Rosicrucianism and Modern Initiation, Lecture 1:
Research into the Life of the Spirit During the Middle Ages
Rudolf Steiner, Dornach, Switzerland, January 4, 1924:
In close connection with what I had to bring before you in the lectures given at our Christmas Foundation Meeting, I should like, in the lectures that are now to be given, to speak further of the movement that is leading us in modern times to research into the life of the spirit. I refer to the movement spoken of under the name of Rosicrucianism or some other occult designation, and I should like to take this opportunity of giving you a picture of it in its inner aspect and nature. It will be necessary first of all to say something, by way of introduction, about the whole manner of forming ideas which had become customary round about the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries A.D., and which only very gradually disappeared; for it is even to be found here and there among stragglers, as it were as late as the nineteenth century. I do not want today to deal with the matter from a historical point of view, but rather to place before your mind's eye conceptions and ideas that you are to think of as inwardly experienced by certain people belonging to these centuries. In point of fact it is not generally realised that we have only to go back a comparatively short time in history, to find that the men who were accounted to be scholars were possessed of a world of ideas altogether different from our own.
In these days we speak of chemical substances, we enumerate seventy or eighty chemical elements; but we have no idea how very little we are saying when we name one substance as oxygen, another as nitrogen, and so on. Oxygen, for instance, is something that is present only under certain well-defined conditions — conditions of warmth, e.g., and other circumstances of earthly life, and it is impossible for a reasonable person to unite a conception of reality with something that, when the temperature is raised by so and so many degrees, is no longer present in the same measure or manner as it is under the conditions that obtain for man's physical life on Earth. It was the realisation of facts like this that underlay research during the early and middle part of the Middle Ages; the life of research of those times set out to get beyond the relative in existence, to arrive at true existence.
I have marked a transition as between the ninth and tenth centuries A.D., because before this time man's perceptions were still altogether spiritual. It would never, for example, have occurred to a scholar of the ninth century to imagine Angels, Archangels, or Seraphim as falling short in respect of reality — purely in respect of reality — of the physical men he saw with his eyes. You will find that before the tenth century, scholars always speak of the spiritual Beings, the so-called Intelligences of the Cosmos, as of beings one actually meets in life. The people of that time were of course well aware that the day was long past when such vision had been common human experience, but they knew that in certain circumstances the meeting could still take place. We must not, for instance, overlook the fact that on into the ninth and tenth centuries countless priests of the Catholic Church were quite conscious of how, in the course of their celebration of the Mass, it happened that in this or that enactment they met spiritual Beings, the Intelligences of the Cosmos. With the ninth and tenth centuries, however, the direct and immediate connection with the Intelligences of the Universe began to disappear from men's consciousness; and there began to light up, in its place, the consciousness of the Elements of the Cosmos, the earthy, the fluid or watery, the airy, the warm or fiery. And so it came about that just as hitherto men had spoken of Cosmic Intelligences that rule the movements of the planets, that lead the planets across the constellations of the fixed stars, and so forth, now they spoke instead of the immediate environment of the Earth. They spoke of the elements of earth, water, air, fire. Of chemical substances, in the modern sense of the word, they did not as yet take account. That came much later. It would, however, be a great mistake to imagine that the scholars of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries — even in a sense, the scholars of the eighteenth century — had ideas of warmth, air, water, earth, that resembled the ideas men have today. Warmth is spoken of today merely as a condition in which bodies exist. No one speaks any longer of actual warmth-ether. Air, water — these have likewise become for the modern man completely abstract. It is time we studied these ideas and learned to enter into a true understanding of them. And so today I should like to give you a picture, showing you how a scholar of those times would speak to his pupils.
