A Progressive Philosophy Of Freedom

FREEDOM Steiner initially divides the question of freedom into freedom of thought and freedom of action. Inner freedom is attained with knowledge, when we bridge the gap between our perception, which gives us the outer appearance of the world, and our thought, which gives us the inner structure of the world. Outer freedom is achieved with ethical action, when we bridge the gap between our ideals and our deeds, letting our deeds be inspired by imagination. Inner and outer freedom are integral to one another, so that true freedom is only achieved when they are united.

ABOUT  This website, since 2005, examines Rudolf Steiner's early work (pre-1900 before he turned to the language of theosophy to explain things) when he presented a way of life called Ethical Individualism based on a Science Of Freedom. “this book occupies a position completely independent of my writings on actual spiritual scientific matters... What I have said in this book may be acceptable even to some who, for reasons of their own, refuse to have anything to do with the results of my researches into the spiritual realm.” Rudolf Steiner, "The Philosophy of Freedom", 1918 Preface to the Revised Edition 

STUDY GUIDE  The study guide is self-directed study of a variety of relevant content collected over the years. Begin at any time. See the Study Guide sidebar links.


"The ethical laws which the metaphysician regards as issuing from a higher power are human thoughts; the ethical world order is the free creation of human beings.” Rudolf Steiner, The Philosophy Of Freedom, Chapter 10

In a 1918 lecture (link) Rudolf Steiner states that the purpose of his Philosophy of Freedom is to lay the foundations of ethical individualism and of a social and political life.

It establishes a humanist worldview as the basis for a progressive ethical individualism that is forward looking to improve the human condition rather than a more conservative view of looking back to the past for one's spirituality and way of life. Being progressive does not refer to any external institution, it is a state of mind. It is an attitude through which a person, aware of himself or herself as one among a valued global community of individuals, comes nearest to living up to the ideal of human worth and dignity.

Project: New Translation With Video Clips

New Translation Draft Chapter 1

"My Philosophy of Freedom presents the wide range of human view-points in a way that leaves the reader free of attachment to any particular approach and able to let the various concepts speak for themselves, as though each were a photograph of one and the same object taken from many different angles." Rudolf Steiner on his book the Philosophy of Freedom p. 97

New translation Preface
New translation Chapter 1
New translation Chapter 2 

Short video clips are being produced for each view and will be added regularly. 


1.0 The Question Of Freedom
Is a human being free in thinking and action, or compelled by an inescapable necessity? Few questions have excited so much ingenuity. The idea of free will has found enthusiastic supporters and stubborn opponents in great numbers. There are those who, in moral zeal, label anyone narrow-minded who can deny so obvious a fact as freedom. They are opposed by others who regard it as totally unscientific for anyone to believe that the lawfulness of nature fails to apply to human thinking and action. The same thing that some describe as the most precious possession of humanity is described by others, just as often, as the most fatal illusion. Endless subtlety has been used to explain how human freedom can be consistent with the laws working in nature, of which, after all, human beings are a part. No less effort has gone into explaining how this delusion could arise. It is clear to all but the most superficial thinkers that we are dealing here with one of the most important questions in life, religion, conduct and science.

1.1 Freedom Of Indifferent Choice
It is one of the sad symptoms of the superficiality of contemporary thinking that a book intending to develop a 'New Faith' out of the results of modern natural-scientific research contains nothing on this question but the words:

“There is no need to go into the question of free will. The supposed freedom of indifferent choice has always been regarded as an empty illusion by every philosophy worthy of the name. The moral evaluation of human conduct and character is not affected in any way by this question."

I quote this passage, not because I think the book in which it is found has any special importance, but because it appears to express the only view that the thinking of most of our contemporaries is able to achieve on this question. Today, everyone who claims to have outgrown the kindergarten stage of science seems to know that freedom cannot consist in choosing, wholly at will, between one or the other of two possible courses of action. There is always, so we are told, a quite specific reason why a person carries out one particular action from among several possibilities.

1.2 Freedom Of Choice
[2] This sounds convincing. And yet, right up to the present day, the main attacks of the opponents of freedom have been directed against freedom of choice. Even Herbert Spencer, whose views are growing in popularity with each day, says:

"That everyone is at liberty to desire or not desire, as one pleases, which is the real proposition involved in the dogma of free will, is refuted by the analysis of consciousness, as well as by the contents of the preceding chapters [on psychology]."

