On the Nature of the Scholar/Lecture 10

On the Nature of the Scholar by Johann Gottlieb Fichte
Lecture X.. Of the Scholar as Author

To complete and close our survey of the vocation of the Scholar, we have to-day to speak of the Scholar as Author.

I have hitherto contented myself with clearly setting forth the true Idea of the special subjects of our inquiry, without turning aside to glance at the actual state of things in the present age. It is almost impossible to proceed in this way with the subject which I am to discuss to-day. The Idea of the Author is almost unknown in our age, and something most unworthy usurps its name. This is the peculiar disgrace of the age,—the true source of all its other scientific evils. The inglorious has become glorious, and is encouraged, honoured, and rewarded.

According to the almost universally received opinion, it is a merit and an honour for a man to have printed something, merely because he has printed it, and without any regard to what it is which he has printed, and what may be its result. They, too, lay claim to the highest rank in the republic of letters who undertake to announce the fact that somebody has printed something and what that something is; or, as the phrase goes, who " review " the works of others. It is almost inexplicable how such an absurd opinion could have arisen and taken root, when we consider the subject in its true light.

Thus stands the matter: In the latter half of the past century Reading took the place of some other amusements which had gone out of fashion. This new luxury demanded, from time to time, new fancy goods; for it is of course quite impossible that one should read over again what one has read already, or those things which our forefathers have read before us; just as it would be altogether unbecoming to appear frequently in fashionable society in the same costume, or to dress according to the notions of one's grandfather. The new want gave birth to a new trade, striving to nourish and enrich itself by purveying the wares now in demand,—namely, Bookselling. The success of those who first undertook this trade encouraged others to engage in it, until, in our own days, it has come to this, that this mode of obtaining a livelihood is greatly overstocked and the quantity of the goods produced is much too large in proportion to the consumers. The book-merchant, like the dealer in any other commodity, orders his goods from the manufacturer, solely with the view of bringing them to the market;—at times also he buys uncommissioned goods which have been manufactured only on speculation; and the Author who writes for the sake of writing is this manufacturer. It is impossible to conceive why the book-manufacturer should take precedence of any other manufacturer; he ought rather to feel that he is far inferior to any other manufacturer, inasmuch as the luxury to which he ministers is more pernicious than any other. That he find a merchant for his wares may indeed be useful and profitable to him, but how it should be an honour is not readily discoverable. Of course, on the judgment of the publisher, which is only a judgment on the saleableness or unsaleableness of the goods, no value can be set.

Amid this bustle and pressure of the literary trade, a happy thought struck some one;—this, namely, out of all the books which were printed, to make one periodical book; so that the reader of this book might be spared the trouble of reading any other. It was fortunate that this last purpose was not completely successful, and that everybody did not take to reading this book exclusively, since then no others would have been purchased, and consequently no others printed; so that this book too, being constantly dependent upon other books for the possibility of its own existence, must likewise have remained unprinted.

He who undertook such a work, which is commonly called a Literary Journal, Literary Gazette, &c. &c., had the advantage of seeing his work increase by the charitable contributions of many anonymous individuals, and of thus earning honour and profit by the labour of others. To veil his own poverty of ideas, he pretended to pass judgment on the authors whom he quoted,—a shallow pretence to the thinker who looks below the surface. For either the book is—as most books are at present—a bad book, printed only that there might be one more book in the world; and in this case it ought never to have been written, and is a nullity, and consequently the judgment upon it is a nullity also;—or, the book is a true Literary Work, such as we shall presently describe; and then it is the result of a whole capable life devoted to Art or Science, and so would require another whole life as capable as the first to be employed in its judgment. On such a work it is not altogether possible to pass a final judgment in a couple of sheets, within three or six months after its appearance. How can there be any honour in contributing to such collections? True genius, on the contrary, will rather employ itself on a connected work, originated and planned out by itself, than allow the current of its thoughts to be interrupted by every accident of the day until that interruption is again broken by some new occurrence. The disposition continually to watch the thoughts of others, and on these thoughts, please God, to hang our own attempts at thinking,—is a certain sign of immaturity, and of a weak and dependent mind. Or does the honour consist in this,—that the conductors of such works should consider us capable of filling the office of judge and actually make it over to us? In reality their opinion goes no deeper than that of a common unlettered printer, of the saleableness or unsaleableness of the goods, and of the outward reputation which may thereby accrue to their critical establishment.

