11 The Principal Eras in the Historical Development of Personal-Social Consciousness

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015
Thomas Nemeth (ed.)Vladimir Solov’ëv’s Justification of the Moral Good10.1007/978-3-319-12775-0_12

[249]Chapter 11 The Principal Eras in the Historical Development of Personal-Social Consciousness

Thomas Nemeth 

Old Bridge, New Jersey, USA



Thomas Nemeth

C] The first version of this chapter (A), also consisting of eight sections, appeared originally as a continuation of the previous chapter. In the first edition of the compiled book (B), these sections form §§IX-XVI of Chap. 8, pp. 280–320, and there the chapter bears the title “The Individual and Society (Conclusion).”


Undoubtedly, with the establishment of the nation-state , the moral horizon of the human individual expands substantially and with it the sphere in which one’s good feelings and active will can be correctly exercised in moral actions. A certain religious development takes place with conceptions of the deity being generalized and elevated. Altruism , i.e., moral solidarity with other human beings, not only increases quantitatively, or in scope, but is also raised qualitatively, losing its predominant characteristic as a natural instinct, turning toward unseen, ideal objects: the fatherland and the state. Although these ideas are palpably realized in the unity of language, everyday life and in the present representatives of power, etc., everyone understands that these real signs do not exhaust the essence of the matter, that a change in this or that custom does not eliminate the fatherland, that the state does not disappear with the disappearance of its present representatives. Thus, the spiritual nature and the ideal significance of such objects as the fatherland and the state, in any case, remain, and the individual’s moral relationship to them, expressed in true patriotism and civic valor, presents in this sense (other conditions being equal) a higher stage of morality than the simple feelings of kinship or of a blood tie.1 On the other hand, however, it is usually pointed out that as the scope of moral relations or the social environment expands one’s inner, personal moral foundation [250]correlatively loses its living force and reality. It is said that the strength or intensity of one’s moral motivation is inversely proportional to its objective scope, that it is impossible to love one’s fatherland as sincerely and immediately as one’s relatives or friends, and that a vital interest in one’s personal welfare can never be compared with an abstract interest in the welfare of the state, let alone the universal welfare of humanity, an interest in which some even deny as a mere fabrication.

Putting aside for the time being the problem of humanity, we should recognize that the above comment concerning the inverse proportionality between the intensity and the scope2 of moral feelings has a factual basis. However, to be correctly appreciated the three following reservations must be taken into account:

(1) Independently of the manner in which human individuals, taken separately, relate to the social whole, more or less broadly conceived, there exists a collective morality , which binds these3 people into a totality—such as a mob or a nation. If there is such a thing as a criminal mob, which has now become a concern of criminologists, and if a senseless mob, a human herd, makes itself felt even more, then there is also a valiant mob, a heroic mob. And just as a mob, excited by bestial or brutish instincts lowers the spiritual level of those individuals who are captivated by it, so a popular mass stirred by collective-moral motivations lifts up those individuals in whom these motivations would by themselves be weak and insincere.4 During the era of the gentile way of life the best people aspired for a broader collective morality, and this aspiration conditioned the creation of the state, or fatherland. However, once created, this new social whole, real and powerful despite its ideal nature, exerts a direct influence not only on the best, but also on the average person and even on those individuals who are bad and are part of it.

(2) Putting aside collective morality, if, quantitatively speaking, the majority of people, taken separately,5 are bad patriots and poor citizens, this consideration is balanced qualitatively by the fact that, although not numerous,6 true examples of genuine patriotism and civic valor could have emerged in the primitive conditions of life. They became possible only with the rise of the fatherland, the state and the nation.

[251] (3) Finally, whether the moral gains attained through the enlargement of the social sphere in the nation state are great or small, they are, in any case, a gain. For this enlargement does not eliminate the earlier merit of gentile morality, but only modifies and purifies it into the form of family ties and virtues, which patriotism does not replace but only supplements. Therefore, from the point of view of the individual,7 love for millions of one’s compatriots cannot be as powerful as the love for tens of one’s close friends. Even though it is comparatively weak and does not destroy the other, more powerful one, this wider love is, nevertheless, a direct gain. Consequently, from whatever side we look at it, an expansion of the bounds of the sphere of life of a people from the gens to the state or fatherland represents indubitable moral progress, which apart from our relations to the gods and to our neighbors, can, as we will now see, be pointed out in8 the realm of our relations to lower, material nature.