1.3 Free Necessity Of One's Nature
Others also start from the same premise when attacking the concept of free will. Their arguments can all be found in germinal form as early as Spinoza. His clear and simple objection to the idea of freedom has since been repeated countless times, but as a rule cloaked in the most complicated theoretical doctrines so that it is difficult to recognize the simple course of thought, which is the only thing that matters. Spinoza writes in a letter of October or November 1674:

"I call a thing free that exists and acts out of the pure necessity of its nature, and I call it compelled, if its existence and activity are exactly and inflexibly determined by something else. For example, God, though he exists necessarily, is nevertheless free, because he exists solely out of the necessity of his own nature. Similarly, God freely knows himself and all other things, because it follows solely from the necessity of his nature that he knows all things. You see, then, that I locate freedom not in free decision, but in free necessity."

[3] "But let us come down to the level of created things, which are all determined by external causes to exist and act in a fixed and exact way. To see this more clearly, let us imagine a very simple case. A stone, for example, receives a certain momentum from an external cause that strikes it, so that afterwards, when the impact of the external cause has ceased, the stone necessarily continues to move. The continued motion of the stone is compelled, not the necessity of its own nature, because it has to be defined by the impact of an external cause. What is true here for the stone is true also for every other single thing, no matter how complex and adaptable to many purposes it may be, namely, that everything is necessarily determined by external causes to exist and to act in a fixed and exact way."

[4] Now please imagine that the stone, while it is moving, thinks and knows that it is striving to the best of its ability to continue in motion. This stone, which is only conscious of its striving and is not at all indifferent to what it is doing, will be convinced that it is entirely free and that it continues in motion for no other reason than because it wants to. This is just the human freedom that we all believe we have, and the reason it appears to be freedom is because people are conscious of their desires, but do not know the causes that determine those desires. Thus the child believes that it freely desires milk, the angry boy that he freely desires revenge, and the coward freely desires to run away. Drunkards believe it is a free decision to say what, when sober again, they will wish they had not said, and since this prejudice is inborn in all human beings, it is difficult to free oneself from it. Experience teaches us often enough that people are least able to moderate their desires, and when torn by conflicting passions they see the better and pursue the worse. Yet they still consider themselves free because they desire some things less strongly, and many desires can be easily inhibited by recalling something familiar that often preoccupies one's mind.”

[5] Because this view is so clearly and definitely expressed, it is easy to discover the fundamental error contained within it. The human being is supposed to carry out an action when motivated by any reason, with the same necessity as a stone that is put in motion by an impact. It is only because the human being has a consciousness of his action that he believes himself to be the free originator of it. In doing so, however, he overlooks that he is driven by a cause which he must obey unconditionally. The error in this line of thought is soon found. Spinoza and all who think like him overlook the fact that a person not only has consciousness of his action, but may also become conscious of the cause which guides him.

Anyone can see that a child is not free when it desires milk, the drunkard is not free when saying things he later regrets. Both know nothing of the causes, working deep within their organisms, that exercise irresistible control over them. But is it right to lump together actions of this kind with those in which a person is not only conscious of his actions but also of his reason for acting? Are human actions really all of one kind? Should the act of a soldier on the battlefield, a research scientist in the laboratory, a diplomat involved in complex negotiations, be placed scientifically on the same level as that of a child when it desires milk? It is certainly true that it is best to seek the solution of a problem where it presents itself in the simplest form. But inability to see distinctions has often resulted in endless confusion. There is, after all, a profound difference between knowing and not knowing the reason for why I am doing something. This would seem to be an obvious truth. And yet the opponents of freedom never ask themselves whether a motive of action that I recognize and understand, compels me in the same way as the organic process that causes a child to cry for milk.

1.4 Independent Of Outside Motives
[6] Eduard von Hartmann asserts that human willing depends on two main factors: motives and character. If we look at people as being all alike, or at least the differences to be negligible, then their will appears to be determined from outside, that is, by the situations they encounter. But if we take into consideration that people are different and a person will make an idea into a motive for action only if his character is such that this idea arouses a desire, then he appears as determined from within and not from outside. A person is convinced he is free—that is, independent of outside motives—only because he must first, in accordance with his character, make an idea imposed on him from outside into a motive. But the truth is, according to Eduard von Hartmann, that:

“Even if it is we ourselves who turn an idea into a motive, we do not do this arbitrarily, but according to the necessity of our characterological organization; that is, we are anything but free."

Here again no consideration is given to the difference that exists between motives that I allow to influence me only after I have consciously made them my own, and those that I follow without any clear knowledge of them.

