Fichte’s Friedrich Nicolais Leben und sonderbare Meinungen:
Ein Beitrag zur Litterargeschichte des vergangenen
und zur Pädagogik des angehenden Jahrhunderts, ed. A. W. Schlegel (Tübingen 1801)
I. Background and Publication History.
In his letter to Gottlieb Hufeland on 22 July 1798 (letter 202c), Wilhelm Schlegel wrote: “You have probably already read the letter of the elderly Kant to Nicolai concerning the ‘churning out of books.'” The reference is to attacks leveled against Friedrich Nicolai in Kant’s Über die Buchmacherey. Zwey Briefe an Herrn Friedrich Nicolai (Königsberg 1798), which prompted Nicolai to respond in the lengthy book Über meine gelehrte Bildung (Berlin, Stettin 1799) (“On my scholarly education”).
Fichte in his own turn then addressed the latter publication in Friedrich Nicolais Leben und sonderbare Meinungen: Ein Beitrag zur Litterargeschichte des vergangenen und zur Pädagogik des angehenden Jahrhunderts, ed. A. W. Schlegel (Tübingen 1801), his title parodying Nicolai’s own two publications, Leben und Meinungen des Herrn Magister Sebaldus Nothanker (Berlin 1773–76) and Leben und Meinungen Sempronius Gundibert’s eines deutschen Philosophen (Berlin 1798).
See Robert Adamson, Fichte (Edinburgh, London 1881), 76:
Not content with philosophical contention, Fichte turned upon the old opponent of all speculation, F. Nicolai, and annihilated him in the Life and Singular Opinions of Nicolai. All Nicolai’s forms of criticism, his likes and dislikes, his laborious satire, are deduced with logical rigour from the first principle of his nature, that all human knowledge was summed up and comprehended in him, that what he did not understand was eo facto unintelligible and absurd, and that the mere expression of his adverse opinion was sufficient to put all opponents to rout. It is a bitter satire, not altogether undeserved, but doing less than justice to merits which Nicolai undoubtedly possessed.
Rudolf Haym, Die romantische Schule, 763–64, mentions Fichte’s piece in connection with Wilhelm Schlegel’s Ehrenpforte und Triumphbogen für den Theater-Präsidenten von Kotzebue, which had pilloried not only August von Kotzebue, but the likes of Johann Daniel Falk, Garlieb Merkel, Karl August Böttiger, and Ludwig Ferdinand Huber as well:
And yet the singular Friedrich Nicolai, notwithstanding his status as the universal scapegoat and notwithstanding the frequency with which Ludwig Tieck had already teased and mocked him by name, was still going strong. He seemed as worthy as Christian Gottfried Schütz or August von Kotzebue of meriting his own, if possible final annihilation. To split this admittedly coarse block of wood, of course, would require that one yield an equally coarse wedge; indeed, something beyond normal human power would be needed to to slay this man and especially, one might add, this man’s mouth.
Wilhelm Schlegel found the most appropriate instrument conceivable for the job when he succeeded in dispatching into battle against Nicolai no less a personage than Fichte. Here the Kotzebuadian Ehrenpforte was to receive a complementary piece in prose.
On the occasion of a long article that the indefatigable Nicolai published at the beginning of 1801 in the Allgemeine deutsche Bibliothek, whose editorship he had taken over again and in which in his inimitable way he passed judgment on what he called the romantic “clique” and on the new “pseudo-philosophical party,” Fichte composed his own piece, Friedrich Nicolai’s Leben und sonderbare Meinungen, a piece more coarse than witty, and yet also more thorough than coarse in methodically “construing” on the basis of principles the grand philistine Nicolai, after the fashion of a scientific deduction, as the “truly existing representative of flaccid thinking.” It was Wilhelm Schlegel himself, however, who squired the piece through publication and introduced it to the public with a derisive preface [see below].
