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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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Earthly Knowledge and Heavenly Wisdom
GA 221

VII. Moral Impulses and Their Physical Manifestations: Taking Up a Spiritual Path I

16 February 1923, Dornach

Today I would like to add some comments to what I said in previous lectures about the task of anthroposophy now and in the future development of humanity. In particular, I want to consider the perspective we get when we look at how Friedrich Nietzsche led the philosophy of the nineteenth century into absurdity.1Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, 1844—1900, German philosopher and poet. He was at first a friend and follower and later (from c.1878) a strong opponent of Wagner in art and philosophy. Opponent of Schopenhauer's philosophy; suffered mental breakdown.
Known for denouncing religion, for espousing doctrine of perfectibility of human beings through forcible self-assertion, and for glorification of the superman or overman (Ubermensch).
We can show that Nietzsche, more than anyone else, demonstrates that the anthroposophical view of human beings and the world is a historical necessity in human evolution. I do not want to repeat what I have already said about Nietzsche, both here and elsewhere in the anthroposophical movement; rather, I want to talk about two influences on his philosophy that I have not yet talked about.

Throughout his life, Nietzsche was preoccupied with forming an opinion about the nature and value of moral impulses in human beings. He was a moral philosopher in the true sense of the word. He wanted to get a clear idea of the origin and significance of morality, both for the individual and for the whole cosmic order. In his striving for clarity on this issue two elements run like a red thread through his whole life—a life that changed considerably in many other respects.

The first of these factors is that, beginning with the turning point in his second year at the university until the end of his life, Nietzsche basically had an atheistic outlook, which remained unchanged through all the transformations of his philosophy. The second factor is that in regard to the moral, intellectual, and practical impulses of his time, he asserted that one virtue was the most important, namely, honesty—honesty with oneself, with others, and with the world as a whole. He considered honesty the most essential virtue modern people needed to have both inwardly in their own soul and outwardly in the world.

Nietzsche once listed four cardinal virtues he considered most important for human life. Honesty with oneself and others was first on his list. The other three were: courage toward one's enemies, magnanimity to those one has defeated, and courtesy to everyone. These four cardinal virtues can ultimately be reduced to the first, which Nietzsche considered a kind of necessary virtue of the times; they are all contained, so to speak, in honesty. We can say that there is a relationship between this virtue of honesty and his atheism.

Nietzsche was first and foremost a child of his time. Even at a superficial glance we see that he was rooted in Schopenhauer's world view, which was also an atheist outlook,2Arthur Schopenhauer, 1788-1860, German philosopher. Chief expounder of pessimism and of the irrational impulses of life arising from the will. and, at least in the first period of his life, he saw Richard Wagner's musical dramas as the artistic expression of Schopenhauer's world view.3Richard Wagner, 1813-1883, German composer. Originator of the music drama and pioneer in the development of the leitmotif. Among other works, composed cycle of musical dramas based on the Siegfried saga, called collectively Der Ring des Nibelungen. Then Nietzsche took up the scientific positivism of the times, that is, the philosophy that believes the whole world is built up exclusively from what is directly perceptible to the senses. For positivism, the sense-perceptible world is the only standard for developing a philosophy. In his third period, Nietzsche achieved a certain independence through assimilating the modern idea of evolution, which he elaborated and applied to human beings by developing the positivist ideal of the evolution of the human being into "superman."

Thus, Nietzsche's views grew out of various cultural currents of his time. Investigating how his views developed will also reveal important aspects of the character of the last third of the nineteenth century. We have to ask why Nietzsche became an atheist. His atheism developed out of his honesty, his inner honesty. After all, with holy zeal and complete honesty, Nietzsche took in everything he could of the knowledge the nineteenth century had to offer. He had to admit that honestly accepting the outlook of the nineteenth century would not lead him to the divine. Therefore he felt he had to eliminate God from his thinking.

This marks the first major conflict between Nietzsche and his age; as a result he became a rebel against his times. Nietzsche saw that most people who had adopted the knowledge and outlook of the nineteenth century also believed in a divine world order. To Nietzsche, this was dishonest. It seemed to him dishonest to look at the world from the prevailing point of view of that time and, at the same time, to assume the existence of a deity.

