Supersensible Knowledge. Lecture 1
Rudolf Steiner, Berlin, October 11, 1906:
This lecture is meant as an introduction. The aim is to acquaint the audience with the kind of issues investigated by spiritual science: for example, our relation to the spiritual world, evolution and destination, the riddle of birth and death, the origin of life and that of evil, health and illness, and problems of education. During the winter lectures the scope of spiritual investigation will become apparent. These lectures will also deal — from a spiritual-scientific viewpoint — with subjects such as burning social problems and the tasks facing modern humans. The discourses will demonstrate that spiritual science is not a mere theory, but an inherent necessity in present-day life.
Although a great variety of age groups are represented in the audience, the subjects to be discussed should contain something of interest for everyone. Each lecture will be self-contained, yet also have a connection with the rest. The title of the next lecture, “Blood is a very special fluid,” may sound rather sensational, but it is in fact a subject that points to significant aspects of humanity's evolution, on which only spiritual science can throw light. Later lectures will deal with subjects such as “Man's Existence in the Light of Spiritual Science”; “Who are the Rosicrucians?”; “Richard Wagner and Mysticism”; “What Do Educated People Know About Theosophy?”; and a lecture about religion, “The Bible and Wisdom.”
Those in the audience who attended lectures last winter will hear about things that are familiar, though presented from a different aspect. The results of spiritual-scientific investigation can only be fully understood when illumined from different sides. As I said, today's lecture is to serve as an introduction to this winter's program that will demonstrate what is meant by spiritual-scientific investigation, and the significance of such research of the supersensible for humanity now and in the future.
The Theosophical movement emerged thirty years ago, and soon spread worldwide. Yet, after thirty years of intensive work, it has not the best reputation. Many people regard Theosophy as something fantastic with no relation to facts, something that belongs in a cloud-cuckoo-land. It cannot be denied that it has often been badly presented, usually through over-eagerness and lack of knowledge; at times perhaps even charlatans helped to undermine its reputation. However, today we are concerned with the significance Theosophy can have in the lives of individuals.
The prejudices that exist against Theosophy are strong and widespread. Some regard it on a par with spiritism, as something irreconcilable with modern science. People who are engaged in scientific pursuits, or those that simply feel that solution to significant questions can be found in modern science, see no point in devoting themselves to something which seems to contradict well-documented scientific discoveries. They regard Theosophy as illogical, and its appeal restricted to dreamers.
Another kind of prejudice comes from religious quarters. There are people who, because of their calling, feel they must protect religion from Theosophy, or they fear that if they accept it, it will create conflict with their religious conscience. They assume that Theosophy aims to establish a new religion or sect.
Yet another kind of prejudice stems from the mistaken view that Theosophy is a revival of ancient Buddhism. Here the fear is that in place of Christianity the world is to be inoculated with a kind of neo-Buddhism. Nothing that one can say appears to dispel these three kinds of prejudice.
If Theosophy aimed to transplant an ancient religious system into Europe, it would sin against its own fundamental principle, which is to understand every religion and spiritual aspiration. Every great philosophy or world outlook has arisen out of the configuration of a specific civilization; it is not possible to transplant it into a completely different culture. If modern human beings, standing within the European-American civilization, are to receive the impulse for true spiritual progress, it must spring from the vigorous life of their own time. Such impulses cannot be derived from views and ideas of a bygone age; they must have their roots where the human soul has its home. What is needed is the recognition that the inherent possibility in our own culture must be widened and deepened. While every civilization has within it fully matured abilities and inclinations, it also contains seeds for its further evolution. If these seeds are allowed to lie fallow, they become burning questions weighing on the human soul. The seeds for future development in the hidden recesses or a person's inner being must evolve out of necessity.
There is no conflict between the world outlook of spiritual science and the great religions. Spiritual science, while resting on its own foundation, seeks to understand all religions. It wishes to show that all the great world religions are based on the same fundamental truth. From these lectures it will become apparent that spiritual science reflects an aspect of all of them. Far from wanting to become another religion, spiritual science aims to awaken understanding for the views of the past as well as for those which, because they are right for the present time, will truly further mankind's progress in the future.
