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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Characteristics of the Age
By Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814)
 
From ‘The Characteristics of the Present Age’

IN so far as this age admits the possibility of some of the knowledge which lies beyond the confines of the mere science of the physical world, although it does so in a somewhat inconsequential manner, and only because such things are also present in experience, and on account of such experience are taught in the schools, it becomes its highest wisdom to doubt of everything, and in no matter to take a part either on the one side or the other. In this neutrality, this immovable impartiality, this incorruptible indifference to all truth, it places its most excellent and perfect wisdom; and the charge of having a system appears to it as a disgrace by which the reputation of a man is irretrievably destroyed. Such scientific cobwebs are only devised in order that young people of the lower classes, who have no opportunity of seeing the great world, may by amusing themselves with them develop their capacities for active life. For this purpose every opinion and every proposition, affirmative as well as negative, are equally available; and it is a contemptible blunder to mistake jest for earnest, and to interest oneself for any side of such a controversy as if it were something of importance.  1
  With respect to the influence which it exerts upon Nature and its employment of her powers and products, such an age looks everywhere only to the immediately and materially useful,—to that, namely, which is serviceable for dwelling, clothing, and food, to cheapness, convenience, and—where it attains its highest point—to fashion; but that higher dominion over Nature, whereby the majestic image of man as a race is stamped upon its opposing forces,—I mean the dominion of ideas, in which the essential nature of fine arts consists,—this is wholly unknown to such an age; and even when the occasional appearance of men of more spiritual nature may remind it of this higher sovereignty, it only laughs at such aspirations as mere visionary extravagance; and thus art itself, reduced to its most mechanical forms, is degraded into a new vehicle of fashion, the instrument of a capricious luxury, alien to the eternities of the ideal world. With respect to the legislative constitution of States and the government of nations, such an age either—impelled by its hatred to the old—constructs political fabrics upon the most airy and unsubstantial abstractions, and attempts to govern degenerate men by means of high-sounding phrases without the aid of firm and inflexible power; or restrained by its idol experience, it hastens, on every emergency whether of great or small importance,—being convinced beforehand of its own utter inability to determine upon a course of action for itself,—to consult the chronicles of the past, to read there how others have formerly acted under similar circumstances; and takes from thence the law of its own conduct.  2
 
 
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