The Vocation of the Scholar/Lecture 5

The Vocation of the Scholar
by Johann Gottlieb Fichte
Lecture V.
Examination of Rousseau's Doctrines Concerning the Influence of Art and Science on the Well-being of Man



The combating of error is of no important advantage in the discovery of truth. If truth be once derived by just deduction from its essential principles, it follows without express refutation that everything opposed to it must necessarily be false; and if the whole path, which must be traversed in order to arrive at certain knowledge, lie clear before our view, we can at the same time easily observe the by-ways which lead from it towards erroneous opinions, and shall even be able readily to indicate to every wanderer the precise point from which he has gone astray. For every truth can be derived only from one fundamental principle. What the fundamental principle is, upon which each problem of human knowledge may be solved, it is the province of a fundamental philosophy to declare; how each principle should be followed out to its consequences, universal logic must teach; and thus the true as well as the false may be easily ascertained.

But the consideration of opposite opinions is of great value in imparting distinct and clear views of discovered truth. In comparing truth with error, we are obliged to note with greater accuracy the distinctive marks of both; and our conceptions of them acquire sharper precision and greater clearness. I now avail myself of this method to give you a short and plain view of what has been already brought forward in these lectures.

I have placed the vocation of man in the continual advancement of culture, and in the harmonious development of all his faculties and wants; and I have assigned to that class whose duty it is to watch over the progress and harmony of this development, a most honourable place in human society.

No man has opposed this truth more decidedly, on more plausible grounds, or with more powerful eloquence, than Rousseau. To him the advancement of culture is the sole cause of all human depravity. According to him there is no salvation for man but in a State of Nature; and—what indeed flows most accurately from his principles—that class of men who most effectually promote the advancement of culture, the Scholar-class, is at once the source and centre of all human misery and corruption.

Such a theory has been propounded by a man who has himself cultivated his mental faculties in a very high degree. With all the power which he acquired by this superior cultivation, he laboured, wherever it was possible, to convince mankind of the justice of his doctrines, to persuade them to return to that State of Nature which he so much commended. To him retrogression was progress, and that forsaken State of Nature the ultimate end which a now marred and perverted humanity must finally attain. Thus he did precisely that which we do, he laboured to advance humanity according to his own ideas, and to aid its progress towards its highest end. He did that precisely which he himself so bitterly censured; his actions stand in opposition to his principles.

The same contradiction reigns in his principles themselves. What excited him to action but some impulse of his heart? Had he examined into this impulse, and connected it with that which led him into error, he would then have had unity and harmony both in his actions and in his conclusions. If we can reconcile the first contradiction, we shall, at the same time, have reconciled the second; the point of agreement of the first is likewise that of the second. We shall discover this point, we shall solve the contradiction, we shall understand Rousseau better than he understood himself, and we shall then discover him to be in perfect harmony with himself and with us.

Whence did Rousseau derive this extraordinary theory, maintained indeed partially by others before him, but as a whole so completely opposed to the general faith? Did he deduce it by reason from some higher principle? Oh no! Rousseau did not penetrate on any side to the confines of human knowledge; he does not appear ever to have proposed such an investigation to himself. What truth he possessed, he founded immediately on his feelings; and his knowledge has therefore the faults common to all knowledge founded on mere undeveloped feeling, that it is partly uncertain, because man cannot render to himself a complete account of his feelings; that the true is mixed up with the untrue, because a judgment resting upon feeling alone regards as of like meaning things which are yet essentially different. Feeling does not err; but the judgment errs, because it misinterprets feeling, and mistakes a compound for a pure feeling. From these undeveloped feelings, upon which Rousseau grounds his reflections, he proceeds with perfect justice: once in the region of syllogism, he is in harmony with himself, and hence carries the reader who can think with him, irresistibly along. Had he allowed his feelings to influence the course of his inquiries, they would have brought him back to the right path from which they had first led him astray. To have erred less than he did, Rousseau must have possessed either more or less acuteness of intellect than he actually did possess; and so he who reads his works must, in order not to be led astray by them, possess either a much higher or a much lower degree of acuteness than he possessed; he must be either a complete thinker, or no thinker at all.