1.5 Action Resulting From Conscious Motive
[7] This leads us straight to the standpoint from which the subject will be considered here. Can the question of free will be posed narrowly by itself, in a one-sided way? And if not, with what other question must it necessarily be connected?

[8] If there is a difference between a conscious motive and an unconscious urge, then the conscious motive will result in an action that must be judged differently from one that springs from blind impulse. Our first question will concern this difference. The result of this investigation will then determine how we are to approach the freedom question itself.

[9] What does it mean to have knowledge of the reasons for one’s action? This question has been given too little attention, because unfortunately there is a tendency to tear into two parts what is an inseparable whole: the human being. The doer is distinguished from the knower, but the one that matters most is lost sight of—the knowing doer—the one who acts out of knowledge.

1.6 Free When Controlled By Rational Decision
[10] It is said that human beings are free when they are controlled only by reason and not by animal desires. Or that freedom means being able to determine one’s life and action according to purposes and deliberate decisions.

[11] Nothing is gained by assertions of this kind. For the question is just whether reason, purposes, and decisions work with the same compulsion over a person as animal desires. If without my active involvement, a rational decision emerges in me with the same necessity as hunger or thirst, then I can only obey it, and my freedom is an illusion.

1.7 Free To Do What One Wishes
[12] Another phrase is: To be free does not mean being able to will as one wishes, but being able to do what one wishes. The poet-philosopher Robert Hamerling expresses this thought with great precision:

“The human being can certainly do what he wishes, but he cannot will as he wishes, because his will is determined by motives! He cannot will as he wishes? Let us look at these words more closely. Do they make any sense? Is free will to mean the ability to will something without reason, without motive? But what else does willing mean, other than having a reason for doing or striving for this rather than that? To will something without a reason, without a motive, is to will it without wanting it. The concept of willing is inseparable from that of motive. Without a determining motive the will is an empty capacity: only through the motive does it become active and real. It is, therefore, correct to say that the human will is not 'free', to the extent that its direction is always determined by the strongest motive. But it is absurd, in contrast to this 'unfreedom', to speak of a possible freedom of will that amounts to being able to will what one does not want.”

[13] Here too, only motives in general are discussed, without taking into consideration the difference between conscious and unconscious motives. If a motive affects me, and I am compelled to act on it because it proves to be the “strongest” of its kind, then the idea of freedom ceases to have any meaning. Why should it matter to me whether I can do something or not, if I am forced by the motive to do it? The primary question is not whether I can or cannot do something once the motive has influenced me, but whether all motives work with inescapable necessity. If I am compelled to will something, then I may well be completely indifferent as to whether I can actually do it. If, because of my character and the circumstances prevailing in my environment, a motive is forced on me that I find to be unreasonable, then I would even be glad if I am unable do what I will.

[14] The question is not whether I can carry out a decision once made, but how the decision comes about within me.

1.8 Spontaneous Unconditioned Will
[15] What distinguishes humans from all other organic beings is rational thinking. Activity we have in common with other organisms. Searching within the animal kingdom for analogies with human action does not help to clarify the concept of freedom. Modern natural science loves such analogies. When scientists succeed in finding among animals something similar to human behavior, they believe this pertains to the most important question of the science of human nature. An example of the misunderstanding to which this view leads can be seen in a book by P. Rée, where the following remark on freedom appears:

"It is easy to explain why the movement of a stone seems to us necessary, while the willing of a donkey does not. The causes that set the stone in motion are external and visible. But the causes that determine the donkey's willing are internal and invisible: between us and the place where they occur is the donkey’s skull... The causal conditioning is not seen, so it is thought to not exist. Then an explanation is given that the will is certainly the cause of the donkey’s turning around, but the will itself is not conditioned, it is an absolute beginning.”

So, here again, human actions in which there is a consciousness of the reasons for the action are simply ignored, because Rée explains that: “between us and the place where they occur is the donkey’s skull.” These words show that Rée has no idea that there are actions, not of the donkey but of the human being, where between us and the action lies the motive that has become conscious. A few pages later Rée demonstrates the same blindness when he says: “We do not perceive the causes that determine our will and so believe it is not causally determined at all.”

[16] But enough of examples proving that many oppose freedom without knowing what freedom really is.

1.9 Knowledge Of The Reasons
[17] Obviously, an action cannot be free if the doer carries it out without knowing why he does it. But what about an action for which the reasons are known? This leads us to the question: What is the origin and meaning of thinking? Once we understand what thinking in general means, it will be easy to clarify the role that thinking plays in human action. As Hegel rightly says, "It is thinking that makes the soul, which the animals also possess, into spirit." Thinking will therefore set its own unique stamp upon human action.

