NEW  The Biocentric Metaphysics of Ludwig Klages | Introduction to Cosmogonic Reflections | Aphorisms 1-100 | Aphorisms 101-200 | Aphorisms 201-300 | Aphorisms 301-400 | Aphorisms 401-515 | A Letter On Ethics and Imagination and the Images | The Problem of Socrates and Images and their Messages | Reflections on "Psychoanalysis" | Man and Earth | Soul and Spirit | Selected Poetry | Consciousness and Life | Rosenberg contra Klages | Webmaster: Kevin Alfred Strom | Kevin Alfred Strom Historical Archive

Translated by Joe Pryce

516. A Letter on Ethics. What does our moralist really want? Obviously, he wants to "improve" man ethically, and to keep on improving him, until, finally, perfection graces the earth. Of course, there can be no doubt as to the moralist’s good intentions and no one would wish to cast aspersions on the "purity" of his heart. But it is also obvious from the outset that he has not the slightest inclination to open up for critical discussion such issues as how he intends to accomplish his purpose and how he has achieved such certainty as to the correctness of that purpose. Nor does he seem at all eager to disclose just who or what has charged him with his mission to change everything that lives and breathes. We might also wish to enquire of him whether or not his program of "improvement" has the slightest prospect of success!

Ethical codes are always presented to us by their apologists as if they were solid structures standing firmly upon the bedrock of facts. Nevertheless, the moralist, who regards man and the world as interchangeable terms, is not permitted to draw any conclusions from an examination of the behavior of "man" as he conducts himself in the visions of poets and dreamers. The moralist must instead focus his attention solely upon the mankind whose exploits constitute the chronicle known as "world history." On this matter, we can quite easily demonstrate something that everyone should surely comprehend even without our assistance: that the mankind of blood, murder, betrayal, violence, and greed, is without even a superficial resemblance to the product of wishful thinking that inhabits the brain of the moralist. It is the intention of the moralist that everyone around him should "improve" himself. He transports his "idea of the good" into the future, which he always finds to be a more congenial place than the sorry present: previously, mankind was malicious and vile, and even now, admittedly, he possesses these vicious traits in abundance. But hearken! Man will now improve himself more and more until, perhaps, some fine day in the distant future, he will draw nigh to the realization of the "idea of the good," albeit there is only a slim chance that he will, in point of fact, attain to the highest pitch of perfection. The moralist is alone in his conviction that the fulfillment of his expectations really lies within the realm of possibility. But how will he go about changing the crimes and the misdeeds that have already occurred? How could history’s countless millions of villains—known and unknown—the backbiters, the poisoners of hearts, the jealous, the dishonorable, the slanderers, the schemers, and the parasites (both physical and spiritual), be improved so long after we have buried their corpses? Or does our moralist restrict membership in his "mankind" to those now living? Or is he talking about those particularly fortunate men who have been cunning enough to postpone the hour of their birth to a later century when, at long last, these illustrious ethical ideals shall have been brought to fruition? Will a single atrocity that transpired in an earlier time be negated, or minimized, merely because some future generation—I know not which—will finally rejoice in having attained to complete moral perfection? How little truth there is in the moralist’s schemes will, perhaps, be made somewhat clearer if we ponder, for a moment, the fortunes of those doomed souls who were forced to suffer under the vile French Revolutionary government, with its treason, deceit, lawlessness, theft, betrayal, and every conceivable form of torture!

Let us consider the bitter anger of nobles who, with gnashing of teeth, humiliated themselves by groveling before their vicious revolutionary captors, lest a proud demeanor offend their jailers and lead to their heads being hacked off; the pain and anguish of the myriad victims who fell to the bloodsucking guillotine; and the helpless endurance of shame and betrayal by the guiltless. Are they, somehow, to have their sufferings cancelled or ameliorated retroactively, as it were, because, after the lapse of some unspecified number of millennia, a spotless generation shall have inherited the earth? Just as it is certain that an event that has transpired can never be transformed into a "non-event," it is equally certain that no rational person can conceive of "improving" those who have already been buried in an "unimproved" state! I might draw your attention here to the affinity that exists between these ridiculous schemes for moral improvement and two of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity. The first is the curious notion that mere "faith" in the mission of the Christian redeemer "makes blessed." However one interprets this doctrine, such blessedness can only benefit a limited segment of mankind, for it pertains only to those individuals who were born after a certain point in history. As a matter of fact, there were not a few simpletons during the late Middle Ages who were absolutely certain that Plato and Aristotle, even if they had managed to avoid hell-fire, were at least suffering the torments of purgatory! The second Christian doctrine holds that the first priority on "Doomsday" will be answering the divine accountant’s questions regarding profit and loss; there is no need for us to make any further comment on that piece of information!

