Examining the Roots of Ethical
Degeneration, and of Its Healing
Ivan A. Il’in
Equilibrium, justice and self-respect, three decisive factors in philosophy
A 2016 Editorial Note
After being largely ignored for decades, Ivan
A. Il’in has emerged in the 21st century as one
of the main Russian philosophers of all time. His
book “On the Essence of Legal Consciousness”,
from which the following text is reproduced,  can
be seen as a study in the awakening of Antahkarana,
the line of communication between higher self and
lower self – one of the main tenets of modern theosophy.
(Carlos Cardoso Aveline)
A person unaware of his own spiritual worth, that is, not experiencing it, leads a deformed, degraded, sick life; and its diseases are deeply instructive: they can be described as the diseases of spiritual self-affirmation.
At the foundation of spiritual respect for oneself must lie a true perception of oneself, and not an illusion and not an unhealthy self-conceit; an authentic spiritual worth, and not a spent external sign of obsolete privileges; a personal act of self-affirmation, and not someone else’s perhaps mistaken or mendacious pronouncement. Perceiving oneself as a force for the good must be not accidental and not ephemeral, but an authentic and objective self-perception. It cannot and must not be replaced by any kind of surrogate whatever: neither by a dreamy imagining of one’s supposed virtues and of one’s “historical destiny”, nor by an empty pride or a cultivation of formal “honor”, nor by the accidental and changeable verdict of “social opinion”, nor by the self-seeking and capricious “ripples of public opinion”. The perception of one’s own spiritual worth has at its base experience which is independent, personal, and at the same time objectively valuable. A legal subject [1] must be a living, self-sufficient depository of spiritual worth; and any deficiency in this experience – a defect in self-sufficiency or a defect in objectivity – makes this legal consciousness [2] unsteady, rickety, weak in vitality, and unstable.
A person respecting himself only because and to the extent that others respect him strictly speaking does not respect himself : his spiritual health depends upon others’ secondary impressions, that is, on the ignorance and incompetence of others; in actual fact a feeling of his own inferiority, vanity, and a lust for external success gnaws at him; and if this success and popularity betray him, then he ceases to feel his own spiritual worth, and his personality loses its form. Similarly, a person who respects himself only for his supposed, or purely external, or empirically accidental, qualities, that is, for what does not constitute his spiritual essence (for strength, for beauty, for wealth), practically respects not himself : his spiritual health depends on that which may belong to him, but is not him himself, that is, on the accidental and non-essential, on what does not have its own value, on transitory accidents of his personality; in actual fact he amasses a supposed wealth and multiplies his power or his property, but does not affirm the inner worth of his spirit.
Still more deplorable is the state of that person who is completely unable to respect himself, and is so accustomed to it that he does not experience his own spiritual worth at all. Once, perhaps in childhood, the soul of such a person could not endure some trial, placing a heavy burden on his sense of selfhood; it could not stand the pressure of external circumstances or of its own instinctive inclinations, could not cope with some vital task and responsibility. It gave into it, yielded, and in that very subjection found the poison of a certain enjoyment. The act of spiritual self-affirmation did not succeed; the soul did not stand its ground in the struggle and consented, dispirited and humbled, to its humiliation. It did not succeed in asserting itself as a force; rather, having consented to humiliation, it shook its belief in itself and in its beneficent nature. Once having submitted to its passions or to another will, and having discovered the sick sweetness in subordination and humiliation, the soul turns out no longer to have the strength to forge for itself a personal form of spirit. It does not see its own worth and does not respect itself; and since to conceal such a perception of oneself is impossible, others imperceptibly become accustomed not to respect it and in this way strengthen its disrespect for itself. The person gradually acquires the psychic make-up of a slave, accustomed not to respect himself. And the tragedy of his situation is revealed with particular force precisely when he attempts to free himself through an external rebellion or an uprising; this rebellion does not free him, for his shackles have an internal nature; this rebellion reveals only what a person deprived of the feeling of his own worth is capable of, while the burden of disrespect for oneself drags the rebel back to a state of abjection. Such, for example, is precisely the consequence of corporal punishment, particularly when endured in early childhood, and only spiritual blindness could have created the folk saying concerning the superiority of one who has been beaten over the one who has not.
