A Little Apologia for Truth

By Lorenzo Ravagli, March 2020

”Assuming we want truth, why not rather untruth?” This famous question from Nietzsche resulting from too long a glance into the abyss, which looked back into the questioner, arises from the philosopher's presumption that human beings require illusions in order to master even halfway the cruelty of life with all its injustices.

From Hegel we hear quite a different tone; his words "the truth is the whole" were the result of the observation that all contradictions and also their resolution originate in the thinking. In Hegel's thinking, the Enlightenment’s concept of truth exploded; the latter, trivial as it was incomplete, consisted in the agreement of concepts with things whereas for Hegel it was the eternal movement of the world spirit which out of the division of itself finds back to its totality. As much as Nietzsche's gaze dipped into the human abyss, Hegel's gaze was turned away from it. Nietzsche was the late revenge of the abyss on Hegel – and this abyss was the lie.

No freedom without lies

Steiner, too, knew this abyss over which truth hovers, always threatening to crash into it: but he granted it justification, indeed necessity, in terms of developmental history: "The human being must have the possibility of lying so that they may come to the truth independently." (GA 127). Without the possibility of lies there can be no freedom. This assumes the choice between the truth and its opposite. And freedom cannot be obtained without selfishness because where there is no separate self there can be no self-determination.

An aphorism from 1912 goes one step further, postulating a distinction between negative and positive freedom. The ego finds itself in that it frees itself from moral law and claims the freedom to lie, while the truly free personality is determined by the wisdom that it loves: "The lie comes from selfishness, without exception. When we have found the way to wisdom through love, we have penetrated to wisdom also by means of the growing power of overcoming ourselves through selfless love . This makes the human being a free personality" (GA 143).

Education through truth

Steiner also attributes an educational function to the personal relationship with truth. Just as anger educates the sentient soul to be selfless by learning to overcome it, the truth does the same for the consciousness soul. For love of truth is the only love "that takes the ego away from itself". But the human being’s relationship with truth is subject to its own dialectic: whoever loves truth not for its own sake but for themselves falls into intolerance. Those who love their own opinions – which they believe to be true – more than truth itself become "antisocial beings" who aspire to leave the community. “Those who love the truth because of their own views and opinions are those who do not want to tolerate others going in search of the truth in a completely different way ... They are the ones who throw stones in the path of anyone who has different abilities from them and therefore comes to different opinions than they have." Honest pursuit of truth leads to a "general understanding of the human being" but the love of truth for the sake of one's own personality to the "destruction of freedom, to intolerance towards the other person" (GA 52).

The lie as murder

Some may find the law of occultism expressed in 1906 shocking, referring, as it does, to the antisocial dimension of lies: "Every lie is a murder in the astral world!" – "There is no proverb that is more untrue," Steiner continues in this lecture, "than ‘thought is free’ because every thought, every feeling is a reality; and if I think someone is a bad person or I do not love them, it is for the person who can look into the astral world [...] like a bullet from a gun [which] heads towards the astral body of the other and damages them." (GA 95)

Accordingly, thoughts that contain a truth "support" and "enliven" the being to which they refer: "When I think a truth about my fellow human being, I strengthen their life; if I utter a lie about them, I am inciting a hostile force against them which acts destructively, even murderously. Therefore lying is murder."

What in Steiner’s remarks from before the First World War still looked as if it concerned mainly the individual person and their personal relationships, revealed its social, indeed historical relevance in reflections on the War and its causes. Steiner's verdict on the zeitgeist shows the radical nature of his kind of morality which sees even a lie as murder.

The system of lies in western civilisation

As early as the second year of the war, Steiner stated in his The Karma of Untruthfulness (December 1916) that the entire Western civilization was permeated by a sphere of lies which he also made directly responsible for the War: "Just observe life, just observe whether the impulse for truth has nowadays kept pace with the ingenuity that has flowed into external culture, with the immensely admirable advances which this external culture embodies. On the contrary, we can say: in some respects people have lost the good intent to see whether what seems to be real is also somehow rooted in truth." For Steiner, there was no doubt: "On the surge of contemporary civilization ... there billows not just the rhetorical lie but the actual lie" and it "interferes with life" (GA 173a). In 1920, in a discussion evening with Swiss threefolding activists, he stated: "This lie, which went through the whole civilised world, which was kept below the surface, could no longer be held down in 1914. The whole system of lies, hidden under a thin layer, broke through" (GA 337b).

In November 1918, when the post-war order based on Wilson's manifesto of national liberation was already beginning to emerge, he told his listeners in Dornach: "Certainly, people talk a lot about truth. But nowhere have I seen greater love of illusion than in people who carry the word truth permanently on their lips [...]" (GA 185a). "There is nothing, for example, that is more detrimental to truth than nationalism. But nationalism is part of the programme that will be seen as a particularly beneficial programme for the near future [...] Therefore we will see that when nationalism wants to build – of course it can only destroy in reality – it means that the illusions separated from lies only by a narrow divide will perpetuate themselves [...]. For the same amount of untruth arises in the world as there is nationalism in the world"  (ibid.). The consequences of this untruth could be observed throughout the twentieth century. They have not really been overcome to this day.

