What Are “Spiritual” Values?

by Olaf Stapledon


Taken from Freedom of Expression: A Symposium, edited by Herman Ould (London: Hutchinson, 1944)


WHAT ARE THESE SPIRITUAL VALUES THAT WE ARE ASKED TO CONSIDER IN relation to economic values and the future of man? It seems important to form a clear idea of them at the outset of this conference, lest we should be talking at cross purposes.

Let me begin by describing a little experience of my own, and asking whether in its humble degree it deserves to be called a “spiritual” experience, concerned with “spiritual values.”

In the field next my house there are two colts, inseparable companions. They like standing head to tail, so that each one’s face may have the benefit of the other’s fly-whisk. One of them is a bit queer. He has a Roman nose, a serpent’s eye, a mop of a mane that would seem more appropriate on a toy horse, and legs that are almost too sturdy for his still rather slim adolescent body. He often stands quite still for a long time with his head held fantastically high, like a cavalry charger standing at attention. The other day I saw him eating my young and struggling hedge; not for the first time. I rushed at him with fierce noises. He moved a yard or two away, and regarded me with cold resentment, sidelong, out of his serpent eye. I stood watching him watching me. Presently, whether because of his Roman nose (reminiscent of I know not what prehistoric beast) or because of my own prehistoric hullaballoo, the past seemed to flood upon me. I saw the two of us as brothers in evolution. Behind us trailed our ancestries, our long separate ancestries and our longer common ancestry. Primitive mammals, reptiles, fishes, worms, the warm primeval ocean, the fluid jet which was to become the planets, but had first to be plucked from the fiery flesh of the sun—all this, and more, crowded upon my imagination. The experience moved me deeply, not violently, but deeply; with a sense first of the reality of that colt as a conscious though alien being. Like Martin Buber, I inwardly said to him, “Thou !” And compassion seized me, for him and for the two of us, as products of mighty forces and the sport of obscure powers, which neither of us, not even my humanly superior self, could understand or control. But laughter also moved me, laughter at the two of us, each so annoyed at the other over that hedge. And though, of course, I did not forget that my equine brother was in many ways quite a bit more stupid than myself (which is saying a lot, if I am to accept the verdict of some reviewers), yet I was stirred with a strange sense of our kinship, each with the other, but also with the flies that were teasing both of us, and with the unfortunate hedge, and the wind, and the sun himself, and the unseen stars and galaxies. And over and above this sense of the kinship of what theists would call all “creatures,” all “created things,” I was struck mentally dumb for a moment with a feeling of something else, something alien to all creatures. Something dark-bright, terrible and beautiful. Something “other.” For all I know, that something was just the prodigious bulk and power of the universe itself, confronting one of its tiny members through the medium of his imagination. Anyhow, the upshot for me was that something seemed to have “come at me” through the appearance of that colt, something to which I had to respond with greeting, but also with obeisance.

Of course there was nothing specially mysterious or mystical or in any way inexplicable in this odd little experience. Modem psychology could give a very reasonable account of it; up to a point at any rate. But I am inclined to say that it was a “spiritual” experience and concerned with “spiritual values.” It was “spiritual,” I should say, because it was a case of behaviour on a relatively high level of psychological development; high for me, anyway. It involved a kind of apprehension or sensitivity which discovers values not revealed on lower planes of development, values connected with self-awareness and awareness of other selves. In another sense also, I should say, it was spiritual. It was a reaction of this most developed and awake level of my personality to the universe as a whole, or rather to my experienced universe as a whole. I am suggesting that the word “spiritual” should be reserved for experience on the distinctively human level of development. Such experience discovers values that cannot be fully described in terms of lower levels. It issues in action (“spiritual” action) which is a response of the awakened personality as a whole to its world as a whole. If it does not thus issue in action, its frustration inevitably causes some degree of spiritual ill-health. The action, however, may be no single act but rather, as in my experience with the colt, a general fortifying for future action.

