Astronomy in Relation to the Other Scientific Disciplines. Lecture 6.
Thursday, January 29, 2015
The evolution of humankind and the secrets of celestial space
Astronomy in Relation to the Other Scientific Disciplines. Lecture 6.
Rudolf Steiner, Stuttgart, January 6, 1921:
My Dear Friends,
You will have seen, from what has been said so far, that in the explanation of natural phenomena we need to find a path leading beyond the intellectually mathematical domain. That we do not dispute the justification of a mathematical approach is implicit in the whole spirit of these lectures. But we were able sharply to define the point beyond which it is impossible to go with mathematical thought-forms, in the celestial spaces on the one hand, and in the realm of embryology on the other. We must hew out a path to other methods of cognition. It is the purpose of these lectures to show the scientific need of other methods.
I shall try to show that what is looked for nowadays merely by gazing outward into celestial space — whether with the unaided eye or with the help of optical instruments — needs to be put on a far wider basis, so that not only a part but the whole of man becomes the ‘reagent’ for a deeper penetration of the Heavens. Today I shall try, if not to prove, at least to indicate the validity of such a widening of method, by approaching the problem from quite another side. It may seem paradoxical in relation to our present theme, but the reason will soon become plain.
In studying the evolution of mankind on Earth we must surely find something within human evolution itself to guide us to the essential source of the celestial phenomena. For otherwise we should be assuming that what goes on in the Universe beyond the Earth is without influence on man, — on human evolution. No-one will make such an assumption, although admittedly the influences may be over-estimated by some and underestimated by others. It will therefore be plausible — at least from a methodic point of view — to put the question: ‘Can we find anything in the evolution of mankind itself to indicate ways of access to the secrets of celestial space?’ Asking this question, we will take our start, not from Spiritual Science, but from the facts which anyone can gather for himself by empirical, historical research.
Looking back in the evolution of mankind in the realm where human thoughts, the human faculties of knowledge, find expression, where, so to speak, the relation of man to the world takes on the most highly sublimated forms — we are led back, to begin with (as you may gather from my ‘Riddles of Philosophy’), only a few centuries into the past. Indeed I have often pointed to a certain moment during the 15th century, one of the most essential in the more recent phases of human evolution. The indication is of course approximate. We have to think of the period about the middle of the Middle Ages. Needless to say, we are referring only to what was going on within civilized mankind.
It is not generally seen clearly or sharply enough, how deep and incisive a change was then taking place in human thought and cognition. There has unfortunately for some time been a downright aversion — among philosophers especially — to a real study and appreciation of the epoch in European civilization which may be called the Age of Scholasticism. During that age, deeply significant questions came to the surface of man's life of knowledge. If one goes into them deeply enough, one feels that these questions did not merely spring from the realm of logical deduction — the form in which the Middle Ages used to clothe them — but from the very depths of man's being.
One need only recall what then became a fundamental question in human knowledge — the question of Nominalism and Realism. Or again, what it betokened in the spiritual development of Europe that attempts were made to prove the existence of God. There was for instance the so-called ontological proof of the existence of God. From thought itself — from the pure concept — men wanted confirmation of God's existence. Think what it means in the whole evolution of human knowledge. Something was stirring in the inmost depths of the human being; in the philosophical deductions of the time it only found fully conscious expression. Men were perplexed as to whether the concepts and ideas, which man forms and puts into words, in some way stand for a reality, or whether they are merely formal summarizations of the external sensory data. The Nominalists regarded the general concepts which man creates for himself as a mere formal summary, having no significance for the external reality but only helping man to find his way about — to orientate himself in an otherwise confusing outer world. The Realists (an expression used in a rather different sense than today) declared that something real is to be found in general or universal concepts, — that in these concepts man in his inner life takes hold of something real, — that they are no mere convenient generalizations or abstractions from the world.
