Characteristics of the Present Age/Lecture 5


Returning from a digression through which we promised ourselves additional light upon our way, we resume the straight path of our inquiry. Let us once more cast a glance over the purpose of this inquiry as a whole.

It is the end of the Earthly Life of the Human Race to order all its relations with Freedom according to Reason. To do this with Freedom, with a Freedom of which the Race shall be conscious, and which it shall recognise as its own, presupposes a condition in which this Freedom had not yet appeared;—not that the relations of the Race have at any time not been ordered according to Reason, for in that case there could have been no Race; but only that this ordering has not been accomplished by Freedom, but by Reason as a blind power; that is, by Reason as Instinct. Instinct is blind; its opposite, Freedom, must therefore be seeing;—that is, must be a Knowledge of the laws of Reason according to which the Race is to order its relations by means of its own unconstrained activity and art. In order that the Race may be able to attain to Reason as Knowledge, and from thence to Reason as Art, it must in the first place set itself free from the blind dominion of Reason as Instinct. But far from having even a wish to free itself from this constraint, Humanity cannot help loving it, in so far as it rules as an unconscious power within Humanity itself. Hence this constraint must, in the first place, assume the form of an External Authority, and impose itself on Humanity with outward compulsion and power, as the foreign Instinct of a few Individuals; against which External Authority, Humanity now rises in opposition and sets itself free—primarily from this External Authority itself, but, at the same time, from Reason also in the form of Instinct; and—since Reason has not yet appeared in any other form,—from Reason altogether.

From this principle we arrived at five great and only possible Epochs, exhausting the whole Earthly Life of the Human Race:—First, That in which human affairs are governed by Reason as Instinct without violence or constraint. Second, That in which this Instinct has become weaker, and now only manifests itself in a few chosen Individuals, and thereby becomes an External Ruling Authority for all the rest. Third, That in which this Authority is thrown off; and, with it, Reason in every shape which it has yet assumed. Fourth, That in which Reason in the shape of Knowledge appears among men. Fifth, That in which Art associates itself with Knowledge, in order to mould Human Life with a firmer and surer hand into harmony with Knowledge, and in which the ordering of all the relations of Man according to Reason is, by means of this Art, freely accomplished, the object of the Earthly Life attained, and our Race enters upon the higher spheres of another World.

We chose for the principal subject-matter of these discourses the characteristics of the Third of the Epochs above mentioned, in consequence of the opinion which we expressed that the Present Age stands in this Third Epoch:—of the correctness or incorrectness of which opinion we left you entirely to judge for yourselves.

This Third Epoch, as the declared foe of all blind Instinct and of all Authority, takes this maxim as its motto:—‘Accept nothing but what is understood,’—that is, understood immediately, and by means of the previously existing and hereditary Common Sense. Could we lay open the true nature of this Common Sense, which the Third Epoch assumes as the standard of all its thoughts and opinions, we should then have a clear analysis of its whole system of thought and opinion.

This also we have accomplished. Reason in whatever shape it reveals itself, whether as Instinct or as Knowledge, always necessarily embraces the Life of the Race as a Race;—Reason being thrown off and extinguished, nothing remains but the mere individual, personal life. Hence in the Third Age, which has set itself free from Reason, there is nothing remaining but this latter life; nothing, wherever the Age has thoroughly manifested itself and arrived at clearness and consistency, except pure, naked Egoism; and hence it naturally follows that the inborn and established Common Sense of the Third Age can be nothing else, and can contain nothing else, than the wisdom which provides for its personal well-being.

The means of the support and well-being of the personal life can only be discovered by Experience, since man has no direct guide thereto, either in an animal instinct such as the beasts possess; or in Reason which has for its object only the Life of the Race: and hence the assumption of Experience as the only source of knowledge is a characteristic trait of such an Age.

From this principle there arise further those views of Knowledge, of Art, of the Social Relations of Men, of Morality, and of Religion, which we have in like manner adduced as prevailing characteristics of such an Age.