1.10 Driving Force Of The Heart
[18] I do not mean to imply that all our action flows only out of the sober deliberations of our reason. It is far from my intention to characterize as human in the highest sense, only those actions that proceed from abstract judgment. But as soon as our conduct lifts itself above the sphere of the satisfaction of purely animal desires, our motives are always shaped by thoughts. Love, pity, and patriotism are driving forces of action that cannot be reduced to cold rational concepts. It is said that here the heart, the life of feeling comes into its own. No doubt; but the heart and the life of feeling do not create the motives for action. They presuppose them and receive them into their own sphere. Compassion enters my heart when the thought of a person who arouses compassion appears in my consciousness. The way to the heart is through the head.

1.11 Love For The Ideal
Not even love is an exception to this rule. Whenever love is not merely the expression of the sexual instinct, it depends on the thoughts we form of the loved one. The more we idealize the loved one in our thoughts, the more blissful is the happiness this love brings us. Here, too, thought is the father of feeling.

1.12 Love Opens The Eyes
It is said that love makes us blind to the flaws of the loved one. But we can also turn this around and say that love opens our eyes to the good qualities of the loved one. Many pass by these good qualities without noticing them. And then someone sees them and, just for this reason, love awakens in his heart. What else has this person done but perceive what a hundred others have failed to see? Love is not theirs because they lack the perception.

[19] However we may care to approach the subject, it becomes more and more clear that the question concerning the nature of human action presupposes another, that of the origin of thought. So I will turn to this question next.

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New Translation Draft Preface

"My Philosophy of Freedom presents the wide range of human view-points in a way that leaves the reader free of attachment to any particular approach and able to let the various concepts speak for themselves, as though each were a photograph of one and the same object taken from many different angles." Rudolf Steiner on his book the Philosophy of Freedom p. 97

New translation Preface
New translation Chapter 1
New translation Chapter 2 

Note: The original preface is located at the end of all translations as an appendix, except for the Hoernle where it appears as Chapter 1, The Goal Of Knowledge


0.0 Culture Of Individuality
[1] I BELIEVE I am indicating correctly one of the fundamental characteristics of our age when I say that, at the present day, all human interests tend to center in the culture of human individuality. An energetic effort is being made to shake off every kind of authority. Nothing is accepted as valid, unless it springs from the roots of individuality. Everything which hinders the individual in the full development of his powers is thrust aside. The saying “Each one of us must choose his hero in whose footsteps he toils up to Olympus” no longer holds for us. We allow no ideals to be forced upon us. We are convinced that in each of us, if only we probe deep enough into the very heart of our being, there dwells something noble, something worthy of development. We no longer believe that there is a norm of human life to which we must all strive to conform. We regard the perfection of the whole as depending on the unique perfection of each single individual. We do not want to do what anyone else can do equally well. No, our contribution to the development of the world, however trifling, must be something that, by reason of the uniqueness of our nature, we alone can offer. Never have artists been less concerned about rules and norms in art than today. Each of them asserts their right to express, in the creations of their art, what is unique in them. There are dramatists who write in dialect rather than conform to the standard diction which grammar demands.

[2] No better expression for these phenomena can be found than this, that they result from the individual’s striving towards freedom, developed to its highest pitch. We do not want to be dependent in any respect, and where dependence must be, we tolerate it only on condition that it coincides with a vital interest of our individuality.

0.1 Outer Truth
[3] Truth, too, will be sought in our age only in the depths of human nature. Of Schiller’s two well known paths, the second will be preferred today:

We both seek truth; you in outer life,
I in the heart within. Each of us are sure to find it.
The healthy eye can track the creator through the world;
The healthy heart mirrors the world within.

0.2 Inner Truth Empowers
[4] Truth that comes to us from outside always bears the stamp of uncertainty. Only truth that appears within ourselves will convince us. Only truth can give us confidence in developing our individual powers. Whoever is tormented by doubts finds his powers weakened. If we are baffled by a world full of riddles, we can find no goal for our creative activity.

0.3 Understandable Truth
[5] We no longer want to believe; we want to know. Belief demands the acceptance of truths without having the insight to fully understand. But what is not clearly understood goes against what is individual in us, that wants to experience everything in its deepest inner core. The only knowing that satisfies us is the kind that submits to no external standard, but springs from a person's own inner life.

