8 The Unconditional Principle of Morality

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015
Thomas Nemeth (ed.)Vladimir Solov’ëv’s Justification of the Moral Good10.1007/978-3-319-12775-0_9

[189]Chapter 8 The Unconditional Principle of Morality

Thomas Nemeth 

Old Bridge, New Jersey, USA



Thomas Nemeth

E] In the first edition of the compiled book (B), this chapter appeared as Chap. 7 and contained an additional nine sections (§§XI–XIX, pp. 220–249 in the first edition), which were moved to Chap. 9 in the second edition.


Neither a natural inclination to the moral good in particular individuals nor a rational awareness of one’s duty is sufficient by itself to realize the moral good. However, our moral nature actually contains the principle of something greater than itself.1

In terms of its content, the first two moral foundations —shame and pity—cannot be reduced either to the given psychic state of this or that person or to the universal rational demand of what should be. When a person is ashamed of certain desires and actions that spring from one’s material nature, that person does more than express one’s personal opinion or mental state at a particular moment. He in fact cognizes a certain reality that is independent of his opinions and contingent states, viz., the reality of the human spiritual, supermaterial essence. In feeling shame, we actually2 reject fundamental material inclinations as foreign and hostile. Clearly, the person who rejects and the thing rejected cannot be one and the same. Those who are ashamed of a material fact cannot themselves be merely a material fact. What is a material fact that is ashamed of and rejects itself, that judges itself and acknowledges itself as unworthy? Would this not be a direct absurdity, an example of the logically impossible?

Thus, the feeling of shame , which is the basis of our proper relation to material nature, is something more than a simple psychological phenomenon. In an obvious manner, we find within it a certain general truth, namely, that the human being has a spiritual, supermaterial essence. This spiritual essence in a person appears in the form of shame, and in the ascetic morality based on it, [190]not just as a possibility but also as a reality, not just as a demand but even to a certain degree also as a realization. Those whose spirit dominates their material nature have actually existed and do exist. If there are comparatively few of them, this means only that the moral demand has not yet been finally and completely realized. It does not mean that there has been no realization at all of such a demand or that it is just a demand. It is impossible to say that the moral principle of shame wholly lacks realization, but only that it has not been perfectly realized, or, in other words, that it has not achieved real perfection.

In a similar way, the feeling of pity , or compassion, which is the basis of a person’s proper relation to one’s fellow humans, expresses not only the mental state of a given person, but also a certain universal objective truth, viz., the truth of the unity of existents, or the real solidarity of all creatures. In fact, if the lives of all were not connected by this fundamental unity, if they were foreign and external to one another, one could not actually put oneself into another’s shoes, could not transfer the states of others to oneself or internally3 experience them together with others. For commiseration is an actual state and not merely an imaginary one, nor is it an abstract conception. The bond of sympathy between beings, expressed in the fundamental feeling of pity and developed in the morality of altruism, is not just a demand but also the actual start of this fulfillment. The real and historically increasing solidarity within human communities testifies to this fact.4 The defect in this morality lies not in that this morality has by no means been realized, but only that it has not yet been fully and wholly realized. Although it provides no theoretical conception of the spiritual principle in human beings, the feeling of shame does prove beyond doubt the existence of that principle. Likewise, although it tells us nothing specific about the metaphysical essence of the universal unity, the feeling of pity shows in fact the existence of a certain fundamental pre-experiential connection between distinct individuals, who although empirically separate are yet becoming all the more united in the same empirical reality.5


In the two moral spheres indicated by shame and pity, the moral good is already known to be the truth and is realized in reality, [191]albeit only imperfectly. In the third sphere of moral relations, viz., the one determined by a religious feeling, or reverence , the true object of such a feeling reveals itself to be the highest or perfect moral good, not just being realized but unconditionally and fully realized, i.e., the eternal existent.

