On gaining a humane stance in paltry times

On gaining a humane stance in paltry times

What historical experience, natural law, anthropology, and psychology have to say – an approximation

by Moritz Nestor

Wars, imperial exploitation, and hunger still threaten world peace. The nuclear contamination is increasing and the danger of (nuclear) war is growing. The betrayed peoples of Europe have lost their trust in governments and politics, for the disregard of the will of the people by the political, monetary, and power elites has assumed an intolerable and cynical extent. Civil war-like conditions impend.
However, – this is not the whole world. Only a small part of humanity is planning these awful things. The vast majority of all people on our planet do not want and do not behave like that. On the contrary, the overwhelming majority of all people want to live in peace, people bear their children out of love and educate them to decency and prowess, hoping that life will continue. And often they can hardly feed their families whom they love. They work for life, for the future of their children, even if they do not have it well. And they are far from harbouring hatred for other nations.

No wars without the propagation of false theories

The peoples, the common human beings do not plan wars. No people spontaneously pounces armed on another people. The “so called evil” is not an essential element of human nature. Nevertheless, we are affected propagandistically. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, so many and false theories were brought into orbit with propagandistic intentions, as never before in the history of mankind.1 Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, the awe of globalisation has been hammered into the heads of European peoples. Media products of all kinds advertised the dissolution of the national states and the deregulation of the markets, and they urged us that we should have to jump on the bandwagon of globalisation, otherwise history would punish us. Fake works of history bragged and brag of the warlike fame of the “struggle against terror”, of the defence of the fatherland “at Hindukush”. From the centres of the mass media, the praise of subservience to globalisation was incessantly sermonised. The academic elites and “state philosophers” acquainted the subjects with the art of seeing wars as “humanitarian interventions” and in their feelings of powerlessness a fate and that “those up there do whatever they want” – allegedly in the name of freedom and democracy.

Humankind is capable of doing the better – this is a realistic hope

However, what really needs to be done when we consider ourselves as people of our age and consider what should be done?
In Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Hoffnung” (Hope) we read:

All people discuss it and dream on end

Of better days that are coming,


After a golden and prosperous end


They are seen chasing and running


The world grows old and grows young in turn,


Yet doth man for betterment hope eterne.


‘Tis hope delivers him into life,


Round the frolisome boy doth it flutter,


The youth is lured by its magic rife,


It won’t be interred with the elder;


Though he ends in the coffin his weary lope,


Yet upon that coffin he plants – his hope.


It is no empty, fawning deceit,


Begot in the brain of a jester,


Proclaimed aloud in the heart it is:


We are born for that which is better!


And what the innermost voice conveys,


The hoping spirit ne’er that betrays.

How much hope for a more equitable new beginning concerned the peoples after 1945 with the “No more war!” How much hope lay on the promulgation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948! And how much hope lay in the proclamation of the UN Charter and in the international ostracism of the war since the Briand-Kellogg Pact of August 1928, as well as in the humanitarian and international law, which had been further developed after 1945?

… however, hope without deeper insight does not prevent from new injustice

And how we were shocked when 1999 we had to witness how in the name of human rights again bombs were released in Europe, there where once the SS marched. All rational concepts were absolutely the complete distortion of all natural and international law has been reached again. War was declared as “humanitarian intervention” by propaganda. There was war in the name of anti-fascism, bombs fell in the name of human rights – against the “Hitlers” in the Balkans, in Iraq and elsewhere. The anti-fascism and the horror of Auschwitz got the strength to call for arms. War was explained to us by “philosophers of state” as the obstetrician of the “world society,” lighting up on the horizon, and despotic centralism as “democracy above government level” (Anthony Giddens). And almost overnight, the differences between right and left, between capitalism and socialism, disappeared from political rhetoric. The Trotskyist-dominated Socialist International declared itself “Third Way” and proclaimed that there was no way but “shaping globalisation”. The conservative and Christian parties followed them.
So were all new beginnings after the Second World War in vain? Whence do we get the hope without which man can not live? As Annemarie Buchholz-Kaiser once said we humans can no longer live, without “human leeway”, if daily abysses of inhumanity threaten to take our breath away.
All life wants to live. Life carries in itself the will to live – also and particulary in times that can sometimes make you desperate – and even beyond death to a distant point of a better humanity. At the end of his life, the peasant plants his apple-tree, whose fruits not he himself will reap, but the next generation. And “I am life that wants to live, in the midst of life that wants to live,” wrote Albert Schweitzer.

