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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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The Younger Generation
GA 217

Lecture IV

6 October 1922, Dornach

Today I shall begin with a review of ethics up to the end of the nineteenth century. I do not wish to convey that philosophical expositions can give rise to an impulse for the renewal of the moral life, but rather to show that forces which work from other sources to determine the moral life are symptomatically expressed in the philosophical expositions of ethics.

We must give up the view that systems of philosophy which start from the intellect can give a sound direction. Yet the whole impulse of the age expresses itself in what the philosophers say. No one will declare that our reaction to the temperature of a room is influenced by the thermometer; what the thermometer registers is dependent upon the temperature of the room. In the same way we can gauge, from what philosophers write about morality, the condition of morals in general.

You see, I treat philosophical expositions of ethics in rather a different way, merely as a kind of thermometer for registering conditions. Just as we know the temperature of a room by reading the thermometer, so we can find out a great deal about the undercurrents of the life of humanity in a particular region or period by knowing what the philosophers express in their writings.

Consider the following only from this point of view as I read you a passage printed in 1893 in the periodical Deutsche Literaturzeitung that deals with Spencer's Principle of Ethics. The reviewer says: “It contains, as I think, the most complete argument, supported by a crushing weight of material, that there is absolutely no such thing as one universal morality for all mankind, nor is there an unchangeable Moral Law: that there exists only one norm which underlies all judgments of human characteristics and actions, namely, the practical fitness or unfitness of a character or action for the given state of the society in which the judgment is made. On this account the same things will be very differently judged according to the different cultural conditions in which they occur. The view of the present writer is that this masterpiece (Spencer's Principles of Ethics) must, from a scientific point of view at least, strike dumb any recent attempts to base ethical judgments upon intuition, inborn feelings, or the most evident of axioms and the like.”

This passage is characteristic of the attitude of most of the civilized world at the end of the nineteenth century, so that it could be expressed in philosophical terms.

Let us be clear as to what is said. The attempt is made in this very important work, Spencer's Principles of Ethics, to prove—as the reviewer rightly says—with crushing weight of material, that it is impossible to draw forth from the human soul moral intuitions, moral axioms, and that we must stop talking about moral intuitions. We can only say with certainty that man acts according to his natural endowments. Any action is judged by a man's social environment; he is forced to bring his action into line with the judgment of this social environment. Hence conventional moral judgments are modified as human society changes from century to century. And a reviewer in the nineties of last century says that it is at last possible to silence, so far as science is concerned, all attempts to speak of ethics and moral views in such a way that moral intuitions arise out of the soul.

I have chosen this example because it characterizes what faced one when one thought about ethics and moral impulses.

Into this mood of the age, my dear friends, I sent my Philosophy of Spiritual Activity which culminates in the view that the end of the nineteenth century makes it eminently necessary that men, as time goes on, will only be able to find moral impulses in the very essence of the soul; that even for the moral impulses of everyday life, they will be obliged to have recourse to moral intuitions. All other impulses will become gradually less decisive than the moral intuitions laid bare in the soul. In view of the situation which I faced, I was obliged to say, “The future of human ethics depends upon the power of moral intuition becoming stronger; advance in moral education can only be made as we strengthen the force of moral intuition within the soul, when the individual becomes more and more aware of the moral intuitions which arise in his soul.”

Over against this stood the judgment—a universal one, for we only speak here of what holds good universally—that it is proven with overwhelming evidence that all moral intuitions must be silenced. It was therefore necessary to attempt to write a book that would present in a virile way the very point of view which, with equal vigor, science declared should be forever silenced.

This example shows clearly that the turning-point of the nineteenth century was a time of tremendous significance for the spiritual evolution of the West. It goes to show those who have been growing up since the end of the last century are faced with quite a different situation in the life of soul from that of previous centuries. And I said with regard to the Spiritual, that at the end of the nineteenth century, man stood, in his soul-being, face to face with “Nothingness”. It was necessary to emphasize, because of man's deeper spiritual nature, that for the future, moral intuition is confronted with what had come from the past, with the Nothingness. This turning-point of the nineteenth century revealed itself in German culture in a most tragic way. We need only mention the name of Nietzsche.

For those who lived through the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century with alert and wide-awake consciousness, Nietzsche represents an experience of real tragedy. Nietzsche was a personality who through the successive periods of his life poignantly experienced that he was faced with the Nothingness, that Nothingness which he had at first assumed to be a “something,” a reality.

