The Vocation of the Scholar/Lecture 1

The Vocation of the Scholar
by Johann Gottlieb Fichte
Lecture I.
The Absolute Vocation of Man



The purpose of the Lectures which I commence to-day is in part known to you. I would answer, or rather I would prompt you to answer for yourselves, the following questions: What is the vocation of the Scholar?—what is his relation to Humanity as a whole, as well as to particular classes of men?—by what means can he most surely fulfil his high vocation?

The Scholar is invested with a special character only in so far as he is distinguished from other men; the idea of his calling arises from comparison, from his relation to Society at large, by which we understand not the State merely, but generally that aggregate of reasonable men who exist near each other in space, and are thus placed in mutual relations with each other.

Hence the vocation of the Scholar, considered as such, is only conceivable in society; and thus the answer to the question, “What is the vocation of the Scholar?” presupposes the answer to another question, “What is the vocation of man in Society?”

Again: the answer to this question presupposes the answer to another still higher; namely this, “What is the absolute vocation of Man?”—i.e. of Man considered simply as man, according to the mere abstract idea of Humanity; isolated and without any relation which is not necessarily included in the idea of himself?

I may be permitted to say to you at present without proof, what is doubtless already known to many among you, and what is obscurely, but not the less strongly, felt by others, that all philosophy, all human thought and teaching, all your studies, especially all that I shall address to you, can tend to nothing else than to the answering of these questions, and particularly of the last and highest of them, What is the absolute vocation of Man? and what are the means by which he may most surely fulfil it?

Philosophy is not essentially necessary to the mere feeling of this vocation; but the whole of philosophy, and indeed a fundamental and all-embracing philosophy, is implied in a distinct, clear, and complete insight into it. Yet this absolute vocation of Man is the subject of to-day’s lecture. You will consequently perceive that what I have to say on this subject on the present occasion cannot be traced down from its first principles unless I were now to treat of all philosophy. But I can appeal to your own inward sense of truth, and establish it thereon. You perceive likewise, that as the question which I shall answer in my public lectures,—What is the vocation of the Scholar? or what is the same thing, as will appear in due time, the vocation of the highest, truest man? is the ultimate object of all philosophical inquiries; so this question, What is the absolute vocation of Man? the answer to which I intend to investigate fundamentally in my private lectures, but only to point out very briefly to-day, is the primary object of such investigations. I now proceed to the answer to this question.

What the properly Spiritual in man—the pure Ego, considered absolutely in itself,—isolated and apart from all relation to anything out of itself,—would be?—this question is unanswerable, and strictly taken is self-contradictory. It is not indeed true that the pure Ego is a product of the Non-Ego—(so I denominate everything which is conceived of as existing external to the Ego, distinguished from, and opposed to it:)—it is not true, I say, that the pure Ego is a product of the Non-Ego; such a doctrine would indicate a transcendental materialism which is entirely opposed to reason; but it is certainly true, and will be fully proved in its proper place, that the Ego is not, and can never become, conscious of itself except under its empirical determinations; and that these empirical determinations necessarily imply something external to the Ego. Even the body of man, that which he calls his body, is something external to the Ego. Without this relation he would be no longer a man, but something absolutely inconceivable by us, if we can call that something which is to us inconceivable. Thus to consider man absolutely and by himself, does not mean, either here or elsewhere in these lectures, to consider him as a pure Ego, without relation to anything external to the Ego; but only to think of him apart from all relation to reasonable beings like himself.

And, so considered,—What is his vocation?—what belongs to him as Man, that does not belong to those known existences which are not men?—in what respects does he differ from all we do not call man amongst the beings with which we are acquainted?

Since I must set out from something positive, and as I cannot here proceed from the absolute postulate—the axiom “I am,”—I must lay down, hypothetically in the meantime, a principle which exists indestructibly in the feelings of all men, which is the result of all philosophy, which may be clearly proved, as I will prove it in my private lectures; the principle, that as surely as man is a rational being, he is the end of his own existence; i.e. he does not exist to the end that something else may be, but he exists absolutely because he himself is to be—his being is its own ultimate object;—or, what is the same thing, man cannot, without contradiction to himself, demand an object of his existence. He is, because he is. This character of absolute being—of existence for his own sake alone,—is his characteristic or vocation, in so far as he is considered solely as a rational being.

