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The Riddles of Philosophy

RoP: The Radical World Conceptions (Pt1 Ch2)


Part I

Chapter IX

The Radical World Conceptions

At the beginning of the forties of the last century a man who had previously thoroughly and intimately penetrated the world conceptions of Hegel, now forcefully attacked them. This man was Ludwig Feuerbach (1804 – 1872). The declaration of war against the philosophy in which he had grown up is given in a radical form in his essay, Preliminary Theses for the Reformation of Philosophy (1842), and Principle of the Philosophy of the Future (1843). The further development of his thoughts can be followed in his other writings, The Essence of Christianity (1841), The Nature of Religion (1845), and Theogony (1857).

In the activity of Ludwig Feuerbach a process is repeated in the field of the science of the spirit that had happened almost a century earlier (1759) in the realm of natural science through the activity of Caspar Friedrich Wolff. Wolff's work had meant a reform of the idea of evolution in the field of biology. How the idea of evolution was understood before Wolff can be most distinctly learned from the views of Albrecht von Haller, a man who opposed the reform of this conception most vehemently. Hailer, who is quite rightly respected by physiologists as one of the most significant spirits of this science, could not conceive the development of a living being in any other form than that in which the germ already contains all parts that appear in the course of life, but on a small scale and perfectly pre-formed. Evolution, then, is supposed to be an unfolding of something that was there in the first place but was hidden from perception because of its smallness, or for other reasons. If this view is consistently upheld, there is no development of anything new. What happens is merely that something that is concealed, encased, is continuously brought to the light of day. Hailer stood quite rigorously for this view. In the first mother, Eve, the whole human race was contained, concealed on a small scale. The human germs have only been unfolded in the course of world history. The same conception is also expressed by the philosopher Leibniz (1646 – 1716):

So I should think that the souls, which some day will be human souls, have been in the seed stage, as it is also with those of other species; that they have existed in the form of organized things in our forefathers as far back as Adam, that is to say, since the beginning of things.

Wolff opposed this idea of evolution with one of his own in Theoria Generationis, which appeared in 1759. He proceeded from the supposition that the members of an organism that appear in the course of life have not existed previously but come into being at the moment they become perceptible as real new formations. Wolff showed that the egg contains nothing of the form of the developed organism but that its development constitutes a series of new formations. This view made the conception of a real becoming possible, for it showed how something comes into being that had not previously existed and that therefore “comes to be” in the true sense of the word.

Hailer's view really denies becoming as it admits only a continuous process of becoming visible of something that had previously existed. This scientist had opposed the idea of Wolff with the peremptory decree, “There is no becoming” (Nulla est epigenesis). He had, thereby, actually brought about a situation in which Wolff s view remained unconsidered for decades. Goethe blames this encasement theory for the resistance with which his endeavors to explain living beings was met. He had attempted to comprehend the formations in organic nature through the study of the process of their development, which he understood entirely in the sense of a true evolution, according to which the newly appearing parts of an organism have not already had a previously concealed existence, but do indeed come into being when they appear. He writes in 1817 that this attempt, which was a fundamental presupposition of his essay on the metamorphosis of plants written in 1790, “was received in a cold, almost hostile manner, but such reluctance was quite natural. The encasement theory, the concept of pre-formation, of a successive development of what had existed since Adam's times, had in general taken possession even of the best minds.”

One could see a remnant of the old encasement theory even in Hegel's world conception. The pure thought that appears in the human mind was to have been encased in all phenomena before it came to its perceptible form of existence in man. Before nature and the individual spirit, Hegel places his pure thought that should be, as it were, “the representation of God as he was according to his eternal essence before the creation” of the world. The development of the world is, therefore, presented as an unwrapping of pure thought. The protest of Ludwig Feuerbach against Hegel's world conception was caused by the fact that Feuerbach was unable to acknowledge the existence of the spirit before its real appearance in man, just as Caspar Friedrich Wolff had been unable to admit that the parts of the living organism should have been pre-formed in the egg. Just as Wolff saw spontaneous formations in the organs of the developed organism, so did Feuerbach with respect to the individual spirit of man. This spirit is in no way there before its perceptible existence; it comes into being only in the moment it appears. According to Feuerbach, it is unjustified to speak of an all-embracing spirit, of a being in which the individual spirit has its roots. No reason-endowed being exists prior to its appearance in the world that would shape matter and the perceptible world, and in this way cause the appearance of man as its visible afterimage. What exists before the development of the human spirit consists of mere matter and blind forces that form a nervous system out of themselves concentrated in the brain. In the brain something comes into existence that is a completely new formation, something that has never been before: the human soul, endowed with reason. For such a world conception there is no possibility to derive the processes and things from a spiritual originator because, according to this view, a spiritual being is a new formation through the organization of the brain. If man projects a spiritual element into the external world, then he imagines arbitrarily that a being like the one that is the cause of his own actions exists outside of himself and rules the world. Any spiritual primal being must first be created by man through his fantasy; the things and processes of the world give us no reason to assume its original existence. It is not the original spirit being that has created man after his image, but man has formed a fantasy of such a primal entity after his own image. This is Feuerbach's conviction. “Man's knowledge of God is man's knowledge of himself, of his own nature. Only the unity of being and consciousness is truth. Where God's consciousness is, there is also God's being: it is, therefore, in man” (The Essence of Christianity, 1841). Man does not feel strong enough to rest within himself; he therefore created an infinite being after his own image to revere and to worship. Hegel's world conception had eliminated all other qualities from the supreme being, but it had retained the element of reason. Feuerbach removes this element also and with this step he removes the supreme being itself. He replaces the wisdom of God completely by the wisdom of the world. As a necessary turning point in the development of world conception, Feuerbach declares the “open confession and admission that the consciousness of God is nothing but the consciousness of humanity,” and that man is “incapable of thinking, divining, imagining, feeling, believing, willing, loving and worshipping as an absolute divine being any other being than the human being.” There is an observation of nature and an observation of the spirit, but there is no observation of the nature of God. Nothing is real but the factual.

