The Characteristics of the Present Age. By Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Translated from the German, by William Smith Chapman. VOYAGES AND TRAVELS, Five Years In the East. By it. W. Hutton. In two volumes Longman and Co. ASTRONOMY, Results of Astronomical Observations, made during the Years 1834, 5, 6, 7, 8, at the Cape of Good Hope ; being the completion of a Telescopic Survey of the whole Sur- face of the Visible Heavens, commenced in 1825. By Sir John F. W. Herschel, Bart., N.H., &c Smith and Elder. FICTION, The Bachelor of the Albany. By the Author of "The Falcon Family."
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FICHTE'S CHARACTERISTICS OF THE PRESENT AGE.
THE apostle of German Transcendentalism has been characterized by Coleridge in rather hard terms. Fichte's theory, he says, "degenerated into a crude egoismus, a boastful and hyperstoic hostility to Nature' as lifeless, godless, and altogether unholy : while his religion consisted in the assumption of a mere ordo ordinans, which we were permitted esoterice to call God ; and his ethics in an ascetic, and almost monkish mortification of natural passions and desires." This opinion Mr. Smith, the zealous translator and admirer of Fichte, flatly opposes ; and, so far as we are acquainted with the German writer, we should certainly incline to read Coleridge by contraries. The man Fichte might be egotistical, but his theory is a perpetual talk about the necessity of sacrificing self and selfish objects to the good of the "Race." His religion contained the germ of the modern Rationalism, and is not badly exemplified in Volt- brecht, the hero of The Pilgrimage, both in the Brahminical idea of man being an emanation from God and in the half-mystical half-critical view taken of the Christian dispensation : but it does not justify the Atheistic charge of Coleridge. It does not appear to us that Fichte is hostile to Nature, or that his ethics are peculiarly ascetic or monkish, though particular passages may bear such an interpretation : for be is by no means a consistent writer, but resembles a man walking on different levels, some of which are foggy and others atmospherically clear, so that at times he appears distinct, at others is seen distorted, and frequently can- not "be made out." Our objection to Fichte's theory is not its pravity, but its obscurity. His mind seems to have had two aspects,—one clear and sound, but not original in its views, though often placing things in a new light ; the other clouded, and seeming novel on the principle of " omne ignotum pro magnifica" or by taking an idea and shrouding it in a mystical jargon, till it looked new from nothing like it having ever been met with before.
The Characteristics of the Present Age is one of Fichte's largest subjects, and one of his greatest works. The translator thinks that the object of the Transcendentalist is to maintain that there is a plan in the Di- vine government of the world, and to prove the fact by the exhibition of the thing. We must confess we can trace nothing of the kind. The work is intended to be an exposition of universal history in its very essence— though occasionally illustrated by particular events and persons, or the characteristics of certain epochs ; while in this design, as a necessary part, the progress and characteristics of the human race are attempted to be sketched during two stages, and fully described during the third and present stage. According to Fichte, there are five epochs, which the Race must pass through before the millennium of Transcendentalism shall be obtained.
"1st, The Epoch of the unlimited dominion of Reason as Instinct—the State of Innocence of the Human Race. 2d, The Epoch in which Reason as Instinct is changed into an external ruling Authority; the Age of positive Systems of life and doctrine, which never go back to their ultimate foundations, and hence have no power to convince; but on the contrary merely desire to compel, and which demand blind faith and unconditional obedience—the State of progressive Sin. ad, The Epoch of Liberation; directly from the external ruling Authority, indi- rectly from the power of Reason as Instinct, and generally from Reason in any form; the Age of absolute indifference towards all truth, and of entire and unre- strained licentiousness—the State of completed Sinfulness, [that is the age in which he lived.] 4th, The Epoch of Reason as Science; the Age in which Truth is looked upon as the highest, and loved before all other things—the State of the rogressive Justification. 5th, The Epoch of Reason as Art; the Age in which Humanity with more sure and unerring hand builds itself up into a fitting image and representative of Reason—the State of completed Justift.:ation and Santifica- Hon."
