The Experimental Life

Agathe has forged an alteration to her father’s will with the intention of cutting out her estranged husband, Hagauer. Ulrich is troubled by this deceit and struggles with how to address this with Agathe. But what is morality in modern times?

It occurred to him right at the start, for instance, that whenever he had taken a “moral” stance so far, he had always been psychologically worse off than when he was doing or thinking something that might usually be considered “immoral.” This is a common occurrence, for in situations that are in conflict with their surroundings these ideas and actions develop all their energies, while in the mere doing of what is right and proper they understandably behave as if they were paying taxes. This suggests that all evil is carried out with zest and imagination, while good is distinguished by an unmistakable dreariness and dearth of feeling. Ulrich recalled that his sister had expressed this moral dilemma quite casually by asking him whether being good was no longer a good thing. It ought to be difficult and heartbreaking, she had maintained, and wondered why, nevertheless, moral people were almost always bores.

He smiled contentedly, spinning this thought out with the realization that Agathe and he were as one in their particular opposition to Hagauer, which could be roughly characterized as that of people who were bad in a good way to a man who was good in a bad way. Leaving out of account the broad middle of life’s spectrum, which is, reasonably enough, occupied by people whose minds have not been troubled by the general terms good and evil since they let go of their mother’s apron strings, there remain the two extremes where purposeful moral efforts are still made. Today these are left to just such bad/good and good/bad people, the first kind never having seen good fly or heard it sing, thus expecting their fellowmen to enthuse with them about a moral landscape where stuffed birds perch on dummy trees, while the second, the good/bad mortals, exasperated by their competitors, industriously show a penchant for evil, at least in theory, as if they were convinced that only wrongdoing, which is emotionally not quite as threadbare as doing good, still twitches with a bit of moral vitality. (II,893-894)

Ulrich has never personally found satisfaction is any of the passing movements that sought a new ground for morality.

Ulrich was not the man to indulge himself lightly in such exaltation of his feelings, least of all with this letter to write, so he redirected his mind into general reflections. These would have been incomplete had he not remembered how easily and often, in the times he had lived through, the longing for some duty rooted in completeness had led to first one virtue, than another, being singled out from among the available supply, to be made the focus of noisy glorification. National, Christian, humanistic virtues had all taken their turn; once, it was the virtue of chromium steel, another time, the virtue of kindness; then it was individuality, and then fellowship; today it is the fraction of a second, and yesterday it was historical equilibrium. The changing moods of public life basically depend on the exchange of one such ideal for another: it had always left Ulrich unmoved, and only made him feel that he was standing on the sidelines. Even now all it meant for him was a filling in of the general picture, for only incomplete insight can lead one to believe that one can get at life’s moral inexplicability, whose complication have become overwhelming, by means of one of the interpretations already embedded within it. Such efforts merely resemble the movement of a sick person restlessly changing his position, while the paralysis that felled him progresses inexorably. (II,896)

Can morality be re-defined with scientific precision?

Even in his greatest dedication to science he had never managed to forget that people’s goodness and beauty come from what they believe, not from what they know. But faith had always been bound up with knowledge, even if that knowledge was illusory, ever since those primordial days of its magic beginnings. That ancient knowledge has long since rotted away, dragging belief down with it into the same decay, so that today the connection must be established anew. Not, of course, by raising faith “to the level of knowledge,” but by still in some way making it take flight from that height. The art of transcending knowledge must again be practiced. And since no one man can do this, all men must turn their minds to it, whatever else their minds might be on. When Ulrich at this moment thought about the ten-year plan, or the hundred- or thousand-year plan that mankind would have to devise in order to work toward a goal it can have no way of knowing, he soon realized that this was what he had long imagined, under all sorts of names, as the truly experimental life. (II,897)

But Ulrich is not naïve.

The stern glow on his face went out, and his dangerous favorite idea struck him as ridiculous. As though with one glance through a suddenly opened window, he felt what was really around him: cannons, and business deals. The notion that people who lived in this fashion could ever join in a planned navigation of their spiritual destiny was simply inconceivable, and Ulrich had to admit that historical development had never come about by means of any such coherent combination of ideas as the mid of the individual may just manage in a pinch; the course of history was always wasteful and dissipated, as if it had been flung on the table by the fist of some low-life gambler. He actually felt a little ashamed (II,898)

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