The Vocation of the Scholar/Lecture 3

The Vocation of the Scholar
by Johann Gottlieb Fichte
Lecture III. On the Distinction of Classes in Society



The vocation of man as an individual, as well as the vocation of man in society, is now before you. The Scholar is only invested with his distinctive character when considered as a member of society. We may therefore proceed to the inquiry, What is the peculiar vocation of the Scholar in society? But the Scholar is not merely a member of society; he is also a member of a particular class in society: at least it is customary to speak of the Scholar-class—with what propriety or impropriety will appear in due time.

Our chief inquiry—What is the vocation of the Scholar?—thus pre-supposes the solution of a third and very important question, besides those two which we have already answered; this, namely, Whence arises the difference of Classes in Society? or, What is the source of the inequality existing among men?

It will be readily understood without preliminary explanation, that this word Class does not mean anything which has come to pass fortuitously and without our aid, but something determined and arranged by free choice for an understood purpose. For an inequality which occurs fortuitously and without our aid, i.e. for physical inequality, Nature is accountable; but inequality of classes seems to be a moral inequality, with respect to which, therefore, the question naturally arises, By what right do different classes exist?

Attempts have often been made to answer this question; and enquirers, proceeding merely on the grounds of experience, have eagerly laid hold of and rhapsodically enumerated the numerous purposes which are accomplished by such a division and the many advantages which are gained by it; but by such means any other question may sooner be answered than the one we have proposed. The advantage of a certain disposition of things does not prove its justice; and we did not propose the historical question, What purpose had man in this arrangement? but the moral question, Whether it was lawful for him to bring it about, whatever purpose he might have had in view by so doing. The question must be answered on the principles of Reason, pure as well as practical; and such an answer has, so far as I know, never yet been even attempted. To prepare for it, I must law down a few general scientific principles.

All the laws of Reason are founded in our spiritual nature; but it is only through an actual experience to which they are applicable that they attain empirical consciousness; and the more frequent such application the more intimately do they become interwoven with this consciousness. It is thus with all the laws of Reason; it is thus especially with the practical, which do not, like the theoretical, terminate in a mere act of judgment, but proceed to an activity without us, and announce themselves to consciousness under the form of impulses. The foundation of all impulses lies in our own being: but not more than the foundation. Every impulse must be awakened by experience if it is to arrive at consciousness, and must be developed by numerous experiences of the same kind if it is to become a desire, and its appropriate gratification a want, of man. Experience, however, does not depend upon ourselves, and therefore neither does the awakening nor the development of our impulses.

The independent Non-Ego as the foundation of experience or Nature, is manifold; no one part of it is perfectly the same as another; this principle is maintained and even strictly proved in the Kantian philosophy. It follows from this, that its action on the human mind is of a very varied character, and nowhere calls forth the capacities and talents of men in the same manner. By these different ways in which Nature acts upon man, are individuals, and what we call their peculiar, empirical, individual character, determined; and in this respect we may say that no individual is perfectly like another in his awakened and developed capacities. Hence arises a physical inequality to which we not only have not contributed, but which we even cannot remove by our freedom; for before we can, through freedom, resist the influence of Nature upon us, we must first have arrived at the consciousness and use of this freedom; and we cannot arrive thereat except by that awakening and unfolding of of our impulses which does not depend upon ourselves.

But the highest law of man and of all reasonable beings, the law of perfect internal harmony, of absolute identity, in so far as this law becomes positive and material by means of special individual applications, demands that all the faculties of the individual shall be uniformly developed, all his capacities cultivated to the highest possible perfection; a demand, the object -of which cannot be realized by the mere law itself; because the fulfilment of the law, as we have said, does not depend upon the law itself, nor upon our will which is determinable by the law, but upon the free action of Nature.

If we apply this law to society, if we assume the existence of reasonable beings around us, then the demand that all the faculties of the individual should be uniformly cultivated includes also the demand that all reasonable beings should be cultivated uniformly with each other. If the faculties of all are essentially the same, as they are, since they are all founded upon pure Reason, if they are all to be cultivated after a similar fashion, which is what the law requires, then the result of such a cultivation must be similar capacities in every respect equal to each other:—and thus by another way we arrive at the ultimate end of all society, as declared in our former lecture,—the perfect equality of all its members.