It is obvious that the legal consciousness of such people who do not respect themselves, or respect their “not-selves”, suffer from profound diseases. Their personality is, as it were, deprived of root and trunk; it leads a ghostly, dependent existence; strictly speaking it possesses only a figuratively-human semblance of existence. It is only a medium for its passions and the influences of others, individual and social; these influences at each given moment enter into a compromise among themselves, which determines its behavior. For that reason it is not in a condition to be determining its life through independent decisions, to be building its future, and to be struggling for the goals it has set for itself. Having lost its spiritual center, it weakened or even destroyed the center of its own volition in that way, and replaces the will by stubbornness, respect for oneself with pride, the feeling of one’s own worth with vainglory. The soul experiences spiritual degeneration or even corruption.
The sense of one’s own worth unasserted and unstrengthened, or once wounded and not healed, undermines a person’s faith in himself and in his powers. In the depth of his personal spirit is formed a certain emptiness and hollowness, robbing his life activity of strength, and rendering him incapable of firm and courageous resistance to the forces of things and people. Any trial arouses in him dismay, doubt in himself, and fear; trepidation and cowardice take hold of his soul and lead him down the path of unworthy pliancy and passivity. Such a person turns out to be capable neither of spiritual self-assertion, because he converts it into an outburst of passions; nor of psychic self-denial, because he does not possess a living relation to the highest value, to the sacred object. True self-denial is not a denial of spirit, but of the soul, in the name of spirit; and for that reason it presupposes a true respect for spirit and for oneself, and leads not to humiliation, but to the assertion of personal worth.
Not to respect oneself means to experience one’s own weakness in the good. And one who accepts this weakness and becomes reconciled to it nurtures in himself a diminished well-being and stands perpetually on the threshold of new humiliations; once having “washed one’s hands” of oneself, one dwells constantly on the verge of a new spiritual collapse, always more easily overstepping the bounds of the moral and the legal. And one who does not become reconciled with his weakness, but also cannot assert himself for the good, tries to assert his power apart from the good or counter to it, and converts his life into a mixture of cynicism and hypocrisy.
And if, to crown it all, in the soul of a person there stirs a consciousness of his own unworthiness or badness, while pride is elevated and exacerbated, there arises a so-called underground character, in all its misery and deformity. A person begins to experience his own lack of respect for himself as the disrespect of others toward him; the feeling of his own original misfortune gives him no peace; every advantage of another is for him, as it were, an insult, and his life is gradually converted into a continuous, galling and unforgivable injury. His soul is tormented by meagre self-regard, which it sometimes is not even aware of; this self-regard cannot be satisfied by any external success whatever, cannot be sated by any flattery, for its redemption cannot in general come from without. Reassurance can come only from a turning inward of the soul, only from a healing act of spiritual self-affirmation; and this act cannot be realized by a conscious, arbitrary decision, for the soul flees from the unbearable sight of its own emptiness, unworthiness and deformity, and conceals its disease and its suffering in the deep underground of the unconscious; and forcing out its own disease[3], it loses access to it and power over it, becoming entangled in a tragic hopelessness.
And amid all these outcomes the person does not find an objective basis for life and wanders through sufferings and humiliations, depraved and miserable, rejected by himself, unjustified and unreconciled.
