up at last for the world in one people and assured for all time to come, and which may thence be spread abroad among all other peoples. We are pointing the way to a regeneration of the human race, a way to turn earthly and sensuous creatures into pure and noble spirits. Does anyone think that such a proposal could be felt as an insult by a mind that is itself pure and noble and great, or by anyone who forms himself after that pattern?

What, on the other hand, would be the assumption of those who entertained this fear and admitted it by their actions, and what would they proclaim to all the world as their assumption? They would acknowledge that they believed we were ruled over by an enemy of mankind, by a very base and petty Principle, alarmed by every stirring of independent strength and unable to hear of morality, religion, or ennoblement of souls without anxiety; because nothing but the degradation of men, their stupor, and their vices would make his position safe and give him hope of maintaining himself. With this belief of theirs, which would add to our other miseries the crushing shame of being ruled over by such a man as this, are we now forthwith to proclaim ourselves in agreement, and are we to act in accordance with it before we have clear proof that it is true?

Let us suppose the worst: that they are in the right and not we, who show by our action that we make the former assumption. Is, then, the human race really to be degraded and to go under as a favour to one man who profits by the fall and to those who are afraid? Is one, whose heart bids him do it, not to be allowed to warn them of destruction? Suppose, not only that they were in the right, but that one should resolve, in the sight of this generation and of posterity, to admit that they were right and to deliver aloud on one’s self the judgment just expressed; what, then, would be the greatest ultimate consequence for the unwelcome warner? Do they know anything greater than death? This awaits us all in any case, and from the beginning of humanity noble souls have defied the danger of death for the sake of less important matters—for when was there ever a higher matter than the present one? Who has the right to intervene in an undertaking that is begun with full knowledge of this danger?

195. Should there be such people—though I hope not— among us Germans, they would offer their necks without invitation, without thanks, and, as I hope, without finding acceptance, to the yoke of spiritual serfdom. They would bitterly revile their own country in flattering its oppressor; they would think that diplomatic, for they do not know the mind of true greatness, but measure its thoughts by the thoughts suggested by their own pettiness; thus they would make use of literature, for which they know no other use, to pay their court by slaughtering it as a sacrificial victim. We, on the other hand, praise the greatness of the soul, with whom power lies, much more by the fact of our confidence and our courage than words could ever do. Throughout the entire domain of the whole German language, wherever our voice rings out free and unrestrained, it thus invokes Germans by the very fact of its existence: No one wants your oppression, your servility, your slavish subjection; but your independence, your true freedom, your elevation, and your ennoblement are wanted; for it is not forbidden to discuss these things openly with you and to show you the infallible means of attaining them. If this voice finds a hearing and has the result intended, it will set up a memorial of this greatness, and of our faith in it, for all centuries to come—a memorial which time cannot destroy, but which will grow greater, and spread more widely, with each new generation. Who dares to set himself against the attempt to erect such a memorial?

So, instead of consoling ourselves for the loss of our independence with the promise of a period of bloom for our literature in the future, and instead of allowing ourselves to be deterred by consolations of that kind from seeking a means to restore our independence, we prefer to ask whether those Germans, to whom a kind of guardianship of literature has fallen, still allow, even in these days, a literature in the true sense of the word to the other Germans who themselves write and read, and whether they consider that such a literature is still allowed in Germany or not. But some decision will shortly have to be made as to what they really think about it.

196. After all, the first thing that we have to do, in order merely to maintain ourselves in existence until the time comes for the complete and thorough regeneration of our race, is this; to provide ourselves with character, and to prove it first of all by thinking for ourselves and so forming a firm opinion of our true situation and of the sure means of improving it. The worthlessness of the consolation to be derived from the continued existence of our language and literature has been demonstrated. There are, however, other delusive views which have not yet been mentioned in these addresses, and which hinder the formation of that firm opinion. It is appropriate to our purpose to consider these views as well; but we reserve this subject for the next address.


  1. [Fichte seems here to be referring ironically to French and to those Germans who were writing in that language in order to curry favour with Napoleon.]
  2. [Napoleon.]