Rudolf Steiner, Berlin, April 17, 1917:
We shall the better understand the real nature of the events of today and especially of the immediate future if, from a spiritual angle, we see them as the continuation of the events which took place during the early years of Christianity. This may seem paradoxical today. It is difficult to bring home to the majority of people how certain forces which at that time had been implanted in, and had made a deep impact upon the evolution of the Earth and Man, are still operative today, because, in the present climate of contemporary thought they fail to perceive the deeper impulses, the deep underlying forces that are at work in contemporary events. They prefer to approach everything from a purely superficial standpoint. These deeper spiritual forces are not accessible to mankind today because people are not prepared to investigate them. Anyone who wishes to penetrate a little beneath the surface events of our time will find, in many a published document and in the vicissitudes of fortune that befall those who are unaware of the motives that determine their actions, impulses that are often a continuation, a resurgence of certain impulses that were manifested especially in the early centuries of the Christian era. It is not even possible to characterize the outstanding examples of the resurgence of ancient impulses in our present age because people cannot endure their characterization. But those who study the first Christian centuries in Europe from a certain standpoint will be able to detect the forces that are emerging once again and are actively at work. I have therefore attempted to draw your attention to certain phenomena connected with the expansion of Christianity in the first centuries A.D., because, through the appropriate use of the ideas derived from them, much that is taking place today will immediately become clear to you.
I propose to add further information based upon our recent investigations which we can discuss in detail later. Let us first look at this new material so that our later enquiry may bear fruit.
I have often spoken to you of the remarkable fact that the early Roman emperors acquired Initiation by constraint and this explains many of their actions. Consequently they gained knowledge of certain facts connected with the great impulses of cosmic events, but they exploited this knowledge derived from the Mysteries to their own advantage.
It is most important to realize that the intervention of the Christ Impulse into the historical life of mankind was not merely an event on the physical plane which we can apprehend through a study of the historical facts, but was a genuinely spiritual event. I have already pointed out that the Gospel report that Christ was known to the devils has deeper implications than is usually recognized. We are told that Christ performed acts of healing which are described in the Gospels as the casting out of evil spirits. And we are constantly reminded that the devils knew who Christ was. On the other hand Christ Himself rebuked the devils and “suffered them not to speak for they knew He was the Christ.” (Mark I, 34; Luke IV, 41). The appearance of Christ therefore was not only a matter for the judgement of men. It is possible that at first people did not have the slightest inkling of what the coming of Christ presaged. But the devils — beings belonging to a super-sensible world — recognized Him. The super-sensible world therefore knew of His advent. The more informed leaders of the early Christians were firmly convinced that the coming of Christianity was not merely an event on the terrestrial plane but something that was related to the spiritual world, something which evoked a radical change in the spiritual world. Without a shadow of doubt the leading spirits of early Christianity were firmly persuaded of this.
Now it is a remarkable phenomenon that the Roman emperors, because of their forced initiation which gave insight into the spiritual world, had a presentiment of the far-reaching importance of the Christ Impulse. There were some emperors. however, who despite their irregular initiation, understood little of these secrets; but there were others who understood so much that they were able to divine something of the power and effectiveness of the Christ Mystery. And it was these more talented, the more perspicacious emperors who began to pursue a definite policy towards Christianity which was then gaining ground. Indeed the first emperor to adopt this policy was Tiberius who succeeded Augustus, though the objection might be raised that Christianity was not as yet widely diffused. This objection, however, is not valid for, when he learned of Christ's birth in Palestine, Tiberius — who had received a partial initiation into the ancient Mysteries — realized its significance. Let us consider for a moment that policy towards Christianity which began under Tiberius and was pursued by all the initiated emperors. Tiberius announced his intention to admit Christ to the Roman pantheon.
