When the Mystery of Golgotha took place, the ‘Gnosis’ was the mode of thought of those among humanity who were able, already at that time, to understand this event — the most momentous in the earthly evolution of mankind — with an understanding not only of deep feeling but of clear knowledge.
To comprehend the mood of soul whereby the Gnosis lived in man, we must bear in mind that its age was the age of unfolding of the Intellectual or Mind-Soul. In this same fact we can discover the cause of the disappearance — well-nigh complete — of the Gnosis from human history. Till we can thus understand it, the disappearance of the Gnosis is, after all, one of the most astonishing occurrences in human evolution.
The unfolding of the Intellectual or Mind-Soul was preceded by that of the Sentient Soul, and this in turn by that of the Sentient Body. When the facts of the world are perceived through the Sentient Body, the whole of man's knowledge lives in his senses. He perceives the world colored, resonant, and so forth; but within the colors and sounds, within the states of warmth, he knows the presence of a world of Spiritual Beings. He does not speak of ‘substances,’ of ‘matter’ to which the phenomena of color, warmth, etc., are supposed to adhere, but of Spiritual Beings who manifest themselves through the perceptions of the senses.
In this age, there is as yet no special development of an ‘intellect’ — there is no intellect in man beside the faculty of sense-perception. Man either gives himself up with his own being to the outer world, in which case the Gods reveal themselves to him through the senses; or else in his soul-life he withdraws from the outer world and is then aware of a dim sense of life within.
But a far-reaching change takes place with the unfolding of the Sentient Soul. The manifestation of the Divine through the senses grows dim and fades away. In place of it man begins to perceive the mere sense-impressions — colors, states of warmth, etc. — empty, as it were, of the Divine. And within him the Divine now manifests itself in a spiritual form, in pictorial ideas. He now perceives the world from two sides: through sense-impressions from without, and through Spirit impressions of an ideal kind from within.
Man at this stage must come to perceive the Spirit impressions in as definite a shape and clear a form as he hitherto perceived the divinely permeated sense-impressions. And indeed, while the age of the Sentient Soul holds sway he is still able to do this. For from his inner being the idea pictures rise before him in a fully concrete shape. He is filled from within with a sense-free Spirit-content — itself an image of the contents of the World. The Gods, who hitherto revealed themselves to him in a garment of sense, reveal themselves now in the garment of the Spirit.
This was the age when the Gnosis really originated and had its life. It was a wonderful and living knowledge, in which man knew that he could share if he unfolded his inner being in purity and thus enabled the Divine content to manifest itself through him. From the fourth to the first millennium before the Mystery of Golgotha, this Gnosis lived in those portions of humanity which were most advanced in knowledge.
Then begins the age of the Intellectual or Mind-Soul. Of their own accord the World-pictures of the Gods no longer rise out of the inner being of man. Man himself must apply an inner force to draw them forth from his own soul. The outer world with all its sense-impressions becomes a question — a question to which he obtains the answers by kindling the inner force to draw forth the World-pictures of the Gods from within him. But these pictures are pale now, beside their former shape and character.
Such was the soul-condition of the portion of humanity that evolved so wonderfully in ancient Greece. The Greek felt himself intensely in the outer world of the senses, wherein he also felt the presence of a magic power summoning his own inner force to unfold the World-pictures. In the field of Philosophy, this mood of soul came forth in Platonism.
But behind all this there stood the world of the Mysteries. In the Mysteries, such Gnosis as still remained from the age of the Sentient Soul was faithfully preserved. Human souls were definitely trained for this task of preservation. In the time when the Intellectual or Mind-Soul arose by way of ordinary evolution, the Sentient Soul was kindled into life by special training. Most especially in the age of the Intellectual or Mind-Soul, behind the ordinary life of culture there was a richly developed life of the Mysteries.
In the Mysteries the World-pictures of the Gods lived also in this way, that they were made the inner content of a cult or ritual. We gaze into the centers of those Mysteries and behold the Universe, portrayed in the most wonderful acts of ritual.
The human beings who experienced these things were also those who, when the Mystery of Golgotha took place, perceived and penetrated it in its deep, cosmic significance. But this life of the Mysteries was kept entirely apart from the turmoil of the outer world, in order to unfold in purity the world of Spirit-pictures. And it became increasingly difficult for the souls of men to unfold the pictures.