This is not very intelligible, probably; nor can it be made so by any complete and systematic exposition to be found in the book. Much of the attempted exposition is quite unintelligible to that common attention which an uninspired author is entitled to require from his readers. Some of it is made unintelligible by the use of words in a peculiar sense so that they cease to be terms and become a jargon, the drift of which is only to be gathered from a patient consideration of various passages or parts. Thus, the Reason in the passage quoted above seems to mean an entire system of life, individual and general, embracing politics, morals, laws, institutions, manners, and practice, public as well as pri- vate, throughout the world. Science, again, appears to be used in the sense of a religious or moral theory, which would lead us to the know- ledge of the age of Reason, as Art would to its practice: and in this view the Christianity of Johann Gottlieb Fichte might be both Science and Art. The word "Idea," too, fills a conspicuous place in these lectures ; not in the sense of a mental "conception"—to which the lecturer says Idea is opposed, by as much as a true philosopher is opposed to the present age, which can rise no higher than a "conception "—but, —but, so far as we can understand his meaning of the word Idea, in the sense of principles. The Christian missionaries forsook their home, their kindred, and their Country; they sacrificed the comforts of life, and even life itself', for "the Idea." The devotees of science or of art, who "scorned delight and lived laborious days," and pursued their object, whatever it might be, in despite of external hinderances or obstacles, neglect or contumely, laboured for the Idea." Heroes were urged to their exploits by the pressure of "the Mae
" Who has united rude races together, and reduced opposing tribes under the dominion of law and to the habits of peaceful life? Who has maintained them in this condition, and protected existing states from dissolution through internal disorder, or destruction by outward power ? Whatever name they may have borne, it was Heroes, who bad left their Age far behind them giants among sur- rounding men in material ind spiritual power. They subdued to their Idea of what ought to be, races by whom they were on that account hated and feared; through nights of sleepless thought they pondered their anxious plans for their fellow men; from battle-field to battle-field they rushed without weariness or rest, renouncing the enjoyments which lay within their grasp, making their life a spa, often shedding their blood. And what sought they by these labours? and how were they rewarded? It was an Idea a mere Idea of a new condition of things to be brought about by them, to be realized for its own sake alone, and without reference to any ulterior purpose; this it was which inspired them; and it was the unspeakable delight of this Idea which rewarded and indemnified them for all their labours and sacrifices; it was this idea which lay at the root of their in- ward life; which cast the outward life into shade, and threw it aside as some- thing undeserving of thought; it was the power of this Idea which made them giants in physical and mental energy, although by birth like their fellow men; and their personal life was dedicated to this Idea, which first moulded that life into a worthy and accepted offering. " What impels the King, securely seated on a hereditary throne, with the ful- ness of the land spread out before him for his enjoyment, what impels, (to com- bine my question with a well-known example so often misconstrued by a race of pigmy sentimentalists,) what impels the Macedonian hero to leave his hereditary kingdom, already well secured on all sides, and richly provided for by his father, and to seek foreign lands, to the conquest of which he forces his way by unceasing efforts? Will he thereby be happier or more contented ? What chains victory to his footsteps, and scatters before him in terror the countless hordes of his ene- mies? Is this mere fortune? No; it is an Idea which first gives the impulse and which crowns the effort with success. Effeminate half-barbarians had looked down with scorn upon the most highly civilized people then living beneath the sun, on account of their smaller numbers, and had even dared to entertain the thought of their subjugation; they had actually subdued kindred tribes dwelling in Asia, and subjected the cultivated and the free to the laws and odious inflic- tions of rude and enslaved nations. This outrage must not be perpetrated with impunity; on the contrary, the civilized must rule, and the uncivilized must obey, if Right is to be the Law of the world. This Idea had already been long cherished in the nobler Grecian minds, until in Alexander it became a living flame which animated and consumed his personal life. Tell me not of the thou- sands who fell around his path; speak not of his own early ensuing death : after the realization of his Idea, what was there greater for him to do than to die?"
