Savitri Era of those who adore, Om Sri Aurobindo and The Mother.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Herder, Schiller, Kant, Fichte

I MUST NOW TURN to a very different figure, namely, Fichte, who was neither, like Herder, a man of very generous character, nor, like Kant, a man who was totally dedicated to the truth. Nevertheless, his influence in some respects was perhaps wider than that of either Kant or Herder. Schiller’s classification of mankind, at least of the history of mankind, into three stages is what affected the imagination of his contemporaries.
First comes what he called the savage stage, when men are simply victims of impulses, and a kind of Hobbesian universe prevails in which men, acted upon by their passions, fight each other and in general try to live with each other in conditions of considerable savagery and chaos, until finally order is restored by the stronger and more unscrupulous among them.
The second stage is the development of rational ideas, in which certain persons are set up in authority over others and certain intellectual ideals develop. Schiller called this stage, in which men begin believing in principles, begin behaving in accordance with strict principles, indeed to an almost idolatrous extent, not the stage of slavery, but the stage of barbarism, because any total subjection to principles without any criticism, any total submission to principles for their own sake – and I am afraid this was a kind of side-swipe at his great teacher, Kant – he regarded as a form of idolatry, and this is the kind of thing which only barbarians do.
The third stage is the stage of free men. Free men are men who live open lives and follow some kind of ideal which is subject to constant criticism, constant revision, constant change...
Fichte begins with a paean to individual liberty of a rather Schiller-like kind and ends with a tremendous hymn to the State and, above all, to a group of Platonic guardians who conduct the State and subjugate everyone to their will, because they alone hear the secret voice, they alone are imaginative, they alone are creative, they alone are the artists. This is the way in which some romantics certainly saw Napoleon. Fichte did not, because Napoleon was an enemy of Germany and therefore he did not like him. But there were those who rose above this nationalist feeling and saw in Napoleon some great artist who was moulding mankind in new shapes – a great artist in politics. These people really spoke in this horrifying kind of language, and said: Either you are a creator or you are not. If you are a creator then you can lift people to a very high level by your own marvellous and inspired efforts. And if you are not creative then the best thing which can happen to you is to be lifted by others. The fact that you may suffer agonies, you may even be killed in battle, in the course of this lifting is unfortunate; but surely you will never have attained such a height before, and you ought to bless the hour in which these agonies and these tortures have lifted you to a height of intense experience to which never, never in your dreary bourgeois life could you have risen otherwise.
This is the true romantic note, which is to be heard afterwards in all kinds of heroic statements from then onwards, in Germany and elsewhere: in statements by the Italian Fascists, by the German Nazis, by a great many other persons of this kind. It derives its force from this division drawn by Fichte between the real man, who is imaginative, forceful, an artist, and the unreal man, who is mere human fodder, mere material out of which the artist moulds society. It is to be found in its fullest degree in someone deeply influenced by Fichte, such as Carlyle. Carlyle is a strange figure who has no true ancestors in the English political tradition, and no progeny either, who derives directly from German romanticism and reinfects German romanticism himself. Carlyle also believed in something of this kind. He believed that obedience was the greatest of the virtues, that the best thing which a nation can do is to submit itself to some violent man of genius who will lift it to some tremendous height, away from the ludicrous, utilitarian, dreary ideals of mere everyday life with its small satisfactions and small pains and small pleasures. This is the violent, romantic, semi-Fascist ideal, for which Fichte is responsible. There are, then, three Fichtes, each of whom has had his followers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There is Fichte number one, who praises the independent artist, the self-expression of the individual, and he is the father of Byron and of all those artists in the nineteenth century who say: If the call of art is the highest call, then in order to paint divine pictures you can abandon your wife, you can destroy your children, you can do whatever you wish, because creativity has certain rights, because the artist is a sacred vessel to whom everyone must yield, and he has special rights in society not like those of other people. This is the notion of the artist as the creator who dominates his environment – and not just politically – who has special claims upon society and can do things which might otherwise be regarded as misdeeds or crimes, because he produces immortal works of genius which enrich mankind. That is the early Fichte, who has no political or social implications. This is Schiller’s tragic hero: he may cause terrible damage, but he is a bigger figure than the others, and therefore has larger claims upon mankind.
The middle Fichte is the man who says we must organise society as best we can – we hope that one day men will all be rational, they will all be good. This is the Rechtstaat Fichte. We must create a body of disinterested bureaucrats of a highly educated kind – exactly what was recommended by Funkstein[?] and by Hegel afterwards – disinterested, highly educated managerial persons who will sacrifice themselves upon the altar of the public good, who will have no private interest to pull at them, who will manage to conduct society in the direction of higher enlightenment and education, that is, in a direction in which society cannot conduct itself. Democracy always leads ultimately to bloodshed, tyranny, mobs and ignorance. The only way in which mankind can advance is under the tutelage of devoted and disinterested educators – for these purposes to be called soldiers, ministers and other Platonic guardians. That is the second Fichte, and this is, roughly speaking, the Prussian State. This is the idea of the Rechtstaat, the idea of an oligarchical State in which we have no democracy but the ideal of disinterested service on the part of special individuals, self-chosen to some extent, people who really know the inner light, in Fichte’s sense.
The third Fichte is a tremendous mystical, romantic paean to some kind of violent ideal of the master-race – or not necessarily race, but master-religion, master Volk, master-culture, master-history, master- class, anything you please – whom history has advanced into the front ranks, and who because of this have a right to dominate the others because they are nearer to God; they are an inspired group who have a right to assert themselves, no matter what happens to those below them. And those below them must bless them because they alone are able to confer one hour of intense life upon them, which is surely worth a cycle of []. Those are the three Fichtes. Fichte is the figure who
  • betrayed the rationalist and ultimately libertarian and even democratic ideals of Kant,
  • and the harmless, benevolent, decent, populist ideals of Herder,
  • who thought that there were many flowers in the garden and that they need not struggle with each other at all.

The person who foresaw where this was going to lead was the poet Heinrich Heine, who in a very famous passage said, warning the French, I think after 1830, not to down their weapons, not to disarm, because of the fearful danger from their neighbours: ‘Kantians will appear who will … ruthlessly with sword and axe hack through the foundations of our European life … Armed Fichteans will come, whose fanatical wills neither fear nor interest can touch.’ 26 And who shall say that he was altogether mistaken? Page 30 FICHTE AND ROMANTIC SELF The Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust 2005 Posted 25 November 2005 [This is a lightly edited transcript of a text of a lecture in Isaiah Berlin’s papers. No attempt has been made to bring it to a fully publishable form, but this version is posted here for the convenience of scholars.]

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