Since he was still expressing himself in the formulas typical for nineteenth century thought, Nietzsche did not actually say what he instinctively felt about the nineteenth century world view. He felt the nineteenth century looked at the world just as it does at the human organism when it has become a corpse. If you believe, so to speak, in this dead organism, if you think it has an inner reality, then, if you are honest, you cannot also believe that this organism has a meaning only when it is filled with the living, ensouled, and spiritual human being. When we examine a corpse, we really should admit that what we see and examine there is not, strictly speaking, a reality. It is a reality only when it is filled by the human spirit. It needs the human spirit. But this spirit is no longer there in the corpse.

Although Nietzsche did not say it in so many words, he thought that looking at nature in the way modern knowledge does is treating it as a corpse. He felt people should realize that nature, as they see it, no longer contains anything divine. If we are going to accept this view of nature as absolute and speak of nature only in terms of its laws, then we obviously must deny that it has a divine foundation. For according to this view, nature has just as little a divine foundation as a corpse has human spirit in it. This is what lived in Nietzsche's soul. Nevertheless, the nineteenth century world view had such a strong influence on him that he came to believe that nature is all we have, that modern times have taught us not to have anything else. If we adhere to this knowledge of nature, we must reject God.

Thus, Nietzsche considered it dishonest to believe in God and, at the same time, accept modern knowledge. In this regard the life of his soul is extremely interesting precisely because he strove to be so absolutely honest. To believe in God and at the same time accept the prevailing view of nature was, in Nietzsche's eyes, the great lie of nineteenth century culture. Still, he took seriously the natural order that was generally accepted. In fact, he realized that modern life had developed to the point where people adopted this view of nature as a matter of course. It is not that nature had compelled people to accept this order of things; rather, life had become such that this was the only view of nature it could bear. The prevailing view of nature had actually developed out of life itself; yet Nietzsche felt this life was utterly dishonest, and he strove for honesty.

He had to admit that if we live in this order and consider it true, then, within the framework of this truth, we can never become aware of our humanity. Nietzsche's fundamental feeling in the first period of his life was doubt about how he could feel himself a human being when he was confined by the prevailing view of the natural order. The truth, as he saw it, kept him from reaching awareness of his own humanity. That was how Nietzsche felt, and therefore he reached the conclusion in this first period of his life that if he could not live in the realm of truth and reality, he would have to live in that of appearances, in poetry, in art.

Nietzsche believed he had found in the ancient Greeks the nation that had arrived at the same dissatisfaction with the truth out of a certain naivete and had therefore consoled itself with appearances, with beauty. He expressed this in his first work, The Birth of Tragedy and the Genealogy of Morals, which is like a hymn and written very beautifully.4Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and the Genealogy of Morals, trsl. Francis Golffing, (New York: Doubleday, 1956). He wanted to say that when we are in the realm of reality, we can never be aware of our humanity. Therefore, we should flee from that realm into the one where we can create a world that does not conform to reality. In this world of poetry we will find consolation for what reality can never give us.

According to Nietzsche, the ancient Greeks had been genuine, naive pessimists who felt that they could not be satisfied with the world of reality. That is the main reason why they created their wonderful tragedies—a world of beautiful illusions—to find there what would satisfy them. Nietzsche believed that Wagner's musical dramas were a renewal of this world of beautiful illusions and had been created for the express purpose of leading people from the so-called real world into that of appearances so they could find satisfaction as human beings. Nietzsche thought it was impossible to deepen our study and knowledge of the sensory world and move from the outer revelation to the divine within nature in order to feel ourselves connected with the divine and to feel ourselves as human beings, as real in the world.

Nietzsche could not take that approach. He was determined to be honest, and in his honesty he saw no way to arrive at such an approach on the basis of what the nineteenth century had to offer. Thus, he had to stay with the other approach: There is no satisfaction for us in all of reality; therefore let us find satisfaction in an unreal world. Nietzsche's earliest attitude toward the world can be compared to that of beings who land on another planet where they find only corpses. Regarding the corpses not as remains of a reality but as a reality in themselves because the souls that once filled these dead bodies are no longer present, these beings then proceed to make up, for their consolation, fictitious entities to ensoul the corpses.

