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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity
GA 4

I. Conscious Human Action

Is man,1Since English has not yet produced a neutral word for what we are (even “human being” has the word “man” in it), one must still ask the reader to remove any connotations of gender from such words.

in his thinking and doing, a spiritually free being, or does he stand under the compulsion of an iron necessity of purely natural lawfulness? Upon few questions has so much keen thought been focused as upon this one. The idea of the freedom of human will has found warm adherents as well as stubborn opponents in great number. There are people who, in their moral fervor, pronounce anyone narrow-minded who can deny so evident a fact as inner freedom. These are opposed by others who see it as eminently unscientific for someone to believe that the lawfulness of nature is interrupted in the sphere of human action and thinking. One and the same thing is here pronounced just as often to be the most prized possession of mankind as it is to be the worst illusion. Endless ingenuity has been expended to explain how human freedom can be compatible with the working of nature to which, after all, man also belongs. No less pains have been taken from another side to attempt to make comprehensible how such a delusion could have arisen. That we have here to do with one of the most important questions of life, of religion, of praxis, and of science—this anyone feels in whom the opposite of thoroughness is not the most outstanding feature of his character. And it is one of the sad indications of the superficiality of contemporary thinking that a book, which wants to formulate from the result of recent research into nature a “new belief” (David Friedrich Strauss, The New and the Old Belief ),2Der alte und neue Glaube contains nothing about his question except the words: “We do not have to go into the question here of the freedom of human will. The supposedly neutral freedom of choice has always been recognized as an empty specter by every philosophy worthy of the name; the moral evaluation of human actions and attitudes, however, remains untouched by that question.” I do not quote this passage here because I believe that the book in which it stands has particular significance, but rather because it seems to me to express the opinion to which the majority of our thinking contemporaries is able to raise itself with respect to the matter in question. Everyone who claims to have outgrown his scientific childhood seem to know today that being free could not consist in choosing, wholly at will, one or the other of two possible actions. There is always, it is declared, a very definite reason why a person carries out just one particular action from a number of possible ones.

That seems obvious. Nevertheless, right to the present day, the main attacks of the opponents of freedom direct themselves only against freedom of choice. Herbert Spencer for one, who lives in opinions that are becoming more widespread with each day, says in his Principles of Psychology:3Part IV, Chap. IX, par. 207.But that every one is at liberty to desire or not to desire, which is the real proposition involved in the dogma of free will, is negated as much by the internal perception of every one as by the contents of the preceding chapters.” Other also start from the same point of view in combating the concept of free will. In germinal form all the expositions relating to this are to be found already in Spinoza. His clear and simple argument against the idea of freedom has been repeated innumerable times since then, but cloaked, for the most part, in the most hair-splitting theoretical doctrines, so that it becomes difficult to discern the plain thought process which alone matters Spinoza writes in a letter of October or November 1674: “I call a thing free, namely, which exists and acts out of the pure necessity of it nature, and I call a thing compelled which is determined in its existing and working by something else in a definite and fixed way. So, for example, God exists, although with necessity, still freely, because he exists out of the necessity of his nature alone In the same way, God knows himself and everything else freely, because it follows out of the necessity of his nature alone that he knows everything. You see, therefore, that I place freedom not in a free decision but rather in a free necessity.”

“But let us come down to created things which are all of them determined by outer causes to exist and work in a fixed and definite way. In order to see this more distinctly let us picture to ourselves something completely simple. Let us say a stone, for example, receives from an external cause propelling it, a certain quantity of motion with which afterward, when the impact of the external cause has ceased, the stone necessarily continues to move itself along. This perseverance of the stone in its motion is compelled and not necessary, because it must be defined through the impact of an external cause. What here holds good for the stone, holds good for every other single thing, no matter how complex and versatile it may be, namely, that everything is determined with necessity by an external cause to exist and work in a fixed and definite way.”

Please suppose now that the stone, while moving along, is thinking, and knows that it is striving as hard as it can to continue in motion. This stone, which is only conscious of its striving and is not at all indifferent to what it is doing, will believe that it is completely free and that it is continuing in its motion for no other reason than because it wants to. This, however, is that human freedom which everyone claims to possess and which consists only in the fact that people are conscious of their desires, but do not know the cause by which people are determined. Thus the child believes that it is free in desiring milk, and the angry boy is free in demanding revenge, and the coward free in his flight. Furthermore, the drunken person believes it to be his free decision to say now what he would rather not have said when sober again; and since this biased view is innate to all people, one cannot easily free oneself from it. For although experience teaches us well enough that people are the least able to moderate their desires and that, when moved by two opposing passions, they see the better and do the worse, even so they consider themselves free, because in fact they do desire many things less strongly and many a desire can easily be restrained by the memory of some other preoccupation of theirs.”