In aiming at this pretended improvement of mankind, nothing—and whoever denies this is something of a deceiver—nothing takes precedence before natural good faith, i.e., a faith that is guileless, unconscious, and, hence, instinctual. Deceit plants itself within the heart; the head, as always, will manage to concoct reasons with which to reinforce a predetermined faith.

The mere practitioner of ethics would not, of course, force the issue; if mankind has hitherto shown no interest in being saved, the practical moralist would merely would comment that his true concern is with the living and the yet unborn. On bended knee, he will pronounce his fervent wish that such and such evil deeds shall never again come to pass. The theoretician of ethics, however—the one who is, so to speak, "in the know"—need make no concessions. Thus, because he has nothing to say about the "eternal law" and the "absolute good" (although he himself certainly aspires to their realization), he will explain that the whole project of "improvement" is nothing more than a hygienic measure, as if one were to drain a swamp that is swarming with infectious mosquitoes or send the shoe that is pinching one’s foot to the shoemaker for repairs. In order to achieve his goals, he employs no "moral claim," no "categorical imperative"; instead, he mouths those more or less emphatic phrases with which one provides oneself in order to emphasize one’s devotion to duty. Let us now revert to the true moralist.

We have seen that the very idea of "improving" mankind is a pious self-deception, because, regardless of how much improvement occurs in mankind, in the long run, every human being must, alas, die and decompose. Now we ask ourselves if it is only the improvement of future generations that is to enter into the moralist’s reckoning. But aren’t we ourselves—the living and the present—the bodily, psychical, and spiritual descendants of the same mankind that oozed bloody murder and vileness long before we came upon the scene? Does not their blood course through our veins and arteries? We think of ourselves as being racially pure members of an advanced, "guileless" stock; but is it not the case that the future will infallibly bring about an ever-increasing process of racial bastardization? And does not such racial pollution infect only the innocent, and never those—we’ve no need to speak the name of the tribe aloud—who are the unrecognized criminals of the heart? Do we not find, throughout history, that the party of the degenerate always triumphs over the party of the noble? Is it really necessary that we trot out every scrap of irrefutable evidence that proves our point? Constantine the so-called "Great," Karl the so-called "Great" [Charlemagne], Gregory, Torquemada, Cortez, Cromwell, Robespierre, and so many others: is it not true that the only essential distinctions to be drawn between such characters concern the measure of horror and destructiveness with which each one conducts his orgies of mass-murder? Yet it is these same so-called "great men"—whose actions have set mankind upon the road that he now travels, and whose careers have determined the destiny of succeeding generations—whom we insist upon calling the "great"! It is less the noble souls than the criminal spirits, i. e., those who have created, and still create today, the history of the world, who comprise our ancestral heritage. With a very great semblance of truth, one might say that we are engaged in the incessant debasement of mankind.

Meanwhile, the ethical teacher retorts, if at any time the ethical idea were to achieve complete success, or only partial success, or even no success whatsoever, that would have no bearing on the issue, for the "Ideal" would endure and would advance its inviolate demands, and only the demands of this "Ideal" deserve man’s attention. The success or failure of his actions is not decisive for the moralist, and should his efforts run aground a hundred times in a row, the "good" would still remain, no less than before, the guiding principle of his striving. However, we might wish to examine these ideals of his a bit more closely at this juncture.