Let us objectively consider why spiritual science would neither wish to be a religion nor found a new sect. The lectures to be held this winter will increasingly demonstrate that the time is past for founding new religions. Spiritual truths can no longer be presented the way they were in former times. Founding new religions came to an end with the central religion, Christianity. Christianity is capable of endless development far into the future. Spiritual science should be a means to make Christianity more accessible to the scholarly mind. Its foremost task is to contribute to the comprehension of religion by illumining the wisdom it contains, and by enabling people to find their way into spiritual life. There is no need for new religions; the old ones contain all the wisdom and knowledge we require. What is needed is to present that wisdom in a new form. In so doing, the old forms will also become understandable. The true value of the ancient religions will be restored by spiritual science.
Greater tolerance in regard to religious views has come about in recent times. Modern human beings feel that to hate and persecute those who confess a different faith serves no purpose. In fact, the hatred and intolerance that formerly caused so much blood to flow in the name of religion is no longer understood. This tendency to accept and tolerate will continue for a time, but eventually it will prove too weak, too insipid an attitude for progress. When in the nineteenth century the transition took place to a more tolerant attitude, it was a blessing. At that time it was justified and it helped to develop love and humanness. However, what is right and good in one age is not necessarily so in another. The various epochs of world evolution provide human beings with different tasks. The feeling and attitude that was fully justified in the nineteenth century, which kindled noble hopes in human hearts, will prove too feeble and ineffective in the twentieth century when other soul forces are called upon.
What is required now is complete mutual understanding, not just tolerance and patience. So far, Christians have tended to take the attitude that, while they do not understand the faith of Muslims or of the Jewish people, and equally they do not understand Christianity, each one tolerates the other's views. This attitude will prove insufficient. In the future, complete understanding will be necessary. Human beings must be able to recognize that their faith has developed within a certain culture and that it determines their thoughts and ideals. But life is shared with people of different cultures and with different views, and these a person must endeavor to understand. The truth should result in more than mere patience and tolerance: it should enable a person to enter with understanding into what the others feel and experience. A person's comprehension of truth must encompass all other faiths.
This is an attitude that is very different from that of mere tolerance. Through spiritual science a person should be able to progress to complete understanding. The followers of particular faiths must realize that they have reached certain aspects of truth, and that truth takes on different forms in different souls. This is to be expected and should be no cause for division; rather, truth in all its forms should act as a unifying force. Such an attitude is positive and humane, and brings people together. Also, it is on a higher level than tolerance, and has a greater ennobling effect on the human soul because it is based on insight and love.
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, founder, always saw Theosophy as having the mission to provide knowledge. She recognized that modern human beings are always bound to ask (a) questions about a person's fate and destination, birth and death, infinity and eternity; (b) questions about illness and pain; and (c) about what happens after death when a person has laid aside the body. Every human being asks these questions. The task of religion has always been to provide spiritual rather than merely theoretical answers, to give a person strength, consolation, and reassurance.
From religion we are meant to obtain answers to the crucial questions of existence. Religion should enable us to go through life fulfilling daily tasks, feeling calm and secure, and possessing knowledge that reaches beyond everyday affairs to encompass immortality. If we understand the human soul, then we know that no one can be strong and capable unless a certain comprehension of the riddles of life are reached. Only knowledge prevents them weighing on the soul, giving rise to doubt and uncertainty that makes a person weak. Without inner security of knowledge a person is lost when faced with greater issues and unable to cope even with everyday affairs.
It will increasingly be recognized that insightful knowledge is the only true basis for vitality and strength of soul. The theosophical movement acknowledges this fact and sees it as its task to provide such knowledge. But why the need for spiritual science when through all the epochs of evolution, religion has existed to answer life's burning questions? The answer is that times have changed. What satisfied our ancestors no longer satisfies modern people. There is plenty of evidence of that today, and it will become even more obvious as time goes on. Religion does of course answer many questions, but the answers are formulated in a way that leaves people dissatisfied. The reason is that human nature has changed, and this leads people to attempt to find substitutes for the answers that no longer satisfy them either in history or in natural science.
