Like many a young romantic, Fichte embraced the seemingly liberating possibilities of the French Revolution. It was, however, his rejection of Spinozism that led to his rightward interpretation of events.
Fichte did not view equality, the rights of man, universal brotherhood and perpetual peace as ends in themselves. Fichte’s egalitarian concern was to release the full potentialities of each individual in order that a common moral end could be most effectively pursued. ‘The aim of all culture of human capacity’, he wrote in the Vocation of the Scholar, ‘is to subject Nature… to Reason’.
Fichte consciously opposed his ideas to those of Rousseau, arguing that for Rousseau, ‘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...’
The vices of society might cease to exist in such a condition, admitted Fichte - ‘but with it, Virtue and Reason too would be destroyed. Man becomes an irrational creature ; there is a new race of animals, and men no longer exist.’
The Spinozist turn to the French Revolution, fuelled by the writings of Rousseau and others, spelt out danger to Fichte. (The centrality of Spinozism to the French Revolution was recognised by Fichte long before Jonathan Israel, but Israel’s obsession with Spinoza’s impact bolsters Fichte’s much earlier observation.)
In Fichte’s humanistic interpretation of events, Rousseau’s ‘man in his primitive state’ was a sub-human threat to the very existence of the human race.
The failure to advance actively mankind’s dominance over nature risked a slide into the passivity that endangered the pursuit of man’s moral purpose and, by definition, his humanness.
Freedom was not for Fichte an end in itself, or something to be found in Nature. It was certainly not a return to anything that once existed. Freedom to Fichte meant an independence from nature. Only then would there be scope for the spontaneous and creative activity, which Dante had held analogous to that of the first Creator in whose image man was made - the creative activity that distinguished man from beasts and deified the Absolute I as God-like. Only with such freedom ‘could a new equality arise - a uniform progress of culture in all individual men’.
Rousseau’s reduction of humanity to ‘a race of animals’ was the threat to be confronted. After all, a bestial docility was not altogether undesirable to those who would exploit the productive capacity of such ‘free’ individuals. The Spinozist ‘return’, tikkun, to Nature in Rousseau is clear. The Marrano Spinoza’s counter-humanist, counter-Renaissance, project comes most readily to mind.
© John Dunn.