In earlier publications I adduced many reasons that lead us to the conclusion that we must examine the relationship between two ultimate and irreducible principles in order to account for the history of man; and I have further indicated that these two powers stand in opposition to each other, and that the degree to which one of these powers gains ascendancy entails the reciprocal weakening of the other. Regardless of the verbal form in which this insight makes its appearance, the truth behind the insight can and must be demonstrated. On the other hand, there is certainly no conclusive explanation as to why each individual must affiliate himself with one party or the other; perhaps it is merely a personal disposition which determines which of the parties to the dispute one holds to be a constructive force and which is seen as a destructive one. Let us elaborate: I call the one +x, so I must call the other –y; on the other hand, when I speak of –x, there must also be a correlative +y. The customary names for that which appears to me to be the constructive power and, thus, the +x, are nature, sensuality, and heart. More precise and correct terms would be life, cosmos, and soul. My –y, consequently, would be will, deed, Logos, mind, "idea," "God," "supreme being," the pure subject, the absolute ego, and spirit. At present, one side of the ledger is recognized by our ethical teachers, an admission that is attended by a qualification, for they feel that the concession of which we speak in no way entails agreement with any imputation of "dualism" to the constitution of man. They deny as well that the "idea of the good" stems from nature. Above all, however, they deny with all of the force that is in them our view that between the two opposed forces, spirit and soul, there exists a relationship of opposition or hostility. On the contrary, they assure us that nature is an "exposition" or "revelation" of the "idea of the good." Before we prove conclusively that they have already landed themselves in insuperable logical contradictions, we might examine the provenance of their opinions with some profit.

The "idea of the good" is characterized from the outset by the making of demands or, in other words, by the giving of commands. More than that, it is, so to speak, the "command in itself," the absolute command, the old categorical imperative! Thus, whoever maintains this point of view reveals that it is precisely in introducing this "categorical imperative" into the spatio-temporal world that he concedes that the world itself was brought into being by a command. But that claim differs not in the least from the Mosaic creation-myth; it is identical to the procedure employed by Jahweh, the God of the Jews. And let us avail ourselves of this opportunity to put our finger on the reason why this Mosaic idea, which has no parallel among other cultures, is without a doubt the most preposterous sort of impudence: such arrogant impostures could never have arisen among healthy natures. They have survived among us only because the inhabitants of Christendom have had these lunatic fables drummed into their heads since childhood; as a result, they can never escape from idiocies in comparison with which all of our extant ghost stories and fairy tales have the appearance of truth. One laughs at those who believe in ghosts, one mocks at the fetishes and idols of "primitive" tribes, one considers it to be an astounding phantom of the brain when the Orphic theologians of ancient Greece sought the origin of the world in the primeval ovum; one doesn’t even notice that no cosmogony ever devised by the mind of man possesses a fraction of the absurdity inherent in the Mosaic world-creation on demand! For no command can ever have the power to create one single object, not even the rain-drop that beats upon my window-pane.

When the sergeant shouts the order "Halt!" or "March!", is the energy that sets the soldier in motion released as soon as the command is issued, or does it require the living force embodied in the soldier who hears it? What holds true in this case holds true in every other. Surely the command cannot produce results by itself, for it always requires the innate responsive force of the person who has heard it. In other words, the command requires the whole spatio-temporal world, particularly its vital energy and, ultimately, a conscious mind within that world, to recognize the existence of the command: without such responsive recognition, it is nothing.