We have already shown in our last lecture that the mere law cannot, of itself, realize the object of this demand, any more than it can realize that of the demand on which our present lecture is founded. But Free- Will can and ought to strive constantly to approach nearer this ultimate end.

And here the activity of the social impulse comes into play, which also proceeds upon this same purpose, and is the means of the requisite continual approximation to its attainment. The social impulse, or the impulse towards mutual cooperation with free reasonable beings as such, includes the two following impulses: the communicative impulse,—that is, the impulse to impart to others that form of culture which we ourselves possess most completely, to make others, as far as possible, like ourselves, like the better self within us; and the receptive impulse, that is, the impulse to receive from others that form of culture which they possess most completely, and in which we are deficient. Thus defects of Nature in us are remedied by Reason and Freedom; the partial culture which Nature has given to the individual becomes the property of the whole race, and the race in turn bestows all its culture upon him; it gives him all the culture which is possible under the determining conditions of Nature, if we suppose that all the individuals who are possible under these conditions do actually exist. Nature cultivates each individual only in part; but she bestows culture at every point where she encounters reasonable beings. Reason unites these points, presents to Nature a firmly compacted and extended front, and compels her to cultivate the Race at least in all its particular capacities, since she will not bestow that culture upon the Individual. Reason has already, by means of the social impulse, provided for the equal distribution of the culture thus acquired among the individual members of society, and will provide for it still further; for the sway of Nature does not extend here.

Reason will take care that each individual receive indirectly from the hands of society, the whole and complete cultivation which he cannot obtain directly from Nature. Society will gather together the special gifts of every individual member into a common fund for the free use of all, and thus multiply them by the number of those who share their advantages; the deficiencies of each individual will be borne by the community, and will thus be reduced to an infinitely small quantity: or, to express this in another form more generally applicable, the aim of all culture of human capacity is to subject Nature (as I have defined this expression) to Reason; to bring Experience, in so far as it is not dependent on the laws of our perceptive faculties, into harmony with our necessary practical ideas of Reason. Thus Reason stands in continual strife with Nature. This warfare can never come to an end, unless we were to become gods; but the influence of Nature can and ought to be gradually weakened, the dominion of Reason constantly made more powerful; so that the latter shall gain victory after victory over the former. An individual may perhaps struggle successfully against Nature at his own particular point of contact with her, while at all other points he may be completely subject to her sway. But now society is combined like one man: what the individual could not accomplish by himself, all are enabled to perform by the combined powers of the community. Each indeed strives singly, but the enfeeblement of Nature which is the result of the common struggle, and the partial triumph which each gains over her in his own department, come to the aid of all. Thus even from the physical inequality of individuals arises a new security for the bond which unites them all in one body; the pressure of individual wants, and the still sweeter impulse to supply the wants of others, bind them more closely together; and Nature has strengthened the power of Reason, even while she attempted to weaken it.

Thus far everything proceeds in its natural order: we have found different personalities, various in the kind and degree of their cultivation; but we have as yet no different classes, for we have not yet pointed out any special determination of the social impulse by free activity, any voluntary selection of a particular kind of culture. I say, we have not yet been able to show any special determination by means of free activity; but let not this be erroneously or partially understood. The social impulse, considered generally, addresses itself to freedom only; it merely instigates, it does not compel. We may oppose, and even subdue it; we may, through misanthropic selfishness, separate ourselves from our. fellow-men, and refuse to receive anything at the hands of society, that we may not have to render back anything in return; we may, from rude animalism, forget the freedom of society, and look upon it only as something subject to our will, because we have no higher idea of ourselves than as subjects of the power of Nature. But this is not the question here. On the supposition that man obeys the social impulse generally, it is necessary that under its guidance he should impart the advantages which he possesses to those who have need of them, and receive those of which he himself stands in need from those who possess them. And for this purpose there is no need of any particular determination or modification of the social impulse by a new act of freedom, which is all that I meant to affirm.