In the idea of all this therels nothing very new ; not even that might is right. Change the phrase Idea into more appropriate terms, and whole classes of writers, both in prose and poetry, have inculcated similar views touching religion, science, and the effects of war, whatever they might have thought of the warriors. We read something like the entire exposition of the progress of society, (except Fichte's notion of a normal and an earth- born race originally existing together,) hi Pope's Essay on Man. Arad this, we believe, is all the originality to which the apostle of Transcendental- ism is entitled, so far as regards absolute novelty of view—he takes exist- ing opinions and makes them look like his own- by the way in which he swaddles rather than clothes them. The illustration or application to passing events is another matter : this is often done forcibly and with novelty of mode.
The lectures intended to display the "Characteristics of the Age" are seventeen in number. The first unfolds the author's idea of universal history, the germ of which is exhibited in the previous quotation descrip- tive of the five epochs • two lectures expound the " Life according to Reason " ; six are devoted to a survey of the past, endeavouring to trace the progress of society, of the state, and of Christianity ; the remainder are directly or indirectly occupied with a criticism upon the present age. In these lectures, as in the writer's mind, two aspects are present, the cloudy and the clear ; and this distinction goes beyond mere composition, to the very root or germ of his principles. There is no logical connexion whatever between Fichte's 'own theory of Reason, Idea, the Five Ages, and similar Transcendentalism, and his deductions from the actual, that is or has been in the world. The theory receives no support from the facts ; and, which is equally curious, there is little resemblance in the composition of the two parts, although they continually run one into the other. While the peculiar Transcendentalism is obscure in meaning and involved in style, the deductions from history, or the author's description of his own times, are often large, clear, and suggestive, with touches of biting satire. Though a sad declension from the lofty heights of mysti- cism, where man emanates from God and is to return to him, the follow- ing picture of the modern literary world is truer than when it was written. "The first purpose of printing is obviously to announce publicly to all the world the independence of mind possessed by the Author; from this arises, in Science, a catching at new or seemingly new opinions, and in Literature, a striv- ing after new forms. He who has attained this end gains the favour of his Reader, whether or not, in the one case, his opinion be true, or in the other Ina form be beautiful. But when the printing-press has thoroughly come into play, even this novelty is laid aside, and mere printing, for its own sake alone, becomes a merit; and then arises in Science, the tribe of compilers, who give to the world what has been a hundred times before given to it, only with some slight transpo- sition of its parts; and in Literature, the fashionable author, who continues to repeat a form which has been already approved in others or in himself, until at last no man can any longer discover the faintest significance in it. "This stream of Literature now flows forth, constantly renewing itself; every new tide displacing it forerunner, so that the purpose originally contemplated in printing is frustrated, and the hope of immortality by means of the press de- stroyed. It matters not to have brought forth one's opinion in open print, unless one also possesses the art to continue so to do unceasingly; for all that is Past is soon forgotten. Who is there that shall bear it in memory? Not the Author, as such; for since each strives after something new, no one listens to another, but each goes his own way, and promulgates his own conceptions. Not the Reader; for he, glad to be done with the old, flies to the newest corners, in choosing among whom he is for the most part guided by mere chance. In these circumstances, no one who commits his lucubrations to the press can be sure that any one, ex- cept himself and his printer shall know anything of the matter. Hence it be- comes indispensably necessary to set OD foot and establish some public and gene- ral record or memorial of Literature. Such are the learned Journals and Maga- zines, which once more make known what it is which the Author has made known, and by means of which an Author is enabled to repeat, even after the lapse of half a year, what he has said already; and a similar opportunity is afforded to the reading public to learn what be has said, if they read the learned Journals. But it would not accord with the dignity of the authors of these publications, and would place them too far below other writers, if they only conveyed this genee of the thoughts of others; they must therefore, while reporting their in- formation, also assert their own independence by discussing