Often in more public lectures I have related how my old friend Vinsenz Knauer — a latter-day scholastic, though he would not have claimed to be one — showed himself very clearly, in his interesting work “The Central Problems of Philosophy, from Thales to Robert Hamerling”, to be thoroughgoing Realist. The Nominalists, he said, assert that the concept ‘lamb’ is nothing but a convenient generalization arising in the human mind; so too the concept ‘wolf’. Matter is only put together in a different way in the lamb and in the wolf. We only summarize it in the convenient abstraction, ‘lamb’ or ‘wolf’ as the case may be. Well, he suggested, try for some time to keep a wolf away from all other food and give it only lambs to eat: after the necessary lapse of time the matter in the wolf will be nothing but lamb, and yet it will not have lost its wolfishness. Therefore the wolf-nature, expressed in the general concept ‘wolf,’ must be something real.
Now the fact that the so-called ‘ontological’ proof of God's existence could arise at all bears witness to a deep and thoroughgoing change then taking place in human nature. Quite a short time before, it simply would not have occurred to anyone within European culture to want to prove God's existence, for this was felt to be self-evident. Only when this feeling was no longer alive in men did they begin to crave for proof. If you have living inner certainty about a thing, you do not want to prove it. But at that time something was slipping away from man, which until then had been alive in him quite as a matter of course, and the human spirit was thus led into quite other channels — quite other needs. I could adduce many another example, showing precisely at the highest levels of thought and knowledge (though you may take the word 'highest' with a grain of salt) what a deep stirring and rumbling was going on in human nature during that period of the Middle Ages.
Now we can surely not deny that there must be some connection between what is going on in the life of mankind and the phenomena in the Heavens beyond the Earth. In the most general sense, we must assume that there is some connection; what it is in detail, we shall discover in due course. Hence we may ask — we want to proceed very carefully, so we need only ask — ‘How were these inner experiences which man on Earth was undergoing at that time, connected with the evolution of the Earth-planet altogether?’, — a question which may obviously lead us into realms beyond the Earth. Was it perhaps a special moment in the evolution of the Earth as such? Is there anything that we can point to as a more definite criterion of what this moment was in human evolution?
We can indeed point to something of significance in this connection. There was another time which made a deep incision in the same regions of the Earth where in the Middle Ages these events were taking place in the most highly sublimated realm of human life: the spiritual life of thought. The medieval time, when this deep moving and stirring of humanity took place, lies in the very midst between two end-points, as it were, in the scale of time. For European regions these ‘end-points’ do not represent the kind of times in which intense activity of human life and culture would be possible at all. In effect, if from this medieval moment, which I will call A (Fig. 1), we go backward and forward an equal length of time into a fairly distant past and future, we come to points of time representing a certain barrenness and death of civilization in the very regions where this deep stirring of human life was going on in the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries. About 10,000 years forward and 10,000 years back from this moment (A in Figure 1) we reach the maximum development of the Ice Ages in these very regions. Ice Ages certainly would not allow of any outstanding development in human life and culture.
Surveying therefore the evolution of these European regions we find an Ice Age — a laying-waste of civilization — 10,000 years before the Christian era, and we should find the same again 10,000 years after this time. The deep stirring of human life, of which we have been speaking, happened midway between two such barren epochs.
As I said just now, there is a certain reluctance to pay attention to this period in the development of philosophy — the 13th and 14th centuries; — it is not seen clearly and accurately for what it is. Yet if one has a feeling for the evolution of the life of knowledge in mankind, one is aware that to this day our philosophic history is influenced by the after-effects of what was stirring and rumbling in the life of mankind at that time. It showed itself in other domains of civilization too; it only came to expression most clearly and symptomatically in this phase of development of the life of thought and knowledge.
Now as you know, this phase of development — appearing about the middle of the Middle Ages — was an incisive one in European civilization. I have often spoken of it in anthroposophical lectures. It was an incision. Something was changed in the whole trend of human evolution. It had been beginning long before — in the 8th century B.C. We may describe it as a most intense development of human intellectuality.
