A "Society for Ethical Culture"

Rudolf Steiner, The Future, Volume I, No. 5, October 29, 1892
Google translate: German to English


Why did Friedrich Nietzsche think deliriously about the great questions of human morality? It would have been much easier to hear Felix Adler, the professor of philosophy from America, about the "common morality common to all good people" and to proclaim what he had heard from the German people as a doctrine of salvation. So it has made an elite of German educated and established a "Society for Ethical Culture," the purpose of which is to make that "common" the main carrier of educated people. I notice right from the start that there are men among the founders of the society who I esteem. The founding itself, however, arises from a backward conception of life.

Official philosophers, who today still call the old Kant-grip cripple Nietzsche-ruminate on him, firmly stand by the view that there is such a thing as a "morality common to all good people"; Modern thinking that captures its time and looks a bit too far into the future is beyond. "Act so that the principles of your action may be valid for all men"; this is the core of Kant's moral teaching. And in every key, this saying sounds to our ears from the confessions of those who call themselves Liberals, Liberals, Humanity Apostles, and so forth. But today there is already a circle of people who know that this sentence is the death of all individual life, and that on the life of individuality all cultural progress is based. What is special about every human being, must emerge from it and become part of the process of development. If one disregards this special, which everyone has for himself, then only a banal "general" remains, which can not bring mankind by a margin. A few rules of convenience for the intercourse, that is all that can come out as "common good to all good people". The ethical life of man, in the true sense of the word, does not begin until these laws based on utility hear.

And this life can only come from the center of the personality and will never be the result of implanted tenets. There is no universal human ethics. To the Kantian proposition, modern sentiment must reciprocate the very opposite: act just as, according to your particular individuality, only you can act; then you contribute most to the whole; because then you accomplish what others can not do. This is what all the people of history have said. Therefore, there are so many different moral conceptions, as there are peoples, ages, and basically as many as there have been and are individuals. And if this natural law were replaced by that which is held to be correct by the moral philosophers who think in the Kantian sense: a bland monotony of all human action would be the necessary consequence. Such "general" moral principles have often been established; but no man has ever set his life after. And the realization that this is a business for idle minds should characterize all modern thought.

I can well imagine what objections to these sentences are raised. "That justifies the pure anarchy!" "If only one lives out, then one can not think of a common work!" Had I not really heard such objections, I would find it superfluous to touch them with only a few words. It is here, as already said, the speech of the ethical life of man. What is below its level is not subject to moral standards; this is only judged according to its expediency and inappropriateness.

Here to do the right thing is the task of social bodies; Ethics has nothing to do with it. The state may watch over the usefulness or harmfulness of human actions and provide the most appropriate; the ethical value of my actions is something that I have to deal with as an individual with myself. There may be rules of expediency of action, and their observance may be enforced by force; Rules of moral action do not exist. Anarchism is not to be rejected because it is immoral, but because it is inappropriate. In the realm of morality alone the principle can apply: to let live and to live.

It is not surprising that in America, where in an eminently material cultural life everything that goes beyond concern for the basic needs of life is consumed by the idea of ​​"ethical societies". In Germany, where there is still a sense for the higher tasks of humanity, but should not be imitated. Wherever one thinks of it, the physical life is as comfortable as possible. It may be desirable to look for the comfortable means of finding moral principles, because moral impulses are lacking. But in a cultural area where there is a true spiritual life, the particular moral life can only be the result of the prevailing world view. My attitude in life will depend on how I relate to both, in my view of nature and the human world. The custom is always a necessary consequence of the knowledge of an age, people or people.

For this reason, great individualities who proclaim new truths to their ages will always give a new stamp to life. A Messiah of a new truth is always the herald of a new morality. A moralist who has only behavioral measures to give without knowing anything special about nature or people is never heard. Therefore, there can be nothing more wrong than the measure adopted by the constituent assembly of the "ethical society" of wanting to influence the improvement of ethical life by disseminating moral writings. It is quite understandable to me that one has completely ignored German writings and initially only thinks of translations of American books.

In Germany one would not find much useful for this purpose. Here books on ethics make only the school philosophers who are biased in the unfashionable Kantian doctrine. But they write a completely incomprehensible school language for those circles on which the "ethical society" reckons. Out-of-school philosophers, however, have no moral principles. Here, the moral-individualistic way of thinking has already settled in deeply. The American books of this type contain mostly trivia, which is to be read only emotional-minded old girls or immature schoolboys. The right German, scholarly, or unlearned, Philistine will buy many, and many a glorious one to tell about them; he will not read it.

Men of some knowledge, who have not quite come to sleep because of our sad school philosophy in thought, know that in the majority of these books there are only wisdom about which one hundred years ago we, the advanced ones, only had one yawn. But it is lamentable to hear it that youth education should be inoculated with these desolate moral maxims. Herr von Gizycki spoke the sharpest words about the pedagogically reprehensible influence of purely confessional education. Hardly any modern thinker will argue with him about that. But what the denominations do with their moral principles, the "ethical society" wants to imitate with the universal human. But here and there nothing is achieved but the killing of the individual and the subjugation of life through lifeless, rigid laws.

In the place of the clerics of religions, the priests of general-human morality should step. With these, however, it is even worse ordered than with those. The confessional moral doctrines are the results of certain worldviews that make up the legitimate cultural content of humanity; the universal human moral doctrine is a sum of commonplaces; they are scraps of all sorts of moral notions that do not stand out against the background of a great conception of time. Anyone who thinks that it is viable or even suitable to reform the ethical content of our culture, is thus giving its psychological insight a bad testimony.

We are faced with a reshaping of our whole world-view. All the pain that a sex struggling with the highest questions has to endure weighs on us. We feel the agony of questioning; the happiness of the solution of the great riddle shall bring us a Messiah, which we daily expect. Our time of suffering may be long, for we have become demanding; and we will not be put off so soon. But this much is certain: whatever he will announce to us, the reformer: with the new knowledge the new morality will come. Then we will also know how to set up the new life. To put the educated now old cultural remnants as the eternal moral good of humanity means to blunt them for the perception of the fermentation phenomena of the time, and make them unsuitable for participation in the tasks of the nearest future.

Among the statutes of the "Society for Ethical Culture" are yes also some that will have a favorable effect. The initiation of a more lively discussion of religious questions, the pursuit of a better life for the poorer classes of society are things that deserve all recognition. But all this has nothing to do with the basic tendencies of society, which want to push all conceptions of ethical life back to a level surmounted by modern consciousness. 

© Tom Last 2017