To lose the objective basis of life means to lose the spiritual dimension of things and deeds, to lose any criterion of objective value. The life of such a person becomes a true realm of vulgarity, for vulgarity is a blindness of the soul toward the objective significance of objectsA spiritually blind soul lives by wretched contents and scant measures of a personal way of life; it perceives everything on the plane of its needs and passions and measures life in terms of interest and power. And precisely for that reason its life is converted into a bog of confusion, weakness and vice. But its principal confusion is in the non-recognition of spirit, its objectivity and unconditional value. The person dwells in a naive, immediate certainty that “the main thing in life is himself”; and in himself the most important thing of all is the purely personal, the “intimate”, the empirically-singular, the subjective; and from this it is already not far to preferring one’s own needs, flaring up on the instant,  to everything else. Precisely in this lies the spiritual root of all corruption whatsoever.
At the base of all corruption – bribes, public corruption, every sort of demagogy and mercenary international treason – lies a spiritual blindness and an absence of one’s own spiritual worth. Blindness gives rise to an incapacity for gradation of ends according to value, and a defect of spiritual worth creates a seriously impaired will, an unprincipled readiness to give up the spiritual, the objective, the universal, for personal interest and acquisition. That is why a political regime not nurturing in the people a feeling of its own worth is doomed to disintegrate eventually from the triumph of private self-seeking over the common interest and vulgarity over spirit.
From this is already clear that a person deprived of the feeling of his own worth can maintain the guise of humanity only under the pressure of an alien power – landowners, State power -and personal advantage; with the collapse of both factors he easily loses the form of humanity, and passions draw him into downfall and chaos. Spiritual disability can always plunge him into a condition of irresponsible weakness of will and mental deficiency. And in the political sense he is not a legally competent being. Neither a sound legal consciousness, nor true loyalty, nor a political form of thought, nor patriotism are accessible to him: for all of this possesses a spiritual nature toward which he is blind and indifferent. Therefore he cannot intelligently carry public authority or build a social organization. Not respecting himself, he also does not respect the citizen in himself; not understanding his own spiritual worth, he fails to see spiritual worth either in other citizens, or in the State, or in State power. He perceives others’ worth as an alien power, and sees in it either an instrument for himself or a danger for himself. Standing face to face with State power, or at least with its representatives, he draws from the soul not respect, not trust and not a feeling of vital unity, but a covert submissiveness which manifests itself, depending on circumstances, either in cunning flattery or in a daring threat. Such a person does not maintain his own worth either before superiors or before inferiors. With superiors he is ingratiating, obsequious, and servile; in the best case he serves them as a true lackey; in the worst case he conceals behind servility a spiteful readiness to humiliate his master just as he was humiliated before the master. With inferiors he is contemptuous, crude, and despotic; in the best case he uses them as his own instruments; in the worst case he vents on them all the insults of his own meagre self-respect and transfers to their shoulders the entire burden of his own slavery. The range of his psychic alternations is defined by the groveling of a Caliban and the daring of a Ham, the disrespectfulness of a Thersites and the ferocity of a Pugachev.[4] And if such a psychic structure turns out to be typical of people in a certain epoch, or even dominant, then the life of the people is a picture of true degeneration: a benighted trepidation is replaced by a benighted rebellion, “senseless and merciless”; and there where ruled the “yoke and the lash”, arises a profanation of sacred things, and a snatching of the inviolable.
A people unable to respect its own spiritual worth creates a diseased ruling power, brings forth a sick sense of self and a sick ideology.