The Roman empire pursued a deliberate policy towards the worship of the gods. In essence it was as follows: when the Romans conquered a people they received the gods of the newly conquered people into their Olympus. They declared that these gods were also deserving of veneration and they were added to the Roman pantheon. The object of this policy therefore was to appropriate not only the material or temporal goods, but also the spiritual forces of the conquered peoples. The initiated Caesars saw in the gods something more than the mere external images; they had a deeper understanding than the people. They knew that the visible image of the gods concealed real spiritual powers pertaining to the different Hierarchies. Their policy was perfectly consistent and comprehensible, for the authoritarian principle of Rome was consciously reinforced by the power which was believed to derive from the assimilation of other gods. And, as a rule, the worship of other gods was accepted not only in an outward and exoteric way, but the Mystery-teachings of other peoples were also taken over by the Roman Mystery-centres and merged with the Mystery-cult of the ancient Roman empire. And since, at that time, it was generally held that it was neither right nor possible to govern without the support of the spiritual powers symbolized by the gods, this practice was taken for granted.
The aim of Tiberius therefore was to integrate the power of Christ, as he conceived it, with the impulses proceeding from the other deities recognized by him and his peoples. The Roman Senate thwarted his intention and nothing came of it. None the less the initiated emperors, Hadrian among them, made repeated efforts to achieve this goal, but constantly met with opposition from the dignitaries who could make their influence felt. And when we examine the objections raised against this policy of the initiated emperors we can form a good idea of what happened at this decisive turning-point in human evolution.
We witness here a remarkable coincidence. On countless occasions Roman writers, influential personalities and large sections of the Roman populace accused the Christians of profaning what others held to be sacred, and vice versa. In other words, the Romans repeatedly emphasized that the Christians were radically different in thought and feeling from the Romans and other peoples — for the other peoples together with their gods had been assimilated by the Romans. Thus everyone looked upon the Christians as people with a different make-up, people with different feelings and responses. Now this view could be dismissed as a calumny; suchlike accusations are always ready to hand, of course, when one takes a superficial view of history. But we cannot regard this view as a calumny when we realize that many of the opinions of earlier times and many of the contemporary opinions concerning the Mystery of Golgotha have passed over verbatim into Christian teaching. To put it more clearly, the Christians expressed their sentiments in words that could be found amongst many of their contemporaries. One of these was Philo of Alexandria (note 1), a contemporary of Christ, who probably had first-hand knowledge of what was later found in the Christian writings. Philo makes the following remarkable statement: “According to traditional teachings I must hate that which others love” (he is referring to the Romans) “and love that which others hate.” If you bear this statement in mind and turn to the Gospel of St. Matthew, you will find countless passages which echo this statement of Philo. And so we can say that Christianity has developed, as it were, out of a spiritual aura which required people to say, “we love what others hate”. This means — and this saying was quoted in the early Christian communities and served as one of the fundamental principles of Christian teachings — that Christians themselves openly acknowledged what others reproached them with. It was not therefore a calumny; it accorded with the Roman view: “the Christians love what we hate and hate what we love”. And the Christians, for their part, said exactly the same of the Romans.
It is clear therefore that something wholly different from anything that had been known before now entered human evolution — otherwise it would not have had so great an impact. Of course, if we wish to understand this whole situation we must realize that the new impulse had come from the spiritual worlds. Many who were contemporaries of the Mystery of Golgotha, such as Philo, caught fleeting glimpses of it which they described each after his own fashion. And so many of the passages from the Gospels which are interpreted expediently today, as in the case of Barres, whom I mentioned at the conclusion of my last lecture, will be seen in their true light when we cease to interpret them to suit our convenience, but when our interpretation is determined by the whole spirit of the age. There are strange interpretations in Barres; indeed Biblical exegesis assumes very strange forms nowadays. Much that Philo says agrees closely with the Gospels and I would like to quote a passage which shows that because he was not inspired to the same extent as were the Evangelists later, his style was rather different from theirs. As a talented writer in the popular sense he made less heavy demands upon the reader than the Evangelists. In one notable passage Philo gave expression to something that was occupying the hearts and minds of the men of his time. He says: “Do not concern yourselves with the genealogical records or the documents of despots, take no thought for the things of the body; do not attribute to the citizen civic rights or civil liberties, which you deny to those of humble origin or who have been purchased as slaves in the market, but give heed only to the ancestry of the soul!” If the Gospels are read with understanding one cannot fail to recognize that something of this attitude of mind, albeit raised to a higher level, pervades the Gospels and why therefore an opportunist like Barres can write the passage I quoted to you in my last lecture. We should do well to bear his words in mind and I propose therefore to read them to you once again.