Of course, the word “spiritual” may be used simply in contrast with “material”; but I cannot believe that this is the significant use of it to-day. That the universe is made up of two distinct stuffs or substances, matter and spirit, is at any rate very debatable. On the other hand, the distinction between “economic values” and “spiritual values” is in the last resort equivalent to the distinction between the lower-level and the higher-level needs of men, and is significant. Of course, the two kinds of values are often inextricably tied up together, and both are necessary to fullness of life. For instance, no really satisfactory human living is possible without both good food and art. In certain circumstances each of these may be rightly pursued simply for its own sake. But, given enough good food, art is a more deeply and comprehensively satisfying activity than eating. In the last analysis it is more true to say that the spiritual activities are the “right” goal of living than that the economic activities are so. On the other hand, there are many occasions when the truly spiritual act is to sacrifice some obvious spiritual value for the sake of some economic value without which the spirit cannot flourish. There may well be moments in world-history when it is more truly spiritual to strive for an economic revolution than to enjoy art for its own sake.

But why, it may be objected, call these upper-level activities “spiritual”? “Spirit” and “spiritual” are very ambiguous and emotive words. Some sticklers for clear thinking urge us to abandon them altogether. Yet it is difficult to do so. Often when talking to materialists I feel bound to use them, not merely to shock but to emphasize that the spiritual values are not reducible to primitive values. Yet, frankly, when theists and other spiritists use these words, I myself am often shocked.

To-day it is peculiarly important that we should find a clear meaning for “spirit” and “spiritual values.” Recently it was fashionable, and in some quarters it is still fashionable, to say that, after all, the so-called “spiritual values” were only sophisticated forms of primitive values, or that spiritual motives were only disguised expressions of primitive instinctive motives, such as self-regard, sex and gregariousness. There is to-day a widespread emotional revulsion against this view, which is beginning to seem too clever by half. In blood and tears we are learning that there really are some values which are in some important sense sacred, some ways of experiencing and behaving which are better than others in some fundamental manner, and other ways of behaving which are utterly wrong.

This painful rediscovery and restatement of “spiritual values” I believe to be the most important feature of our time. But it brings with it a great danger. Many who have found that, after all, pure materialism is not enough are tempted simply to accept uncritically the teaching of some religion, generally the Christian religion, or at any rate, some kind .of theism. But the spiritual problem of our day is not to be solved as easily as that. While we have indeed to outgrow simple materialism and ethical nihilism, we must not forget all that we have learnt from the great movement of scepticism. And while we have, I believe, to re-learn a great deal from Christianity, we must continue to regard all its doctrines about the nature of the universe and the destiny of human individuals with profound scepticism. What we have to re-learn from Christianity is not metaphysical doctrines but an emotional attitude; namely the longing to dedicate oneself wholeheartedly to the spiritual values. Indeed I will dare even to go so far as to say to dedicate oneself to “the spirit.” But in saying this I must guard myself by emphasizing that by “the spirit” I do not mean a deity, personal or “super-personal” (whatever that is); I mean a way of life and an attitude of mind. I mean the most integrated and conscious sort of human behaviour. Sometimes I mean “that in us” which behaves in this way, without specifying whether “that in us” is simply the individual personality in its most fully developed form or something which extends far beyond the individual personality. We have no assurance whatever about the status of “the spirit” in the universe. We know “the spirit” only in ourselves and in our relations with one another. It may be also a mighty power in the universe at large; it may be in some obscure sense a personal or super-personal God. But we cannot know this—not yet, at any rate. Human intellect is not yet sufficiently developed to form trustworthy concepts in such high spheres. The chances are thousands to one that all our most carefully conceived ideas on these subjects are more false than true. To say that there is a personal God, or that there is not, to say that human individuals have eternal life, or that they have not, are probably almost as naïve statements as to say that the earth is carried on the back of an elephant which stands on a tortoise. If our spiritual values need the support of such beliefs, or indeed of any beliefs, their position is indeed precarious. But they don’t; any more than the earth needs the support of the elephant and the tortoise, The earth does not even “stand on its own feet.” It needs no feet, and no standing. It is itself the ground of all our standing. Similarly with “spiritual values.” The Churches thought it was necessary to support them with doctrines about God and immortality. When the support began to seem very insecure, many good people supposed that the spiritual values must crash, that they had crashed, that they were illusory. But to-day, just because spiritual values have been so violently discarded, and we have been flung into hell on earth, we begin to realise their authority far better than we did in the time of our comfortable beliefs.

