On the Nature of the Scholar/Lecture 3

On the Nature of the Scholar by Johann Gottlieb Fichte
Lecture III.. Of the Progressive Scholar Generally

It is the Divine Idea itself which, by its own inherent power, creates for itself an independent and personal life in man, constantly maintains itself in this life, and by means of it moulds the outward world in its own image. The natural man cannot, by his own strength, raise himself to the supernatural; he must be raised thereto by the power of the supernatural. This self-forming and self-supporting life of the Idea in man manifests itself as Love;—strictly speaking, as Love of the Idea for itself; but, in the language of common appearance, as Love of man for the Idea. This was set forth in our first lecture.

So it is with Love in general;—and it is not otherwise, in particular, with the love of the knowledge of the Idea, which knowledge the Scholar is called upon to acquire. The love of the Idea absolutely for itself, and particularly for its essential light, shows itself in those men whom it has inspired, and of whose being it has fully possessed itself, as knowledge of the Idea;—in the Finished Scholar, with a well-defined and perfect clearness,—in the Progressive Scholar, as a striving towards such a degree of clearness as it can attain under the circumstances in which he is placed. Following out the plan laid down in the opening lecture, we shall speak, in the first place, of the Progressive Scholar.

In him the Idea strives, in the first place, to assume a definite form, and to establish for itself a fixed place amid the tide of manifold images which flows in ceaseless change over his soul. In this effort he is seized with a presentiment of a truth still unknown to him, of which he has as yet no clear conception; he feels that every new acquisition which he makes still falls short of the full and perfect truth, without being able to state distinctly in what it is deficient, or how the fullness of knowledge which is to take its place can be attained or brought about. This effort of the Idea within him becomes henceforward his essential life,—the highest and deepest impulse of his being,—superseding his hitherto sensuous and egoistical impulse, which was directed only towards the maintenance of his personal existence and physical well-being,—subjecting this latter to itself, and thereby for ever extinguishing it as the one and fundamental impulse of his nature. Actual personal want does still, as hitherto, demand its satisfaction; but that satisfaction does not continue, as it has hitherto continued, even when its immediate demands have been supplied, to be the engrossing thought, the ever-present object of contemplation, the motive to all conduct and action of the thinking being. As the sensuous nature has hitherto asserted its rights, so does emancipated thought, armed with new power, in its own strength and without outward compulsion or ulterior design, return from the strange land into which it has been led captive, to its own proper home, and betake itself to the path which leads towards that much wished-for Unknown, whose light streams upon it from afar. Towards that unknown it is unceasingly attracted; in meditating upon it, in striving after it, it employs its best spiritual power.

This impulse towards an obscure, imperfectly-discerned spiritual object, is commonly named Genius;—and it is so named on good grounds. It is a supernatural instinct in man, attracting him to a supernatural object;—thus indicating his relationship to the spiritual world and his original home in that world. Whether we suppose that this impulse, which, absolutely considered, should prompt to the pursuit of the Divine Idea in its primitive unity and indivisibility, does originally, and at the first appearance of any individual in the world of sense, so shape itself that this individual can lay hold of the Idea only at some one particular point of contact, and only from that point penetrate gradually to the other parts of the spiritual universe;—or whether we hold that this peculiar point of contact for the individual is determined during the first development of the individual power on the manifold materials which surround it, and always occurs in that material which chance presents at the precise moment when the power is sufficiently developed;—which of these opinions soever we adopt, still, so far as its outward manifestation is concerned, the impulse which shows itself in man and urges him onward, will always exhibit itself as an impulse towards some particular side of the one indivisible Idea; or, as we may express it, after the principles laid down in our last lecture, without fear of being misunderstood,—as an impulse towards one particular idea in the sphere of all possible ideas; or if we give to this impulse the name of Genius, then Genius will always appear as a specific Genius, for philosophy, poetry, natural science, legislation, or the like,—never clothed with an absolute character, as Genius in the abstract. According to the first opinion, this specific Genius possesses its distinguishing character as an innate peculiarity; according to the second, it is originally a universal Genius determined to a particular province only by the accident of culture. The decision of this controversy lies beyond the limits of our present task.

In whatever way it may be decided, two things are evident:—in general, the necessity of previous spiritual culture, and of preliminary acquaintance with ideas and knowledge, so that Genius, if present, may disclose itself; and, in particular the necessity of bringing within the reach of every man, ideas of many different kinds, so that either the inborn specific Genius may come into contact with its appropriate material, or the originally universal Genius may freely choose one particular object from among the many. Even in this preliminary spiritual culture, future Genius reveals itself; for its earliest impulse is directed towards Knowledge only as Knowledge,—merely for the sake of knowing;—and thus manifests itself solely as a desire to know.

