The Vocation of the Scholar/Lecture 2

The Vocation of the Scholar
by Johann Gottlieb Fichte
Lecture II. The Vocation of Man in Society



There are many questions which philosophy must answer before she can assume the character of knowledge and science: questions which are shunned by the dogmatist, and which the sceptic only ventures to point out at the risk of being charged with irrationality or wickedness, or both.

If I would not treat in a shallow and superficial manner a subject respecting which I believe that I possess some fundamental knowledge,—if I would not conceal, and pass over in silence, difficulties which I see right well,—it will be my fate in these public Lectures to touch upon many of those hitherto almost undisturbed questions without, however, being able to exhaust them completely; and, at the risk of being misunderstood or misinterpreted, to give mere hints towards more extended thought, mere directions towards more perfect knowledge, where I would rather have probed the subject to the bottom. If I supposed that there were among you many of those popular philosophers, who easily solve all difficulties without labour or reflection, by the aid of what they call sound Common Sense, I would not often occupy this chair without anxiety.

Among these questions may be classed the two following, which must be answered, with others, before any natural right is so much as possible;—first, By what authority does man call a particular portion of the physical world his body? how does he come to consider this body as belonging to his Ego, whereas it is altogether opposed to it?—and second, On what grounds does man assume and admit the existence around him of rational beings like himself, whereas such beings are by no means directly revealed to him in his own consciousness?

I have to-day to establish the Vocation of Man in Society; and the accomplishment of this task presupposes the solution of the latter question. By Society I mean the relation of reasonable beings to each other. The idea of Society is not possible without the supposition that rational beings do really exist around us, and without some characteristic marks whereby we may distinguish them from all other beings that are not rational, and consequently do not belong to Society. How do we arrive at this supposition? what are these distinctive marks? This is the question which I must answer in the first place.

“We have acquired both from experience: we know from experience that rational beings like ourselves exist around us, and also the marks by which they are distinguishable from irrational creatures.” This might be the answer of those who are unaccustomed to strict philosophical inquiry. But such an answer would be superficial and unsatisfactory; it would indeed be no answer to our question, but to an entirely different one. The experience which is here appealed to is also felt by the Egoists, who nevertheless are not thoroughly refuted by it. Experience only teaches us that the conception of reasonable beings around us is a part of our empirical consciousness; and about that there is no dispute, no Egoist has ever denied it. The question is, whether there is anything beyond this conception which corresponds to the conception itself; whether reasonable beings exist around us independently of our conceptions of them, and even if we had no such conceptions; and on this matter experience has nothing whatever to teach us so surely as it is only experience; that is to say, the body of our own conceptions.

Experience can at most teach us that there are phenomena which appear to be the results of rational causes; but it can never teach us that these causes actually exist as rational beings in themselves, for being in itself is no object of experience.

We ourselves first introduce such a being into experience; it is only we ourselves who explain our own experience by assuming the existence of rational beings around us. But by what right do we furnish this explanation? This right must be strictly proved before it is made use of, for its validity can only be grounded on its evidence, and not upon its actual use: and thus we have not advanced a single step, but return again to the question with which we set out: How do we come to assume and admit the existence of rational beings around us?

The theoretical domain of philosophy is unquestionably exhausted by the fundamental researches of the Critical School: all questions which still remain unanswered, must be answered upon practical principles. We must try whether the proposed question can be answered on such principles.

The highest impulse in man is, according to our last lecture, the impulse towards Identity, towards perfect harmony with himself; and, in order that he may be in constant harmony with himself, towards the harmony of all external things with his necessary ideas of them. There must not merely be nothing contradictory to his ideas, so that the existence or non-existence of an external representative of these ideas might be a matter of indifference to him, but there must actually be something corresponding to his ideas. Every idea which exists in the Ego must have a representative, an antitype, in the Non-Ego:—so is his impulse determined.

There is in man the idea not only of Reason, but also of reasonable acts and thoughts, and his nature demands the realization of this idea not only within himself but also without himself. It is thus one of his wants that there should be around him reasonable beings like himself.

He cannot create such beings; but he lays the idea of them at the foundation of his observation of the Non-Ego, and expects to find something there corresponding to it. The first mark of rationality which presents itself is of a merely negative character, efficiency founded on ideas, activity towards an end. Whatever bears the marks of design may have a reasonable author; that to which the notion of design cannot be applied has certainly no reasonable author. But this characteristic is ambiguous; the agreement of many things in one end is the mark of design, but there are many kinds of agreement which may be explained by mere natural laws, if not by mechanical, then by organic laws; hence we still require a distinctive mark whereby we may confidently infer from a particular phenomenon the existence of a reasonable cause. Nature proceeds, even in the fulfilment of her designs, by necessary laws;—Reason always proceeds with freedom. Hence the agreement of many things in one end, freely fulfilled, is the sure and infallible characteristic of rationality as manifested in its results. We now inquire, How can we distinguish a phenomenon in our experience produced by necessity, from a phenomenon produced by freedom?