People who longingly seek answers in modern science are especially those to whom the Bible and religion no longer speak. But modern science has to acknowledge that it has no answers to life's most important questions. Its enormous achievements in the realm of physical data are fully acknowledged by spiritual science; the results arrived at through painstaking research spanning the whole globe are indeed impressive. But when it comes to questions about the meaning of life or mankind's future evolution, it fails to provide answers. Those who have tried, and the many who are still trying, to find through natural scientific investigation what religion no longer provides, discover only disappointment. By contrast, spiritual science exists for the very purpose of throwing light on life's riddles and burning questions. However, those who still find satisfaction in what traditional religion has to offer will be unable to recognize what spiritual science is about, but what satisfies one today may not do so tomorrow. The founder of the Theosophical Society saw it as an ideal to provide concrete knowledge about life's deepest riddles. The claim that spiritual research is scientific is fully justified, as anyone will acknowledge who becomes acquainted with the methods whereby it is carried out. It aims to provide a spiritual worldview with a scientific basis that will speak to the most erudite and also the simplest mind.
Yet there are those who feel that Theosophy is an interference and that it is better to leave people with their old faith, or better still to do something to restore the old faith, as science is incapable of providing answers to spiritual questions. That is an unrealistic view; people who hold it do not see what is happening all around them. Theosophy endeavors to be fully conscious of the tendencies that are coming to the fore. Let one example suffice to illustrate the urgent necessity for a world outlook based on spiritual insight.
Let us consider for a moment what is taking place in a country where for centuries religion has had a strange history. In Spain, orthodox religious faith has up till now had a strong grip on its people. But a change is taking place in this country where religious influence extends even to trivial everyday affairs. Who would have thought, a few years ago, that what we are now witnessing could possible occur in Spain. Only a short time ago the ruling power would have nothing to do with any so-called modern ideas. Just consider how rigid was the faith of the woman who preceded her son, the present king, Alphonso XIII. She has had no inclination to deviate one iota from the ways and customs that over the centuries have become firmly entrenched in the whole fabric of the state. Imagine the contrast to what is taking place now: This woman sits in Lourdes where she can indulge in the old ways and customs, while in Spain the young king is obliged to allow new ideas to saturate the rigid system. A liberal minister is shaking up the establishment, and is ruthlessly introducing new laws on education and marriage.
This is a sign that the impulses of the time are making themselves felt, and against that, mere human opinion is powerless. What must come about is proper understanding of the change in attitude that is taking place. Most of those in office are blind to such changes. They are unprepared and do not know what to do. It is not realized that such impulses are stronger than arbitrary opinions, nor that the needs of humanity at a particular time must be met with understanding and open minds. In our time people are too conscious to just accept what is imposed upon them. But everyone is required to understand the impulses of the times in which we live, and guide these impulses in the right direction. In no other way can healthy progress be ensured. History is made by human beings, but when it is made in spite of them, the result is chaos. Harmony and justice can come about only through cooperation. The age one lives in makes demands; it is up to the individual to recognize what they are. Just to sit back in comfort and let things take their course is not enough. That is an attitude that rather hampers progress. The impulses of one's age must not be ignored. Human beings are destined to absorb into their heart and mind, into their whole being, impulses from the supersensible realm so that they become effective in the world.
What does that imply? A thoughtful person will recognize that very much is implied in what has just been said. It is obvious to deeper insight that without a foundation of spiritual life, no material civilization can prosper. No state, no community has ever endured without a religious foundation. Let someone earnestly try to found a community consisting solely of people whose interests are purely materialistic, that is people with no knowledge of spiritual things, who accept as valid only materialistic views. Things would not deteriorate into chaos straightaway only because people would still have a vestige of ideas and ideals. No social system can endure unless it is built upon the foundation of religious wisdom. An individual is a bad practitioner who believes that practical minds are enough to ensure success. A person who wants to see material conditions continue to make progress must recognize that a foundation of spiritual insight and religion is imperative. If we want to give a human being bread, we must also give him something that will nourish the soul. In the periodical "Lucifer" I once wrote that no one should be given bread without receiving also a world outlook that to give bread without giving also spiritual sustenance could only do harm. At first sight this statement may not seem valid, but in the article it is substantiated.
