Rudolf Steiner, Dornach, Switzerland, January 26, 1923
In my last lectures I spoke of man's fall into sin and of an ascent from sin. I spoke of this ascent as something that must arise in the present age from human consciousness in general, as a kind of ideal for man's striving and willing. I have pointed out the more formal aspect of the fall of man, as it appears in the present time, by showing how the fall of man influences intellectual life. What people say concerning the limitations of our knowledge of Nature really arises from the view that man has no inner strength enabling him to reach the spiritual, and that he must therefore renounce all efforts that might lift him above earthly contemplation. I said that when people speak today of the limits of knowledge, this is only the modern intellectual interpretation of how man was cast down into sin; this was felt in older times, and particularly during the Middle Ages. Today I should like to speak more from a material aspect, in order to show that modern humanity cannot reach the goal of the evolution of the Earth if the views acquired in a more recent age — especially in the course of an intellectual development — do not change. Through the consciousness of sin, the general consciousness of today has, to a certain extent, suffered this very fall of man. Modern intellectualism already bears the marks of this fall and decay; indeed, the decay is so strong that unless the intellectual civilization of the present time changes, there is no hope of attaining mankind's goal in the evolution of the Earth. Today it is necessary to know that, in the depths of the human soul, forces are living that are, as it were, better than the present state of the consciousness of our civilization. It is necessary to contemplate quite clearly the nature of the consciousness of our civilization.
The consciousness of our civilization arose, on the one hand, from a particular conception of the thinking human being, and, on the other hand, from a particular conception of the willing human being. Today man uses his thinking chiefly in order to know as much as possible of the outer kingdoms of Nature, and to grasp human life with the methods of thinking gained through the usual way of looking at Nature. Today natural science teaches us to think, and we consider social life, too, in the light of this thinking, acquired through the natural sciences as they are known today.
Many people believe that this conception of the thinking human being, of man who observes Nature and thinks, is an unprejudiced conception. All kinds of things are mentioned that science is unprejudiced, and so on. But I have shown repeatedly that these arguments are not of much value. For everything that a thinker applies when he is bent on his scientific investigations (according to which other people then arrange their life) has evolved from earlier ways of thinking. Modern thinking is the direct outcome of Medieval thinking. I have pointed out already that even the arguments of the opponents of Medieval thinking are thought out with the methods of thinking that have evolved from Mediaeval thinking. An essential trait of Medieval thinking which entered modern thinking is that the activity of thought is contemplated only in the form in which it is applied in the observation of the outer phenomena of Nature. The process of thinking is ignored altogether and there is no philosophy leading to the contemplation of thinking itself. No notice at all is taken of the process of thought and of its inner living force.
The reason for this lies in the considerations that I have already set forth. Once I said that a modern man's thoughts on Nature are really corpses: all our thoughts on the kingdoms of Nature are dead thoughts. The life of these thought corpses lies in man's pre-earthly existence. The thoughts that we form today on the kingdoms of Nature and on the life of man are dead while we are thinking them; they were endowed with life in our pre-earthly existence.
The abstract, lifeless thoughts that we form here on Earth in accordance with modern habits of thinking were alive, were living elementary beings, during our pre-earthly existence, before we descended to a physical incarnation on Earth. We lived then in these thoughts as living beings, just as today we live in our blood. During our life on Earth these thoughts are dead, and for this reason they are abstract. But our thinking is dead only as long as we apply it to Nature outside: as soon as we look into our own selves it appears to us as something living, for it continues working there, within us, in a way which remains concealed from the usual consciousness of today. There it continues to elaborate what existed during our pre-earthly life. The forces that seize our organism when we incarnate on Earth are the forces of these living thoughts. The force of these living, pre-earthly thoughts makes us grow and forms our organs. Thus, when the philosophers of a theory of knowledge speak of thinking, they speak of a lifeless thinking. Were they to speak of the true nature of thinking, not of its corpse, they would realize the necessity of considering man's inner life. There they would discover that the force of thinking, which becomes active when a human being is born or conceived, is not complete in itself and independent, because this inner activity of thought is the continuation of the living force of a pre-earthly thinking.