The fact that the "system of lies" that "went through the entire civilised world" is not merely a limited historical phenomenon is indicated by a remark by Peter Sloterdijk in 2016, which was made in view of the euphoric chorus of the leading German media in respect of Angela Merkel's migration policy. He said the "lie ether" was "as dense" as it hadn't been "since the Cold War."

Anyone who wishes to penetrate to the truth behind the lie will find a further hint in Arnold Gehlen's plea for pluralistic ethics from 1969. It is usually – for obvious reasons – not quoted in full. Following remarks about the "spiritual genocide" that forcibly separated a people from its history or collectively dishonored it, he wrote: "Diabolical is the person who erects the realm of lies and forces other people to live in it. This goes beyond the humiliation of spiritual separation; then the realm of the inverted world is established, and the Antichrist wears the mask of the Redeemer, as in Signorelli's Fresco in Orvieto. The devil is not the slayer, he is Diabolos, the slanderer, the God in whom the lie is not cowardice, as in human beings, but dominion. He bars the last way out of despair, knowledge, for it is madness to set onself up in a lie. (Gehlen [1969] 2016).

As already suggested, there is only one remedy against the slanderer who appears in the mask of the Redeemer: the decision to live in truth, which undoubtedly presupposes courage. Such a decision can be made by adults but not by our children. We have the responsibility to protect them from the lie that sugarcoates reality as well as from the lie that maligns it. And in doing so we must not lose sight of the fact that we are always only in search of truth and goodness, which means that we can only educate for truthfulness and drawing as close as we can to what seems good to us.

Education to truth

Can and should we educate the growing generation to what is good and true? Undoubtedly; only let us beware of the illusion that this can be through ideological indoctrination or blunt conditioning. We cannot convey virtues to others that we do not practice ourselves, that is the simple truth. If we tried anyway, we would only fall into the hypocrisy that Steiner was so eloquent about unmasking.

"We cannot morally influence the child before the change to the permanent teeth if we preach in any way." ... "The only thing that gains access is our moral actions, what the child can see as morality in the actions, gestures, thoughts and feelings of the human environment." Without ourselves being moral, we cannot teach the child morality, whatever that morality may be.

This even continues to apply to children between the change to the permanent teeth and puberty. Even at that age moral sermons are of no use. "We can only reach the child at this age if we face them as a natural authority" – which only the person is who masters himself – "when the child can develop the impulse in their feelings: in the teachers and educators before me there is embodied goodness, embodied truth, embodied beauty.” (...) "And if the teacher and educator corresponds to the needs of the child at this age, "then there gradually arises in them "the inner aesthetic sense of pleasure and displeasure also for what is moral". "Thus the child experiences the world in the educator, the world in its goodness, the world in its evil, the world in its beauty, the world in its ugliness, in its truth, in its lie. And this correspondence with the teacher and educator, the work going on in the hidden forces weaving between the child's heart and the educator's heart, that is the most important part of the methodology of teaching, and therein lie the living conditions of education" (11 April 1924, GA 308).

Even in the third seven-year period, and here in particular, the teacher has to behave as a "practical philosopher of freedom" who must "have the right reverence for every creature placed in the world by the divine", who does not want to “overwhelm with logic” the individuality stirring in the development of the powers of knowledge and judgment, but who must bring it to find within itself the things it seeks to understand and love.

About the author: Lorenzo Ravagli is member of the editorial staff of the magazine Erziehungskunst.

Literature: A. Gehlen: Moral und Hypermoral. Eine pluralistische Ethik, Frankfurt a. M. 2016; G. W. F. Hegel: Phänomenologie des Geistes, Frankfurt a.M. 1970, p. 22; Friedrich Nietzsche: Jenseits von Gut und Böse, München 1978, p. 7; P. Sloterdijk: “Es gibt keine moralische Pflicht zur Selbstzerstörung”, Cicero. Magazin für politische Kultur, 28 January 2016, www.cicero.de/innenpolitik/peter-sloterdijk-luegenaether-fluechtlinge-koeln-silvester/plus (calle up on 8 September 2019); R. Steiner: Metamorphosen des Seelenlebens, GA 58, Dornach 1984; idem: Vor dem Tore der Theosophie, GA 95, Dornach 1990; idem: Die Theosophie des Rosenkreuzers, GA 99, Dornach 1985; idem: Die Mission der neuen Geistesoffenbarung, GA 127, Dornach 1989; idem: Erfahrungen des Übersinnlichen, GA 143, Dornach 1994; idem: Zeitgeschichtliche Betrachtungen, vol. I, GA 173a, Dornach 2010; idem: Entwicklungsgeschichtliche Unterlagen zur Bildung eines sozialen Urteils, GA 185a, Dornach 2004; idem: Soziales Verständnis aus geisteswissenschaftlicher Erkenntnis, GA 191, Dornach 1989; idem: Die Methodik des Lehrens und die Lebensbedingungen des Erziehens, GA 308, Dornach 1986; idem: Soziale Ideen – Soziale Wirklichkeit – Soziale Praxis, GA 337b, Dornach 1999.