Since then, in the life and civilization of mankind, we have been looking especially at the development of Ego-consciousness. All aberrations and all wisdom gained in the general life of humanity since that medieval time are really due to this Ego-development, to the ever-growing elaboration of the consciousness of “I” in man. The consciousness of the ancient Greeks and even of the Latins (both the ancient Latins and their descendants, the Latin peoples of today) did not lay so much stress on the Ego. Even in language — for the most part, in grammar and syntax — they do not pronounce the “I” so outspokenly, but still include it in the verb. The “I” is not yet so blatantly set forth. Take Aristotle and Plato, and above all the greatest philosopher of antiquity, Heraclitus. Throughout their work the Ego is not yet so prominent. The way in which they take hold of the world-phenomena with the intellectual reasoning principle is as yet rather more selfless. (Please do not over-stress this, but in a relative sense the word ‘selfless’ may be used.) There is not yet so sharp a dissociation of the self from the world-phenomena as there tends to be in the new age — the Age of Consciousness in which we are now living.
Going still farther back — beyond the 8th century BC — we come into the Egyptian and Chaldean Age, as I have called it (you will find the details in my “Occult Science”). Once again, the condition of the human soul was different. During this age — which like the others, lasted for over 2,000 years — man was not yet relating external phenomena to one another by intellectual reasoning at all. He apprehended the world — the Heavens too — rather in feeling and direct sensation. It is mistaken and fruitless to approach what is still extant of the Astronomy of Egypt and Chaldea with present-day intellectual judgments — the kind of judgment which we ourselves have inherited from the Graeco-Latin Age. We must achieve a certain metamorphosis of soul so as to enter into the quite different soul-condition then prevailing, where man took hold of the world in simple feeling and sensation (where the concept was not yet separated from the sensation).
Even in the realm of actual sensations or sense-impressions — as can be shown historically and philologically — they attached no great importance to the precise description of the blue and violet shades of color, whereas they had a very keen sensation of the red and yellow regions of the spectrum. Indeed the sensation of the dark colors can be seen to have arisen simultaneously with the capacity for intellectual concepts.
The Egypto-Chaldean Age — from 747 B.C. about 2160 years into the past, — takes us to the beginning of the third millennium BC. Still earlier, say in the fourth or fifth millennium BC, we come into an age when man's whole outlook and mode of perception were so different from ours today that it is hard for us, without recourse to spiritual-scientific methods, to transplant ourselves at all into the way in which the man of that time saw the world around him. It was not only a feeling and sensing, — it was a living with the outer happenings, being right in them. Man felt himself a part and member of all Nature around him, much as my arm, if it were conscious, would feel itself a member of my body.
Here therefore was an altogether different trend and quality in man's relation to the world. And if we go still farther back, we find this union of man with the surrounding world even more enhanced. In those very early times, civilizations were only able to develop where special geographical conditions made it possible. I mean the time described in my “Occult Science” as the Ancient Indian civilization — much earlier than the culture of the Vedas, which was but a later echo of it. The Ancient Indian epoch comes very near to the time when glacial conditions prevailed in our regions of the Earth. A culture like the Ancient Indian could only develop when such climatic conditions, more or less, as we enjoy in the Temperate Zone today, extended to what is now the Equator. You can deduce it simply from the relative advance or retreat of the ice; tropical conditions did not come about in India until a much later time, when in more northerly regions the ice had receded.
We see therefore how the inner evolution of mankind undergoes modifications hand in hand with changing terrestrial conditions — changing conditions, that is to say, on the Earth's surface. Only those who take a very short-term view of mankind's evolution upon Earth will imagine that the scientific ideas we entertain today have any absolute validity — that we have now at last got through to the scientific truth, so to speak. These regions of the Earth which are today enjoying certain forms of cultural and spiritual life will at some future time inevitably be laid waste again; they will be desolate once more. From the past length of time you may reckon out how long ahead it will be till a new glacial age overtakes our present civilization. Moreover assuming that we can find some connection between the celestial phenomena and these facts of earthly evolution — the successive Ice-ages and the mid-point between them — this will lead on to a further insight. That which takes place on Earth in the most highly sublimated realms of cultural life — in the life of thought and knowledge — will be related now not only to these changing conditions on the Earth itself, but to conditions in the outer Cosmos. Purely empirical reflection shows that man is what he is by virtue of conditions on the planet Earth and in the Universe beyond.