The real in its reality, or as real, is the real as the object of the senses, the sensual. Truth, reality and sensuality are identical. Only a sensual being is a true, a real being. Only through the senses is an object given in the true sense of the word, not through thinking by itself. The object that is given in thinking, or identical with it, is only thought.

Indeed, this can be summed up as follows. The phenomenon of thinking appears in the human organism as a new formation, but we are not justified to imagine that this thought had existed before its appearance in any form invisibly encased in the world. One should not attempt to explain the condition of something actually given by deriving it from something that is assumed as previously existing. Only the factual is true and divine, “what is immediately sure of itself, that-which directly speaks for and convinces of itself, that which immediately effects the assertion of its existence, what is absolutely decided, incapable of doubt, clear as sunlight. But only the sensual is of such a clarity. Only where the sensual begins does all doubt and quarrel cease. The secret of immediate knowledge is sensuality.” Feuerbach's credo has its climax in the words, “To make philosophy the concern of humanity was my first endeavor, but whoever decides upon a path in this direction will finally be led with necessity to make man the concern of philosophy.” “The new philosophy makes man, and with him nature as the basis of man, the only universal and ultimate object of philosophy; it makes an anthropology that includes physiology in it — the universal science.”

Feuerbach demands that reason is not made the basis of departure at the beginning of a world conception but that it should be considered the product of evolution, as a new formation in the human organism in which it makes its actual appearance. He has an aversion to any separation of the spiritual from the physical because it can be understood in no other way than as a result of the development of the physical.

When the psychologist says, “I distinguish myself from my body,” he says as much as when the philosopher in logic or metaphysics says, “I leave human nature unconsidered.” Is it possible to leave your own nature out of consideration? Are you not doing so as a human being? Do you think without a head? Thoughts are departed souls. All right, but is not even a departed soul still a faithful picture of a human being who was once in the flesh? Do not even the most general metaphysical concepts of being and essence change as the real being and essence of man changes? What does “I leave human nature out of consideration,” then mean? Nothing more than this: I leave man unconsidered so far as he is the object of my consciousness and of my thinking, but not the man who lies behind my consciousness; that is to say, not my own nature to which my process of abstraction also is bound whether I like it or not. So, as a psychologist, you may disregard your body, but in your nature you are intimately linked to it, that is, you think yourself as distinguishable from your body but you are not at all really different from it because of this thought. . . . Was Lichtenberg not right when he maintained that one really should not say, “I think,” but, “It thinks”? If, indeed, the “I think” now distinguishes itself from the body, does that force us to conclude that the process that is expressed in the words, “It thinks,” the involuntary element of our thinking, the root and the basis of the “I think,” is also distinct from the body? How is it, then, that we cannot think at all times, that the thoughts are not at our disposal whenever we choose? Why do we often fail to make headway with some intellectual work in spite of the greatest exertion of our will until some external occasion, often no more than a change in the weather, sets our thoughts afloat again? This is caused by the fact that our thought process is also an organic activity. Why must we often carry some thoughts with us for years before they become clear and distinct to us? For the reason that our thoughts also are subject to an organic development, that our thoughts also must have their time to mature as well as the fruits in the field or the child in the mother's womb.

* * *

Feuerbach drew attention to Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, a thinker who died in 1799 and who must be considered a precursor of a world conception that found expression in thinkers like Feuerbach. Lichtenberg's stimulating and thought-provoking conceptions were less fruitful for the nineteenth century probably because the powerful thought structures of Fichte, Schelling and Hegel overshadowed everything. They overshadowed the spiritual development to such a degree that ideas that were expressed aphoristically as strokes of lightning, even if they were as brilliant as Lichtenberg's, could be overlooked. We only have to be reminded of a few statements of this important person to see that in the thought movement introduced by Feuerbach the spirit of Lichtenberg experiences a revival.

God created man after his image, which probably means that man created God after his own image.

Our world is going to be so sophisticated one day that it will be as ridiculous to believe in God as it is nowadays to believe in ghosts.

Is our concept of God really anything but a personified mystery?

The conception that we form of a soul is very much like that of a magnet in the earth. It is merely a picture. It is an innate trick in man to think everything in this form.