The Mosaic creation-myth, on the other hand, maintains that a mere command brought forth the entire universe out of nothingness. And the identical procedure holds for the ethical teacher when he explains the spatio-temporal actuality as a phenomenal reproduction of his "idea of the good," of the categorical imperative, of the absolute demand. Whereas, however, he somehow suppresses as an unholy fiction the opposition between the two powers of spirit and soul, a view that he can never endorse, he is forced back upon his own theory. Therefore, as we now wish to demonstrate, that which he preaches is, in fact, nothing but mortal hostility to life! We now understand that he is compelled to weave his phantoms in order to conceal this hostility from himself, for very few men of the modern age have the courage to admit that the battle between the two hostile powers even exists. Here, we must go all the way back to the so-called "Dark Ages," even back to the apologists and "Fathers of the Church," to encounter those—such as agitator Augustine—whose basic viewpoint was that God’s crucial commandment requires that we flee the "world of the senses." With those ancient ethical teachers one can come to an understanding of sorts. Each party can admit to the other that they represent two irreconcilably hostile powers, and thus they are in basic agreement on at least one crucial point. The opposition is crystal clear: they believe in the unyielding strife between heaven and hell. Each party, of course, sees heaven in what the other regards to be hell. On the other hand, no reconciliation is possible with the ethical teacher of today, who wages war against life, and who has no inclination to parlay with the enemy. Like the Church Father, he stands on the side of the enemies of life, but, unlike them, he is ignorant, he hides behind a mask, he is a liar: and he is devoid of self-understanding. But let us now proceed to the conclusive proof of his self-contradiction!

What is the very essence of a command or an order? One must answer: a precept. But what exactly is a precept? To this we respond: always and everywhere it is a prohibition! The commands say, of course, "you must." In general, there is clearly no incentive in ordering someone to do that which he is quite prepared to do on his own. As we all know, however, he does not do whatever it is that we would command him to do "on his own," and so he must be prompted by a command. Without a doubt, his actions would be quite different in the absence of the command; a different command would likewise bring about a different outcome. Thus we must ask: wherein lies the essential nature of the moral command? And we must respond: in the suppression of a vital process or condition. I have scarcely opened the pages of the Roman Catholic catechism when I discover that, out of the "Ten Commandments," seven employ the formula "Thou shalt not," whilst the remaining three take the "Thou shalt" form. But it require no great critical astuteness to perceive that even these three have merely cloaked their negative substance in a positive verbal disguise. The essence of every commandment—and every categorical imperative—is to forbid something; that which is forbidden is, in every case, a natural or vital process. Therefore: the categorical imperative is the categorical annihilation of vitality.

We advance to the ultimate proof of our contention. Every moral "you must" is directed against that which the moralist considers to be a "sin," thus the moralist always brandishes before the mind of man the concept of "sinfulness," or "wickedness." Without this concept of "sin," nothing would make the slightest sense to the moralist! The concept of sin covers, in fact, every "categorical imperative," every ethical demand, and every conceivable virtue (one can already see this happening in St Paul). In the case of the animals, it is obvious that, since one cannot attribute the capacity for sin to them, they can commit no crime and will never be able to comprehend the claims of ethics. Life, therefore, knows nothing of sin; therefore, life is without sin and, hence, without guilt. We now ask, what is the peculiar significance of the Mosaic invention of sin? We hold the solution to that puzzle as soon as we realize that, according to the laws of the church, there is, in word and deed, only one "mortal sin," i. e., the sin against the "Holy Spirit." The predicate "Holy," teaches us that the highest value, the summum bonum, the "supreme being," the ens realissimum of the ethical conscience is the spirit. Thus, there is only one genuine sin, the sin against the spirit! Now, as we have said, the spirit stands in opposition to life; therefore, what is considered to be sinful is life itself! From this quandary, no escape is possible. In order to understand an ethical "you must," I must first erect the concept of "sin," and in order to erect that concept, I must make spirit the measure of life, in such a manner, that life itself is directly connected with sin. And now we have arrived at the discovery of that truth which the teacher of ethics is hiding with his faith in the world-creating power of the commandment: the discovery that he himself stands in the service of a power that aims at the destruction of life; the ethical teacher is trapped, as it were, behind his spiritual barbed-wire, which mutilates life and sucks its blood; his mission is to poison his flock with the insane conviction of "sinfulness," and in order to achieve this end he must stuff the heads of his sheep with threatening fairy tales in order to contaminate and confuse their instincts. The teacher of ethics is nothing but the bloodless successor of inventive priests, and he will remain the advocate of negation forever and beyond. The priestly initiators may have been no more than a pack of ingenious con-men, but their followers are actually con-men who have managed to con themselves, con-men in all innocence, con-men with a good, even with the best—conscience.

