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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity
GA 4

XII. Moral Imagination

The free spirit acts according to his impulses, that is, according to intuitions chosen from the whole of his world of ideas through thinking. For the unfree spirit, the reason he isolates one particular intuition from his world of ideas in order to base an action upon it lies within the world of perceptions given to him, that means within his previous experiences. He remembers, before he comes to a decision, what someone else has done or named as a good thing to do in a case analogous to his own, or what God has dictated in such a case, and so on, and then he acts accordingly. For the free spirit these preconditions are not the only stimulus to action. He makes an absolutely primal decision. In doing so, he bothers just as little about what others have done in this case, as about what they have dictated for it. He has purely ideal reasons which move him to lift just one particular concept out of the sum total of his concepts and to translate it into action. His action will, however, belong to perceptible reality. What he brings about will therefore be identical with a quite definite perceptible content. His concept will have to realize itself in a concrete individual happening. It will not, as concept, be able to contain this individual instance. It will be able to relate itself to this only in the way that any concept at all relates itself to a perception; for example, in the way the concept “lion” relates to an individual lion. The intermediary between concept and perception is the mental picture (see pages 95–97). For the unfree spirit this intermediary is given from the start. His motives are present from the start as mental pictures in his consciousness. When he wants to carry out an action, he does it in the way he has see it done or the way he's ordered to do it in this or that case. Authority works therefore best of all through examples, that means through providing quite definite single actions for the consciousness of the unfree spirit. The Christian acts less according to the teachings than to the example of the Redeemer. Rules have less value for positive action than for leaving certain actions undone. Laws take on the generalized form of concepts only when they forbid actions; not, however, when they order something done. Laws about what he ought to do must be given to the unfree spirit in a quite concrete form: clean the sidewalk in front of your house! Pay your taxes in this amount at that tax center! And so on. Laws for preventing actions have a conceptual form: You shall not steal. You shall not commit adultery! These laws also affect the unfree spirit; however, only through reference to some concrete mental picture, for example, to that of the corresponding temporal punishment, or of the pangs of conscience, or of eternal damnation, and so on.

As soon as the stimulus to an action is present in the generalized form of concepts (for example: You shall do good to your neighbor! You shall live in such a way that you best promote your own welfare!), then in each individual case the concrete mental picture of the action (the relation of the concept to a perceptual content) must first be found. For the free spirit, who is not impelled by any example nor by any fear of punishment, etc., this translation of the concept into a mental picture is always necessary.

The human being produces concrete mental pictures out of the sum total of his ideas first of all through imagination. What the free spirit needs in order to realize his ideas, in order to make his way, is therefore moral imagination. 1Moralische Phantasie It is the wellspring for the actions of the free spirit. Therefore, it is also true that only people with moral imagination are actually morally productive. Mere preachers of morality, that is, the people who spin forth moral rules without being able to condense them into concrete mental pictures, are morally unproductive. They are like the art critics who know how to expound judiciously upon the way a work of art ought to be, but who are unable themselves to create even the least little one.

Moral imagination, in order to realize its mental picture, must reach into a particular region of perceptions. Man's action does not create any perceptions, but rather reshapes the perceptions which are already present, imparts to them a new form. In order to be able to reshape a particular object of perception or a number of such, in accordance with a moral mental picture, one must have grasped the lawful content (its way of working until now, which one wants to shape anew or give a new direction to) of this perceptual configuration. One must furthermore find the method by which this lawfulness allows itself to be transformed into a new one. This part of one's moral activity rests upon knowledge of the phenomenal work with which one is involved. It is therefore to be sought in one branch of scientific knowledge in general. Moral action therefore presupposes, along with the faculty 2Only superficiality could see, in the use of the word “faculty” here and in other places in this book, a relapse into the teachings of an older psychology about faculties of the soul. The connection with what was said on page 85 gives exactly my meaning of the word. for moral ideas and along with moral imagination, the ability to transform the world of perceptions without violating their natural lawful connections. This ability is moral technique. It can be learned in the same sense that science in general can be learned. Generally, people are in fact better able to find the concepts for the already existing world, than productively, out of their imagination, to determine not yet existing future action. Hence, it is quite possible that people without moral imagination would receive moral mental pictures from others and would skillfully imprint them upon reality. The opposite case can occur also, that people with moral imagination are without technical skillfulness and must then make use of other people to realize their mental pictures.