Rather than to claim that the world is reflected in us, we should say that our reason is reflected in the world. We just cannot help discovering order and wisdom in the world; it follows from the nature of our thought faculty. But it does not necessarily follow that what we must think should really be so. . . . In this way, then, no God can be proven.

We become aware of certain conceptions that do not depend on us; then there are others of which we at least think that they depend on us. Where is the boundary line between them? We only know that our perceptions, conceptions and thoughts are there. It thinks, one should say, just as one says, It rains, or, Thought strikes as one says, Lightning strikes.

If Lichtenberg had combined such original flashes of thought with the ability to develop a harmoniously rounded world conception, he could not have remained unnoticed to the degree that he did. In order to form a world conception, it is not only necessary to show superiority of mind, as Lichtenberg did, but also the ability to form ideas in their interconnection in all directions and to round them plastically. This faculty he lacked. His superiority is expressed in an excellent judgment concerning the relation of Kant to his contemporaries:

I believe that just as the followers of Mr. Kant always charge their opponents with not understanding him, there are also some among them who believe that Mr. Kant must be right because they understand him. His mode of conception is new and different from the usual one, and, if one now suddenly has begun to understand it, one is inclined to accept it as truth, especially since he has so many ardent followers. But one should always consider that this understanding is not as yet a reason to believe it to be true. I believe that most of Kant's followers, overwhelmed by the joy of having understood an abstract and obscurely presented system, were also convinced that this system had been proven.

How akin in spirit Feuerbach could feel to Lichtenberg becomes especially clear if one compares the views of both thinkers with respect to the relation of their world conceptions to practical life. The lectures Feuerbach gave to a number of students during the winter of 1848 on The Nature of Religion closed with these words:

I only wish that I have not failed in the task that I set for myself as I expressed it in the first hours, namely, to convert you from friends of God to friends of men, from believers into thinkers, from praying men to working men, from adherents to a supersensible realm to students of this world, from being Christians, who according to their own confession and admission are half animal and half angel, into human beings, into entirely human beings.

Whoever, like Feuerbach, bases all world conception on the knowledge of nature and man, must also reject all direction and duties in the field of morality that are derived from a realm other than man's natural inclinations and abilities, or that set aims that do not entirely refer to the sensually perceptible world. “My right is my lawfully recognized desire for happiness; my duty is the desire for happiness of others that I am compelled to recognize.” Not in looking with expectation toward a world beyond do I learn what I am to do, but through the contemplation of this one. Whatever energy I spend to fulfill any task that refers to the next world, I have robbed from this world for which I am exclusively meant. “Concentration on this world” is, therefore, what Feuerbach demands. We can read similar expressions in Lichtenberg's writings. But just such passages in Lichtenberg are always mixed with elements that show how rarely a thinker who lacks the ability to develop his ideas in himself harmoniously succeeds in following an idea into its last consequences. Lichtenberg does, indeed, demand concentration on this world, but he mixes conceptions that refer to the next even into the formulation of this demand.

I believe that many people, in their eagerness for an education for heaven, forget the one that is necessary for the earth. I should think that man would act wisest if he left the former entirely to itself. For if we have been placed into this position by a wise being, which cannot be doubted, then we should do the best we can and not allow ourselves to be dazzled by revelations. What man needs to know for his happiness he certainly does know without any more revelations than he possesses according to his own nature.

Comparisons like this one between Lichtenberg and Feuerbach are significantly instructive for the historical evolution of man's world conception. They show most distinctly the direction in which these personalities advance because one can learn from them the change that has been wrought by the time interval that lies between them. Feuerbach went through Hegel's philosophy. He derived the strength from this experience to develop his own opposing view. He no longer felt disturbed by Kant's question of whether we are in fact entitled to attribute reality to the world that we perceive, or whether this world merely existed in our minds. Whoever upholds the second possibility can project into the true world behind the perceptual representations all sorts of motivating forces for man's actions. He can admit a supernatural world order as Kant had done. But whoever, like Feuerbach, declares that the sensually perceptible alone is real must reject every supernatural world order. For him there is no categorical imperative that could somehow have its origin in a transcendent world; for him there are only duties that result from the natural drives and aims of man.

To develop a world conception that was as much the opposite of Hegel's as that of Feuerbach, a personality was necessary that was as different from Hegel as was Feuerbach. Hegel felt at home in the midst of the full activity of his contemporary life. To influence the actual life of the world with his philosophical spirit appeared to him a most attractive task. When he asked for his release from his professorship at Heidelberg in order to accept another chair in Prussia, he confessed that he was attracted by the expectation of finding a sphere of activity where he was not entirely limited to mere teaching, but where it would also be possible for him to affect the practical life. “It would be important for him to have the expectation of moving, with advancing age, from the precarious function of teaching philosophy at a university to another activity and to become useful in such a capacity.”