The inner foundation of religion consists of more than a mere awareness6 of our dependence upon a power immeasurably greater than ourselves. In its pure form, the religious state ultimately amounts to the joyous feeling that there is an entity infinitely better than ourselves and that our life and our destiny, like everything that exists, depends upon it—not upon an absurd fate, but upon the real and perfect Moral Good—the indivisible, which includes everything within itself.7

The reality of what is experienced is given in a genuine religious experience. We do, in fact, perceive the real presence of the Deity and experience within ourselves his influence. Abstract arguments are powerless against such an experienced reality. If a person is ashamed of his or her animal desires, is it possible to prove to this person that he or she is merely an animal? In the very fact of shame, one senses and proves oneself to be in fact something more and higher than an animal. When, through feeling pity, the other person’s suffering arouses in us the corresponding state and forces us to be aware of this other person as a being like ourselves, what force could theoretical arguments have that the other, for whom my heart aches, is merely my representation without perhaps existing on its own? If I sense an inner connection between myself and another person, such a feeling testifies to the real existence of this other person no less than it does to my own. This conclusion, however, holds not only with respect to compassion or pity but also with respect to a religious feeling. The only difference is that the object of the latter is sensed not as something equal to8 us, but as something unconditionally superior, all-embracing and perfect. If I cannot accept the idea that a creature, which stirs in me a lively sense of compassion, itself does not live and suffer, even less can I accept that the highest, who instills reverence in us and fills our soul with unspeakable bliss, does not exist. We cannot doubt the reality [192]of what palpably acts on us and whose activity is given in the very fact of our experience. That I do not always have this experience and that others may not experience it at all no more disproves the reality of my experience and of its object than the fact that I do not see daylight at night and that the blind never see it at all disproves the existence of the sun and of sight. In addition, many people presently have, and earlier all people had, a wrong conception of the Sun, taking it to be small and revolving around the Earth. However, neither the existence of the Sun nor my certainty in it is in the least altered by this fact. In precisely the same way, theoretical contradictions and errors in religious matters have nothing to do with the real object of religion. Theological systems, like astronomical ones, are a concern of the human mind and depend upon the level of its development and on the amount of our positive knowledge. Correct theology, like correct astronomy, is an important and necessary business. However, it is not necessarily our first concern. The epicycles of the Alexandrian astronomers and Tycho Brahe’s division of the solar system did not prevent anyone from enjoying the light and warmth of the Sun, and, for all practical purposes, the error of these astronomers, once discovered, did not lead anyone to doubt the real existence of the Sun and the planets. In the same way, the most erroneous and absurd theological doctrine cannot prevent anyone from experiencing the Deity, nor can it cause anyone to doubt the reality of what is given in such an experience.

Abstract theoretical doubts have risen and continue to rise not only concerning the existence of God, but also concerning the existence of every other thing. Only people quite unaccustomed to philosophical thought can think that the existence of the physical world or even of our neighbors is obvious to the mind. In fact, such a doubt is the first foundation of all speculative philosophy worthy of the name. In one way or another, these theoretical doubts are resolved by various epistemological and metaphysical theories. However interesting and important these theories may be, they have no direct significance for life and human activity. Yet moral philosophy, the object of which is actually given in our spiritual nature and the guiding, practical truths which follow with logical necessity from that what is given, has such significance.

[193]The correlation mentioned between spiritual and physical blindness is further reinforced by the following fact. It is well known that those who are blind from birth happen to be not only quite healthy in other respects, but even have a distinct advantage over those with sight in that their other senses, e.g., hearing and touch, are more highly developed. Similarly, people who lack a receptivity to the divine light happen to be in other respects, both practical and theoretical, not only completely normal but also usually prove to have a superior ability to others in other pursuits, including the sciences. It is understandable that a person particularly attracted to the absolute center of life cannot pay equal attention to relative objects. This is why one cannot possibly be surprised that in the special mundane tasks of humanity, a great share of the work and of the successes belongs to those who are blind to the higher light. Even though such a “division of labor” is natural, it provides a certain teleological explanation of atheism, which, on the whole, must perform some positive, good purpose, whatever the particular negative causes may be in each case. If an historical event is necessary, if a real union of humanity is necessary, if it is necessary that in a given epoch people invent and construct all kinds of machines, dig the Suez Canal, discover unknown lands, etc., then it is also necessary for the successful fulfillment of these tasks that not everyone be a mystic and not even a serious believer. Of course, the highest will does not intentionally make anyone an atheist to fulfill its own historical purposes. However, a complex chain of events, conclusively affirmed by this or that voluntary decision on the person’s part, can render that person spiritually blind. Once that has happened, it is the business of Providence to direct this “harm” so that it would “not be without good,” in other words, so that the subjective wrong would have an objective justification.9