At this point someone may protest that, even if it is excusable to use the phrase ‘spiritual values,” it is misleading to speak about “the spirit,” unless one means by the word a substance, contrasted with “matter.” I sympathize with this contention; but, after all, we speak of “the spirit of the meeting” and “the spirit of the game” without implying that the meeting or the game are infused or possessed by a spirit-substance. And further, even though it is impossible to give any clear intellectual content to “the spirit,” it seems important to retain the word so as to emphasize that we feel emotionally bound in loyalty to “something” in ourselves yet more than ourselves, and indeed more than mankind; “more,” at least in the sense in which an ideal is more than any particular approximation to it.

It may be said that to take a position between the materialists, who recognize no spiritual values, and the theists, who ground the spiritual values in their belief in God, is to go between the devil and the deep sea. And so perhaps it is. But there is a strait and narrow way between the devil and the deep sea, and it is the only way of life in our day.

Traditionally, the spiritual values, I suppose, are goodness, truth and beauty. Traditionally, spiritual experience and action are the experience and action distinctive of “spirits.” Traditionally, human individuals are “spirits” capable of spiritual and of unspiritual or positively wicked behaviour; and their salvation lies in behaving in a manner true to their essential nature as spirits.

Even if we are sceptical about the idea that we are “spirits,” metaphysical substances having eternal life, we can significantly make use of the old terminology, since we do distinguish between the upper and lower levels of our nature. There is a very real difference between them, both biologically and psychologically. Julian Huxley has recently made a strong plea for the objectivity of the concept of development. Human experience and behaviour are objectively more developed than an ape’s. Some kinds of human experience and behaviour are more developed than other kinds; though within the human sphere it is often immensely difficult to judge between different kinds of behaviour in respect of development. Who shall judge whether Shakespeare or Plato was, on the whole, the more developed human being? Nevertheless we cannot but try to apply this standard in judging one another and ourselves.

By saying that some human behaviour is more developed than others the biologist and the psychologist mean simply that it is more sensitive, more comprehensively and more finely graded in relation to the environment, more integrated, more accurately related to the environment as a whole.

But what has this to do with spiritual values? Is developed behaviour ethically better than less developed behaviour? It is. But ethical judgments can be made only at a relatively high level of development, and about behaviour on relatively high levels. Even so, ethical judgments arc apt to be confused by incursions from lower levels. At a certain level of development new kinds of experience become possible; new values, values of a new order come into view, and in relation to them, new kinds of behaviour are demanded.

Roughly we may say that the spiritual experiences and values and behaviour are those which are distinctive of a certain high degree of self- awareness and other-awareness, and intellectual abstraction, and aesthetic sensibility. They are concerned with personality, community, intellectual integrity, the aesthetic aspect of all experience, and (so to say) the need to establish some sort of adjustment to, or accord with, the whole of one’s experienced universe. The spiritual attitude includes a tendency to regard particular events as in one way or another symbols with very far-reaching significance. My incident with the colt became a symbol of the whole drama of life in this universe.

In this last connection consider the difference between the spiritual attitude to existence and the unspiritual. The unspiritual is said to be “addicted” to lower-level ends, such as self-interest; sex, the group. The fully spiritual attitude, though it does not necessarily reject these ends, pursues them with detachment because, it is addicted wholly to the spiritual end, which is the fulfilling of the spiritual capacities of selves (whether of myself or other selves is in the last resort irrelevant), and of the human race as a whole, and equally of any other potentially spiritual beings, if there are any, anywhere in the universe.

