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The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity
GA 4

IX. The Idea of Freedom

FOR COGNITION the concept of a tree is conditioned by the perception of the tree. When confronted with a particular perception I can lift out only one definite concept from the general system of concepts. The connection between concept and perception is determined indirectly and objectively through thinking according to the perception. The connection of the perception with its concept is recognized after the act of perception; but that they belong to one another is already inherent in the object itself.

The process is different when the relation of man to the world is considered, as it arises within knowledge. In the preceding explanation the attempt has been made to show that it is possible to throw light on this relation if one observes it without prejudice. A real understanding of such an observation leads to the insight that thinking can be directly experienced as a self-contained reality. In order to explain thinking as such, those who find it necessary to add something to it, such as physical brain-processes or unconscious spiritual processes lying behind the conscious thinking which is being observed, underestimate what can be seen when thinking is observed without prejudice. During his observation of thinking, the observer lives directly within a spiritual, self-sustaining activity of a living reality. Indeed one can say that he who wants to grasp the reality of spirit in the form in which it first presents itself to man, can do this in his own self-sustaining thinking.

When thinking is observed, two things coincide which elsewhere must always appear apart: concept and perception. If this is not recognized, then in the concepts which have been worked out according to perceptions, one is unable to see anything but shadowy copies of the perceptions, and will take the perceptions to be the full reality. Further, one will build up a metaphysical sphere on the pattern of the perceived world, and each person, according to his views, will call this world a world of atoms, a world of will, a world of unconscious spirit, and so on. And he will not notice that with all this he merely hypothetically builds up a metaphysical world on the pattern of his world of perceptions. But if he realizes what he has before him in thinking, then he will also recognize that in the perception only a part of reality is present, and that the other part that belongs to it and first allows it to appear as full reality, is experienced in the act of permeating the perception with thinking. Then in what arises in consciousness as thinking, he will also see not a shadowy copy of some reality, but spiritual reality itself. And of this he can say that it becomes present in his consciousness through intuition. Intuition is a conscious experience of a purely spiritual content, taking place in the sphere of pure spirit. Only through an intuition can the reality of thinking be grasped.

Only when, by observing thinking without prejudice, one has wrestled one's way through to recognizing the truth that the nature of thinking is intuitive, is it possible to gain a real understanding of the body-soul organization of man. Then one recognizes that this organization cannot affect the nature of thinking. Quite obvious facts seem to contradict this at first. For ordinary experience, human thinking only takes place connected with, and by means of, the organization. This comes so strongly to the fore that the true facts can only be seen when it has been recognized that nothing from the organization plays into thinking as such. And then it is impossible not to notice how extraordinary is the relation of the human organization to thinking. For this organization has no effect at all on thinking; rather it withdraws when the activity of thinking takes place; it suspends its own activity, it makes room, and in the space that has become free, thinking appears. The spiritual substance that acts in thinking has a twofold task: first it presses back the human organization in its activity, and next, it steps into the place of it. The first, the pressing back of the bodily organization, is also a consequence of the thinking activity, and indeed of that part of this activity which prepares the manifestation of thinking. This explains the sense in which thinking finds its counterpart in the bodily organization. And when this is recognized, one will no longer mistake this counterpart for thinking itself. If someone walks over soft ground, his feet leave impressions in the soil. But one is not tempted to say that the forces of the ground have formed these imprints from below. One will not ascribe to these forces any participation in the creating of the footprints. So too, one who, without prejudice, observes the nature of thinking will not ascribe to the imprints in the bodily organization any participation in the nature of thinking, for the imprints in the organization come about through the fact that thinking prepares its manifestation through the body. [The significance of the above view in relation to psychology, physiology, etc., in various directions has been set forth by the author in works published after this book. Here the aim is only to characterize what can be recognized by an unprejudiced observation of thinking.]