Separated from the great world, and guided by his pure feeling and lively imagination, Rousseau had sketched a picture of society, and particularly of the Scholar-class, with whose labours he especially occupied himself, as they ought to be, and as they necessarily must and would be, if they followed the guidance of common feeling. He came into the great world; he cast his eyes around him, and what were his sensations when the world and its Scholars, as they actually were, met his gaze! He saw, at its most fearful extreme, that scene which every one may see who turns his eyes towards it;[1]—men bowed down to the dust like beasts, chained to the earth regardless of their high dignity and the divinity within them; saw their joys, their sorrows, their whole existence, dependent on the satisfaction of a base sensuality whose demands rose higher with every gratification; saw them careless of right or wrong, holy or unholy, in the satisfaction of their appetites, and ever ready to sacrifice humanity itself to the desire of the moment; saw them ultimately lose all sense of right and wrong, and place wisdom in selfish cunning, and duty in the gratification of lust; saw them at last place their glory in this degradation and their honour in this shame, and even look down with contempt on those who were not so wise, and not so virtuous as themselves; saw those who ought to have been the teachers and guides of the nation sunk into the accommodating slaves of its corruption; those who ought to have given to the age a character of wisdom and of earnestness, assiduously catching the tones of the reigning folly and the predominant vice; heard them ask, for the guidance of their inquiries, not, Is it true? is it good and noble? but, Will it be well received? not, What will humanity gain by it? but, What shall I gain by it? how much gold, or what prince’s favour, or what beauty’s smile? saw them even look on this mode of thought as their highest honour, and bestow a compassionating shrug on the imbeciles who understood not like, them to propitiate the spirit of the time; saw talent, and art, and knowledge, united in the despicable task of extorting a more delicate enjoyment from nerves already wasted in pleasure, or in the detestable attempt to palliate or justify human depravity, to raise it to the rank of virtue, and wholly demolish everything which yet placed a barrier in its way; saw at length, and learned it by his own unhappy experience, that those unworthy men were sunk so low that the last misgiving which truth once produced within them, the last doubt which its presence called into being, having utterly disappeared, they became quite incapable of even examining its principles; that even with the demand for inquiry ringing in their ears, they could only answer, “Enough! it is not true, we do not wish it to be true, for it is no gain to us.” He saw all this, and his strained and disappointed feelings revolted against it. With deep indignation he rebuked his Age.

Let us not blame him for this sensibility, it is the mark of a noble soul: he who feels the godlike within him, will often thus sigh upwards to eternal Providence: “These then are my brethren! these the companions whom thou hast given me on the path of earthly existence! Yes, they bear my shape, but our minds and hearts are not related; my words are to them a foreign speech, and theirs to me: I hear the sound of their voices, but there is nothing in my heart to give them a meaning! Oh eternal Providence! wherefore didst thou cause me to be born among such men? or if it were necessary that I should be born among them, wherefore didst thou give me these feelings, this ]onging presentiment of something better and higher? why didst thou not make me like them? why didst thou not make me base even as they are? I could then have lived contentedly among them.” Ye do well to reprove his melancholy, and censure his discontent, ye to whom all around you seems good; ye do well to commend to him the contentment with which ye derive enjoyment from all things, and the modesty with which ye accept men as they are! He would have been as modest as ye are, had he been tormented with as few noble aspirations. Ye cannot rise to the conception of a better state, and for you truly the present is well enough.

In this fulness of bitter feeling, Rousseau was now incapable of seeing anything but the object which had called it forth. Sensualism reigned triumphant; that was the source of the evil: he would know how to destroy this empire of sensualism at all hazards, cost what it might. No wonder that he fell into the opposite extreme. Sensualism shall not reign; it cannot reign when it is destroyed, when it ceases to exist; or when it is not developed, when it has not acquired power. Hence Rousseau’s State of Nature.