Once more then, taking the facts empirically as is usual in Science, only with a somewhat wider range, our vision is extended until we recognize such a relationship as we have just been describing. Now in a sense, even in the present time we can perceive how the quality and trend of human spiritual life is brought about by the relation between the Earth and the celestial bodies. In an earlier lecture it was pointed out how different the spiritual configuration of mankind tends to be in Equatorial and in Polar regions. Investigating this more closely, the different relation of the Earth to the Sun proves to be the determining factor. It makes man in the Polar regions less free of his bodily nature. Man in the Polar regions is less able to lift himself out of the bodily organism, — to pain-free use and manipulation of his life of soul. (As to the different mutual relations of Earth and Sun, there will be more in it than that, as we shall find in due course; but to begin with we can take our start from the conventional notions.)
We need only picture to ourselves how differently the men of Polar regions are taken hold of by something which in ourselves keeps more in the background. We of the Temperate Zone have the quick alternation of day and night. Think how long this alternation becomes as you approach the Polar Zone. It is as though the day were to lengthen out into a year. I told you of what works in the little child, deep in the bodily nature from year to year, from birth to the change of teeth, and of how the independent working of the life of soul, given up as it is to the quicker rhythm of the day, gradually frees and detaches itself from this more bodily working. This is not possible to the same extent in Polar regions. It is the yearly rhythm which will there tend to make itself felt. The emphasis is more on the bodily side. The human being will not wrest himself free to the same extent from what works within the body.
Think now of the scanty relics that have been preserved from the civilization of very early times, — that have survived the Ice Age. Then you will see that there were times in which a kind of ‘Polarization’ (giving the word its proper meaning in this context) extended right across the present Temperate zone, so that conditions were prevailing here not unlike those in the present Polar regions. You can use this comparison for what was working in the Ice Age; you can truly say: What is now pressed back towards the North Pole extended then over a considerable part of the Earth. (Please keep this free of present-day explanations and ideas, for otherwise the pure phenomenon will be obscured. Take only the pure phenomenon as such.)
Conditions on the Earth today are such that we have the three types; the human beings of the Tropical, the Temperate and the Polar zones respectively. Of course they influence each other, so that in outer reality the phenomenon does not appear quite so purely. Nevertheless, what you here have in a spatial form — you find it again in time as you go backward. Going back in time, we come to a ‘North Pole’, as it were, in time — in the history of civilization. Going forward, we come to a Pole again. Remembering that the Polar influence on man is connected with the mutual relations between Earth and Sun, we must conceive that the change which has taken place since the Ice Age — the de-polarization, so to speak — is connected with a changed relation between Earth and Sun. Something must have happened as regards the mutual relation between Earth and Sun. What was it then? The facts themselves suggest the question. What is the source of this in the celestial spaces?
Consider it more nearly. Of course these things will be different in the Northern and Southern hemispheres, but the facts remain. We shall at most have to extend our picture, adapting it to the real facts. We can only take our start from the empirically given data. What is revealed then, if we approach the phenomena without preconceived ideas? The Earth and the events on Earth appear as an expression of cosmic happenings — cosmic happenings which manifest themselves in certain rhythms. Something that showed itself about the tenth millennium before the origin of Christianity will show itself again about the eleventh millennium after. What is in between will also in a sense be repeated. What we here have between the two Ice Ages will undoubtedly have been there before — in former cycles. It is a rhythm; our attention is drawn to a rhythmic process.
And now look out into the celestial phenomena. To emphasize one fact especially, which I have often pointed to in my lectures, you have the following. (I will only characterize it roughly.) You know that the vernal point — where the Sun rises in spring-time — gradually moves through the Ecliptic. Today the vernal point is in the constellation of Pisces; before, it was in Aries; still earlier in Taurus, — that was the time of the cult of the Bull among the Egyptians and Chaldeans. Still earlier, it was in the constellation of Gemini, and then in Cancer; then in Leo. This already brings us very nearly to the last Ice Age. Thinking it through to a conclusion, we know that the vernal point goes all the way round the Ecliptic, and that the time it takes is called the Platonic Year — the great Cosmic Year, lasting approximately 25,920 years.