Now a significant question arises. If the human organism does not partake in the spiritual substance of thinking, what significance has this organism within man's being as a whole? Now what happens in this organism through thinking has nothing to do with the nature of thinking, but indeed it has to do with the arising of the I-consciousness within thinking. The real “I” exists within the being of thinking, but not so the I-consciousness. This will be recognized if only thinking is observed without prejudice. The “I” is to be found within thinking; the “I-consciousness” arises through the fact that the imprints of the activity of thinking are engraved upon the general consciousness in the sense explained above. (The I-consciousness therefore arises through the bodily organism. But by this is not meant that the I-consciousness, once it has arisen, remains dependent on the bodily organism. Once arisen, it is taken up into thinking and henceforth shares its spiritual nature.)

The human organism is the foundation of the “I-consciousness.” It is also the source of will-activity. It follows from the preceding explanation that an insight into the connection between thinking, conscious I, and will activity can only be obtained if we first observe how will-activity issues from the human organism. [44b]

The factors to be considered in a particular act of will are the motive and the driving force. The motive is either a concept or a representation; the driving force is the will element and is directly conditioned by the human organism. The conceptual factor, or motive, is the momentary source from which the will is determined; the driving force is the permanent source of determination in the individual. A motive of will may be a pure concept or a concept with a definite reference to what is perceived, i.e. a representation. General and individual concepts (representations) become motives of will by influencing the human individual and determine him to act in a particular direction. But one and the same concept, or one and the same representation, influences different individuals differently. It impels different people to different actions. Will, therefore, does not come about merely as a result of the concept, or representation, but also through the individual disposition of human beings. This individual disposition we will call—in this respect one can follow Eduard von Hartmann [45]—the characterological disposition. The way in which concepts and representations influence the characterological disposition of a person gives his life a definite moral or ethical stamp.

The characterological disposition is formed through the more or less constant life-content of our subject, that is, through the content of our representations and feelings. Whether a present representation stimulates me to will or not, depends on how the representation is related to the content of the rest of my representations, and also to my particular feelings. The content of my representations is determined in turn by all those concepts which in the course of my individual life have come into contact with perceptions, that is, have become representations. This again depends on my greater or lesser capacity for intuition, and on the range of my observations, that is, on the subjective and the objective factors of experience, [46] on my inner determination and my place in life. The characterological disposition is more particularly determined by the life of feeling. Whether I make a definite representation or concept the motive of my action will depend on whether it gives me pleasure or pain.—These are the elements which come into consideration in an act of will. The immediately present representation or concept which becomes motive, determines the aim, the purpose of my will; my characterological disposition determines me to direct my activity toward this aim. The representation, to go for a walk in the next half-hour, determines the aim of my action. But this representation is elevated to a motive of will only if it meets with a suitable characterological disposition, that is, if during my life until now I have formed representations concerning the purpose of walking, its value for health, and further, if the representation of walking combines in me with a feeling of pleasure. We therefore must distinguish: 1) the possible subjective dispositions which are suitable for turning definite representations and concepts into motives; and 2) the possible representations and concepts which are capable of so influencing my characterological disposition that willing is the result. The first represents the driving force, the second, the aims of morality.

We can find the driving force of morality by investigating the elements which comprise individual life.

The first level of individual life is perceiving, more particularly, perceiving by means of the senses. Here we are concerned with that region of our individual life where perceiving, without a feeling or a concept coming between, is directly transformed into willing. The driving force in man, which comes into consideration here, we shall simply call instinct. The satisfaction of our lower, purely animal needs (hunger, sexual intercourse, etc.) takes place in this way. What is most characteristic of instinctive life is the immediacy with which a particular perception releases the will. This kind of determination of the will, which is characteristic only of lower sense-life to begin with, can also be extended to the perceptions of the higher senses. We let a deed follow upon the perception of some event or other in the outer world without further reflection and without linking any particular feeling to the perception, as in fact happens in conventional social life. The driving force of such conduct is what is called tact or moral etiquette. The more often such a direct release of activity by a perception takes place, the more the person concerned is able to act purely under the guidance of tact, that is: tact becomes his characterological disposition.