In the State of Nature the faculties peculiar to man shall not be cultivated; they shall not even be distinguished. Man shall have no other wants than those of his animal nature; he shall live like the beast on the meadow beside him. It is true that in this State none of those crimes against which Rousseau’s feelings so strongly revolted would find a place; man would eat when he hungered, and drink when he was athirst, whatever he found before him; and, when satisfied, would have no interest in depriving others of that which he could not use himself. Once satiated himself, any one might eat or drink before him what and how much soever he would, for now he desires rest, and has no time to disturb others. In the anticipation of the future lies the true character of humanity; it is therefore the source of all human vice. Shut out the source, and vice is no more; and Rousseau did effectually exclude it from his State of Nature.

But it is also true that man, as surely as he is man and not a beast, is not destined to remain in this condition. Vice, indeed, would thus cease; but with it Virtue, and Reason too, would be destroyed. Man becomes an irrational creature; there is a new race of animals; men no longer exist.

There can be no doubt that Rousseau acted honourably with men: he longed himself to live in that State of Nature which he so warmly recommended to others, and showed throughout every indication of this desire. We may then put the question to him, what was it in truth which he sought in this State of Nature? He felt himself imprisoned, crushed down by manifold wants, and—what is indeed no great evil to the majority of men, but the bitterest oppression to such a man as he was,—he was often seduced from the path of rectitude and virtue by these wants. Living in a State of Nature, he thought he should be without these wants; and be spared so much pain from their denial, and so much yet bitterer pain from their dishonourable gratification; he should then be at peace with himself. He also found himself oppressed on every side by others, because he stood in the way of the satisfaction of their desires. Man does not do evil in vain and for no purpose, thought Rousseau, and we with him; none of those who injured him would have done so, had they not felt these desires. Had all around him lived in a State of Nature, he should then have been at peace with others. Thus Rousseau desired undisturbed tranquillity within and without. Well: but we inquire further—To what purpose would he apply this unruffled peace? Undoubtedly to that to which he applied the measure of rest that did actually belong to him; to reflection on his destiny and his duties, thereby to ennoble himself and his fellow-men. But how was that possible in the state of animalism which he assumed, how was it possible without the previous culture which he could only obtain in the state of civilization? He thus insensibly transplanted himself and society into this State of Nature, with all that cultivation which they could only acquire by coming out of the State of Nature; he imperceptibly assumed that they had already left it and had traversed the whole path of civilization, and yet had not left it and had not become civilized. And thus we have arrived at Rousseau’s false assumption, and are now able to solve his paradoxes without any serious difficulty.

Rousseau would not transplant men back into a State of Nature with respect to spiritual culture, but only with respect to independence of the desires of sense. And it is certainly true, that as man approaches nearer to the highest end of his existence, it must constantly become easier for him to satisfy his sensual wants; that his physical existence must cost him less labour and care; that the fruitfulness of the soil must increase, the climate become milder; an innumerable multitude of new discoveries and inventions be made to diversify and facilitate the means of subsistence; that further, as Reason extends her dominion, the wants of man will constantly diminish in strength, not as in a rude State of Nature in which he is ignorant of the delights of life, but because he can bear their deprivation; he will be ever equally ready to enjoy the best with relish, when it can be enjoyed without violation of duty, and to endure the want of everything which he cannot obtain with honour. Is this state considered ideal? in which respect it is unattainable like every other Ideal State, then it is identical with the golden age of sensual enjoyment without physical labour which the old poets describe. Thus what Rousseau, under the name of the State of Nature, and these poets under the title of the Golden Age, place behind us, lies actually before us. (It may be remarked in passing, that it is a phenomenon of frequent occurrence, particularly in past ages, that what we shall become is pictured as something which we already have been; and that what we have to attain is represented as something which we have formerly lost: a phenomenon which has its proper foundation in human nature, and which I shall explain on a suitable occasion.)