Even when we observe the tiny child (I will not now consider the embryo in the mother's body) and its dreamy, slumbering life on Earth, we can see the living force of pre-earthly thinking in its growth and even in its fretful tempers, provided we have eyes to see. Then we shall understand why the child slumbers dreamily and only begins to think later on. This is so, because in the beginning of its life, when the child does nothing but sleep and dream, thoughts take hold of its entire organism. When the organism gradually grows firmer and harder, the thoughts no longer seize the earthly and watery elements in the organism, but only the air element and the fire or warmth element. Thus we may say that in the tiny child, thought takes possession of all four elements. The later development of a child consists in this: that thought takes hold only of the elements of air and fire. When an adult thinks, his force of thinking is contained only in the continuation of the breathing process and of the process which spreads warmth throughout his body.
Thus the force of thinking abandons the firmer parts of the physical organism for the air-like, evanescent, imponderable parts of the body. Thus thinking became the independent element that it now is, and bears us through the life between birth and death. The continuation of the pre-earthly force of thinking asserts itself only when we are asleep, i.e. when the weaker force of thinking acquired on Earth no longer works in the warmth and air of the body. Thus we may say that modern man will understand something of the true nature of thinking only if he really advances toward an inner contemplation of man, of himself. Any other theory of knowledge is quite abstract.
If we bear this in mind rightly we must say that whenever we contemplate the activity that forms thoughts and ideas, our gaze opens out into pre-earthly existence.
Medieval thinking, still possessing a certain amount of strength, was not allowed to enter pre-earthly existence. Man's pre-existence was declared dogmatically as a heresy. Something that is forced upon mankind for centuries gradually becomes a habit. Think of the more recent evolution of humanity — take, for instance, the year 1413; people habitually refrained from allowing their thoughts to follow lines that might lead them to a pre-earthly existence, because they were not allowed to think of pre-earthly existence. People entirely lost the habit of directing their thoughts to a pre-earthly existence. If men had been allowed to think of pre-earthly life (they were forbidden this, up to 1413), evolution would have taken quite another direction. In this case we should very probably have seen — this is a paradox, but it is true — indeed we may say that undoubtedly we should have seen that when Darwinism arose in 1858, with its exterior theories on Nature's evolution, the thought of pre-earthly existence would have flashed up from all the kingdoms of Nature, as the result of a habit of thinking that took into consideration a pre-earthly existence. In the light of the knowledge of human pre-existence, another kind of natural science would have arisen. But men were no longer accustomed to consider pre-earthly life, and a science of Nature arose which considered man — as I have often set forth — as the last link in the chain of animal evolution. It could not reach a pre-earthly, individual life, because the animal has no pre-earthly, individual life.
Therefore we can say: When the intellectual age began to dawn, the old conception of the fall of mankind was responsible for the veto on all thoughts concerning pre-existence. Then science arose as the immediate offspring of this misunderstood fall of man. Our science is sinful — it is the direct outcome of the misunderstanding relating to the fall of man. This implies that the Earth cannot reach the goal of its evolution as long as the natural sciences remain as they are; man would develop a consciousness that is not born of his union with a divine-spiritual origin, but of his separation from this divine-spiritual origin.
Hence present-day talk of the limitations of knowledge is not only a theoretical fact, for what is developing under the influence of intellectualism positively shows something that is pushing mankind below its level. Speaking in Medieval terms, we should say that the natural sciences have gone to the devil.
Indeed, history speaks in a very peculiar way. When the natural sciences and their brilliant results arose (I do not mean to contest them today), those who still possessed some feeling for the true nature of man were afraid that natural science might lead them to the devil. The fear of that time — a last remnant of which can be seen in Faust, when he says farewell to the Bible and turns to Nature — consisted in this, that man might approach a knowledge of Nature under the sign of man's fall and not under the sign of an ascent from sin. The root of the matter really lies far deeper than one generally thinks. Whereas in the early Middle Ages there were all kinds of traditions consisting in the fear that the devilish poodle might stick to the heels of the scientist, mankind has now become sleepy, and does not even think of these matters.
This is the material aspect of the question. The view that there are limits to a knowledge of Nature is not only a theory; the fall and decay of mankind, due to its fall in the intellectual-empirical sphere, indeed exists today.
