Nature and Civilization

Johann G. Fichte (1762-1814) was a popular philosophy teacher at the University of Jena in Germany, where he gave the lectures that were later published as The Vocation of the Scholar (1794). During the time of his tenure the French Revolution was unfolding, and large numbers of German students sympathized more or less openly with the French anti-monarchists. Fichte, too, was reported as saying in class that in a few decades no monarchs may be left anywhere in Europe, and that an age of democratic self-government may usher in a whole new phase of Western civilization. Such sentiments worried the authorities who were nervous about the spread of such revolutionary ideas. The containment, if not defeat, of the French Revolution was of the highest priority to most European governments at the time. To make things even more difficult for Fichte, he was also accused of atheism–no small matter in a culture that associated freethinking with the destruction of all decency and moral order. When he refused to budge from his principles, Fichte lost his academic post in 1799.

During the following decade he held a number of short-lived teaching positions, and he worked hard on his philosophical writings–mostly attempts to defend and radicalize Kant’s system of Transcendental Idealism. As a political figure Fichte gained notoriety once more when he delivered his “Addresses to the German Nation” during the time when Napoleon’s troops occupied Berlin and various German principalities. His patriotic speeches earned him an appointment as head of the University of Berlin. With his wife he volunteered for hospital duty during the war of liberation. The couple contracted typhoid fever, and Fichte died of it before the war was over.

Fichte’s lectures on the vocation of the scholar are a comprehensive statement of the most basic philosophical principles of the Enlightenment. They provide a general idea of what Enlightenment thinkers hoped to accomplish in the area of morality, education, self-realization, and general culture. Their basic assumption was that progress in all areas of culture can be measured by the degree to which raw nature has been subjugated to and harnessed by the power and realization of reason. 
For Fichte the various aspects of human culture and existence are not compartmentalized and isolated from each other, but closely connected and informed by the same underlying principles. At the center of Fichte’s system is the definition of the self. 

The way one understands and relates to one’s self determines how one relates to other human beings and to the natural environment. It also determines how society is organized, and how the physical world will be shaped as civilization progresses. Finally, it defines the meaning of education. Academic studies, in Fichte’s view, are not just preparations for particular professions and gainful careers: they are explorations of the over-all meaning of learning and human existence. Fichte’s deliberations bring a unity and purpose to higher education that deeply inspired his students at the time, and that earned him high praise as a motivating teacher.

A comprehensive vision of the purpose of higher education and human existence is strikingly absent in our own time. Most students follow practical or conventional career paths as a matter of course, such as “making good money” or “raising a family.” If philosophy enters their deliberations at all, they tend to accept the general disillusionment and meaninglessness that are said to be the basic condition of the modern age. Fichte’s philosophical vision is a measure of what is amiss in modern life—as well as a measure of how much the modern world has failed to realize the ideals and optimistic expectations of the Enlightenment. For like Kant’s moral philosophy, Fichte’s philosophy of education is a passionate commitment to Enlightenment ideals, to a conception of human existence that puts human beings in control of their lives, that replaces the brute forces of nature with rational decisions, and that nurtures a culture in which everybody can realize his or her highest potential.

To understand the purpose of education one needs to understand human nature, according to Fichte. His first lecture thus offers a definition of what human beings most basically are. The basic constitution that all human beings share is their dual nature: their capacity of pure reason on the one hand, and their natural sensuality on the other. Human beings, in other words, are pure intellects who can process concepts objectively and according to the strict laws of logic, and they are physical bodies that are determined and driven by sensations, appetites, instincts, and feelings. The relation between these two aspects of every person is such that reason is the innermost self of every individual, whereas everything sensual or physical is more or less external to this innermost self. In order to be truly oneself, to be identical with one’s self, one has to be in total control of one’s sensuous nature: reason has to rule over all appetites, instincts, emotions, and any other natural inclination or impulse. 