The second level of human life is feeling. Definite feelings link themselves to the perceptions of the outer world. These feelings can become the driving forces of deeds. When I see a starving person, pity for him can become the driving force of my action. Such feelings, for example, are shame, pride, honor, humility, remorse, pity, revenge, gratitude, piety, loyalty, love and duty. [46a]

The third level of life is thinking and forming representations. A representation or a concept can become motive for an action through mere reflection. Representations become motives because in the course of life we continuously link certain aims of will with perceptions which keep returning in more or less modified form. This is why, when people not entirely without experience have certain perceptions, there always also enter into their consciousness representations of deeds which they themselves have carried out in a similar instance, or have seen carried out. These representations hover before them as determining models for all later decisions; they become united with their characterological disposition. We could call this driving force of the will, practical experience. Practical experience gradually merges into purely tactful conduct. This happens when definite typical pictures of actions have become so firmly connected in our consciousness with representations of certain situations in life that in any given case we skip over all deliberation based on experience and pass over directly from perception into willing.

The highest level of individual life is that of conceptual thinking without reference to a definite perceptual content. We determine the content of a concept through pure intuition from the ideal sphere. Such a concept contains no reference to definite perceptions at first. If we pass over into willing under the influence of a concept pointing to a perception, that is, a representation, then it is this perception which determines us indirectly via the conceptual thinking. When we act under the influence of intuitions, then the driving force of our deed is pure thinking. Since in philosophy it is customary to call the faculty of pure thinking, reason, it would be justifiable to call the moral driving force characteristic of this level, practical reason. The clearest account of this driving force of the will has been given by Kreyenbühl. [47] (Philosophische Monatshefte, Vol. XVIII, No. 3). [The artricle mentioned is on-line here, and is titled: Ethical-Spiritual Activity in Kant] I count his article on this subject among the most important contributions to present-day philosophy, particularly to ethics. Kreyenbühl characterizes this driving force as practical a priori, that is, an impulse to action springing directly from my intuition.

It is clear that in the strictest sense of the word, such an impulse can no longer be considered as belonging to the characterological disposition. For here what acts as driving force is no longer something merely individual in me, but is the ideal and therefore the universal content of my intuition. As soon as I see the justification for making this content the foundation and starting-point of an action, I pass over into willing, irrespective of whether I had the concept already, or whether it enters my consciousness only immediately before acting, that is, irrespective of whether or not it was already present in me as disposition.

An action is a real act of will only when a momentary impulse of action, in the form of a concept or representation, influences the characterological disposition. Such an impulse then becomes the motive of will.

Motives of morality are representations and concepts. There are philosophers of ethics who also see in feeling a motive for morality; they maintain, for example, that the aim of moral conduct is the furtherance of the greatest possible quantity of pleasure in the individual who acts. But in itself a pleasure cannot be a motive; only a represented pleasure can. The representation of a future feeling, but not the feeling itself, can influence my characterological disposition. For in the moment of acting the feeling itself is not yet there; moreover it is to be produced by the action.

The representation of one's own or someone else's welfare, however, is rightly regarded as a motive of will. The principle: through one's deed to bring about the greatest amount of pleasure for oneself, that is, to attain personal advantage, is egoism. It is striven for either by ruthlessly considering only one's own welfare, even at the cost of the happiness of others (pure egoism), or by furthering the welfare of others because indirectly one expects a favorable influence upon one's own self through the happiness of others, or because one fears to endanger one's own interest by injuring others (morality of prudence). The particular content of egoistical principles of morality will depend upon what representations a person has of his own or of another's happiness. A person will determine the content of his egoistical striving according to what he considers to be the good things in life (luxury, hope of happiness, deliverance from various misfortunes, etc.).

