Live and let live

By Lorenzo Ravagli, February 2015

It was a pithy maxim which the 32-year-old Rudolf Steiner came up with for free spirits. “Live and let live” it said. Twenty-five years later he extended this short formula and added “love” and “understanding”.

Photo: © zettberlin/

No self-realisation without acceptance

This sentence in the first edition of the Philosophy of Freedom of 1893 comprises two complementary perspectives. The perspective of the individual striving for self-realisation, wanting to give expression to their ideas and develop themselves, and the perspective of the other letting them live. So we have freedom, self-realisation on the one hand and tolerance and acceptance on the other. The self which realises itself lives in and through the acceptance of others. But only someone who themselves is accepted as a self can accept others. Self-realisation without acceptance of the other would be a lack of consideration and without acceptance by the other a chimera.

Human freedom is a pre-eminent social category for Steiner as early as 1893. In other words: I do not act in a vacuum but always in relation to a community with which I am integrated. The quoted maxim summarises Steiner’s response to the question how it would be possible for people to live together if everyone was only concerned to assert their individuality.

Let us imagine the unlikely case of a college of teachers or a group of parents who consisted only of notorious individualists, all of whom were only concerned to assert themselves in respect of others. Such a community could hardly be described as a community and it would sooner or later descend into chaos. In order to prevent such chaos, would it not be necessary to set up clear rules which everyone has to follow without exception, to which everyone is subject? Yes, Steiner responds, if we want to have a society consisting of a whole lot of robots, a community which extinguishes all individuality, then it would have to be organised like that. Such a society would hardly deserve the name either.

How, then, can the contradiction between self-realisation and acceptance be resolved? It will not work without a little bit of effort. Because the members of the community have to find a way of understanding that they – as Steiner puts it – belong to a “united” world of ideas out of which they act. What unites people is the world of ideas which itself represents unity in diversity. Such a unity can theoretically be taken as existing because the world of ideas is the embodiment of what can be thought, has been thought or has not yet been thought. Thus there cannot be several separate worlds of ideas between which there is no communication. But in real life we have to work to achieve such a unity and thus agreement. We can only know about the spiritual content of the other individuality when it comes to expression. The labour which leads to reciprocal acceptance is dialogue.

In a few words Steiner encapsulates the fundamental problem of all totalitarian societies which try to give their members happiness through a unitary ideology. They extinguish the individuality because they will not accept that individual people obtain an understanding of the unified ground of ideas from which we all live by individual means through life experience. “The difference between me and my fellow human being,” Steiner says, “is not that we live in two completely different spiritual worlds but that he or she receives different intuitions from the ones I do out of our common world of ideas. They want to give expression to their intentions, I to mine. If both of us truly draw on ideas and do not follow external drives, we can only meet one another in the same striving, in the same intentions.” The “same striving” and the “same intentions” does not mean that we all want the same thing but that the reservoir from which we draw our intuitions is one and the same.

The dual condition which Steiner sets here is a crucial one: the two individuals who encounter one another must truly draw their intentions from the world of ideas and not follow any external drives. Colleges of teachers or parents who are in dispute should therefore ask themselves two things: do they have an awareness of the “unified” world of ideas from which they draw their intentions and have they raised their respective ideas to ideals – to inner drives? Once we have understood and accepted that agreement can only be reached by way of ideas, for example the idea of supporting a child in the best possible way, the most we can argue about is how to implement that. This is a question of “moral imagination” and “moral technique”.

The former is the ability to derive concrete thoughts from ideas, the latter is based on a knowledge of the world of appearances into which we want to implant our idea – both assume agreement on the leading basic intuitions. Teachers and parents should therefore not omit to ask one another certain fundamental questions when they come together to support the child. The question, for example: what do you want, what are you striving to achieve with regard to your child or the child entrusted to your care? Which ideal do you want to serve? The crucial questions are always simple. At the same time they are the most difficult to ask. But what prevents us from making the attempt?

Knowledge assumes affection

We might find help in the greater precision with which Steiner formulated the “maxim of free spirits” in 1918.

There he says: “Live in love for action and let live in the understanding of another person’s volition” Once again we see both perspective addressed here: self-realisation and acceptance. But now there is also an indication how both things are possible at the same time – through love and understanding.

Love is the highest drive of any out of which human beings can act on the basis of the Philosophy of Freedom. And understanding also assumes love. Steiner referred to this in something else he wrote in his book. “The power of love” flows in the thinking from which all understanding arises and through which it is able to “submerse itself in the phenomena of the world with warmth”. In other words: knowledge assumes affection. I can only understand the nature of a thing or of a person if I open myself to it unconditionally. From this perspective the thinking is an organ of perception. Thinking does not mean maintaining a cold distance but loving involvement, not division but fusion. Steiner elsewhere also referred to such affection as “devotion”.

The question is, do we develop such warmth in our thinking through which we immerse ourselves in the phenomena of the world, that is, also in the other person? Do we include the people with whom we interact daily in our love? Or do “external drives” prevent us from developing it? Such external drives can, for instance, be “instincts”, “drives”, “emotions” or “obligations”.

Natural drives and obligations cause disharmony

“Only the morally unfree person who follows natural drives or an assumed obligation will reject their fellow human beings if they do not follow the same instincts or obligations,” it says in the Philosophy of Freedom. “Natural drives” and “obligations” sow disharmony, they lead to us rejecting others, to us not recognising them as individualities with their own volition, in their individual dignity. Just think of the IS terrorists who abuse thousands of women and sell them into slavery. They justify their actions with twisted religious obligations. Natural drives and an enforced morality enter into a catastrophic coalition here to extinguish the individuality of the abused women, and women as such.

Far less barbaric but no less harmful for coexistence between people is spreading rumours, judgements about other people which are not based on a loving understanding but are fed by antipathy or veiled hatred. The importance of rumour in the dynamic of social relationships should not be underestimated. Rumours mostly arise when there is a lack of perception. Absent observations are replaced by the imagination. The first rule of social coexistence should say: look at the people with whom you are dealing. If you have questions about them, then ask them – not someone else!

Just as our cognitive process should be filled with love, indeed, is only opened up through love – after all, it “opens our eyes to the merits of the loved being” – so according to Steiner’s maxim our action should equally be filled and supported by love. But let us not misinterpret Steiner! Far from setting up a new rule, he is only describing the state in which free spirits find themselves.

Fruits of freedom

Where love as a source of action can lead is shown in people such as Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi, St Francis of Assisi, Mother Theresa or Rudolf Steiner. The fruits of freedom which grow under their hands indicate the warmth which filled their actions. The ability to bless and provide comfort is only one of the abilities which grows out of such warmth. It is not always the case that the diplomats travelling the world in the name of peace are always the born peacemakers. Frequently we never learn the names of the true peacemakers because their actions are unspectacular and take place covertly.

Every time that someone forgives out of love or does not insist on their rights, when they sacrifice their pride or open a path of compromise because they waive their maximum demands and are willing to share with others, they send out the warmth which helps to melt the social freeze. The most unremarkable everyday acts can be a source of such warmth.

Life with children, ordinary everyday upbringing, feeds on such moments of spontaneous displays of affection. Signs of its presence are smiles and the infectious cheerfulness they cause. A sombre mood and grouchy seriousness bring about a mood inimical to love. The same, incidentally, also applies to the way that adults deal with one another. If we try to meet others with affectionate understanding, if we immerse ourselves in their being as it reveals itself with all our cognitive powers, then the latter can unfold like a flower in the sunlight. And a horned being turns into a crowned being under the influence of the transformative power of love. This applies in equal measure to the person understood and the person understanding. Here there takes place in everyday life, in the here and now, on earth, that face-to-face understanding to which St Paul already referred.

And let us take this image to its conclusion: if our view of the other is penetrated by the warmth of love and the light of understanding, the crowns on our heads open up and can be guided by the light which shines on all of us. Like heliotropic beings we will then follow the light of the sun in our movements which shines on all of us. The German poet, philosopher and playwright Friedrich Schiller summarised such a state of consciousness in his couplet: “Do you seek the highest, the greatest? The plant can teach you to do so. What it is without will of its own, that you should be with intent – that’s the point!”

These two lines refer to refer to the kind of action which flows from the world of ideas we all have in common. It is based on the acceptance of the freedom of the other person, it takes place in dignity and it unites us in peace.

To the author’s blog