The goal or rather direction of spiritual development, so far as I can see, is very roughly this: precise and comprehensive awareness of the world, including oneself and other selves; precise feeling about all this; and coherent and creative action to open up ever new possibilities of the life of the spirit. This goal is essentially a communal, not an individualistic or private, goal. The self-centred individual can never even begin to seek It. It is the way of life for individuals, but only for those who feel themselves to be “members one of another.”

Both strict humanists and theists might, I think, be persuaded to agree on some such terms. What they would certainly disagree about is the status of spiritual values. Humanists might indeed quite well call the values of the developed consciousness “spiritual,” and might even speak of “the spirit of man” or the “human spirit”; but without implying that a metaphysical substance of spiritual nature resided in or possessed all human individuals. The human spirit, they might say, is simply the form of behaviour or way of life which is distinctive of the human species, even though no human beings succeed in living permanently on that high level. The spiritual values are the values recognized by man on that highest plane of his development.

True! But I think strict humanists do not always realize the full implications of this kind of statement. They fall to realize that to say this is to accept a standard other than sheer humanity.

Theists and other religious believers protest, rightly, I think, that to make man the criterion of the “spiritual” is to deprive the word of its most significant meaning. Spiritual values, they say, are spiritual not merely because they are human; they are spiritual in their own right, so to speak. And for man the way of life is to approximate to them. Man’s true nature is indeed spiritual; but there is also much in him which is not I spiritual. He can fulfil his spiritual nature only in so far as he allows I himself to be possessed by “the spirit,” which they regard as superhuman and universal.

I shall not enter into this controversy. Probably as with so many hoary controversies, the issue is wrongly posed, like the time-honoured question as to whether the hen came first or the egg. Tentatively I suggest some such compromise as the following. The humanists are right in saying that we know nothing of the spirit save in ourselves and our relations with one another; but the religious people are right in insisting that the spirit confronts us as something more than our ordinary selves, something claiming, and rightly claiming, absolute authority over our ordinary selves, something to which our ordinary selves, when they are sufficiently; awake and not perverted by irrelevant cravings of lower order, cannot but will absolute loyalty.

It comes to this. In this great problem the heart, sufficiently purged and fortified, is a more trustworthy guide than the intellect in its present fledgling state. And the heart feels with profound conviction, especially in these days of blood and hate and folly and barbarian values, that human individuals and the race as a whole must be judged according to a criterion independent of the actual extant nature of man. The fundamental spiritual values are, after all authoritative, even though our intellects cannot yet satisfactorily explain their authority. Whatever the truth about God and immortality and the nature of the universe, we know in our hearts absolutely that we ought to regard ourselves as instruments though imperfect instruments of the spirit. Even on the plane of pure intellect, it is more true to affirm this than to deny it. If we have not this conviction, there is no health in us. We are damned. We are non-interventionists, Munichites. We make intellectual scepticism and detachment an excuse for moral detachment.

But though loyalty to spiritual values should, I feel, lead us to go thus far with the theists, farther we must not go. For intellectual integrity also is a spiritual duty. We must not persuade ourselves into belief in doctrines which go beyond the proper range of extant human intellect. The only;: piety that we can permit ourselves is an agnostic piety.

So much for the status of “the spirit” and of “spiritual values.” Let us now consider some of the kinds of experience and action which may reasonably be said to be concerned with spiritual values. I shall dwell mainly on the kind which I believe to be most significant for us to-day, neglecting others equally important in the long run, such as the intellectual and aesthetic values. Of these I would merely insist that they really are spiritual values. But I would add that the spiritual attitude to them involves a realization of their limitations. Though within its proper sphere intellect is paramount, there are regions of human experience where, for the present, at any rate, it cannot go far; and, when it falsely claims to have gone far, it becomes dangerously misleading. The chief of these regions is, of course, the whole vast sphere of the status of the spirit and of spiritual values. Similarly with art. Within its proper sphere aesthetic sensibility is paramount; but to care only for the aesthetic aspect of life is co betray, not serve, the spirit.

