The Beautiful Soul, the Sociopath, and Fichte's Ethics

By Seidel, George J. | Philosophy Today, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

The Beautiful Soul, the Sociopath, and Fichte's Ethics


Seidel, George J., Philosophy Today


The figure of the beautiful soul (die schöne Seele) is a theme that runs through the Uterature and the philosophy of the period both before and after Fichte's System der Sittlichkeit. It also feeds into and feeds out of that work. The notion of the beautiful soul has its roots in German pietism.1 In the young Hegel, it is found in the Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate. There the beautiful soul is Jesus, who unites duty and inclination in love. In Schilier, it is not merely characterized by ethical feeUng but is a matter of the whole person, the mature fruit of true humanity in a joining of natural and ethical existence. For him it becomes moral action as second nature. In Goethe, on the other hand, the beautiful soul is more contemplation than action. Among the early German Romantics it runs the gamut between a certain innocent naïveté (Fr. Schlegel) and a longing nostalgia that verges upon madness (NovaUs).

In the later Hegel of the Phenomenology, with its vigorous criticism of Romanticism, the beautiful soul has an essentially moral sense, along with certain reUgious and aesthetic overtones. Although Hegel disapproves of the notion, it remains an integral part of the dialectic. Hegel sees the beautiful soul as a consequence of Kant's (and Fichte's) moral rigorism, and as following upon the categorical imperative.2 His basic criticism of the beautiful soul is that it cannot face reality; it does not want to get its moral hands dirty. With the beautiful soul aesthetics and moraUty are one, and so (contrary to Kant) are duty and inclination, nature, and freedom. One merely follows the inspiration of one's heart and the delicacy of one's feelings. As Hegel says, the difference between an abstract God and self-consciousness, previously hidden, disappears, and the self experiences the immediacy of God's presence in its mind and heart, in itself.3 However, it lacks the power to externalize itself, fearing to besmirch the splendor of its inner being by action, fleeing contact with the actual world, persisting in a state of self-willed impotence (eigensinnigen Kraftslosigkeit).* The beautiful soul ends up with a contradiction between its pure self and the necessity to act, and, unable to resolve the conflict, becomes disordered to the point of madness, wastes away in yearning, and pines away in consumption5 - a thoroughly nasty allusion to the Romantic poet NovaUs.

There are two places in Fichte's System of Ethics where the theme of the beautiful soul makes an appearance. One is the context of his sermonette on the publican and the Pharisee. Fichte speaks of the way in which some manage to raise themselves by their freedom above die laws of nature. They have a genius for virtue, which is a combination of sensitivity and autonomy.6 Such persons can have a good will and want to be magnanimous and considerate but wiU hear nothing of duty, obUgation, and law or justice, nor are they respectful of other's rights. Their conduct is not reflected upon in accordance with a rule. There may be genuine renunciations involved, but also a growth of self-esteem - "how good and noble we are" (178). Such persons act in accordance with a blind drive without reflecting upon their actions beforehand. While not acting with freedom and self-awareness, once the action has occurred they find the rule according to which they might have acted: a given innate good. A certain joy is the result, since they find themselves considerably better than they were strictly obUged to be, performing acts above and beyond the call of duty (opera supererogativa, 179). This results in a certain self-conceit based upon the sacrifices the person has made, and evokes the admiration of others. One is a hero. Of course, for Fichte all this is worthless, since it does not proceed from morality (181).

One may, indeed, fault Fichte's reading of the parable. He insists that the works performed by the Pharisee do not proceed from morality; though they are most certainly in accord witii the law, even, as he admits, over and above the law. …

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