In creating its ruling power, such a people are unable to convey to it either a feeling of personal worth or respect for oneself. It establishes a ruling power which does not believe in the spiritual mission of the State, does  not see its own spiritual tasks, and does not observe the forms of life necessary for spiritual culture; a ruling power which does not understand in what consists the essence of the State idea and for which a self-active legal consciousness is necessary; which does not respect its own people and does not nurture them; which pampers itself by its own despotic absolutism and perverts the idea of the State into an empty form of submissiveness and order. It does not understand that domination over a slave diminishes and corrupts the master himself, and does not notice how the disease of enslaved legal consciousness corrupts its own will and its political creativity. Such a ruling power recognizes the appearance of political submission and political flattery as a true and sufficient manifestation of its worth and harbors behind that appearance a public venality, the corruption of morals, and a politics directed against the State; it takes flattery and groveling for respect, formal discipline  for obedience to law, a frightened submissiveness for legal consciousness, absence of will for loyalty, the absence of a political sense in the people for a guarantee of legal order. But, clearest of all, it will discover its insolvency when the people’s dissatisfaction begins to threaten its existence. Then it, deprived of respect for itself, will place its self-preservation higher than its worth and will prefer utterly to destroy the legal consciousness of the people, to degrade its purpose and its status, to unravel the foundations of the State, its powers and its international position, in order simply to preserve its structure, its form and its direction of will. Following the rule, fatal in politics, of “divide et impera”, it begins to arouse and intensify discord among citizens, kindling artificial differentiation and hurling nation against nation, class against class, children against fathers. The lie and oppression, political investigations and provocations, graft and terror it spreads open-handedly throughout the country, undermining what is most important in the population – the will to political unity. And all this is unsurprising and clear: such a ruling power respects neither itself nor its mission; and in the struggle for its existence it betrays what is unable to value: the deepest link of its State, squandering this most precious spiritual achievement in outbursts of personal and group despotism or in party interests.
It is natural that such a people, in composing their national sense of self and their political fate, proceed along false paths and prepare for themselves a heavy historical ordeal. In particular, it is precisely out of this that arise all tyrannies and especially the worst of them: the tyranny of the totalitarian State.
The totalitarian State, even in its less severe version (Italian fascism), is not inclined to attribute any particular significance to the feeling of personal spiritual worth. There where the individual respects this feeling, as its fundamental condition of life, a totalitarian regime does not arise. It is necessary for this feeling to have wavered, for a people to have damaged or lost it, for a totalitarian regime to arise. This is precisely how it was with the Italians at the end of the First World War (the battle of Caporetto), with the Germans (after the defeat and demoralization of 1918), in Russia after the defeat of 1915 and during the revolution, and finally, in China after a protracted revolution and endless external and civil wars. A sharp sense of one’s own helplessness and the public shame brought about by it, distrust in one’s own good forces, a wrenching feeling of impending doom, humiliation, and most important, the absence of a lively and deep religious feeling – all of this prepares in the people that particular feeling of dishonor on which all demagogues and tyrants build their success. This dishonor leads to the degeneration of legal consciousness: there arises disillusionment with discipline and loyalty and responsibility in people’s souls – a readiness for any sort of disloyalty, for a scorning of prohibitions, for treachery and violence; people seek an authority which would give them permission for dishonorable conduct, and convey power to them. It is noteworthy that Mussolini succeeded in the beginning in creating a new, authoritarian power which not only did not grant permission for dishonorable conduct, but advanced an ideal of a new fascist honor.
From its side, the totalitarian power builds the whole of its regime on the suppression and perversion of the feeling of personal spiritual worth. It demands blind and humiliating obedience, including voluntary and compulsory political espionage on one another by the citizens. It demands boundless adulation and humiliating public sham-confessions from the insufficiently loyal; it strives to involve in its political crimes the largest possible number of citizens, to force everyone to their knees and break their spiritual backbones. Born itself of dishonesty and dishonor, it creates a new, previously unprecedented regime of dishonesty and dishonor, and unfolds shocking pictures of ethical degeneration. After the political experience given to us by the history of the first half of the twentieth century, scarcely anyone could bring themselves to dispute the significance of the first axiom of legal consciousness.[5]
It is impossible to grant that a people’s feeling of mutual belonging to a national and political order could remain in a confused, immature, helpless condition; that a people did not experience its unity, did not seek it, did not desire it, and was unable to create it; its instinct for self-preservation must not only maintain a personal form, but also rise to a national form. Then it will learn to struggle for its own political existence, to see dangers threatening it, and will never abandon the cause of public salvation for private desire and profit. Experiencing itself as spiritually unified, it will see its spiritual worth, will respect itself, and turn out to be capable of an active, enterprising self-affirmation; then it will be able to maintain its political unity not only in the form of institutions, and not become scattered in the transition to a corporative order. A great war will not present itself as a trial beyond its strength, and great historical humiliations will not be needed by it for the stimulation and strengthening in it of the capability for spiritual and political self-affirmation.