Concerning issues of censorship and other considerations, see Fichte’s and Wilhelm’s letters to Johann Friedrich Cotta in early 1801 (Briefwechsel zwischen Schiller und Cotta, ed. Wilhelm Vollmer [Stuttgart 1876], 426–27):
Fichte had written to Cotta from Berlin on 14 February 1801:
The impudent Philistine Nicolai, through a recent rather clumsy attack, has now forced me to exchange a few words with him myself. These few words are such that I might anticipate readers’ diaphragms will be quite pleasantly addressed. Will your own connections allow for this to be published at your expense?
It will be a small brochure of about 8 or 9 printer’s sheets. I do not anticipate the censor refusing permission. I can get an answer to this query in 18 days, and I will wait that long without making any other arrangements for publication. For the rest, I would request you keep this an absolute secret, since, among other things, I am also counting of seizing the old sinner like a thief in the night.
After Cotta agreed to publish the piece, Fichte even requested that Wilhelm Schlegel receive an appropriate douceur and basic honorarium. Wilhelm, however, then writes to Cotta from Berlin on 31 March 1801 (also in Briefe an Cotta. Das Zeitalter Goethes und Napoleons 1794–1815, ed. Maria Fehling [Stuttgart, Berlin 1925], 257–58):
Our common friend Fichte has asked that I report to you that the High Consistory here, to whom his brochure Friedrich Nicolai’s Leben und sonderbare Meinungen etc. was presented for censor examination without his knowledge, has denied permission for publication. This unexpected and peculiar event has wholly soured him from having anything further to do with the matter, and his intention was to withdraw his hand from the piece and simply put it aside.
Hence I myself have taken over its publication, put my name on the title page, composed a preface, and sent the manuscript — which Fichte left me to do whatever I please with — to Jena, where as a professor I am not subject to the censor and where I have given instructions to expedite publication in a printing of 1000 copies as quickly as possible, if possible with Frommann, so that this brochure, which through being censored will naturally generate twice the interest here, can yet be presented at the next book fair.
We have assumed that this incident, considering what you have already arranged with Fichte concerning publication, would not cause any changes; it is just that Fichte himself wants at all costs to avoid having the public think he is in any way still involved in its publication, a measure you yourself would doubtless find quite in order if you were familiar with the full details of the situation.
I have sent written instructions to Jena concerning the details of the printing as discussed with my friend. Should you have any further instructions in this respect, kindly address them to Frommann himself or to my brother in Jena. So much on this matter.
Wilhelm’s request notwithstanding, Fichte’s name was indeed included on the title page.
(1) Table of Contents:
Wilhelm’s preface (iii–iv);
Fichte’s introduction (1–8);
The main text (9–81): chaps. 1–12:
- chap. 1: The highest principle from which all the intellectual operations of our hero derive;
- chap. 2: How our hero may have arrived at this peculiar highest principle;
- chap. 3: How in general this highest principle has manifested itself in the life of our hero;
- chap. 4: The primary concern of our hero in all disputes in accordance with this highest principle;
- chap. 5: The actual method of disputation of our hero as derived from this highest principle;
- chap. 6: One of the strangest and most singular opinions of our hero in accordance with this highest principle;
- chap. 7: Yet another, almost even more unbelievable opinion of our hero concerning himself in accordance with this highest principle;
- chap. 8: Strange views of our hero concerning the mutual rights of himself and his adversaries according to this highest principle;
- chap. 9: How our hero, in accordance with this highest principle, generally behaves when this principle is challenged;
- chap. 10: One primary feature of the intellectual character of our hero that follows naturally from this highest principle;
- chap. 11: A couple of other fundamental traits that have issued from this initial trait and from the highest principle of our hero;
- chap. 12: How it has happened that all these circumstances notwithstanding, our hero has nonetheless exerted a certain measure of influence on our age.
