The Collected Letters, Volume 13


TC TO FRANCIS ESPINASSE AND HENRY DUNIPACE ; 28 August 1841; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18410828-TC-FEHD-01; CL 13: 227-229


SCOTSBRIG, ECCLEFECHAN, August 28th, 1841.

MY GOOD YOUNG FRIENDS,—It is many years since I ceased reading German or any other metaphysics, and gradually came to discern that I had happily got done with that matter altogether. By what steps, series of books, and other influences, such result was brought about, it would now be extremely difficult to say.1 Few books stand prominently with me above the general dimness. My power to serve you in this matter is accordingly very small. I can only say that my curiosity was once as intense as yours; my obstructions and obscurations perhaps greater than yours; that by studying of great thinkers (wheresoever met with, howsoever named or rubricked), above all, by thinking and struggling earnestly myself, help and victory were certain for me, as they will be for you and for all that do the like.

Those two little books of Fichte's and Schelling's2 are bright in my memory beyond all others that I read on that subject. Perhaps there is not elsewhere, for a British student, as much of interest and novelty extant, in equal compression, in the whole literature of German philosophy. One other book I also favourably remember: The Life of Fichte, by his Son, two moderate German volumes, of recent date comparatively,3 in which, I think, you will find some glimpses of the general field of German metaphysics, and indications for you of roads, towards whatever quarter you may be bound. It is easily read, too, which is an advantage. I may say further that after all the Fichteisms, Schellingisms, Hegelisms, I still understand Kant to be the grand novelty, the prime author of the new spiritual world, of whom all the others are but superficial, transient modifications. If you do decide to penetrate into this matter, what better can you do than vigorously set to the Kritik der reinen Vernunft,4 a very attainable book, and resolutely study it and re-study it till you understand it? You will find it actually capable of being understood, rigorously sequent, like a book of mathematics; labour that pays itself; really one of the best metaphysical studies that I know of. Once master of Kant, you have attained what I reckon most precious, perhaps alone precious in that multifarious business of German philosophy: namely, deliverance from the fatal incubus of Scotch or French philosophy, with its mechanisms and its Atheisms, and be able perhaps to wend on your way leaving both of them behind you. In fine, if you prosecute the study, it will be well to consult Sir William Hamilton, your neighbour, probably your former teacher;5 he of all men, British or foreign, is the best acquainted with the bibliography of German and other metaphysics, the ablest, therefore, to direct you towards books in any specific case. A Mr. Ferrier6 of your city I believe to be likewise worth inquiring of. On this business of metaphysics, I know not that I can safely counsel further. Go on, and prosper.

For the rest, let it be no disappointment, if, after all study, you do not learn ‘what we are;’ nay, if you discover that metaphysics cannot by possibility teach us such a result, or even that metaphysics is but a kind of disease, and the inquiry itself a kind of disease.7 We shall never know “what we are;” on the other hand, we can always partly know, what beautiful or noble things we are fit to do, and that is the grand inquiry for us. The Hebrew Psalmist said, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made;”8 God so made me. No Kant or Hegel,9 as I take it, can do much more than say the like, in the wider, complicated dialect we now have.

On the whole, we learn better what man is by seeing extensively what good or great things have come out of man; I mean practically here: that the literature of Germany is perhaps likely to be a far greater possession for you than its metaphysics. The anatomical skeleton,—nay, we will call it the impalpable, unembodied soul; contrast that with the living man, visible and audible there! Your rule in reading for self-culture is to get acquainted with great men, and great thinkers, on what subject soever they may write; it will be a humane subject, or they will not deserve the name of great. Goethe, Schiller, Jean Paul! I will name these three to you. It seems to me there lies more in these men, and in men like them, than in all bodies of philosophy. He who has discerned the world as these men discerned it,—is not he educated to the highest point of vision human kind has yet attained to, an authentic man of this generation, with all past generations lying obedient under his feet, not disobedient round his legs, round his very throat?

Good young friends! I have no time to write more. I bid you persist in the same noble temper. Through many difficulties and confusions, you need not doubt a good issue, if you have strength to endure honestly, manfully. Your help lies within yourself; your hindrance too lies there.10 Courage. Forward, forward!

Yours with true good wishes,