The reality of the deity is not deduced from religious experience, but is the content of such an experience. It is the very thing that is experienced. If you take away this experienced reality of a higher principle, nothing remains in the religious experience. There will be nothing left. [194]However, such experience does indeed exist, and this means what is given in it, what is experienced in it, also exists. God does exist within us; He exists.

However complete the experience of our inner unity with God, it never becomes an awareness of a single, undifferentiated identity or merger. The experience of this unity is always accompanied by10 an inseparable experience that the deity, which acts and reveals itself in us and with which we are united, is something distinct and independent of us, that it is before, higher and greater than us. Thus, God is an in itself. The object of experience is logically prior to any given experience. The reality of an object does not depend on any of its actions. When we have to say to someone, “God is not within you,”11 each of us understands that this is not a denial of the deity, but only a recognition of the moral worthlessness of that person in whom there is no room for God, i.e., no inner receptivity to God’s action. Certainly, this conclusion would not change even if we recognize12 that all people have such an inability to receive13 the deity.

It does not follow from my feeling of compassion for another person that both of us are one and the same (the very same subject), but only that I am similar to and have a sense of solidarity with this other person. Likewise, just because in a religious feeling we experience God in ourselves or ourselves in God it does not follow that we are one and the same with Him, but only that we are internally connected with Him, “for we are also His offspring.”14 Unlike in the case of our neighbors, this connection is not fraternal, but filial. It is not a solidarity of equality, but of dependence. Furthermore, this dependence is not external and contingent, but essential and intrinsic. In a genuine religious feeling , the deity is conceived as the completeness of all the conditions of our life, as that without which life would be for us absurd and impossible.15 The deity is conceived as the first principle, the true medium and the final goal of existence. Since everything is already in God, we cannot add anything, any new content, from ourselves. We cannot make absolute perfection more perfect. However, we can assimilate it more and more; we can unite ourselves more and more closely with it. Therefore, our relation to the deity is that of form to content.16

Upon further analysis of what in religious feeling is given [195]as a living experience of the reality of the deity, we find ourselves in a threefold relation to this perfect reality, to the absolute Moral Good or supreme Good: (1) We are aware that we are different from Him. Since there is in Him the full scope of perfection, we can distinguish ourselves from Him only in terms of negative qualities or determinations, i.e., in terms of our imperfection, impotence, maliciousness, and suffering. We are, in this respect, the opposite of the deity, its negative other. Such is the lower, earthly principle, from which humanity was created (his υλη, or causa materialis),17 which in the Bible is called “soil from the ground” (kaphar aadam).18 (2) However, although we are merely a combination of all possible imperfections, we are aware of the absolute perfection as that which truly is, and in this awareness we are ideally united with Him. We reflect Him in ourselves. This idea of all-unity, as forming19 the principle of our life (ειδος, causa formalis),20 is, in biblical terms, the “image of God”21 in us (to put it more precisely, a reflection, zelem from zel, or shadow). (3) In God, however, the ideal perfection is fully realized, and being aware of the deity as an idea or a reflection of him in us, we are not satisfied. Rather, like God, we want to be really perfect. Additionally, since our factual being is opposed to this, we strive to transform, or perfect, our being; we strive to liken (to assimilate) our bad reality to this absolute ideal. Therefore, although our given (or inherited) condition sets us against the deity, we are becoming similar to it in what we aspire to. The goal of our life, that for which we exist (οϋ ενεκα, causa finalis)22 is this “likeness of God” (d’mut).23

