The Origin of Evil –
Egotism as a Double-Edged Sword / by Orna Ben Dor
On the one hand Steiner teaches us that egotism is the source of all evil in the world, but on the other hand he claims that the achievement of independence and self-confidence requires a violation of socially-oriented moral principles and the adoption of egotism. This article explores why evil is necessary and fundamental to development
Orna Ben Dor
Steiner argues that in every era there are few who advance humanity. These people continue to reincarnate and assume different roles. In the transition between the Atlantic period and our own day and age, a certain group of people survived the catastrophe referred to in the Bible as the “Deluge.” This group generated a new civilization. Steiner believed that in the future, at the end of the “post-Atlantic period,” an ‘All Out War’ would break out. The Apocalypse, the war of good versus evil, will be fought by those who are being trained now.
Only those who are neither soft-hearted nor naïve can assume that role. Those who are unacquainted with evil cannot belong to this group and, according to the Anthroposophist faith; the training for this decisive part has already began in previous lives. This karma-related group often takes part together in decisive historical events, e.g. wars, crusades, etc. “The common characteristic of all evil is nothing but egotism,” asserts Steiner ,and adds that: ” Every human evil originates from egoism”1.
“..All human evil proceeds from what we call egotism. In the whole scope and range of ‘wrong’, from the smallest oversight to the most serious crime, whether the imperfection or evil originates more in the body or in the soul, egotism is the fundamental trait which underlies it all… and that the path which leads beyond evil here in the physical world is the one upon which we combat egotism.”1
In fact, Steiner declared, unequivocally, that the source of all evil lies in egotism and that evil could thus be conquered only through a struggle against egotism. However, immediately after this resolute statement, Steiner presents the problem it embeds:
“Alongside this realization we have to admit another one which confronts us in our spiritual research as something of a quite distressing nature. For when we examine the faculties and capacities we need to develop in order to elevate ourselves into the world of spirit, into the worlds we can only perceive in body-free state, when we consider the soul-exercises which must be practiced to ascend into this world, we find that quite particular qualities and characteristics must be strengthened in the soul. These are ones which in the sense world make the soul stronger, more independent and self-reliant. Qualities in other words which in the physical sense-world appear as egotism, must actually be strengthened and intensified to enable us to ascend into the world of spirit.”2
Hence, we encounter a paradox. On the one hand, we find the claim that egotism is the source of the world’s evil – the human being focuses on his/her self, disregarding the “other” as a “self,” thus breaching ethical principles. On the other hand, Steiner argues that in order to achieve mental strength, independence, and a sense of self-worth, a person must necessarily contravene the fundamentals of altruism and become egotistical:
“In its literal sense, egotism is the characteristic which impels a man to give first place to his own advantage and the enhancement of his own personality, while its opposite, altruism, aims at placing human faculties at the service of others, indeed, of the whole world” 2
The paradox of the “self,” defined by Steiner as a double-edged sword, is crucial as it touches precisely upon the meeting point between development and petrification:
“On the one hand this “I” is the cause that man hardens within himself, and that he desires to draw into the service of his “I” his inner capacities and all the other objects at his disposal […] But on the other hand he must not forget that the “I” is at the same time that which gives man his independence and his inner freedom, which in the truest sense of the word elevates him. His dignity is founded in this “I,” it is the basis of the Divine in man”3.
Let us now examine a few aspects of egotism that were not raised by Steiner: a reluctance to give or share with others, pettiness (even regarding minor needs), striving to achieve one’s targets regardless of the price others may have to pay, a sense of superiority, feelings of entitlement, arrogance, exploitation of others, fanaticism and extreme ambition – both material and spiritual – often at the expense of others. Some of these traits may be found in people of stature, with a spiritual mission, who may have initially advanced precisely due to these characteristics.
In order to describe the contradiction between the problematic moral value of egotism and its necessity, Steiner provides the allegory of the rose:
“The plant draws in whatever it needs for growth; it asks not why or wherefore; it flowers because it flowers and cares not whom it may concern. And yet, it is by drawing its life-forces and everything it needs for itself from its environment that the plant acquires whatever worth it can have for its environment and finally for men. Indeed, it attains the highest degree of usefulness that can be imagined for a created being, if it belongs to those realms of the plant world which can be of service to higher beings. And it will now be an idle triviality to repeat here a familiar saying, although it has been quoted so often:
When herself the rose adorns, She adorns the garden”.2
The example of the flower thus stresses the mutual benefit of drawing from one’s surroundings and giving back to it. Each act of giving begins with an act of receiving – drawing resources from one’s surroundings in order to grow and expand. Even spiritual hierarchies that aim at pure endowing were once at the receiving end. This can be seen as the egotistic stage in which “we gaze upwards into spiritual heights, to super-human beings, and these become ever mightier and mightier.” This power, Steiner argues, is acquired by the fact that :”they demand something from the world, and that later on they develop to the point, when they themselves have something to give.” Thus, he concludes: “the whole meaning and spirit of evolution rests on the fact that we pass from taking, to giving.”3
History is replete with spiritually-oriented people who showed egotistic tendencies and committed immoral deeds in order to achieve their goals. In fact, it should be assumed that significant tools for the benefit of humanity are often achieved by breaching moral codes and are applied by those with a spiritual mission. For example, a rebellious, opinionated, selfish child, who “gives his parents a hard time” and is not obedient and well-behaved may be seen as one who creates important tools for a spiritual future.
