Diagnosing Romantic Nationalism:


As a young man, Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) had been inspired by the Continental Enlightenment and many of the ideas that arose out of the French Revolution. He was a student of theology in the late 1780s, which is precisely when the Enlightenment ideas of Immanuel Kant swept over Germany’s intellectual atmosphere and drastically altered many individuals’ perception of humankind’s relation to reason, government, the economy, and to the divine. While on the one hand Kant had given ultimate responsibility for the universe to the individual, since he had effected a final divorce between reason and revelation, between individual intellect and the gnostic transmission of divine knowledge through extra-sensory or extra-individual means (or, more precisely, between individuals and the appointed heads of state churches who claimed the power of secret revelation), he had also placed established religion in its correct light as an institution that sought to divide the individual from his responsibility and self-reliance in improving the human spirit as an individual, instead of a congregation. In so doing, he had sought an individualistic and anarchic picture of human reason—pure intellect, pure criticism, pure mind, as a theoretical stance. By sketching out the groundwork for the Organon, the logical apparatus of mind, he had eliminated the possibility of an outside Organon in society—a social mind, a hive-mind, a government-mind, a culture-mind, or the god-mind of religious creeds.

In Germany, the disparate states of the nation were divided between rival church establishments, much like colonial American society was divided regionally by religious establishments in each colony, and much like 6 state churches remained active on the state level after the ratification of the Constitution; but whereas America underwent a disestablishment process due to the shift of religion into the free market, as a byproduct of its anti-tax movements, Germany had traditionally been embroiled in bloody and internecine religious conflicts. And the French Revolution had scared the conservative establishmentarians into cleaving to religious centralization (instead of market decentralization) in order to stave off the levels of secular insanity and Jacobinism that had arisen in France in the years after the Revolution.

Kant’s idea of enlightenment removed intermediaries from their privileged place between the individual and the divine, whether he wished his philosophy to effect this divorce or not. If institutional religion charged itself with interpreting the correct rites and readings of scripture and orthodoxy, and if the individual were not charged with examining reality for himself by that institution, but instead were charged with accepting another man’s interpretations of God and godliness, then institutional religion was a usurper of reason, and not a guide. For the rules of logic and individualism applied not only to the congregation, but also to the high priests of divine revelation. It was not without reason that Kant was often viewed as a dangerous philosopher. His anarchy of reason was one of the gravest threats to established dogma in the history of Western Civilization.

As a young acolyte of the Critical Philosophy, Fichte had attempted to apply the Kantian method of criticism to divine revelation in An Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation in 1792. His goal was not to deny that there was such a thing as divine revelation, but to show that, through the Critical Philosophy derived first by Kant, that there only might be revelation; not that there is revelation, de facto. He sketched out the groundwork for limitation upon the whole field of revealed religion; and in doing so, Fichte bound god to moral rules. Hence, there could never be something revealed in religion—as something higher than the moral rule of the categorical imperative. In his Metaphysics of Morals, Kant had deduced a moral law through reason as follows:

Act only according to a moral rule whereby you could, at the same time, will that this moral rule should be universal.

By this measure, for example one could not wish that theft become a universal rule. For, if one wishes to steal from others, yet wishes others to steal from oneself (as in state socialism), then nobody could ever wish that theft would become the universal norm. At some point, one’s sole aim would be to obtain property for the prolongation of the theft; but one could not will oneself to desire the retention of property, and would prefer to give that property away; and yet, the desire to give that property away would make the “theft” not “theft” in the end. The very notion of theft means that one does not wish others to take one’s property; otherwise, the act would not be called “theft.” It would be voluntary sharing. As soon as a thief obtained his Loot, he would have to will that some other thief should steal that Loot; and if he wished that others should steal his loot, he could never act in accordance with the rule by means of reason because he could never will that he should, as an individual, be in possession of property that he wished others to steal from him. This would cripple the need and desire to work, to labor for the acquisition of resources, and would thence condemn the looter, the thief, and the idealist to starvation. To steal is to appropriate a good or resource; and to appropriate a good or a resource would touch off the moral rule of theft all over again. This is particularly why all socialist dogmas are anti-property at root. They wish to imagine away the thing that makes the whole philosophy falter and collapse at its first toddler step. By abolishing property from the discussion (although they do not thereby abolish it from reality or the mind), they hope to claim a first victory in the cause.

If God were bound to a categorical imperative, Fichte reasoned by extension, then no divine revelation could ever reveal something that would conflict with the categorical imperative and the reason of humankind. God was justified by reason, after all. Revelation and divine reward were not a means of promising recompense for something in conflict with individual moral duty.

