Supplementary Appendix 215a.1

Overview of Fichte’s Atheism Dispute and the Student Response [*]

See Robert Adamson, Fichte (Edinburgh 1908), 56–64:

Two waves of trouble had thus disturbed Fichte’s public career at Jena; [1] the third and greatest finally dissolved his connection with that university.

In 1798, Forberg, then rector at Saalfeld, and already noted as one of the earliest adherents of the Wissenschaftslehre, [2] sent in to the editors of the Philosophisches Journal a paper entitled “Development of the Notion of Religion.” [3] With the argument, and in particular with the tone of this essay, Fichte was but little satisfied, although it was impossible for him to avoid agreeing with some ideas in it. He was extremely unwilling to exercise the editorial right of suppressing the paper, but desired to attach to it certain footnotes, correcting or amending it in accordance with what he thought the truth.

Of this, however, Forberg would not hear, and Fichte printed the essay as it had been sent, prefixing to it a short exposition of his own views on the same subject, under the title, “On the Ground for our Belief in a Divine Government of the Universe.” [4] The two papers appeared together in the first part of the eighth volume of the Journal.

It was certainly a misfortune for Fichte that the published exposition of his views on so fundamental a question should have been limited to the points discussed in Forberg’s essay, for, to one who now studies these documents, that essay has every appearance of insincerity or irony. Accepting without reservation the Kantian criticism of the theoretical proofs for the existence of God, Forberg likewise accepts the doctrine that the belief in a divine order is practical, but he reduces this practical belief to mere strength of moral feeling, identifies it with virtue, and therefore draws the conclusion that it is perfectly compatible with speculative atheism.

In short, the essay is an exaggeration of the dismal rationalism into which the weaker Kantians drifted, and by which they cast such discredit on philosophy. It is almost a parody of the moderatism which had begun to appear as the result of the Kantian system in works such as those of Tieftrunk and Heydenreich. [5] The element of speculative interest in the critical philosophy, however, which was entirely overlooked or reduced to a nullity by Forberg, was precisely that upon which Fichte laid stress. His essay, therefore, exaggerated the agreement between his views and those of Forberg, and gave too succinctly the characteristic difference.

Attention was drawn to the papers by an anonymous pamphlet, circulated gratuitously throughout Saxony towards the close of the year 1798, and purporting to be a “Letter on the Atheism of Fichte and Forberg, from a Father to his Son, a Student.” [6] Neither name of publisher nor place of publication was given, and it was more than hinted to those who accepted the tract, that it was the work of Gabler, a theologian of some repute in Altdorf. Gabler, however, was not the author, and protested publicly against the insult done him by such a statement. The real author has never been known, and the tract itself was a malicious and unfair selection of certain sentences from the essays of the accused writers, without reference to the context, and with such comments as unenlightened pietism has always indulged in.

Moved by this pamphlet, the Over Consistory of Dresden brought the subject before the Saxon Government, who, on the 19th November 1798 published a Rescript directed to the Universities of Leipzig and Wittenberg, confiscating the Philosophisches Journal on the ground of the atheistic utterances contained in it. [7] The Rescript was followed by a circular note, addressed to the neighbouring German Governments, praying them to take similar steps, and, in the case of the Saxe-Weimar Dukes, threatening to prohibit Saxon students from attendance at the Jena University if investigation were not instantly made into the conduct of the accused professors, and condign punishment inflicted were they found guilty of the charge laid against them.

Fichte had thus a twofold charge to deal with — the public accusation of atheism, and the private appeal to the supreme authorities of the university. To the first he replied in his Appeal to the Public against the Accusation of Atheism, [8] a copy of which was forwarded in January 1799 to the Grand Duke of Weimar; to the second, in the “Formal Defence of the Editor of the Philosophical Journal against the Accusation of Atheism” [9] directed to the Pro-rector of the University, and forwarded to the Grand Duke in March 1799.