Because an opinion is here put forward that is clearly and definitely expressed, it is also easy to uncover the basic error that lies within it. One supposes that man carries out an action, when driven to it by some reason or other, with the same necessity as a stone carries out a definite motion after an impact. Only because man has a consciousness of his action does he consider himself to be the free originator of it. In doing so he overlooks, however, the fact that a cause is driving him which he must follow absolutely. The error in this thought process is soon discovered. Spinoza, and all who think like him, overlook the fact that man does not only have a consciousness of his action, but can also have a consciousness of the causes by which he is led. No one will dispute the fact that the child is unfree when it desires milk, that the drunken person is so, when he says things which he later regrets. Both know nothing of the causes that are active in the depths of their organism and under whose irresistible compulsion they stand. But is it right to lump together actions of this kind with those in which man is conscious not only of his action, but also of the reasons which move him? Are the actions of men of one and the same kind then? May the act of the soldier on the battlefield, that of the scientific researcher in his laboratory, of the statesman in complex diplomatic affairs be placed scientifically on the same level with that of a child when it desires milk? Certainly it is true that it is best to attempt the solution of a problem where the matter is at its simplest. But the lack of ability to make distinctions has often caused endless confusion. And it is after all a far-reaching difference whether I know why I do something, or whether that is not the case. At first sight this seems to be an entirely obvious truth. And yet it is never asked by the opponents of freedom whether, then, a stimulus to action which I know and understand signifies for me a compulsion in the same sense as the organic process which causes the child to cry for milk.

Eduard von Hartmann maintains in Phenomenology of Moral Consciousness4Phaenomenolgie des sittlichen Bewusstseins that human willing depends upon two main factors: upon the stimulus to action and upon one's character. If one looks upon human beings as all identical or at least upon their differences as negligible, then their willing appears as though determined from outside, that is, by the circumstances that come to meet them. Of one considers, however, that different people make a mental picture into a stimulus to action only if their character is such that it is moved by the corresponding mental picture to desire something, then the human being appears to be determined from within and not from without. Because he now, according to his character, must first make a mental image forced upon him from outside into a stimulus for action, the person believes that he is free, that is, independent of outer stimuli to action. The truth however is, according to Eduard von Hartmann, that: “Even if we ourselves, however, must first raise mental pictures into motives, still we do not do this arbitrarily, but rather according to the necessity of our characterological disposition, therefore anything but freely.” Here also no attention is paid to the difference that exists between stimuli to action which I first let work upon me after I have permeated them with my consciousness, and those which I follow without possessing a clear knowledge of them.

And this leads us directly to the standpoint from which the subject is to be considered here. May the question of the freedom of our will be asked at all by itself, in a one-sided way? And if not: with what other question must it necessarily be linked?

If there is a difference between a conscious stimulus to my action and an unconscious urge to do it, then the first will also bring with it an action that must be judged differently than one out of blind impulse. The question as to this difference will therefore be the first. And what this question yields will then determine what position we have to take with respect to the action question of inner freedom itself.

What does it mean to know the reasons for one's action? One has given this question too little attention, because unfortunately one has always torn into two parts what is an inseparable whole: the human being. One differentiated between the doer and the knower, and only the one who matters the most was left out: the one who acts out of knowledge.

One says that man is free when he stands only under the dominion of his reason and not under that of his animal desires, or that inner freedom means to be able to determine one's life and action according to purposes and decisions.

Absolutely nothing is gained by assertions of this kind, however. For that is in fact the question, whether reason, whether purposes and decisions, exercise a compulsion on the human being in the same way animal desires do. If without my cooperation a rational decision rises up in me with exactly the same necessity as hunger and thirst, then I can only follow it by necessity, and my inner freedom is an illusion.

Another form of expression runs: To be free does not mean to be able to want what one wants to, but rather, to be able to do what one wants to. The poet-philosopher Robert Hamerling has characterized this thought in sharply outlined words in his Atomistic Theory of Will:5Atomistik des Willens “The human being can, to be sure, do what he wants to—but he cannot want what he wants to, because his wanting is determined by motives!—He cannot want what he wants to? But let us consider these words again more closely. Is there a reasonable sense in them? Freedom of will would therefore have to consist in the fact that one could want something without reason, without motive? But what then does wanting mean other than having a reason for preferring to do, or to strive after, this rather than that? To want something without reason, without motive, would mean to want something, without wanting it. With the concept of wanting, the concept of motive is inseparably linked. Without a determining motive the will is an empty capability: only through the motive does it become active and real. It is therefore entirely correct that the human will is not “free” inasmuch as its direction is always determined by the strongest of its motives. But it must on the other hand be admitted that it is absurd, in the fact of this “unfreedom,” to speak of a conceivable “freedom” of the will which would end up being able to want what one does not want.”