- Addendum 1 (82–97): Nicolai’s attacks on the author’s personal integrity and character;
- Addendum 2 (97– 101): addendum to chap; 2;
- Addendum 3 (101–16): addendum to chap; 2;
- Addendum 4 (116–20): addendum to chap; 9;
- Addendum 5 (121–22): addendum to chap. 9;
- “Yet another addendum, or: Chapter 13” (123–30): “On the final deeds, death, and miraculous revivification of our hero.”
(2) Wilhelm Schlegel’s preface (pp. iii–iv; repr. Sämmtliche Werke 8:140–41)
The author of this piece [i.e., Fichte] had originally intended to deliver it to the publisher himself. When unexpected hindrances arose, however, and considering that the real purpose of the piece had already been achieved by the entertainment he enjoyed in composing it and which he also provided for his friends in distributing it to them, he decided not to expend any further effort on it, thereby withdrawing his hand from any decisions concerning its future.
Among his circle of friends, the manuscript also eventually made its way to me. I myself, however, am in no way hindered by the author’s own prefatory intentions with respect to any use I might make of the piece, and thus I confess that my conscience would bother me were I to withhold this succinct and exhaustive characterization of what in his own way is certainly a peculiar individual [i.e., Nicolai] from the public.
It would perhaps be more in keeping with Fichte’s own dignity to maintain now, too, his previous contemptuous silence; insofar as, however, he has indeed exhibited such cheerful generosity in expending so many words and strokes of the quill on Nicolai, I think I can safely assume the additional generosity of allowing the world to have a look at his skilled condescension.
As far as Nicolai himself is concerned, I fully realize that by publishing this piece I am demonstrating to him an extraordinary act of beneficence. For what, indeed, could be more glorious for him — who is incapable of prompting his most important adversaries even to read his long-winded polemical writings in the first place, not to speak of genuinely responding to them, and who is capable of, at most, merely cajoling a few bits of sarcasm out of them — what, I ask, could be more glorious than for Fichte to address him formally as a genuinely existing being, indeed to construe him from principles, and in so doing to make him comprehensible perhaps even to himself?
The day this piece is published will undeniably be the most glory-sated day of his long life, and one might even be concerned that, given the frailty of his old age, he may not even survive such surfeit of joy and splendor. He has in any event in no way merited that I be the one to prepare such a celebration for him, considering how he disgraced me by according me such considerable praise in earlier writings, and in even allowing in more recent pieces that I possess both knowledge and talent.
These considerations notwithstanding, however, my reading of the piece presented here has completely attuned me to the generous mood already regnant there, and if he might refrain from repeating his previous, aforementioned presumption in the future, then I can certainly forgive and forget all previous transgressions.
(3) Chapter 1 (pp. 9–11)
The highest principle from which all the intellectual operations of our hero derive.
Our hero has from the onset of his mature years been of the firm opinion that all possible human knowledge has been assembled, comprehended, exhausted, and preserved in his personality and disposition, that his personal assessment concerning the view, treatment, content, and value of all science and knowledge is both unerring and infallible, and that such should serve as a guide and standard for the judgment of all other reasonable beings and as a criterion for their own reasonableness, — in a word: that he himself has already thought everything that is correct and useful in any conceivable field, and that anything he has not thought or will never think is incorrect and useless.
This opinion put him in a position, and not just in his own eyes, to disregard any and all doubts, later examination, and concern that he might be in error after all concerning this or that issue; he was, moreover, just as convinced that such was also the opinion of all other human beings, namely, that they, too, were just as convinced, and he simply assumed that they, too, could not but overcome all doubt as soon as they merely understood correctly how he himself viewed this or that issue.
All his contradictions took as their point of departure the proposition: “I am of a different opinion,” which is similarly why he generally never bothered to add secondary reasons to this first one. His opponents, he believed, could already sufficiently perceive from this one statement alone that they were in the wrong. Amid all the reproaches and excoriations he found it necessary to direct toward the errant age in his later years, he simply always commenced by demonstrating that this or that person had not acted according to his, Nicolai’s, advice; this alone, he believed, would suffice to prompt them to repent in shame.
