Chance, Providence, and Necessity. Lecture 4 of 8.
Rudolf Steiner, Dornach, Switzerland, August 29, 1915:
If you look at works such as that of Fritz Mauthner, to whom I have repeatedly referred, you will see what consequences necessarily result from taking the prevailing modern outlook seriously. Mauthner arrives at all sorts of very strange conclusions. One example is the way he links the concept “supply” with that of a “supply of words,” for he is a philologist. He divides the word “supply” into two categories of “illusory” and “useful” concepts. The real purpose of his philosophical dictionary is to demonstrate that most philosophical concepts belong in the useless category. Those who give a thorough reading to his comments on a concept or word in his Dictionary of Philosophy always end up with the admittedly subjective feeling of whirling around like a Chinaman trying to grab his own pigtail. You have the feeling as you finish one of his articles that you have been trying all the way through it to get hold of your pigtail, which a Chinaman wears hanging down behind him. But at the end there it is, still behind you; no amount of twirling results in catching up with it. There are, I must say, some very, very upsetting things for healthy minds to endure as they read an article such as the one on “Christianity.” But that is true of almost all the articles Mauthner has written.
Now he takes great pains to eliminate all illusory concepts, admitting some of them into his dictionary for the sole purpose of denouncing them. I'll read a few very characteristic sentences from his introduction by way of illustration:
What is an illusory concept? This dictionary will denounce as illusory many concepts held in general esteem. I am not at a loss, you see, for examples. Nevertheless, it is not an easy matter to describe in general terms what distinguishes a useful from an illusory concept, a true one from a false one, a living concept from a dead one.These opposite characteristics already point to some sources of the difficulty. The mere appearance of usefulness cannot always be attributed to the same source, and it is not in every case a simple matter to determine a concept's falsity or deadness. It may be that the falsity was inherent, or else became attached to the concept as language underwent changes over a period of time and did not need to wait for a scientifically and critically advanced generation to discover it. A concept could also have been dead to begin with, or death can have overtaken it unnoticed in popular usage after a shorter or longer life. The boundaries cannot be sharply drawn because all these concepts are relative. The concepts absolute and phlogiston were false from the start; exact scrutiny could all along have discovered that they contradicted the facts of experience.
Now wouldn't you agree that this is quite nice? Humanity took many millennia, not just centuries, to replac phlogiston with another concept, and Lavoisier's replacement of phlogiston with evidence of the true nature of combustion was considered a most significant deed. But Mauthner finds it possible to comment that “the concept was false from the start because exact scrutiny could have discovered all along that it contradicted the facts of experience.”
It really sounds as though if Fritz Mauthner had been born early enough, he would have seen to it that people didn't have to suffer for so long a time from the false concept phlogiston. He goes on to say, “The concept witch only became a false one when the concept devil fell by the wayside, and the godless female could therefore no longer enter into fleshly commerce with the illusory concept devil. The concept devil too lived a sufficiently lengthy span and died out only when human learning became convinced that neither the devil nor any of his works were observable in the sphere of reality.”
We could be tempted to repeat thatNot if he had them by the neck, I vow,Would e'er these people scent the devil.
One can't help thinking of this on hearing such a statement. A lot depends today on the decisions people make about searching out viewpoints able to shed light and guide them.
Yesterday we discussed how a deepening of our soul nature must be accompanied by a profounder grasp of concepts such as necessity. It was pointed out how decisive an influence on destiny a sense of the necessity in everything in existence, and the submersion of the individual in that necessity, could have for a person like Faust. But Mauthner says, “Necessity — What is it? Just a way of looking at things.” He finds no reason to think of the element of necessity as existing objectively in things. In his opinion the stream of cosmic events bypasses human beings. People say that “the sun rose today, it rose yesterday and it rose the day before yesterday, so we assume that it will rise tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, and so on.” They form the concept of necessity from these external thoughts about the regular succession of events, saying that the sun necessarily rises. But this necessity of theirs is subjective, just a human concept.
And Mauthner makes the nice rejoinder to the philosopher Husserl, an exponent of the view that necessity is inherent in the nature of things, “If I only knew how necessity, a human way of regarding reality, could be made objective reality!” “If I only knew,” is Mauthner's reaction. Mauthner, you see, lacks any possibility of understanding how something subjective could turn into objective reality. He's a queer kind of eurythmist, this Mauthner; he can never dance his way from the subjective into the objective because he has totally lost the capacity to involve himself in the inner choreography that leads from the subjective into the objective. And the reason for that is that we are not in a position to look for essential being at the characteristic place where the subjective element actually passes over into the objective realm.