The religious attitude certainly includes discrimination and comparison. We can stand in a religious relation to what is higher only if we are aware of it in this capacity, i.e., as higher, or if we are aware of its superiority to us and, consequently, of our unworthiness. However, we cannot be aware of our unworthiness or imperfection, if we have no idea of the opposite, i.e., of perfection. Besides, if an awareness of our own imperfection and of the divine perfection is to have real efficacy, it cannot stop with this opposition but certainly must evoke a desire to eliminate it through the transformation of our reality into the highest ideal, i.e., into the image and likeness of God. Thus, [196] the full religious attitude is logically composed of three moral categories: (1) imperfection (in us), (2) perfection (in God), and (3) the process of becoming perfect (or the process whereby the first comes to agree with the second) as our life’s task.24


The psychological point of view as well as that of formal morality confirms a logical analysis of the religious attitude and of its threefold structure.

Psychologically, i.e., as a subjective state, the fundamental religious attitude is manifested25 in the feeling of reverence, or, more precisely, reverential love .26 This feeling necessarily involves: (1) self-deprecation of the one who experiences it, or disapproval of his or her present reality; (2) a positive27 feeling of the higher ideal as another reality, or as what truly exists (after all, to revere an indubitable falsehood or a personal phantasy is psychologically impossible); (3) an aspiration for a real change in oneself and in one’s reality in the sense of approaching a higher perfection. Without this aspiration, a religious feeling is transformed into an abstract thought. On the contrary, a real aspiration for the deity is already the beginning of a unification with Him. In religious love, we sense our inner connection with God at the same time as we distinguish ourselves from Him. Experiencing His reality in ourselves, we find ourselves united with this higher reality and make an (inner, subjective) start to the coming full unification of the entire world with God. Here is the feeling of inner enthusiasm and bliss, peculiar to the true religious frame of mind, a feeling that the apostle calls the “joy of the Holy Ghost”28 and “the earnest of the Spirit in our hearts.”29 This is the prophetic spirit, which anticipates the full scope of our definitive assimilation and unification with the Deity. It is not yet complete but is already actually beginning and has begun, and we already have a foretaste of the joy of this fulfillment.

[197]From the side of formal morality, an awareness (in religious feeling) of the higher ideal as actually existing and of our discrepancy with it obliges us to move towards real perfection. What arouses the feeling of reverence in us, thereby asserts its right to our devotion, and if we are aware of the actual and unconditional superiority of the deity over us, then our devotion to it should be real and unlimited. That is, it should form the unconditional rule of our life.

This religious feeling , expressed in the form of the imperative mood (the categorical imperative), tells us not only to desire perfection, but to be perfect. This means not only to have a good will, to be honest, good tempered30 and virtuous, but even to be free from pain, be immortal,31 imperishable. Not only this, but we should even do so in order that all our neighbors become morally perfect and at the same time32 free from pain, immortal and their bodies imperishable. In fact, genuine perfection should grasp the entirety of every person; it33 should extend to our entire reality, and other creatures should enter into this reality too. If, in addition to moral perfection,34 we do not want them to be free from pain, immortal and imperishable, then we have no pity for them, i.e., we are internally imperfect, and if we want, but cannot, make it so, then we are feeble, i.e., our inner perfection is inadequate to manifest itself objectively. That is, it is only subjective, half perfect, or, in other words,35 imperfect. In both cases, we have not fulfilled the unconditional command: Be perfect.

However, what does this command mean? It is quite clear that by the action of our will alone, however pure and intense it may be, we not only cannot serve the dead but, contrary to the claims of the doctrine of “mental healing,”36 cannot even always save ourselves or our neighbors from a toothache or from gout.

This clearly means that the command “Be perfect” demands not individual acts of the will, but poses to us a life-long task. A simple act of the pure will is necessary in order to accept this task, but that alone is still not enough for it to be fulfilled. The process of [198] becoming 37 perfect is the necessary and unavoidable path to perfection. In this way, the unconditional command “Be perfect,” in fact, means become perfect.

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