In the Appeal, a more detailed exposition was given of the views contained in the accused essay, and a powerful contrast was drawn between philosophical religion and the ordinary theology; in the “Defence,” a skilful analysis of the full bearing of his theological doctrines precedes a bold statement of the real motives which had led to the accusation, and a demand that in the interests of university freedom, decision should be given based solely on the merits of the question. In the most unqualified fashion Fichte declares that the true secret of the enmity against him was the dread of his political opinions, and insists that the decision of the matter was of the last importance, not only for his own activity as a professor, but for the academic life of the university.

In order to understand the course of events, it is needful to review carefully the position of the two parties — Fichte on the one hand, the Saxe-Weimar Government on the other.

Fichte’s motives are clear and unambiguous. He claimed the full right of expounding his philosophic opinions, a right essential to the very existence of a university teacher. He felt, as every teacher of philosophy must feel, that the results of speculative analysis will at times appear to conflict with popular ideas, founded for the most part on unreflecting custom or on radical error, and that if popular opinion is to be the criterion of judgment, the function of an investigator is destroyed.

Accordingly he demanded, with all the earnestness that the importance of the matter required, and with all the vehemence that his impatient disposition rendered natural, that there should be no compromise; that the matter should not be hushed up, or conducted to its conclusion by private negotiations within the university circle; and that as the accusation had been public, the decision should be public also.

On the other hand, what the university authorities above all things desired was a mode of settlement whereby peace might be secured without the necessity of any public declaration. They in no way desired to limit the freedom of teaching in the university; and as the necessity for taking cognisance of the matter at all had been forced upon them from without, they wished to deal with it in such a way as neither to offend external powers nor endanger their own position.

It will be readily understood, therefore, that Fichte’s movements caused them the greatest trouble and annoyance. In a letter of Schiller to Fichte, written after the Grand Duke had received the Appeal to the Public, the feelings of the court-party are expressed without reserve. That their intentions were friendly is stated without qualification. “I have had an opportunity,” says Schiller, “of conversing recently with those who have a voice in the affair, and on various occasions with the Grand Duke himself. He openly declared that nothing would or could be done to limit your freedom of writing, though doubtless there were some things that one would rather not have stated from the professorial chair [viz. in lectures]. Even as regards the latter point, however, this is but his private opinion; his public judgment would impose no limitations even in respect of it.”

But as Schiller goes on to say, the Weimar authorities regretted that he had engaged in discussion of the matter on his own account, and had appealed to the public, when his business lay solely with them. Evidently in such a state of opinion the “Formal Defence” was a most embarrassing document, and from the expressions of all Fichte’s friends regarding it, we can see that they unanimously thought him grossly imprudent. Rumours of all kinds were prevalent, and gradually took form in the report that the Weimar Government intended to impose a censure upon Fichte, which, as coming through the academic senate, must needs be of a public character.

It was apparently under the influence of this rumour that Fichte was induced to take a step which he afterwards consistently defended, but which must be pronounced nothing less than unfortunate. On the 22d March 1799 he wrote an important letter to the Privy Councillor Voigt, [10] explicitly leaving to the discretion of his correspondent either to employ it further, or to accept it as an aid in forming his own opinions.

In this letter he declared unreservedly that he neither would nor could submit to censure given through the senate. Were such to be imposed, no course would be left to him but to reply by sending in his resignation and publishing the present letter in explanation of his motives. The letter concluded with the statement, that many important members of the university agreed in the view that censure on the writer would be infringement of their academic rights; that the same members had engaged, were he to resign, to resign with him, and had permitted him to notify their intention. With him, Fichte added, they looked forward to find in a new university, of which there was rumour, a free and honourable sphere of action, such as they had hitherto enjoyed in Jena.