Let us seek out such a place and examine it from a spiritual standpoint. When the human soul raises a question, it seeks an answer to it, and proceeds subjectively to set in motion all those processes, those inner or external actions, that might serve to supply it. You know, of course, that the putting of questions and finding of answers is indeed a subjective process, so subjective that one person engages in it with finesse and another clumsily; all possible nuances exist. It is really an inner activity. But now let us assume the following: Let us picture a person on fire with a desire to know, filled to the brim with a longing for insight, who therefore raises a question in his soul. But he finds no answer to it. The situation thus far is subjective. But now let us imagine time passing and the person continuing to live. What has happened subjectively is that this person has experienced the question and the lack of an answer to it, and he goes on living. He can remember the question later on, and the fact that he has not found an answer. But it could turn out entirely differently: his question can have been totally forgotten. But that doesn't mean that the question and the lack of an answer are completely unreal within him; it just means that he hasn't found the answer.
Someone able to see into the situation may find that what began as a purely subjective element later makes its appearance in the person concerned in the uncertain way he behaves in life. A sensitive observer will be able to say that such a person has a curiously uncertain way of gesturing and glancing. These are very delicate matters when it comes to individual cases, but such situations do exist, and it can be discovered that many an uncertain look and gesture or the like that shows up in later years can be traced back to an unanswered question or complex of questions. The presence of this uncertainty in look and gesture is an objective, an entirely objective fact. An objective situation has actually been created and emerged from a subjective one. We can rediscover years later in the objective processes in us what we experienced at first subjectively.
If you follow up such leads, you will find that they open up a reliable route to answering questions that Mauthner in his incapacity cannot answer. That is why he says, “If I only knew how necessity, a human way of regarding reality, could be made objective reality!” The subjective can indeed become objective! This becomes clear to us particularly when we take fully into account what I pointed out yesterday: that memory is a distinct state of consciousness in addition to sleeping and waking. Remembering is still in its infancy; however, it will play a much larger role when humanity has advanced to the next planetary stage, and it will find expression in the recognition of earlier experiences. This recognition will bring these experiences before us in a form quite different from their previous appearance. Subjective experiences we may have had recur much later in a mild form in our individual lives. They will appear in the next incarnation in a much more significant form. What was once a subjective experience then resurfaces in our external aspect as a characteristic objective element. And if we ask what has become of much that we have forgotten, we would discover it if we were to concern ourselves really seriously with what spiritual science gives us; we would find it in our lives. What has sunk into our souls' depths and no longer remains in the subjective sphere lives and moves down below in our subconsciousness. The subjective invariably becomes objective.
You see that if we are really intent upon understanding life, we have to deal seriously and conscientiously with matters like these. We have to try very conscientiously indeed to develop our thinking, noting errors of thought where they occur, for they are intimately bound up with errors in the way our lives are lived. How often one comes upon people who are constantly saying that they are certainly not vain—but the very fact that they emphasize it at every opportunity is due to vanity. They are so frightfully vain that they have to keep saying how free from vanity they are. They simply haven't dwelt sufficiently and realistically enough on the cancelling out that occurs when a Cretan says that all Cretans are liars. If that were true and a Cretan states it, he would be doing so as a liar. So his statement that all Cretans are liars can't be true.
But all such matters have to be translated into living reality. We need to see to it that we make a habit of a certain discrimination in thinking. In this connection I want to call your attention to an error in thinking that crops up in Mauthner's case too, in one of his many characteristic observations. He has an article on necessity in his philosophical dictionary. He is at pains to show that necessity is merely a human idea and that there is no such element inherent in things. There is a very special reason why this article exemplifies the strange experiment of whirling around and trying unsuccessfully to catch hold of his own pigtail. For the only thing he achieves clarity on is that it is not necessary for necessity to inhere in things, that no such necessity exists. But necessity could indeed inhere in things without there being any necessity for its doing so. The fact that Mauthner sees that it isn't necessary for necessity to inhere in things doesn't prove that it doesn't so inhere. It could just be the case that no necessity exists for it to do so. That is what we must always bear in mind.
The question that concerns us, however, is where to look for necessity. We will make a closer study of this tomorrow; for today I just want to try to guide your thoughts in the right direction by citing examples.
Let's consider the following: The subjective content of our thoughts sinks down to become a content of our memory, but is lost sight of down below there and becomes objective. And now we look out into the surrounding world and seek the objective there. We certainly find objective elements in ourselves, in our individual lives, in the form of gestures, facial expressions, and the like. Remember that I spoke yesterday at the close of the lecture about how what begins as a subjective element is encountered later as objective fact. So we will need to ask whether what is thus externally encountered can perhaps be traced back to something that was once subjective. And we would accordingly find in the external world that everything to which we must ascribe necessity was rendered necessary by the fact that it has left the subjective realm and become objective.