It will not be superfluous for our study during the next few days to say a few words about Friedrich Nietzsche. In a certain respect Nietzsche, through his tragic destiny, clearly indicates the twilight in the spiritual evolution of mankind at the end of the nineteenth century, making a new dawn necessary for the century just beginning.

Nietzsche started from a mature scientific standpoint; this he first met in philology in the middle of the nineteenth century. With a mind of extraordinary inner flexibility Nietzsche assimilated the philological standpoint of the middle of the nineteenth century and with it he absorbed the whole spirit of Greek culture.

Nietzsche was not a personality to shut himself off from the general culture. The very reverse of a theoretical scholar, he accepted naturally what he found in the middle of the nineteenth century, namely, Schopenhauer's philosophical pessimism. This made a profound impression upon him, because he realized more deeply than Schopenhauer the decline of the spiritual life in the midst of which he was living.

The only form in which the light that pointed towards the future came to him was in Richard Wagner's music. As you know, Wagner was a follower of Schopenhauer at the time he made Nietzsche's acquaintance.

Thus, towards the beginning of the last third of the nineteenth century, Nietzsche developed the view that was no theory but the very substance of life to him—that already in Greek culture there had dawned the age in which the full human content was being crushed by intellectualism. Nietzsche was not correct in regard to the complete development of intellectualism, for in the form in which Nietzsche experienced intellectualism as an all-destroying spirit, it had, as I said yesterday, come upon the scene only since the fifteenth century. What Nietzsche experienced was the intellectualism of the immediate present. He dated it back to the later age of Greek culture, and held that the influence working so destructively upon what was livingly spiritual began with Socrates. And so Nietzsche became anti-Socratic in his philosophy. With the advent of Socrates in the spiritual life of Greece he saw intellectualism and the faculty of understanding driving away the old spirituality.

Not many have grasped with such innate power the contrast between the character of Greek culture as it appears in the writings of Aeschylus, of Sophocles, in the early sculpture and in the mighty philosophies of men like Heraclitus, Anaxagoras and others; the contrast of this life of soul, still full of spiritual impulses—and that other life of soul which gradually began to paralyze the true spirituality. According to Nietzsche this began with Socrates who confronted all world-questions with intellectual questions, with Socrates who established his art of definition, about which Nietzsche felt: “When it began man no longer looked at the immediate and living Spirit in the old natural way.” Provided this idea is not carried too far and thus made intellectual, it shows that Nietzsche felt something of great significance.

Real experience of the Spiritual, wherever we meet it, always becomes individualism. Definition inevitably becomes generalization. In going through life and meeting individuals we must have an open heart—an open mind for the individual. Towards each single individual we should be capable of unfolding an entirely new human feeling. We only do justice to the human being when we see in him an entirely new personality. For this reason every individual has the right to ask of us that we should develop a new feeling for him as a human being. If we come with a general idea in our heads, saying that the human being should be like this or like that—then we are being unjust to the individual. With every definition of a human being we are really putting up a screen to make the human individual invisible.

Nietzsche felt this in regard to the spiritual life—hence his opposition to the Socratic teaching. And so, during the sixties and early seventies of the nineteenth century there grew in his soul the idea that the true and living Greek culture has a kind of pessimism at the root of its feeling about the world. He thought the Greeks were convinced that immediate life, in its elementary form, cannot give man satisfaction, a complete feeling of his dignity as man. Therefore the Greeks took refuge in what art was to them. And to the Greeks, the art they cultivated in the time of their prime was the great comforter, helping to overcome what was lacking in material existence. So that for Nietzsche, Greek art could be understood only out of a tragic feeling about life, and he thought that this mission of art would again be revived by Wagner and through his artistic impulse.

The seventies approached and Nietzsche began to feel that after all this was not so, because in his time he failed to find the impulse which the Greeks had set up as the great consoler for the material life around them. And so he reflected: “What was it that I wanted to find in Wagner's art as a renewal of Greek art? What was it? Ideals.” But it dawned upon him, as he let these ideals work upon his soul, that they were no different from those of his own epoch.

During the last third of the nineteenth century there came a terribly tragic moment in Nietzsche's life, the moment when he felt his ideals to belong to his own times. He was forced to admit: “My ideals are no different from what this present age calls its ideals. After all, I am drawing from the same forces from which my own age draws its ideals.” This was a moment of great pain for Nietzsche. For he had experienced the idealistic tendencies manifest in his day. He had found, for example, a David Friedrich Strauss—revered by the whole age as a great man—but whom he had unmasked as a philistine. And he realized that his own ideals, stimulated by his absorption in Wagner and in Greek art, strongly resembled those of his time. But these ideals seemed to him impotent and unable to grasp the Spiritual.

So he said to himself: “If I am true to myself, I cannot have any ideals in common with my time.” This was a tragic discovery although not expressed in these words. Anyone who has steeped himself in what Nietzsche lived through during the years of which I am speaking, knows that there came for Nietzsche the tragic moment when, in his own way, he said: “When a man of the present day speaks of ideals and these coincide with what others call their ideals, then he is moving in the realm of the ‘empty phrase’, the ‘empty phrase’ that is no longer the living body but the dead corpse of the Spirit.”

This brought Nietzsche to the conviction: I must resolutely put aside the ideals I have evolved hitherto. And this putting aside all his ideals began in the middle of the seventies. He published his Human All Too Human, The Dawn of Day and The Joyful Wisdom—works in which he pays some homage to Voltaire but which also contain a certain view of human morals.

An external inducement to forsake his former idealism and steer towards the views of his second period was his acquaintance with the works of Paul Rée. Paul Rée treated the moral nature and its development from a purely scientific point of view, entirely in line with the natural science of the day. Paul Rée has written the very interesting little book, On the Origin of Moral Perceptions and also a book on The Genesis of Conscience. This book, which everyone should read who wants to know about the thought of the last third of the nineteenth century, had a very deep influence on Nietzsche.

What is the spirit of this book? Again, I am not describing it because I think that philosophy has a direct influence upon life; I do so because I want to have a thermometer for culture by which we can read the state of the ethical impulses of the time. Paul Rée's view amounted to this: The human being, originally, had no more than what in his opinion a child has, namely, a life of instinct, impulses of unconscious, instinctive activity. The individual human being, when he becomes active, comes up against others. Certain of these activities unfolded towards the outer world happen to suit other human beings, to be beneficial to them; other activities may be harmful. From this there arises the judgment: What proceeds from the instinctive activities of the human being as beneficial is gradually seen to be “Good;” what proves harmful to others is branded as “Evil.” Life becomes more complicated all the time. People forget how they put labels on things. They speak of good and evil and have forgotten that in the beginning the good was simply what was beneficial and the evil what was felt to be harmful. So finally what has arisen has become instinct, has recast itself as instinct. It is just as if someone struck out blindly with his arm—if the result is a caress, then this is called good; if it is a box on the ears, then it is evil. And so judgments pile up. The sum of such judgments becomes instinct. People know how they raise their hand just as little as they know why a voice comes out of the soul and utters this or that moral judgment. This voice they call conscience. This voice of conscience is simply what has arisen out of instinctive judgments about the beneficial and the harmful. It has become instinct, and because its origin has been forgotten, it speaks from within as if it were the voice of conscience.

Nietzsche realized fully that not everyone would agree with Paul Rée. But he was also quite clear that when views on natural science were such as they were in his day, it is impossible to think about Ethics otherwise than in the way Paul Rée did. Nietzsche was thoroughly honest; he deduced the ultimate consequences as Paul Rée had done. Nietzsche bore the philosopher no grudge for having written such things. This had not much more significance for Nietzsche than what was circumscribed by the four walls of the room in which Paul Rée did his writing, just as a thermometer indicates nothing more than the temperature of the immediate environment. However, it shows something universal, and Nietzsche felt this. He felt the ethical sediment of the times in this book and with this he agreed. For him there was nothing more important than to put aside the old “empty phrase” and to say: “When people talk about nebulous ideals they make nothing clear. In fact everything is instinct.”

Nietzsche often said to himself: Here is someone who says, I am an enthusiast for this or that ideal and I rejoice that others too should be enthusiastic about it. And so, Nietzsche comes to the conclusion that when all is said and done, a man who is an enthusiast for certain ideals and wants to enthuse others, is so constituted that when he is thinking of these ideals he can work up the juices in his stomach in the best way for the digestion of his food. I am putting this rather inelegantly but it is exactly what Nietzsche felt in the seventies and eighties. He said to himself: People talk about all sorts of spiritual things and call them ideals. But in reality it is there for no other purpose than to enable people, each according to his constitution, to digest and carry out bodily functions in the best way. What is known as human must be divested of the “empty phrase,” for in truth the human is all-too-human.

With a magnificent devotion to honesty, Nietzsche declared war on all idealism. I know that this aspect of Nietzsche has not always been emphasized. A great deal that has been said about him is pure snobbery, without anything serious in it. So Nietzsche found himself facing the “Nothingness” at the end of the first period of his spiritual development, consciously facing the Nothingness in a second period which began with Human All Too Human and ended with The Joyful Wisdom. Finally, only one mood remained, for it is impossible to reach a real spiritual content when all ideals are traced back to bodily functions. One example will show what Nietzsche's view became. He said to himself: There are people who work towards asceticism, that is to say, towards abstention from physical enjoyment. Why do they do this? They do it because they have exceedingly bad digestion arid feel most comfortable when they abstain from physical enjoyment. That is why they regard asceticism as the highest aim worth striving for. But unconsciously they are seeking what makes them most comfortable. They wish to feel the greatest enjoyment in the absence of enjoyment. That absence of enjoyment is their greatest enjoyment shows us how they are constituted.

In Nietzsche, who was thoroughly honest, this mood intensified to moments when he gave vent to words like these:

“Ich wohn' in meinem eigenen Haus,
Hab' niemand etwas nachgemacht,
Und lache jeden Meister aus,
Der sich nicht selber ausgelacht.”

(I dwell within my own house and
have imitated no single man; and I
laugh at every master who has not
laughed at himself.)

In its poetic anticipation this verse is a magnificent description of the mood that came to its climax about the turn of the nineteenth century, yet it was already there earlier, in a form that made itself felt in the life of soul. Nietzsche found his way out of this second period of facing the Nothingness by creating what is implicit in two ideas to which he gave poetic expression. The one was the idea of the “Superman.” Ultimately there was nothing left but to call upon something which must be born out of the human being but was not yet there. After his grandiose experience of facing Nothingness, there arose the idea of the eternal recurrence of the same, which came to him out of the theory of evolution. In his scientific period he had become familiar with the idea of evolution. But as he steeped himself in what came from these thoughts about evolution he discovered nothing that would bring evolution forward; these only gave him the idea of eternal recurrence. This was his last period, which need not be described any further, although from the point of view of psychology a very great deal might be learnt from it.

I do not wish to draw a character-study but only to indicate how Nietzsche, who was forced through illness to lay down his pen at the end of the eighties, had experienced in advance the mood that dominated deeper souls at the turn of the century. During the last third of the nineteenth century Nietzsche tried to express a mood drawn from his store of ideas, from Greek philosophy and art, from art as found in Wagner, from the philosophy of Schopenhauer, and so on. But time and again Nietzsche himself abandoned his own views.

One of his last works is called The Twilight of the Idols, or How to Philosophize with the Hammer. He felt himself as a destroyer of the old ideas. It was really very remarkable. The old ideas had already been destroyed by the spirit of cultural evolution. During Nietzsche's youth the store of ideas was already destroyed. Up to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, ideas continued through tradition but came to an end in the last third of the nineteenth century. The old spirit was already in ruins. It was only in the “empty phrase,” the cliché, that these ideas lived on.

Those who thought in accordance with spiritual reality in Nietzsche's day would not have felt that they had to smash the ideals with a hammer but that they had already been smashed simply in the course of the evolution of the human race. Mankind would not have reached freedom unless this had happened. But Nietzsche who found these ideals still blossoming in the empty phrase was under the illusion that he was doing what had already long been done.

What had been the inner fuel of the spiritual life in the former age, the fuel whereby the Spirit in man could be kindled and, once kindled, illuminate both Nature and his own life—this had passed away. In the realm of the moral this is expressed by people saying: There can be no moral intuitions any longer.

As I mentioned yesterday, theoretical refutations of materialism as world-conception are sheer nonsense, for materialism has its justification in this age. Thoughts which our age has to recognize as right are products of the brain. Therefore a refutation of materialism is in itself of the nature of the empty phrase, and no one who is honest can see the good of refuting materialism theoretically for nothing is to be gained by it. The human being has come to the stage where he no longer has an inner, living Spirit but only a reflection of the Spirit entirely dependent upon the physical brain. Here materialism is fully justified as a theoretical world conception. The point is not that people have a false world-conception or refute it, but that little by little they have come to an inner attitude of life and soul that is lacking in Spirit. This rings tragically, like a cry, through Nietzsche's philosophy.