these thoughts and announcing their own opinion thereupon: the leading maxims in this business being the following—that the Reviewer shall always find something to censure, and that he knows everything better than the original Author. "With such writings as commonly appear this is of little moment; for it is no great misfortune that something which is bad at first should be made worse by the new treatment of the Reviewer. Writings which really deserve to see the light, whether in the department of Science or that of Literature, are invariably the expression of a whole Life devoted to the Idea in some new and original form; and until such writings have seized upon the Age, and penetrated it, and fashioned it after their own thought, no judgment of them is possible: and therefore it is obvious that no thorough and comprehensive Review of such works can be pro- duced in a half or even in a whole year. It is of course understood that the ordinary critics do not make this distinction, but unhesitatingly seize upon all that comes under their notice without discrimination; and also that the same judgment is pronounced upon truly original works as upon the most thoroughly worthless productions. But even this fault is no misfortune except to themselves; for nothing really good is lost in the stream of Time: how long soever it may lie defamed, misunderstood, and disregarded, the day at length arrives when it throws off its disguises and comes forth into light."
It may be doubtful whether Fichte is entirely accurate in his assertion that all ancient productions were spoken before they were written, the vo- lume being merely intended as a substitute for the voice; or in his theory that the superiority of the ancient style is owing to its having been based upon speaking and conversation. There is, however, little doubt that the composition of many modern authors owes its diffuseness and word- spinning to the fact of their being mere writers, unconnected with affairs in action' or, so far as their immediate writings go, with men in dis- course. It is perhaps a truth, that too little may be required from a reader ; and that if he is really to profit by a work, he must be at the labour of studying it and making it his own. It is a truth, that the sys- tem of compilation, popular writing to avoid troubling the reader, repro- ductions, and reviews, gives rise to a reading public such as is here described.
"Such is the portraiture of the active section of this camp of Formal Know- ledge—namely, the Authors. After their image the passive or receptive section, the body of Readers, fashions itself, that it may become their exact counter- part. As the former write on without rest or intermission, so do the latter read on without rest or intermission; straining every nerve to keep their head above the flood of Literature, and, as they call it, to advance with the Age. Glad to have been driven through the old by necessity, they eagerly grasp at the new, whilst the newest already makes its appearance: and not a single moment re- mains for them ever to revert to the old. They can by no means stop themselves in this restless career in order to consider what they read, for their business is pressing, and time is short; and so it is left wholly to chance what and how much of their reading may stick to them in this rapid transit, how it may influence them, and what spiritual form it may assume. " This custom of reading for its own sake is specifically different from every other habit of mind; and, having something about it in the highest degree a gree- able, it soon becomes an indispensable want to those who once indulge in it. Like other narcotic remedies, it places those who use it in the pleasant condition be- twixt sleeping and waking, and lulls them into sweet self-forgetfulness, without calling for the slightest exertion on their part. It has always appeared to me to have the greatest resemblance to tobacco-smoking, and to be best illustrated by that habit. He who has once tasted the delights of this condition will desire continually to enjoy them, and will devote himself to nothing else: he now reads even without regard to the knowledge of Literature, or to advancing with his Age, but with this view only—that he may read, and reading live; and so represents in his person the character of the pure Reader."
Although never before translated, and but little known in this country, the lectures that form this volume are nearly half a century old ; having been delivered in the winter of 1804-5, at Berlin. This lapse of time, however, is of little consequence as regards their matter ; for Transcen- dentalism does not concern itself sufficiently with sublunary things to regard passing events, at least out of its own trade. The stupendous and world-changing scenes that had been shaking Europe to its centre during the last fifteen years were too trifling for Fichte in his lecture- room. The only allusion to the French Revolution, and its successor, Napoleon, is a passing suggestion that the Prussian privileged classes should become more liberal.