It is obvious that Fichte invokes a picture of human nature that has had a long history in Western thought–as in several non-Western philosophies as well. When Plato advocates the rule of reason over basic appetites and “spirited emotions,” for example, or when St. Paul thinks about the opposition of spirit and flesh, the same dual nature of human beings comes into view. The mind and its non-physical aspirations are always understood to be the true center of a human being, while the body is deemed to be something more or less alien to the true self. It is within this general framework that Fichte describes the human condition as a constant struggle between the “Self” (pure reason) and the “Not-Self” (the body and its instincts, drives, and feelings). In this struggle the purely rational “Self” is the active agent that strives to subjugate and control those aspects of the person that Fichte defines as the “Not-Self”–as nature.

Fichte presents the progressive subjugation of the non-rational aspects of every person by reason as a gradual process of gaining one’s identity, as a process of becoming one’s true self. Ordinarily people are far from being in control of their natural impulses and inclinations: they give in to their appetites and cravings, they are overcome by powerful feelings, they make decisions on impulse, or they follow their emotional intuitions more than their rational analyses. They generally are, in David Hume’s words, the “slaves of their passions.” It is rare that a person becomes master of himself or herself, and even when it happens it happens only to a degree. Fichte concedes that nobody is ever perfect in this sense, but he insists that total control over one’s natural dispositions is a necessary ideal that all people ought to approach to the best of their abilities. It is, according to Fichte, the ultimate purpose of human life to eliminate the original dual nature of human beings by subjugating all natural inclinations to reason as much as is humanly possible: “The ultimate vocation, then, of all finite rational beings is absolute unity, constant identity, and complete agreement with themselves. This absolute identity is the proper form of the pure Self, and the only true form of it.”

To achieve the transformation of a natural person into a rational being one cannot always rely on pure acts of will. If a person’s emotions continue to conflict with his or her rational decisions, it is often ineffective or in other ways unwise to simply attempt compliance with reason by force, as it were. In such cases it will be helpful if there is a social environment in which an individual’s untutored feelings or drives are checked or shaped by established customs or generally accepted institutions. In organized societies raw impulses and emotions are not left in their natural form, but are modified by a community’s reaction to them–by their suppression or sublimation, by their analysis and discussion in literature and art, or by the nurturing of such feelings as guilt and shame. This social environment, which thus transforms the raw natural form of human sensuality, Fichte defines as “culture.” Culture in this sense is part of a human-made environment that molds and refines the human animal, and thus helps it to become ever more human. It is not through their reason alone, but also through culture that individuals become ever more identical with themselves.

To be completely one’s Self, however, it is not enough to master one’s own sensuous nature alone. Curbing one’s destructive appetites, controlling one’s emotions, overruling instinctual drives, and so forth, constitutes only a first step in the direction of realizing one’s humanity. To become one’s true Self, to realize one’s human potential in its entirety, one also has to master external nature, the natural environment. If feelings or appetites have to be forced into compliance with the demands of reasons, the forces and conditions of external nature need to be controlled and changed as well. The natural world around me has to be transformed into something rational: “Human beings must try to modify things in such a way that the world of objects will harmonize with the pure form of the Self.” The transformation of external nature is a task for individuals as well as for society as a whole.

External nature is the physical world in which humans live and secure their survival– landscapes, bodies of water, plants, animals, microbes, and any other phenomenon over which human intelligence and ingenuity can exert some measure of influence or control. As individuals ought to master such problematic dispositions as obsession, rage, envy, or greed, reason-governed societies should control floods, draughts, epidemics, or damage caused by earthquakes. They should, furthermore, do such things as build roads, cultivate fruit trees, design healthy habitats, or develop efficient machines. To produce such artificial objects and conditions is to translate human ideas and concepts into reality; it is reason’s way to manifest itself in the world. It is the Self’s way to make the Not-Self part of the Self:

The highest drive in human beings is … the drive toward identity, toward complete oneness of one’s Self, and, in order to be identical with one’s Self, toward oneness with everything outside the Self with one’s own necessary concepts of it. The outside world should not only be prevented from contradicting one’s concepts… Rather, something should come into being that corresponds to one’s rational ideas. All concepts that lie in my Self should have an expression in the Not-Self, a corresponding representation. That is the nature of the above human drive.