He accordingly never allowed himself to be misled, not by even the most peculiar or strange occurrence or circumstance that might arise, concerning this one presupposition. Even when, as was frequently enough the case in his later years, he was assailed from all sides with unanimous cries to the effect that he ought to defer his own opinion concerning certain things, or that he was a born blockhead, a sanctimonious bore, an old codger, and whatever else one took the liberty of calling him, — he still preferred to assume that people were saying such things merely out of waggishness and in order to avenge themselves for previous rebukes, rather than attributing to human beings the folly of thinking themselves capable of not acknowledging, in all seriousness and with all their hearts, a person such as Nicolai.
This opinion of himself had gradually become such an idée fixe with him, had become so interwoven within his Self and had itself indeed become his most intimate, innermost Self, that one could find not a trace of any indication that he had every clearly discerned it and elevated to the status of definite consciousness. He consistently reasoned, assessed, and judged from the perspective of this opinion, never about it. Hence he died, aged and sated with life, without every coming to terms with his own thinking, not even within himself.
Friedrich Nicolai reacted to Fichte’s piece with a lengthy supplement to the Neue Allgemeine deutsche Bibliothek (1801) 61, with an equally lengthy title, “Ueber die Art wie vermittelst des transcendentalen Idealismus ein wirklich existirendes Wesen aus Principien konstruirt warden kann. Nebst merkürdigen Proben der Wahrheitsliebe, reifen Ueberlegung, Bescheidenheit, Urbanität und gut gelaunten Grossmuth des Stifers der neuesten Philosophie,” Neue Allgemeine deutsche Bibliothek (1801) 61, supplement, 1–66.
In his conclusion, he turned against Johann Friedrich Cotta as a publisher (here pp. 64–66); Cotta’s rejoinder accompanied Schelling’s Kritisches Journal der Philosophie 1 (1802) no. 2. Because Caroline mentions this lesser feud in her letter to Wilhelm on 21 January 1802 (letter 342), referring to Cotta’s rejoinder as an “extraordinarily well-composed and adroit” piece, both are included here to illuminate Caroline’s statement.
Nicolai writes toward the end of his reaction to Fichte’s piece (excerpted):
But I confess I am not a little astonished that the bookseller, Herr Cotta, possessed such scant sense of honor that he put his own name on the title of such a publication [viz., as publisher). He is otherwise a quite honorable man, is himself a scholar, so doubtless did not do such a thing out of mere passion. People whose brain has been strained by excessive speculation commonly reflect very little how their actions may be perceived by people of reason, since they live solely in their own conceit.
But a reasonable businessman, who lives not in dreamy speculation but rather in the real world and who lives and acts among real human beings, cannot be indifferent to the way his fellow citizens judge his actions. What, then, is one to think of Herr Cotta? Does he perhaps consider every single work by Herr Fichte to be excellent? Does he consider it an honor to place his name on them regardless of how good or bad they may be, if they are but from Fichte? Or is he perhaps thinking: What does the content of this piece concern me, whether loutish or a pasquinade or not; lucri bonus odor ex re qualibet! [money smells good no matter its source] —
Surely it would pain him were the honorable public to think such of him; and yet he has probably not considered that when he puts his name on the title of such a publication, he risks having those who might not otherwise know him well acquire just such an opinion. Honorable booksellers are justifiably concerned, especially these days, when the writing and publishing of books has been subjected to so much abuse, not to place themselves into that particular class of miserable junk-book dealers who are utterly indifferent to justice and injustice, honor and shame, and so on, and who, if it will but earn a few pennies, publish and distribute utterly without reflection, including in reprints, morally ruinous pieces extending even down to outright filthy jokes, slanderously trashy tomes, base pasquinades against honorable people, pieces that disrupt public tranquility, and in general anything that upright people otherwise find repugnant in such books.