“It is a waste of time to look for the after-life. Perhaps it does not even exist. No matter how we approach the question we are never vouchsafed an answer. Let us leave all occultism to adepts and charlatans. Mysticism of every kind is totally irrational. Let us submit to the authority of the Church because, with the traditional teaching and practical experience of centuries she prescribes the code of ethics in which nations and children must be instructed. And finally we must submit because, far from exposing us to the dangers of mysticism, she actively protects us against them, silences the voices of the mystery teachings, expounds the Gospels and tailors the liberal anarchy of the Saviour to the needs of modern society.”
In the passage which I quoted from Philo we can see, since it is echoed again and again in the New Testament, what lies behind this whole movement. Philo's reference to the ancestry of the soul carries profound implications; he implies something that is opposed to the leading ideas of the Roman empire. For the Roman empire recognized only physical inheritance in its various forms, and the whole social order was founded on this principle. And suddenly the cry was raised: “Take no thought for the ancestry of the body but give heed only to the ancestry of the soul!” One could hardly imagine a more radical breach with the fundamental principles of the Roman empire, a greater contrast. And this contrast was raised to a higher level by the advent of Christ Jesus — indeed the world had been waiting for this moment — and was vigorously opposed to the existing world order of that time.
The Roman emperors would have been only too pleased to receive Christ into their pantheon as a new god amongst the other gods though He struck at the very roots of their society, for the Christ God who embodies a far deeper reality would thereby have become one of their own gods. But the initiated emperors soon realized that the advent of the Christ would be fraught with difficulties for them. When initiation of the emperors, as was the case in Rome after Augustus had been made obligatory by imperial decree, the forces of initiation exercised a powerful influence in the external world. They influenced the policies of the emperors and were operative in the measures and impulses which shaped society. The aims and intentions of the initiated emperors were more clearly defined, more uncompromising than those of the ordinary initiate. Suppose, for example, that one of the emperors who had received initiation had said: “Now John the Baptist baptized with water. Through this baptism by water the etheric body was loosened” (the initiated emperors were of course aware of this) “and the candidates for baptism thereby gained insight into the inner structure of the spiritual world.” They were aware that a decisive turning-point in the history of the world had now been reached. This was known to those whose etheric bodies had been loosened through total immersion. Let us now suppose that one of these emperors had said: “I accept the challenge” — such things were not unknown in the Mysteries “I am prepared to do battle against that which has entered the world at this decisive moment in history!” — One must realize how autocratic, self-willed, these emperors were. But they never dreamt for a moment that they might be powerless against the will of the gods; they were determined — and it was for this purpose they had themselves initiated — to try issue with the spiritual world-impulses and to stem the tide of world-evolution. Such things had already happened before; and they are happening before our eyes today, only people are unaware of it.
Here is a historical incident that confirms the hypothesis I have suggested above. In the age of Constantine, Licinius ruled over the Eastern part of the empire. He took it upon himself to challenge the gods. He decided to celebrate a cult act, for these ritual performances symbolized the struggle against the spiritual powers. The ceremony was intended to demonstrate publicly that he had undertaken to challenge the gods. In other words, he wished to ridicule baptism in the eyes of his fellow men (for it was baptism that had made known to the world that the turning-point in world-history had come), and so challenge Christianity and blunt the force of the Christian impulse. To this end a festival was organized at Heliopolis. It was arranged that an actor, Gelasius, should be dressed in the white robes of a priest and be immersed in water. It was to be presented as a spectacle, as a burlesque of Christian baptism. Gelasius, clothed in white, was immersed in the water and was taken out again. He was then exposed to the assembled populace as an object of ridicule. And what happened? Gelasius turned to the people and said: “I have now become a Christian and I will remain a Christian with all the strength at my command.” Licinius had received his answer from the spiritual world. Baptism was no longer an object of ridicule; the effects of baptism were demonstrated for all the world to see. He (Licinius) recognized that the critical moment in world history had arrived. This inititated Emperor had taken it upon himself to challenge the gods and had received his answer.
