Donate books to help fund our work. Learn more→

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity
GA 4

XII. Moral Imagination

A free spirit acts according to his impulses; these are intuitions chosen by means of thinking from the totality of his world of ideas. The reason an unfree spirit singles out a particular intuition from his idea world in order to use it as a basis for a deed, lies in the world of perception given to him, i.e., in his past experience. Before making a decision he recalls what someone else has done or recommended as suitable in a similar instance, or what God has commanded to be done in such a case and so on, and he acts accordingly. For a free spirit these preconditions are not the only impulses to action. He makes an absolutely original decision. In doing so he worries neither about what others have done in such an instance, nor what commands they have laid down. He has purely ideal reasons which move him to single out from the sum of his concepts a particular one and to transform it into action. But his action will belong to perceptible reality. What he brings about will therefore be identical with a quite definite perceptual content. The concept will be realized in a particular concrete event. As concept, it will not contain this particular event. It would be related to the event only in the same way as a concept in general is related to a perception, for example, as the concept, lion is related to a particular lion. The link between concept and perception is the representation (cp. p. 32, f.). For the unfree spirit this intermediate link is given from the outset. At the outset the motives are present in his consciousness as representations. When he wants to do something he does it as he has seen it done or as he is told to do it in the particular instance. Here authority is most effective by way of examples, that is, by conveying quite definite particular actions to the consciousness of the unfree spirit. The Christian, as unfree spirit, acts less on the teaching than on the example of the Redeemer. Rules have less value when they refer to positive deeds than when they refer to what should not be done. Laws appear in the form of general concepts only when they forbid something, not when they bid things to be done. Laws concerning what he should do must be given to the unfree spirit in a quite concrete form: Clean the walk in front of your door! Pay your taxes in such and such an amount to the Treasury Department, etc. Laws which are meant to prevent deeds take on conceptual form: Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not commit adultery! But these laws also influence the unfree spirit only through reference to a concrete representation such as that of the corresponding earthly punishment, the pangs of conscience, eternal damnation, and so on.

As soon as the impulse to action is present in general conceptual form (for example: Thou shalt do good to thy fellow men! Thou shalt live in a way that best furthers thy welfare), then in each case must be found first of all the concrete representation of the deed (the relation of the concept to a perceptual content). For the free spirit, who is driven neither by any example nor by fear of punishment, etc., it is always necessary to transform the concept into a representation.

By means of imagination representations are produced by man out of his world of ideas. Therefore what the free spirit needs in order to carry out his ideas, in order to bring them to fruition, is moral imagination. Moral imagination is the source from which the free spirit acts. Hence, only people with moral imagination are also morally productive in the real sense of the word. Those who merely preach morality, that is, people who devise moral rules without being able to condense them into concrete representations, are morally unproductive. They are like those critics who know how to explain rationally what a work of art should be like, but are incapable of any artistic creation themselves.

In order to produce a representation, man's moral imagination must set to work in a definite sphere of perception. Men's deeds do not create perceptions, but transform already existing perceptions, that is, impart a new form to them. In order to be able to transform a definite perceptual object, or a sum of such objects, in accordance with a moral representation, one must have grasped the laws at work in the perceptual picture (the way it has worked hitherto, to which one now wants to give a new form or a new direction). Further, one must find a way by which these laws can be transformed into new ones. This part of moral activity depends on a knowledge of the sphere of phenomena with which one has to do. It must therefore be sought in a branch of general scientific knowledge. Hence moral deeds presuppose not only the faculty of moral ideation [Only superficiality could find in the use of the word “faculty” in this and other passages, a reversion to the teachings of older psychology concerning soul faculties. The exact meaning of this word, as used here, will be seen when compared with what is said on p. 29.] as well as moral imagination, but also the ability to transform the sphere of perceptions without breaking the laws of their natural connection. This ability is moral technique. It can be learned in the sense in which science in general can be learned. Because people usually are better able to find the concepts for the already created world than productively out of imagination to decide future deeds, not yet in existence, it very well may be possible that persons without moral imagination receive moral representations from others, and skillfully imprint these into actual reality. The opposite may also occur that persons with moral imagination are without the technical skill, and therefore must make use of others for carrying out their representations.

Insofar as knowledge of the objects in the sphere of our activity is necessary, our action will depend upon this knowledge. What must be considered here are laws of nature. Here we have to do with natural science, not with ethics.

Moral imagination and the faculty of moral ideation can become objects of knowledge only after they have been produced by the individual. By then they no longer regulate life, but have already regulated it. They must be explained in the same way as all other effective causes (they are purposes only for the subject). We therefore deal with them as with a natural philosophy of moral representations.

In addition to the above, one cannot have ethics in the form of a science of standards.

The standardized character of moral laws has been retained at least insofar as to enable one to explain ethics in the same sense as dietetics, which deduce general rules from the life-condition of the organism in order that on this basis they can influence the body in a particular way. [51] This comparison is mistaken, because our moral life is not comparable with the life of the organism. The function of the organism takes place without our doing anything about it; we find its laws present, ready-made, and therefore can investigate them and then apply what we discover. But moral laws are first created by us. We cannot apply them until they have been created. The mistake arises through the fact that moral laws, insofar as their content is concerned, are not newly created at every moment, but are handed over. Those that we take over from our ancestors appear as given, like the natural laws of the organism. But they can never be applied by a later generation with the same rights as can dietetic rules. For they apply to individuals and not, like natural laws, to examples of a species. As an organism I am such an example of a species, and I shall live in accordance with nature if I apply the natural laws of the species to my particular case. As a moral being I am an individual and have laws which are wholly my own. [51a]

This view seems to contradict the fundamental teaching of modern natural science described as the theory of evolution. But it only seems to do so. By evolution is meant the real development of the later out of the earlier in accordance with natural law. By evolution in the organic world is meant that the later (more perfect) organic forms are real descendents of the earlier (imperfect) forms, and have developed from them in accordance with natural laws. According to his view, the adherent of the theory of organic evolution would have to represent to himself that there was once a time on earth when it would have been possible to watch the gradual development of reptiles out of proto-amniotes, [52] if one could have been present there as observer and had been endowed with a sufficiently long span of life. He also would have to represent to himself that it would have been possible to observe the development of the solar system out of the Kant-Laplace primordial nebula [53] if, during that infinitely long time, one could have occupied a suitable spot out in the world-ether. The fact that in such a representation, both the nature of proto-amniotes and that of the Kant-Laplace primordial nebula would have to be thought of in a way other than that of the materialistic thinker, will not be considered here. But it should not occur to any evolutionist to maintain that he can extract from his concept of the proto-amniote the concept of the reptile with all its characteristics, if he had never seen a reptile. And just as little could one extract the solar system from the Kant-Laplace primordial nebula, if this concept is thought of as being determined only from the direct perception of the primordial nebula. In other words, this means: if the evolutionist thinks consistently, then he is able to maintain only that out of earlier phases of evolution later ones come about as real facts, that if we are given the concept of the imperfect and the concept of the perfect, we can recognize the connection; but never should he say that the concept derived from what was earlier suffices to develop from it what came later. In the sphere of ethics this means that one can recognize the connection of later moral concepts with earlier ones, but not that as much as a single new moral idea could be extracted from earlier ones. As a moral being, the individual produces his own content. This content which he produces is for ethics something given, just as reptiles are something given for natural science. Reptiles have evolved out of proto-amniotes, but from the concept of the proto-amniote the natural scientist cannot extract the concept of the reptile. Later moral ideas develop out of earlier ones, but from the moral concepts of an earlier cultural epoch ethics cannot extract those for a later one. The confusion arises because when we investigate nature the facts are there before we gain knowledge of them, whereas in the case of moral action we ourselves first produce the facts which we afterwards cognize. In the evolutionary process of the moral world order we do what nature does at a lower level: we alter something perceptible. As we have seen, an ethical rule cannot be cognized straight away like a law of nature; it must first be created. Only when it is present can it become the object of cognition.

But can we not make the old the standard for the new? Is it not necessary for man to measure by the standard of earlier moral rules what he produces through his moral imagination? For something that is to reveal itself as morally productive, this would be as impossible as it would be to measure a new species in nature by an old one and say, Because reptiles do not harmonize with the proto-amniotes, their form is unjustified (diseased).

Ethical individualism then, is not in opposition to an evolutionary theory if rightly understood, but is a direct continuation of it. It must be possible to continue Haeckel's genealogical tree, [54] from protozoa to man as organic being, without interruption of the natural sequence, and without a breach in the uniform development, right up to the individual as a moral being in a definite sense. But never will it be possible to deduce the nature of a later species from the nature of an ancestral species. True as it is that the moral ideas of the individual have perceptibly evolved out of those of his ancestors, it is also true that an individual is morally barren if he himself has no moral ideas.

The same ethical individualism that I have built up on the foundation of the preceding consideration, could also be derived from an evolutionary theory. The final result would be the same, only the path by which it was reached would be different.

The appearance of completely new moral ideas through moral imagination is, in relation to an evolutionary theory, no more of a marvel than is the appearance of a new kind of animal from previous ones. Only such a theory must, as monistic world view, reject in moral life and also in science, every influence from a Beyond (metaphysical) which is merely inferred and cannot be experienced by means of ideas. This approach would then be following the same principle which urges man on when he seeks to discover the causes for new organic forms and in doing so does not call upon any interference by some Being from outside the world, who is to call forth every new kind according to a thought of a new creation, by means of supernatural influence. Just as monism has no need of supernatural thoughts of creation for explaining living organisms, neither does it derive the morality of the world from causes which do not lie within the world we can experience. The monist does not find that the nature of a will impulse, as a moral one, is exhausted by being traced back to a continuous supernatural influence upon moral life (divine world rulership from outside), to a particular revelation at a particular moment in time (giving of the Ten Commandments), or to the appearance of God on the earth (Christ). Everything that happens to and in man through all this becomes a moral element only if within human experience it becomes an individual's own. For monism, moral processes are products of the world like everything else in existence, and their causes must be sought in the world, i.e., in man, since man is the bearer of morality.

Ethical individualism, therefore, is the crowning of that edifice to which Darwin [55] and Haeckel aspired for natural science. It is spiritualized science of evolution carried over into moral life.

Whoever from the outset restricts the concept natural within an arbitrary boundary, in a narrow-minded manner, may easily fail to find any room in it for the free individual deed. The consistent evolutionist is in no danger of remaining at such a narrow-minded view. He cannot let natural development come to an end with the ape, while granting to man a “supernatural” origin; in his search for man's ancestors he must seek spirit already in nature; also, he cannot remain at the organic functions of man and consider only these to be natural; he cannot but consider the free, moral life of man to be the spiritual continuation of organic life.

In accordance with his fundamental principles the evolutionist can maintain only that a new moral deed comes about through a kind of process other than a new species in nature; the characteristic feature of the deed, that is, its definition as a free deed, he must leave to direct observation of the deed. So, too, he only maintains that men have developed out of not yet human ancestors. How men are constituted must be determined by observation of men themselves. The results of this observation cannot possibly contradict a true history of evolution. Only if it were asserted that the results exclude a natural development would it contradict recent tendencies in natural science. [We are entitled to speak of thoughts (ethical ideas) as objects of observation. For, although the products of thinking do not enter the field of observation, so long as thinking goes on, they may well become objects of observation subsequently, and in this way we can come to know the characteristic feature of the deed.]

Ethical individualism, then, cannot be opposed by natural science when the latter is properly understood; observation shows freedom to be characteristic of the perfect form of human conduct. This freedom must be attributed to the human will, insofar as this will brings purely ideal intuitions to realization. For these do not come about through external necessity, but exist through themselves. When we recognize an action to be an image of such an ideal intuition, we feel it to be free. In this characteristic feature of a deed lies its freedom.

From this point of view, how do matters stand with regard to the distinction, mentioned earlier (p. 22 f.) between the two statements: “To be free means to be able to do what one wants,” and the other: “To be able, to desire or not to desire, as one pleases, is the real meaning of the dogma of free will”? Hamerling bases his view of free will on just this distinction and declares the first statement to be correct, the second to be an absurd tautology. He says: “I can do what I want. But to say, I can will what I want, is an empty tautology.” Now whether I can do, that is, transform into reality what I want, what I have set before me as the idea of my doing, depends on external circumstances and on my technical skill (cp. p. 43). To be free means to be able to determine for oneself by moral imagination the representations (impulses) on which the action is based. Freedom is impossible if something external to me (mechanical processes or a merely inferred God whose existence cannot be experienced) determines my moral representations. In other words, I am free only if I produce these representations myself, not when I am only able to carry out the impulse which someone else has induced in me. A free being is someone who is able to will what he considers right. One who does something other than what he wills, must be driven to it by motives which do not lie within himself. Such a man is unfree in his action. Therefore, to be able to will what one considers right or not right, as one pleases, means to be free or unfree, as one pleases. This, of course, is just as absurd as it is to see freedom in the ability to be able to do what one is forced to will. But the latter is what Hamerling maintains when he says:

“It is perfectly true that the will is always determined by motives, but it is absurd to say that it is therefore unfree; for a greater freedom one can neither wish for nor imagine than the freedom to let one's will realize itself in accordance with its strength and determination.”

Indeed, a greater freedom can be wished for, and only this greater is true freedom. Namely: to decide for oneself the motive (foundation) of one's will.

There can be circumstances under which a man may be induced to refrain from doing what he wants to do. But to let others prescribe to him what he ought to do, that is, to do what another, and not what he himself considers right, this he will accept only insofar as he does not feel free.

External powers may prevent my doing what I want; they then simply force me to be inactive or to be unfree. It is only when they enslave my spirit, drive my motives out of my head and want to put theirs in the place of mine, that they intentionally aim at making me unfree. This is why the Church is not only against the mere doing, but more particularly against impure thoughts, that is, against the impulses of my action. The Church makes me unfree if it considers impure all impulses it has not itself indicated. A Church or other community causes unfreedom when its priests or teachers take on the role of keepers of conscience, that is, when the believers must receive from them (at the Confessional) the impulses for their actions.

Addition to the Revised Edition, 1918: In this interpretation of the human will is presented what man can experience in his actions and, through this, come to the conscious experience: My will is free. It is of particular significance that the right to characterize the will as free is attained through the experience: In my will an ideal intuition comes to realization. This experience can only come about as a result of observation, but it is observation in the sense that the human will is observed within a stream of evolution, the aim of which is to attain for the will the possibility of being carried by pure ideal intuition. This can be attained because in ideal intuition nothing is active but its own self-sustaining essence. If such an intuition is present in human consciousness, then it is not developed out of the processes of the organism (cp. p. 31 ff.), but the organic activity has withdrawn to make room for the ideal activity. If I observe will when it is an image of intuition, then from this will the necessary organic activity has withdrawn. The will is free. This freedom of will no one can observe who is unable to observe how free will consists in the fact that, first, through the intuitive element the necessary activity of the human organism is lamed, pressed back, and in its place is set the spiritual activity of idea-filled will. Only one who is unable to make this observation of the two-fold aspect of will that is free, will believe that every will-impulse is unfree. One who can make the observations will attain the insight that man is unfree insofar as he is unable to carry through completely the process of repressing the organic activity, but that this unfreedom strives to attain freedom, and that this freedom is by no means an abstract ideal, but is a directive force inherent in human nature. Man is free to the degree that he is able to realize in his will the same mood of soul he also experiences when he is conscious of elaborating pure ideal (spiritual) intuitions.