I can by no means be immediately conscious of a freedom which exists out of myself, I cannot even be conscious of a freedom which exists within myself, that is, of my own freedom; for essential freedom is the first condition of consciousness, and hence cannot lie within its sphere of observation. But I may be conscious of this, that I am not conscious of any other cause for a particular determination of my empirical Ego through my will, than this will itself; and this non-consciousness of constraining cause may be called a consciousness of freedom, if this be clearly understood beforehand; and we shall call it so here. In this sense then, man may be conscious of his own free activity.

If through our own free activity, of which we are conscious in the sense above indicated, the character of the activity apparent in the phenomena which experience presents to us is so changed that this activity is no longer to be explained according to the law by which we formerly judged it, but according to that on which we have based our own free action, and which is quite opposed to the former; then we cannot explain this altered view of the activity apparent in experience otherwise than by the supposition that the cause to which we refer it is likewise reasonable and free. Hence arises,—to use the Kantian terminology,—a free reciprocal activity founded on ideas,—a community pervaded by design;—and it is this which I call Society. The idea of Society is thus sufficiently defined.

It is one of the fundamental impulses of man to feel that he must assume the existence around him of reasonable beings like himself; and he can only assume their existence under the condition of entering into Society with them, according to the meaning of that word as above explained. The social impulse thus belongs to the fundamental impulses of man. It is man’s vocation to live in Society—he must live in Society;—he is no complete man, but contradicts his own being, if he live in a state of isolation.

You see how important it is not to confound the abstract idea of Society with that particular empirically-conditioned form of Society which we call the State. Political Society is not a part of the absolute purpose of human life (whatever a great man may have said to the contrary); but it is, under certain conditions, a possible means towards the formation of a perfect Society. Like all human institutions, which are merely means to an end, the State constantly tends towards its own extinction; the ultimate aim of all government is to make government superfluous. Of a surety that time is not now present with us,—and I know not how many myriads, or perhaps myriads of myriads, of years may elapse before it arrive,—(and it must be understood that we have not now to deal with a practical condition of life, but with the vindication of a speculative principle); that time is not now, but it is certain that in the a priori fore-ordered course of the human race such a period does exist when all political combinations shall have become unnecessary. That is the time when, in place of strength or cunning, Reason alone shall be acknowledged as the supreme judge of all; acknowledged I say; for although men may even then go astray, and by their errors do hurt to their fellow-men, yet they will then be open to conviction of their error, and, when convinced of it, will be willing to turn back and make amends for their fault. Until that time shall come, mankind, as a race, cannot be true men.

According to what we have said, free reciprocal activity is the positive character of Society. It is an end to itself; and hence it exists solely and absolutely for its own sake. This assertion, that Society is its own end, is however not at all incompatible with another, that the form of this association should have a special law which shall give it a more definite aim.

The fundamental impulse of humanity was to discover reasonable beings like ourselves,—or men. The conception of man is an ideal conception, because the perfection of man, in so far as he is such, is unattainable. Each individual has his own particular ideal of man in general; these ideals are different in degree, though not in kind; each tries by his own ideal every being whom he recognises as a man. By this fundamental impulse each is prompted to seek in others a likeness to his own ideal; he inquires, he observes on all sides, and when he finds men below this ideal, he strives to elevate them to it. In this struggle of mind with mind, he always triumphs who is the highest and best man; and thus from the idea of Society arises that of the perfection of the race, and we have thus also discovered the ultimate purpose of all Society as such. Should it appear as if the higher and better man had no influence on the lower and uncultivated, we are partly deceived in our judgment, since we often expect to find the fruit already ripe before the seed has had time to germinate and unfold, and it may partly arise from this, that the better man perhaps stands at too high an elevation above the uncultivated, that they have too few points of contact with each other, and hence cannot sufficiently act upon each other; a position which retards civilization to an incredible extent, and the remedy for which we shall point out at the proper time. But on the whole, the ultimate triumph of the better man is certain: a calming and consoling thought for the friend of humanity and of truth when he looks out upon the open war of light with darkness. The light shall surely triumph at last; we cannot indeed predict the time, but it is already a pledge of victory, of near victory, when darkness is compelled to come forth to an open encounter. She loves concealment, she is already lost when forced out into the open day.

Thus far, then, the result of our inquiries shows, that man is destined for Society; among the capacities which, according to his vocation as laid down in our former lecture, he is destined to improve and perfect, there is also the social capacity.

This destination of man for Society in the abstract, although arising out of the innermost and purest elements of human nature, is yet, as a mere impulse, subordinate to the highest law of constant internal harmony, or the moral law, and by it must be still further defined and brought under a strict rule. When we have discovered this rule, we shall have found the vocation of man in Society, which is the object of our present inquiry and of all the considerations we have hitherto set forth.