A man who has the inclinations and convictions of a thinker must live in peace with the shape that the practical life of his time has taken on. He must find the ideas reasonable by which this life is permeated. Only from such a conviction can he derive the enthusiasm that makes him want to contribute to the consolidation of its structure. Feuerbach was not kindly inclined toward the life of his time. He preferred the restfulness of a secluded place to the bustle of what was for him “modern life.” He expresses himself distinctly on this point:

I shall never, at any rate, be reconciled with the life in the city. To go from time to time into the city to teach there, that I consider, after the impressions I have already stated here, to be good and indeed my duty, but then I must go back again into the solitude of the country to study and rest there in the arms of nature. My next task is to prepare my lectures as my audience wants them, or to prepare my father's papers for print.

From his seclusion Feuerbach believed himself to be best able to judge what was not natural with regard to the shape that the actual human life assumed. To cleanse life from these illusions, and what was carried into it by human illusions, was what Feuerbach considered to be his task. To do this he had to keep his distance from life as much as possible. He searched for the true life but he could not find it in the form that life had taken through the civilization of the time. How sincere he was with his “concentration on this world” is shown by a statement he made concerning the March revolution. This revolution seemed to him a fruitless enterprise because the conceptions that were behind it still contained the old belief in a world beyond.

The March revolution was a child of the Christian belief, even if it was an illegitimate one. The constitutionalists believed that the Lord only had to say, “Let there be freedom! Let there be right!” and right and freedom would be there. The republicans believed that all they had to do was to will a republic to call it to life. They believed, therefore, in the creation of a republic out of nothing. The constitutionalists transplanted the idea of the Christian world-miracles to the field of politics; the republicans, that of the Christian miracle of action.

Only a personality who is convinced that he carries within him the harmony of life that man needs can, in the face of the deep hostility that existed between him and the real world, utter the hymns in praise of reality that Feuerbach expressed. Such a conviction rings out of words like these:

Lacking any expectation for the next world, I can hold myself in this one in the vale of tears of German politics and European political life in general, alive and in mental sanity, only by making the present age into an object of Aristophanic laughter.

Only a personality like this could search for all those forces in man himself that the others wanted to derive from external powers.

The birth of thought in the Greek world conception had had the effect that man could no longer feel himself as deeply rooted in the world as had been possible with the old consciousness in the form of picture conceptions. This was the first step in the process that led to the formation of an abyss between man and the world. A further stage in this process consisted in the development of the mode of thinking of modern natural science. This development tore nature and the human soul completely apart. On the one side, a nature picture had to arise in which man in his spiritual-psychical essence was not to be found, and on the other, an idea of the human soul from which no bridge led into nature. In nature one found law-ordered necessity. Within its realm there was no place for the elements that the human soul finds within: The impulse for freedom, the sense for a life that is rooted in a spiritual world and is not exhausted within the realm of sensual existence. Philosophers like Kant escaped the dilemma only by separating both worlds completely, finding a knowledge in the one, and in the other, belief. Goethe, Schiller, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel conceived the idea of the self-conscious soul to be so comprehensive that it seemed to have its root in a higher spirit nature. In Feuerbach, a thinker arises who, through the world picture that can be derived from the modern mode of conception of natural science, feels compelled to deprive the human soul of every trait contradictory to the nature picture. He views the human soul as a part of nature. He can only do so because, in his thoughts, he has first removed everything in the soul that disturbed him in his attempt to acknowledge it as a part of nature. Fichte, Schelling and Hegel took the self-conscious soul for what it was; Feuerbach changes it into something he needs for his world picture. In him, a mode of conception makes its appearance that is overpowered by the nature picture. This mode of thinking cannot master both parts of the modern world picture, the picture of nature and that of the soul. For this reason, it leaves one of them, the soul picture, completely unconsidered. Wolff's idea of “new formation” introduces fruitful thought impulses to the nature picture. Feuerbach utilizes these impulses for the spirit-science that can only exist, however, by not admitting the spirit at all. Feuerbach initiates a trend of modern philosophy that is helpless in regard to the most powerful impulse of the modern soul life, namely, man's active self-consciousness. In this current of thought, that impulse is dealt with, not merely as an incomprehensible element, but in a way that avoids the necessity of facing it in its true form, changing it into a factor of nature, which, to an unbiased observation, it really is not.

* * *

“God was my first thought, reason my second and man my third and last one.” With these words Feuerbach describes the path along which he had gone, from a religious believer to a follower of Hegel's philosophy, and then to his own world conception. Another thinker, who, in 1834, published one of the most influential books of the century, The Life of Jesus, could have said the same thing of himself. This thinker was David Friedrich Strauss (1808 – 1874). Feuerbach started with an investigation of the human soul and found that the soul had the tendency to project its own nature into the world and to worship it as a divine primordial being. He attempted a psychological explanation for the genesis of the concept of God. The views of Strauss were caused by a similar aim. Unlike Feuerbach, however, he did not follow the path of the psychologist but that of the historian. He did not, like Feuerbach, choose the concept of God in general in its all-embracing sense for the center of his contemplation, but the Christian concept of the “God incarnate,” Jesus. Strauss wanted to show how humanity arrived at this conception in the course of history. That the supreme divine being reveals itself to the human spirit was the conviction of Hegel's world conception. Strauss had accepted this, too. But, in his opinion, the divine idea, in all its perfection, cannot realize itself in an individual human being. The individual person is always merely an imperfect imprint of the divine spirit. What one human being lacks in perfection is presented by another. In examining the whole human race one will find in it, distributed over innumerable individuals, all perfection's belonging to the deity. The human race as a whole, then, is God made flesh, God incarnate. This is, according to Strauss, the true thinker's concept of Jesus. With this viewpoint Strauss sets out to criticize the Christian concept of the God incarnate. What, according to this idea, is distributed over the whole human race, Christianity attributes to one personality who is supposed to have existed once in the course of history.