The new university referred to was doubtless that projected at Mainz, regarding which Jung, [11] the chief of the council of Mainz, had been in communication with Fichte during the preceding year, and rumours of which had been alluded to by Forberg. The plan was never realised, and the colleagues who had given their promise to Fichte did not redeem it. Paulus, indeed, to whom the letter had been submitted, by whose mediation it was forwarded to Voigt, and who is explicitly included by Fichte among the said colleagues, afterwards declared that the engagement existed only in Fichte’s imagination; but on a point like this the statements of Paulus are worthless.

It was this letter that finally decided the Weimar Government, and the member of the council whose warmth overcame all hesitation regarding the action to be taken was Goethe. His conservative feelings were roused by the apparent endeavour to threaten the Government. “For my own part,” he wrote to Schlosser [12] some months later, “I declare that I would have voted against my own son, if he had permitted himself such language against a Government.”

The Rescript of the Weimar authorities, dated 29th March 1799, desired the senate to censure Professors Fichte and Niethammer for their indiscretion, and to recommend to them greater caution in bringing essays before the public. But to this gentle censure there was appended a post-scriptum referring to the letter to Voigt, accepting Fichte’s declaration that he would resign, and thereby dismissing him from his office.

Again the unfortunate advice of Paulus prevailed on Fichte, and induced him to make a false step. Fichte himself was of opinion that the letter to Voigt should not have been regarded as an official document; that, even had it this official character, it should have been left to him to take the final step of resignation; and, more particularly, that it ought to have been considered whether the condition under which he had declared resignation inevitable was fulfilled by the Rescript of the Government.

Under these circumstances, when, through the intercession of his friends, it had been arranged that the publication of the Rescript should be delayed for a few days, he was persuaded to forward through Paulus a second letter to Voigt, in which he pointed out that as the censure imposed in no way limited his freedom of teaching, it did not render the resignation of his office imperative, and that he would not allow the public to think that he had voluntarily laid down his office on account of this censure.

The letter was communicated by Voigt to the Grand-Duke, who found “nothing in it to cause him to alter his expressed opinion.” Nor did two numerously signed petitions from the students, first to prevent the dismissal and then to obtain the recall of their honoured teacher, alter the position of affairs.

Thus Fichte’s connection with Jena came to a violent termination. As regards the rights of so complicated a matter, there is little ground for difference of opinion. Had not Fichte’s impatient temper betrayed him into the strong expressions contained in the first letter to Voigt, all might have been well, for the Weimar Government, despite their indignation at his impetuous mode of dealing with the matter, evidently desired to retain him in the university. But they erred in making such use as they did of the letter, and they erred doubly in the infliction of so serious a wound on the academic life of Jena.

For many years the effect was felt; and as Goethe himself notes, within a comparatively short interval all the most eminent teachers had, for one cause or another, migrated to other universities: Paulus, Loder, both the Hufelands [Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland, Gottlieb Hufeland], Ilgen, Schelling, and Niethammer vanished from Jena. No injury is so great to a university as a limitation in the freedom of academic teaching. No mistake is so serious as to deal in diplomatic and politic fashion with matters of thought and reasoning.

Concerning the student petitions, see Henrik Steffens, Was ich erlebte, 4:152–57:

But a significant event took place before I left Jena [to visit Berlin in the spring of 1799]. As is well known, Fichte was accused of being an atheist by the Saxon court and through the theologian Reinhard. This entire affair was so public, and has even been revisited so recently, that it seems superfluous to recount it in much detail here. [13] The occasion, as is also known, was an essay by Forberg published in Niethammer’s Journal concerning the moral world order. —

Fichte accepted responsibility for this essay. The biography of Fichte by his son recounts the precise course of events. One can well imagine the impression these events made on me; we were indignant, seeing here an assault against the spirit of free investigation, comparable to those that became notorious through the religious edict. Fichte comported himself with firm resolution and dignity. When charged with providing an explanation of his doctrines, he simultaneously maintained that certain key restrictions to his freedom as a teacher would prompt him to leave Jena.