A word has just escaped me that the ethical teacher always relies upon to bolster his case against me. He denies the "heteronomy" of the moral will of course, but he retains, on the other hand, the "autonomy" of his categorical "you must." He draws our attention back to the renowned "conscience," for he wishes somehow to make us believe that this conscience of his is part of man’s constitutional endowment, and that it is an inalienable datum of man’s inner life. Here, he is apparently saying: you would even disavow the "voice of conscience"; more, you would make yourself the advocate of every type of irresponsibility; you may even want to encourage every sort of wickedness and criminality!

On the contrary, we must ask him: if conscience is, in fact, a reality of life, why then is it not found anywhere else in the whole animal kingdom?! If we wish to ignore the animals, is not primitive man in deep accord with the confirmed criminal in that neither has the slightest comprehension of the experience of conscience? How are we to doubt this fact? Now, Shakespeare, who knew more about man than all of history’s moralists put together, has his Richard III gloatingly aver that he has willed himself into becoming a villain! Shakespeare understood that the truly great villain never regrets the calamities that he has brought about; he only feels regret when he has failed to achieve his foul purpose. And where indeed can we find the conscience in such luminaries as Julius Caesar, Nero, Tiberius, Cromwell, Napoleon, etc.? As Goethe has said: "The man of business never has a conscience; at least, no one has ever encountered it." Accordingly, we revert to the erroneous view that conscience is an original fact of experience, and now permit ourselves to report our findings: the commander requires an obedient listener, otherwise his command amounts to nothing; the categorical imperative thus requires the presence of persons who believe that such an imperative is sacred, or, more simply put, who believe that "Lord" Jahweh needs his slaves or it’s all over for his "Lordship." The ethical conscience certainly exists, for without it there could be no ethical teachers. But there also exists a power that is hostile to life, and this power loudly proclaims its presence in "conscience." So little substance, however, inheres in this conscience that is "common to all men," that we can dismiss those who are most deeply scarred by its stigma as "slave-men," which is precisely what Nietzsche calls them. How this "slave-man" arises will be, for those who have followed our exposition thus far, a simple question to answer: the "slave-man" has arisen, and he will arise, always and everywhere, as a result of racial bastardization and poisoning of the blood; and the slave-man has, as his necessary complement, the criminal. Thus, the student of life views the phenomenon of moralism as the spiritual expression of bad blood.

Since, however, it is a demonstrable error to consider the faith in duty as deriving from the sphere of life, we must at least point out that the instigators of moralism are lying when they attempt to persuade us that the amoral man, and the immoral one, represent the opposite of conscience, or even its absence. In fact, this false claim leads directly to the third allegation: that there is no conceivable value-system other than the ethical one, nor can there be. That, however, is irrelevant in view of man’s status as bearer of spirit, i. e., one for whom the logical norm is by no means the ethical norm. As long as I only search for truth, discover truth, prove truth, I am ethically indifferent. But there exists, in opposition to the spirit’s mode of evaluation, a value-system which regards man from the standpoint of life. Just as the philosopher of spirit considers everything that denies spirit to be a "sin," the philosopher of life regards that which denies life to be an offense. The concept of sin sprouts from the same soil that nourishes ethics, but the concept of the offense has very different roots indeed. On this point, language dispels all doubt. Just as the moralist is completely bound by his dread of the sin against the spirit, so are we bound by our opposition to the offense against life. No one speaks of a sin against a tree, but men have certainly spoken in the past—and even today many still speak—of an offense against a tree. The tree neither is a spirit, nor does it house the spirit, and thus no one can commit a sin against it; nevertheless, the tree certainly lives, and therefore one can commit an offense against it. And just as the "sinner" must endure the destructive will of spirit when he experiences his ordained "punishment" in the midst of men, so is the offender against life punished according to the world-principle of retribution when he is confronted by the "vengeance of the Erinyes." The principle that embodies the offense against life is the categorical imperative. Therefore: the ethical teacher is unconsciously a systematic offender against life.

And so, therefore, we place opposite the forced denial of life an affirmative attitude. Accompanying the rejection of the offense, must be a positive, caring attitude towards life. It is with some unease that I refer to this as education, because, as we have already seen, that word has already been pressed into the service of a moralistic sort of guidance for the soul. We will, however, employ the word education, provided the facts of the case are made clear.

