A History of Morality

A tension has grown between Agathe and Ulrich as Ulrich wrestles with the meaning of morality, a crisis provoked by Agathe’s forging of her father’s will to exclude her husband.

“I hardly know where to start,” he said, “without boring you. May I tell you what I understand by morality?”

“Please do,” Agathe said.

“Morality is regulation of conduct within a society, beginning with regulation of its inner impulses, that is, feelings and thoughts.”

“That’s a lot of progress in a few hours!” Agathe replied with a laugh. “this morning you were still saying you didn’t know what morality was!”

“Of course I don’t. That doesn’t stop me from giving you a dozen explanations. The oldest reason for it is that God revealed the order of life to us in all its details…”

“That would be best,” Agathe said.

“But the most probable,” Ulrich said emphatically, “is that morality, like every other form of order, arises through force and violence! A group of people that has seized power simply imposes on the rest those rules and principles that will secure their power. Morality thereby tends to favor those who brought it to power. At the same time, it sets an example in so doing. And at the same time reactions  set in that cause it to change–this is of course too complicated to be described briefly, and while it by no means happens without thought, but then again not by means of thought, either, but rather empirically, what you get in the end is an infinite network that seems to span everything as independently as God’s firmament. Now, everything relates to this self-contained circle, but this circle relates to nothing. In other words: Everything is moral, but morality itself is not!’ (II,1112-1113)

But morality as a repressive force cares only about governing the emotions that play a part in maintaining social order. It ignores what it does not need.

“For centuries now,” Ulrich went on, “the world has known truth in thinking and accordingly, to a certain degree, rational freedom of thought. But during this same time the emotional life has had neither the strict discipline of truth nor any freedom of movement. For every moral system has, in its time, regulated the feelings, and rigidly too, but only insofar as certain basic principles and feelings were needed for whatever action it favored; the rest was left to individual whim, to the private play of emotions, to the random efforts of art, and to academic debate. So morality has adapted our feelings to the needs of moral systems and meanwhile neglected to develop them, even though it depends on feelings: morality is, after all, the order and integrity of the emotional life.” (II,1116)

Ulrich’s aim is always to find a way to unite reason with the soul.

…For him morality was neither conformism nor philosophic wisdom, but living the infinite fullness of possibilities. He believed in morality’s capacity for intensification, in stages of moral experience, and not merely, as most people do, in stage of moral understanding, as if it were something cut-and-dried for which people were just not pure enough. He believed in morality without believing in any specific moral system. Morality is generally understood to be a sort of police regulations for keeping life in order, and since life does not obey even these, they come to look as if they were really impossible  to live up to and accordingly, in this sorry way, not really an ideal either. But morality must not be reduced to this level. Morality is imagination. This was what he wanted to make Agathe see. And his second point was: Imagination is not arbitrary. Once the imagination is left to caprice, there is a price to pay. (II,116-117)



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