12 Abstract Subjectivism in Morality

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015
Thomas Nemeth (ed.)Vladimir Solov’ëv’s Justification of the Moral Good10.1007/978-3-319-12775-0_13

[278]Chapter 12 Abstract Subjectivism in Morality

Thomas Nemeth 

Old Bridge, New Jersey, USA



Thomas Nemeth

E] Most likely written at the end of 1896 or early 1897, this chapter is largely a reply to the views of L. Tolstoy and B. Chicherin.


With Christianity, human consciousness reaches the historical stage at which the moral life is revealed to be a universal task , embracing everything. Before speaking of its formative historical conditions, we must dispel the view that, in principle, rejects morality as a historical task, as a concern of the collective human being, and instead reduces it entirely to the subjective, moral impulses of individual people. This view arbitrarily constrains the human moral good in a narrow way that it has never really known and does not now know.1 Properly speaking, morality was never merely a matter of personal feeling or a rule concerning private behavior. In the gentile way of life, the moral demands of reverence, pity and shame were inseparably connected with the obligations of the members of a gens to the gentile unit. What was considered “moral” was indistinguishable from the “social,” the individual from the collective. If, in this way, morality turned out to be rather base and limited, it was not owing to the fact that morality was collective, but only to the generally low level and narrow limits of the given way of life, which expressed merely an elementary stage of historical development. It was base and limited only in comparison with further moral progress, but not in comparison with the morality of savages living in trees and in caves. In spite of the relative separation and isolation of domestic life, with the formation of the political state the interaction between individuals and the collective whole to which they belonged grew ever wider, more complex and came to determine morality in general. [279]It became impossible to be moral outside a definite and positive relationship to the state. Morality was, above all, a matter of civic virtue. If such virtus antiqua ultimately does not satisfy us, it certainly is not because it was a matter of a civic as opposed to a domestic virtue alone, but because such civic-mindedness was too far from the genuine social idea. It represented merely a transition from barbarianism to a truly human culture. If morality valiantly serves the social whole, viz., the state, but the state itself rests on slavery, incessant war, etc., then what is to be condemned here is not the social character of morality, but the immoral character of society. Certainly, in the same way we rightfully condemn the morality of the medieval church not because it was the church’s, but because at that time the church was far from the model of a truly moral organization and because along with the moral good it was responsible for evil—the terrible evil of religious persecutions and torture—thereby violating the unconditional principle of morality in its own, inner sphere.2

As the “gospel of the kingdom,”3 Christianity appears on the scene with an unconditionally high ideal, with a demand for an absolute morality. Should this morality be merely subjective, i.e., limited merely to the inner states and individual actions of the subject? The answer can already be found in the question itself. However, in order to present this issue clearly, let us recognize from the outset the truth in an exclusively4 subjective Christianity. Undoubtedly, a perfect, or absolute, moral state must be fully experienced, felt, and assimilated by the single individual inwardly. It must become one’s own state, the content of one’s own life. If perfect morality were recognized as being subjective in this sense, then any dispute concerning it could only be a matter of words. However, the issue here concerns another question: How do separate individuals attain moral perfection? Is it purely a matter of the individual’s own, inner efforts to improve oneself and proclaim the results, or is it achieved with the help of a certain social process, which acts not only individually but also collectively? Those who support the first view, which reduces the entire issue to a matter of individual [280]moral work, certainly deny neither the existence of social life nor the possibility of morally improving its forms. However, they suppose that such improvement is merely the simple and inevitable result of personal moral achievements: The situation with the individual is just like that with society. If individuals would only understand and uncover their true essence and arouse morally good feelings in their own souls, a paradise would be established on Earth. It is indisputable that without such feelings and thoughts there can be neither personal nor social morality. It is also indisputable that if all individuals were morally good, society would also be so.5 However, to think that the actual virtue of a few good people alone is enough to morally regenerate all the others is to pass into a world6 where babies are born from rose bushes and beggars eat sweet cakes because there is no bread. Surely, the issue here is not only whether the individual’s moral efforts are enough to make oneself perfect, but whether these individual efforts alone can possibly get other people, who make no moral efforts, to start doing them.7

The inadequacy of a subjective moral good and the need for it to be embodied in the collective is demonstrated quite clearly by the entire course of human history. I will limit myself to just a single vivid illustration.


With apparent sympathy, we are told at the end of Homer’s Odyssey how this typical Hellenic hero reestablished justice and order in his house and destroyed his rivals after his ultimate victory over the enmity of the gods and of men. With the help of his son, he executed the servants who in his absence of 20 years, when his fate was unknown and considered by all to be dead, did not oppose Penelope’s suitors. These servants sided with the suitors, who made themselves at home in Odysseus’s house:

Then when they had made the whole place quite clean and orderly, they took the women out and hemmed them in the narrow space between the wall of the domed room and that of the yard, so that they could not get away: and Telemachus said to the other two, “I shall not let these women die a clean death, for they were insolent to me and my mother, and used to sleep with the suitors.”

So saying he made a ship’s cable fast [281]to one of the bearing-posts that supported the roof of the domed room, and secured it all around the building, at a good height, lest any of the women’s feet should touch the ground; and as thrushes or doves beat against a net that has been set for them in a thicket just as they were getting to their nest, and a terrible fate awaits them, even so did the women have to put their heads in nooses one after the other and die most miserably. Their feet moved convulsively for a while, but not for very long.