The quality and function, which the doctrine of the Church attributes to Christ, are contradictory to each other if applied to one individual, one God incarnate; in the idea of the human race, they harmonize with one another.

Supported by careful investigations concerning the historical foundation of the Gospels, Strauss attempts to prove that the conceptions of Christianity are a result of religious fantasy. Through this faculty the religious truth that the human race is God incarnate was dimly felt, but it was not comprehended in clear concepts but merely expressed in poetic form, in a myth. For Strauss, the story of the Son of God thus becomes a myth in which the idea of humanity was poetically treated long before it was recognized by thinkers in the form of pure thought. Seen from this viewpoint, all miraculous elements of the history of Christianity become explainable without forcing the historian to take refuge in the trivial interpretation that had previously often been accepted. Earlier interpretations had often seen in those miracles intentional deceptions and fraudulent tricks to which either the founder of the religion himself had allegedly resorted in order to achieve the greatest possible effect of his doctrine, or which the apostles were supposed to have invented for this purpose. Another view, which wanted to see all sorts of natural events in the miracles, was also thereby eliminated. The miracles are now seen as the poetic dress for real truths. The story of humanity rising above its finite interests and everyday life to the knowledge of divine truth and reason is represented in the picture of the dying and resurrected saviour. The finite dies to be resurrected as the infinite.

We have to see in the myths of ancient peoples a manifestation of the picture consciousness of primeval times out of which the consciousness of thought experience developed. A feeling for this fact arises in the nineteenth century in a personality like Strauss. He wants to gain an orientation concerning the development and significance of the life of thought by concentrating on the connection of world conception with the mythical thinking of historical times. He wants to know in what way the myth-making imagination still affects modern world conception. At the same time, he aspires to see the human self-consciousness rooted in an entity that lies beyond the individual personality by thinking of all humanity as a manifestation of the deity. In this manner, he gains a support for the individual human soul in the general soul of humanity that unfolds in the course of historical evolution.

Strauss becomes even more radical in his book, The Christian Doctrine in the Course of Its Historical Development and Its Struggle with Modern Science, which appeared in the years 1840 and 1841. Here he intends to dissolve the Christian dogmas in their poetic form so as to obtain the thought content of the truths contained in them. He now points out that the modern consciousness is incompatible with the consciousness that clings to the old mythological picture representation of the truth.

May, then, the believers allow the knowers to go their own way unmolested and vice versa; we do not deprive them of their belief; let them grant us our philosophy, and, if the super-pious should succeed in ejecting us from their church, we shall consider that as a gain. Enough wrong compromises have now been attempted; only the separation of the opposite camps can now lead us ahead.

These views of Strauss produced an enormous uproar. It was deeply resented that those representing the modern world conception were no longer satisfied in attacking only the basic religious conceptions in general, but, equipped with all scientific means of historical research, attempted to eliminate the irrelevancy about which Lichtenberg had once said that it consisted of the fact that “human nature had submitted even to the yoke of a book.” He continued:

One cannot imagine anything more horrible, and this example alone shows what a helpless creature man really is in concreto, enclosed as he really is in this two-legged vessel of earth, water and salt. If it were ever possible that reason could have a despotic throne erected, a man who seriously wanted to contradict the Copernican system through the authority of a book would have to be hanged. To read in a book that it originates from God is not a proof as yet that it really does. It is certain, however, that our reason has its origin in God no matter in what sense one takes the word God. Reason punishes, where it rules, only through the natural consequences of a transgression or through instruction, if instruction can be called punishment.

Strauss was discharged from his position as a tutor at the Seminary of Tuebingen because of his book, The Life of Jesus, and when he then accepted a professorship in theology at the University of Zurich, the peasants came to meet him with threshing flails in order to make the position of the dissolver of the myth impossible and to force his retirement.

Another thinker, Bruno Bauer (1809 – 1882), in his criticism of the old world conception from the standpoint of the new, went far beyond the aim that Strauss had set for himself. He held the same view as Feuerbach, that man's nature is also his supreme being and any other kind of a supreme being is only an illusion created after man's image and set above himself. But Bauer goes further and expresses this opinion in a grotesque form. He describes how he thinks the human ego came to create for itself an illusory counter-image, and he uses expressions that show they are not inspired by the wish for an intimate understanding of the religious consciousness as was the case with Strauss. They have their origin in the pleasure of destruction. Bauer says:

The all-devouring ego became frightened of itself; it did not dare to consider itself as everything and as the most general power, that is to say, it still kept the form of the religious spirit and thus completed its self-alienation in setting its own general power against itself in fear and trembling for its own preservation and salvation.