No guide of the soul will ever be persuaded that he can change or improve anything at all. From the pine-cone comes the pine-tree, from the beech-nut comes the beech-tree, from the acorn comes the oak-tree, and the guardian of the seed is neither its procreator nor the sculptor of its form. A plant does, nonetheless, require light and moisture, and the fortunes of the plant will depend to a large extent upon my caring for its needs. Thus, vital soul-guidance lies not in the direction of the command and the promotion of the sterilizing faith in such threatening expressions as "you must." Vital soul-guidance serves to provide the soul with sustenance. Had the expression "care of the soul" not been tainted by a parsonic after-taste, there would be no better phrase to apply to the work of the esoteric soul-guide.

Where now do we find the mediators of the soul? We find them in wonder, love, and the example of heroes. The soul finds wonder in the landscape, in poetry, and in beauty. Thus, you look upon a landscape, a poem, or a thing of beauty, to see whether or not you can discover the beauty that flourishes therein. Love—in the broadest meaning of the word—entails reverence, admiration, and adoration: indeed, every type of heart-felt recognition that is warm and true, which can be evoked only by the beloved. The eternal icon that illustrates the soul’s guide is embodied in the mother with the beloved child. The soul receives every shining ray of maternal love. The soul’s examples are gods, poets, and heroes. The soul participates in the advent of the heroes when it delights in their shining shapes. And if you do not find that wonder, love, and example are flourishing within you, then it is your own inner life that is impoverished and no guide of the soul has the power to enrich you. For this is the secret of the soul: that it only grows richer by giving of itself. It is not the love that one receives that enriches the soul, but the love that is kindled within one through the receiving of that love. Thus, if you find that you are unable to arouse within your soul the secret wonders and the secret heroes, then the dazzling spectacle of the world would remain a mere theater production. Since your soul cannot respond, its guide will abandon you, and then you can sit yourself down and listen, unharmed, to—a lecture on ethics.

517. Imagination and the Images. Our so-called "imaginations" are the creations of our spirit…and they must on no account…be confused with images, which have a capacity for vital activity. The activity of imagining is, of course, always connected with particular life-processes, but even when, as often occurs, these relate to exactly the same state of affairs, the activity of one must be rigorously distinguished from the other…A doctor who, during a cholera epidemic, "imagines" this sinister disease in the greatest detail… does not for this reason catch the disease. But if anybody is forced to concern himself with it in his "imagination," from violent fear of contagion, he is, in fact in greater danger of infection than those who are indifferent and fearless…because in his state of fear the image of the disease…acts organically, inhibiting and paralyzing the protective instincts of the organism. (SW 4 p. 326)

Translated by Joe Pryce from the original sources. For reference, notes refer to the more easily obtainable texts:

AC=Klages, L. Zur Ausdruckslehre und Charakterkunde. Heidelberg. 1926. 

AG=Klages, L. Ausdrucksbewegung und Gestaltungskraft. Munich. 1968.

LK GL=Schroeder, H. E. Ludwig Klages Die Geschichte Seines Lebens. Bonn. 1966-1992. 

PEN=Klages, L. Die psychologischen Errungenschaften Nietzsches. Leipzig. 1926

RR=Klages, L. Rhythmen und Runen. Leipzig. 1944. 

SW=Klages, L. Sämtliche Werke. Bonn. 1965-92.

NEW  The Biocentric Metaphysics of Ludwig Klages | Introduction to Cosmogonic Reflections | Aphorisms 1-100 | Aphorisms 101-200 | Aphorisms 201-300 | Aphorisms 301-400 | Aphorisms 401-515 | A Letter On Ethics and Imagination and the Images | The Problem of Socrates and Images and their Messages | Reflections on "Psychoanalysis" | Man and Earth | Soul and Spirit | Selected Poetry | Consciousness and Life | Rosenberg contra Klages | Webmaster: Kevin Alfred Strom | Kevin Alfred Strom Historical Archive

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