It is clear that these and similar diseases inevitably find expression in the spiritual creativity,  and in particular, in the ideology of a people.
To be separated from one’s spiritual worth means to lose either the self-sufficient form of spirit, or its unconditional content, or, both one and the other together. A people not yet having realized its spiritual self-affirmation does not respect spirit either in itself or in the object, or in the idea of the State; therefore it develops morbid forms of spiritual life and produces morbid phenomena of spiritual culture. These forms and phenomena may be apparently lacking mutual correlations, but in substance they reveal a single organic spiritual disease.
Not being able to find a fitting mean between self-abasement and self-exaltation, such a people forever oscillates between these two extremes, and often combines them in the most bizarre fashion. Its religiosity proceeds either from a feeling of personal insignificance, and then feeds on fears and superstition; or from a feeling of seductive all-permissiveness, and then preaches the sanctity of sin and takes the form of a collective perversion (Khlysty) [6], or from a feeling of the feebleness of spirit, and then preaches the sinfulness of the flesh and transforms human beings into monsters (Skoptsy).[7] Its art either repudiates the independent service of the beautiful, and becomes an instrument of socio-political struggle and advocacy; or suddenly falls into a spiritual blindness, lyrically celebrating the insignificant trivialities of life, or idealizing spiritual collapse and vulgarity; or turns into a cult of sick passions, assuming all aesthetic form can be comfortable with any content whatever; and then it destroys the very form of the beautiful and the worth of art, converting it into a delight for blind or sick souls (“modernism”).
These diseases also pervert the national ideology of such a people. On one hand, the failed or not yet successful spiritual self-affirmation undermines its faith in its own capabilities and violates the integrity of its self-respect. This hinders it from approaching its shortcomings and vices with a feeling of its own worth: it views them in an exaggerated, caricatured, at times nightmarish form, perceives them as something exceptional and incurable, as a kind of national curse. And then its ideology is filled with a feeling of national insignificance and impending doom; it gives itself over to an excessive and therefore fruitless self-flagellation, implanting in souls a dejection and depression of spirit. From this sense that “we are rotten” flows an exaggerated evaluation of other nations, historically more advanced; there arises a faith in the foreign teacher, in “Varangians” [8], and this faith feeds and strengthens lack of faith in one’s own powers, passivity, lack of will, a readiness to submit to other peoples and to serve them.  However, the presence of such a sense and such an ideology does not hinder it from indulging in its own condemned vices, indulging with provocative frivolity and self-satisfied posturing.
On the other hand, meagre self-esteem and self-respect instill in the national consciousness, which is creating the ideology of the country, an extraordinary self-certainty and self-satisfaction. A healthy need for self-respect, not finding proper satisfaction for itself, arouses an irresistible inclination to self-idealization, to isolating in the national character solely the bright qualities, and beyond that to an exaltation of national shortcomings. Consciousness discovers a sentimental tenderness toward its offended sense of self and affectionately rewards itself with the incense of reverence. There is formed a doctrine of the “greatest among nations”, of a nation-messiah, the chosen leader; there is advanced an ideology of self-glorification, intoxicating the mind and enfeebling the will; there emerges an ideology of national infirmities, demonstrating the moral advantage of spiritual backwardness and ignorance (Tolstoianism) [9]; ideologists who perceive in immaturity and the deformity of public legal consciousness the key to the resolution of the social problem (anarchists). There arises a blind and ruinous nationalism advocating contempt for foreigners, deadening the national conscience [10], and corrupting the roots of true patriotism. Objective self-consciousness falls silent, and ideologists turn out to be the blind leaders of the blind.