But even when this impulse has visibly manifested itself either in the active investigation of some attractive problem or in happy anticipations of its solution, still persevering industry, uninterrupted labour, are imperatively requisite. The question has often been raised, whether Genius or Industry be more essential in science. I answer, both must be united:—the one is of little worth without the other. Genius is nothing more than the effort of the Idea to assume a definite form. The Idea, however, has in itself neither body nor substance, but only shapes for itself an embodiment out of the scientific materials which environ it in Time, of which Industry is the sole purveyor. On the other hand, Industry can do nothing more than provide the elements of this embodiment;—to unite them organically, and to breathe into them a living spirit, is not the work of Industry, but belongs only to the Idea revealing itself as Genius. To impress its image on the surrounding world is the object for which the living Idea dwelling in the True Scholar seeks for itself an embodiment. It is to become the highest life-principle, the innermost soul of the world around it;—it must therefore assume the same forms which are borne by the surrounding world, establish itself in these forms as its own proper dwelling-place, and with a free authority regulate the movements of all their individual parts according to the natural purposes of each, even as a healthy man can set in motion his own limbs. As for him with whom the indwelling Genius proceeds but half-way in its embodiment, and stops there,—whether it be because the paths of Learned Culture are inaccessible to him, or because, from idleness or presumptuous self-conceit, he disdains to avail himself of them,—between him and his age, and consequently between him and every possible age, and the whole human race in every point of its progress, an impassable gulf is fixed, and the means of mutual influence are cut off. Whatever may now dwell within him,—or, more strictly speaking, whatever he might have acquired in the course of his progressive culture,—he is unable to explain clearly either to himself or others, or to make it the deliberate rule of his actions and thus realize it in the world. He wants the two necessary elements of the true life of the Idea,—clearness and freedom. Clearness;—his fundamental principle is not thoroughly transparent to his own mind, he cannot follow it securely throughout all its modifications, from its innermost source where it descends immediately from the Divinity upon his soul, to all those points at which it has to manifest and embody itself in the visible world, and through the different forms which, under different conditions, it must assume. Freedom; which springs from clearness, and can never exist without it;—for he does not recognise at first sight the form which the Idea must assume in each phase of reality that presents itself, and the proper means of that realization;—nor has he those means at his free disposal. He is commonly called a visionary,—and he is rightly so called. He, on the contrary, in whom the Idea perfectly reveals itself, looks out upon and thoroughly penetrates all reality by the light of the Idea. Through the Idea itself he understands all its related objects,—how they have become what they are, what in them is complete, what is still awanting, and how the want must be supplied; and he has, besides, the means of supplying that want completely in his power. The embodiment of the Idea is then for the first time completed in him, and he is a matured Scholar;—the point where the Scholar passes into the free Artist is the point of maturity for the Scholar. Hence it is evident that even when Genius has disclosed itself, and visibly becomes a self-forming life of the Idea, untiring Industry is necessary to its perfect growth. To show that at the point where the Scholar reaches maturity the creative existence of the Artist begins; that this, too, requires Industry, that it is infinite;—lies not within our present inquiry; we only allude to it in passing.

But what did I say?—that even after the manifestation of Genius, Industry is requisite?—as if I would call forth Industry by my prescription, my advice, my demonstration of its necessity, and thus expected to rouse to exertion those in whom it is wanting! Rather let us say, that where Genius is really present, Industry spontaneously appears, grows with a steady growth, and ceaselessly impels the advancing Scholar onwards towards perfection;—where, on the contrary, Industry is not to be found, it is not Genius nor the impulse of the Idea which has shown itself, but, in place of it, only some mean and unworthy motive.

The Idea is not the ornament of the individual (for, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as individuality in the Idea), but it seeks to flow forth in the whole human race, to animate it with new life, and to mould it after its own image. This is the distinctive character of the Idea; and whatever is without this character is not the Idea. Wherever, therefore, it attains such a life, it irresistibly strives after this universal activity, not through the life of the individual, but through its own essential nature. It thus impels every one in whom it has an abode, even against the will and wish of his sensuous, personal nature, and as though he were a passive instrument,—impels him forward to this universal activity, to the skill which is demanded in its exercise, and to the Industry which is necessary for the acquisition of that skill. Even without need of the personal intention of its instrument, it never ceases from spontaneous activity and self-development until it has attained such a living and efficient form as is possible for it under the conditions by which it is surrounded. Wherever a man, after having availed himself of the existing and accessible means for the acquirement of Learned Culture—(for the second case, where those means do not exist or are inaccessible, does not belong to our present subject)—wherever, I say, in the first case, such a man remains inactive, satisfied with the persuasion that he is in possession of something resembling the Idea or Genius,—then in him there is neither Idea nor Genius, but only a vain ostentatious disposition, which assumes a singular and fantastic costume in order to attract notice. Such a disposition shows itself at once in self-gratulatory contemplation of its own parts and endowments, dwelling on these in complacent indolence, commonly accompanied by contemptuous disparagement of the personal qualities and gifts of others;—while, on the contrary, he who is constantly urged on by the Idea has no time left to think of his own personality;—lost with all his powers in the object he has in view, he never weighs his own capacities of grasping it against those of other men. Genius, where it is present, sees its object only—never sees itself;—as the sound eye fixes itself upon something beyond it, but never looks round upon its own brightness. In such an one the Idea does certainly not abide. What is it, then, that animates him,—that moves him to those eager and restless efforts which we behold? It is mere pride and self-conceit, and the desperate purpose, despite of natural disqualification, to assume a character which does not belong to him;—these animate, impel, and spur him on, and stand to him in the room of Genius. And what is it which he produces, which appears to the common eye (itself neither clear nor pure, and in particular incapable of appreciating the sole criteria of all true Ideals—clearness, freedom, reasonableness, artistic form) as if it were the Idea?—what is it? Either something which he has himself imagined, or which has accidentally occurred to him, which, indeed, he does not understand, but which he hopes, nevertheless, may appear new, striking, paradoxical, and therefore blaze forth far and wide; with this he commits himself to the chance of fortune, trusting that in the sequel he himself, or some one else, may discover a meaning therein. Or else he has borrowed it from others, cunningly distorting, disarranging, and unsettling it, so that its original form cannot easily be recognised; and, by way of precaution, depreciating the source whence it came, as utterly barren and unprofitable, lest the unprejudiced observer might be led to inquire whether he has not possibly obtained from thence that which he calls his own.