Insofar as knowing the objects in our sphere of action is necessary for moral action, our action rests upon the knowing. What comes into consideration here are the laws of nature. We have to do with natural science, not with ethics.

Moral imagination and the capacity for moral ideas can become the object of knowing only after they have been produced by the individual. Then, however, they are no longer regulating life, but have already regulated it. They are to be grasped as operating causes like all others (they are purposes merely for the subject). We concern ourselves with them as with a natural history of moral mental pictures.

Besides this there can be no ethics as a science of norms.

People have wanted to hold to the normative character of moral laws, at least insofar as they have grasped ethics in the sense of dietetics, which extracts general laws out of the life conditions of the organism, in order then, on the basis of these laws, to influence the body in particular ways (Paulson, System of Ethics). 3System der Ethik This comparison is false, because our moral life cannot be compared with the life of our organism. The functioning of the organism is there without our doing; we find all its laws already there in the world, can therefore seek them, and then apply the ones we have found. Moral laws, however, are first created by us. We cannot apply them before they are created. The error arises through the fact that moral laws are not created, new in content, at every moment, but rather are handed down to others. The moral laws taken over from our ancestors then appear to be given, like the natural laws of the organism. It will definitely not, however, be as right for future generations to apply them as to apply laws of diet. For moral laws have to do with the individual and not, as is the case with a natural law, with a member of a species. As an organism I am just such a member of a species, and I will live in accordance with nature when I apply the natural laws of the species also in my particular case; as a moral being I am an individual and have laws entirely my own. 4When Paulsen (on page 15 of the book mentioned above) says that “different natural dispositions and life conditions demand, as well as a different bodily diet, also a different spiritual-moral one,” he is very close to the correct view, but still misses the decisive point. Insofar as I am an individual, I need no diet. Dietetics means the art of bringing one particular member into harmony with the general laws of its species. As an individual, however, I am no member of any species.

The view put forward here seems to stand in contradiction to that basic doctrine of modern natural science known as the theory of evolution. But it only seems to do so. By evolution is understood the real emerging of the later out of the earlier in ways corresponding to natural laws. By evolution in the organic world one means that the later (more perfect) organic forms are real descendants of earlier (less perfect) ones, and have emerged from them in a way corresponding to natural laws. The adherents of the theory or organic evolution would actually have to picture to themselves that there was once a period of time on earth when someone could have followed with his eyes the gradual emergence of the reptiles out of the proto-amniotes, if he could have been present as observer back then and had been endowed with sufficiently log life. In the same way the evolutionary theorists would have to picture to himself that a being could have observed the emergence of the solar system out of the Kant-Laplace primordial nebula, if he had been able to dwell freely in the realm of world ether in a suitable place during that infinitely long time. The fact that, with a picture such as this, both the nature of the proto-amniotes and also that of the Kant-Laplace primordial nebula would have to be thought of differently than the materialistic thinkers do, does not come into consideration here. But it should not occur to any evolutionary theorists to maintain that, even without ever having seen a reptile, he could draw forth from his concept of the proto-amniotes that of the reptile with all its characteristics. Just as little could the solar system be deduced from the concept from the Kant-Laplace primordial nebula. This means, in other words, that the evolutionary theorists must, if he is consistent in his thinking, maintain that out of earlier phases of development later ones result in a real way, and that, once we have bestowed the concept of less perfect and that of perfect, we can then see the connection; by no means, however, should he grant that the concept gained through the earlier is far-reaching enough to evolve the later out of it. From this it follows for the philosopher of ethics that he can in fact gain insight into the connection of later moral concepts with earlier ones; but not that even one single new moral idea can be drawn from an earlier one. As a moral being the individual produces his content. This content he produces is, for the philosopher of ethics, something given, exactly in the same way as, for the scientific researcher, the reptiles are something given. The reptiles have come forth out of the proto-amniotes; but the scientific researcher cannot draw the concept of the reptiles from that of the proto-amniotes. Later moral ideas evolve out of earlier ones; the philosopher of ethics cannot, however, draw, out of the moral concepts of an earlier cultural epoch, those of later ones. The confusion is caused through the fact that, as scientific researchers, we already have the phenomena before us and only afterward observe and know them; whereas in our moral actions we ourselves first create ht phenomena which we the afterward know. In the evolutionary process of the moral world order we do what nature does on a lower level: we transform something perceptible. The ethical norm can therefore at first not be known the way a law of nature can, but rather it must be created. Only when it is there can it become the object of our knowing.