Imagine yourselves transposed from earthly existence back to the ancient sun existence. We were involved there with those beings who reigned during the sun period. And we can picture these beings who went through inner, subjective soul experiences and were active during the period of that sun existence as similar to us in our present day thinking, feeling, and willing. What they went through on the sun at that time is now to be found externalized in the world around us; now it confronts us from outside as world-gesture, world-expressiveness, world-physiognomy. It has become objective. Crudely put, a being of the sun period may have sent out rays of will just as subjectively as we allow what we have thought or felt to sink down into our memory and become objective there. Exactly so did this will element, this raying out of the ancient sun beings, sink down and become memory, and we now find it confronting us. Just as we perceive in a person's glance as externalized, objective fact some earlier experience that he has had, we now perceive in the sun's radiating light a decision of will on the part of beings subjectively active on the ancient sun. We behold it. Indeed, if we should encounter an elderly person with a sour-tempered look around the mouth, we can certainly call it a fact objectively perceptible in the outer world, and if we follow it up, we may well be able to trace it back to bitter experiences of a subjective nature suffered in childhood. What was subjective has become objective.
Where mountains tower up today it is possible to trace back this feature of the earth, for example, in the great chain of the Alps. If we go back far enough, perhaps as far back as ancient Saturn, we come across subjective soul and spiritual events experienced during that period that are retained in present-day physical aspects of the earth. But things could have taken a somewhat different course at that period if the gods who had those experiences of soul and spirit had come to different decisions; in that case, of course, the Alps would not have come to be as they are today. But just picture the gods on Saturn deciding on some particular inner action and then going through the sun and moon periods. Then, as the moon developed into the earth, it was no longer possible for them to change their decisions. That is like the difference we experience in trying to learn in later life something we failed to learn before we reached our eighteenth year. We can catch up, but the fact of having to do so creates a situation that would not have existed had we undergone the learning at an earlier age.
You will see from this that although the gods were free to make this or that decision during the Saturn period, once having made it, they were no longer free during the moon evolution to effect a change in the east-west orientation of the Alps. They bound themselves by the terms of their earlier thinking, and the result could no longer be changed. What has been done cannot be undone if we want to stick by the truth. People can try subjectively to wipe out what they experienced subjectively, but what has developed as objective fact cannot be wiped out.
If, for example, I have been guilty of neglect in younger years in failing to educate someone whose education was my responsibility, that corresponded to my subjective state at the time. Twenty years later I can deny that I was neglectful, but that changes nothing in the objective situation that grew out of the subjective one. The individual who went uneducated became what he is as a result of what I neglected to do. The objective outcome of our subjectivity takes on a necessity that cannot be denied, and necessity enters the picture to the degree that the subjective is transformed into the objective.
If the concepts involved here are followed up with strict logic from this point of view, we come upon an intimate relationship between the past and everything that can be termed necessity. And the past resurfaces in everything we encounter in the present; it is present there. There is as much necessity in the present as there is past in it. Life congeals into the past, but the past becomes necessity in the process.
I'd like to put all this before you more pictorially. It is superstition to assume that what is recognized to be an interrelationship based on law in a series of events can be changed by a miracle. Why is this the case? The past that underlies these events determines what must happen in accordance with the laws of necessity. The gods would not be telling the truth if they were to interfere with the lawfulness governing such a relationship. They would be denying what they had previously established. And we can no more change the past inhering in situations as necessity than we can change what happened in the past by some statement about it. What we cannot change in a situation is the part the past played in it. The concept of necessity must coalesce with the concept of the past; that is tremendously important. The past inheres in every object and in every creature, constituting the necessity in them; necessity is present in them to an extent corresponding to their past. The necessity that inheres in things does so because it is the recurring past, and what has taken place cannot be dismissed. We can easily picture anything that has become necessity now, for it goes back to a previous event. It happened in the past and now confronts us in reflected form.
You can no more change that reflection than you can remove in the mirror a wart on your forehead that you see reflected there; you would have to remove it beforehand. It is equally impossible to make any change in what appears as present necessity, since what appears as necessity now really occurred some time ago. It is past, and now merely shows up in its subsequent reflection. Everything of the nature of necessity in us is of the past and is merely bringing about its reflection in us. Only if people bestir themselves to grasp that the events that took place in the ancient moon, sun, and Saturn periods are now reflected in us, and are merely reflections of those ancient events, will they come to understand necessity.
And now think back to our discovery that our conceptual world is of moon origin. On an earlier occasion I described how we are really looking back on a moon panorama when we observe our present-day environment. Here you have the link. It is simply not true that certain things that seem to be going on in us really happen in the present; they are just reflections in a mirror. The reality is that they took place in earlier stages of the earth's development. I have said in earlier lectures that our heads are actually hollow. And why are they hollow? Because what constitutes their content is of earlier origin, and now there is only a reflection there of earlier events in our heads. But if we are incapable of grasping this concept of mirror images, we will always be prone, as we confront the Maya, the illusion of reality around us, to make the mistake that children (and, if you'll excuse me, modern science too) make when they see objects in a mirror and run around behind it to find them. But the objects have vanished when they get there. What was necessity has gone, and the fact that the past is reflected is the reason why there is necessity in the present. The past cannot be changed.
I agree that much effort is involved in grasping these concepts. So we'll stop here for today, and see if we can manage to think them through by tomorrow. We will then go on to study chance and providence and their connection with necessity.