The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity
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Pages (PDF): 174
Publication Date: 1923
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Of all of his works, The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity is the one that Steiner himself believed would have the longest life and the greatest spiritual and cultural consequences. It was written as a phenomenological account of the results of observing the human soul according to the methods of natural science. This seminal work asserts that free spiritual activity - understood as the human ability to think and act independently of physical nature - is the suitable path for human beings today to gain true knowledge of themselves and of the universe.
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Is man in his thinking and acting a spiritually free being, or is he compelled by the iron necessity of natural law? Few questions have been debated more than this one. The concept of the freedom of the human will has found enthusiastic supporters and stubborn opponents in plenty. There are those who, in moral fervor, declare it to be sheer stupidity to deny so evident a fact as freedom. Opposed to them are others who regard as utterly naive the belief that the uniformity of natural law is interrupted in the sphere of human action and thinking. One and the same thing is here declared as often to be the most precious possession of humanity, as it is said to be its most fatal illusion. Infinite subtlety has been devoted to explaining how human freedom is compatible with the working of nature, to which, after all, man belongs. No less pains have been taken to make comprehensible how a delusion like this could have arisen. That here we are dealing with one of the most important questions of life, religion, conduct and science, is felt by everyone whose character is not totally devoid of depth. And indeed, it belongs to the sad signs of the superficiality of present day thinking that a book which attempts to develop a “new faith” out of the results of the latest scientific discoveries, contains, on this question, nothing but the words:
“There is no need here to go into the question of the freedom of the human will. The supposed indifferent freedom of choice has always been recognized as an empty illusion by every philosophy worthy of the name. The moral valuation of human conduct and character remains untouched by this question.”
I do not quote this passage because I consider that the book in which it appears has any special importance, but because it seems to me to express the only view which most of our thinking contemporaries are able to reach, concerning this question. Everyone who claims to have advanced beyond an elementary education seems nowadays to know that freedom cannot consist in choosing at one’s pleasure, one or the other of two possible courses of action; it is maintained that there is always a quite definite reason why, out of several possible actions, we carry out a particular one.
This seems obvious. Nevertheless, up to now, the main attacks by those who oppose freedom are directed only against the freedom of choice. Herbert Spencer, who has views which are rapidly gaining ground, says:
“That everyone is able to desire or not to desire, as he pleases, which is the essential principle in the dogma of free will, is negated by the analysis of consciousness, as well as by the contents of the preceding chapter.”
Others, too, start from the same point of view in combating the concept of free will. The germs of all that is relevant in these arguments are to be found as early as Spinoza. All that he brought forward in clear and simple language against the idea of freedom has since been repeated times without number, but usually veiled in the most complicated theoretical doctrines so that it is difficult to recognize the straightforward train of thought on which all depends. Spinoza writes in a letter of October or November, 1674: “I call something free which exists and acts from the pure necessity of its nature, and I call that compelled, the existence and action of which are exactly and fixedly determined by something else. The existence of God, for example, though necessary, is free because He exists only through the necessity of His nature. Similarly, God knows Himself and all else in freedom, because it follows solely from the necessity of His nature that He knows all. You see, therefore, that I regard freedom as consisting, not in free decision, but in free necessity.
“But let us come down to created things which are all determined by external causes to exist and to act in a fixed and definite manner. To recognize this more clearly, let us imagine a perfectly simple case. A stone, for example, receives from an external cause acting upon it a certain quantity of motion, by which it necessarily continues to move after the impact of the external cause has ceased. The continued motion of the stone is a compelled one, not a necessary one, because it has to be defined by the thrust of the external cause. What is true here for the stone is true also for every other particular thing, however complicated and many-sided it may be, namely, that each thing is necessarily determined by external causes to exist and to act in a fixed and definite manner.
“Now, please, suppose that during its motion the stone thinks and knows that it is striving to the best of its ability to continue in motion. This stone which is conscious only of its striving and is by no means indifferent, will believe that it is absolutely free, and that it continues in motion for no other reason than its own will to continue. But this is that human freedom which everybody claims to possess and which consists in nothing but this, that men are conscious of their desires, but do not Know the causes by which they are determined. Thus the child believes that he is free when he desires milk, the angry boy that he is free in his desire for vengeance, and the timid in his desire for flight. Again, the drunken man believes that he says of his own free decision what, sober again, he would fain have left unsaid, and as this prejudice is innate in all men, it is not easy to free oneself from it. For although experience teaches us often enough that man, least of all, can temper his desires and that, moved by conflicting passions, he sees the better and pursues the worse, yet he considers himself free, simply because there are some things which he desires less strongly and many desires which can easily be inhibited through the recollection of something else which is often remembered.”
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