But there belongs to man not only absolute being, being for itself, but also particular determinations of this being: he not only is, but he is something definite; he does not merely say—“I am,” but he adds—“I am this or that.” So far as his absolute existence is concerned, he is a reasonable being; in so far as he is something beyond this, What is he? This question we must answer.

That which he is in this respect, he is, not primarily because he himself exists, but because something other than himself exists. The empirical self-consciousness, that is, the consciousness of a determinate vocation, is not possible except on the supposition of a Non-Ego, as we have already said, and in the proper place will prove. This Non-Ego must approach and influence him through his passive capacity, which we call sense. Thus in so far as man possesses a determinate existence, he is a sensuous being. But still, as we have already said, he is also a reasonable being; and his Reason must not be superseded by Sense, but both must exist in harmony with each other. In this connexion the principle propounded above,—Man is because he is,—is changed into the following,—Whatever Man is, that he should be solely because he is;—i.e. all that he is should proceed from his pure Ego,—from his own simple personality; he should be all that he is, absolutely because he is an Ego, and whatever he cannot be solely upon that ground, he should absolutely not be. This as yet obscure formula we shall proceed to illustrate.

The pure Ego can only be conceived of negatively, as the opposite of the Non-Ego, the character of which is multiplicity, consequently as perfect and absolute unity; it is thus always one and the same, always identical with itself. Hence the above formula may also be expressed thus; Man should always be at one with himself,—he should never contradict his own being. The pure Ego can never stand in opposition to itself, for there is in it no possible diversity, it constantly remains one and the same; but the empirical Ego, determined and determinable by outward things, may contradict itself; and as often as it does so, the contradiction is a sure sign that it is not determined according to the form of the pure Ego, not by itself, but by something external to itself. It should not be so; for man is his own end, he should determine himself, and never allow himself to be determined by anything foreign to himself; he should be what he is, because he wills it, and ought to will it. The determination of the empirical Ego should be such as may endure for ever. I may here, in passing, and for the sake of illustration merely, express the fundamental principle of morality in the following formula: “So act that thou mayest look upon the dictate of thy will as an eternal law to thyself.”

The ultimate vocation of every finite, rational being is thus absolute unity, constant identity, perfect harmony with himself. This absolute identity is the form of the pure Ego, and the one true form of it; or rather, by the possibility to conceive of this identity is the expression of that form recognised. Whatever determination can be conceived of as enduring eternally, is in conformity with the pure form of the Ego. Let not this be understood partially or from one side. Not the Will alone should be always at one with itself, this belongs to morality only; but all the powers of man, which are essentially but one power, and only become distinguished in their application to different objects, should all accord in perfect unity and harmony with each other.

The empirical determinations of our Ego depend, however, for the most part, not upon ourselves but upon something external to us. The Will is, indeed, within its own circle—i.e. in the compass of the objects to which it can be applied after they have become known to man perfectly free;—as will be strictly proved at the proper time. But sense, and the conceptions in which it is presupposed, are not free; they depend upon things external to the Ego, the character of which is multiplicity, not identity. If the Ego is to be constantly at one with itself in this respect also, it must strive to operate directly upon the things themselves on which the sensations and perceptions of man depend; man must endeavour to modify these, and to bring them into harmony with the pure form of his Ego, so that his conceptions of them likewise, so far as these (his conceptions) depend upon the nature of their objects, may harmonize with that form. This modification of things according to our necessary ideas of what they should be, is not however possible by mere Will, but requires also a certain skill which is acquired and improved by practice.

Further, what is still more important, our empirical determinable Ego receives, from that unrestricted influence of external things upon it to which we subject ourselves without reservation so long as our Reason is still undeveloped, certain tendencies which cannot possibly harmonize with the form of our pure Ego, since they proceed from things external to us. In order to eradicate these tendencies, and restore the pure original form, Will is not sufficient of itself, but we need, besides, that skill which is acquired and improved by practice.