The moral principle , which demands that we subordinate ourselves to what is higher and that we stand in solidarity with our neighbors, also demands that we ascend over material nature, taken as the material of reason. The immediate object of this ascendancy is the flesh of each individual person—hence ascetic morality in the narrow sense of the word. However, the material life of an individual person is only a speck of the general material life that surrounds one, and there is no logical foundation to separate this speck from the whole nor is there any practical possibility to do so. As long as external nature completely suppresses a person, helplessly lost in primeval forests amid savage beasts and forced to think only of one’s survival and the means of sustenance, any thought of the supremacy of the spirit over the flesh could hardly arise, let alone of attempts to accomplish9 such a task. A person, who of necessity starves, usually does not fast for ascetic reasons. Undergoing every kind of deprivation from birth and living under constant threat of a violent death, a person in the savage state is an ascetic, albeit involuntarily and without being aware of it, and [252]feats of endurance are of as little moral force as the sufferings of little fish pursued by pikes and sharks.

The manifestation of an inner spiritual moral force over the flesh presupposes a certain level of personal material security against the destructive actions of external nature, and a single person alone cannot possibly achieve this material security. It requires a social union. Although certain forms of ascetic morality aspire to renounce social ties, this very aspiration, obviously, could only have emerged on the basis of an already existing society. Both in Brahmin10 India and in Christian11 Egypt, ascetic hermits were products of a social, cultural environment that they had spiritually outgrown but without which they themselves would have been historically and materially impossible. Wild beasts were subdued when confronted with isolated hermits, who had voluntarily left society for the desert, even though there was no reason for the beasts to submit when confronted with the vagrant savages in forced isolation. The latter, though inferior to these beasts in terms of physical strength, were still too close to them in terms of their general level. For both victories—that over the evil beasts around them and that over the evil passions within themselves—a certain amount of culture was necessary. This was possible only through the development of social life. Consequently, ascetic morality is not a matter of a single individual, taken abstractly. Rather, it can be manifested by a person only as an individual social creature. The inner foundations of the good in a person do not in themselves depend on the forms of social life, but the actual realization of these goods presupposes such forms.12

At the original stage of social life—the gentile way of life —ascetic morality13 takes on a purely restrictive character. Besides the constraints14 on sexual sensuality by marriage mentioned above, there are prohibitions of this or that food (for example, of the totemic15 animals connected with a given gens as its spirit-protectors or as the embodiment of their ancestors), and also the restricting of the eating of meat to sacrificial feasts alone (thus, particularly among Semitic nations the flesh of domestic animals was originally the object of religious use alone, cf. Robertson Smith, The Religion of the Semites).16

Under the conditions of the gentile way of life, however, asceticism by its very essence cannot go beyond such elementary restrictions. [253]As long as personal dignity is realized only in connection with a gens or in any case only is conditioned by it, there can be no talk of the ideal of complete abstention or of a morally obligatory struggle with those passions on which alone the gentile way of life depends. The virtuous person in a gens is noted for revenge, rapaciousness, and has no right to dream of complete chastity. The ideal representative of gentile morality is the biblical Jacob, who had two wives and several concubines, who gave birth to twelve sons and increased the gentile property without consideration of the means.17

The formation of the way of life within a state turned out to have an enormous, albeit indirect, influence on ascetic morality (in a broad sense of the term), i.e., on that aspect of the moral principle which deals with the material nature of the human being and of the world and has to do with the full triumph of the rational spirit over blind, elemental forces. Human control of nature is completely impossible for the isolated savage or for the human beast, and only in rudimentary and uncertain forms is it attained at the barbaric stage of the gentile way of life. It becomes significant, durable and, above all, is continuously increasing under the conditions of a civilized existence within broadly and strongly organized political unions. A military, theocratic despotism served as a condition for the spiritual development of the solitary individual, served as a school of active asceticism for the popular masses and as the start of the subjugation of the Earth in the interests of humanity. To bring about civilization, it united people into large groups in the four different corners of the Earth—between the Yellow and Blue Rivers, between the Indus and the Ganges, between the Tigris and the Euphrates and, finally, in the Nile Valley. These military, theocratic despotisms, which remind us, in miniature, of Arakcheev’s military settlements,18 were certainly quite far from the norm of human social life.19 However, their great historical significance as a necessary moral school for primitive humanity is recognized even by the theoreticians of unconditional anarchism .20