In one word: the permanent and fundamental peculiarity and characteristic of such an Age is this,—that every genuine product of it thinks and does all that he actually thinks and does solely for himself and for his own peculiar advantage;—just as the opposite principle, that of a Life according to Reason, consists herein,—that each Individual ought to devote his own personal life to the Life of the Race; or in other words,—as it afterwards appeared that the form in which this Life of the Race enters into consciousness and becomes an active power in the life of the Individual is called Idea,—that each Individual ought to place his personal life, and power, and all enjoyment thereof, in Ideas. In order to make clearer our farther characterization of the Third Age, by contrasting it with the Life according to Reason, we have in our last two lectures entered upon a delineation of this Life, and with respect to that matter, I have now only to add the following remarks:—

In the first place: Herein,—namely, in the distinction which we have pointed out between a life devoted to mere personal well-being, and a life devoted to the Idea,—lies the difference between the Life opposed to Reason and the Life according to Reason; and it is of no importance here whether, in the latter case, the Idea reveal itself in the obscurity of mere Instinct, as in the First Epoch; or be imposed by External Authority, as in the Second; or stand bright and clear in the fulness of Knowledge, as in the Fourth; or rule in the equally clear realization of Art, as in the Fifth; and in this respect the Third Age does not stand opposed to any one of the others in particular; but, as being essentially and throughout contrary to Reason, it stands opposed to all other Time, as essentially and in substance in accordance with Reason though from Age to Age under various forms.

In the particular manifestations of the Idea, and its mode of working, which we have adduced in our last two lectures, it appears only in the form of Instinct; for we have there described only the Time which precedes the Third Age, which indeed first makes the existence of that Age possible,—and when Time in general has not yet advanced to the manifestation of the Idea in clear consciousness. Let this distinction be henceforth kept in view to prevent misunderstanding.

Now should any one reject and repudiate our delineation of a mode of thought in which everything is dedicated to Ideas, as well as this mode of thought itself; should fret over it, attempt to decry it, and represent it as unnatural, (always to himself of course) and as a foolish fanaticism;—against such a repudiation we can do nothing, and would do nothing if we could. The more frequently, loudly, and openly this is done, the more thoroughly is there developed, and the more quickly will pass away a mode of thought through which humanity must necessarily pass; and, I may add, the more clearly does it appear that I have hit my mark. But I wish that this repudiation were honestly, openly, and unequivocally avowed; and in so far as it lies with me, I would remove every pretence behind which such a repudiation can take shelter while something else seems to occupy its place. In this way I desire to do everything and am conscious of having hitherto done everything in my power to take away the pretext that these discourses have not been thoroughly understood; and that if they were they would be at once assented to. These discourses still exist precisely as they were delivered: the meaning of the language, the sequence of thought, the definition of each individual thought by other thoughts,—upon which the clearness of a discourse depends,—all these things have their well-defined rules; and it may still be determined whether these rules have been followed; and I, for my own part, believe that I have said nothing but that precisely which I intended to say. A discourse, indeed, which undertakes really to say something must be heard from beginning to end and in all its parts. But when a man, let him hear as often as he will, at each new hearing still misconceives what is said;—in him there is no understanding at all, but only some empty husks of phraseology learned by rote, like chaff upon the granary floor. To make this clear by two examples selected at random: Should some one, for instance, with his head full of the unhappy, newly invented, confusion of language according to which every thought may, by a pleasant change of expression, be named Idea, and in which there is no objection to speaking of the idea of a chair or a bench;—should such an one wonder how so much importance is attached to the dedication of Life to Ideas, and how in this can be placed the characteristic distinction between two opposite classes of men, whereas everything which enters the mind of any human being is Idea; such an one has understood nothing at all of what we have hitherto said; but without any fault of ours. For we have not failed strictly to discriminate between Conceptions which, by means of Experience, find their way into the understanding of the mere sensuous man; and Ideas which, independent of all Experience, kindle into self-sustaining life in those who are inspired by them.

Or should any one be unable to get over a certain catchword, brought into circulation, with others of the same kind of which it would be quite as difficult to give any rational account, by some conceited bel esprit,—the word Individuality—fair, lovely Individuality!—and with this understanding of the word, which may indeed be true in one sense, find himself unable to reconcile our unconditional rejection of all Individuality;—then such an one has not understood that by Individuality we mean only the personal, sensuous existence of the Individual, which is the true meaning of the word; and by no means deny, but rather expressly teach and inculcate, that the One Eternal Idea assumes a new and hitherto unknown form in each Individual in whom it comes to Life, and this by its own power and under its own legislation, and quite independently of physical nature:—consequently in no way determined thereto by the sensuous Individuality, but on the contrary abolishing such Individuality altogether, and of itself alone moulding the Ideal Individuality, or, as it may be more properly called, Originality.