When I wrote my Outline of Occult Science I was obliged to make the account of the evolution of the Earth accord at any rate a little with the prevailing ideas of the present day. In the thirteenth and twelfth centuries one would have been able to give the account quite differently. The following might then have been found in a certain chapter, e.g., of Outline of Occult Science. An idea would have been called up, to begin with, of the beings who may be designated as the beings of the First Hierarchy: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones. The Seraphim would have been characterized as beings with whom there is no subject and object, with whom subject and object are one and the same, beings who would not say: "Outside me are things" — but: "The world is, and I am the World, and the World is I." Such beings know only of themselves, and this knowledge of themselves is for them an inner experience of which man has a weak reflection when he has the experience of being filled, shall we say, with a fiery enthusiasm. It is, you know, quite difficult to make the man of today understand what is meant by “fiery enthusiasm.” Even in the beginning of the nineteenth century men knew better what it is than they do today. In those days it could still happen that some poem or other was being read aloud and the people were so filled with enthusiasm — forgive me, but it really was so — that present-day man would say they had all gone out of their minds. They were so moved, so warmed! Today people freeze up just when you expect them to be enthused. Now, it was lifting this element of enthusiasm, this rapture of the soul that came naturally especially to the men of Middle and Eastern Europe — it was by lifting it into consciousness, by making it alone the complete content of consciousness, that men came to form an idea of the inner life of the Seraphim.
Again, as a bright, clear element in consciousness, full of light, so that thought turns directly into light, illuminating everything — such an idea did men form of the element of consciousness of the Cherubim.
And the element of consciousness of the Thrones was conceived as sustaining, bearing the worlds in Grace.
There you have one such sketch. I could go on speaking of it for a long time. For the moment I only wanted to show you that in those days one would have tried to describe the Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones in the true qualities of their being.
And then one would have gone on to say: the Choir of Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones works together in such wise that the Thrones found and establish a kernel; the Cherubim let their own light-filled being stream forth from this center or kernel; and the Seraphim enwrap the whole in a mantle of warmth and enthusiasm that rays far out into cosmic space. [Footnote: Drawings were made on the blackboard, with coloured chalks.]
All the drawing I have made is beings: in the midst the Thrones; in the circumference around them the Cherubim; and, outermost of all, the Seraphim. All is essential being, beings who move and weave into one another, do, think, will, feel in one another. All is of the very essence of being. And now, if a being having the right sensitiveness were to take its path through the space where the Thrones have in this manner established a kernel and center, where the Cherubim have made a kind of circling around it, and the Seraphim have, as it were, enclosed the whole — if a being with the required sensitiveness were to come into this realm of the activity of the First Hierarchy, it would feel warmth in varying differentiations — here greater warmth, there less; but it would all be an experience of soul, and yet at the same time physical experience in the senses; that is to say, when the being felt itself warm in soul, the feeling would be actually the feeling you have when you are in a well-warmed room.
Such a united building-up by beings of the First Hierarchy did verily once take place in the Universe; it formed what we call the Saturn existence. The warmth is merely the expression of the fact that the beings are there. The warmth is nothing more than the expression of the fact that the beings are there.
A picture will perhaps make clearer to you what I mean. Let us suppose you have an affection for a certain human being. You feel his presence gives you warmth. But now someone comes along who is frightfully abstract and says: “The person himself doesn't interest me, I will imagine him absent; the warmth he sheds around him, that alone is what interests me.” Or suppose he doesn't even say “The warmth he sheds around him is all that interests me.” Suppose he says: “The warmth is all that interests me.” He talks nonsense, of course, you will see that at once; for if the man is not there who sheds the warmth, then the warmth is not there either. The warmth is in any case only there when the man is there. In itself it is nothing. The man must be there, if the warmth is to be there. Even so must Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones be there; if the beings are not there, neither is the warmth. The warmth is merely the revelation of Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones.
Now in the time of which I speak, everything was exactly as I have described it. Men spoke of Elements. They spoke of the Element of Warmth, and by the Element of Warmth they understood Cherubim, Seraphim, Thrones — and that is the Saturn existence.
The description went further. It was said: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones — these alone have the power to bring forth something of the nature of Saturn, to place it into the Cosmos. The highest Hierarchy alone is capable of placing such an existence into the Cosmos. But when this highest Hierarchy had once placed it there and a new world-becoming had taken its start, then the evolution could go on further. The Sun, as it were, that is formed of Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones, could carry evolution further. And it came to pass in the following manner. Beings of the Second Hierarchy, Kyriotetes, Dynamis, Exusiai, Beings that had been generated by the Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones, press into the space that has been formed through the working of Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones, that has been fashioned to Saturn warmth. Thither entered younger, cosmically younger Beings. And how did these cosmically younger Beings work? Whereas the Cherubim, Seraphim and Thrones reveal themselves in the Element of Warmth, the Beings of the second Hierarchy form themselves in the Element of Light. Saturn is dark; it gives warmth. And now within the dark world of the Saturn existence arises that which can arise through the working of the Sons of the First Hierarchy, through Exusiai, Dynamis and Kyriotetes.