The characteristic distinction is this: Under the conditions now laid down, I as an individual give myself up to Nature for the one-sided cultivation of some particular capacity, because I must do so; I have no choice in the matter, but blindly follow her leading. I take all that she gives me, but I cannot take that which she does not give; I neglect no opportunity offered to me of cultivating myself on all sides as far as I can, but I do not create such opportunity, because I cannot create it. If, on the contrary, I choose a class,—a class being understood to be something chosen by free will, according to the common use of language, if I choose a class, I must first have become subject to Nature before it was possible for me to choose; for to that end different impulses must be awakened within me, different capacities elevated into consciousness; but in the choice itself I determine henceforward to leave entirely out of consideration certain possible opportunities which Nature may perchance offer to me, in order that I may apply all my powers and all the gifts of Nature to the exclusive development of one or more particular capacities; and by the particular capacity to the cultivation of which I thus devote myself by free choice, will my class or condition in society be determined.

The question arises, Ought I to choose a particular class? or, if the demand be not imperative, Dare I devote myself to a particular class, that is, to a one-sided culture? If I ought, if it be absolute duty, then it must be possible to educe from the highest laws of Reason an impulse directed towards the selection of a class, as we may educe from these laws the impulse towards society in general. If I only may do this, then it will not be possible to educe such an impulse from the laws of Reason, but only a permission; and for the determination of the will to the actual choice thus permitted by Reason, it must be possible to assign some empirical data by means of which, not a law, but only a rule of prudence, may be laid down. How this matter stands will be seen upon further inquiry.

The law says, “Cultivate all thy faculties completely and uniformly, so far as thou canst;” but it does not determine whether I shall exercise them directly upon Nature, or indirectly through intercourse with my fellowmen. On this point the choice is thus left entirely to my own prudence. The law says, “Subdue Nature to thy purposes;” but it does not say that if I should find Nature already sufficiently adapted to certain of my purposes by other men, I should nevertheless myself adapt it to all the possible purposes of humanity. Hence the law does not forbid me to choose a particular class; but neither does it enjoin me to do so, for precisely the same reason which prevents the prohibition. I am now in the field of Free Will; I may choose a class, and I must now look out for quite other grounds of determination than those which are derived immediately from the law itself, on which to resolve the question, not “What class shall I choose?”—(of this we shall speak at another time)—but, “Shall I choose any class at all, or shall I not?”

As things are at present, man is born in society. He finds Nature no longer rude, but already prepared in many respects for his purposes. He finds a multitude of men employed in its different departments, cultivating it on every side for the use of rational beings. He finds much already done which otherwise he would have had to do for himself. He might perhaps enjoy a very pleasant existence without ever applying his own powers immediately to Nature; he might even attain a kind of perfection by the enjoyment of what society has already accomplished, and in particular of what it has done for its own cultivation. But this may not be; he must at least endeavour to repay his debt to society; he must take his place among men; he must at least strive to forward in some respect the perfection of the race which has done so much for him.

And to that end two ways present themselves: either he may determine to cultivate Nature on all sides; and, in this case, he would perhaps require to apply his whole life, or many lives if he had them, even to acquire a knowledge of what has been already done by others before him and of what remains to do; and thus his life would be lost to the human race, not indeed from evil intent, but from lack of wisdom: or he may take up some particular department of Nature, with the previous history of which he is perhaps best acquainted, and for the cultivation of which he is best adapted by natural capacity and social training, and devote himself exclusively to that. In the latter case, he leaves his own culture in its other departments to Society, whose culture in that department which he has chosen for himself is the sole object of his resolves, his labours, his desires; and thus he has selected a class, and his doing so is perfectly legitimate. But still this act of freedom is, like all others, subject to the universal moral law, in so far as that law is the rule of our actions; or to the categorical imperative, which I may thus express: “Never let the determinations of thy will be at variance with thyself;” a law which, as expressed in this formula, may be fulfilled by every one, since the determinations of our will do not depend upon Nature but on ourselves alone.