Unethical deeds that eventually benefitted the world may only be recognized in hindsight. For example, in the biblical story, Rebecca, who wishes that her son Jacob will receive birthright, devised a plot to enable him to deprive it of his brother, Esau. The deed is immoral, but essential to the history of the People of Israel, and humanity as a whole. In addition, King David sent Uriah to die in battle because he coveted the latter’s wife, Bathsheba. Nathan the Prophet rebuked David for his sin, but that wrongdoing yielded Solomon – an outstanding king and the wisest man who ever lived.
Another famous example is Socrates, one of the foremost Greek philosophers and a cardinal founder of Western philosophy, who was considered a sinner. Indeed, according to the norms of Ancient Greece, he corrupted youngsters by instilling unacceptable ideas and promoting heresy. It is important to note that immoral acts do not remain unpunished. Karma-wise, each act is rewarded. It should be borne in mind, at the same time, that when an individual commits bad deeds, s/he acquires skills that may eventually be conducive to spiritual development and giving.
Of course this moral complexity does not call for a state of ethical anarchy. Morality is pivotal to human society – when the ‘self’ develops, morality arises naturally and freely. This is the yet-to-come morality that does not stem from duty but emerges from love. As Steiner emphasizes, “we reach the highest ethical principles and are able to understand them only at the end of our pursuit of wisdom. As he states in addition: ” moral and social communities and activities cannot exist without ethics or morals..”4
Moral attributes that are developed prematurely, such as giving, sacrifice, etc. can weaken the self. Altruism that aims to please or any giving that seeks to prevent an encounter with the self may seem positive, but ultimately reduces the self as: “everything which causes a man to strive to lose his “I” and dissolve it into a universal consciousness, is the result of weakness.”5
Many join the collective that advances ethical values out of a fear and loathing of evil, thus relinquishing their ‘selves’ for the benefit of general ideals. Each collective essentially embeds the ideals of an individual self with those of a collective self. The latter constitutes an island of absolute virtue, sometimes in order to avoid evil. Thus, a world is created which is seemingly benevolent, but evil does not vanish. On the contrary – it is often monstrous, because of the fact that is not dealt with. This position may be seen in fascist and communist regimes, and peaked in Nazism. It can also be encountered in smaller groups, e.g. sects, communes and clans. However, those who pass through evil, digest it and cope with it, are eventually immune and may resist malevolence. In order to meet the wickedness without, an individual must first encounter the evil within him/her. The successful triumph over inner evil generates greater benevolence. Indeed, Steiner claims that the ability to overcome evil produces greater humans: “You must not think that evil has no part in the plan of creation,” he wrote, “[i]t is there in order that through it may come the greater good.”5
A person who adheres to the existing morality and preaches altruism is compared by Steiner to a monkey who walks into a cold room and demands that the heating will be turned on, without understanding what it requires of him, and without grasping the actual need. Much like the monkey, who does not consider heating up the room, human beings do not fathom acting out of altruism, even if they are commanded to practice it time and again.
The true message is not yielded by conceptions or preaching, but as part of the human experience of belonging to the world. After s/he is shaped-up by the resources of the world, i.e. after the egotistic stage, the individual takes a sharp turn and applies these resources toward a benevolent and beneficial understanding with the world and toward enhanced giving: “Hence, man will best fulfill his existence if he draws in as much as possible from the outer world and makes his own everything that can blossom and bear fruit in himself.”2
* Unless otherwise stated, all quotations were taken from Rudolf Steiner Online Archive.
1 Steiner, R. (1914),’Spiritual Science as a Treasure for Life’, lecture 6, ‘The Evil’, GA63
2 Steiner, R. (1909), ‘Metamorphoses of the Soul’, Paths of Experience’, Vol. 1, Lecture 7: Human Egotism, GA58
3 Steiner, R. (1909), ‘The Spiritual Hierarchies, Their Reflection in the Physical World’, Lecture 4, GA 110.
4 Steiner, R. (1912), ‘The Spiritual Foundation of Morality’, Lecture 1, GA155
5 Steiner, R. (1908), The Apocalypse of St. John, Lecture 8, GA 104