Kant was impressed with Fichte’s applications of Critical Philosophy, but the intellectual honeymoon Fichte enjoyed would not last long. As international sentiment turned against the French Revolution in the 1790s after the secularization pogroms and military upheavals turned the Revolution into a massacre, a change in popular sentiment perhaps best exemplified by the correspondence of argumentation between Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke, Fichte came to be regarded as a Germanic Jacobin, and a dangerous social usurper:

The tracts which the French Revolution inspired Fichte to write at this time, and which established the rights of the pople on the basis of the inherent moral freedom of man, increased his fame; but at the same time they caused moderate and conservative men to regard him as a radical and dangerous teacher. In spite of this, however, he was called to succeed Reinhold as Professor of Philosophy at Jena in 1794. Here he won immediate success as a lecturer, owing undoubtedly in great measure to the vigour of his thought and to his moral intensity and practical earnestness. His enemies, however, especially the bigoted supporters of the traditional constitution and of the established form of religion, never ceased trying to undermine his position and to secure his removal. They first complained that the course of general moral lectures which he gave on Sunday mornings was an attempt to overthrow Christianity and to introduce the worship of reason in its stead; but meeting with no success, they then attempted to turn to his disadvantage the efforts which Fichte was making to suppress the students’ associations. Throughout these negotiations Fichte, who saw that these associations were productive of much harm, was animated solely by the desire to develop and cultivate the moral and intellectual powers of his pupils. Though again unsuccessful, his enemies did not cease their attacks, and were at last victorious. (1)

What followed was the famous Atheism Controversy in which Fichte, who had identified the moral world order with God, was deemed a dangerous atheist. Such was a terrible charge to have laid at one’s feet where church and state were not effectively separated. This tale itself, which will be featured later this year on the Culture & Anarchy Podcast’s second installment of The Shadow of All Doubts, led to Fichte’s dismissal from his position at the university. Seeking safety, or perhaps just a fresh start, Fichte removed himself to Berlin to start his career all over again with the school of romantic idealists, amongst whom counted Schelling—the other figurehead of German Idealism, apart from Kant and Fichte. It was a contentious new start for the young German idealist, for Fichte was a man of absolute principles (and a disagreeable temperament) who suffered no slackness from others; and when a proposal was circulated for the founding of a new university in Berlin, Fichte delivered his fourteen Addresses to the German Nation before an elite crowd, which he hoped would provide a platform upon which the national foundation of a specifically German education might arise. These addresses, which are often touted as the first essay upon the modern European notion of nationalism, were based on a select set of defining characteristics, which were sufficient to demarcate a nation.

These addresses did not arise in a vacuum, however. The French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, had begun his forays into Prussia in 1806, and by the end of the year he had taken Berlin. Fichte fled from the city during this period of turmoil; which must have been more than a little humiliating to his ideals and his experience. For the totalitarian and constructivist rationalism of the French Revolution, along with its currency collapse at the end of the monarchy, had thrown French society into upheaval and more than a decade of pointless war.

None of this happened in a vacuum either. The English had provoked conflict after conflict with the French in order to keep its own empire secure (and especially after the French had aided American independence), and the French had retaliated time and time again. The two juggernauts of Western Europe had anticipated each other’s moves by destroying alliances and forging temporary wars of convenience throughout a decade of war. Napoleon had, in part, secured some social stability for France; but in doing so, he had pushed the armies of France over the borders of her enemies, and occupied foreign territory as a conqueror.

Perhaps, Fichte must have reflected in self-doubt on more than one occasion, his critics had been correct when they had linked him to the disastrous effects of Continental constructivist rationalism, which believed that utopia might form a plan for the State’s organization.

In August 1807, Fichte returned to an occupied Berlin to find his country under the yoke of Napoleonic rule; and the restless spirit of revolution stirred in him as he found—as is the way with human nature—that an excess of reason beyond culture, which had resulted in the usurpation of his native culture with a foreign despot’s culture, was intolerable. Nothing so stirs the anarchic human breast to revolt as occupation and misrule; for the self-determination of peoples is something at the heart of rational society, rational economy, and a quasi-rational politics (insofar as politics can be something rational). Reason, as the spirit of Anarchy, is always secessionist in temper; it is always extraction; always deduction; always building up towards an individual and away from masses and abstract classes. It is the universal philosophy of the specimen, not the species. And during the large-scale movements of international wars, with their occupations, devastations, destructions, ebbs, and flows, reason seeks secession from disorder. Perhaps this is what tuned Fichte’s intellect and set it towards a plan for a new foundation of Germanic thought—one not tainted by the French Revolution that had betrayed his ideals (and perhaps the French philosophes, as well). If the future was to be the utopia of the individual, the anarchic mind of reason, then surely it was to found in the people of Germany and the home of Idealism.