The cumulative effects of such human inventions or creations will, of course, lead to lasting changes in the natural environment. Swamps will be drained and changed into fields, roads will change wilderness areas into regions of settlement, jetties will create harbors, orchards will replace deserts, and improvements in heating and lighting will make the differences between day and night and the seasons increasingly unimportant. There will be ever more things that are brought about not by the forces of nature, but by the plans and technology of humans. People’s lives will become ever more dependent on artificial products and manipulation. Fichte advocates, in effect, the progressive transformation of the natural world into a human-made commonwealth–as part of the self-realization of humanity: “To subject everything that is not rational, to rule it freely and according to their own laws–that is the ultimate purpose of human beings.” The idea of self-determination that Kant defined in terms of moral autonomy, Fichte defines as the rule of the rational Self over inner and outer nature.

In his second lecture Fichte submits that human beings are essentially social: to be human is to exist in interdependence with other human beings, beings who are basically like me. These other Selves are not part of the natural environment. They are different from everything else in nature in that they are rational beings. As rational beings they are free: their behavior is not determined in the way the behavior of animals is determined–by instincts or unconsciously copied behavior. They are in principle as able to control their natural impulses and inclinations as I am. Consequently I relate to other Selves as autonomous beings; I do not try to manipulate or dominate them in the way I try to manipulate or dominate animals or nature. While I use everything that is not rational for my own or other human purposes, I respect other persons as beings who exist for their own ends. 

Since a truly human society is, by definition, a community of rational beings, it functions in a fundamentally different way than any natural association. If society were just a natural formation, its members would try to subjugate and exploit each other as much as they can. Naturally developing pecking orders and emerging hierarchies would insure that some people use others as if they were mere objects or means; the survival and dominance of the “fittest” would become a prevailing social pattern; force or devious cunning would settle all differences of interest. There may be rules and laws in a natural society, and open warfare may be averted by the institution of police, courts, and judicial systems, but such rules and laws are mostly made by those who have power, and are thus just one more way in which the stronger take advantage of the weaker. The necessity of a coercive state apparatus with police, jails, and a legal profession as such tends to show that the members of a society do not yet treat and respect each other as equal and autonomous beings, that basically they have not yet risen above the level of animals and nature. 

Fichte realized, of course, that in his time he did not yet live in a truly human society. What he thought was that people could work toward a more human future. By gradually becoming ever more rational, and with the help of public education and an appropriate culture, people could develop genuine respect for each other and begin to dismantle the coercive state. “The purpose of all government is to make government superfluous,” as Fichte put it. Some time in the future people will be mature enough to refrain from exploiting each other, or from exerting power without the consent of their fellows. “It is the point at which pure reason, and not brute force or cunning, will be recognized as the supreme judge.”

In his third lecture Fichte spells out some implications of his principles for the internal structure of society. The problem he addresses is that of equality. Nature does not create human beings as equals. Individuals differ with respect to such things as natural talents, particular interests, aggressiveness, or greed. While many differences are harmless and acceptable, others may prove problematic and the causes of unjust conditions. A society of rational and autonomous individuals, a democratic society, has an interest in a fair distribution of education and opportunity. If nature does not distribute intelligence and talents equally, human beings need to see to it that compensatory measures create more level playing fields: “Reason will see to it that every individual will indirectly receive from society the complete education of his or her faculties which they could not receive directly from nature.”