What is it that is able now to arise within the Saturn warmth? The penetration of the Second Hierarchy signifies an inner illumination. The Saturn Warmth is inwardly shone through with light and at the same time it becomes denser. Instead of only the Warmth Element there is now also Air. And in the revelation of Light we have the entry of the Second Hierarchy.
You must clearly understand that it is in very deed and truth Beings who thus press their way into the Saturn existence. One who had the requisite power of perception would see the event as a penetration of Light; it is Light that reveals the path of the Beings. And wherever Light occurs, there occurs too, under certain conditions, shadow, darkness, dark shadow. Through the Penetration by the Second Hierarchy in the form of Light, shadow also comes to pass. What is shadow? It is Air. And indeed until the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries men knew what Air is. Today men know only that air consists of oxygen, nitrogen and so forth. When that is said, it is very much as if someone were to say about a watch that it consisted of glass and silver. He would be saying nothing at all about the watch. And nothing at all is said about Air as a cosmic phenomenon when we say that it consists of oxygen and nitrogen. We say very much, on the other hand, if we know: Air comes forth from the Cosmos as the shadow of Light. In actual fact we have, with the entry of the second Hierarchy into the Saturn warmth, the entry of Light and we have too the shadow of Light, Air. And when we have this we have Sun. Such is the way one would have had to speak in the thirteenth and twelfth centuries.
And what follows after this? The further evolution comes about through the working of the Sons of the Second Hierarchy — Archai, Archangels, Angels. The Second Hierarchy have accomplished the entry of the Element of Light, Light that has drawn after it its shadow, the darkness of Air — not the indifferent, neutral darkness that belongs to Saturn, the darkness that is simply absence of Light, but the darkness that is wrought out as the antithesis of Light. And now to this Element of Light the Third Hierarchy — Archai, Archangels, Angels — add through their own nature and being a new Element, an Element that is like our human desire, like our impulse to strive after something, to long for something. Thereby the following comes to pass.
Let us suppose an Archai or Archangel Being enters, and comes upon an Element of Light, encounters, as it were, a place of Light. In this place of Light the Being receives, through its receptivity for the Light, the urge, the desire for darkness. The Angel Being bears Light into darkness — or an Angel Being bears darkness into Light. These Beings are mediators, messengers between Light and Darkness. It follows from this that what previously has only shone in Light and drawn after it its shadow, the darkness of Air, begins now to shine in colour, to glow in a play of colour. Light begins to appear in darkness, darkness in light. The Third Hierarchy create colour out of light and darkness.
Here we may find a connection with something that is historical, with something that is to be found in written document. For in the time of Aristotle men still knew, when they contemplated in the Mysteries, whence colours come; they knew that the Beings of the Third Hierarchy have to do with colour. Therefore Aristotle, in his colour harmony, showed that colour signifies a working together of Light and Darkness. But this spiritual element in man's thought, whereby he knew that behind Warmth he has to see Beings of the First Hierarchy, behind Light and its shadow Darkness, Beings of the Second Hierarchy, and behind the iridescent play of Colour he has to see in a great cosmic harmony, Beings of the Third Hierarchy — this spiritual element in man's thought has been lost. And nothing is left for man today but the unhappy Newtonian Theory of Colour. The Initiates continued to smile at Newton's theory till the eighteenth century, but in that time it became an article of faith for professional physicists.
One must indeed have lost all knowledge of the spiritual world when one can speak in the sense of Newton's Theory of Colour. If one is still inwardly stimulated by the spiritual world, as was the case with Goethe, then one resists it. One places before men the truth of the matter, as Goethe did, and attacks with might and main. For Goethe never censured so hardly as when he had to censure Newton, he went for him and his theory hammer and tongs! Such a thing is incomprehensible nowadays, for the simple reason that in our time anyone who does not recognise the Newtonian Theory of Colour is a fool in the eyes of the physicists. But things were different in Goethe's time. He did not stand alone. True, he stood alone as one who spoke openly on the matter; but there were others who really knew, even as late as the end of the eighteenth century, whence colour comes, who knew with absolute certainty how colour wells up from within the Spiritual.