0.4 Advance In Knowledge
[6] Nor do we want the kind of knowledge that has been formulated in rigid academic rules, and stored away as valid for all time. Each of us claims the right to start from the facts we know, from our personal experience, and from there advance to knowledge of the whole universe. We strive for certainty in knowledge, but each in his or her own way.

0.5 Cultivate Desire To Know
[7] Nor should the teachings of science be presented in a form that implies its acceptance is compulsory. None of us would give a scientific work a title like Fichte once did: “A Crystal Clear Report for the General Public on the True Nature of the Latest Philosophy. An Attempt to Compel the Reader to Understand.” Today, no one should be compelled to understand. We demand neither acceptance nor agreement from those who are not moved to a certain view by their own particular, individual needs. We do not want to cram facts of knowledge into even an immature human being, a child. We try rather to develop the child’s capacities in such a way that the child no longer needs to be compelled to understand, but wants to understand.

0.6 Application Of Principles
[8] I am under no illusion concerning the characteristics of the present time. I know how much a stereotypical attitude, lacking all individuality, is prevalent everywhere. But I also know that many of my contemporaries strive to orient their lives in the direction of the principles I have indicated. To them I would dedicate this book. It is not meant to be the "only possible" way to Truth, but is meant to describe the path taken by one for whom truth is central.

0.7 Practice Of Pure Thinking
[9] This book at first leads the reader into more abstract regions, where thought must have sharp outlines if it is to reach clearly defined positions. But the reader is also led out of these arid concepts into concrete life. I am fully convinced that if existence is to be experienced in all its aspects, one must raise oneself up into the realm of concepts. Whoever appreciates only the pleasures of the senses misses the sweetest enjoyments of life. Oriental sages make their disciples live a life of resignation and asceticism for years before imparting their own wisdom to them. The Western world no longer demands pious exercises and ascetic practices as a preparation for science, but it does require a sincere willingness to withdraw oneself awhile from the immediate impressions of life and enter the realm of pure thought.

0.8 Wholistic Knowledge
[10] There are many realms of life and for each of them specific sciences develop. But life itself is one, and the more deeply the sciences are immersed in their separate fields, the more they distance themselves from viewing the world as a living whole. There must be a kind of knowing that seeks in the separate sciences the principles that leads to the fullness of life once more. The aim of the scientific specialist is to become aware of the world and gain insight into how it works. The aim of this book is philosophical: science itself is to be instilled with the life of an organic whole. The various branches of science are preparatory stages on the way to this wholistic science. A similar relationship governs the arts. The composer's work is based on the theory of composition. This theory is an accumulation of principles that one has to know in order to compose. In composing, the rules of theory serve life itself, that is, it serves true reality. In exactly the same sense philosophy is an art. All genuine philosophers have been artists in the conceptual realm. Human ideas become their artistic materials and scientific method their artistic technique. Abstract thinking takes on concrete individual life. Ideas turn into life-forces. Then we do not merely have knowledge about things, but have made knowledge into an actual self-governing organism ruled by its own laws. Our consciousness, alive and active, has lifted itself beyond a mere passive reception of truths.

0.9 The Science Of Freedom
[11] The main theme of my book concerns these questions: How philosophy, as an art, is related to freedom; what freedom is; and whether we do, or can, participate in it. All other scientific discussions are included only because they ultimately throw light on this question. In my view, the question of freedom is the most immediate concern of the human being. These pages offer a "Philosophy of Freedom".

0.10 Human Development
[12] All science would be nothing but the satisfaction of idle curiosity, if it did not strive to elevate the value of existence for the human personality. The true value of the sciences is seen only when we have shown the importance of their results for humanity. The ultimate goal of the individuality cannot be the cultivation of any single faculty, but only the development of all capacities dormant within us. Knowledge has value only in so far as it contributes to the all-around development of the whole of human nature.

0.11 Ethical Use Of Science
[13] Therefore, this book does not regard the relationship between science and life in such a way that human beings must bow down before ideas and devote their powers to its service. On the contrary, it shows that we should take possession of the world of ideas to use them for our human goals, which go beyond those of mere science.

0.12 Confront Idea
[14] One must be able to confront an idea as master; otherwise one will fall into its bondage.


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  • In section 2-12 there appears a line that was omitted in the 1918 revisions: To object that the above discussions have been unscientific would be like quarreling with the reciter of a poem for failing to accompany every line at once with aesthetic criticism.

  • The gender neutral writing has become very difficult if not impossible. The translator Lipson puts everything in the plural for this. How do you put a book on individuality in the collective plural phrasing?

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  • I added music to the videos in the Preface.

  • Added a new 1.5 video to Chapter One on this page.

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