The response from Weimar contained a reprimand concerning the incautious manner in which he addressed the most sacred of subjects, and an admonition to be more prudent in his future utterances. It was, as could easily be seen, the intent of the court in Weimar to address the subject as if Fichte had already taken leave. His dismissal from Jena was probably unavoidable. The court in Weimar found itself constrained not only by the demands from Dresden, but also by the other Saxon-Ernestine houses, who did still exert influence in the broader affairs of the university at least in such matters. [14]

The court construed the reprimand such that it would inevitably prompt Fichte’s decision to take his leave. But when Fichte declared that this reprimand he had received was not such that it could prompt him to request his departure, the court in Weimar found it necessary to issue that dismissal in any event, one he did not want to accept. During this period, when everyone was in an uproar, Paulus especially declared his support of Fichte. I often visited his house, where in animated discussions we wondered whether it might be both good and expedient to initiate a petition among the students. Almost all of them had come from elsewhere to Jena, and it was Fichte’s celebrity that had attracted a large number of students; it seemed that they had a right to demand that the teacher who had drawn them to Jena be kept.

I myself drafted such a petition, which emphasized Fichte’s considerable merits and declared the presumed right of students in the matter. I brought the petition to Paulus, who approved it with a few changes, and I did not doubt that, primarily through my countryman Malte Müller, who had considerable influence among many of the students, I would succeed in getting a large number of signatures.

In the meantime, a similar course of action was initiated in Weimar. A similar petition was drafted in the name of the students petitioning the duke to keep Fichte at the university. That petition, however, also contained the admission that Fichte had indeed made incautious and as such reproachable statements in his lectures, whereby one was now entreating the Duke on behalf of the otherwise meritorious and beloved teacher. A certain student, B. from Rügen, received this petition from Hufeland and was presented with various reasons allowing the conclusion that Fichte himself would not be entirely unsatisfied with such a petition. Zealously determined to be useful to Fichte in whatever way he could, this student now indefatigably sought and indeed found signatures.

A young man to whom I had wanted to pass on the petition I had drafted that he might present it for signatures in the lectures halls and wherever else students gathered, hastily entered the room. He had read for himself the petition that was drafted in an entirely different sense. B. was carrying it around, and my friend had seen that he had already gotten a large number of signatures, and that the students were not at all hesitating in adding their names.

I was shocked, took the draft, and ran around trying to find B., whom I knew and with whose good intentions I was also familiar; I found him after a short time on the street, running quickly from one house to the next, and I pulled him into the doorway of one of the houses. I was extremely upset, and explained to him how the petition he was carrying around was essentially conceding victory to Fichte’s adversaries, showed him my own petition, told him how I had related it to Professor Paulus, and I quickly succeeded in winning over this fine young man, all the more so because I related to him the source from which his petition had actually come, and also explained to him the current state of affairs. He was now completely on our side, went around to the lecture halls with the most students, openly admitted his mistake, and was quickly successful to winning over the young men for the more bold draft.

That same afternoon my draft was before me with several hundred signatures, and two deputies traveled that same day to Weimar to hand it over to the duke. Hufeland (the jurist) had received from Weimar the petition that had been drafted from the perspective of Fichte’s opponents, or had drafted it himself; it was through him that B., as I knew, had received it. I was invited to his house that evening and found him quite annoyed, nor will I deny that I enjoyed a kind of malicious pleasure, knowing as I did the source of his annoyance. Only a few years ago, while reading Fichte’s biography, did I learn to my astonishment that two petitions had indeed been sent to Weimar. Hence the adversaries must have succeeded after all in securing signatures.

I did not really expect the petition to be successful. After a few days, the prorector (Loder) summoned the students; as prorector he was charged with informing them of the state of affairs from the perspective of the court, and to make clear to them how Fichte himself brought on his own dismissal by the steps he himself had taken.