But now we must go further. We have seen that Air is the shadow of Light. And as, when Light arises, under certain conditions we find the dark shadow, so when colour is present and works as a reality — and it can do so, for when it penetrates into the Air-element, it flames up in this Air, works in it, in a word is something, is no mere reflection but a reality flashing and sparkling in the Air-element — when this is so, then under certain conditions we get pressure, counter-pressure, and out of the real Colour there comes into being the fluid, the Element of Water. As, for cosmic thinking, the shadow of Light is Air, so is Water the reflection, the creation of Colour in the Cosmos.
You will say: No, that I cannot understand! But try for once really to grasp Colour in its true meaning. Red — surely you do not think that red is, in its essence, the neutral surface it is generally regarded as being? Red is something that makes an attack upon you. — I have often spoken of this. — You want to run away from red; it thrusts you back. Blue-violet, on the other hand, you want to run after! It runs away from you all the time; it grows deeper and ever deeper. Everything is contained in the colours. The colours are a world, and the soul element in the world of colour simply cannot exist without movement; we ourselves, if we follow the colours with soul-experience, must follow with movement.
People gaze open-eyed at the rainbow. [Footnote: A sketch of a rainbow was made on the blackboard with chalks of the colours as seen in the sky: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet.] But if you look at the rainbow with a little imagination, you may see there elemental Beings. These elemental Beings are full of activity and demonstrate it in a very remarkable manner. Here (at yellow) you see some of them streaming forth from the rainbow, continually coming away out of it. They move across and the moment they reach the lower end of the green they are drawn to it again. You see them disappear at this point (green). On the other side they come out again. To one who views it with imagination, the whole rainbow manifests a streaming out of spirit and a disappearing of it again within. It is like a spiritual dance, in very deed a spiritual waltz, wonderful to behold. And you may observe too how these spiritual Beings come forth from the rainbow with terrible fear, and how they go in with invincible courage. When you look at the red-yellow, you see fear streaming out, and when you look at the blue-violet you have the feeling: there all is courage and bravery of heart.
Now picture to yourselves: There before me is no mere rainbow! Beings are coming out of it and disappearing into it — here anxiety and fear, there courage ... And now, here the rainbow receives a certain thickness and you will be able to imagine how this gives rise to the element of Water. In this watery element spiritual Beings live, Beings that are actually a kind of copy of the Beings of the Third Hierarchy.
There is no doubt about it: if we want to get near the men of real knowledge in the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries, we must understand these things. Indeed we cannot even understand the men of still later times, we cannot understand Albertus Magnus, if we read him with the knowledge we have today. We must read him with a manner of knowledge that takes account of the fact that spiritual things like these were still a reality for him: only then shall we understand how he expresses himself, how he uses his words.
Thus we have, as a reflection of the Hierarchies, first Air and then Water. The Hierarchies themselves dive in, as it were — the second Hierarchy in the form of Light, the third Hierarchy in the form of Colour. And with this latter event the Moon existence is attained.
And now we come to the Fourth Hierarchy. (I am telling it, you remember, as it was thought of in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.) We today do not speak of the Fourth Hierarchy; but men still spoke in that way in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. What is this Fourth Hierarchy? It is Man. Man himself is the fourth Hierarchy. But by the Fourth Hierarchy was not meant the two-legged being that goes about the world today, ageing year by year! To the true man of knowledge of those times, present-day man would have appeared as something very strange. No, in those times they spoke of original Man, of Man before the Fall, who still bore a form that gave him power over the Earth, even as the Angels and Archangels and Archai had power over the Moon existence, the second Hierarchy over the Sun existence and the first Hierarchy over the Saturn existence. They spoke of Man in his original Earthly existence and then they were right to speak of him as the Fourth Hierarchy. And with this Fourth Hierarchy came — as a gift it is true, of the higher Hierarchies, but the higher Hierarchies have held it only as a possession they did not themselves use but guarded and kept — with the Fourth Hierarchy came Life. Into the world of Colour, into the iridescent world of changing colour, of which I have only been able to give you the merest hints and suggestions, came Life.