Bruno Bauer is a personality who sets out to test his impetuous thinking critically against everything in existence. That thinking is destined to penetrate to the essence of things is a conviction he adopted from Hegel's world conception, but he does not, like Hegel, tend to let thinking lead to results and a thought structure. His thinking is not productive, but critical. He would have felt a definite thought or a positive idea as a limitation. He is unwilling to limit the power of critical thought by taking his departure from a definite point of view as Hegel had done.

Critique is, on the one hand, the last act of a definite philosophy, which through this act frees itself from the limitation of a positive determination, still curtailed in its generality. It is, therefore, on the other hand, the presupposition without which philosophy cannot be raised to the last level of generality of the self-consciousness.

This is the credo of the Critique of World Conception to which Bruno Bauer confesses. This “critique” does not believe in thoughts and ideas but in thinking alone. “Only now has man been discovered,” announces Bauer triumphantly, for now man is bound by nothing except his thinking. It is not human to surrender to a non-human element, but to work everything out in the melting pot of thinking. Man is not to be the afterimage of another being, but above all, he is to be “a human being,” and he can become human only through his thinking. The thinking man is the true man. Nothing external, neither religion nor right, neither state nor law, etc., can make him into a human being, but only his thinking. The weakness of a thinking that strives to reach the self-consciousness but cannot do so is demonstrated in Bauer.

* * *

Feuerbach had declared the “human being to be man's supreme being; Bruno Bauer maintained that he had discovered it for the first time through his critique of world conception; Max Stirner (1806 – 1856) set himself the task of approaching this “human being” completely without bias and without presupposition in his book, The Only One and His Possession, which appeared in 1845. This is Stirner's judgment:

With the power of desperation, Feuerbach grasps at the entire content of Christianity, not in order to throw it away, but, on the contrary, in order to seize it, to draw upon this content for so long and so ardently desired and yet always so remote, with a last effort down from heaven, to have and to hold onto it forever. Is this not the clutch of last despair, a matter of life and death, and is it not at the same time the Christian yearning and passionate desire for the beyond? The hero does not mean to depart into the beyond, but to draw the beyond down to himself so that it should turn into this world. Has not all the world since then been screaming more or less consciously, “This world is all that matters; heaven must come down to earth and must be felt here already?”

Stirner opposes the view of Feuerbach with his violent contradiction:

The highest being, to be sure, is man's being, but exactly because it is his being and not he, himself, is it a matter of complete indifference whether we contemplate it outside man, considering it as God, or whether we find it in him and call it “the nature of man,” or the “human being.” I am neither God nor the human being, neither the highest being nor my own being, and for this reason, it is fundamentally of no importance whether I think this nature within myself or without. We do, indeed, always think the supreme being in both forms of beyondness, in the inward one as well as in the outward one at the same time, for the “spirit of God” is, according to Christian conception, also “our spirit” and “dwelleth within us.” This spirit dwells in heaven and within us. We, poor things, are nothing but his “dwelling place” and if Feuerbach now goes about and destroys his heavenly habitations and forces him bag and baggage to move into us, then we, as his terrestrial quarters, will become very badly overcrowded.

The individual human ego does not consider itself from its own standpoint but from the standpoint of a foreign power. A religious man claims that there is a divine supreme being whose afterimage is man. He is possessed by this supreme being. The Hegelian says that there is a general world reason and it realizes itself to reach its climax in the human ego. The ego is therefore possessed by this world reason. Feuerbach maintains that there is a nature of the human being and every particular person is an individualized afterimage of this nature. Every individual is thereby possessed by the idea of the “nature of humanity.” For only the individual man is really existing, not the “generic concept of humanity” by which Feuerbach replaces the divine being. If, then, the individual man places the “genus man” above himself, he abandons himself to an illusion, just as much as when he feels himself dependent on a personal God. For Feuerbach, therefore, the commandments the Christian considers as given by God, and which for this reason he accepts as valid, change into commandments that have their validity because they are in accordance with the general idea of humanity. Man now judges himself morally by asking the question: Do my actions as an individual correspond to what is adequate to the nature of humanity in general? For Feuerbach says:

If the essence of humanity is man's supreme being, then the highest and first law of his practical life must also be the love of man to man. Homo homini deus est, man is God to man. Ethics is in itself a divine power. Moral relationships are by themselves truly religious relationships. Life in general is, in its substantial connections, of a thoroughly divine nature. Everything that is right, true and good carries the ground of its salvation in its own qualities. Friendship is and shall be sacred, as shall be property and marriage, and sacred shall be the well-being of every man, but sacred in and for itself.

There are, then, general human powers, and ethics is one of them. It is sacred in and for itself; the individual has to submit to it. The individual is not to will what it decides out of its own initiative, but what follows from the direction of the sacred ethics. The individual is possessed by this ethics. Stirner characterizes this view as follows:

The God of all, namely, the human being, has now been elevated to be the God of the individual, for it is the highest aim of all of us to be a human being. As no one can entirely become what the idea of humanity expresses, however, the “human being” remains for every individual a sublime beyond, an unattainable supreme being, a God.