But can we not then measure the new against the old? Is not each person compelled to measure what is produced through his moral imagination against the moral teachings already there from the past? For that which is to reveal itself as something morally productive, this is just as nonsensical as it would be for someone to want to measure a new natural form against an old one and then say: Because the reptiles do not match up with the proto-amniotes, they are an invalid (pathological) form.

Ethical individualism does not therefore stand at odds with a rightly understood theory of evolution, but rather follows directly form it. Haeckel's genealogical tree from the protozoa up to man as an organic being would have to be able to be followed, without any break in the lawfulness of nature and without any break in the unity of evolution, right up to the individual as a being who is moral in a particular sense. At no point, however, could the nature of a later species be decided form the nature of an ancestral species. But as true as it is that the moral ideas of the individual have observably come forth out of those of his ancestors, it is also just as true that he is morally barren if he himself does not have any moral ideas.

The same ethical individualism which I have developed on the basis of the preceding considerations could also be derived out of the theory of evolution. The final conviction would be the same; only the path upon which it is achieved would be a different one.

The emergence of totally new moral ideas out of our moral imagination is, for the theory of evolution, as little to be wondered at as the emergence of a new species of animal out of another. But this theory, as a monistic world view in moral life just as in the life of nature, must reject any influence from the beyond, any (metaphysical) influence which is merely inferred and not experienced in idea. This theory follows thereby the same principle which motivates it when it seeks the causes of new organic forms and in so doing does not refer to the intervention of some being, outside the world, who calls forth each new species through supernatural influence, according to new creative thought. Just as monism can have no use for any supernatural creative thoughts to explain a living being, so for monism it is al impossible to derive the moral world order from causes which do not lie within the experienceable world. Monism cannot believe that the nature of an act of will, as a moral one, has been fully explored by tracing it back to a continuing supernatural influence upon one's moral life (divine world-rule from outside), or to a particular revelation in time (the giving of the ten commandments), or to the appearance of God (of Christ) on earth. What occurs in and with the human being through al this becomes something moral only when within his human experience, it becomes something individually his own. For monism the moral processes are produced by the world like everything else that exists, and their causes must be sought in the world, that means in man, because he is the bearer of morality.

Ethical individualism is therefore the crowning feature of that edifice which Darwin and Haeckel have striven to build for natural science. Ethical individualism is spiritualized evolutionary teaching carried over into moral life.

Someone who from the beginning, in a narrow-hearted way, restricts his concept of nature to an arbitrarily limited sphere, can easily come to the point of finding no place in nature for free individual action. The evolutionary theorist who proceeds consequently cannot fall into any such narrowness of heart. He cannot terminate natural evolution at the ape and attribute to man a supernatural origin; he must, even when seeking the natural ancestors of man already seek the spirit in nature; he can also not stop short at the organic functions of man and find only these to be of nature, but rather he must also regard his morally free life as a spiritual continuation of organic life.

According to his basic principles, the evolutionary theorist can only maintain that the moral actions of the present emerge out of other kinds of world happening; his determining of the character of an action, that is whether it is free, he must leave up to his direct observation of the action. He maintains, after all, only that human beings have evolved out of ancestors that were not yet human. How human beings are constituted must be determined through observation of human beings themselves. The results of this observation cannot come into contradiction with a rightly viewed evolutionary history. Only the assertion that the results are such as to exclude a natural world order could not be brought into agreement with the present direction of natural science. 5That we speak of thoughts (ethical ideas) as objects of observation is justified. For even if the configurations of thinking do not also enter into my sphere of observation during my activity of thinking, still, they can become the object of observation afterwards. And in this way we have attained our characterization of the nature of human action.

Ethical individualism has nothing to fear from a natural science that understands itself: observation shows inner freedom to be the characteristic of the perfect form of human action. This freedom must be attributed to human willing, insofar as this willing realizes purely ideal intuitions. For these are not the results of some necessity working upon them from outside, but rather are something based upon themselves. If a person finds that an action is the image of such an ideal intuition, he experiences it as a free one. In this characteristic of an action lies inner freedom.

