Steiner Online Library Spiritual Science for Human Evolution

The Philosophy of Freedom
GA 4

The Reality of Freedom

XII. World-Purpose and Life-Purpose (The Destiny Of Man)

Among the manifold currents in the spiritual life of humanity there is one which we must now trace, and which we may call the elimination of the concept of purpose. Adaptation to purpose is a special kind of sequence of phenomena. Such adaptation is genuinely real only when, in contrast to the relation of cause and effect in which the antecedent event determines the subsequent, the subsequent event determines the antecedent. This is possible only in the sphere of human actions. Man performs actions which he first presents to himself in idea, and he allows himself to be determined to action by this idea. The consequent, i.e., the action, influences by means of the idea the antecedent, i.e., the human agent. If the sequence is to have purposive character, it is absolutely necessary to have this circuitous process via human ideas.

In the process which we can analyze into cause and effect, we must distinguish percept from concept. The percept of the cause precedes the percept of the effect. Cause and effect would simply stand side by side in our consciousness, if we were not able to connect them with one another through the corresponding concepts. The percept of the effect must always be consequent upon the percept of the cause. If the effect is to have a real influence upon the cause, it can do so only by means of the conceptual factor. For the perceptual factor of the effect simply does not exist prior to the perceptual factor of the cause. Whoever maintains that the flower is the purpose of the root, i.e., that the former determines the latter, can make good this assertion only concerning that factor in the flower which his thought reveals in it. The perceptual factor of the flower is not yet in existence at the time when the root originates.

In order to have a purposive connection it is not only necessary to have an ideal connection of consequent and antecedent according to law, but the concept (law) of the effect must really, i.e., by means of a perceptible process, influence the cause. Such a perceptible influence of a concept upon something else is to be observed only in human actions. Hence this is the only sphere in which the concept of purpose is applicable. The naïve consciousness, which regards as real only what is perceptible, attempts, as we have repeatedly pointed out, to introduce perceptible factors even where only ideal factors can actually be found. In sequences of perceptible events it looks for perceptible connections, or, failing to find them, it imports them by imagination. The concept of purpose, valid for subjective actions, is very convenient for inventing such imaginary connections. The naïve mind knows how it produces events itself, and consequently concludes that Nature proceeds likewise. In the connections of Nature which are purely ideal it finds not only invisible forces, but also invisible real purposes. Man makes his tools to suit his purposes. On the same principle, so the Naïve Realist imagines, the Creator constructs all organisms. It is but slowly that this mistaken concept of purpose is being driven out of the sciences. In philosophy, even at the present day, it still does a good deal of mischief. Philosophers still ask such questions as, What is the purpose of the world? What is the function (and consequently the purpose) of man? etc.

Monism rejects the concept of purpose in every sphere, with the sole exception of human action. It looks for laws of Nature, but not for purposes of Nature. Purposes of Nature, no less than invisible forces (p. 77), are arbitrary assumptions. But even life-purposes which man does not set up for himself, are, from the standpoint of Monism, illegitimate assumptions. Nothing is purposive except what man has made so, for only the realization of ideas originates anything purposive. But an idea becomes effective, in the realistic sense, only in human actions. Hence life has no other purpose or function than the one which man gives to it. If the question be asked: What is man's purpose in life? Monism has but one answer: The purpose which he gives to himself. I have no predestined mission in the world; my mission, at any one moment, is that which I choose for myself. I do not enter upon life's voyage with a fixed route mapped out for me.

Ideas are realized only by human agents. Consequently, it is illegitimate to speak of the embodiment of ideas by history. All such statements as “history is the evolution of man towards freedom” or “the realization of the moral world-order,” etc., are, from a Monistic point of view, untenable.

The supporters of the concept of purpose believe that in surrendering it they are forced to surrender also all unity and order in the world. Listen, for example, to Robert Hamerling (Atomistik des Willens, vol. ii. p. 201): “As long as there are instincts in Nature, so long is it foolish to deny purposes in Nature. Just as the structure of a limb of the human body is not determined and conditioned by an idea of this limb, floating somewhere in midair, but by its connection with the more inclusive whole, the body, to which the limb belongs, so the structure of every natural object, be it plant, animal, or man, is not determined and conditioned by an idea of it floating in midair, but by the formative principle of the more inclusive whole of Nature which unfolds and organizes itself in a purposive manner.” And on page 191 of the same volume we read: “Teleology maintains only that, in spite of the thousand misfits and miseries of this natural life, there is a high degree of adaptation to purpose and plan unmistakable in the formations and developments of Nature ―an adaptation, however, which is realized only within the limits of natural laws, and which does not tend to the production of some imaginary fairyland, in which life would not be confronted by death, growth by decay, with all the more or less unpleasant, but quite unavoidable, intermediary stages between them. When the critics of Teleology oppose a laboriously collected rubbish-heap of partial or complete, imaginary or real, maladaptations to a world full of wonders of purposive adaptation, such as Nature exhibits in all her domains, then I consider this just as amusing — — .”

What is here meant by purposive adaptation? Nothing but the consonance of percepts within a whole. But, since all percepts are based upon laws (ideas), which we discover by means of thinking, it follows that the orderly coherence of the members of a perceptual whole is nothing more than the ideal (logical) coherence of the members of the ideal whole which is contained in this perceptual whole. To say that an animal or a man is not determined by an idea floating in mid-air is a misleading way of putting it, and the view which the critic attacks loses its apparent absurdity as soon as the phrase is put right. An animal certainly is not determined by an idea floating in mid-air, but it is determined by an idea inborn in it and constituting the law of its nature. It is just because the idea is not external to the natural object, but is operative in it as its very essence, that we cannot speak here of adaptation to purpose. Those who deny that natural objects are determined from without (and it does not matter, in this context, whether it be by an idea floating in mid-air or existing in the mind of a creator of the world), are the very men who ought to admit that such an object is not determined by purpose and plan from without, but by cause and law from within. A machine is produced in accordance with a purpose, if I establish a connection between its parts which is not given in Nature. The purposive character of the combinations which I effect consists just in this, that I embody my idea of the working of the machine in the machine itself. In this way the machine comes into existence as an object of perception embodying a corresponding idea. Natural objects have a very similar character. Whoever calls a thing purposive because its form is in accordance with plan or law may, if he so please, call natural objects also purposive, provided only that he does not confuse this kind of purposiveness with that which belongs to subjective human action. In order to have a purpose it is absolutely necessary that the efficient cause should be a concept, more precisely a concept of the effect. But in Nature we can nowhere point to concepts operating as causes. A concept is never anything but the ideal nexus of cause and effect. Causes occur in Nature only in the form of percepts.

Dualism may talk of cosmic and natural purposes. Wherever for our perception there is a nexus of cause and effect according to law, there the Dualist is free to assume that we have but the image of a nexus in which the Absolute has realized its purposes. For Monism, on the other hand, the rejection of an Absolute Reality implies also the rejection of the assumption of purposes in World and Nature.

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"You can see from this, my dear friends, what mischief will be set on foot if the truths of Spiritual Science are withheld. For man will be exposed to the forces of evil, and he will only be protected from it by giving himself up to the spiritual life of the good. To withhold the spiritual life of goodness from men is to be no friend to humanity. Whoever does this, be he Freemason or Jesuit, is no friend to humanity. For it means handing men over to the forces of evil. And there may be a purpose in doing so. This purpose may be to confine goodness to a small circle, in order by the help of this goodness to dominate the helpless humanity who are thus led by evil into the follies of life."

—Rudolf Steiner,
Spiritual Science Notes On Goethe's Faust, Vol. II, No. 273-8.

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