I feel quite sorry for Herr Cotta if through his imprudence he has provided even a single upright man, who may not even know him, the occasion to classify him among such people, where in fact he does not really belong. . . . When agreeing to publish this piece, Cotta presumably believed it to be one of those of which no honorable publisher would have any reason to be ashamed, and only perceived its perniciousness after it was actually published.
Though I have no intention of presenting my own manner of thinking as exemplary for anyone, nonetheless I will say what I myself would have done in such a situation. Had I come to an agreement with an absent writer [i.e., Fichte in Berlin, whereas Cotta was in Tübingen] to publish what I thought was a respectable book, and it turns out that, when I finally saw the book in print, it was in fact a pasquinade against Herr Fichte, against Herr Schlegel, against Herr Cotta, or against whichever honorable man, and, moreover, that it was composed in as obviously reprobate a tone as Herr Fichte’s against me, I would never again accept for publication a book of this sort with which the author had so obviously deceived me
I would prefer to pay the author double his so-called honorary payment — if otherwise the shame of having written such a piece can even figuratively be called “honorary” — and even give him the entire print run to sell and distribute himself however he might choose — and would only insist that he cut out and burn the title, on which my own name was printed; for I would value my own respectable name much too much to have the honorable public find it on the title pace of such a piece. [etc.]
Cotta’s responds in Schelling’s Kritisches Journal der Philosophie 1 (1802) no. 2:
In the supplement to vol. 61 of the Neue Allgemeine Deutsche Bibliothek, in which you intend to demonstrate that J. G. Fichte’s Friedrich Nicolais Leben und sonderbare Meinungen is in fact a pasquinade against you, you also (p. 64) mention me in declaring your astonishment that I “possessed such scant sense of honor that he put his own name on the title of such a publication.” You claim to know that I am “otherwise a quite honorable man,” am myself “a scholar, so doubtless did not do such a thing out of mere passion.” “What, then,” you continue,
is one to think of Herr Cotta? Does he consider every single work by Herr Fichte to be excellent? Does he consider it an honor to place his name on them regardless of how good or bad they may be, if they are but from Fichte? Or is he thinking: What does the content of this piece concern me, whether loutish or a pasquinade or not; lucri bonus odor ex re qualibet! [money smells good no matter its source].
Over the course of your remarks, you posit the gentlest and most likely true scenario, namely:
When agreeing to publish this piece, Cotta presumably believed it to be one of those of which no honorable publisher would have any reason to be ashamed, and only perceived its perniciousness after it was actually published. Though I have no intention of presenting my own manner of thinking as exemplary for anyone, nonetheless — — I would never again accept for publication a book of this sort with which the author had so obviously deceived me.
Since I certainly have better things to do with my time, I would otherwise pass over this attack in silence just as I would any other that targeted me or my publications and, quite conscious of the purity of my actions, merely respond to such reproach with contempt. I am making an exception in this case, however, because on closer examination this accusation touches on an issue that is one of the most important for any publisher.
For when you ask, “What is one to think of Herr Cotta?” I must respond: One should think that he prefers to be judged by a different morality than that which Herr Friedrich Nicolai in Berlin has designed for himself.
For your “perhaps” and “perhaps” and your gentlest, highly probable true scenario — by no means exhaust every possible scenario, and you thus should have deferred from assessing and judging me according to your one-sided view of such things.
The Tübingen bookseller Cotta, you claim, believes that “a German bookseller has completely fulfilled the obligations of his position if for printing his company’s wares he uses public printing presses that are subject to imperially legally binding censorship — If the author identifies himself, then he assumes responsibility for his publication; if he does not identify himself, and if the publisher chooses not to identify him in such a potential situation, then the publisher himself assumes the author’s responsibility.”
I am completely committed to the assertion that this, my own confession of faith as a bookseller, represents the only obligatory norm for every German bookseller to the extent explicit laws applicable to the entire German empire or specific laws applicable to the state in which the bookseller resides do not stipulate otherwise. This principle is so important in this regard that, were it not to exist as a real legal standard, a large part of our speculations would of necessity fall to the wayside, for under which other law would, e.g., the Württemberg bookseller find protection were he to publish this work or the other according to the censor in Braunschweig or Saxony in which certain passages were not permitted by the censors in Prussia or Austria and for which might he then be held responsible?