If this were not so, we should not have our modern theory of evolution. Normal methods of research would show, reality would show, the following: There are, let us say, fish, lower mammals, higher mammals, man. Today, this represents more or less the straight line of evolution. But the facts do not show this at all. You will find, along this whole line of evolution, that the facts do not coincide.
Marvels are revealed by a real scientific investigation of Nature; what scientists say about Nature is not true. For, if we consider the facts without any prejudice we obtain the following: Man, higher mammals, lower mammals, fish. (Of course, I am omitting details.) Thus we descend from man to the higher mammals, the lower mammals, etc. until we reach the source of origin of all, where everything is spiritual, and in the further evolution of man we can see that his origin is in the spirit. Gradually man assumed a higher spirituality. The lower beings, also, have their origin in the spirit, but they have not assumed a higher spirituality. Facts show us this.
Correct views of these facts could have been gained if human habits of thinking had not obeyed the veto on belief in pre-existence or pre-earthly life. Then, for instance, a mind like Darwin could not possibly have reached the conclusions set forth above; he would have reached other conclusions deriving from habits of thought, not from necessities dictated by scientific investigation.
Goethe's theory of metamorphosis could thus have been continued in a straight line. I have always pointed out to you that Goethe was unable to develop his theory of metamorphosis. If you observe with an unprejudiced mind how matters stood with Goethe, you will find that he was unable to continue. He observed the plant in its development and found the primordial plant (Urpflanze). Then he approached the human being and tried to study the metamorphosis of the human bones. But he came to a standstill and could not go on.
If you peruse Goethe's writings on the morphology of the human bony system you will see that, on the one hand, his ideas are full of genius. The cleft skull of a sheep, which he found on the Lido in Venice, showed him that the skull-bones are transformed vertebrae, but he could not develop his idea further than this.
I have drawn your attention to some notes that I found in the Goethe Archives when I was staying at Weimar. In these notes Goethe says that the entire human brain is a transformed spinal ganglion. Again, he left it at this point. These notes are jotted down in pencil in a notebook and the last pencil-marks plainly show Goethe's discontent and his wish to go further. But scientific research was not advanced enough for this. Today it is advanced enough and has reached long ago the point of facing this problem. When we contemplate the human being, even in his earliest embryonic stages, we find that the form of the present skull-bones cannot possibly have evolved from the vertebrae of the spine. This is quite out of the question. Anyone who knows something of modern embryology argues as follows: what we see in man today does not justify the statement that the skull-bones are transformed vertebrae. For this reason we can indeed say that when Gegenbauer investigated this matter once more at a later date, results proved that as far as the skull-bones and especially the facial bones were concerned, matters stood quite differently from what Goethe had assumed.
But if we know that the present shape of the skull-bones leads us back to the bones of the body of the preceding incarnation, we can understand this metamorphosis. Exterior morphology itself then leads us into the teaching of repeated lives on Earth. This lies in a straight line with Goethe's theory of metamorphosis. But the stream of evolution that finally led to Darwin and still rules official science cannot advance as far as truth. For the misunderstood fall of man has ruined thinking and has caused its decay. The question is far more serious than one is inclined to imagine today.
We must realize that the consciousness of mankind has changed in the course of time. For instance, we may describe something as beautiful. But if we ask a philosopher of today to explain what beauty is (for he should know something about these things, should he not?), we shall receive the most incredibly abstract explanation. “Beautiful” is a word which we sometimes use rightly, instinctively, out of our feeling. But modern man has not the slightest notion of what, for instance, a Greek imagined when he spoke of the beautiful, in his meaning of the word. We do not even know what the Greek meant by “Cosmos.” For him it was something quite concrete. Take our word “Universe.” What a confused jumble of thoughts it contains! When the Greek spoke of the Cosmos, this word held within it something beautiful, decorative, adorning, artistic. The Greek knew that when he spoke of the whole universe he could not do otherwise than characterize it with the idea of beauty. "Cosmos" does not only mean "Universe" — it means Nature's order of laws which has become universal beauty. This lies in the word “Cosmos.”