How do matters stand now, from this point of view, with the distinction already made above (page 9f. and 4–5) between the two statements: that to be free means to be able to do what one wants to, and the other as to whether being at liberty to be able to desire and not to desire is the real proposition involved in the dogma of free will. — Hamerling in fact bases his view about free will upon this distinction, in that he declares the first statement to be correct and the second to be an absurd tautology. He says that I can do what I want to. But to say that I can want what I want to is an empty tautology. — Whether I can do, that means, can translate into reality, what I want to, what I have therefore put before me as the idea of my doing, this depends upon outer circumstances and upon my technical skill (see page 180f.) To be free means to be able, out of oneself, through moral imagination, to determine which mental pictures (stimuli to action) are to underlie one's actions. Inner freedom is impossible if something outside of me (a mechanical process or a merely inferred God outside the world) determines my moral mental pictures. I am therefore free only when I myself produce these mental pictures, not when I am able to carry out the stimuli to action which another being has instilled in me. A free being is one that can want what he himself considers to be right. Whoever does something other than he wants to, has to be driven to this other thing by motives which do not lie within him. Such a person acts unfreely. To be at liberty to be able to want what one considers to be right or wrong, means therefore to be at liberty to be able to be free or unfree. That is of course just as absurd as to see freedom in the ability to be able to do what one must want. But this last, however, is just what Hamerling maintains when he says that it is perfectly true that the will is always determined by stimuli to action, but that it is absurd to say that the will is therefore unfree; for no greater freedom could either be wished or imagined for it than the freedom to realize itself in proportion to its own strength and determination. — Yes! A greater freedom can indeed by wished for, and only that is the true one; namely, the freedom to determine for oneself the grounds for one's willing.

Under certain circumstances a person may let himself be motivated to refrain from carrying out what he wants to do. To let be prescribed what he ought to do, that is, to want what someone else and not he considers to be right, to this he can succumb only insofar as he does not feel himself to be free.

External powers can hinder me from doing what I want. They then simply condemn me to doing nothing or to being unfree. Only when they enslave my mind and spirit and drive my own impulses to action from my head and want to replace them with theirs, do they then intend my inner unfreedom. This is why the church, therefore, works not merely against my doing, but especially against my impure thoughts, that is against the impulses of my actions. The church makes me unfree if all impulses to action which it does not decree appear impure to it. A church or another community creates inner unfreedom when its priests or teachers make themselves into the ones who dictate conscience, that is, when the faithful must draw the impulses for their actions from them (in the confessional).

Addendum to the Revised Edition, 1918

In these considerations of human willing there is presented what the human being can experience with respect to his actions, in order through this experience to come to the consciousness: my willing if free. It is of particular significance that the justification for designating a willing as free is established through the experience that in the willing an ideal intuition realizes itself. This can only be the result of observation, but is so in the sense in which human willing observes itself in a stream of development whose goal lies in reaching just such a potential of willing that is carried by purely ideal intuitions. This potential can be reached because nothing is at work within ideal intuition other than its own being, which is founded upon itself. If such an intuition is present in human consciousness, then it has not developed out of the processes of the organism (p. 133ff.), but rather the organic activity has drawn back, in order to make room for the ideal activity. If I observe a willing that is the image of intuition, then the organically necessary activity has also drawn back out of this willing. The willing is free. A person will not be able to observe this freedom of willing who cannot see how free willing consists in the fact, that first, through the intuitive element, the necessary working of the human organism is paralyzed, forced back, and that the spiritual activity 6geistige Tätigkeit of will filled with ideas is set in its place. Only someone who cannot make this observation of the twofold nature of a free willing believes in the unfreedom of every willing. Whoever can make it struggles through to the insight that the human being, insofar as he cannot fully accomplish the process of damming up organic activity, is unfree; but that this unfreedom is striving toward freedom, and this freedom is in no way an abstract ideal, but rather is a power of direction lying within the human being. Man is free to the extent that he is able in his willing to realize the same mood of soul which lives in him when he is conscious of giving shape to purely ideal (spiritual) intuitions.