Anthropological constants of human life

As these human beings who we are willing to live, we also do know that we cannot realize life on our own, neither can we achieve what a human can be, nor what mankind can be: the child can not become human without  loving parents. The nascient ego is climbing up on the You, becoming the adult. Without mutual aid and solidarity, neither the individual nor the family, nor the state, nor the protective culture, nor all humanity, can learn to live in peace and justice. It is an ideal that unfolds itself with these ideas. If man thinks of mankind as if it were eternal, he will gain a new ethical standpoint, called “social interest” (Gemeinschaftsgefühl) by Alfred Adler: I know and then feel that I am part of the great stream of history which passes through me, of which I am a part. The infinite number of my ancestors’ achievements received me when I was born. They helped me into my life. Without them I would not be the one I am. Therefore I see and feel a great gratitude that every human being is able to by nature, so that I want  to “give back” something: to act like my ancestors, who did something for me. I will contribute my part so that future generations “sub specie aeternitatis” should once live a better life, even if I will not experience it myself. Just as I was able to reap the fruits of the seed grains that my ancestors laid. In reverence for the time it took, I then also know that we cannot imagine to solve the most difficult problem of mankind in one generation: that man has a better understanding of himself.

The standard of natural law: the inalienable rights of all

Ernst Bloch begins his book “Natural Law and Human Dignity” with the sentences: “What is justice? – we cannot avoid this question; it always demands our attention; it forces itself upon us and points out a path for us. One school of thought that has taken up this question in principle and not just on occasion is charachterised by its attachment to the idea of natural law. No matter what position on took with respect to this idea of natural law, whether critical or undecided, and no matter of how abstract it often was, what it referred to could never be a matter of indifference. Where everything has been alienated, inalienable rights stand out in sharp relief.” 2
With Bloch, natural law appears here from a different angle: as “concrete utopia”. He even called it “docta spes” (the “taught  hope”): the cultural creativity of the people in all areas of life and their historical insights and experiences affect us humans like a real utopia: cooperation, solidarity and finally “real democracy” are possible.
Natural law is also paper on which for mankind’s memory, is recorded what the rights of men would be. If you tried to record the written testimony of all the attempts that were undertaken to achieve humans’ rights before and against any naked power you would fill an impressive library trying to collect it in one place.

Personal freedom makes man’s dignity

Before every transcription, however, and before each codification, natural law was “humanism in action,” as Ernst Bloch calls it. The “establishment of the upright walking […] is a postulate from natural law.”3 In this sense, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 was described as the expression of moral legal consciousness of human mankind. In this consciousness of right and wrong which has grown from the protest against the injustice generated by two world wars and the immense contempt for mankind by the despotisms of the twentieth century, the impulse of the will to freedom of the person is present as a timeless and unchangeable element – here and everywhere and at all times. And this includes the social question: “That neither human dignity is possible without economic liberation, nor this, beyond entrepreneurs and undertakings of every kind, without the matter of human rights.”
The concrete freedom of the person has been the starting point and goal of the spontaneous protest of the tortured creature at all historical times. Where it was despised and hurt, it became a blast against the power of the authorities – borne by the inwardly stirring protesting feeling of injured humanity. Natural law was, at all times, natural law “from below,” and always directed against the “tolerances” of despotisms of all shades. “Because I am fond of it,” with which the absolutist Louis XIV signed his orders, natural law, with its spontaneous feeling for the abased victims of humanity, opposed an absolute no: Thou shalt not kill.
Justice is not a “reason alone,” not a mere beautiful thought. It might also be thought. But in their historical times, in response to outrageous lawlessness and oppression, people must think, recognise and do true living righteousness, and decide themselves to achieve more justice. From the indignation to which every man is capable, he comprehends that he possesses innate rights, he comprehends his godliness, which makes him equal to all men, his natural dignity and freedom. His reason and his caring thoughts and feelings are sharpened, and he is compelled by a boundless decision to act, a decision which is strengthened by his indignation at the injustice inflicted on himself or on others.