Basically, Nietzsche's writings following his The Birth of Tragedy, for example, "David Strauss the Confessor and Writer," "On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life," "Schopenhauer as Educator," and "Richard Wagner in Bayreuth," were confrontations between the dishonesty of his time and his own honesty.5Friedrich Nietzsche, "David Strauss the Confessor and Writer," "On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life," "Schopenhauer as Educator," and "Richard Wagner in Bayreuth," all in Untimely Meditations, trsl. R. J. Hollingsdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983). Though it had no way out of the sensory realm into the spirit, Nietzsche's age still talked about spirit. Though its knowledge did not really include anything divine, that age still talked about God. In fact, in Nietzsche's time the prevailing view was that in earlier ages people had accepted the illusion of a God, but the study of nature had since revealed that God did not exist—but oh, well, there were concerts and music instead.

This philistine point of view was set forth in one chapter of David Friedrich Strauss's book The Old and the New Faith.6David Friedrich Strauss, 1808—1874, German theologian and philosopher. Developed a theory of biblical interpretation based on Hegelian dialectical philosophy; caused storm of controversy among German Protestants by describing the Gospels as "historical myth." Wrote Der alte und der neue Glaube ("The Old and the New Faith" (1872). Nietzsche was particularly annoyed about this chapter, so he wrote an article against Strauss, a relatively excellent man, labeling him a philistine. In this article, Nietzsche explained that people either are dishonest in still assuming the existence of God, or they sink to the level of the banal and philistine, as David Friedrich Strauss did.

However, then followed the second period in Nietzsche's life. He remained true to himself in regard to his atheism and his insistence on honesty. Still, in the earlier period he had accepted ideals, albeit aesthetic ones. He had found them a solace against the reality our outer senses present to us. However, in the second period, Nietzsche clung more strongly to the one and only thing that, according to the prevailing opinion of his time, the world could reveal. He had to admit that, regardless of our devotion to ideals, they are undoubtedly born out of our physical nature. People lead themselves to believe in all kinds of beautiful things, but their ideals and beauty are only all too human.

This was the beginning of the time in Nietzsche's life when he became especially aware of human weaknesses, the all too human, our surrender to our physical nature. Since Nietzsche took the prevailing view of nature seriously, he had to realize that people cannot help but surrender to their physical nature. In fact, at one time he said, "Three cheers for the physical, but let us cheer even more the honesty in our faith in the physical."7See Friedrich Nietzsche, Gay Science, trsl. Walter Kaufman (New York: Vintage Books, 1974).

In this second phase of his life, Nietzsche said roughly, let us be honest and let us realize that even the most beautiful and idealistic thought we might have is still nothing more than an emanation from our physical nature. Therefore, let us approach human life not by describing the smoke coming out at the top but by looking at the fuel causing the smoke. Then we will arrive not at the idealistic-divine, but at the human, all too human.

In a sense, then, Nietzsche killed every idealistic striving in life because he wanted to be honest with himself and others. He concluded that what people usually call soul is really only a lie. It is actually based on the bodily organization, and the effects of this organization manifest in such a way that we call them "soul." According to Nietzsche, the fact that some of his contemporaries were reading writers such as Voltaire was an indication of true enlightenment.8Voltaire, assumed name of Francois-Marie Arouet, 1694-1778. French writer. Got into trouble because of his expert satire. Gained fame as defender of victims of religious intolerance and as master of satire. True enlightenment for him meant that people would stop getting themselves entangled in some kind of an illusory world to transcend reality and, instead, would look at the physical nature of reality and see that everything moral originates there.

The most striking feature of the third period in Nietzsche's life is the extreme to which he took his honesty—probably out of his by now highly pathological condition. For example, he claimed that if we take our modern knowledge of nature and its laws seriously, then we have to admit that the spirit supposedly living in us is nothing else than a mere emanation from our physical nature. Therefore, the perfect human being is the one whose physical body is the most perfect in comparison to other parts of the person. In other words, the perfect human being, according to Nietzsche, is the one whose physical nature is such that the strongest instincts live in him.