Fichte’s Addresses to the German Nation escaped the censure of the French occupiers of Berlin, despite the nationalism that found its voice in Fichte’s words. Perhaps it sounded too foreign to the Jacobinical universalists who were busy totalitarianizing the world into liberty, equality, and fraternity. Perhaps Fichte’s words were innocuous because Fichte himself—a small German figure—was a mere ant in a giant Napoleonic colony. But whatever the case is, Fichte was mounting a plan for future revolution by means of a plan for a native education, based on German Idealism. This was intellectual dynamite, no doubt; for the concept of a national identity was being wedded with the Idealist’s philosophy of self-reliance, self-determination, duty, change, and industry. Max Weber, who saw in the rise of Capitalism the fingerprints of the Protestant work ethic, could have as easily spied in the nationalist drive the overweening constructivism of German Idealism, which wedded industry to an idyllic bureaucracy. And though Fichte’s addresses did not stir up popular sentiment, they did have an effect upon the “cultured classes” of Germany. The ideas contained therein have been linked, whether justly or in over-extension, with the outbreak of the War of Liberation in 1813, when six German states rose up against their French overlords and—in conjunction with the Duke of Wellington’s maneuvers at Waterloo—forced Napoleon into defeat, and ended the French occupation of Germany. That success, it is sometimes asserted, formed the basis for the renewal of the German State and the unification of the country.

Fichte’s addresses were an attempt to formulate, out of the disparate Germanic states, a feeling of national identity sufficient to demarcate his native region of birth, its culture and its supposed-race, from the occupying forces of Napoleon, as well as its foreign culture (and by extension, its language). In doing so, Fichte utilized German Idealism to join together a people separated by denominational differences and institutional squabbles. He wanted to find the common substrate of Germany itself within its people, knowing that underneath it all was the human nature, the Organon, that Kant had discovered in his probing Critical Philosophy. He utilized his understanding of idealism’s real target—which is the theoretical framework for human nature and human reason—to grant to the German people the honor of best-exemplifying human nature and reason. German nature, as a result, became the pinnacle of human society and development, whereas before Germany had but been the collection of states and principalities with tenuous and shifting alliances.

Fichte rooted these national characteristics in the concepts and categories of race, ethnic solidarity, heredity, art, language, custom, and prejudice. As one can well imagine, in the aftermath of World War II and nearly a century of backwards-looking philosophical reflection, many is the thinker that has linked Fichte’s Addresses to the swell of nationalism that would eventually be responsible for everything leading up to the nationalist socialists and the Holocaust. This is an unfortunate characterization resulting from historical circumstance, and it tends to arise wherever any sense of German nationalism and idealism is examined in history. More’s the pity that this tendency has led to very shallow analysis of the ideas that Fichte canvassed in his orations. In the evolution of the concept of a nation, Fichte provides one of the first “building-up” plans for the modern statist mindset, and it is with this understanding that we here endeavor to examine his ideas within the whirl of identitarian conflicts that arose out of the French Revolution, which pitted the anarchic mind of human reason against the cultural prejudices of conservatism, and wound up trying to engineer a mass movement based on the establishment of reason as a governing policy in society, but to the detriment of individualism. Where America succeeded prior to the Civil War and the destruction of its own Constitution, was in the state-by-state shift of religious institutions into the un-taxed marketplace in accordance with the federal prescription of laissez-faire. There was never a central plan, but only a gradualist plan for religious voluntarism.

There is a reason to examine Fichte’s arguments for more than historical interest. Fichte was codifying, on a large scale, what before had been the expression of a tribal impulse, now transformed into a national identity. His platform was interested in justifying a form of identity politics that was in reaction to foreign occupation. Similar nationalisms had arisen in the preceding generation both in America and Europe, where the English empire had split in twain amongst a parent culture and its bastard American children—the disenfranchised brats of a crumbling world Empire who had secured liberty from the clutches of its imperious overlords. In the future, the nationalism that arose would no longer be linked to military occupation and specific outrages like poll taxes, direct taxes, or tea taxes, but to the challenges to culture that would arise through trade, commerce, exchange, and the free mobility of labor (immigration and emigration). The new outrages were universal and monoloithic; they required nothing less than a changing out of the old gods, the Titans, with a new class of godly equalitarians in the service of cosmic justice. The costs to culture could be mitigated by gains in wealth and economy. But with the rise of the Welfare State in the post-WWII era, and the attempt, most disastrously, by the 20th Century’s demographic engineers to support the Welfare State with a growing tax base as it became more unwieldy, we are beginning to see the rise of nationalism in a different sense than even in the past. Whereas Fichte could actually point to a military dictator exercising a foreign influence, we can only point at democratic governments, the demographic engineers, and the wealth redistribution/government-handout-fueled drive for taxpayer subsidized immigration and refugeeism.