Another motive is the purely conceptual content of actions. This content does not refer to a particular action only, as in the case of the representation of one's own pleasures, but to the reason for an action derived from a system of moral principles. In the form of abstract concepts these moral principles may govern moral life without the single individual troubling himself about the origin of the concepts. In that case, we simply feel the subjection to the moral concept which, like a command, overshadows our deeds as a moral necessity. The reason for this necessity we leave to those who demand our moral subjection, that is, to the moral authority we acknowledge (the head of the family, the state, social custom, the authority of the church, divine revelation). A particular instance of these moral principles is when the command announces itself to us, not through an external authority, but through our own inner being (moral autonomy). In this case, within ourselves we sense the voice to which we have to submit. This voice finds expression in conscience.

It means moral progress when man does not simply take the command of an outer or inner authority as motive for his action, but strives to recognize the reason why a particular principle of conduct should act as motive in him. This is the advance from morality based on authority, to conduct based on moral insight. At this level of morality the person will consider the needs of moral life and will let this knowledge determine his actions. Such needs are: 1) the greatest possible welfare of humanity, purely for its own sake; 2) the progress of culture, or the moral development of mankind to ever greater perfection; 3) the realization of individual aims of morality, which are grasped purely intuitively.

The greatest possible welfare of humanity will naturally be understood differently by different people. The above principle does not refer to a definite representation of this welfare, but to the fact that each person who acknowledges this principle strives to do what in his opinion best furthers the welfare of humanity.

The progress of culture is seen as a special instance of the above-mentioned moral principle by those who connect feelings of pleasure with the advantages of culture, but they will have to accept into the bargain the decline and destruction of much that also contributes to the welfare of mankind. However, it is also possible that in the progress of culture someone sees a moral necessity, quite apart from the feeling of pleasure connected with it. Then for him, the progress of culture is a particular moral principle, distinct from the one mentioned previously.

The principle of the general welfare, as well as that of the progress of culture, is based upon a representation, that is, upon how one relates the content of moral ideas to certain experiences (perceptions). But the highest thinkable principle of morality is one which contains no such relation from the start, but springs from the source of pure intuition and only afterward seeks the relation to perceptions (to life). Here the decision as to what is to be willed proceeds from a different sphere than that of the previous examples. In all his conduct, one in favor of the principle of the general welfare will first ask what his ideals will contribute to this general welfare. He who acknowledges the moral principle of the progress of culture, will do the same. But at this level he could do something even higher: if in a particular case he were not to proceed from one single definite aim of morality, but were to recognize a certain value in all principles of morality and were always to ask whether the one or the other would be more important here. It may happen that in certain circumstances one considers the progress of culture, in others, the general welfare, and in yet others, the furtherance of his own welfare, to be the right aim and motive of his actions. But when all such reasons take second place, then first and foremost the conceptual intuition itself comes into consideration. When this happens, then all other motives retreat from the leading position and the idea-content of the action alone is effective as its motive.

Among the levels of characterological disposition, we have shown the one which acts as pure thinking, as practical reason, to be the highest. From the motives, we have now shown conceptual intuition to be the highest. On closer consideration, it will soon be seen that at this level of morality driving force and motive coincide, that is, neither a predetermined characterological disposition nor an external moral principle accepted on authority, influences our conduct. The deed therefore is neither a conventional one, carried out according to some rule or other, nor one automatically performed in response to an external impulse; rather it is one which is determined solely through its ideal content.

Such conduct presupposes the capacity for moral intuition. Whoever lacks the ability to experience the moral principle that applies in a particular instance, will never achieve truly individual willing.

The exact opposite to this moral principle is the Kantian: Act so that the principles of your actions can be valid for all men. This principle is death to all individual impulses of action. How all men would act cannot be a standard for me, but rather what is right for me to do in the particular instance.