Nietzsche believed the instinctual life rather than the life of soul and spirit would lead us beyond ourselves in our evolution, because the instincts, though remaining just instincts, nevertheless would become stronger and stronger, grow beyond the level of animal instincts, and then the human race would develop into "superman."9See Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trsl. R. J. Hollingsdale (Middlesex, Engl.: Penguin, 1961). Why did Nietzsche first admit that human beings needed the illusion of ideals, then unmask these ideals as emanating from the physical, and then postulate that the human race would evolve into "superman" through a higher development of its physical nature, its instinctual life? He was led to this because he thought people steeped in the world view of the nineteenth century could not possibly understand the physical and yet go beyond it and remain honest at the same time. If they wanted to be honest, they had to stay within the realm of the physical.

Nietzsche then cultivated a strict honesty and completely committed himself with his whole being to the physical realm. Indeed, his ideal for the future of human civilization (if we can call it an ideal) was that human beings would throw light on the grand illusion of having a spirit. People usually are not aware of this background of Nietzsche's views—after all, he worked his way out of all this with the greatest possible honesty by denying the existence of spirit so spiritedly and glorifying the spiritual poverty of humanity so brilliantly and ingeniously.

Within the framework of the world view of the nineteenth century, it was impossible to be a moral philosopher (as Nietzsche had become because of his predisposition) if this world view was accepted honestly and seriously. For if we can no longer say that our task on earth is to bring a spiritual, super-earthly element into this earthly world but believe that we have to confine ourselves to this earthly realm, then we will have no justification for setting up moral standards. If we accept the nineteenth century world view in all honesty, then morality becomes a free-for-all.

And Nietzsche really felt deeply that morality had become a free-for-all. He wanted to be a moral philosopher, but where was he to get moral impulses from? That was the big question. If we see the supersensible illuminating human beings, then morality is what this supersensible element demands of our sensory existence; then morality is possible. However, if we see nothing supersensible in human beings, as the nineteenth century world view did not, there is no source from which we might draw moral impulses. To distinguish between good and evil, we need the supersensible. Thus, Nietzsche groped his way through human life to find a source or origin of moral impulses.

For example, he looked at the history of human civilization and found that strong races conquered weaker people, forcing their standards and norms on these weaker ones. Out of their instincts, the conquerors ordered the defeated people to do this or that. Nietzsche, of course, could not believe in any categorical imperative or moral rules. He could only believe in a race of people of instinct who saw themselves as good and others as bad, inferior people whose actions and standards they could dictate.

Then those who, according to the conquerors, were the inferior people in turn ganged up and conquered the former, not with the older, brutal means, but with the more subtle weapons of the soul and spirit, with cunning and ingenuity. Now they in turn called the former conquerors "bad" because they had been conquerors, despots, musclemen, and militaristic people. On the other hand, the new victors called themselves "good"—formerly they had been considered inferior and bad. To hold one's own in weakness and defeat in spite of being poor, restricted, oppressed, and vanquished: that is good. To conquer and defeat others: that is evil. Thus, "good" and "evil" developed out of "good" and "bad." However, "good" and "bad" did not yet smack of moral judgments as they do now, but merely carried a suggestion of conquering, powerful, and aristocratic people in contrast to the army of slaves who were considered inferior and bad people.

Our distinction between "good" and "evil" derives merely from the slave revolts of those who had formerly been bad and inferior and now called the others criminals and evil and were taking revenge for what had been done to them. Thus, the morality later expressed in the categories "good" and "evil" seemed to Nietzsche to be nothing more than the revenge of the oppressed on their former oppressors. He could find no inner justification for morality, he could only place himself outside the framework of good and evil, not inside it. For to find an inner justification for the categories "good" and "evil," he would have had to reach out to the supersensible. However, to him the supersensible was a delusion, nothing but the expression of our weak human nature refusing to admit that our true being is limited to the physical.

We could say that all thinking people of Nietzsche's time would have had to agree with him if they had been as honest as he. Nietzsche had made it his goal to be completely honest. That is why he became a rebel against his time and had such sharp mental weapons. That is also the reason why he was striving for a transvaluation of all values. To him, the values by which he lived had developed out of dishonesty. Through work done over centuries, the modern scientific concepts had been established and been introduced into history. Yet those same centuries had not taken out of human souls what could not be reconciled with these scientific concepts, namely, ideas about morality and God. Values had developed that now needed to be transvalued.

