What is your intention?

Recently I was asked by Frances Hutchinson, editor of the highly informative and freely available journal The Social Artist (see DouglasSocialCredit), to write a short introduction to Camphill emphasising its roots in Steiner’s “ethical individualism”. In my attempt to do this I began to reflect on Camphill’s current predicament in the context of its members’ core intentions.  The “predicament” I see as this:

[Camphill’s] engagement with a recognised social need means its communities have more permeable boundaries then most intentional communities, and thus greater potential to be a “transformative presence” in the world. At the same time it is this very engagement, coming as it does with statutory obligations and the need to be publicly accountable, which makes them particularly vulnerable to regulatory pressures which threaten to alter or undermine their intention.

What I was lead to wonder is whether the vulnerability of Camphill lies not only in the nature of its “dual intention”, if you like, but in the fact that neither its “surface” intention nor its “deeper” intention are particularly clear any more, or necessarily held in common.  Of course, there has been much effort in the last few years to re-evaluate and re-articulate the “mission” (or “vision”?) of Camphill.  But what of the intentions of individuals? Is it easier, in a sense, to identify with common goals than it is to acknowledge different goals and face up to the consequences of that acknowledgment?  Especially if the consequences entail change, or even loss; loss not only of what is familiar, but what is hard-earned and deeply valued?

My point, I suppose, is that if “ethical individualism” is to be taken seriously, then more attention ought to be paid to personal intentions than collective ones.  For, only when people have discovered their real differences can they form relationships based on what truly unites them.  Being clear about one’s personal aims, and constantly re-evaluating them, prevents “the community” from taking on a life of its own, and perhaps, sweeping up its members in some sort of vague and increasingly abstract ambition.  Of course, saying this highlights that speaking of “Camphill’s intention” or “its” anything might not only be meaningless (there is no single entity called ‘Camphill’ – is there?) but could be counter-productive.

Coming back to the idea that you have to know what you really want before you can come together with others who want the same thing: if formed on this basis, then the community intention is the sum of all individual intentions – and of course, something more, otherwise no one would form communities.  Maybe that “something more” is the realisability of the intention, which is enhanced by forming community – but that is a tangent (and assumes that there might be a goal beyond the fact of community itself).  The key issue, in the context of ethical individualism, is that a community’s intention must not be fixed; it must be allowed to change and develop as the individuals who make it up change and develop. Fixed values – any idea of an absolute good or right – is the antitheses of ethical individualism.  In Steiner’s terms, the essence of doing what is right is the freedom to decide, in any given moment, what is the right thing to do. In other words, it requires a tremendous flexibility and openness.

This is, needless to say, a rather simple way of putting it, ignoring all the complexities of what it means to be free, what is will, what is knowledge, and so on.  But I think it serves well enough to illustrate the point that as soon as a community perceives itself to have a value beyond the individuals who make it up (or sees itself as an entity which has a right to preserve itself) then it is no longer a community rooted in ethical individualism, however laudable its vision or activities.  This is the harsh reality of the principle: if the community no longer exists in order to nurture the intentions of its individual members, then it must be allowed to die (isn’t all change a form of death and rebirth?).  The worst option – from an ethical individualist standpoint – is to allow it to continue but with its members in service to it, or in service to an ideal which is divorced from their personal aims. This divorce can happen in an obvious or sudden way, shocking people into action and responsibility.  But it can also be a subtle and gradual process, concealed even from and by those to whom it is happening.

Which brings me back to the “predicament”: As I said, perhaps the challenge faced by Camphill communities is not their struggle with the demands of “the world”, or at least, only secondarily.  Perhaps it is firstly about the struggle we all undertake to become conscious of and articulate about our own intentions, and to communicate them.  Unity is a powerful thing.  I think this is what I was getting at in the article. Whether a group of people express their unity in the language of Camphill or some other language, the source of their strength will be having identified what they will all go to the stake for.   Therein lies their power to change the world.

What does “ethical individualism” mean for Camphill today?  How is it interpreted by people living in Camphill communities?  Is it interpreted at all?  These are, in my view, interesting questions.  The full article Living with intention is available here. Thoughts on it or these ramblings welcome.

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  1. Mark McAlister says:

    Thank you Maria. This is very helpful input for our work. Looking forward to the article.

    Interesting political note here in Canada: A federal election is brewing, and Justin Trudeau has just given a major policy speech. Here’s a quote from a newspaper article: “Pluralism, in Trudeau’s view, is the soul of Canada and the essence of what makes it work. The trick, he says, is striking just the right balance between individual liberty and collective identity.” Another way of putting it: we need to move away from (rigid) governance based on ideology to (flexible) governance based on principles.

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