It is hardly possible for us today to form an idea of the significance of this answer. It was seen by all, even by the heathen, as a complete vindication of baptism, a valid answer, an answer that had to be reckoned with. And those who at that time were initiated into the secrets of world events received a momentary illumination from another source and were granted insight into the meaning and import of Christianity. Widely different customs which had an occult meaning had survived from ancient times. Under the Antonines, for example, the Sibyls delivered their oracles. People consulted them and took their instructions from them. One important oracle of the time of the Antonines predicted that Rome was doomed to destruction, that ancient Rome would not survive! Now oracular utterances, though often ambiguous and open to various interpretations, can be correctly interpreted. This particular oracle gave out this strange prophecy: “Rome will perish and the place where the city once stood will become the haunt of foxes and wolves.” This was a sign that had to be reckoned with. People naturally looked for a deeper meaning but they felt that the turning-point of world history had arrived. The might of Rome would be extinguished. Foxes and wolves would lord it amongst the ruins and take over in her place. Oracles of course often speak ambiguously, but occasionally, even in those times, the aura of initiation was transmitted through an ordinary, uninitiated sage, so that he frequently uttered remarkable prophecies which could only be construed as referring to the turning-point of world evolution.
In my last lecture I spoke of Nero and told you what this initiate emperor really thought. He wished to set the whole world on fire so that he might witness its destruction in person. If Rome as the centre of the world power was to be destroyed, at least he wished to determine for himself the manner of its destruction. Seneca once warned him in a remarkable statement which can be understood only if we are aware that the Roman emperors who were in possession of the principle of initiation believed themselves to be endowed with divine authority which the Christians refused to honour. Seneca, who knew no other way of bringing his message home to the tyrant, said to Nero: “You have absolute power, you have unlimited authority, you can even order the death of those whom you think may contribute in some way to the world order that will follow the downfall of Rome. But there is one thing a despot cannot do, he cannot compass the death of his successor.” These words had profound implications. Seneca was referring of course not to the potential successor if the occasion should arise, but to the actual successor. Seneca wished to indicate that death set a limit to the Emperor's power. The belief that Rome was doomed had an important influence, especially upon imperial circles.
The Christians reacted differently from the Romans to this tradition. We are here faced with a paradoxical situation. The Christians, for their part, championed the idea that Rome would not perish, that her dominion would endure to the end, which always implied the end of an era. It was the Christians, therefore, who upheld the view that the dominion of Rome would endure, that it would outlive the time of the foxes and wolves. Not that the Christians would have denied — if I may risk an oracular statement — that Rome would become the habitat of wolves and foxes They agreed that it was possible, but they maintained, on the other hand, that her power would endure.
We must bear in mind these different attitudes or opinions. Many of them in fact have proved to be correct. For example, the mother of Alexander Severus who was a pupil of Origen — although suspected of heresy, he was none the less regarded as a kind of Church Father — had managed to set up a kind of pantheon for her private use. In her private sanctuary she revered equally Abraham, Christ, Orpheus and Apollonius of Tyana and she considered the worship of these four deities was indispensable for her salvation. As a devoted pupil of Origen she found that this practice was in no way contrary to his teaching.
When we consider these different shades of opinion which I have tried to outline briefly, we find that they reflect the atmosphere of the first three centuries of our era. And during this period we find repeated attempts by initiated emperors to come to terms with Christianity and to incorporate Christianity into their religious system. Despite the recorded persecutions of the Christians this was the Imperial policy up to the fourth century.
Now in the fourth century a remarkable personality appeared on the scene in the shape of the Emperor Constantine (note 2), a contemporary of Licinius. He was an outstanding personality both politically and spiritually. I have indicated on other occasions how spiritual forces were at work in the personality of Constantine and to some extent guided him in the difficult administration of the Western empire. Today I should like to consider him from another standpoint.
His spiritual make-up was such that he was unable to find a right relationship to the principles of ancient initiation. In contrast to his predecessors and contemporaries he shrank from coercing the hierophants into granting him initiation into the ancient Mysteries. The Sibylline oracles and the prophecies of Rome's impending downfall weighed heavily upon his soul. He was also aware of the Christian teaching that Rome would endure to the end of time. He was well informed on these matters. But he shrank from initiation into the Mysteries; he shrank from carrying the war against the Christians into the realm of the Mysteries. This has significant implications.