As for Melanthius, they took him through the cloister into the inner court. There they cut off his nose and his ears; they drew out his vitals and gave them to the dogs raw, and then in their fury they cut off his hands and his feet (Odyssey, XXII, 457–477).9

Not only were Odysseus and Telemachus no monsters, but on the contrary they ­represent the highest ideal of the Homeric era. Their personal morality was irreproachable; they were full of piety, wisdom, justice and all family virtues. Moreover, in spite of his courage and steadfast nature in the face of disaster Odysseus had an extremely sensitive heart and wept at every appropriate occasion. He has this characteristic and very remarkable trait throughout the entire poem. Since I have not found special references to this predominant trait of our Homeric hero in the literature, I will permit myself to go into some detail.10 Already with his first appearance in The Odyssey, our hero11 is presented as crying.

but Ulysses was not within; he was on the sea-shore as usual, looking out upon the barren ocean with tears in his eyes, groaning and breaking his heart for sorrow. (V, 82–84; also 151, 152, 156–158)12

He himself recounts:

I stayed with Calypso seven years straight on end, and watered the good clothes she gave me with my tears during the whole time. (VII, 259–260)13

He cried at the thought of his far away land and family and also upon recalling his own exploits:

the muse inspired Demodocus to sing the feats of heroes, and … [282]the quarrel between Ulysses and Achilles…. Thus sang the bard, but Ulysses drew his purple mantle over his head and covered his face, for he was ashamed to let the Phaeacians see that he was weeping. (VIII, 73, 75, 83–86)14

And more:

All this he told, but Ulysses was overcome as he heard him, and his cheeks were wet with tears. He wept as a woman weeps when she throws herself on the body of her husband who has fallen before his own city and people, fighting bravely in defense of his home and children. … even so piteously did Ulysses weep…. (VIII, 521–525)15

He cried when he learned from Circe of his coming voyage, though quite safe, into the realm of Hades:

I was dismayed when I heard this. I sat up in bed and wept, and would gladly have lived no longer to see the light of the sun. (X, 496–499)

It is no wonder that Odysseus cries when he sees his mother’s shadow (XI, 87), but he is affected in the same way by the shadow of the worst and most licentious of his fellow combatants, who was ruined by an evil demon and the power of indescribable wine. (XI, 61)17

We had with us a certain youth named Elpenor, not very remarkable for sense or courage, who had gotten drunk and was lying on the house-top away from the rest of the men, to sleep off his liquor in the cool. When he heard the noise of the men bustling about, he jumped up on a sudden and forgot all about coming down by the main staircase, so he tumbled right off the roof and broke his neck, and his soul went down to the house of Hades.(X, 552–561)18

I was very sorry for him, and cried when I saw him. (XI, 55)19

[283]He cries at the sight of Agamemnon:

we two sat weeping and talking thus sadly with one another. (XI, 465–466)20

Odysseus cries bitterly upon finally coming to his native Ithaca (XIII, 219–221) and even more intensely on first meeting his son:

They were both so much moved that they cried aloud like eagles or vultures with crooked talons that have been robbed of their half fledged young by peasants. Thus piteously did they weep…. (XVI, 215–220)21

Odysseus sheds a few tears on seeing his old dog Argus:

…he dashed a tear from his eye without away without Eumaeus seeing it.… (XVII, 304–305)22

He cries before murdering his wife’s suitors, and as he embraces the divine swineherd Eumaeus and the god-like cowherd Philoetius (XXI, 225–227), and also cries after the savage massacre of the twelve maid-servants and the goatherd Melanthius:

It made him feel as if he should like to weep, for he remembered every one of them. (XXII, 500–501)23

The last two cantos of the Odyssey are certainly not without abundant tears from our hero:

Then Ulysses in his turn melted, and wept as he clasped his dear and faithful wife to his bosom. (XXIII, 231–232)24

And more:

When Ulysses saw him so worn, so old and full of sorrow, he stood still under a tall pear tree and began to weep. (XXIV, 233–235)25

[284]As for his personal, subjective sensitivity, Odysseus obviously is in no way inferior to the most intellectually developed and highly-strung person of our day. In general, the Homeric heroes were as much capable of all the moral feelings and tender emotions as we are and not just in relation to their neighbors in the narrow sense of the word, i.e., to people with whom they shared immediate common interests, but also to strangers and people from distant lands. The Phaeacians were of such a sort to the shipwrecked Odysseus—and yet what gentle human relations grew between them! And if in spite of all this the best of the ancient heroes did things with a clear conscience that are now morally impossible for us, then this was surely not a result of a deficiency in their personal subjective morality. These people were, in any case, as capable of morally good human feelings towards their neighbors and strangers as we are.26 Where is the difference, and how do we account for the change? Why did the virtuous, wise and emotional people of the Homeric era consider it permissible and commendable to hang thoughtless female servants as thrushes and to crush up unworthy male servants into fodder for the dogs when such behavior can now be done only by maniacs and born criminals? Reasoning abstractly, one could suppose that people of that long ago era did not consciously have morally good principles and rules, even though they had sincere, morally good feelings and impulses. This is why because of the simple factual character of one’s morality, the absence of a formal criterion between what should be and what should not or of a clear awareness of the distinction between good and evil, even the best person can manifest fits of savage brutality unhindered along with the keenest moral affects. However, in fact, we do not find such a formal defect in the ancient worldview.

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