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

LET us consider the highest which man can possess in the absence of religion; I mean, pure morality. He obeys the law of duty in his breast, absolutely because it is a law unto him; and he does whatever reveals itself as his duty, absolutely because it is duty. But does he therein understand himself? does he know what this duty, to which at every moment he consecrates his whole existence, really is in itself, and what is its ultimate aim? So little does he know this, that he declares loudly it ought to be so, absolutely because it ought; and makes this very impossibility of comprehending and understanding the law,—this absolute abstraction from the meaning of the law, and the consequences of the deed,—a characteristic mark of genuine obedience. In the first place, let not the impudent assertion be here repeated, that such an obedience, without regard to consequences and without desire for consequences, is in itself impossible, and opposed to human nature. What does the mere sensuous egoist, who is himself but a half-man, what does he know of the power of human nature? That it is possible, can be known only by its actual accomplishment in ourselves; and before its possibility is recognized in this way, and man has elevated himself in his own person to pure morality, he can have no entrance whatever into the domain of true religion; for religion also annexes no visible consequences to individual acts of duty. So much for the refutation of that portion of error which arises from the calumnious slander of pure morality.  1
  Again, he who faithfully obeys the law of duty, as such, does not understand the ultimate aim of this law. It is clear—since he, notwithstanding this ignorance, maintains an unvarying and unconditional obedience; since, further, the law of duty, although not understood, speaks forth constantly and invariably within him—that this want of comprehension causes no difference in his actions; but it is another question whether such a want of comprehension is consistent with his dignity as a rational being. He indeed no longer follows the concealed law of the universe, nor the blind impulses of nature, but a conception; and in doing so he acts, thus far, a nobler part. But this conception itself is not clear to him, and with reference to it he himself is blind; his obedience therefore remains but a blind obedience; and—by a noble instinct indeed, but still with bandaged eyes—he is led on to his destiny. But if this position be inconsistent with the dignity of reason, as it unquestionably is, and if there lie in reason itself a power, and therefore an impulse, to penetrate to the meaning of the law of duty, then will this impulse be a source of constant disturbance and dissatisfaction to him; and if he still continue to hold by blind obedience, he will have no other course than to harden himself against this secret desire. However perfect may be his conduct,—that is, his outward and apparent existence—there is still at the root of his inward being, discord, obscurity, and bondage, and therefore a want of absolute dignity. Such is the position even of the purely moral man, when regarded by the light of religion. How displeasing, then, as seen by this light, must be his condition who has not even attained to true morality, but as yet only follows the impulses of nature! He too is guided by the eternal law of the universe; but to him it neither speaks in his own language, nor honors him with speech at all, but leads him on with dumb compulsion, as it does the plant or the animal; employs him like an unreasoning thing, without consulting his own will in aught, and in a region where mere mechanism is the only moving power.  2
  Religion discloses to man the significance of the one eternal law, which as the law of duty guides the free and noble and as the law of nature governs ignoble instruments. The religious man comprehends this law, and feels it living within himself, as the law of the eternal development of the one life. How each individual moment of our earthly life is comprehended in that eternal development of the one original Divine life, he cannot indeed understand, because the Infinite has no limit, and therefore can never be embraced by him; but that every one of these moments does absolutely lie contained within this development of the one life, he can directly perceive and clearly recognize. What was the law of duty to the moral man, is to him the inward progression of the one Life, which directly reveals itself as life; what is the law of nature to others, is to him the development of the outward, and apparently inanimate, manifestation of that one Life.  3
  This one clearly recognized life now becomes throughly established in the religious man, reposing upon itself, sufficient for itself, and blessed in itself; dwelling there with unspeakable love; with inconceivable rapture bathing his whole being in the original Fountain of all life, and flowing forth with him, and inseparable from him, in one eternal stream. What the moral man calls duty and law—what is this to him? The most spiritual bloom of life; his element, in which alone he can breathe. He wills and can do nothing else than this; all else is to him misery and death. To him the commanding “Thou shalt” comes too late; before it can command, he has already resolved, and cannot resolve otherwise. As all external law vanishes before morality, so before religion the internal law also disappears; the lawgiver in our breast is silent, for will, desire, love, and blessedness have already superseded the law. The moral man often finds it difficult to perform his duty; the sacrifice of his deepest desires and his most cherished feelings is demanded of him. He performs it notwithstanding; it must be done: he subdues his feelings and stifles his agony. The question: Wherefore is there need of this suffering, and whence arises this disunion between the desires which have been implanted in him, and the commands of a law from which he cannot escape?—this question he dares not permit himself to entertain; he must offer himself up with mute and blind obedience, for only under the condition of such obedience is the offering genuine. For the religious man this question has been once and forever solved. That which thus strives against our will, and which cannot be crushed into nothingness, is imperfect life; which even because it is life struggles for continued existence, but must cease to be as soon as its place is occupied by a higher and nobler life. “Those desires which I must sacrifice,” thinks the religious man, “are not my desires, but they are desires which are directed against me and my higher existence; they are my foes, which cannot be destroyed too soon. The pain which they cause is not my pain, but the pain of a nature which has conspired against me; it is not the agonies of death, but the pangs of a new birth, which will be glorious beyond all my expectations.”  4
 
 
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