The choice of a class is a free choice; therefore no man whatever ought to be compelled to any particular class, nor be shut out from any. Every individual action, as well as every general arrangement, which proceeds on such compulsion, is unjust. It is unwise to force a man into one class, or to exclude him from another; because no man can have a perfect knowledge of the peculiar capacities of another, and because a member is often lost to society altogether, in consequence of being thrust into an improper place. But laying this out of view, such a course is unjust in itself, for it sets our deed itself in opposition to our practical conception of it. We wish to give society a member, and we make a tool; we wish to have a free fellow-workman in the great business of life, and we create an enslaved and passive instrument; we destroy the man within him, so far as we can do so by our arrangements, and are guilty of an injury both to him and to society.

We make choice of a particular class, we select one particular talent for more extended cultivation,—only that we may thereby be enabled to render back to society what it has done for us;—and thus each of us is bound to make use of our culture for the advantage of society. No one has a right to labour only for his own enjoyment, to shut himself up from his fellow-men, and make his culture useless to them; for it is only by the labour of society that he has been placed in a position wherein he could acquire that culture: it is in a certain sense a product, a property of society; and he robs society of a property which belongs to it if he does not apply his culture to its use. It is the duty of every one, not only to endeavour to make himself useful to society generally, but also to direct all his efforts, according to the best knowledge he possesses, towards the ultimate object of society, towards the ever-increasing ennoblement of the human race; that is, to set it more and more at liberty from the bondage of Nature, constantly to increase its independence and spontaneous activity;—and thus, from the new inequality of classes a new equality arises—a uniform progress of culture in all individual men.

I do not say that human life is at any time such as I have now depicted it; but it ought to be so, according to our practical ideas of society and of the different classes it contains; and we may and ought to labour that it may become so in reality. How powerfully the Scholar in particular may contribute to this end, and how many means for its accomplishment lie at his disposal, we shall see at the proper time.

When we contemplate the idea now unfolded, even without reference to ourselves, we see around us a community in which no one can labour for himself without at the same time labouring for his fellow-men, or can labour for others without also labouring for himself; where the success of one member is the success of all, and the loss of one a loss to all: a picture which, by the harmony it reveals in the manifold diversity of life, satisfies our deepest aspirations, and powerfully raises the soul above the things of time.

But the interest is heightened when we turn our thoughts to ourselves, and contemplate ourselves as members of this great spiritual community. The feeling of our dignity and our power is increased when we say, what each of us may say, “My existence is not in vain and aimless; I am a necessary link in the great chain of being which reaches from the awakening of the first man to perfect consciousness of his existence, onward through eternity; all the great and wise and noble that have ever appeared among men, those benefactors of the human race whose names I find recorded in the world’s history, and the many others whose benefits have outlived their names, all have laboured for me; I have entered into their labours; I follow their footsteps on this earth where they dwelt, where they scattered blessings as they went along. I may, as soon as I will, assume the sublime task which they have resigned, of making our common brotherhood ever wiser and happier; I may continue to build where they had to cease their labours; I may bring nearer to its completion the glorious temple which they had to leave unfinished.”

“But”—some one may say—“I too, like them, must rest from my labours.” Oh! this is the sublimest thought of all! If I assume this noble task, I can never reach its end; and so surely as it is my vocation to assume it, I can never cease to act, and hence can never cease to be. That which men call Death cannot interrupt my activity; for my work must go on to its completion, and it cannot be completed in Time; hence my existence is not limited by Time, and I am Eternal: with the assumption of this great task, I have also laid hold of Eternity. I raise my head boldly to the threatening rock, the raging flood, or the fiery tempest, and say—“I am Eternal, and I defy your might! Break all upon me! and thou Earth, and thou Heaven, mingle in the wild tumult, and all ye elements, foam and fret yourselves, and crush in your conflict the last atom of the body which I call mine!—my Will, secure in its own firm purpose, shall soar undisturbed and bold over the wreck of the universe:—for I have entered upon my vocation, and it is more enduring than ye are: it is Eternal, and I am Eternal like it.”