When the Greek saw before him a beautiful work of art, or when he wished to mould the form of a human being, how did he set to work? By forming it in beauty. Even in Plato's definitions we can feel what the Greek meant when he wished to form the human being artistically. The expression that Plato used means more or less the following: “Here on Earth man is not at all what he should be. He comes from heaven and I have so portrayed his form that men may see in it his heavenly origin.” The Greek imagined man in his beauty, as if he had just descended from heaven, where of course, his exterior form does not resemble that of ordinary human beings. Here on Earth human beings do not look as if they had just descended from heaven. Their form shows everywhere the Cain-mark, the mark of man's fall. This is the Greek conception. In our age, when we have forgotten man's connection with a pre-earthly, heavenly existence, we may not even think of such a thing.
Thus we may say that “beautiful” meant for the Greek that which reveals its heavenly meaning. In this way the idea of beauty becomes concrete. For us today it is abstract. In fact, there has been an interesting dispute between two authorities on aesthetics — the so-called “V” Vischer (because he spelt his name with a “V”), the Swabian Vischer, a very clever man, who wrote an important book on aesthetics (important, in the meaning of our age), and the formalist Robert Zimmermann, who wrote another book on aesthetics. The former, V-Vischer, defines beauty as the manifestation of the idea in sensible form. Zimmermann defines beauty as the concordance of the parts within the whole. He defines it therefore more according to form, Vischer more according to content.
These definitions are really all like the famous personage who drew himself up into the air by his own forelock. What is the meaning of the expression “the appearance of the idea in sensible form?” First we must know what is meant by “the idea.” If the thought-corpse that humanity possesses as “idea” were to appear in physical shape, nothing would appear. But when we ask in the Greek sense: what is a beautiful human being? this does indeed signify something. A beautiful human being is one whose human shape is idealized to such an extent that it resembles a god. This is a beautiful man, in the Greek sense. The Greek definition has a meaning and gives us something concrete.
What really matters is that we should become aware of the change in the content of man's consciousness and in his soul-disposition in the course of time. Modern man believes that the Greek thought just as he thinks now. When people write the history of Greek philosophy — Zeller, for instance, who wrote an excellent history of Greek philosophy (excellent, in the meaning of our present age) — they write of Plato as if he had taught in the 19th century at the Berlin University, like Zeller himself, and not at the Platonic Academy. When we have really grasped this concretely, we see how impossible it is, for obviously Plato could not have taught at the Berlin University in the 19th century. Yet all that tradition relates of Plato is changed into conceptions of the 19th century, and people do not realize that they must transport their whole disposition of soul into an entirely different age if they really wish to understand Plato.
If we acquire for ourselves a consciousness of the development of man's soul-disposition, we shall no longer think it an absurdity to say: In reality, human beings have fallen completely into sin, as far as their thoughts about external Nature and man himself are concerned.
Here we must remember something which people today never bear in mind — indeed, something which they may even look upon as a distorted idea. We must remember that the theoretical knowledge of today, which has become popular and which rules in every head even in the farthest corner of the world and in the remotest villages, contains something that can only be redeemed through the Christ. Christianity must first be understood in this sphere.
If we were to approach a modern scientist, expecting him to understand that his thinking must be saved by the Christ, he would probably put his hands to his head and say: “The deed of Christ may have an influence on a great many things in the world, but we cannot admit that it took place in order to redeem man from the fall into sin on the part of natural science.” Even when theologians write scientific books (there are numerous examples in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, one on ants, another on the brain, etc., and in most cases these books are excellent, better than those of the scientists, because the style is more readable), these books also breathe out, even more strongly, the need of taking a true Christology seriously. This means that particularly in the intellectual sphere we need a true ascent from sin, which must work against man's fall.
Thus we see that intellectualism has been contaminated by what has arisen out of the misunderstandings relating to the consciousness of sin — not out of the Fall as such, but from the misunderstandings with regard to the consciousness of sin. This consciousness of sin, which can be misunderstood so easily, must place the Christ in the center of the evolution of the Earth, as a higher being, and from this point it must find the way out from the Fall. This requires a deeper and more detailed study of human evolution, also in the spiritual sphere.
You see, if we study Medieval scholasticism as it is usually studied today, let us say as far back as Augustine, we shall achieve nothing. Nothing can result, because nothing is seen except that the modern scientific consciousness continues to evolve. The higher things, extending beyond this, are ignored.