Justice needs our actions

True, that is, living justice is the product of a historical struggle, when necessary also combat. But a combat preceded by a rational thought and willingness, determined by sympathy, and a decision. Neither mindless combat – nor idle thinking. Seen in this way, all the rights which have the power to shape a society more just, are the product of all the attempts made by this society to achieve cooperation with one another a bit better, and that means to live up to what we can be as human beings: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights, they are endowed with reason and conscience, and are to meet one another in the spirit of brotherhood.” This is only possible in freedom. We humans must learn to recognise and implement the possibilities that our human social nature entails. This is lived sovereignty. Living together/cohabitation  in real democracy, where human rights are socially guaranteed. Or as Annemarie Buchholz-Kaiser formulated in 1989:

“With what Adler describes as a community spirit, that is, the fully developed ability to relate to people, the individual has a measure at hand with which to assess and weigh the effects of his actions for himself and the other people. Look at  people’s hands, not at their  mouths, Adler has often warned. The way of  acting shows how far the individual can meaningfully perceive and achieve his or her own concerns in a healthy way, while simultaneously keeping an eye on the well-being of the other person. A stronger social formation of the personality, developing more participation as a very own concern, only a self-sufficient and free individual is capable of this. To achieve this, freedom is the ‘Conditio sine qua non’, an indispensable prerequisite without which this is not possible. The approach to the goal of personality formation is the content of the psychotherapeutic process. This formation of personality, however, does not arise by itself, but only as we develop it, live it by doing it: this is individual psychological ethics and morality.”4

How to gain a human point of view?

Since Greek antiquity, law of nature has always been moved by the necessity to gain a human point of view, especially in times of deepest injustice. When asked, “Do you think (that) the brute […] barbarian hears the voice of truth and humanity[…]?”, Iphigenie answered in Goethe’s drama of the same name: “It sounds to any-one born under every heaven, the source of life through his breast pure and unimpeded flows.”5
So how can we gain a human point of view?
All people long for peace. They love peace. History shows in many ways that it is possible to live in peace and justice. We find the testimonials of it, and they touch us and inspire us.
But: history also shows us that the mere yearning for peace is not enough. From the sympathy with the tormented human nature, from the rebellion of the feeling for law and justice, the European Enlightenment, together with the law of nature, which had developed three centuries before, was created the model of the constitutional state with division of powers. It engendered a special treasure in the model of Swiss direct democracy. Enlightenment was based on reason. With good reason. Wonderful achievements were made possible by reason. That was never conceivable before.

Enlightenment on it’s own is not enough

According to the concept of the proponents of the Enlightenment the people will laugh and break free once they have been enlightened that the despot is not sent by God – exactly that did not happen. Even in places like Switzerland where real democracy was put into practice, we realise that freedom and justice do not automatically persist once they have been achieved.
In addition: man’s mind did mischiefwhenever it acted without heart for people.
In 1784, Kant saw this problem when he wrote in his famous essay “What is Enlightenment”: “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance. Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) Have the courage to use your own understanding, is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.”6
In this passage Kant forebodes the psychological dimension: Why is courage lacking? Why is the subject missing determination of whom we, the enlightened – well-meant – think he should actually be able to understand that it is better when he acts as a free person? An answer to this question was only available later.