Then it was that in the highest places of the Mysteries, Spirit-beings descended from the spiritual Cosmos, coming to help the human beings in their intense strivings after knowledge. Thus under the influence of the ‘Gods’ themselves the impulses of the age of the Sentient Soul continued to unfold. There arose a ‘Gnosis of the Mysteries’ of which only the very few had any notion. And that which human beings were able to receive with the Intellectual or Mind-Soul was present alongside of this. It was the exoteric Gnosis whose fragments have come down to posterity.
In the esoteric Gnosis of the Mysteries, human beings grew less and less able to rise to the unfolding of the Sentient Soul. The esoteric Wisdom passed over more and more into the keeping of the Gods alone. It is a great secret of the historic evolution of humanity, that ‘Divine Mysteries’ — for as such we may indeed describe them — were at work in it from the first Christian centuries on into medieval times.
In these ‘Divine Mysteries,’ Angel-beings preserved in Earth-existence what human beings were no longer able to preserve. Thus did the Gnosis of the Mysteries hold sway, while men were diligently wiping out the exoteric Gnosis.
The World-picture-content, guarded in the Gnosis of the Mysteries by Spirit-beings in a spiritual way, while its influence was still required in the progress of mankind, could not, however, be preserved for the conscious understanding of man's soul. But its deep feeling-content had to be preserved. For in the right cosmic moment this was to be given to a humanity duly prepared to receive it, so that at a later stage the Spiritual Soul — fired by the inner warmth of it — might newly penetrate into the Spirit-realm. Thus, Spirit beings built the bridge from the old World-content to the new.
Indications of this secret of human evolution do indeed exist. The sacred jasper cup of the Holy Grail which Christ made use of when He broke the bread and in which Joseph of Arimathea gathered the blood from the wound of Jesus — which contained therefore the secret of Golgotha — was received into safe keeping, according to the legend, by Angels until Titurel should build the Castle of the Grail, when they could allow it to descend upon the human beings who were prepared to receive it.
Spiritual Beings protected the World-pictures in which the secrets of Golgotha were living. And when the time was come, they let down — not the picture-content, for this was not possible — but the full Feeling-content, into the hearts and minds of men.
This implanting of the Feeling-content of an ancient knowledge can only serve to kindle, but it can indeed kindle most powerfully the unfolding in our age — out of the Spiritual Soul and in the light of Michael's activity — of a new and full understanding of the Mystery of Golgotha.
Anthroposophy strives for this new understanding, which — as we may see from the above description — cannot be a renewal of the Gnosis. For the content of the Gnosis was the way of knowledge of the Sentient Soul, while Anthroposophy — in a completely new way — must draw forth a content no less rich from the Spiritual Soul.
Further Leading Thoughts issued from the Goetheanum for the Anthroposophical Society (in connection with the above Study on Gnosis and Anthroposophy)
159. The Gnosis in its proper form evolved in the age of the Sentient Soul (from the fourth to the first millennium before the Mystery of Golgotha). It was an age when the Divine was made manifest to man as a spiritual content in his inner being; whereas in the preceding age (the age of the Sentient Body) it had revealed itself directly in his sense-impressions of the outer world.
160. In the age of the Intellectual or Mind-Soul, man could only experience in paler cast the spiritual content of the Divine. The Gnosis was strictly guarded in hidden Mysteries. And when human beings could no longer preserve it, because they could no longer kindle the Sentient Soul to life, spiritual Beings carried over — not indeed the Knowledge-content — but the Feeling-content of the Gnosis into the Middle Ages. (The Legend of the Holy Grail contains an indication of this fact.) Meanwhile the exoteric Gnosis, which penetrated into the Intellectual or Mind-Soul, was ruthlessly exterminated.
161. Anthroposophy cannot be a revival of the Gnosis. For the latter depended on the development of the Sentient Soul; while Anthroposophy must evolve out of the Spiritual Soul, in the light of Michael's activity, a new understanding of Christ and of the World. Gnosis was the way of Knowledge preserved from ancient time — which, at the time when the Mystery of Golgotha took place, was best able to bring home this Mystery to human understanding.