Finally, in this connexion let us add the following:—We by no means assume here the strict tone and compulsive form of demonstration; but, in addressing open and unprejudiced minds, we have limited ourselves to the modest style of popular lectures, and to the moderate desire of holding intercourse with such minds in a convenient and becoming way. But should there be some one who loves to examine and judge upon more special grounds, and wishes to do so here; then let it not be concealed from him that, notwithstanding our apparent superficiality, we have yet surrounded him with a chain of argument, which he may well consider and bethink himself what link of it he shall first attempt to break. Should he say,—‘All this devotion of Life to the realization of an Idea is a mere chimera to which we ourselves have given birth;’—then we have proved to him historically, that at all times there have been men who have led this Life in the Idea, and that all things great and good which now exist in the world, are the products of this Life. Or should he say,—‘Even if this has been so, this way of Life is an old folly and superstition, and our present enlightened Age is far above it;’—then we have shown that since he himself cannot refrain from admiring and reverencing, even against his will, such a mode of Life, there must lie at the bottom of this admiration and reverence a principle to this effect,—that the personal life ought to be dedicated to the Idea; and thus, by his own confession, such a mode of Life is approved by the voice of Reason immediately audible within us, and therefore is no superstition. Both these positions being cut off, there would remain no other course for him but to declare boldly that he has never discovered in himself any such specific feeling as that of admiration or reverence, and that it has never happened to him to reverence or respect anything;—and in this case he would have entirely got rid of our premises and therefore of all their consequences; and we should then be perfectly satisfied with him.

In the extended picture of the Third Age which it is now my duty to present to you, I ought, perhaps, in the opinion of most of those who may have considered the matter, to proceed to a description of the relation of the Present Age to the several forms of the One Idea which I have set forth in the last lecture; and this plan I have approximately followed in the general characterization of the Age which is contained in the second lecture.

But I have already stated, and I now repeat, that the fundamental maxim of this Age is to accept nothing but that which it can understand:—the point upon which it takes its stand is thus a conception. It has also been already shown that it does not attain the Epochal character, and assume the rank of a separate Age, so long as it only blindly follows this maxim; but that it can then only be clearly understood when it recognises itself in this maxim, and accepts it as the Highest. Hence the distinctive and peculiar characteristic of this Age is this notion of conception, and it bears the form of Knowledge;—only the empty form, indeed, since that from which alone Knowledge derives its value, the Idea, is wholly wanting here. Hence, in order to get at the root of this Age, we must first speak of its system of Knowledge. In our description of this system, its views of the fundamental forms of the Idea, as necessary parts of the system itself, must likewise come into view.

In order to give you, in this place, a still more comprehensive glance of what you have now to expect, I add the following ground of distinction, to which I have not yet adverted. The maxim of the Age is to accept nothing but that which it can understand,—understand, that is to say, through the mere empirical conceptions of Experience;— and, therefore, wherever the Age can establish itself in sufficient power and consistency, it sets up this maxim as its scientific principle, and by it estimates and judges every acquisition of knowledge. But it cannot fail that others, not so entirely under the rule of the prevailing spirit, but without having yet descried the morning-dawn of the new Age, must feel the infinite emptiness and platitude of such a maxim; and then, imagining that to get at the True we have only to reverse the False, are disposed to place all wisdom in the Incomprehensible and the Unintelligible. But since these too, with their whole mode of thinking, arise out of the Age, and are nothing but its reaction against itself; so, notwithstanding the antagonism of their principles, they as well as the others are products of the Age, and under other conditions would have been but the residue of a former Time; and he who would comprehend the Knowledge of the Age, must bring forward and investigate both principles:—as we shall do.

There is now only one more general remark with which I must preface our delineation, namely, the following:—Whether that which we call the Third Age is precisely our own, and whether the phenomena which I shall derive by strict deduction from the principle of this Age, are those which now exist before our eyes;—on this point I have more than once said I leave you to form your own judgment. But in case any one should desire to pass such a judgment, it is necessary to guard him against such reasoning as the following:—‘Well, suppose that it cannot be denied that this is the case at present, yet it is by no means a feature peculiar to our Age, but may always have been so.’ With this view, when speaking of any phenomena of which this might by possibility be said, I shall call to your recollection Ages in which it was otherwise than it is now.