[254]In general, in order to rise above the compulsory form of social morality savage 21 humanity must pass through it. That is, in order to outgrow despotism, savage humanity must experience it. In particular, three considerations are indubitable22 here: (1) The more difficult the initial struggle with primitive23 nature, the more it was necessary for people to unite into broad but closely knit communities, and to combine the broad expanse of a social group with the close and firm bond between its members is possible only with the strictest discipline, supported by the most powerful of sanctions, namely the religious sanction. Consequently, these political unions, which for the first time subdued savage nature and laid the cornerstone of human civilization, had to have the character of a religious, military despotism or of a compulsory theocracy. This work in the interest of civilization was executed under moral and material pressure. These “Egyptian toils”24 were not only by their very organization a school of human solidarity for the popular masses, but can be called with respect to their objective goal and result the first feat of collective asceticism in humanity, the first historical triumph of reason over the blind forces of matter. (2) The compulsory quality of this collective feat does not allow us to ascribe an ideal value to it, but this does not deprive it of all moral significance. The compulsion here is not merely material, but ultimately rests on the faith of the popular masses in the divine nature of the power that makes them work. However imperfect in terms of its object and its form this faith may be, to subordinate one’s life to it, to endure all sorts of hardships and difficulties by its demand is, in any case, a moral issue, which, not only in terms of its general historical result but also in terms of its psychological effect on each person in the popular mass, has the character of a genuine, albeit imperfect, asceticism, i.e., a victory of the spiritual principle over the carnal. If innumerable Chinese25 sincerely recognize the Chinese emperor as the “Son of Heaven,” if the Hindus seriously believe that priests spring from the head of Brahma and kings and princes from his arms, if the Assyrian king was actually [255]in the eyes of his nation the embodiment of the national god Asshur and the pharaoh was for the Egyptians actually a manifestation of the supreme solar deity, then an unconditional subordination to such rulers was for these nations a religious and moral obligation, and compulsory work in accordance with their will was an ascetic exercise. This did not apply, however, to slaves in the narrow sense—prisoners of war from foreign lands for whom their new masters’ gods were foreign gods. However, even apart from this national limitation, the general structure of these primitive religious political unions represented a basic imperfection in the sense that the gods themselves who received both voluntary and passive human offerings (both in the figurative and in the literal sense) lacked unconditional intrinsic worth, representing only the infinity of force and not the infinity of justice. A person remains morally superior to such gods, superior by feats and, consequently, by sacrificing oneself to these gods and their earthly representatives one does not find what is higher, for the sake of which it is worthwhile to give up what is lower.26 If the meaning of the sacrifice lies in cultural progress, then this meaning is only relative, for progress itself is, obviously, only a means, a path, a direction, and not the unconditional and ultimate goal. Moreover, there is in the human individual something unconditional, something that can never be merely a means. Inherent in it is the inner possibility of infinite perfection through the perception and assimilation of the absolute full scope of being. Such a society where the individual’s significance is not recognized, where the individual is considered to have only the relative value of an instrument for political and cultural ends—even if these ends are the most exalted –27 cannot be the ideal of human social life, but represents only a transitional stage of historical development. Such is the case especially with the military theocratic despotisms from which world history originates. However, (3) these primitive forms of the religio-political union demanded further progress not only owing to their imperfection. They even created by their very nature the external conditions that were necessary for this progress. For the time being, within the bounds of the gentile way of life, each member of a given social group was bound by necessity and by a sense of duty to engage in plunder, pillage and murder, to fight wild beasts, to breed domestic live-stock and produce [256]numerous descendants. Obviously, there is no place here for the higher spiritual development of the human individual. It naturally became possible only when, with the compulsory division of labor in the great religious, political organizations, there arose, in addition to the popular masses doomed to hard work, a class of people free from such work, who were secure and possessed leisure. Here alongside the soldiers there also appeared professional priests, scribes, fortune-tellers, etc., among whom a higher consciousness actually arose. This great historical moment was immortalized in the Bible in the form of a sagacious and sublime28 tale about how the best representative of the gentile way of life, Abram, with his gang of armed servants,29 humbled himself before the gens-less priest of the God Most High, Melchizedek, who came to Abram with the gifts of a new, settled30 culture—bread and wine and with the spiritual blessing of Justice31 and Peace.32, 33

The weapons of the great conquerors gradually extended the scope of the difficult collective work of the popular masses, securing the external, material successes of human civilization. At the same time, the inner work of thought among the leisured and peaceful representatives of the national, theocratic order led human consciousness to a more perfect ideal of individual and social universalism .