Rousseau forgot that humanity can and ought to approach nearer to this state only by care, toil, and struggle. Nature is rude and savage without the hand of man: and it should be so, that thereby man may be forced to leave his natural state of inactivity, and elaborate her stores; that thereby he himself, instead of a mere product of Nature, may become a free reasonable being. He does most certainly leave it; he plucks at all hazards the apple of knowledge, for the impulse is indestructibly implanted within him, to be like God. The first step from this state leads him to misery and toil: his wants are awakened, and clamorously demand gratification. But man is naturally indolent and sluggish, like matter from whence he proceeded. Hence arises the hard struggle between want and indolence: the first triumphs, but the latter bitterly complains. Now in the sweat of his brow he tills the field, and it frets him that it should bear thorns and thistles which he must uproot. Want is not the source of vice, it is the motive to activity and virtue; indolence, sluggishness, is the source of all vice. How to enjoy as much as possible, how to do as little as possible?—this is the question of a perverted nature, and the various attempts made to answer this question are its crimes. There is no salvation for man until this natural sluggishness is successfully combated, until he find all his pleasures and enjoyments in activity, and in activity alone. To that end pain is associated with the feeling of want. It should rouse us to activity.

This is the object of all pain; it is peculiarly the object of that pain which we experience at every view of the imperfection, depravity, and misery of our fellow men. He who does not feel this pain, this bitter indignation, is a mean-souled man. He who does feel it, ought to endeavour to release himself from it, by directing all his powers to the task of improving, as far as possible, all within his sphere and around him. And even supposing that his labours should prove fruitless, and he should see no use in their continuance, still the feeling of his own activity, the consciousness of his own power which he calls forth to the struggle against the general depravity, will cause him to forget this pain. Here Rousseau failed. He had energy, but energy rather of suffering than of action; he felt strongly the miseries of mankind, but he was far less conscious of his own power to remedy them; and thus as he felt himself he judged of others; as he conducted himself amid his own peculiar sorrows, so did humanity at large, in his view, endure the common lot. He took account of its sorrows; but he forgot the power which the human race possesses,—to help itself.

Peace be with his ashes, and blessings upon his memory! He has done his work. He has kindled fire in many souls, who have carried on what he began. But he wrought almost without being conscious of his own influence; he wrought without intending to rouse others to the work, without weighing their labour against the sum of general evil and depravity. This want of endeavour after self-activity reigns throughout his whole system of ideas. He is the man of passive sensibility, not at the same time of proper active resistance to its power. His lovers, led astray by passion, become virtuous; but we do not rightly perceive how they become so. The struggle of reason against passion,—the victory, gradual and slow, gained only by exertion, labour, and pain,—that most interesting and instructive of all spectacles, he conceals from our view. His pupil is developed by himself alone. The teacher does little more than remove the obstructions to his growth, and leave the rest to the care of Nature. She must henceforth and for ever retain him under her guardianship. The energy, ardour, and firm determination to war against and to subdue her, he has not taught him. Among good men he will be happy; but among bad,—and where is it that the majority are not bad?—he will suffer unspeakable misery. Thus Rousseau throughout depicted Reason at peace, but not in strife;he weakened Sense, instead of strengthening Reason.

I have undertaken the present inquiry in order to solve the famous paradox which stood so directly opposed to our principles: but not for that purpose alone. I would at the same time show you, by the example of one of the greatest men of our own age, what you ought not to be. I would, by his example, unfold to you an important lesson for your whole life. You are now learning, by philosophic inquiry, what the men ought to be with whom you have not as yet generally entered into any near, close, and indissoluble relations. You will soon come into closer relations with them. You will find them very different in reality from what your philosophy would have them to be. The nobler and better you are yourselves, the more painfully will you feel the experience which awaits you. Be not overcome by this pain, but overcome it by action: it does not exist without a purpose; it is a part of the plan of human improvement. To stand aloof and lament over the corruption of man, without stretching forth a hand to diminish it, is weak effeminacy; to cast reproach and bitter scorn on man, without showing him how he can become better, is unfriendly. Act! act!—it is to that end we are here. Should we fret ourselves that others are not so perfect as we are, when we ourselves are only somewhat less imperfect than they? Is not this our greatest perfection,—the vocation which has been given to us,—that we must labour for the perfecting of others? Let us rejoice in the prospect of that widely extended field which we are called to cultivate! Let us rejoice that power is given to us, and that our task is infinite!


  1. The reader will bear in mind that these Lectures were delivered in 1794, during the Revolutionary Epoch in France.