In order to complete the picture one point should be briefly added in its more awakened mood the mind may find a spiritual value even in the simplest and most commonplace experiences. Sense-perceptions and simple muscular activities, and indeed all kinds of events, may seem to yield up their inner nature, may become arresting simply through their vividness and precision of form, so that we feel ourselves confronted with the features of a living reality other than ourselves. Or they may come to us rich in symbolization. We drink cold water on a hot day. How many millions of beings, human and sub-human, have delighted in that penetrating coldness! Thus the sensations become at once an exquisite confrontation with reality and a ritual act of worship, an act done “for the glory of God.” Even if one is no theist, one may recognize the emotional truth of the phrase.

The spiritual values which I want to discuss in more detail, are those connected with personality and community. Let us begin with com- passion. Many people would say that compassion has always a spiritual aspect. But surely we must distinguish between two kinds of compassion, one spiritual, the other not. The unspiritual, or only rudimentarily spiritual, kind of compassion is that which is common to men and beasts. The other is distinctively personal, and may be called “compassion with insight.” The bitch is compassionate towards her pups, in that she is distressed by their distress, and so on; but she lacks insight into them as conscious beings. Jealous possessiveness may actually drive her to eat them. Even human mothers may fail through insufficient imaginative insight into their children’s peculiar needs and capacities. In truly personal compassion on the other hand, there is a much higher degree of insight into ,the other’s actual nature as a conscious being other than oneself. And this insight may lead to a different kind of behaviour, in fact to behaviour in accord with a true personal relationship. Such compassion and such behaviour are spiritual in that they are concerned with a spiritual value, namely, personality. They are also sometimes spiritual in another sense. In compassion with insight and in every truly personal relationship there is often a sense of universal significance, of insight through the particular symbol Into the universal plight of personalities in this formidable universe.

Compassion with insight is something different in kind from sheer anima affection, and not reducible to it; though of course, it includes it. Compassion with insight is an activity distinctive of the self-conscious and other-conscious level of development; and therefore “spiritual.”

As with compassion, so with all fellow-feeling. Animal gregariousness is fellow-feeling without insight, or with a minimum of it. The sick sheep may be persecuted by the flock. The eccentric human being may be persecuted by the mob. On the other hand, human comradeship, love, and all the kinds of true community are fellowship with insight into the other, or others, as conscious beings with peculiar character, needs, powers. The values which this relationship generates are spiritual values.

Take the case of sex-relationship. In the most developed form of it other-consciousness dominates the whole relationship. There is a passionate coming together of two diverse personalities through the exquisite physical medium. Because of the diversity there is inevitably conflict, overt or suppressed; but if there is sufficient self-awareness and other-awareness, and sufficient mutual valuing, the very conflict may become a source of enlargement to both parties. The essence of personal love is delighted awareness of the other as different, though of course fundamentally akin. There is mutual acceptance, mutual responsibility and cherishing, with consequent self-discipline for the other’s sake, and emergence into a richer self, which is felt to be organic to the precious community of the two lovers.