The first awakening of human self-consciousness in world history occurred where its sleep was the richest in fantastic and wild visions—in India. To the overwhelming diversity of Indian mythology, there corresponded a similar diversity and conglomeration of religiously political and domestic forms and conditions of life. Nowhere was the theocratic order as complex, burdened and connected with as much national and class exclusivity. Neither from China nor from Egypt, neither from the Chaldeans nor the Phoenicians and not from the Greco-Roman world but precisely from India do we get conceptions, expressing an extreme degree of separation between classes of people34 [257]and of a rejection of human dignity. If the “pariahs,” as standing outside the law, were devoid of human dignity, then people within the legitimate castes and even within the highest of these were devoid of any freedom as a result of a most complex system of prescriptions and rites, both religious and customary. However, the more narrow and artificial the fetters created by and for the spirit itself, the more they testify to its inner strength and to the fact that nothing external can definitively bind and restrain it. From the nightmare of ritual sacrifices, obligatory deeds and painful exploits, he35 awakes and says to himself: All this is only my own fabrication, which I, while asleep, took for reality; if only I could stay awake, all of these fears and sufferings would disappear. But what would then remain? To this we find a very subtle and at first unclear, but in any case significant, answer in the religion of awakening.36 Here is perpetuated the very moment of the return of the human individual from external objects to oneself, the act of identifying one’s purely negative, or formal, infinity, without any definite content. Here, the individual is aware of one’s infinitude, one’s freedom and universality only because he or she transcends every given determination, every given relation and particularity. One senses within oneself something that is greater and higher than this caste, this nationality, this cult, this path through life. He or she senses something higher than all of this. Whatever objective determination a self-conscious individual places before oneself, he or she does not stop with it; he or she knows that it was posited; this individual knows that that creation is not worthwhile and therefore abandons it: All is empty. However, if everything in the objective world is rejected and nothing is recognized as worth existing, there nevertheless remains this very spiritual power of rejection within us. Quite significantly, Buddhism recognizes this power not in the form of a solitary individual, but in a personal-social form, as the so-called Triratna, i.e., “three jewels” or “three treasures,” a faith in which every Buddhist must profess: “I recognize the Buddha; I recognize the teaching or law (Dharma); I recognize the community of the disciples37 (Sangha).”38 Therefore, even with an awareness of one’s negative infinity, the human individual cannot retain one’s isolation and segregation, but by means of the general teaching one irrepressibly passes into a social organization.

[258]All is an illusion except for three things that are worthy of recognition: (1) the person who is spiritually awake, (2) the word of awakening and (3) the brotherhood of those who are awake. Here is the genuine essence of Buddhism, which feeds the hunger of millions of souls in far away Asia.39 This is the first enduring stage of human universalism , which ascended over an exclusionary national-political order in religion and social life.

Born in a land of castes, Buddhism by no means rejected the caste organization of society nor did it attempt to destroy that organization. The followers of Buddhism simply stopped believing in the principle of that system, in the unconditional hereditary inequality of the social classes. Arising in the middle of a sharply segregated nation, it did not reject this nationality, but merely transferred human awareness into the realm of other universal and super-national concepts. As a consequence, although theoretically grounded in Indian philosophy and ultimately rejected in India, this Indian religion took root in many different nations of a different race and with a different historical background.

A recognition of the negative infinity of the human spirit was apparent to individual philosophical minds before Buddhism,40 but [259]we find in Buddhism such a recognition embodied for the first time in the collective historical life of humanity. Thanks to his moral and practical universalism, which starts not so much from the mind alone as from the heart, Shakyamuni, the Buddha, created a form of social life previously unprecedented—a brotherhood of beggar-monks of every caste and of every nationality—“listeners” (Shravaki) of the true teaching, followers of the perfect path. Here for the first time, the dignity of the individual and the relationship between the individual and society is definitively determined not by the fact of hereditary membership in a specific gens or a specific national political organization, but by an inner act of selecting a certain spiritual ideal. The theoretical conceptions of the first authentic Buddha and the everyday life-style conditions of his monastic brotherhood underwent a number of historical transformations, but the moral essence of what he expressed and created has remained up to now solid and crystal clear in the Lamaian monasteries of Tibet and Mongolia.

The moral essence of Buddhism, as a personal social formation, which for two thousand odd years has adequately defined its historical existence, lies in the feeling of religious reverence for the first Who Has Woken Up—the spiritual ancestor of all those who later woke—for the totally blissful teacher. It is a demand for holiness or the complete lack of a will (inner asceticism as opposed to the external mortification of the flesh, which the “gymnosophists” have exercised and still are exercising but which did not satisfy the Buddha-Shakyamuni). Finally, there is the commandment of universal kindness or favorable compassion for all creatures without exception. With the latter, however, [260]the most comprehensible and attractive side of Buddhism also reveals its inadequacy.