Concerning the final events leading up to Fichte’s dismissal, see Daniel Breazeale in Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Fichte: Early Philosophical Writings, trans. and ed. Daniel Breazeale (Ithaca 1988), 43:

Already irritated by Fichte’s impatient decision to lay his case before the public, even Fichte’s strongest supporters in Weimar were alienated by his next tactic, revealed in a letter he wrote to Privy Councillor Voigt on March 22, 1799. In this letter Fichte declared his unwillingness to accept even the slightest censure; moreover, in a lofty tone that offended almost everyone, he proclaimed that his honor would not permit him to remain subordinate to any government that could find him blameworthy in this affair. Were he in fact to be censured, he wrote, he would have no choice but to submit his resignation from the faculty of the university; moreover, he added that other illustrious members of the faculty had already agreed to resign with him and to join him in founding a new university.

This time Fichte’s tactlessness and self-righteous rigidity proved fatal. The effort to force the administration’s hand and the blatant attempt at intimidation were badly miscalculated. Fichte’s letter not only strengthened the position of his enemies within the government, but deprived him of his friends as well, including Voigt and Goethe. On March 29, 1799, Duke Karl-August issues the previously negotiated mild rebuke to the editors of the Philosophisches Journal, to which was added a postscript announcing the acceptance of Fichte’s offer of resignation, effective immediately.

Despite frantic attempts to undo the harm done by his first letter and to withdraw the threat of resignation, Fichte found himself unable to escape from the trap he himself had set. The duke remained firm in his decision to treat Fichte’s threat as a serious offer of resignation and to accept it. Naturally, this surprising development only increased the level of public excitement. The students circulated petitions and held demonstrations; leading thinkers from all over Germany expressed their shock and tried to intervene on Fichte’s behalf; new pamphlets and articles poured forth. But the damage had been done, “The soul of Jena” [Hölderlin in a letter from November 1794] departed from Berlin in June 1799.

Schelling wrote to Fichte on 29 July 1799 (see supplementary appendix 241.1) urging him “not to leave unexposed the shamefulness of the diplomatic deduction with respect to your dismissal that appeared in the Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung, since the latter’s shameful behavior has been amplified to the point of public lies.” The reference is to the deceptive construal of events and the timetable of the above-mentioned letters of 22 and 29 March 1799 in the announcement of Fichte’s dismissal in the Intelligenzblatt of the Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung (1799) 88 (Wednesday, 17 July 1799) 700:

Jena. On 3 June, the previous professor of philosophy, Herr Joh. Gottlieb Fichte, departed the university; his announced resignation, contingent on a reproach being issued — an announcement he made in a missive to a member of the Ducal Weimar Privy Council — was formally accepted and his dismissal from his professorship issued in a postscript to the conforming rescript of the illustrious protectors of the university in which the editors of the Philosophisches Journal were reproached for incautious statements prompting the accusation of atheism.

One can clearly see that this dismissal can be viewed as little as a restriction of academic freedom as a confirmation of the complaint raised by Herr Fichte against the illustrious protectors of the university. It is solely the consequence of his own declaration in said missive; the rescript had already been resolved containing the reproach of said incaution when his missive arrived, which the particular privy councilor to whom it was addressed considered himself both obligated and bound immediately to present personally to the illustrious Duke of Saxony-Weimar insofar as in it, Herr Fichte had declared that honor prohibited him from remaining subject — after receiving a public and legal reproach — to governments who considered him deserving of such reproach, and that there was no other choice than to respond to such reproach by submitting his resignation, and thereby to publicize the reproach, the submittal of resignation, and this letter.

Given that this precondition had already come about, the reigning Duke of Saxon-Weimar found himself thereby prompted immediately to accept Herr Prof. Fichte’s announced submittal of resignation, a resolution joined by the other illustrious protectors. Precisely this was the reason for the denial of the petition [see above] — one delivered to the illustrious Duke of Saxon-Weimar — signed by more than two hundred students for retaining their beloved teacher.

The “shameful behavior” Schelling alleges is that, as the Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung here reports, the ducal privy council had already resolved to issue a reproach even before Fichte’s letter of 22 March 1799 arrived. When Fichte’s threatening letter then did indeed arrive with its declaration that he would respond to any reproach by resigning, his dismissal was then — as it were — automatic.