But such a supreme being is also thinking, which has been elevated to be God by the critique of world conception. Stirner cannot accept this either.

The critical thinker is afraid of becoming dogmatic, or of making positive statements. Of course, he would in doing so become the opposite of a critic, a dogmatist; he would then be as bad as a dogmatist as he is now good as a critic. . . . There must by no means be any dogma! This is his dogma. For the critic stays on the same ground with the dogmatist, namely, on the ground of thought. Like the dogmatist, he always proceeds from a thought, but he differs insofar as he abandons the practice of preserving the principal thought in the process of thinking; he does not allow this process to become stabilized. He only emphasizes the process of thinking against the belief in thoughts, the process of the former against the stagnation of the latter. No thought is safe against criticism because it is thinking or the thinking spirit itself. . . . I am no antagonist of criticism, that is to say, I am no dogmatist and feel that the teeth of the critic that tear the flesh of the dogmatist do not touch me. If I were a dogmatist, I should place a dogma, a thought, an idea, a principle, at the beginning, and I should begin this process as a systematic thinker by spinning it out into a system that is a thought structure. If, on the other hand, I were a critical thinker, that is, an opponent of the dogmatist, then I should lead the fight of free thinking against the enslaved thought. I should defend thinking against the result of this activity. But I am neither the champion of thought nor of thinking.

Every thought is also produced by the individual ego of an individual, even the thought of one's own being, and when man means to know his own ego and wants to describe it according to its nature, he immediately brings it into dependence on this nature. No matter what I may invent in my thinking, as soon as I determine and define myself conceptually, I make myself the slave of the result of the definition, the concept. Hegel made the ego into a manifestation of reason, that is to say, he made it dependent on reason. But all such generalities cannot be valid with regard to the ego because they all have their source in the ego. They are caused by the fact that the ego is deceived by itself. It is really not dependent, for everything on which it could depend must first be produced by the ego. The ego must produce something out of itself, set it above itself and allow it to turn into a spectre that haunts its own originator.

Man, you have bats in your belfry; there is a screw loose in your head! You imagine big things; you invent a whole world of Gods that is supposed to be there for your benefit, a realm of spirit for which you are destined, an ideal that is becoming you. You have an idée fixe!

In reality, no thinking can approach what lives within me as “I.” I can reach everything with my thinking; only my ego is an exception in this respect. I cannot think it; I can only experience it. I am not will; I am not idea; I am that no more than the image of a deity. I make all other things comprehensible to myself through thinking. The ego I am. I have no need to define and to describe myself because I experience myself in every moment. I need to describe only what I do not immediately experience, what is outside myself. It is absurd that I should also have to conceive myself as a thought, as an idea, since I always have myself as something. If I face a stone, I may attempt to explain to myself what this stone is. What I am myself, I need not explain; it is given in my life.

Stirner answers to an attack against his book:

The “only one” is a word and with a word it should be possible to think something; a word should have a thought content. But the “only one” is a thoughtless word; it does not have a thought content. What then is its content if it is not thought? It is a content that cannot be there a second time and therefore is also incapable of being expressed; for if it could be expressed, really and completely pressed out, then it would be there a second time; it would be there in the expression. Because the content of the “only one” is not a thought content, it is also unthinkable and ineffable, but because it is ineffable, this perfectly empty phrase is at the same time not a phrase. Only when nothing is said of you, when you are simply called, are you recognized as you. As long as something is said of you, you are recognized only as this something (human being, spirit, Christian, etc.). The “only one” does not contain a statement because it is only name, saying nothing more than that you are you and nothing but you; that you are a unique “you” and you yourself. Through this, you are without a predicate, and thereby without quality, calling, legal standing and restriction, and so forth. (Compare Stirner's Kleine Schriften, edited by J. H. Mackay, pp. 116.)

Stirner, in an essay written in 1842, The Untrue Principle of Our Education, or Humanism and Realism, had already expressed his conviction that thinking cannot penetrate as far as the core of the personality. He therefore considers it an untrue educational principle if this core of the personality is not made the objective of education, but when knowledge as such assumes this position in a one-sided way.

A knowledge that does not so purge and concentrate itself that it inspires the will, or in other words, that only weighs me down with possession and property instead of having become entirely one with me so that the freely moving ego, unhampered by any cumbersome belongings travels through the world with an open mind; a knowledge, then, that has not become personal will make a miserable preparation for life. . . . If it is the cry of our time, after the freedom of thought has been obtained, to continue this freedom to its end through which it turns into the freedom of will so that the latter can be realized as the aim of a new epoch, then the last aim of education can no longer be knowledge but a will that is born out of knowledge, and the revealing expression of the educational aim is the personal or free man. . . . As in certain other spheres, so also in that of education, freedom is not allowed to break forth; the power of opposition is not yielded the floor: subordination is insisted upon. Only formal and material drill is the aim of this education; in the menagerie of the humanists nothing but “scholars” are produced and in that of the realists, nothing but "useful citizens.” Both then produce nothing but submissive human beings. Knowledge must die to be resurrected as will and to restore itself daily in free personalities.