What personal psychology and anthropology can contribute

This was the fundamental idea of Alfred Adler, Friedrich Liebling, Annemarie Buchholz-Kaiser: Intellect alone is not enough. Rationality and science have achieved wonderful things. But only if intellect is complemented with human compassion, then it becomes reason. Only when people learn to think, to feel and to deal with compassion, the wish for freedom gets a basis and is not just a spontaneous feeling without knowing how to get there.
In reference to the question, how does the human learn to think and feel compassionately, individual psychology, neo-psychoanalysis and ego-psychology, modern developmental psychology and modern anthropology have created an enormous supply of findings and experiences. To understand this, to maintain it where it is possible and to build upon it, this is the responsibility of our time: without psychology it won’t work. We do not need to repeat the mistakes of the past: the enraged citizen is just as little a humane escape out of our ‘self-imposed nonage’ (Kant) as the hope for iron brooms and strong men or women who finally establish ‘order’.
Schiller, Condorcet and others were horrified about the derailing of the French Revolution and without giving up the basic idea of the first phase of the revolution ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ they warned: without examination of the matter of right versus power and without knowledge of the social dimension of human life political freedom is illusory. Freedom must be the actual and real possibility to exist as a fellow human being. Humboldt compared the Revolution to an anatomy lecture on a living body: “qu’il ne faut pas donner des leçons d’anatomie sur un corps vivant”7 (“lessons on anatomy must not be conducted on a living human body”). Schiller, Goethe and die German humanists knew that the education of the compassionate sensibility was the most important need of the time, because only the moral law that is approved by reason and emotionally-loved makes freedom and ethics possible. If the human being does not feel his own personal dignity he cannot respect that of others either. Or according to Schiller’s warning words: “One will, in other parts of the world, respect the humanity in the Negro and in Europe disgrace that of the Thinker. The old principles will remain but they will wear the clothes of the current century (…).”8
Again and again the course of history has shown that real democracy, that freedom and dignity can be realised. Wherever people understood man and is nature, they were capable of creating social conditions which were more peaceful and more just. That concern – and what is necessary for its purpose – is explored by personal psychology and anthropology. Humane policy without an actualised psychological-anthropological education is just as endangered as a psychology in which the political dimension of our human living together doesn’t matter.    •

1    vgl. de Waal, Frans. Primaten und Philosophen. Wie die Evolution die Moral hervorbrachte. (Primates and philosophers. How evolution generated moral.) Munich 2008
2    Bloch, Ernst. Naturrecht und menschliche Würde. (Natural law and human dignity.) In: „Gesamtausgabe“, Vol. 6, p. 12
3    Bloch, Ernst. Naturrecht und menschliche Würde. (Natural law and human dingnity.) In: „Gesamtausgabe“, Vol. 6, p. 13
4    Buchholz-Kaiser, Annemarie. Standortbestimmung. Zum Jahresbeginn 1989. In: Verein zur Förderung der psychologischen Menschenkenntnis VPM (ed.). Jahresbericht 1988. Zurich 1989, p. 23
5    Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. Iphigenie auf Tauris, ­V, 3
6    Kant, Immanuel. Was ist Aufklärung? (What is Enlightenment?) 1784, Chapter 1
7    von Humboldt, Wilhelm: Brief an Friedrich Gentz vom August 1791. In: Briefe. Band 2: 1791-1795. Berlin/Boston 2015, Letter Nr. 206
8    Schiller, Friedrich. Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen, (About the aesthetic education of the human being.) Letter No. 7, p. 30

Our website uses cookies so that we can continually improve the page and provide you with an optimized visitor experience. If you continue reading this website, you agree to the use of cookies. Further information regarding cookies can be found in the data protection note.

If you want to prevent the setting of cookies (for example, Google Analytics), you can set this up by using this browser add-on.​​​​​​​