I am aware that what I have now said may seem very paradoxical. All of us who are connected in any way with Knowledge, which in this connexion may be termed Literature, grow up in the notion that literary industry is a blessing,—an advantage,—an honourable distinction of our cultivated and philosophical age; and but few have power to see through this prepossession and recognise its emptiness. The only apparent reason which can be adduced in defence of such perverted industry is, in my opinion, this:—that thereby an extensive literary public is kept alive, roused to attention, and, as it were, held together; so that, should anything of real value and importance be brought before it, this public shall be found already existing, and not have to be first called together. But I answer, that, in the first place, the means appear much too extensive for the end contemplated,—it seems too great a sacrifice that many generations should spend their time upon nothing, in order that some future generation may be enabled to occupy itself with something;—and further, it is by no means true that a public is only kept alive by this misdirected activity; it is at the same time perverted, vitiated, and ruined for the appreciation of anything truly valuable. Much that is excellent has made its appearance in our age,—I shall instance only the Kantian Philosophy,—but this very activity of the literary market has destroyed, perverted, and degraded it, BO that its spirit has fled, and now only a ghost of it stalks about, which no one can venerate.

The Literary History of our own day shows the real thinker how writing for writing's sake may be honoured and applauded. A few Authors only excepted, our Literary Men have in their own writings borne worse testimony against themselves than any one else could have given against them; and no even moderately well-disposed person would be -inclined to consider the writers of our day so shallow, perverse, and spiritless, as the majority show themselves in their works. The only way to retain any respect for the age, any desire to influence it, is this,—to assume that those who proclaim their opinions aloud are inferior men, and that only among those who keep silence some may be found who are capable of teaching better things.

Thus, when I speak of the Literary Vocation, it is not the Literary Trade of the age which I mean, but something quite other than that.

I have already set forth the Idea of the Author when distinguishing it from that of the oral Teacher of progressive Scholars. Both have to express and communicate the Idea in language: the latter, for particular individuals by whose capacity for receiving it he must be guided; the former, without regard to any individual and in the most perfect form which can be given to it in his age.

The Author must embody the Idea,—he must therefore be a partaker of the Idea. All Literary Works are either works of Art or of Science. Whatever may be the subject of a work of the first class, it is evident that since it does not directly express any special conception, and thus teaches the reader nothing, it can only awaken the Idea itself within him and furnish it with a fitting embodiment; otherwise it would be but an empty play of words and have no real meaning. Whatever may be the subject of a scientific work, the Author of such a work must not conceive of Knowledge in a mere historical fashion, and only as received from others;—he must for himself have spiritually penetrated to the Idea of Knowledge on some one of its sides, and produce it in a self-creative, new, and hitherto unknown form. If he be but a link in the chain of historical tradition, and can do no more than hand down to others the knowledge which he himself has received, and only in the form in which it already exists in some work whence he has obtained it, then let him leave others in peace to draw from this fountain whence he also has drawn. What need is there of his officious intermeddling? To do over again that which has been done already, is to do nothing; and no man who possesses common honesty and conscientiousness will allow himself to indulge in such idleness. Can his Age, then, furnish him with no occupation which is suited to his powers, that he must thus employ himself in doing what he need not do? It is not necessary that he should write an entirely new work in any branch of Knowledge, but only a better work than any hitherto existing. He who cannot do this should absolutely not write;—it is a crime—a want of honesty to do so, which at the most can only be excused by his thoughtlessness and utter want of any true conception of the business he has undertaken.

He must express the Idea in language, in an intelligible manner, in a perfect form. The Idea must therefore have become in him so clear, living, and independent, that it already clothes itself to him in words; and, penetrating to the innermost spirit of his language, frames thence a vesture for itself by its own inherent power. The Idea itself must speak, not the Author. His will, his individuality, his peculiar method and art, must disappear from his page, so that only the method and art of his Idea may live the highest life which it can attain in his language and in his time. As he is free from the obligation under which the Oral Teacher lies,—to accommodate himself to the capacities of others,—so he has not this apology to plead before himself. He has no specific reader in view,—he himself must mould his reader and lay down to him the law which he must obey. There may be printed productions addressed only to a certain age and a certain circle,—we shall see afterwards under what conditions such writings may be necessary; but these do not belong to the class of essentially Literary Works of which we now speak, but are printed discourses,—printed because the circle to which they are addressed cannot be brought together.