The personality of the individual human being can alone contain the source of his actions. The moral duties cannot be commandments that are given to man from somewhere, but they must be aims that man sets for himself. Man is mistaken if he believes that he does something because he follows a commandment of a general code of sacred ethics. He does it because the life of his ego drives him to it. I do not love my neighbor because I follow a sacred commandment of neighborly love, but because my ego draws me to my neighbor. It is not that I am to love him; I want to love him. What men have wanted to do they have placed as commandments above themselves. On this point Stirner can be most easily understood. He does not deny moral action. What he does deny is the moral commandment. If man only understands himself rightly, then a moral world order will be the result of his actions. Moral prescriptions are a spectre, an idée fixe, for Stirner. They prescribe something at which man arrives all by himself if he follows entirely his own nature. The abstract thinkers will, of course, raise the objection, “Are there not criminals?” These abstract thinkers anticipate general chaos if moral prescriptions are not sacred to man. Stirner could reply to them, “Are there not also diseases in nature? Are they not produced in accordance with eternal unbreakable laws just as everything that is healthy?”

As little as it will ever occur to any reasonable person to reckon the sick with the healthy because the former is, like the latter, produced through natural laws, just as little would Stirner count the immoral with the moral because they both come into being when the individual is left to himself. What distinguishes Stirner from the abstract thinkers, however, is his conviction that in human life morality will be dominating as much as health is in nature, when the decision is left to the discretion of individuals. He believes in the moral nobility of human nature, in the free development of morality out of the individuals. It seems to him that the abstract thinkers do not believe in this nobility, and he is, therefore, of the opinion that they debase the nature of the individual to become the slave of general commandments, the corrective scourges of human action. There must be much evil depravity at the bottom of the souls of these “moral persons,” according to Stirner, because they are so insistent in their demands for moral prescriptions. They must indeed be lacking love because they want love to be ordered to them as a commandment that should really spring from them as spontaneous impulse.

Only twenty years ago it was possible that the following criticism could be made in a serious book:

Max Stirner's book, The Only One and His Possession, destroyed spirit and humanity, right and state, truth and virtue as if they were idols of the bondage of thought, and confessed without reluctance, “I place nothing above myself!” (Heinrich von Treitschke, Deutsche Geschichte, Part V, pp. 416; 1927.)

This only proves how easily Stirner can be misunderstood as a result of his radical mode of expression because, to him, the human individual was considered to be so noble, so elevated, unique and free that not even the loftiest thought world was supposed to reach up to it. Thanks to the endeavors of John Henry Mackay, we have today a picture of his life and his character. In his book, Max Stirner, His Life and His Work (Berlin, 1898), he has summed up the complete result of his research extending over many years to arrive at a characterization of Stirner who was, in Mackay's opinion, “The boldest and most consistent of all thinkers.”

Stirner, like other thinkers of modern times, is confronted with the self-conscious ego, challenging comprehension. Others search for means to comprehend this ego. The comprehension meets with difficulties because a wide gulf has opened up between the picture of nature and that of the life of the spirit. Stirner leaves all that without consideration. He faces the fact of the self-conscious ego and uses every means at his disposal to express this fact. He wants to speak of the ego in a way that forces everyone to look at the ego for himself, so that nobody can evade this challenge by claiming that the ego is this or the ego is that. Stirner does not want to point out an idea or a thought of the ego, but the living ego itself that the personality finds in itself.

Stirner's mode of conception, as the opposite pole to that of Goethe, Schiller, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, is a phenomenon that had to appear with a certain necessity in the course of the development of modern world conception. Stirner became aware of the self-conscious ego with an inescapable, piercing intensity. Every thought production appeared to him in the same way in which the mythical world of pictures is experienced by a thinker who wants to seize the world in thought alone. Against this intensely experienced fact, every other world content that appeared in connection with the self-conscious ego faded away for Stirner. He presented the self-conscious ego in complete isolation.

Stirner does not feel that there could be difficulties in presenting the ego in this manner. The following decades could not establish any relationship to this isolated position of the ego. For these decades are occupied above all with the task of forming the nature picture under the influence of the mode of thought of natural science. After Stirner had presented the one side of modern consciousness, the fact of the self-conscious ego, the age at first withdraws all attention from this ego and turns to the picture of nature where this “ego” is not to be found.

The first half of the nineteenth century had born its world conception out of the spirit of idealism. Where a bridge is laid to lead to natural science, as it is done by Schelling, Lorenz Oken (1779 – 1851) and Henrik Steffens (1773 – 1845), it is done from the viewpoint of the idealistic world conception and in its interest. So little was the time ready to make thoughts of natural science fruitful for world conceptions that the ingenious conception of Jean Lamarck pertaining to the evolution of the most perfect organisms out of the simple one, which was published in 1809, drew no attention at all. When in 1830 Geoffroy de St. Hilaire presented the idea of a general natural relationship of all forms of organisms in his controversy with Couvier, it took the genius of Goethe to see the significance of this idea. The numerous results of natural science that were contributed in the first half of the century became new world riddles for the development of world conception when Charles Darwin in 1859, opened up new aspects for an understanding of nature with his treatment of the world of living organisms.



Last Modified: 15-Nov-2017
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