Genuine personal love of every kind, sexual and non-sexual, is spiritual in that it is concerned with personality and community. It may also be spiritual in that it includes a sense of universal significance. In love’s young dream, or calf-love, there is a sense of the “divinity” of the beloved. In an obscure way he or she becomes a symbol of something universal. A gesture, a look, a tone of voice, may seem to be intimations of something superhuman. They promise something not yet experienced, not yet conceivable, but felt to be of immense significance. On the other hand, consider mature love, by which I mean love between two (or more) persons who have known one another for a long time, and who, in spite of inevitable conflicts, have grown together into an indissoluble symbiosis, in which each is necessary to the other and shaped by the other. Here the promise has been up to a point fulfilled; and the gift is precisely this symbiosis, this participation in a common life, this creation of a spiritual value which is impossible for either in isolation. In mature love there come moments in which one has a quite indubitable conviction that this little communion of diverse personalities is a symbol, all epitome of something very far-reaching and important in the universe. Cherish this conviction, by all means; but do not suppose that therefore there must be a God who is the almighty lover, and that human individuals must be immortal. One may feel imaginatively the presence, as it were, of the whole past biography of this most precious little community of two persons, and of the whole past of humanity, as essentially a precarious groping towards something spiritually far more developed, awakened. One may even feel, or seem to feel, possessed by that supreme something itself, by a very God of Love. But beware, beware! Any intellectual formulation of such experience is certain to be mainly false. Nevertheless the feeling itself is a source of strength and light. And this kind of living, one feels, is what human beings are for. In some obscure sense, far too difficult for our intellect to clarify, we are all instruments for this music, for the fulfilling of this spirit.

Personal love cannot be healthy if it is simply an end in itself. In one way or another the community of the lovers must include active partnership or comradeship in a common task, which may be the rearing of a family, or some external work common to both, or separate social undertakings which both value. This sense of partnership in a common task, conceived as more important than any private satisfaction, is the only sentiment which can effectively unite a large group of human beings. The common task may be good or bad, spiritual or non-spiritual. The unifying passion may be nothing more than the will for the group’s dominance over other groups, for instance in prestige or war or trade or economic imperialism or racial supremacy. One kind of group sentiment alone is genuinely spiritual, namely the will that the group shill be an effective instrument of the spirit, that its whole life shall be organized so as to make the most of all its members, that all its members may be as fully developed human persons as possible, consciously united in service of the spirit. Examples of associations of human beings dominated by this will in one form or another are the early Christian Church, the early French Revolution, the early Labour Movement in England, the early revolutionary Communist Party in Russia. All these I regard as cases of the widespread grasping of a spiritual value, in fact, of the supreme spiritual value, namely the rightness of true human fellowship or community.

The Russian case is most striking because owing to special circumstances the experience was combined with a wholesale rejection of metaphysical doctrines about the fundamentally “spiritual” nature of the universe. I should say that the Russian Revolution has proved that an essentially spiritual will, namely the passion for comradeship and right human relations, may effectively inspire large numbers of men without their fully realizing that their motive is spiritual, and without their believing in any metaphysical doctrines. It may be that since the early days of the Revolution the original revolutionary will has been to some extent confused by impulses which are not consistent with the spiritual goal, that there has been a good deal of violation of the spiritual goal in some respects; but this makes no difference to the fact that Lenin and his followers were inspired by the will to found a society in which the necessary conditions should be secured for the fulfilling of personality in very individual in free participation. in the common life. The Communists may have had an imperfect view of what, in its loftier reaches, the life of the spirit really involves; but they disciplined themselves heroically for an ideal which was essentially spiritual. And whatever their faults and their failures, I at least believe that they achieved a necessary economic revolution and founded a new kind of society in which the spirit may in time find fuller expression than has before been possible. The spirit is not served by our merely praising it. We have to live and if necessary die for it. There’s the rub! Further, I should guess that in many cases the social revolutionary’s passion is spiritual not only in that it is concerned with the spiritual value of comradeship but also that it is accompanied by at least some sense of universal significance; which, of course, mayor may not be consciously recognized as such. In striving to create a world-society in which every individual shall have the fullest possible opportunity of development in personality and in community with his fellows, the revolutionary is trying to release the frustrated spiritual potency of our species. He works for a future in which the spirit shall triumph on this planet. In the past, economic forces inevitably played the major part in determining the course of history; but in the future, near or far, men may succeed in founding a world in which the spiritual will is the main controlling power.