In his fourth lecture Fichte turns to the special profession of scholars and the institutions of higher learning. In accordance with the Kantian principle of autonomy, Fichte insists that there must be complete academic freedom: scholars must not only be allowed to conduct research without interference on the part of any authorities, but must also be free to choose and design the projects on which they wish to work. Nevertheless, scholars are also under a moral obligation to critically ask themselves whether their research programs have sufficient meaning. Not every scientific collection of data makes sense, and not every accepted publication is a meaningful contribution to the body of human knowledge. Sizable portions of academic research have been justly criticized as trivial and as an irresponsible waste of resources. Culture and higher learning, according to Fichte, ought to be more than a vast field of unconnected and arbitrary pursuits. Fichte recommends that scholars orient themselves along the lines of progress that he sketched out in his preceding lectures. As individuals have their task in bringing ever more of their non-rational faculties under rational control, humanity as a whole has the task of progressively replacing raw nature with a human-made world. Scholars should design their research with respect to this over-all project of advancing and improving the entirety of human civilization:

The ultimate purpose of every human being, as well as of society as a whole, and thus of all the work that scholars do on behalf of society, is the moral improvement of the entire human being. It is the duty of the scholar to always keep this ultimate purpose in mind, and to aim at this goal, no matter what he does in society.

In his fifth and last lecture Fichte deals with the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Fichte’s own philosophy is obviously dedicated to the idea of developing reason, as well as to the never ending expansion and improvement of civilization. Rousseau, by contrast, was a well known critic and opponent of the culture of reason and the idea of controlling nature. He was the single most important forerunner of Romanticism, the movement that tended to oppose the rationalism of the Enlightenment in almost every field. Rousseau valued feeling and passion over ratiocination, and he argued that humanity would be far better off if people lived in a state of nature rather than in civilized society. For him civilized society was nothing but organized degeneracy, and reason nothing but a means for pursuing unworthy and perverted ends. A primitive humanity, in Rousseau’s estimate, would be far healthier and happier than the sophisticated degeneracy that he observed in Paris and other celebrated centers of civilization. Rousseau was the writer who introduced the ideal of the “noble savage” into the discourse of his time.

Fichte, although he respected Rousseau as a man of great learning and as a “noble heart,” criticized the Romantic’s anti-rationalism and glorification of nature as mistaken along several lines. Fichte did not deny that the existing society that Rousseau described was one of degeneracy, and that its actual educators were a far cry from the ideal persons that Fichte portrayed in The Vocation of the Scholar. What he argues, however, is that the present deficient society and culture cannot be identified with society and culture as such: If some or even most sophisticated civilizations are degenerate or injurious, that does not justify the conclusion that all advanced civilizations have to be flawed in this way. Critics of culture must beware of this over-generalizations.

Fichte also sees an inherent contradiction in Rousseau’s enterprise of debunking reason and culture. By his writings Rousseau demonstrates that he is a powerful thinker and a man of great learning. It is, indeed, because of his sound education that he has become the persuasive and successful author as which he is known. Yet, such learning can only be the result of reasoning and culture, and if Rousseau’s analyses and insights are worth listening to, there is no good reason for condemning the reasoning and culture that were necessary to produce them. 

Fichte’s over-all critique of Rousseau amounts to the contention that the present deficiencies of society are not caused by too much reason and culture, but by too little of both. A healthy state of affairs can be achieved, according to Fichte, only by strengthening active rationality in every individual, and by furthering the control of nature by a vigorous expansion of human culture. 

Civilizing the Soul

Fichte’s philosophy generally aims at a transformation of nature into a human-made world. For Fichte the natural world consists of objects and beings without much inherent value. Nature is presented as mere raw material for the rational purposes and creations of the active human mind. As he so stridently put it in his first lecture: “To subject everything that is not rational, to rule it freely and according to their own laws–that is the ultimate purpose of human beings.” 

This statement, however, is easily misunderstood. It invokes images of reckless industrialization, destruction of natural habitat, pollution of rivers and oceans, and corridors of deafening traffic. While the development of Western civilization since Fichte’s days has largely progressed along the lines of such vistas, it would be mistaken to equate this kind of environmental devastation with the subjection of nature to reason. Such devastation is, in fact, highly irrational, as it is not only injurious to humans and their biosphere, but also motivated by impulses that are often have little to do with reason. The forces that transform nature by relentlessly producing ever more factories, shopping malls, mining pits, traffic lanes, and, indeed, human beings—these forces are not manifestations of human rationality, but palpable proof of the absence of critical thinking and informed self-reflection. What unfolds in today’s world could well be characterized as a culture of somnambulistic activity and instinct-driven forces running out of control.