We commence the delineation of the scientific condition of the Third Age, by a description of its form,—that is, of the fixed and essential peculiarities which permeate its whole existence; and we trace these peculiarities in this way:—

When the Idea enters into life it creates an inexhaustible power and energy, and only from the Idea can such energy arise: an Age without the Idea must therefore be a weak and powerless Age; and all it does, all wherein it shows any sign of life, is accomplished in a languid and sickly manner, without any visible manifestation of energy. And, with respect to its pursuits,—since we are now in particular discoursing of Knowledge,—it is neither powerfully drawn towards any one subject, nor does it thoroughly penetrate any; but, impelled by a momentary caprice or other passion, one day to this and another day to that subject, it satisfies itself with glancing at some superficial Appearance, instead of penetrating to the inmost Truth. In its opinions on these subjects, such an Age is dragged here and there by the blind influence of association, consistent in nothing but in this universal superficiality and fickleness; and in its first principle,—that in this levity true wisdom consists. Not so with him who is animated by Knowledge in the form of the Idea. It has arisen upon him in one particular point of enquiry, and to this one point it holds his whole life and all its powers enchained, until it becomes perfectly clear to him and sheds forth a new light on the entire Universe of Thought. That such men have formerly existed, and that Knowledge has not always been prosecuted in such a shallow and feeble manner as that in which the Third Age must necessarily pursue it, is proved at least by the discovery of Mathematics among the ancients. Finally, in its communication of thought, whether in speech or in writing, the same mediocrity and feebleness are apparent. These communications never show forth an organic whole, with all its parts proceeding from, and referred back to, one central point; but they rather resemble a cloud of sand in which each grain is a whole to itself, and which is only held together by the inconstant wind. It seems a master-stroke of invention in such an Age to hit upon the mode of communicating knowledge after the order of the letters of the alphabet. Hence its representations can never possess clearness; the want of which is supplied by a tiresome perspicacity amounting to nothing more than frequent repetition of the same thing. Wherever this Age attains to its full efficiency, this mode of communication even comes to understand itself and to represent itself as worthy of imitation; so that from thenceforward elegance is placed in neither giving the reader the trouble of thinking for himself, nor in any way calling forth his own independent activity, which indeed is considered obtrusive;—and the classical writings of the Age are those which every one may read without preparation, and peruse, and lay aside, and still remain exactly what he was before. Not so he who has Ideas to communicate and who is moved by Ideas to such communication. Not he himself speaks, but the Idea speaks, or writes, in him with indwelling power;—and that only is a good discourse wherein the speaker does not so much declare the thought, as the thought declares itself by the organ of the speaker. That such discourses have been delivered, at least in former times, and that it has not always been the fashion to avoid arousing independent thought in the mind of the hearer or reader, is proved by the writings which are left to us of classical antiquity; the study of which, indeed, and of the languages in which they are written, will be discountenanced and discarded by the Third Age wherever it acts consequentially,—in order that its own productions alone may be held in honour and esteem.

The Idea, and the Idea only, fills, satisfies, and blesses the mind:—an Age without the Idea must therefore necessarily suffer from the consciousness of unsatisfied vacuity, which manifests itself in an infinite, unappeasable, constantly recurring weariness:—it must be wearied as well as wearisome. In this unpleasant state of feeling it grasps eagerly at that which seems its only remedy,—namely, Wit; either for its own gratification, or else to break, from time to time, the weariness which it is conscious of producing in others, and thus, in the long deserts of its seriousness, to sow here and there some grain of sport. This design must indeed of necessity fail, for he only is capable of Wit who is susceptible of Ideas.