What history tells of Constantine is extremely interesting and shows how he tried to find a modus vivendi with Christianity by other means, how he set himself up as the protector of Christianity and introduced Christianity, as he understood it, into the Roman empire. But he could not incorporate his form of Christianity into the old principle of initiation. He was faced with an insurmountable difficulty because the Christians themselves and their leaders were vigorously opposed to this. They felt, and many even realized, that the mission of Christianity was to unveil the ancient Mystery teachings which until then had been kept secret in the Mystery temples. It was their desire that the truths hidden in the Mysteries should be proclaimed to the whole world and should not be restricted to the temples. Fundamentally, the aim of these initiated emperors was to deny Christianity to the people and to restore it again to the Mystery temples. In that event, they believed, people would be initiated into Christianity in the same way as they had been initiated into the secrets of the ancient pagan Mysteries. It was difficult for Constantine to achieve his goal in face of the objectives pursued by the Christians. The Christians saw in the turning-point of world history an event of a spiritual, non-temporal order. And their claim that the Roman empire would endure must be understood as an expression of a wholly spiritual impulse. And this is clearly reflected in the secret teachings of the early Christians. In maintaining that the Roman empire would endure they sought to anticipate what actually came to pass. I pointed out recently that the deeper impulse of the Roman empire has not ceased, that it still lives on, not only in jurisprudence, but in other domains also, which, to those who do not probe more deeply, appear to be a new innovation. But in fact we are simply witnessing a prolongation, an extension of the driving forces behind Imperial Rome. Although the old Roman empire is no more, its spirit still lives on and bites deeply into our civilization.
Certain people maintain that we are haunted today and will always be haunted by the ghost of the old Roman empire. And this is accepted as a truism by the educated, even today, and is unlikely to change. The Christians wished to draw attention to this. But at the same time they contended that Christianity will always contain an element that is antagonistic to the Roman empire, for the spiritual impulse in Christianity will always be at odds with the materialism of Rome. And this contention of the Christians was prophetic.
You will now understand more clearly why the Senators and the Roman Emperors were alarmed, for they naturally associated the decline that was prophesied with the external empire which they saw slowly crumble under the impact of Christianity. And the emperor Constantine shared this view. Although not himself initiated, he was aware that a primordial wisdom had once existed in ancient times when man possessed atavistic clairvoyance. This wisdom had been transmitted to later ages, had been preserved by the priesthood, but had gradually become corrupted. In Rome too, Constantine said to himself: our social order embodies something that is associated with the institutions of this primordial wisdom, but we have simply buried it beneath the social order of a materialistic and secular empire. This was expressed in a pregnant symbol that is an “Imagination”, and not only an “Imagination”, but also an historical cult act, for these “Imaginations” often took the form of cult acts. People knew that in earlier times wisdom was not an arbitrary invention of man but was a revelation from the spiritual worlds. They knew that in primordial times priests had preserved this wisdom, not in Rome, of course, but across the sea in Ilion, in Troy where they originally dwelt. And this is expressed in the legend of the palladium, the so-called image of Pallas Athene which fell from Heaven in Troy, was preserved in a sanctuary, was then transferred to Rome and buried under a porphyry pillar. In all that was connected with this symbolical cult act people felt that they were able to trace back their civilization to the ancient wisdom which they had received from the spiritual world, but that they could not reach the heights which this wisdom had known in ancient Troy.