It is a known fact that any population, if it is to remain stable, must maintain at the very least an average 2-child home. For every two people in a nation, two children must survive in order to prevent the decline in number from the population’s equilibrium. In a Welfare State, this means that in order to maintain (even though it was flawed plan from the start and could not be maintained economically) the current level of benefits from taxpayers to tax consumers, from the young to the elderly, there must be a growing population base to sustain the machine. If the birth-rate were to decline below the 2-child household on average, then the Welfare State would have to cut benefits to payees and jack up taxes on a dwindling population base with an insufficient replacement rate.

Europe, for one, has tried to solve this problem by bringing in refugees and immigrants en masse, in numbers that boggle the mind. Worse yet, it has done so at the taxpayers’ expense, and with ample welfare-support for the incoming generation of future Europeans, who are not becoming more European in outlook. But given the demographics of the replacements—Somali, Libyan, Afghani, Iraqi, Syrian, North African, etc.—it is by no mean clear that the Welfare State is importing its future taxpayers, and not its future tyrants. The birth-rate decline, mixed with the demographic change and the influx of Muslim populations, will be the story of the coming generation. And if the present climate of nationalism is to give us a hint at what is to come, we are likely to see a splintering of nationalism along altogether new lines.

We thought that we lived in a secular age; but we are seeing the rise of intolerant faiths. Multiculturalism has failed, and nationalism is rising. We cannot predict its path, but we must be prepared to face down its excesses where the European State seems unwilling to address its course with a critical eye, and where opposition to demographic replacement and cultural annihilation is actively libeled as racist, xenophobic, and intolerant. Rational conversation has all but ended, and few are the divided parties who can brook peaceful argument. All this in a region where opinion polls regularly show that the ideals of each nation’s figureheads are at odds with the vast majority of the people who are ruled by those lawmakers and international bureaucracies. Already, the large-scale influx of more productive Muslim birth-rates and importation of an foreign culture with some very intolerant and anti-Western elements, may threaten the long-run viability of Western European Civilization.

It is for this reason that it is worth revisiting the arguments reared by nationalism’s first proponents, for if history will teach us one overarching lesson, it is that the same old ideas always get rehashed, always tailored for the new generation by the particular challenges that it faces. Fichte very much had a definition for his nation; though perhaps not of a theory of the nation. His model could never be universalized, though it managed to have a very particular utility for its time and place. The century that succeeded his Addresses would repeatedly show how prescient (even if not justified by reason) his hypothesis were; for they arose everywhere, in almost every nation, on every continent, and now rise to challenge free markets and catallactics with renewed vigor.

Hayek argued that catallaxy was the foundation for what was worth preserving in Western Civilization; that it was, in fact, at the base of the very idea that Western Civilization was a positive thing. In the marketplace, win-win negotiations and free trade (as opposed to ceaseless war, Napoleonic campaigns, strife, conflict, and tariffs) were the means best suited to the preservation of society. Through voluntary exchange, or catallactic exchange, one turned one’s enemies into one’s friends without requiring a pact from some governing body. One could, by exchange, effect change over time in equilibrium with each market participant’s decisions to consume goods or to refrain from accessible consumption and enjoyment. A century of Keynesianism and Welfare Statism has pushed the accelerator of change to the very floor. The Welfare Statists wished to leapfrog over the equilibrium of the marketplace in order to speed up the path to superabundance; but in the process, they jammed the gears and broke the throttle. We must enter our own age with full recognition of the consequences that follow from such State policies. We cannot afford to be deluded by the utopianism of the engineers as we careen down this road full-tilt.

When this drama plays out, it will play out on all social fronts. It is a drama that will affect our culture, our freedom, our equality, our institutions, our markets, our families, and our very lives. We shall hear many appeals to history, to our historical memory, as if the past were something that could rise up to meet us as a savior. But our history has brought us to the present dilemma.

We had better be prepared to meet the future with eyes wide open.

1. Jones, R.F. and G.H. Turnbull, eds. “Introduction.” In Addresses to the German Nation by Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1922. Google Books. Web.

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