What is taking place in Spain is only a special instance of what is happening everywhere. One must be an ostrich with one's head in the sand not to see it. But what is it that is needed at the present time to further true progress? The need is for specialized knowledge. Just as special knowledge is necessary for the provision and distribution of material necessities like clothing, so is special knowledge necessary for meeting a human's spiritual needs.
Ancient civilizations have depended upon the trust placed in priests and wise men. We must not criticize the systems of past cultures; they were suitable for their particular epoch. When a culture is no longer acceptable, for the people can no longer live according to the old customs, the remedy does not lie in fighting it, but in change and progress of the spiritual life. In earlier times people turned to the priest for words of comfort and assurance. Today we need spiritual investigators, people who can speak about the supersensible world in ways that correspond to our time, and are therefore acceptable and understandable to modern humans.
Let us consider what is to be done if things remain the way most of our contemporaries find satisfactory. The situation in Spain can be regarded as symptomatic. Perhaps you think that old arrangements will give way to new ones and people will become accustomed. But no new arrangement will have a chance of success unless there is also a change of heart. A spiritual outlook must begin to pulsate like lifeblood through our whole modern civilization. When conflict arises nowadays over spiritual or social issues, there is nowhere people can turn for counsel concerning life's most important questions.
Let us look at what usually happens in such cases. Many people expect to find through natural science, that is, through knowledge of physical data, the kind of answers that have formerly been obtained from religion. Recently a conference of scientists took place in Stuttgart where weighty problems were discussed. But can it be said that modern human beings are able at such places to find answers to spiritual questions? To questions concerning eternity or the meaning of death? At such conferences it becomes apparent that modern physical research is embarking on some strange investigations. For those with interest in these things, I may mention that at Stuttgart methods were discussed in detail concerning the way organs from one organic being could be transplanted into another. Another point of great interest was the way the advent of the microscope had transformed all research. Now it was possible, by mixing and dissolving certain substances, to produce from lifeless matter something with the semblance of life. Many more things were mentioned, all of which called for respect and admiration in regard to modern scientific research.
But people wonder about the sense and purpose of all the extraordinary things physical researchers are busy investigating. Who is there among the scientists of this modern Olympus of cultural life that can answer questions about the meaning of life? No attention was given to questions of this nature at the latest scientific conference, whereas only two years ago Ledebur, a chemist from Breslau, made an extraordinary speech in which he pleaded for psychological research to be stopped. And it is noteworthy that at a gathering of scientists Theodor Lipps could still speak on the subjects: natural science and philosophy. In the midst of reports on purely physical research, he threw in remarks to the effect that unless natural science is able to arrive at a spiritual understanding of the phenomenon of man, it will never reach the status of a worldview. “When man,” he said, “looks into his inner being, he finds the ‘I,’ and when he widens it to encompass the ‘world-I,’ he finds contentment.”
The situation is truly extraordinary. After all, the theosophical movement, where you will not find such vague general answers given to important questions, has existed for thirty years. Theosophy discusses subjects, such as a person's life before birth and after death, his experiences when attaining spiritual sight and so on, concretely and in detail. But what happens? After such specific knowledge has been available for thirty years, these issues are dealt with in commonplace and trivial ways that cannot possibly satisfy anyone. When the most important questions of life are discussed, all that is offered is a web of unworldly abstract thought — nothing but a play on meaningless words that appeals only to people with an interest in abstract philosophy. When those who long for answers to the heart's deepest questions turn to official authorities, they find nothing but powerlessness and ignorance.
Yet it is of utmost importance that there should exist, within external science, advancing as it does at great speed, a center of spiritual life, a place where human beings can find concrete knowledge about supersensible issues — a knowledge that throws light also on the spiritual content preserved in old religious faiths and customs. If knowledge of the spiritual world is presented with the same scientific acumen as natural science, it would speak to the human soul and influence social life, just as was formerly the case with religion. Once that happens, religious life will assume new forms, while the old forms that have become influenced by materialism will disappear.
