STUDY DIARIES: Misplacing Egotism

My study partner, Paul, and I are currently thinking about the best way to précis the books we have studied over the years. This is still work in progress and I will give an update on this in a future post. The first book “Truth & Knowledge” took a good many years for us to get through so this could be a difficult process. Watch this space but follow the link to read the text.

Despite the fact that our current study book is the “Study of Man” lecture series – given to teachers just before the first Steiner school was started – our main topic of conversation for this session was Steiner’s Threefold Social Order. This is a very very tricky subject at the best of times but it has been popping up regularly in many of our study sessions so we felt we had to deal with it.

The point that came up that makes it worth posting here now is a recent insight dealing with how we are misplacing the human egotistical drive.

First let me give some background to Steiner’s Threefold Social Order. It gives a characterization of human endeavour into three primary areas:

  1. The inner spiritual or cultural sphere where we are all different.
    This is a realm of liberty where we should be completely free to follow whatever inner path we wish.
  2. The political or rights sphere where we are all the same.
    This is the realm of equality of rights, although our lives will of course play out differently.
  3. The economic sphere where we all work together.
    This is the realm of fraternity where, working with others and for others, we add value to a commodity for a consumer of that commodity.

If we misplace human drives into the wrong area then it was Steiner’s assertion that we would have problems.

In terms of my current understanding, it makes sense that we should separate the first two. This relates to the need to separate Church and State for instance, as well as realizing that even though someone may have a different culture or religion, they should still have the same political and legal rights. Also inversely just because someone is considered to have the same rights we should not assume that they should follow the same path or religion for example. The liberty relates more to an inner liberty to develop ourselves as we see fit, that is the spiritual/cultural sphere, but of course within the boundaries of leaving others free and not curtailing their rights.

Another aspect here is that although my actions may be individual, Steiner’s philosophy (called anthroposophy) posits that the impulses for truly free actions come from a unified world of spirit. Thus our free deeds will be in harmony with the free deeds of others. I will return to this idea in subsequent posts since it is dealt with more in Steiner’s book “The Philosophy of Freedom”.

I can understand the separation of culture and rights since as a modern democracy we have gone through that separation process. But the kicker here is that ANY pursuit that involves our personal inner growth is within the cultural sphere. That’s easy to see for the arts, but one of the big insights for me has been that it also involves software development! Or indeed any area in which we are dealing with the generation or creation of knowledge, i.e. any area dealing with true research. This has made sense of all the problems I have seen throughout my career of trying to marry software development to economics.

As ever with this sort of categorization, I can always feel my inner critical analytical self wanting to strictly delineate life into these areas. Suffice it to say that the reality will always have blurry edges. Although the three areas are quite distinct, each with their own dynamics and lawfulness – the difficulty arises because of course they are interdependent and every social situation will likely involve all three spheres.

As a background to our recent conversation our thinking is still a work in progress with regards to the economic sphere, but here my friend Paul recently had an insight that we felt cleared things up a lot.

Namely that our current way of working in the economic area involves a misplaced egotism.

Rather than saying we should eradicate egotism, his thought was that we should rightly place it in the cultural area. Currently it has been gracelessly shoved into the economic and rights areas and has turned an inner human need to improve oneself into a drive towards greed and power over others. Working economically means that we should be more demand-based, i.e. adding value by supplying a service or product to someone because we have the requisite skills. Currently it is too easy to get an inversion where we think it is alright to create markets and try and drive demand from the supply side, usually by appealing to consumer’s egotistic desires and fears. This is just not sustainable if we want a healthy world.

Of course there are cases where a new market is created that does truly meet a need, but that, to my mind, is still a demand led process. What has happened is that someone has bothered to listen in the right way and has actually responded to a need that may not as yet have been articulated. A lot of software development, properly done, is like this because it is a conversation between a user and a technical person, both of whom are trying to map out the area of the user’s needs, a map that is frequently unknown even to that user.

The insight that egotism has been misplaced into the wrong area, i.e. economics, makes sense of this drive towards “greed rather than need”. But rather than vilifying it, we should realize that egotism is a basic inner drive that is healthily placed when it is used for our own inner development.

I really like this because it means:

  • Accepting an egotistical drive as a valid human one, rather than wasting good energy trying to achieve an impossible ideal of eradicating it.
  • Realizing that its manifestation is only good or bad depending upon which threefold realm you use it in.

The hard part here is truly seeing how the three spheres are meshing within a given human activity and it is fair to say that it is rare that they are seen clearly. But trying to get this turnaround in thinking in the economic area would be a start.

Well, I hope that provokes some thinking.

Until the next update…

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