But such was not the course of events, since no resolution to issue a reproach had been made before Fichte’s letter arrived. Because, however, the Weimar administration wanted to be rid of Fichte in any case, it construed his letter as the occasion to do so, namely, to issue a reproach (ducal letter of 29 March 1799), adding to it the postscript accepting his resignation or confirming his dismissal.


[*] For translations and contextualization of all the pertinent documentation in this dispute, see J.G. Fichte and the Atheism Dispute (1798–1800), ed. Yolanda Estes and Curtis Bowman (Farnham, U.K., Burlington, VT 2010). — See esp. also Caroline’s letter to Luise Gotter on 24 April 1799 (letter 235) for her account of the situation ca. three weeks after Fichte’s dismissal. Back.

[1] Robert Adamson, Fichte, 52–56, discusses two problems that contributed to derailing Fichte’s position in Jena, namely, his attempt to hold lectures on Sunday during times allegedly interfering with normal worship, and later what was ultimately a violent encounter with the Burschenschaften, or student fraternities. Back.

[2] A blanket designation for Fichte’s philosophy during these years taken from the titles of the various works in which he refined or otherwise developed his philosophy; approximate meaning “doctrine of science,” “theory of scientific knowledge.” Concerning the translation possibilities, see Daniel Breazeale’s preface in Introductions to the Wissenschaftslehre and Other Writings, 1797–1800, ed. Daniel Breazeale (Indianapolis 1994), xxxi. Back.

[3] Friedrich Karl Forberg, “Entwickelung des Begriffs der Religion,” Philosophisches Journal einer Gesellschaft Teutscher Gelehrten 8 (1798) (November) 21–46. Back.

[4] “Über den Grund unseres Glaubens an eine göttliche Weltregierung,” Philosophisches Journal einer Gesellschaft Teutscher Gelehrten 8 (1798) (November) 1–20. Back.

[5] Johann Heinrich Tieftrunk (1759–1837) and Karl Heinrich Heydenreich (1764–1801). Back.

[6] Schreiben eines Vaters an seinen studierenden Sohn über den Fichtischen und Forbergischen Atheismus (Nürnberg 1798). Back.

[7] Kurfürstlich sächsisches Requisitionsschreiben an den weimarischen Hof, Dresden, 18 December 1798. Back.

[8] J. G. Fichtes des phil. Doktors und ordentlichen Professors zu Jena Appellation an das Publikum über die durch ein kurf. sächs. Konfiskationsreskript ihm beigemessenen atheistischen Äusserungen. Eine Schrift, die man erst zu lessen bittet, ehe man sie confiscirt (Jena, Leipzig, Tübingen 1799). Back.

[9] Der Herausgeber des phil. Journals gerichtliche Verantwortungsschriften gegen die Anklage des Atheismus, ed. J. G. Fichte (Jena 1799). Adamson’s footnote: “The title of this pamphlet, Gerichtliche Verantwortungsschrift, would be more exactly translated as ‘Judicial Defence’ or ‘Plea in Justification.’ Gerichtlich implies that the defence was explicitly directed to a court, by whom decision on the merits of the case should be given.” Back.

[10] Gesamtausgabe III, 3, 284. Back.

[11] Franz Wilhelm Jung (1757–1833). Back.

[12] Johann Georg Schlosser (1739–99). Back.

[13] Here and a few lines later, Steffens is referring to Immanuel Hermann Fichte (Fichte’s son), Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s Leben und literarischer Briefwechsel, 2 vols. (1830–31). Back.

[14] Steffens is referring to the fact that, strictly speaking, university affairs in Jena were ultimately under the jurisdiction not just of Saxe-Weimar, but of other duchies as well. See the section on Upper Saxony in the supplementary appendix on Germany in the eighteenth century, esp. the initial footnote on the dukes of Saxe of the line of Ernest. Back.

Translation © 2013 Doug Stott