Such were the feelings Constantine harboured; and he also felt that even if he were to be initiated into the later Mysteries, they would be of little help to him; they would not lead him to the palladium, to the ancient primordial wisdom. He therefore decided to challenge the cosmic powers after his own fashion in order to save the Roman empire from destruction. He realized that this must be achieved in accordance with certain cosmic impulses and that it would have to take place in accordance with certain cult acts which were publicly enacted for all the world to see. He decided therefore to transfer the capital from Rome to the site of ancient Troy, to have the palladium dug up and taken back to Troy. The plan miscarried. Instead of establishing a new Rome on the site of Troy, he decided to found a new city, Constantinople, transfer the power to her and thus save declining Rome for future ages. By these means Constantine hoped to stem the tide of world evolution. He was prepared for Rome to become the habitat of foxes and wolves as the Sibylline oracle had foretold, but at the same time he wished to transfer the hidden impulses of Rome to a new site and so restore them to their original source. Constantine therefore embarked upon the ambitious plan to found Constantinople, and the work was completed in A.D. 326. He intended that the foundation of the city should coincide with this turning-point in world history. He therefore chose to lay the foundation stone at the moment when the Sun stood in the sign of the Archer and the Crab ruled the hour. He followed closely the indications of the cosmic signs. He wished to make Constantinople famous and to transfer to her the enduring impulse of eternal Rome. He therefore had the porphyry pillar (which was later destroyed by storms) transported to Constantinople. He ordered the palladium to be dug up and to be placed beneath the pillar. He also treasured among his possessions some relics of the Cross and a few nails that had originally secured the Cross. The relics of the Cross were made into a kind of frame to hold a much prized statue of Apollo and the nails into a nimbus with which he was crowned. This statue was set up on the porphyry pillar and an inscription was engraved on it which read somewhat as follows: That which sheds its beneficent influence here shall, like the Sun, endure for all time and proclaim the fame of its founder Constantine to all eternity! These things must of course be taken more or less imaginatively, but with this qualification, that they refer at all times to actual historical events.
This whole story has passed over into legend and, transmuted, lives on in the following legend: the palladium which is a symbol for a particular centre of primordial wisdom had been deposited originally in the secret Mystery Centres of the priest-initiates of Troy. It came to light for the first time when it was transported by circuitous routes from Troy to Rome. It saw the light of day a second time when it was transferred from Rome to Constantinople on the orders of Constantine. And those who believe the legend say that it will see the light of day a third time when it is transported from Constantinople to a Slavonic city. This legend is still vitally alive and survives in many things and under manifold forms. Today many things which appear in their purely physical aspects conceal a deeper layer of meaning.
Constantine therefore actively strove to prevent the downfall of the Roman empire in spite of his firm belief in the prophecy of the Sibylline oracle. He wanted to save Rome from herself.
In what I have told you I want you to recognize that in the historical personality of Constantine psychic impulses were at work which had significant and far-reaching effects. And bear in mind also what the earlier Christians and their leaders maintained: “The Roman empire will endure and the Christ Impulse we have received will also be realized and will ever be present amongst us.” Here we see two parallel phenomena of importance which have a significant bearing upon the different currents which have influenced the cultural development of the West. In particular you will be able to form an idea of the attitude towards the Roman empire in the early Christian centuries and in the age of Constantine, and of the sharply conflicting opinions on the way in which the future was envisaged. And you will perhaps find criteria which will enable you to see many of the later events in their true light. And we can only see many of these later events in proper perspective if we answer the following question: How far does the later development of Christianity up to now accord with its original intention and what must be done to bring it into closer rapport with that intention?
It remains for me to speak of a still more important moment in evolution in connection with the expansion of Christianity, the moment when an initiated Emperor called Julian the Apostate came face to face with this emergent Christianity. From the results of our historical enquiry we shall then be in a position to discuss in this context the further question: How can we prepare our souls to draw near to the Christ whose presence will be experienced in the etheric world in the present century? What steps must we take, especially in our present age, to draw near to Him?
In my next lecture I should like to discuss the trend of events under Julian the Apostate and to indicate the relation of our present age to the Etheric Christ in so far as it is permissible to touch upon this question today.
NOTES BY TRANSLATORNote 1. Philo of Alexandria or Philo Judaeus (circa 30 B.C.–A.D. 40) was an important representative of Hellenistic Judaism. He believed that the Pentateuch had divine authority. In his “Allegories of the Sacred Law”, a commentary on Genesis, he regarded the characters in Genesis as allegories of states of soul. He is considered to be the first religious philosopher (cf. H. A. Wolfson, Philo. (2 vols.) 1947).Note 2. Constantine was firmly convinced of his divine mission to rule over the world and to establish the orthodox teaching of the Church. He prided himself on having settled the Donatist conflict and the Arian heresy. On his initiative the Council of Nicaea was compelled to introduce the doctrine of the “filioque” which split the Church for a century and a half.
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