Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Apotheosis of The Romantic Will: Fichte

Now, where was I when that whiff of a spring breeze blew me away and left me on the shore of Walden Pond? Let's see: I was thinking about the house that Hobbes built and about the people who were trying to get out it, and now here I am in the house that Thoreau built. It doesn't look big enough to accommodate all that crowd. Nor, to tell the truth, does it offer the amenities and diversions to which they'd become accustomed--like treasure hunts, spin-the-bottle, dancing and drinking parties, sexual games of hide-and-seek, gambling, contact sports, bare-knuckle or brass-knuckle down-and-out, winner-take-all brawls.... Nope. Most people just wouldn't be happy in the house that Thoreau built. They think they would but they couldn't have stood it for an hour. This is borrrring. Heavy boredom. Get me outahere! Which is sort of how they behaved when they began to realize that they'd got themselves into the house that Hobbes, Newton and the French philosophers had built. They took the free, high-powered Will that Kant had invented and used it like a wrecking-ball.

Fichte may have been first philosopher to see the power of this new iron-clad Will and seize it. (And here I am quoting from Isaiah Berlin): "Fichte is the true father of romanticism, above all in his celebration of will over calm discursive thought. A man is made conscious of being what he is--of himself as against others or the external world--not by thought or contemplation, since the purer it is, the more a man's thought is in its object; self-awareness springs from encountering resistance. It is the impact on me of what is external to me, and the effort to resist it, that makes me know that I am what I am, aware of my aims, my nature, my essence, as opposed to what is not mine; and since I am not alone in the world but connected by a myriad strands, as Burke has taught us, to other men, it is this impact that makes me undertand what my culture, my nation, my language, my historical tradition, my true home, have been and are. I carve out of external nature what I need, I see it in terms of my needs, temperament, questions, aspirations: 'I do not accept what nature offers because I must,' Fichte declares, 'I believe because I will.'

"It is the need to act that generates consciousness of the actual world: 'We know because we are called upon to act, not the other way about' A change in my notion of what should be will change my world. The world of the poet is different from the world of the banker, the world of the rich is not the world of the poor...the world of those who think and speak in German is not the world of the French. Fichte goes further: values, principles, moral and political goals, are not objectively given, not imposed on the agent by nature or a transcendent God; 'I am determined by my end: the end is determined by me.' If I am to understand myself and my significance, and be what at my best, I could and should be, I can only understand this by action: 'Man shall be and do something.' 'We must be a quickening source life, not an echo of it or an annex to it.' The essence of man is freedom, and although there is talk of reason, harmony, the reconciliation of one man's purpose to that of another in a rationally organized society, yet freedom is a sublime and dangerous gift: 'Not nature but freedom itself produces the greatest and most terrible disorder of our race...' Freedom is double-edged weapon; it is because they are free that savages devour each other. Civilized nations are free, free to live in peace, but no less free to fight and make war; 'culture is not a deterrence of violence but its tool.' Fichte advocates peace, but if it be a choice between freedom, with its potentiality of violence, or the peace of subjection to the forces of nature [or perhaps any form of subjection whatsoever], he unequivocally prefers--and indeed thinks it is the essence of man not be able to avoid preferring--freedom. Creation is of man's essence; hence the doctrine of the dignity of labor, of which Fichte is virtually the author--labor is the impressing of my creative personality upon the material brought into existence by this very need, it is a means for expressing my inner self--the conquest of nature and the attainment of freedom for nations and cultures is the self-realization of the will: 'Sublime and living will! Named by no man, compassed by no thought.'"

(to be continued)

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