A whole number of processes are comprised in these 25,920 years, involving among other things this rhythmic alternation on the Earth; Ice Age, intermediate period, Ice Age, intermediate period, and so on. At the time we spoke of, when there was that deep stirring of the spiritual life in mankind, the vernal point was entering the sign of Pisces. In the Graeco-Latin Age it had been in the sign of Aries, previous to that in Taurus, and so on. We get back to Leo or Virgo, more or less, during the time when glacial conditions prevailed over the greater part of Europe and in America too. Looking into the future, there will be another Ice Age in these regions when the vernal point reaches the sign of Scorpio. This rhythm is contained within what takes its course in 25,920 years. Although admittedly of vast extent, it is a true rhythm none the less.
Now as I have often mentioned, this rhythm is reminiscent — purely numerically — of another rhythm. If it is simply a question of rhythms, and the rhythms are expressible in numbers; if the numbers are the same the rhythms too are the same. You know that the number of breaths man takes — in-breathing and out-breathing — is approximately 18 to the minute. Reckon out the number of breaths in a 24-hour day and you get the same number as before — 25,920. Man therefore shows in his daily life the same periodicity, the same rhythm, as is revealed by the movement of the vernal point in the great Cosmic Year. Now, it is in the day that man shows this rhythm. A day therefore, with respect to breathing, corresponds to the Platonic Year. The vernal point — connected as it is with the Sun — goes round apparently in 25,920 years. But there is also the apparent movement of the Sun through the 24-hour day, while man is taking 25,920 breaths. It is the same picture here as in the great Universe. If then there were a Being who breathed in and out once a year (a simple-minded hypothesis no doubt, but we will use it for comparison), — such a Being, if living long enough, would undergo in 25,920 years the same process as man does in a day. Man reproduces, as it were in miniature, what is manifested in the great cosmic process.
These things make little impression on the people of today, for they are not accustomed to look at the qualitative aspect of the world. Quantitatively, the mere rhythm appears less important. Therefore the scientists are out to find other relations between numbers than these that find expression in pure rhythms. They pay less heed to the latter: But in the epochs when man experienced more nearly the relation between himself and the Universe — when he felt himself more immersed in the phenomena of the Cosmos — these things made a deep impression on him. As we go back in the history of mankind — beyond the second or third millennium BC — we find great attention paid to the Platonic Year. I mentioned yesterday — not to explain it, but by way of illustration — the ancient Indian Yoga system. Man entered deeply into a living inner experience of the breathing process, trying to make it conscious. In doing so there dawned upon him this relation between the rhythm that goes on in man — breathed, as it were, into man in a concentrated and contracted form — and the phenomena of the great Universe. Therefore he spoke of his own in- and out-breathing and of the mighty in- and out-breathing of Brahma, a single breath spanning an entire year, for which 25, 920 years are a day — a day of the Great Spirit.
I do not wish to make an unkind remark, my dear friends, but we do here begin to get some notion of the great distance which men at one time felt between themselves and the Spirit of the Macrocosm whom they revered. Man felt himself about as far beneath the Spirit of the Macrocosm as a day is beneath 25,920 years. It was indeed a great Spirit — a very great Spirit — whom man conceived in this way and whose relation to himself he experienced with due modesty. It would not be uninteresting to compare how great is the distance often felt by modern man between himself and his God. Does he not often conceive the Deity as little more than a slightly idealized human being?
This may not seem very relevant to our subject, but in fact it is. If we want to develop real means of knowledge in this sphere, we must find our way from what is merely calculable into quite other realms. Indeed our study of Kepler's Laws and all that followed from them showed how our very calculations, leading as they do to incommensurable numbers, impel us of their own accord into a realm beyond mere calculation.