This is the situation of the spiritual life in which souls with natural feeling among the young of the twentieth century found themselves. You will not come to any clear view, to any tangible experience, of what is brewing indistinctly, subconsciously in your souls and what you call the experiences of youth, unless you look into this revolution that has inevitably taken place in the spiritual life of the present period of evolution.

If you try to characterize what you experience on any other basis, you will always feel after a time that you must brush it aside. You will not hit upon a truth but only on clichés. For unless the human being today honestly admits: I must grasp the living, the active Spirit, the Spirit which no longer has its reality but only its corpse in intellectualism—unless I come to this, there is no freedom from the confusion of the age. As long as anyone believes that he can find Spirit in intellectualism, which is merely the form of the Spirit in the same way as the human corpse is the form of a man, man will not find himself.

To find oneself is only possible if man will honestly confess: Intellectualism has the same relation to the living essence of the Spirit as a dead corpse to the man who has died. The form is still there but the life of the Spirit has gone out of intellectualism. Just as the human corpse can be treated with preparations that preserve its form—as indeed Egyptian mummies show—so too can the corpse of the Spirit be preserved by padding it out with the results of experiment and observation. But thereby man gets nothing of what is livingly spiritual, he gets nothing that he can unite naturally with the living impulses of the soul. He gets nothing but a dead thing, a dead thing that can wonderfully reproduce what is dead in the world, just as one can still marvel at the human form in the mummy. But in intellectualism we cannot get what is truly spiritual any more than a real human being can be made out of a mummy.

As long as importance is attached to conserving what the union of observation and intellect is intended to conserve, one can only say: The achievements of the modern age are great. The moment the human being has to unite in the depths of his soul with what his Spirit inwardly holds up before him—there can be no link between intellectualism and the soul. Then the only thing is for him to say: “I am thirsting for something, and nothing I find out of intellectuality gives me water to quench my thirst.”

This is what lives in the feelings of young people today although, naturally, it is not so clear when expressed in words. Young people today say many things, annoying things when one gets to the bottom of what is said. But one soon overcomes it. The annoyance is due to the fact that bombastic words are used that express anything rather than what the speaker really feels. The empty phrase over-reaches itself and what appears as the character of the youth movement is, for one who lives in the Spirit, like a continuous bursting of bubbles; it is really intellectualism overreaching itself. I do not want to hurt any of you personally, but if it does hurt—well, I cannot help it. I should be sorry, but I still think it right to say it. I cannot say only pleasant things; I must sometimes say things which will not please everyone. Moreover I must say what I know to be true. So, in order to characterize what is rightly there in the souls of young people today, we need something more than a revival of old concepts over-reaching themselves in empty phrases; we need a highly-developed feeling for truth.

We need truth at the bottom of our soul. Truth is the alpha and the omega of what we need today, and when your Chairman said yesterday that we have got to a point where we do not want to utter the word “Spirit” any longer, that is in itself a confession of the truth. It would be much more clever if our age, which has lost the Spirit, would stop there and not want to talk about the Spirit, because then human beings would again begin to thirst for the Spirit. Instead of this, anything and everything is termed “Spirit,” “spiritual.” What we need is truth, and if any young person today acknowledges the condition of his own soul, he can only say: This age has taken all spirit out of my soul, but my soul thirsts for the Spirit, thirsts for something new, thirsts for a new conquest of the Spirit.

As long as this is not felt in all honesty the youth movement cannot come into its own. Let me add the following to what I have said in characterization of what we must seek. In the deepest, innermost being of the soul, we must seek for light; above all else we must acquire the most profound feeling for honesty and truth. If we build upon honesty and truth, then we shall progress, for humanity must indeed progress. Then we shall speak of the Spirit which is so like our human nature. The soul is most of all like the Spirit, therefore it can find the Spirit if only it so wills. In our time the soul must strive beyond empty phrase, convention and routine; beyond the empty phrase to a grasp of truth; beyond convention to a direct, elementary warm-hearted relation between man and man; beyond routine to the state in which the Spirit lives in every single action, so that we no longer act automatically but that the Spirit lives in the most ordinary everyday actions. We must come to spirituality in action, to the immediate experience of human beings in their relations to one another and to honest, upright experience of truth.