Herr Nicolai of all people cannot but acknowledge this principle; for which sins would otherwise be laid upon his back were he to be held responsible for all those which the Allgemeine Deutsche Bibliothek has committed in its various incarnations?
Where would the legal responsibility of a bookseller end without such a principle as the legal standard? And what sort of erudition would every bookseller be required to possess were he required to assess whether any given publication were captious and hence a publication for which he might then be held responsible?
Even the facility with which Friedrich Nicolai has fathomed and scaled at every depth and every height every branch of scholarship and science (see in this regard his book on his scholarly education [Über meine gelehrte Bildung (Berlin, Stettin 1799)] and his history of periwigs [Über den Gebrauch der falschen Haare und Perücken in alten und neuen Zeiten (Berlin, Stettin 1801]) would not suffice for such a task, especially when one is the publisher of a “universal German library” [Allgemeine Deutsche Bibliothek].
You can thus see from these considerations that I could be held responsible for having published J. G. Fichte’s Friedrich Nicolais Leben und sonderbare Meinungen only had I published it in an outlying press where it was not subject to the censor in the first place, or had refused to respond to a legal query to identify the author. Because none of these conditions apply here, I did not consider it my obligation to read the publication in question.
I by no means concur that, as you infer, I could have recognized what in your opinion is the pasquinade nature of the publication in question “immediately” after seeing it in print, and I must sooner resolutely assert quite the opposite. Had you yourself had a sharper eye in such a situation than I, I can only wish you luck in that regard.
Hence I was certainly not yet able to recognize your Leben as a pasquinade merely from viewing the printed piece itself, nor did I see the manuscript beforehand in any case. I did not consider it my obligation to read the piece.
In the meantime, amid such a terribly loud outcry I did not really read the piece — only imagine — until July! And behold, I did not at all — to use the words of Herr D. Wagner concerning Fichte’s Nicolai — find that
anything in the entire piece allowed the conclusion that anything more than Nicolai’s literary character was being targeted and subjected to mockery. Nowhere does the author deny Nicolai the character of a good citizen, upright pater familias, skilled bookseller, charitable man, etc.; it thus never deals with Nicolai the human being, but rather solely with Nicolai the writer who plays a tasteless role in the public sphere.
Hence I myself found nothing suggesting that this publication contained anything commensurate with the concept of a pasquinade that would qualify it as such.
True, Nicolai the writer is taken severely to task; but how many people — myself included — find that he is taken no more severely to task than he deserves, even had he written nothing more than his travelogue [Beschreibung einer Reise durch Deutschland und die Schweiz im Jahre 1781, 12 vols. (Berlin, Stettin 1783–96)]. You must forgive me for now also giving my private opinion after your having prompted me to pick up my quill in defense of the most important law of bookseller security against your attacks. You better than anyone can appreciate how, once one starts writing, it is difficult to stop; hence allow me to add a few points yet.
You despise those who publish pasquinades, and thus the authors of such pieces as well — hence what sort of aversion must you now sense toward yourself for having publicly referred to me as an “otherwise honorable man” — or for having applied the lucri bonus odor to me? I will leave it to your own conscious and memory to recall whether I, in distinguishing better than you the boundaries of the feuds to be aired before the public, might not have more from you to which I might respond regarding our shared profession.
The present case, however, can articulate two questions with which I would like to conclude, and the correct answer to which — which I do not expect from you — would indeed be of some importance.
Who pays the printing costs of what under certain circumstances is a necessary defense against a published personal — rather than literary — attack? Who authorizes the editors of literary journals to take up such attacks without at least sending them to those who are attacked that they might respond in defense, so that both pieces — attack and defense at once — might be presented in a fashion better enabling the public to render its assessment?