Such are the spiritual diseases arising from the violation of the first axiomatic basis of spirit and legal consciousness. To lose one’s spiritual worth means to lose in oneself that vital center from which spiritual life is created, which needs natural law, formulates it and establishes a legal order; that means to be deprived of that vital root from which legal consciousness grows [11], that is the will to law, the will to the end of law and the capacity to motivate one’s deeds autonomously through the recognition of that end.
[1] “Legal subject”: a citizen. (CCA)
[2] “Legal consciousness”: the consciousness of the Law of Life, including human laws, and of one’s ethical duty. (CCA)
[3] At this point the editors of the book “On the Essence of Legal Consciousness” (English edition) say in a footnote: “Il’in was thoroughly familiar with the works of Freud and had daily sessions of psychoanalysis with Freud himself in Vienna for a period of six weeks during the spring and early summer of 1914. These were interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War, at which point Il’in was declared an enemy and forced to leave Austria.” (CCA)
[4] In Greek mythology, Thersites was a soldier of the Greek army during the Trojan War. See the Iliad.   Yemelyan Ivanovich Pugachev led a great Cossack insurrection in Russia during the reign of Catherine II. (CCA)
[5] The first axiom of legal consciousness is the law of spiritual worth. It is referred to in various forms by Il’In. On p. 255 of his book, he says:  “The feeling of one’s own worth is the essential and authentic manifestation of spiritual life; it is a sign of that spiritual self-assertion without which neither the struggle for law nor political self-governance, nor national independence is thinkable. A citizen deprived of this feeling is politically incapable of functioning; a people not moved by it is doomed to terrible historical humiliation.” And on page 256: “The self-affirmation of the soul in the absolutely-precious object always was and always will be the sole source of the feeling of one’s own spiritual worth.” (CCA)
[6] Khlysty (flagellants), a Russian sect in the 19th and early 20th centuries. (CCA)
[7] Skoptsy (castrated), another radical Russian sect in the 19th and early 20th centuries. (CCA)
[8] A reference to the opinion of some Russian historians according to whom Russia was in fact founded by Scandinavian citizens. (CCA)
[9] In idealizing poor Russian peasants as if they were saints, Leo Tolstoy followed the steps of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The French philosopher was right in denouncing the misuse of knowledge, but failed in suggesting that the absence of knowledge was the best alternative. Tolstoy made the same mistake. The right alternative to the misuse of knowledge is combining knowledge and ethics, and realizing that to every bit of knowledge there is a corresponding amount of ethical duty; otherwise, knowledge will turn against the knower.  (CCA)
[10] National conscience: such a concept has a decisive importance as to the planting of good karma and corresponds to a “collective antahkarana”. See in our websites the texts “The Guardian Wall That Protects Mankind” and “The Seven Principles of the Movement”. (CCA)
[11] Id est, in theosophical parlance, “to be deprived of that active Antahkarana, or bridge to the higher self from which ethical consciousness grows”. (CCA)
The above text is reproduced from the groundbreaking book “On the Essence of Legal Consciousness”, by the Russian philosopher Ivan A. Il’in: Wildy, Simmonds & Hill Publishing, UK, 391 pp., 2014. See chapter sixteen, “Diseases of Self-Affirmation”, pp. 266-274.  
Ivan A. Il’in lived between 1883 and 1954. His surname is also spelled as Ilyin in Western languages. The book “The Singing Heart”, for instance, was published in the UK during 2016 under the name “Ivan Ilyin”.
See also the two-volume work “The Philosophy of Hegel as a Doctrine of the Concreteness of God and Humanity”, by Ivan A.  Il’in. An article by N. Lossky on this philosopher will be found in the February 2016 edition of “The Aquarian Theosophist”, pp. 7-9.
See here the 1m30s video “The Healing Chain Reaction”, with a fragment from “The Fire and Light”: