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Philosophy of Spiritual Activity
GA 4

X. Monism and the Philosophy of Spiritual Activity

[Here the term “spiritual activity” is introduced by the Editor following a suggestion of Rudolf Steiner himself, instead of the word “freedom” which he considers does not adequately represent the German “Freiheit.”]

THE naive man who acknowledges nothing as real except what he can see with his eyes and grasp with his hands, demands for his moral life, too, grounds of action which are perceptible to his senses. He wants someone who will impart to him these grounds of action in a manner that his senses can apprehend. He is ready to allow these grounds of action to be dictated to him as commands by any man whom he considers wiser or more powerful than himself, or whom he acknowledges, for another reason, to be a power superior to himself. This accounts for the moral principles enumerated above, viz., the principles which rest on the authority of family, state, society, church and God. The most narrow-minded man still believes in the authority of some one person. He who is a little more advanced allows his moral conduct to be dictated by a majority (state, society). In every case he relies on some power which is perceptible. When, at last, the conviction dawns on someone that his authorities are fundamentally human beings just as weak as himself, then he seeks guidance from a higher power, from a Divine Being, whom, in turn, he endows with qualities perceptible to the senses. He conceives this Being as communicating to him the conceptual content of his moral life in a perceptible way — believing, for example, that God appears in the burning bush, or that He moves about among men in manifest human shape, and that their ears can hear His voice telling them what they are to do and what not to do.

The highest stage of development which Naive Realism attains in the sphere of morality is that at which the moral command (the moral Idea) is conceived as having no connection with any external being, but, hypothetically, as being an absolute power in one's own inner life. What man first beheld as the external voice of God, that he now beholds as an independent power in his own interior and he now talks of this inner voice in a way which identifies it with conscience.

This conception, however, takes us already beyond the level of the naive consciousness into the sphere where moral laws have become independent norms. They are there no longer transmitted by a carrier, but are turned into self-existent metaphysical entities. They are analogous to the visible-invisible forces of Metaphysical Realism, which seek reality, not through the part which human nature, through its thinking, plays in this reality, but which hypothetically adds it to the facts of experience. Hence these extra-human moral norms always appear as accompanying Metaphysical Realism. For this theory is bound to look for the origin of morality likewise in the sphere of extra-human reality. There are different views possible. If the supposed extra-human being is conceived to be unthinking and acts according to purely mechanical laws, as modern Materialism conceives that it does, then it must also produce out of itself, by purely mechanical necessity, the human individual and all that belongs to him. On that view the consciousness of freedom can be nothing more than an illusion. For whilst I consider myself the author of my action, it is the matter of which I am composed and the movements which are going on in it that work within me. I imagine myself free, but actually all my actions are nothing but the effects of the material processes which are the basis of my physical and mental organization. It is only because we do not know the motives which compel us that we have the feeling of freedom. “We must emphasize that the feeling of freedom is caused by the absence of external compelling motives.” “Our actions are as much subject to necessity as our thoughts” (Ziehen, Leitfaden der Physiologischen Psychologie, pp. 207, ft.). [For the manner in which I have here spoken of “Materialism,” and for the justification of so speaking of it, see the Addition on page 145.]

Another possibility is that someone will find in a spiritual being the Absolute hidden behind all phenomena. If so, he will look for the spring of action in such a kind of spiritual power. He will regard the moral principles which his reason contains as the manifestation of this absolute being, which pursues in men its own special purposes. Moral laws appear to the Dualist, who holds this view, as dictated by the Absolute, and man's only task is to discover, by means of his reason, the decisions of the Absolute and to carry them out. For the Dualist, the moral order of the world is the perceptible reflection of the higher order that lies behind it. Our earthly morality is the manifestation of the extra-human world-order. It is not man who matters in this moral order but the Absolute, that is, the extra-human Being. Man ought to do what this being wills. Eduard von Hartmann, who identifies this being as such with a Godhead whose existence is a life of suffering, believes that this Divine Being has created the world in order to gain, by means of the world, release from his infinite suffering. Hence this philosopher regards the moral evolution of humanity as a process, the function of which is the redemption of God. “Only through the building up of a moral world-order on the part of rational, self-conscious individuals is it possible for the world-process to be led to its goal.” “Real existence is the incarnation of the Godhead. The world-process is the passion of the incarnated God, and at the same time the way of redemption for him who was crucified in the flesh; morality, however, is co-operation in the shortening of this path of suffering and redemption” (Hartmann, Phaenomenologie des sittlichen Bewusstseins, p. 871). On this view man does not act because he wills, but he ought to act because it is God's will to be redeemed. Whereas the Materialistic Dualist turns man into an automaton, the action of which is nothing but the effect of causality according to purely mechanical laws, the Spiritualistic Dualist (i.e., he who treats the Absolute, the thing-in-itself, as a spiritual something in which man with his conscious experience has no share), makes man the slave of the will of the Absolute. Freedom (spiritual activity) is excluded in Materialism, as well as in one-sided Spiritualism, and in general Metaphysical Realism which infers, as true reality, an extra-human something which it does not experience.

Naive and Metaphysical Realism, if they are to be consistent, have to deny freedom for one and the same reason, viz., because, for them, man does nothing but carry out, or execute, principles necessarily imposed upon him. Naive Realism destroys freedom by subjecting man to authority, whether it be that of a perceptible being, or that of a being conceived on the analogy of perceptible beings, or lastly, that of the abstract inner voice which he interprets as “conscience.” The Metaphysician, content merely to infer an extra-human reality, is unable to acknowledge freedom because, for him, man is determined, mechanically or morally, by a “Being-in-itself.”

Monism will have to admit the partial justification of Naive Realism, with which it agrees in admitting the justification of the world of percepts. He who is incapable of producing moral Ideas through intuition must receive them from others. In so far as a man receives his moral principles from without he is actually unfree. But Monism ascribes to the Idea the same importance as to the percept. The Idea can manifest itself in the human individual. In so far as man follows the impulses coming from this side he feels himself to be free. But Monism denies all justification to Metaphysics which merely draws inferences, and consequently also to the impulses of action which are derived from so-called “Beings-in-themselves.” According to the Monistic view, man's action is unfree when he obeys some perceptible external compulsion; it is free when he obeys none but himself. There is no room in Monism for any kind of unconscious compulsion hidden behind percept and concept. If anybody maintains of the action of a fellow-man that it has not been freely done, he is bound to point out within the perceptible world the thing or the person or the institution which has caused the agent to act. And if he supports his contention by an appeal to causes of action lying outside the perceptible or spiritually real world, then Monism must decline to take account of such an assertion.

According to the Monistic conception, then, man's action is partly free, partly unfree. He is conscious of himself as unfree in the world of percepts, and he realizes in himself the free spirit.

The moral laws which his inferences compel the Metaphysician to regard as issuing from a higher power are, according to the upholder of Monism, thoughts of men. To him the moral order is neither a replica of a purely mechanical order of nature nor of an extra-human world-order, but through and through the free creation of men. It is not man's business to carry out the will of some being outside himself in the world, but his own. He carries out his own decisions and intentions, not those of another being. Monism does not find behind human agents the purposes of a foreign world ruler, determining them to act according to his will. On the contrary, men, in so far as they realize their intuitive Ideas, pursue merely their own human ends. Moreover, each individual pursues his own particular ends. For the world of Ideas realizes itself, not in a community, but only in individual men. What appears as the common goal of a community is nothing but the result of the separate volitions of its individual members, and most commonly of a few outstanding men whom the rest follow as their authorities. Each one of us has it in him to be a free spirit, just as every rose germ is destined to become a rose.

Monism, then, is in the sphere of genuinely moral action the true philosophy of spiritual activity (freedom). Being also a philosophy of reality, it rejects the metaphysical (unreal) restriction of the free spirit as emphatically as it acknowledges the physical and historical (naively real) restrictions of the naive man. Inasmuch as it does not look upon man as a finished product, exhibiting in every moment of his life his full nature, it considers idle the dispute whether man, as such, is free or not. It looks upon man as a developing being, and asks whether, in the course of this development, the stage of the free spirit can be attained.

Monism knows that nature does not send forth man ready-made as a free spirit, but that she leads him up to a certain stage, from which he continues to develop still as an unfree being, until he reaches the point where he finds his own self.

Monism perceives clearly that a being acting under physical or moral compulsion cannot be truly moral. It regards the stages of automatic action (in accordance with natural urges and instincts), and of obedient action (in accordance with moral norms), as necessary preparatory stages for morality, but it understands that it is possible for the free spirit to transcend both these transitory stages. Monism emancipates the truly moral world-view in general from all the internal fetters of the maxims of naive morality, and from all the externally imposed maxims of speculative Metaphysicians. The former Monism can as little eliminate from the world as it can eliminate percepts. The latter it rejects, because it looks for all principles of elucidation of the phenomena of the world within that world and not outside it. Just as Monism refuses even to entertain the thought of cognitive principles other than those applicable to men (p. 96), so it rejects also the thought of moral maxims other than those applicable to men. Human morality, like human knowledge, is conditioned by human nature, and just as beings of a different order will mean by knowledge something very different from what we mean by it, so other beings will have a very different morality. For Monists, morality is a specifically human quality, and spiritual activity (freedom) the human way of being moral.


In forming a judgment about the argument of the two preceding chapters, a difficulty may arise from what may appear to be a contradiction. On the one side, we have spoken of the experience of thinking as one the significance of which is universal and equally valid for every human consciousness. On the other side, we have pointed out that the Ideas which we realize in moral action and which are of the same nature as those that thinking elaborates, manifest themselves in every human consciousness in an uniquely individual way. If we cannot get beyond regarding this antithesis as a “contradiction,” and if we do not recognize that in the living recognition of this actually existing antithesis a piece of man's essential nature reveals itself, we shall not be able to apprehend in the true light either the Idea of knowledge or the Idea of freedom. Those who think of concepts as nothing more than abstractions from the world of percepts, and who do not acknowledge the part which intuition plays, cannot but regard as a “pure contradiction” the thought for which we have here claimed reality. But if we understand how Ideas are experienced intuitively in their self-sustaining essence, we see clearly that, in knowledge, man lives and enters into the world of Ideas as into something which is identical for all men. On the other hand, when man derives from that Idea-world the intuitions for his voluntary actions, he individualizes a member of the world of Ideas by that same activity which he practises as a universally human one in the spiritual and ideal process of cognition. The apparent logical contradiction between the universal character of cognitive Ideas and the individual character of moral Ideas becomes, when seen in its reality, a living concept. It is a criterion of the essential nature of man that what we intuitively apprehend oscillates within man, like a living pendulum, between knowledge which is universally valid, and individualized experience of this universal content. Those who fail to perceive the one oscillation in its real character, will regard thinking as a merely subjective human activity. For those who are unable to grasp the other oscillation, man's activity in thinking will seem to lose all individual life. Knowledge is to the former, the moral life to the latter, an unintelligible fact. Both will fall back on all sorts of suppositions for the explanation of the one or of the other, because both either do not understand at all how thinking can be intuitively experienced, or else misunderstand it as an activity which merely abstracts.


On p. 139 I have spoken of Materialism. I am well aware that there are thinkers, like the above-mentioned Th. Ziehen, who do not call themselves Materialists at all, but yet who must be called so from the point of view put forward in this book. It does not matter whether a thinker says that for him the world is not restricted to merely material being, and that, therefore, he is not a Materialist. No, what matters is whether he develops concepts which are applicable only to material being. Anyone who says, “Our action, like our thought, is necessitated,” lays down a concept which is applicable only to material processes, but not applicable either to action or to existence. And if he were to think out what his concept implies, he would end by thinking materialistically. He saves himself from this fate only by the same inconsistency which so often results from not thinking one's thoughts out to the end. It is often said nowadays that the Materialism of the nineteenth century is scientifically dead. But in truth it is not so. It is only that nowadays people frequently fail to notice that they have no other Ideas than those which can approach only the material world. Thus recent Materialism is veiled, whereas in the second half of the nineteenth century it openly flaunted itself. Towards a conception which apprehends the world spiritually the camouflaged Materialism of the present is no less intolerant than the self-confessed Materialism of the last century. But it deceives many who think they have a right to reject a conception of the world which takes spirit into account, on the ground that the scientific world-view “has long ago abandoned Materialism.”