The social impulse is, in the first place, negatively defined by the law of absolute harmony; it must not contradict itself. The impulse leads to reciprocal activity, to mutual influence, mutual giving and receiving, mutual suffering and doing, not to mere causality not to mere activity, of which others are but the passive objects. The impulse requires us to discover free reasonable beings around us, and to enter into Society with them; it does not demand subordination as in the material world, but co-ordination. If we do not allow freedom to the reasonable beings whom we seek around us, we take into account merely their theoretical use, not their free practical rationality; we do not enter into Society with them, but we rule them as useful animals, and so place our social impulse in opposition to itself. But what do I say? we place our social impulse in opposition to itself? No: rather we do not possess this higher impulse at all; humanity is not yet so far cultivated within us; we ourselves still stand on the lowest grade of imperfect humanity, or slavery. We ourselves have not yet attained to a consciousness of our freedom and self-activity, for then we should necessarily desire to see around us similar, that is, free beings. We are slaves ourselves; and look around us but for slaves. Rousseau says “A man often considers himself the lord of others, who is yet more a slave than they.” He might with still greater justice have said “He who considers himself the lord of others is himself a slave.” Even should he not bear the outward badge of servitude, yet he has most surely the soul of a slave, and will basely cringe before the first stronger man who subdues him. He only is free, who would make all around him free likewise; and does really make them free, by a certain influence the sources of which are hitherto undiscovered. In his presence we breathe more freely; we feel that nothing has power to oppress, hinder, or confine us; we feel an unwonted desire to be and to do all things which self-respect does not forbid.

Man may use irrational things as means for the accomplishment of his purposes, but not rational beings; he may not even use these as means for attaining the end of their own being; he may not act upon them as upon dead matter or upon the beasts, so as to prosecute his designs with them without taking their freedom into account; he may not make any reasonable being either virtuous, or wise, or happy, against his own will. Laying aside the fact that such an attempt would be utterly fruitless, that no being can become virtuous, or .wise, or happy, but by his own labour and effort; laying aside the fact that man cannot do this, yet even if he could, or believed he could, he must not even desire to do it; for it is unjust, and by so doing he would be placed in opposition to himself.

The social impulse is also positively defined by the law of perfect internal harmony, and thus we arrive at the peculiar vocation of man in Society. All the individuals who compose the human race differ from each other; there is only one thing in which they entirely agree; that is, their ultimate end—perfection. Perfection has but one form; it is equal to itself: could all men become perfect, could they attain their highest and ultimate end, they would all be equal to each other, they would be only one, one single subject. But in Society each strives to make others perfect, at least according to his own standard of perfection; to raise them to the ideal of humanity which he has formed. Thus, the last, highest end of Society is perfect unity and unanimity of all its possible members. But since the attainment of this end supposes the attainment of the destination of each individual man, the attainment of absolute perfection; so it is quite as impossible as the latter, it is unattainable, unless man were to lay aside his humanity and become God. Perfect unity with all the individuals of his race is thus indeed the ultimate end, but not the vocation, of man in Society.

But to approach nearer this end, constantly to approach nearer it, this he can and ought to do. This approximation towards perfect unity and unanimity with all men may be called co-operation. Thus co-operation, growing ever firmer at its centre and ever wider in its circumference, is the true vocation of man in Society: but such a co-operation is only possible by means of progressive improvement, for it is only in relation to their ultimate destination that men are one, or can become one. We may therefore say that mutual improvement,—improvement of ourselves by the freely admitted action of others upon us, and improvement of others by our reaction upon them as upon free beings,—is our vocation in Society.

And in order to fulfil this vocation, and fulfil it always more and more thoroughly, we need a qualification which can only be acquired and improved by culture; and indeed a qualification of a double nature: an ability to give, or to act upon others as upon free beings; and an openness to receive, or to derive the greatest advantage from the action of others upon us. Of both we shall speak particularly in the proper place. We must . especially strive to acquire the latter, when we possess the former in a high degree; otherwise we cease to advance, and consequently retrograde. Seldom is any man so perfect that he may not be much improved through the agency of any other man, in some perhaps apparently unimportant or neglected point of culture.

I know few more sublime conceptions, than the idea of this universal inter-action of the whole human race on itself; this ceaseless life and activity; this eager emulation to give and to receive,’ the noblest strife in which man can take a part; this general indentation of countless wheels into each other, whose common motive-power is freedom; and the beautiful harmony which is the result of all. “Whoever thou art,” may each of us say “whoever thou art, if thou bear the form of man, thou too art a member of this great commonwealth; through what countless media soever our mutual influence may be transmitted, still by that title I act upon thee, and thou on me; no one who bears the stamp of Reason on his front, however rudely impressed, exists in vain for me. But I know thee not, thou knowest not me! Oh! so surely as we have a common calling to be good, ever to become better,—so surely—though millions of ages may first pass away—(what is time!)—so surely shall a period at last arrive when I may receive thee, too, into my sphere of action, when I may do good to thee, and receive good from thee in return; when my heart may be united to thine also, by the fairest possible bond, a free and generous interchange of mutual influence for good.