It is very important that the full significance of religion is recognized. Today there are many people — in France it is very much the fashion — who say that morality can be established without religion. It is maintained that humans can be moral without religion. This shows no comprehension whatever of spiritual laws. If religious worship is traced through the consecutive historical epochs, it will be found that a new cult arose in each, with special significance for that particular time. The cult of Hermes arose in Egypt; in India, the Rishis; in Persia, Zarathustra; and among the Hebrews emerged the cult of Moses. In our time it is Christ Jesus, the greatest founder of religion in modern times. These cultures became great because their exponents understood the needs of their time. The exponents of Christianity will also work effectively when once again the needs of the human heart are understood.
When a civilization comes into being, the primary constituent is always religious faith, that is, a sum of views, feelings, and ideas about what is regarded as spiritually the most exalted. There will be awareness that the world's foundation is of divine origin, and that death is vanquished. All the great civilizations draw their spiritual creativity from the faith on which they are founded. The great creative works of ancient Egypt, Persia, Greece, and Christian times would never have come into existence had they not originated from human thought and beliefs. Indeed, even the most materialistic culture stems originally from a person's knowledge of the supersensible. Thus, the most basic constituent of a civilization is faith.
The second thing of importance to consider is the effect of this faith on an individual's inner life. The thoughts and ideas a person formulates about supersensible matters have an uplifting effect; they fill a person's soul with feelings of harmony and joy. Whenever people have felt inwardly happy and secure, aware that their lives have a higher meaning, it has always been due to religious faith. Such feelings transform themselves into contentment and confidence in life. Thus, it can be said that when a civilization comes into being, we first of all recognize the presence of faith, and second feelings of exaltation, contentment, and confidence in life.
The third thing to consider belongs to the sphere of the will. This is the sphere of morality and ethics. Ethics, that is, moral philosophy, influences not only morals, and acts of will, but also all social arrangements, all laws, and all affairs of state. It influences art, which belongs to the sphere of feeling. To think that morality can exist without religion is an illusion. Morality arises in the sphere of feeling. At first a person will have certain opinions about spiritual issues; second these will give rise to feelings of contentment and security; and third to will impulses that tell him: This is good; that is evil.
How does it come about that so many are subject to the illusion that morality can be established without the foundation of religion? It happens because morality, this third component of a culture, is the last to disappear. When a civilization declines, the first to diminish is faith, that is, doubt arises about religion. However, even if the invigorating certainty of faith is absent for a long time, people still retain the feelings engendered by faith. When at last even inherited religious feelings have vanished, the morality that originated from the faith will still persist. Those who today believe that morality exists without a foundation of religious faith do not themselves have to rely on such an impossibility. They subsist on the remnant of inherited moral qualities. It is only because they have retained the morality of the past that people who think spiritual qualities are mere fantasy can act morally. Many believe they have overcome the need for religion, yet their moral life originated from religion.
Socialists tend to want to establish morality without a foundation, that is, without religion. The reason they can talk about the subject at all, and the reason also for things not collapsing into chaos straightaway, is solely that they retain in the bodily organism the old morality that they want to eradicate. Even the political changes socialists want to bring about are based on the old morality. If progress is to come about, there must be a renewal of spiritual knowledge. When it is possible to draw people's attention to the spiritual forces that are streaming into our world all around us, this knowledge will create feelings of security and impulses toward moral actions in their soul. Then we will no longer have to rely on riches inherited from the past, but on those that spring from our own culture.
There is nothing illogical in the knowledge of higher worlds of which spiritual science speaks. The supersensible is not treated as something remote and inaccessible; it is extraordinary that certain philosophic views maintain that no educated person can believe in a supersensible world. Such views demonstrate ignorance of the specific sense in which spiritual science speaks about the supersensible. I have often made clear by means of the following comparison what I mean by that.