Wit is the communication of profound Truth,—that is, of Truth belonging to the region of Ideas,—in its most direct and intuitive aspect. In its most direct and intuitive aspect, I say;—and in this respect Wit is the opposite of the communication of the same Truth in a chain of consecutive reasoning. When, for example, the philosopher separates an Idea, step by step, into its individual component parts; interprets each of these separate parts, one after the other, by means of some other conception which limits and defines it, and pursues this course until he has exhausted the whole Idea; then he proceeds in the way of methodical communication and proves indirectly the truth of his Idea. Should it happen, however, that he can at last encompass the whole Idea in its absolute unity with one single light-beam which shall, as with a lightning flash, illumine and reveal it, and penetrate each intelligent hearer or reader, so that he must at once exclaim, ‘Yes, truly, so is it; now I see it at one glance;’—then is this the representation of the Idea in question in its most direct and intuitive aspect, or its expression by Wit; and in such a case by direct or positive Wit. Again, Truth may also be proved indirectly, by showing the folly and error of its opposite; and when this is done, not by methodical and gradual exposition, but in immediate and intuitive clearness, then this is indirect, and, in relation to the Idea, negative Wit; exciting laughter in those to whom it is addressed:—it is Wit as the source of the Ridiculous; for Error in its direct and intuitive aspect is essentially ridiculous.

What this Age attempts to reach is not Wit in the first sense, of which even its theories are silent, but in the second,—namely, in the form of derision, and as exciting laughter;—laughter being a means pointed out by the instinct of Nature itself, for refreshing the mind exhausted by long-continued weariness, and in some measure enlivening its stagnation by the stirring emotion which it communicates. But even in this shape Wit remains necessarily inaccessible to this Age, for in order freely to perceive and represent Error in direct and self-evident clearness it is necessary to be oneself superior to Error. This Age has no Wit;—but rather it is often the object of Wit, and that most frequently when, in its own estimation, it is most witty;—i.e. it then manifests to the intelligent observer, in its own person, Folly and Error in their highest perfection; but without the slightest suspicion of doing so. He who, in order to paint the Age to the life, has put things into its mouth to which it often unexpectedly gives utterance with the greatest possible gravity,—he may securely call himself a Wit.

How then does the Third Age acquire its measure of the Ridiculous, and the kind of scoffing irony which serves it in place of Wit? Thus:—it sets it down as indisputable that its Truth is the right Truth; and whatever is contrary to that must be false. Should any one then take up the opposite position he is of course in error,—which is absurd: and hereupon it shows, in striking examples, how entirely different the opposite view is from its own, and that in no single point can they coalesce; which indeed may be true. This once laughed at, it readily finds those who will join the laugh, if it only apply to the right quarter. Assuming a scientific form, according to established custom, this principle is soon understood and dogmatically announced; and it now appears as an axiom to this effect,—that ‘Ridicule is the touchstone of truth,’ and consequently that anything may be at once recognised as false, without farther proof, if a jest can be raised at its expense,—in the manner indicated above.

Observe the immense advantages which an Age acquires through this, at first sight, insignificant discovery. In the first place, it is by this means established in secure possession of its own wisdom; for the Age will always be careful not to apply this test of the Ridiculous to its own Knowledge, nor to join in the laugh should others so apply it,—an application which is not at all impossible. It is thus spared the trouble of disproving what is brought against it, and has no more to do than to show how far this is from agreement with its own views, and from having hit the mark of its opinion; thus making its opponents ridiculous, and,—should it bring ill-humour in its train,—suspected and even hated. Finally, this laughter is in itself a pleasant and healthy recreation, by which the most oppressive ennui may frequently be dispelled.

No!—I speak to all here present without exception, in whom I believe that I speak not to members of the Third Age, with whom indeed I never wish to speak, nor to members of any other Age,—but of whom I suppose that they are with myself elevated above all Time, and are now looking down on this particular portion of it:—no, I say, Wit is a godlike spark, and never condescends to Folly. It dwells eternally with the Idea, and never quits its fellowship. In its first shape, it is the wonderful light-conductor in the Spiritual World, by which Wisdom spreads from the point on which she first alights until she reach and embrace all other points. In its second shape, it is the avenging lightning of the Idea, which seeks out every folly, even in the midst of its disciples, and surely strikes it to the ground. Whether hurled by the hand of an individual with deliberate aim, or not so directed, it still, even in the latter case, reaches its object with the sure course of concealed and inevitable fate. Like the suitors of Penelope, who, when already beset with impending destruction, raved through the dim palace-halls of Ithaca, with frenzied laughter mocking their lugubrious aspects; so do these laugh with insensate mirth, for in their laughter the Eternal Wit of the World-Spirit laughs at them. We shall not grudge them this enjoyment, and we shall be careful not to take the bandage from their eyes.