As we approach Michaelmas, we can ask ourselves how we might act in a more consciously responsible way with regard to the world around us. The events of the last few months, on various continents, from England to Syria, from North Africa to Norway, from North America to Somalia, are of concern for all of us in one way or another. On route to Russia, where our ISIS group has come to meet with Anthroposophical initiatives and offer workshops, I made a stop in Frankfort. Wandering through the town, I chanced upon a postcard with an excerpt of a poem by Goethe that I had learned in school. It starts like this:
Edel sei der Mensch,
hilfreich und gut
Denn dass allein
von allen Wesen
die wir kennen.
These lines can be translated as:
“May the human being be noble, ready to help others, and good.
It is these qualities alone that distinguish him from
All other known living creatures.”
This distinguishing feature in relation to all other living beings is given here as an ideal. The three qualities mentioned in these lines could be described as: a) nobleness of soul, respect for human values; b) generosity in one’s willingness to help others; c) tolerance and a peaceful attitude towards others. This profoundly humanistic poem also allows us to sense the existence of the spiritual world. Further on, Goethe describes how moral deeds are dependent upon the choices one makes and the goals one sets for oneself.
What then can we do? What deeds can we perform that work toward the ideal set forth in Goethe’s poem?
Recent world events bear witness to very difficult economic and social situations. The human behaviour displayed in these events is a far cry from the ideals Goethe wished for. In England, swarms of young people rioted with unparalleled destructive violence. In Syria, the merciless repression of the leaders has gone far beyond the limits of respect for human dignity. The violence of one lone Norwegian citizen show how strongly ideas of religious and ethnic intolerance hold sway in the world. In a recent interview, one of the richest men in the United States, Warren Buffet, condemned the egotistical behaviour of some of his extremely wealthy colleagues. In June, an article printed in the Boston Globe commenting on the present economic situation stated that the number of American children suffering from malnutrition turning up in hospital emergency rooms had doubled in the last two years. And it is easy to find many examples which serve to show the same tendencies.
In chapter nine of his Philosophy of Spiritual Activity, Rudolf Steiner, when speaking of free moral deeds, elaborates on the various reasons which cause us to act – referring to the connection between motive and driving force (the latter being an immediate impulse resulting in an action – Triebfeder in German). The motive, on the one hand, corresponds to the concept or the mental picture that we have for the deed we perform. The driving force, on the other hand, is conditioned by our character disposition, our education, our values, or by the rules of social conduct. Thus, for example, brushing one’s teeth every day may be due to vastly different driving forces depending on the individual. In one instance, this act may derive from a conscious concern for one’s personal appearance; in another case, it may be performed habitually simply because one’s parents insisted on the importance of dental hygiene.
When we perform an “automatic” deed, we are acting in direct reaction to a percept obtained through our lower senses (instincts) or conditioned by social conventions (tact). On a higher level, we may be moved to an action through our feelings (pity, compassion, etc.).
An even higher driving force is the result of thinking, reflection. But the highest of all is the act that comes from intuition, insofar as this action is free from all external (social) or individual (character) constraints. In this case, our deed is the result of a purely spiritual content; it comes directly from the realm of ideas. We act out of love for the deed itself. Then our action is truly free. Our actions, in daily life, result from varying motives. Our degree of freedom will differ depending on the specific circumstances.
The qualities set forth by Goethe are absolutely necessary for preserving our humanness, and we must continue upon this path. No deed performed in this sense is ever too small. But on the way towards free moral deeds, it is good practice always to ask ourselves our reasons for acting in one way rather than another. Simply becoming aware of the motives and driving forces behind our actions is a first step on the path of inner transformation; this is in itself a Michaelic deed. The will-strengthening exercises given by Rudolf Steiner can be of great help on this path. Our actions can then become enlightened and meaningful not only for ourselves but for mankind as a whole.
Arie van Ameringen
August 2011, Irkutsk , Siberia