Nietzsche's life was really a terrible tragedy. I don't think it is possible to understand human civilization in the last third of the nineteenth century, or its lingering effects on the twentieth century, without having at least some insight into this tragedy that took its course in a soul living through that time, a soul such as Nietzsche's. It is really true that all the breakdown we are experiencing now can be seen as a consequence of what Nietzsche called the dishonesty of modern civilization. We could say that Nietzsche became a rebel against his time because he felt that the continuation of this dishonesty would lead to a destructive battle involving all peoples belonging to this modern civilization. Indeed, the tragedy of Nietzsche's life developed because he was looking for the basis of morality, but the education and culture of his time made him unable to find it. He could not find a source from which to draw moral impulses. Thus, he groped his way through life and in the process hurt his fingers. Out of the pain he suffered he described his time the way he did.

Nietzsche was searching for something that cannot be found in the sensory realm but only in the supersensible. After all, you can come up with ever so beautiful, grand, and lofty ideals; yet you cannot fuel an engine, turn a wheel, or start an electric motor with them. When we focus only on what can fuel an engine, start an electric motor, or turn a wheel, we will never understand how the moral impulses living in us can possibly affect our organism. You see, no matter how lofty our ideals, they are, after all, only smoke and mist, for there is no way they can intervene in a muscle, improve any of our skills, or the like.

We cannot see moral ideals intervening in the organic realm anywhere in the sensory world. Nietzsche could not help realizing that when we come up with ever so beautiful ideals and keep them in our heads, we are treating our organism just as we would a machine. As far as machines are concerned, we can write the words "moral ideals" on posters; they will still not fuel the machines nor make them move. Nevertheless, we move, and if we are as natural science sees us, are we then moving in accordance with our moral ideals? Compared to reality, our ideals are lies. The effective person is not the one who is devoted to ideals, but the one who fuels his or her engine so that the instincts become more powerful—the "blond beast," as Nietzsche put it.10See Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and the Genealogy of Morals, trsl. Francis Golffing, (New York: Doubleday, 1956).

These were the problems Nietzsche had to face when confronting a human race that could have been moral according to his definition only if the moral impulses had been able to intervene in them. They had not been able to, and therefore there was neither good nor evil, only Beyond Good and Evil.11Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trsl. Walter Kaufman (New York: Vintage Books, 1966).

Now, remember that we have always described the modern knowledge of the world as unable to really understand the human being; it cannot arrive at a clear picture or idea of the human being. Through our experiencing life in our souls in accordance with this modern world view, we cannot come close to knowing the human being. Yet, everything in Nietzsche was directed to the human being; everything was aimed at something he could not reach! In addition, he wanted to lead the human being to develop into "superman" in accordance with the modern idea of human evolution. However, he had not really grasped the human being. Of course, he could not possibly have shown how something he did not have was to develop into "superman." According to Nietzsche, the human being as such did not exist in terms of idea, perception, feeling, or will impulse—and "superman" necessarily even less so! It was as though he had said the words "human being" and "superman" only out of an old habit and was now choking on them because they had no content, just as one would suffocate in an airless room.

Nietzsche was faced with the necessity of entering the supersensible world with his moral problems, but he was unable to do so. That was his inner tragedy, and that is also what makes him a representative of the late nineteenth century. As a representative soul of that age, he indicated that human beings have to enter into the supersensible world if they want to remain honest and not declare moral ideals mere lies. Nietzsche became insane because he was faced with the need to enter the supersensible world but could not do so. Of course, there are many people who do not become insane, but I will not go into the reasons why they don't at this point. After all, even in the description of peculiarities of our civilization we must not overstep the boundaries of courtesy.

Still, we can see one thing clearly from Nietzsche's life: Modern people can be honest with themselves and others only if they enter the supersensible world. In other words, we cannot maintain honesty and sincerity in a world view that is not supersensible. By the same token, we will not find the way from the human being to the "superman" if we cannot take the path from the sensory world to the supersensible one. If morality, in a certain sense, belongs to the "superman," then it demands that we look for this "superman" not in the sensory world but in the supersensible one. Otherwise, the term "superman" is merely an empty word we call out that is not met with any sound from the world.

Tomorrow we will consider this topic from another angle. In particular, we will go into more detail about what Nietzsche met with so that we can rightly understand moral values in human life and bring them into harmony with the knowledge and outlook of our times.