Here also, only motives in general are discussed, without taking into consideration the difference between unconscious and conscious ones. If a motive works upon me and I am compelled to follow it because it proves itself to be the “strongest” of its kind, then thinking about inner freedom ceases to make any sense. How should it be of any significance for me whether I can do something or not, if I am compelled by the motive to do it? The point here is not whether, when the motive has worked upon me, I can then do something or not, but rather whether there are only such motives that work with compelling necessity. If I must want something, then, under certain circumstances, it might be of the greatest indifference to me whether I can also do it. If, because of my character and because of circumstances prevailing in my environment, a motive is forced upon me that to my thinking shows itself to be irrational, then I would even have to be glad if I could not do what I want to.

The main point is not whether I can carry out a decision made, but rather how the decision arises in me.

That which distinguishes man from all other organic beings is based on his rational thinking. Activity he has in common with other organisms. Nothing is gained by searching for analogies in the animal kingdom to elucidate the concept of freedom for the actions of human beings. Modern natural science loves such analogies. And when it has succeeded in finding something among animals that is similar to human behavior, it believes it has touched upon the most important question of knowledge about the human being. To what misunderstandings this opinion leads, is shown for example, in the book The Illusion of Free Will6Die Illusion der Willensfreiheit by P. Rée. 1885, who says the following about freedom: “That it seems to us as though the motion of the stone were by necessity, and the willing of the donkey were not be necessity, is easily explainable. The causes which move the stone are of course external and visible. The causes, however, by virtue of which the donkey wills, are internal and invisible: between us and the place of their activity the donkey's skull is to be found ... One does not see the causal dependence, and supposes therefore that it is not present. The will, one explains, is indeed the cause of the donkey's turning around, but the willing itself is independent; it is an absolute beginning.” So here too actions of the human being in which he has a consciousness of the reasons for his action, are again simply passed over, for Rée explains: “Between us and the place of their activity the donkey's skull is to be found.” To judge already from these words,—Rée has no inkling of the fact that there are actions not of the donkey, to be sure, but certainly of people—for which the motive that has become conscious lies between us and the action. He also proves this one again a few pages later through the words: “We do not perceive the causes by which our willing is determined; therefore we suppose that it is not causally determined at all.”

But enough of examples which prove that many fight against freedom without knowing at all what freedom is.

It is entirely obvious that an action which the doer performs, without knowing why he does it, cannot be free. But how does the matter stand with the kind of action whose reasons are known? This leads us to the question: What is the origin and the significance of thinking? For without knowledge about the thinking activity of the soul, a concept of knowing about anything, including an action, is not possible. When we know what thinking in general signifies, then it will also be easy to become clear about the role of thinking in human action. “Only with thinking does the soul, with which the animal is also endowed, first become spirit,” says Hegel rightly, and therefore thinking will also give to human action its characteristic stamp.

This is not to assert by any means that all our action flows only out of the sober deliberations of our intellect. To set forth only those actions as in the highest sense human which issue from abstract judgment, is very far from my intention. But the moment our action lifts itself up out of the area of the satisfaction of purely animal desires, what moves us to act is always intermixed with thoughts. Love, compassion, patriotism are mainsprings of action which do not let themselves be reduced into cold concepts of the intellect. One says: The heart, the Gemüt7We have no word for Gemüt in English. It points more to the totality of man's inner being than “heart” does.

—Translator's note.
come here into their own. Without a doubt. But the heart and the Gemüt do not create what it is that moves us to act. They presuppose it and take it into their domain. Within my heart compassion appears when, in my consciousness, the mental picture arises of a person who arouses compassion. The way to the heart is through the head. Even love is no exception to this. When it is not the mere expression of the sex drive, it is then based upon the mental pictures which we make for ourselves of the loved one. And the more idealistic these mental pictures are, the more blissful is the love. Here also the thought is father to the feeling. One says: Love makes us blind to the weaknesses of the loved one. The matter can also be grasped the other way round and it can be maintained that love opens the eye in fact for precisely the good qualities of the loved one. Many pass these good qualities by without an inkling, without noticing them. One person sees them, and just because he does, love awakens in his soul. What has he done other than make for himself a mental picture of something of which a hundred others have none. They do not have the love because they lack the mental picture.

We may grasp the subject however we want: it must become ever clearer that the question about the nature of human action presupposes the other about the origin of thinking. I will turn, therefore, first of all to this question.