In one word, self-contemplation, self-admiration, and self-flattery, although the last may remain unexpressed, and even carefully shrouded from any other eye than his own, these, and the indolence and disdain of the treasures already gathered together in the storehouses of learning which spring from these, are sure signs of the absence of true Genius; whilst forgetfulness of self in the object pursued, entire devotion to that object, and inability to entertain any thought of self in its presence, are the inseparable accompaniments of true Genius. It follows that true Genius in every stage of its growth, but particularly during its early development, is marked by amiable modesty and retiring bashfulness. Genius knows least of all about itself; it is there, and works and rules with silent power, long before it comes to consciousness of its own nature. Whoever is constantly looking back upon himself to see how it stands with him, of what powers he can boast, and who is himself the first discoverer of these,—in him truly there is nothing great.

Should there then be here among you any opening Genius, far be it from me to wound its native modesty and diffidence by any general invitation to you to examine yourselves to see whether or not you are in possession of the Idea, I would much rather earnestly dissuade you from such self-examination. And that this advice may not seem to you the suggestion of mere pedantic school-wisdom, and perhaps of extravagant caution, but may approve itself to your minds as arising from absolute necessity, I would add that this question can neither be answered by yourselves, nor can you obtain any sure answer to it from any one else; that therefore truth is not elicited by such a premeditated self-examination, but, on the contrary, the youth is taught a self-contemplation and conceited brooding over his own nature, through which the man becomes at length an intellectual and moral ruin. There are many signs by which we may know that the Genius which possibly lies concealed in a Student has not yet declared itself, and we shall find occasion in the sequel to point out the most remarkable of these; but there is only one decisive criterion by which we may determine whether Genius has existed or has never existed in him; and that one decisive criterion can be applied only after the result has become apparent. Whoever has really become a mature Scholar and Artist, in the sense in which we have used these words,—grasping the world in his clear, penetrating Idea, and able to impress that Idea upon the world at every point—he has had Genius, he has been inspired by the Idea; and this may now confidently be said of him. He who, notwithstanding the most diligent study, has come to years of maturity without having raised himself to the Idea—he has been without Genius, without communion with the Idea; and this may henceforth be said of him. But of him who is still upon the way, neither of these judgments can be pronounced.

This disposition of things, which is as wise as it is necessary, leaves but one course open to the youthful student who cannot know with certainty whether or not Genius dwells within him; this, namely, that he continue to act as though there were latent within him that which must at last come to light; that he subject himself to all conditions, and place himself in all circumstances, in which, if present, it may come to light; that, with untiring Industry and true devotion of his whole mind, he avail himself of all the means which Learned Culture offers to him. In the worst case,—if at the termination of his studies he find that, out of the mass of learning which he has accumulated, no spark of the Idea has beamed upon him, there yet remains for him this consciousness at least,—a consciousness more indispensable to man than even Genius itself, and without which the possessor of the greatest Genius is far less worthy than he, the consciousness that if he has not risen higher, no blame can attach to him, that the point at which he has stopped short is the place which God has assigned to him, whose law he will joyfully obey. No one need pride himself upon Genius, for it is the free gift of God; but of honest Industry and true devotion to his destiny any man may well be proud; indeed this thorough Integrity of Purpose is itself the Divine Idea in its most common form, and no really honest mind is without communion with God.

Farther:—the knowledge which he has acquired by means of this sincere effort after something higher, will render him always a suitable instrument in the hands of the higher Scholar,—of him who has attained possession of the Idea. To him he will unhesitatingly submit without grudge or jealousy, without any unsatisfied struggle after an elevation for which he was not formed; his guidance he will follow with a true loyalty which shall have become to him a second nature, and thus he will obtain a sure consciousness of having fulfilled his vocation as the last and highest destiny to which, in any sphere of life, man can attain.