In order that in this way the Idea may in his person become master of his language, it is necessary that he shall first have acquired a mastery over that language. The Idea does not rule the language directly, but only through him as possessor of the language. This indispensable mastery of the Author over his language is only acquired by preparatory exercises, long continued and persevered in, which are studies for future works but have no essential value in themselves,—which the conscientious Scholar writes indeed, but will never allow to be printed. It requires, I say, long and persevering exercise; but, happily, these conditions mutually promote each other; as the Idea becomes more vivid, language spontaneously appears, and as facility of expression is increased, the Idea flows forth in greater clearness.

These are the first and most necessary conditions of all true Authorship. The Idea itself,—and that of expressing the Idea in true and appropriate language,—is that which lives, and alone lives in him within whom the presentiment has arisen that he may one day send forth a Literary Work;—it is this which animates him in his preparations and studies for that work, as well as in the future completion of his design.

By this Idea he is inspired with a dignified and sacred conception of the Literary calling. The work of the Oral Teacher is, in its immediate application, only a work for the time, modified by the degree of culture possessed by those who are entrusted to his care. Only in so far as he can venture to suppose that he is moulding future Teachers worthy of their calling, who, in their turn, will train others for the same task, and so on without end, can he regard himself as working for Eternity. But the work of the Author is in itself a work for Eternity. Even should future ages transcend the knowledge expressed in his work, still in that work he has not recorded his knowledge alone, but also the fixed and settled character of his age in its relation to that knowledge; and this will preserve its interest so long as the human race endures. Independent of all vicissitude and change, his pages speak in every age to all men who are able to realize his thought; and thus continue their inspiring, elevating, and ennobling work, even to the end of time.

The Idea, in this its acknowledged sacredness, moves him,—and it alone moves him. He does not believe that he has attained anything until he has attained all,—until his work stands before him in the purity and perfectness which he has striven to attain. Devoid of love for his own person, faithfully devoted to the Idea by which he is constantly guided, he recognises with certain glance, and in its true character, every trace of his former nature which remains in his expression of the Idea, and unceasingly strives to free himself from it. So long as he is not conscious of this absolute freedom and purity, he has not attained his end, but still works on. In such an age as we have already described, in which the communication of knowledge has greatly increased, and has even fallen into the hands of some who are better fitted for any other occupation than for this, it may be necessary for him to give some preliminary account of his labours;—other modes of communication, too, that of the Oral Teacher for instance, may require such a preliminary account from him; but he will never put forth such necessary .writings for anything else than what they are,—preliminary announcements adapted to a certain age and certain circumstances; he will never regard them as finished works destined for immortality.

The Idea alone urges him forward;—nothing else. All personal regards have disappeared from his view. I do not speak of his own person,—of his having entirely forgotten himself in his vocation;—this has been already sufficiently set forth. The personality of others has no more weight with him than his own when opposed to the truth and the Idea. I do not mention that he will not encroach upon the rights of other Scholars or Authors in their civic or personal relations: that is altogether below his dignity who has to do only with realities; it is also below the dignity of these discourses to make mention of that. But this I will remark, that he will not allow himself to be restrained, by forbearance towards any person whatever, from demolishing error and establishing truth in its place. The worst insult that can be offered, even to a half-educated man, is to suppose that he can be offended by the exposure of an error he has entertained, or the proclamation of a truth which has escaped his notice. From this bold and open profession of truth as he perceives it, without regard to any man, he will suffer nothing to lead him astray, not even the politely expressed contempt of the so-called fashionable world, which can conceive of the literary calling only by analogy with its own social circles, and would impose the etiquette of the court upon the conduct of the Scholar.

Here I close these Lectures. If a thought of mine have entered into any now present, and shall abide there as a guide to higher truth, perhaps it may sometimes awaken the memory of these lectures and of me,—and only in this way do I desire to live in your recollection.