In this hall I once tried to give an account of Medieval scholasticism, showing all the connections. I gave a short course of lectures on Thomism and all that is connected with it. But it is a painful fact, and one that is of little help to our anthroposophical movement, that such ideas are not taken up. The relationship between the brilliant scientific conditions of today and the new impulse which must enter science is not sought. If this is not sought, then our scientific laboratories, which have cost so much real sacrifice, will remain unfruitful.
For these, progress would best be achieved by taking up such ideas and by avoiding futile discussions on atomism. In all spheres of fact, modern science has reached a point where it strives to cast aside the mass of sterile thoughts contained in modern scientific literature. Enough is known of the human being, anatomically and physiologically, to reach, by the right methods of thoughts, even such a bold conclusion as that of the metamorphosis of the form of the head from the bodily form of the preceding life. Naturally, if we cling to the material aspect, we shall not reach this point. Then we shall argue, very intelligently, that the bones must in this case remain physical matter, in order that they may undergo a gradual material metamorphosis in the grave! It is important to bear in mind that the material form is an external form and that it is the formative forces that undergo a metamorphosis.
On the one hand thinking has been fettered, because darkness has been thrown over pre-existence. On the other hand, we are concerned with post-existence, or the life after death. Life after death can be understood only with the aid of supersensible knowledge. If supersensible knowledge is rejected, life after death remains an article of faith, accepted purely on the ground of authority. A real understanding of the process of thinking leads to a pre-existent life, provided such thoughts are not forbidden. A knowledge of post-existent life can, however, only be acquired through supersensible knowledge. Here the method described in my Knowledge of the Higher Worlds must be introduced. But this method is rejected by the consciousness of our times.
Thus two influences are at work: on the one hand, the continued effects of the decree prohibiting thought of man's pre-existence; on the other hand, the rejection of supersensible knowledge. If both continue to work, the supersensible world will remain an unexplored region, inaccessible to knowledge, i.e. it will remain an article of faith, and Christianity, too, will remain a matter of faith, not of knowledge. And Science — that which claims the name of “science” — will not allow itself to have anything to do with the Christ. Thus we have our present-day conditions.
At the beginning of today's considerations I said, with regard to the consciousness that is filled today with intellectualism, that humanity has slipped entirely into the consequences of the Fall. If this persists, humanity will be unable to raise itself. This means that it will not reach the goal of the evolution of the Earth. Modern science makes it impossible to reach the goal of the evolution of the Earth. Nevertheless, the depths of the human soul are still untouched: If man appeals to these soul-depths and develops supersensible knowledge in the spirit of the Christ-impulse, he will attain redemption once more, even in the intellectual sphere: redemption from the intellectual forces that have fallen — if I may express it in this way — into sin.
Consequently, the first thing which is needed is to realize that intellectual and empirical scientific research must become permeated with spirituality. But this spirituality cannot reach man as long as the content of space is investigated merely according to its spatial relationships, and the events taking place in the course of time are investigated merely in their chronological sequence.
If you study the shape of the human head, especially with regard to its bony structure, and compare it with the remainder of the skeleton (skull-bones compared to cylindrical bones, vertebrae, and ribs) you will obtain no result whatever. You must go beyond time and space, to conceptions formed in spiritual science, for these grasp the human being as he passes from one earthly life to another. Then you will realize that today we may look upon the human skull-bones as transformed vertebrae. But the vertebrae of the present skeleton of a human being can never change into skull-bones in the sphere of earthly existence. They must first decay and become spiritual, in order to change into skull-bones in the next life on Earth.
An instinctively intuitive mind like Goethe's sees in the skull-bones the metamorphosis of vertebrae. But spiritual science is needed in order to pursue this intuitive vision as far as the domain of facts. Goethe's theory of metamorphosis acquires significance only in the light of spiritual science. For this reason it could not satisfy even Goethe. This is why a knowledge gained through anthroposophical science is the only one that can bring man into a right relationship to the Fall and the re-ascent from sin. For this reason too, anthroposophical ideas are today something which seeks to enter into human evolution not only in the form of thoughts but as the content of life.
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