The acquisition of this skill,—partly to subdue and eradicate the improper tendencies which have arisen within us prior to the awakening of Reason and the consciousness of our own independence,—partly to modify external things, and alter them in accordance with our ideas,—the acquisition of this skill, I say, is called Culture; and any particular degree of it, when acquired, is likewise so denominated. Culture differs only in degree, but it is capable of infinite gradations. It is the last and highest means to the attainment of the great end of man, when he is considered as of a composite nature, rational and sensuous; complete harmony with himself: it is in itself his ultimate end when he is considered only as a sensuous being. Sense should be cultivated: that is the highest and ultimate purpose which can be entertained with respect to it.

The final result of all we have said is as follows: The perfect harmony of man with himself, and that this may be practicable, the harmony of all external things with his necessary practical ideas of them, the ideas which determine what these things should be; this is the ultimate and highest purpose of human existence. This harmony is, to use the language of the critical philosophy, the Highest Good; which Highest Good, considered absolutely, as follows from what we have already said, has no parts, but is perfectly simple and indivisible, it is the complete harmony of a rational being with himself. But in reference to a rational being who is dependent on external things, it may be considered two-fold; as the harmony of the Will with the idea of an Eternal Will, or, moral goodness; and as the harmony of external things with our Will (our rational will, of course), or happiness. It is thus, let it be remembered in passing, so far from being true that man is determined to moral goodness by the desire for happiness, that the idea of happiness itself and the desire for it, rather arise in the first place out of the moral nature of man. Not, That which produces happiness is good;—but, That only which is good produces happiness. Without morality happiness is impossible. Agreeable sensations may indeed exist without it, or even in opposition to it, and in the proper place we shall see why this is the case; but these are not happiness: frequently they are much opposed to it.

To subject all irrational nature to himself, to rule over it unreservedly and according to his own laws, is the ultimate end of man; which ultimate end is perfectly unattainable, and must continue to be so, unless he were to cease to be man, and become God. It is a part of the idea of man that his ultimate end must be unattainable; the way to it endless. Hence it is not the vocation of man to attain this end. But he may and should constantly approach nearer to it; and thus the unceasing approximation to this end is his true vocation as man; i.e. as a rational but finite, as a sensuous but free being. If, as we are surely entitled to do, we call this complete harmony with one’s self perfection, in the highest meaning of the word; then perfection is the highest unattainable end of man, whilst eternal perfecting is his vocation. He exists, that he may become ever morally better himself, and make all around him physically, and, if he be considered as a member of society, morally better also, and thus augment his own happiness without limit.

This is the vocation of man considered as isolated, i.e. apart from all relation to reasonable beings like himself. We however are not thus isolated, and although I cannot now direct your attention to the general inter-union of all rational beings with each other, yet must I cast a glance upon the relation with you, into which I enter to-day. It is this noble vocation which I have now briefly pointed out, that I would elevate into perfect clearness in the minds of many aspiring young men—that I desire to make the preëminent object, and constant guide of your lives; young men who are destined on their part again to operate most powerfully on humanity, in narrower or wider circles, by teaching or action, or both, to extend one day to others the culture they have themselves received, and everywhere to raise our common brotherhood to a higher stage of culture; young men, in teaching whom I in all probability teach yet unborn millions of our race. If some among you have kindly believed that I feel the dignity of this my peculiar vocation, that in all my thought and teaching I shall make it my highest aim to contribute to the culture and elevation of humanity in you, and in all with whom you may ever have a common point of contact, that I hold all philosophy and all knowledge which does not tend towards this object, as vain and worthless; if you have so thought of me, I may perhaps venture to say that you have judged rightly of my desire. How far my ability may correspond to this wish, rests not altogether on me;—it depends in part upon circumstances which are beyond our control. It depends in part also on you;—on your attention, which I solicit; on your private diligence, on which I reckon with trustful assurance; on your confidence, to which I commend myself, and which I shall strive to justify by deeds.