To this, a superficial judgment could perhaps object: How can an action be individually adapted to the particular instance and the particular situation, and yet at the same time be determined purely ideally by intuition? This objection is due to a confusion of the moral motive and the perceptible content of the action. The perceptible content could be a motive, and is one, for example, when an act is done for the progress of culture or out of pure egoism, etc., but it is not the motive when the reason for action is a pure moral intuition. My I naturally takes notice of this perceptual content, but is not determined by it. This content is used only to form a cognitive concept, but the moral concept that belongs to it, the I does not take from the object. The cognitive concept of a given situation confronting me is also a moral concept only if I base my view on a particular moral principle. If my viewpoint is limited to the general moral principle of the progress of culture, then I go through life along a fixed route. From every event I perceive which can occupy me, a moral duty also springs, namely, to do my best toward placing the particular event in the service of the progress of culture. In addition to the concept which reveals to me the natural law inherent in an event or object, there is also a moral label attached to it which contains for me, as a moral being, an ethical direction as to how I am to behave. This moral label is justified at a certain level, but at a higher level it coincides with the idea that arises in me when I face the concrete instance.

Men differ greatly in their capacity for intuition. In one person ideas bubble up easily, while another person has to acquire them with much labor. The situation in which men live, which is the scene of their actions, is no less different. How a man acts will therefore depend on the way his capacity for intuition functions in the face of a given situation. The sum of ideas active within us, the actual content of our intuitions, is what, for all the universality of the idea-world, is individually constituted in each human being. Insofar as this intuitive content is directed toward action, it is the moral content of the individual. To let this content come to expression is the highest moral driving force and also the highest motive for the one who has recognized that ultimately all other moral principles unite in this content. This standpoint can be called ethical individualism.

The discovery of the quite individual intuition which corresponds to the situation, is the deciding factor in an intuitively determined action. At this level of morality one can speak only of general concepts of morality (norms, laws) insofar as these result from the generalization of individual impulses. General norms always presuppose concrete facts from which they can be derived. But facts must first be produced by human deeds.

When we look for the laws (concepts) underlying the conduct of individuals, peoples and epochs, we obtain a system of ethics, not as a science of moral rules, but as a natural philosophy of morality. It is true that laws obtained in this way are related to human conduct, as the laws of nature are related to a particular phenomenon. But they are not at all identical with the impulses upon which we base our conduct. If one wants to grasp the means by which man's action springs from his moral will, then one must first consider the relation of this will to the action. One must first select actions where this relation is the determining factor. If I, or someone else, reflect on such an action later, then can be discovered upon what principle of morality the action is based. While I am acting I am moved to act by the moral principle insofar as it lives in me intuitively; the moral principle is united with my love for what I want to accomplish by my deed. I ask no man and no code, Shall I do this?—rather I do it the moment I have grasped the idea of it. This alone makes it my action. The deeds of a person who acts solely because he acknowledges a definite moral standard, come about as a result of a principle which is part of his moral code. He is merely the agent. He is a higher kind of automaton. If some impulse to action enters his consciousness, then at once the clockwork of his moral principle will be set in motion and run to rule, in order to bring about a deed which is Christian, or humane, or is deemed unselfish, or to further the progress of culture. Only when I follow my love for the object is it I myself who acts. At this level of morality I do not act because I acknowledge a ruler over me, an external authority, or a so-called inner voice. I do not acknowledge any external principle for my conduct, because I have found the source of my conduct within myself, namely, my love for the deed. I do not prove intellectually whether my deed is good or bad; I do it out of my love for it. My action will be “good” if my intuition, immersed in love, exists in the right way within the relationship between things; this can be experienced intuitively; the action will be “bad” if this is not the case. Nor do I ask myself: How would another person act in my place?—rather I act, as I, as this particular individuality, find my will motivated to act. I am not guided directly by what happens to be the usual thing, the general habit, some general human code or moral standard, but solely by my love for this deed. I feel no compulsion—neither the compulsion of nature which rules me through my instincts, nor the compulsion of moral commands. Rather, I simply carry out what lies within me.

Those who defend general moral standards will perhaps object: If each person strives to express and do only what he pleases, then there is no difference between a good deed and a crime; every depraved impulse in me has the same right to express itself as has the intention to do my best. The fact that I have a deed in mind, according to an idea, cannot set my standard as a moral human being, but only the test as to whether it is a good or evil deed. Only if it is good should I carry it out.

My reply to this obvious objection, which nonetheless is based on a misunderstanding of what is meant here, is this: One who wants to understand the nature of human will must differentiate between the path which brings this will to a certain degree of development, and the unique character which the will assumes as it approaches its goal. On the way toward this goal standards do play their justified part. The goal consists in the realization of aims of morality, grasped purely intuitively. Man attains such aims to the degree that he is at all able to raise himself to the intuitive idea-content of the world. In particular instances such aims are usually mixed with other elements, either as driving force or as motive. Nevertheless, in the human will intuition can be the determining factor, wholly or in part. A person does what he ought to do, he provides the stage upon which “ought” becomes deed; it is absolutely his own deed which he brings to expression. The impulse here can only be completely individual. And, in fact, only an act of will which springs from intuition can be individual. To call the acts of criminals and what is evil an expression of the individuality, in the same sense as the embodiment of pure intuition, is only possible if blind urges are reckoned as part of the human individuality. But the blind urge which drives a person to crime does not spring from intuition and does not belong to what is individual in man, but rather to what is most general in him, to what is equally valid in all men, and out of which man works his way by means of what is individual in him. What is individual in me is not my organism with its urges and feelings, but rather the universal world of ideas which lights up within this organism. My urges, instincts, passions confirm nothing more than that I belong to the general species, man; the fact that something ideal comes to expression in a particular way within these urges, passions and feelings, confirms my individuality. Through my instincts and urges I am a person of whom there are twelve to the dozen; through the particular form of the idea, by means of which I name myself “I” within the dozen, I am an individual. Only a being other than myself could distinguish me from others by the difference in my animal nature; through my thinking, that is, through the active grasp of what expresses itself as an ideal within my organism, do I distinguish myself from others. Therefore one definitely cannot say that the action of a criminal springs from the idea in him. Indeed, this is just what is characteristic of a criminal deed: it stems from elements in man which are external to the ideal-element in him.

An action is felt to be free insofar as the reason for it springs from the ideal part of my individual being; any other part of an action, irrespective of whether it is carried out under the compulsion of nature or under the obligation of a moral code, is felt to be unfree.

Man is free insofar as he is able, in every moment of his life, to follow himself. A moral deed is my deed only if it can be called free in this sense. What here have to be considered are the presuppositions necessary for a willed action to be felt as free; how this purely ethically grasped idea of freedom realizes itself in human nature, will be seen in what follows.

A deed done out of freedom does not at all exclude, but includes moral laws, but it will be a deed done from a higher sphere compared with those dictated solely by such laws. Why should my deed serve the general welfare any less when it is done out of love, than when I do it solely for the reason that I feel that to serve the general welfare is a duty? The concept of mere duty excludes freedom because it does not include what is individual, but demands subjection of the individual to a general standard. Freedom of action is thinkable only from the standpoint of ethical individualism.

But how is it possible for people to live in a community if each person strives to assert only his own individuality? This objection is characteristic of misunderstood moralism. A person holding this viewpoint believes that a community of people is possible only if all men are united by general fixed moral rules. He simply does not understand the oneness and harmony of the idea-world. He does not realize that the idea-world which is active in me is none other than the one active in my fellow-man. This unity of ideas is indeed nothing but a result of men's experience [47] of life. Only this can it be. For if the unity of the idea-world could be recognized by any means other than by individual observation, then general rules and not personal experience would be valid in its sphere. Individuality is possible only when each individual is acquainted with others through individual observation alone. The difference between me and my fellow men is not at all because we live in two quite different spiritual worlds, but because from the world of ideas which we share, he receives different intuitions from mine. He wants to live out his intuitions, I mine. If we both really draw from the idea, and are not obeying any external impulses (physical or spiritual), then we cannot but meet in the same striving, in having the same intentions. A moral misunderstanding, a clash between men who are morally free, is out of the question. Only the morally unfree who follow natural instincts or some accepted command of duty, turn away from a fellow-man if he does not follow the same instinct and the same command as themselves. To live in love of the action and to let live, having understanding for the other person's will, is the fundamental principle of free human beings. They know no other “ought” than that with which their will is intuitively in accord; how they shall will in a particular instance, their power of ideation will tell them.