From the Buddhist point of view, what in essence distinguishes someone who is spiritually awake from one who is not? Accepting the suggestion of sensory illusions, someone who is not awake takes apparent and temporary distinctions to be real and definitive, and as a consequence of this wants and fears various things, strives for one and is disgusted by another, loves some and hates others. Those who have woken from these sleepy agitations understand that these objects are empty and therefore calm down. Finding nothing on which it would be worthwhile to concentrate their will, they are free of all desire, preference and fear and thereby lose all reason for discord, anger, enmity and hatred. Being free of the passions, they experience the same feeling of benevolence or pity for everything without exception. However, where do they get this feeling? Having become convinced that everything is empty, that all the objective conditions of being are illusory and insignificant, an awakened sage should be absorbed in a state of unconditional impassivity, equally free from spite as well as from pity. Both of these contradictory qualities equally presuppose, first, confidence in the actual existence of living creatures, and second, a distinction of one from the other (for example, the suffering ignoramus, who appeals for pity, to the completely beatific Buddha, who has no need of it), and finally third, pity no less than spite moves us to certain acts that are dependent on the objective qualities and conditions of the given being, and all this is quite incompatible with the fundamental principle of universal emptiness and indifference. Buddhist moral doctrine demands active self-sacrifice. Indeed, this demand is connected with the very concept of a Buddha. The perfect Buddha (such as Gautama Shakyamuni) is distinguished from the imperfect or solitary Buddha (Pratyeka Buddha) by the fact that he is not restricted by his own awareness of the painful emptiness of being, but resolves to liberate all living creatures from this torment. This general decision was preceded in his earlier existences by individual acts of [261]extreme self-sacrifice, which are replete in Buddhist legends. (For example, in one of his earlier existences he sacrificed himself to a raging tiger in order to save a poor woman with children.) By such exploits (in contrast to the pointless self-destruction among the pre-Buddhist ascetics of India) the highest bliss is directly achieved for everyone “who is awake.” In this way, a typical and well-known tale concerns one of the apostles of Buddhism—Aryadeva. Approaching a certain city, he saw an injured dog that was infested with worms. In order to save the dog without destroying the worms, Aryadeva placed the worms on a piece of his own body that he had cut off. At that moment both the city and the dog disappeared before his eyes, and he was at once plunged into Nirvana. Such active self-sacrifice out of pity towards all living creatures, which is a distinctive trait of Buddhist moral teaching, cannot, however, be logically reconciled with the fundamental principle of the Buddhist worldview, i.e., with the doctrine of indifference and the emptiness of everything. Certainly, in feeling pity for everything equally, from Brahma and Indra to a worm, I do not violate the principle of indifference. However, as soon as the feeling of universal compassion becomes a deed of salvation, it is necessary to bid farewell to indifference. If, instead of a dog with worms, Aryadeva had met a person suffering from delusions and vices, pity for this “living creature” would demand from him not a piece of his flesh, nor words of the true doctrine, while to address him with rational admonishments would be no less absurd than to feed a satiated but deluded person his own flesh. Thus, equal pity for all demands not an equal, but a completely different active 41 relationship to each. This distinction turns out not to be merely illusory for the Buddhist. For he certainly agrees that if Aryadeva had not distinguished the worm and the dog from the human and had offered suffering animals soul-saving books to read, he would hardly have been able to complete any work and deserve Nirvana. Thus, along with an all-embracing pity there must be a distinguishing truth that renders to each his own: a piece of meat to an animal and a word of spiritual awakening to a rational creature. However, it is impossible to stop with this. Pity for all makes me wish for each and all the higher and final good, which lies not in satiety, but in perfect deliverance from the torment of this limited [262]existence and the necessity of rebirths. However, the worm, remaining a worm, cannot attain this deliverance—the sole true real good. Only the self-conscious and rational creature can attain it. Therefore, if I must extend pity to all lower creatures, I cannot limit myself to a simple easing of their present sufferings, but must help them achieve their final goal through rebirth in higher forms. Meanwhile, Buddhism rejects the objective conditions of being as empty and illusory. Consequently, the ascension of living creatures up the ladder of rebirths depends exclusively on their own actions (the law of karma): The form of the worm is the inevitable fruit of earlier sins, and no help from without can raise this worm to a higher level, say, that of a dog or an elephant. The Buddha himself could directly act only on conscious, rational creatures and then only in the sense that his preaching gave them the possibility to accept or reject the truth: in the former to be saved from the torment of rebirth and in the latter to continue to undergo it. All that those “who are awake” can hope for in their salutary effort is to arouse their sleeping neighbors, some of whom will thereby awake, while others will merely change one set of painful dreams for another, even more agonizing set.

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