To illustrate what Fichte meant by transforming nature into a rational, humanized world one cannot invoke enterprises that largely grow out of short-sighted greed, obsessive competition, compulsive expansionism, or the reckless pursuit of convenience and comfort. A rational world is not one that knows no higher value than that of financial accounts. For a transformation of nature to be rational it has to be based on and guided by careful deliberation, extensive information, unhurried self-reflection, and the kind of sensitivity that grows out of a rich and well developed inner culture. Roads and canals can be built, electricity generated, hybrids developed, windmills and microwave towers put into landscapes, wildlife tagged or fitted with electric chips, settlements enlarged into cities–provided all this is done on the basis of an honest evaluation of all pros and cons, and not in an environment of relentless commercial pressures, political intrigue, hidden agendas, and the willful obfuscation of long-term costs. To understand Fichte’s notion of humanizing nature one would have to imagine a culture that is almost the opposite of what we are living today.

The main point to keep in mind in contemplating Fichte’s position is his insistence that the subjugation of “everything that is not rational” does not only refer to external nature, but to the inner world of the human psyche as well. When advocating the transformation of the natural into a human-made world, Fichte does not advocate heeding such primitive drives as lust for power, greed for possessions, or the desire of becoming colossal. The motive forces that cause people to use and change nature must themselves be shaped and controlled by reason; the human psyche must itself become civilized. If people really lived inner lives that are rich, thoughtful, and aware of what they are doing, the humanization of the external world would hardly result in a ravaged, polluted, over-populated, and war-infested planet, but could rather be something like a garden, or–as some suggest–like a well managed spaceship. Everything depends, in other words, on how well human beings will control and cultivate their own minds and souls.

Toward the end of the 20th century the limits of industrial growth slowly came into sight. 8000 years ago the planet had been a wilderness area into which human settlements and civilization made their modest inroads. Today the earth is nearly completely covered or controlled by human settlements and constructions, and wilderness areas are artificially protected preserves that survive here and there among the ubiquitous and expanding centers of economic development. The growing world population extracts enormous amounts of natural resources from the earth, and the expanding consumer culture based on an fuel-dependent technology further exacerbates this extraction. Shortages of potable water, fossil fuel, arable land, and sea animals are beginning to trouble economists and politicians. Climate change is acknowledged as a threatening problem. The question is obvious: Can human beings continue to live and expand in the way to which they have grown so accustomed?

Scientists do not know when exactly such problems will become overwhelming, and when a rapid decline or sudden collapse of civilization may occur. What is certain is that an end is impending unless massive corrections are made. These changes will most likely have to be along the lines of diminishing growth, reduced consumption, and an end to the habit of defining the good life in materialist terms. A sustainable civilization will have to be one where people find pleasure not so much in opulent consumption as in an intensified life of the mind. In such a civilization people may also find satisfaction in letting nature expand once more—allowing fish stocks to replenish themselves in the oceans, in letting forests regenerate and expand, and in taking whole regions out of the commerce that at present grinds so much of the planet into detritus. A rational civilization of the future, in other words, will not manifest itself in replacing a natural environment with an artificial one, but in reducing the human-made part of the world in favor of letting original nature abound.

Such a civilization would not contradict Fichte’s idea of humanizing the planet. For while nature would to a large extend be allowed to expand and develop according to its own laws, it would also be the willed product of rational beings who appreciate it for its beauty and other beneficial aspects. Its aesthetic appreciation in particular would testify to the fact that human beings have developed a non-possessive conception of humanizing nature that can let it be while making it theirs at the same time.