For someone born blind, the world of color and light is a “beyond” in relation to the accessible world. In other words, we have access to a world only if we have organs with which to perceive it. The moment sight is restored an individual no longer has to rely on others in order to determine that light and color exist. Then, a person experiences a new world but one which in reality was always there. In regard to the spiritual world of which spiritual science speaks, the situation is exactly the same.
Knowledge of the spiritual world is again attainable through spiritual science. Just as there always were enlightened human beings able to see into the spiritual world, so there are individuals today who have developed spiritual organs. They are able to perceive the spiritual aspect of physical phenomena and see beyond the portal of death. They perceive that part of the human being constitutes the immortal being that survives after death. Their task is to impart detailed information of this spiritual research, thus making spiritual knowledge possible once more.
It is cheap to say: Give me the means to see for myself. Actually, anyone can attain the means, provided that person seeks guidance of the right kind. Spiritual science constitutes such guidance and it is accessible to everyone. The very first requirement, however, is the ability to rise above the usual way of looking at things. The person must, as it were, say: Here is someone who tells me he can see into the spiritual world, and who relates many specific details. He speaks about what happens to humans after death, about spiritual forces and beings that are invisible to ordinary sight, and that permeate the world about us. As yet I cannot see that world, but if I keep an open mind and pay attention to my feelings and inner sense for truth, I shall know whether what I hear sounds probable or the reverse. I can further apply logical thinking to the matter, and see if life itself bears out what I am told. Having listened calmly to everything and found nothing to contradict common sense, I shall attempt to look at the world in light of this knowledge and see if it explains human destiny. By assuming spiritual scientific views to be correct, I will be able to test whether they explain things and make life understandable. I shall also gradually discover if spiritual knowledge does give one inner strength, joy, and confidence in life. In other words, I will discover whether there is a basis for accepting the words of the initiate. This attitude I adopt is the same in regard to spiritual knowledge as that adopted by a remarkable person in regard to the ordinary world of light and color.
The life of the deaf, mute, and blind Helen Keller has often been described. Up to the age of seven, she was like a little wild animal. Then there came to her a teacher of genius, Anne Sullivan, and then her education was far above average. She had never heard sound or seen color and light; all her life had been one of silent darkness. But she had allowed everything that those around her experienced of color, light, and sound to affect her soul. Recently a new book of hers was published, entitled Optimism. This small volume showed that not only was she knowledgeable about the affairs of the present time, but also about the life and language of the Greeks and Romans. Although she had never experienced it herself, she described the beauty of creation conveyed by sight and hearing. Her little book showed that she had gained more than just mental pictures from what had been described to her: she had gained inner strength and confidence in life.
In the same way, people who do not close their mind will gain strength, confidencem and hope for the future from listening to the description of someone with spiritual sight and hearing. Inner uncertainty causes weakness, and creates an inability to cope with life. Individuals who listen to someone with spiritual sight will gradually become aware of things that they were not aware of before. Spiritual knowledge will make people efficient and capable. Impulses must flow from the spiritual world like new lifeblood and permeate our political and social systems, bringing about a transformation of our whole civilization. You must realize that spiritual knowledge is in our time closely connected with the most important questions and problems. When these press in upon us from all sides in various forms, we must acknowledge the need for deeper understanding. That the spiritual-scientific view of the world is shaped through prophetic knowledge of what must come will be borne out by the lectures to be held this winter. They will throw light not only on the great civilizations, but also on everyday life. The results of spiritual research show clearly what is needed to ensure the healthy progress of mankind, and also what provides the individual with inner strength, courage, and joy in life.
There are still many who laugh at what spiritual science has to say about supersensible issues. As they believe they are practical folks, they will have nothing to do with such unpractical nonsense. But the spiritual-scientific movement will carry on its work. The time will come when even people who are now among the fainthearted, skeptical doubters will turn to those who have absorbed spiritual knowledge because they need solutions to the great riddles and questions that will burden the soul — not arbitrary human questions, but questions posed by life with great force. Already in the near future, spiritual knowledge will be needed more and more if human evolution is to progress.