If human nature were not fundamentally social, no external laws could make it so! Only because individual human beings are one in the spiritual part of their being, can they live out their lives side by side. The free man is confident that others who are free belong to the same spiritual world as he does, and that they will meet him in their intentions. The free man does not demand agreement from his fellow men, but he expects it, because it lies in human nature. This does not refer to the existing necessity for this or that external arrangement, but rather to the disposition, the attitude of soul through which man, in his experience of himself among fellow men for whom he cares, comes nearest to doing justice to human dignity.

There are many who will say that the concept of a free human being outlined here is a chimera, is nowhere to be found as a reality, and that we have to deal with real people from whom one can hope for morality only when they obey some moral law, when they regard their moral mission as a duty, and do not freely follow their inclinations and preferences.—I certainly do not doubt this. Only a blind man could do so. But then, away with all hypocrisy of morality if this is to be the ultimate conclusion. Then simply say: Human nature must be compelled as long as it is not free. Whether the unfreedom is dealt with by physical means or through moral laws, whether man is unfree because he follows his immeasurable sexual instinct, or because he is hemmed in by the fetters of conventional morality, is quite immaterial from a certain point of view. But one should not maintain that such a man can rightly call his actions his own, for he is driven to them by external powers. But there are human beings who raise themselves above all these compelling rules, free spirits who find their own self in the jumble of habits, regulations, religious observance, etc. They are free insofar as they follow only themselves; unfree insofar as they submit themselves. Which of us can say that he is really free in all that he does? But in each of us exists a higher being in whom the free man comes to expression.

Our life is composed of free and unfree deeds. But we cannot complete the concept of man without including the free spirit as the purest characteristic of human nature. After all, we are truly human only insofar as we are free.

That is an ideal, many will say. Without doubt—but it is an ideal which works itself to the surface from within our nature as a reality. It is no “thought out” or imagined ideal, but one in which there is life, one which clearly announces its presence even in its least perfect form of existence. If man were merely a product of nature, the search for ideals, that is, for ideas which for the moment are inactive but whose realization we demand, would not be possible. In the case of external objects the idea is determined by the perception. We have done our share when we have recognized the connection between idea and perception. But with man this is not so. His content is not determined without him; his true concept as a moral being (free spirit) is not objectively united with the perceptual picture “man” from the start merely in order to be confirmed by knowledge later. By his own activity man must unite his concept with the perception, man. Concept and perception only coincide here if man himself brings it about. But he cannot do this till he has found the concept of the free spirit, that is, his own concept. In the objective world a line of division is drawn by our organization between perception and concept; cognition overcomes this division. In our subjective nature this division is no less present; man overcomes it in the course of his development by bringing his concept to expression in his outward existence. Both man's intellectual as well as his moral life point to his twofold nature: perceiving (direct experience) and thinking. In the intellectual life the two-foldness is overcome through knowledge; in the moral life through actually bringing the free spirit to realization. Every being has its inborn concept (the law of its existence and activity), but in external objects the concept is indivisibly connected with the perception and separated from it only within our spiritual organism. In man concept and perception are to begin with, actually apart, to be united by him just as actually. One could object: To our perception of a man a definite concept corresponds at every moment of his life, just as is the case with everything else. I can form a concept of a typical man, and I may also find such a man given to me as a perception. If to this I also bring the concept of the free spirit, then I have two concepts for the same object.