You will say: Then did nothing live before this time? My dear friends, you can understand how it is from the human being himself. Your Ego and your astral body have not life, and yet they exist, they have being. That which is of the soul and the spirit does not need life. Life begins only with your etheric body. And the etheric body is something external, it is of the nature of a sheath. Thus only after the Moon existence and with the Earth existence does Life enter into the domain of that evolution to which our Earth belongs. The world of moving, glancing colour is quickened to life. And now not only do Angels and Archangels and Archai experience a longing desire to carry Darkness into Light, and Light into Darkness, thereby calling forth the play of colour in the planet; now a desire becomes manifest to experience this play of colour as something inward, to feel it all inwardly; when Darkness dominates Light, to feel weakness, laziness; when Light dominates Darkness, to feel activity. For what is happening really, when you run? When you run, Light predominates over Darkness in you; when you sit and are lazy and indolent, then Darkness predominates over Light. It is a play of Colour, an activity of Colour, not physical, but of the soul. Colour permeated with Life, in its iridescence streamed-through with Life — that is what appeared with the coming of the Fourth Hierarchy, Man. And in this moment of cosmic becoming, the forces that became active in the play of colour began to build contours, began to fashion forms. Life, as it rounded off and moulded the colours, called into being the hard, fast form of the crystal. And we have come into Earth existence.
Such things as I have been describing to you were fundamental truths for the mediaeval alchemists and occultists, Rosicrucians and others, who flourished — though history tells us little of them — from the ninth and tenth on into the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and of whom stragglers are to be found as late as the eighteenth and even the beginning of the nineteenth century — always however in these later times regarded as strange and eccentric people. Only with the entry of the nineteenth century did this knowledge become entirely hidden. Only then did men come to acquire a conception of the world that led them to a point of view which I will indicate in the following way. Imagine, my dear friends, that here we have a man. Suppose I cease to have any interest in this man, but I take his clothes and hang them on a coat-hanger that has a knob here above like a head. From now on I take no further interest in the man and I tell myself: There is the man! What does it matter to me what can be put into these clothes? That, the coat-hanger with the clothes, is the man! This is really what happened with the Elements. It does not interest us any longer that behind Warmth or Fire is the First Hierarchy, behind Light and Air the Second Hierarchy, behind what we call Chemical Ether or Colour Ether and Water the Third Hierarchy, and behind the Life Element and Earth the Fourth Hierarchy, Man. — The peg, the hanger and on it the clothes. — That is all!
There you have the first Act of the drama. The second Act begins with Kant! One has there the hanger and the clothes hanging on it, and one begins to philosophise in true Kantian fashion as to what the “thing-in-itself” of these clothes may be. And one comes to a realisation that the “thing-in-itself” of the clothes cannot be known. Very clever, very clever indeed! Of course, if you first take away the man and have only the coat-hanger with the clothes, you can philosophise over the clothes, you can make most beautiful speculations! You can either philosophise in Kantian fashion and say: “The ‘thing-in-itself’ cannot be known,” or in the fashion of Helmholtz and think to yourself: “But these clothes, they cannot of themselves have forms; there is nothing really there but tiny, whirling specks of dust, tiny atoms, which hit and strike each other and behold, the clothes are held in their form!”
Yes, my friends, that is the way thought has developed in recent times. It is all abstract, shadowy. And yet we live today in this way of thinking, in this way of speculating; it gives the stamp to our whole natural-scientific outlook. And when we do not admit that we think in this atomistic way, then we do it most of all! For we are very far from admitting that it is quite unnecessary to dream of a whirling dance of atoms, and that what we have rather to do is to put back the man into the clothes. This is however the very thing which the renewal of Spiritual Science must try to do.
I wanted to indicate to you today, in a number of pictures, the nature and manner of thinking in earlier centuries and what is really contained in the older writings, although it has become obscure. The very obscurity, however, has led to incidents that are not without interest. A Norwegian scientist of today has reprinted a passage from the writings of Basilius Valentinus and has interpreted it in terms of modern chemistry. He could not possibly say otherwise than that it is nonsense, because this is what it appears to be if, in the modern sense, one thinks of a chemist standing in a laboratory, making experiments with retorts and other up-to-date apparatus. What Basilius Valentinus really gives in this passage is a fragment of embryology, expressed in pictures. That is what he gives — a fragment of embryology. According to the modern mode of thought it seems to indicate a laboratory experiment, which then proves to be nonsense. For you will not expect to reproduce the real processes of embryology in a retort — unless you be like the mediaevally minded Wagner of Goethe's Faust.
It is time that these things were understood. And in connection with the great truths of which I was able to speak during the Christmas Foundation Meeting, I shall have more to say concerning the spiritual life and its history during the last few centuries.
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