This line of thought is one-sided. As perceptual object I am subjected to perpetual change. As a child I was one thing, another as a youth, yet another as a man. In fact, at every moment the perceptual picture of myself is different from what it was a moment ago. These changes may take place in such a way that either it is always the same (the typical) man who expresses himself in them, or they become the expression of the free spirit. The perceptual object of my action is subjected to these changes.

In the perceptual object “man” the possibility of transformation is given, just as in the plant-seed there lies the possibility of becoming a fully developed plant. The plant transforms itself because of the objective laws which are inherent in it; man remains in his imperfect state unless he takes hold of the substance to be transformed within him and transforms it through his own power. Nature makes man merely into a product of nature; society makes him into a being who acts rationally, but he alone can make himself into a free being. At a definite stage in his development nature releases man from its fetters; society carries his development a stage further; the final polish he can only apply himself.

Therefore, from the standpoint of free morality it is not asserted that as free spirit is the only form in which a man can exist. Free spirituality is the ultimate stage of man's development. And it is not denied that conduct according to rules has its justification as a stage of development. However, this cannot be acknowledged as the highest level of morality. But the free spirit in man overcomes rules in the sense that he does not accept only commands as motives, but also regulates his conduct in accordance with his impulses (intuitions).

When Kant says of duty: [48] “Duty! You sublime, you great name, you encompass nothing beloved or endearing, but you demand submission,” you “lay down a law ... before which all inclinations become silent, even if in secret they also go against it,” then man, conscious of the free spirit, answers: “Freedom! You friendly, humane name, you encompass all that is morally beloved, all that is most worthy of my humanity, you make me no one's servant, you do not merely lay down a law, but wait for what my moral love will of itself recognize as law, because it feels unfree when faced with any law simply forced upon it.”

This is the contrast between mere law-abiding morality and morality born of freedom.

The philistine who sees morality embodied in some external rule, may perhaps even regard the free spirit as a dangerous person. But this is simply because his view is limited to a certain period of time. If he were able to see beyond this, he would soon find that the free spirit need go beyond the laws of his state as seldom as the philistine himself, and is never in any real opposition to them. For all the laws of the state have sprung from the intuitions of free spirits, just as have all other objective laws of morality. No law is exercised through a family authority which was not at some time intuitively grasped and laid down by an ancestor. Similarly the conventional laws of morality were first laid down by definite people and so too the laws of the state first arise in the head of a statesman. These individualities have established laws over other people, and only he is unfree who forgets this origin and either looks upon these laws as extra-human commands, that is, as objective moral concepts of duty independent of man, or turns them into the commanding voice thought of—in a falsely mystical way—as compelling him in his own inner being. However, he who does not forget the origin of such laws, but looks for it in man, will reckon with them as belonging to the same idea-world as that from which he too draws his moral intuitions. If he believes his own intuitions to be better, then he will try to replace those in existence with his own; but if he finds the existing ones justified, he will act in accordance with them as if they were his own.

The formula must not be coined: Man is meant to realize a moral world order which exists independent of him. Insofar as knowledge of man is concerned, one maintaining this stands at the point where natural science stood when it believed that the goat has horns in order to be able to butt. Fortunately natural scientists have rejected such a concept of purpose as a dead theory. It is more difficult to get rid of such theories in ethics. However, just as horns do not exist because of butting, but butting exists through horns, so man does not exist because of morality, but morality exists through man. The free human being acts morally because he has a moral idea, but he does not act in order that morality may come about. Human individuals, with the moral ideas belonging to their nature, are the presupposition for a moral world-order.

The human individual is the source of all morality and the center of earthly life. State and society have come about only because they are the necessary results of life shared by individual human beings. That state and society should react in turn upon the life of the individual is understandable, just as it is understandable that butting, which exists through the horns, reacts in turn upon the further development of the goat's horns, which would waste away by prolonged disuse. Similarly, the individual would waste away if he led a separate existence outside a human community. This is just why the social order arises, so that it can react favorably upon the individual.