Thursday, September 9, 2021

Anthroposophy: What human beings long for today


Anthroposophy and the Inner Life. Lecture 1 of 9

Rudolf Steiner, Dornach, Switzerland, January 19, 1924:

In attempting to give a kind of introduction to Anthroposophy I shall try to indicate, as far as possible, the way it can be presented to the world today. Let me begin, however, with some preliminary remarks. We have usually not sufficient regard for the Spiritual as a living reality; and a living reality must be grasped in the fulness of life. Feeling ourselves members of the Anthroposophical Society and the bearers of the Movement, we ought not to act each day on the assumption that the Anthroposophical Movement has just begun. It has, in fact, existed for more than two decades, and the world has taken an attitude towards it. Therefore, in whatever way you come before the world as Anthroposophists, you must bear this in mind. The feeling that the world has already taken up an attitude towards Anthroposophy must be there in the background. If you have not this feeling and think you can simply present the subject in an absolute sense — as one might have done twenty years ago — you will find yourselves more and more presenting Anthroposophy in a false light. This has been done often enough, and it is time it stopped. Our Christmas meeting should mark a beginning in the opposite direction; it must not remain ineffective, as I have already indicated in many different directions.

Of course, we cannot expect every member of the Society to develop, in some way or other, fresh initiative, if he is not so constituted. I might put it this way: Everyone has the right to continue to be a passively interested member, content to receive what is given. But whoever would share, in any way, in putting Anthroposophy before the world, cannot ignore what I have just explained. From now on complete truth must rule in word and deed.

No doubt I shall often repeat such preliminary remarks. We shall now begin a kind of introduction to the anthroposophical view of the world.

Whoever decides to speak about Anthroposophy must assume, to begin with, that what he wants to say is really just what the heart of his listener is itself saying. Indeed, no science based on initiation has ever intended to utter anything except that which was really being spoken by the hearts of those who wished to hear. To meet the deepest needs of the hearts of those requiring Anthroposophy must be, in the fullest sense, the fundamental note of every presentation of it.

If we observe today those who get beyond the superficial aspect of life, we find that ancient feelings, present in every human soul from age to age, have revived. In their subconscious life the men and women of today harbour earnest questions. They cannot even express these in clear thoughts, much less find answers in what the civilised world can offer; but these questions are there, and a large number of people feel them deeply. In fact, these questions are present today in all who really think. But when we formulate them in words they appear, at first, far-fetched. Yet they are so near, so intimately near to the soul of every thinking man.

We can start with two questions chosen from all the riddles oppressing man today. The first presents itself to man's soul when he contemplates the world around him and his own human existence. He sees human beings enter earthly life through birth; he sees life running its course between birth (or conception) and physical death, and subject to the most manifold experiences, inner and outer; and he sees external nature with all the fullness of impressions that confront man and gradually fill his soul.

There is the human soul in a human body. It sees one thing before all others: that Nature receives into herself all the human soul perceives of physical, earthly existence. When man has passed through the gate of death, Nature receives the human body through one element or another (it makes little difference whether through burial or cremation). And what does Nature do with this physical body? She destroys it. We do not usually study the paths taken by the individual substances of the body. But if we make observations at places where a peculiar kind of burial has been practised, we deepen this impression made by a study of what Nature does with the physical, sensible part of man, when he has passed through the gate of death. You know there are subterranean vaults where human remains are kept isolated, but not from the air. They dry up. And what remains after a certain time? A distorted human form consisting of carbonate of lime, itself inwardly disintegrated. This mass of carbonate of lime still resembles, in a distorted form, the human body, but if you only shake it a little, it falls to dust.

This helps us to realise vividly the experience of the soul on seeing what happens to the physical instrument with which man does all things between birth and death. We then turn to Nature, to whom we owe all our knowledge and insight, and say: Nature, who produces from her womb the most wonderful crystal forms, who conjures forth each spring the sprouting, budding plants, who maintains for decades the trees with their bark, and covers the earth with animal species of the most diverse kinds, from the largest beasts to the tiniest bacilli, who lifts her waters to the clouds and upon whom the stars send down their mysterious rays — how is this realm of Nature related to what man, as part of her, carries with him between birth and death? She destroys it, reduces it to formless dust. For man, Nature with her laws is the destroyer. Here, on the one hand, is the human form; we study it in all its wonder. It is, indeed, wonderful, for it is more perfect than any other form. to be found on earth. There, on the other hand, is Nature with her stones, plants, animals, clouds, rivers and mountains, with all that rays down from the sea of stars, with all that streams down, as light and warmth, from the sun to the earth. Yet this Realm of Nature cannot suffer the human form within her own system of laws. [ 1 ] The human being before us is reduced to dust when given to her charge. We see all this. We do not form ideas about it, but it is deeply rooted in our feeling life. Whenever we stand in the presence of death, this feeling takes firm root in mind and heart. It is not from a merely selfish feeling nor from a merely superficial hope of survival, that a subconscious question takes shape in mind and heart — a question of infinite significance for the soul, determining its happiness and unhappiness, even when not expressed in words. All that makes, for our conscious life, the happiness or unhappiness of our earthly destiny, is trivial in comparison with the uncertainty of feeling engendered by the sight of death. For then the question takes shape: Whence comes this human form? I look at the wonderfully formed crystal, at the forms of plants and animals. I see the rivers winding their way over the earth, I see the mountains, and all that the clouds reveal and the stars send down to earth. I see all this — man says to himself — but the human form can come from none of these. These have only destructive forces for the human form, forces that turn it to dust.

In this way the anxious question presents itself to the human mind and heart: Where, then, is the world from which the human form comes? And at the sight of death, too, the anxious question arises: Where is the world, that other world, from which the human form comes?

Do not say, my dear friends, that you have not yet heard this question formulated in this way. If you only listen to what people put into words out of the consciousness of their heads, you will not hear it. But if you approach people and they put before you the complaints of their hearts, you can, if you understand the heart's language, hear it asking from its unconscious life: Where is the other world from which the human form comes? — for man, with his form, does not belong to this. People often reveal the complaints of their hearts by seizing on some triviality of life, considering it from various points of view and allowing such considerations to colour the whole question of their destiny.

Thus man is confronted by the world he sees, senses and studies, and about which he constructs his science. It provides him with the basis for his artistic activities and the grounds for his religious worship. It confronts him; and he stands on the earth, feeling in the depths of his soul: I do not belong to this world; there must be another from whose magic womb I have sprung in my present form. To what world do I belong? This sounds in men's hearts today. It is a comprehensive question; and if men are not satisfied with what the sciences give them, it is because this question is there and the sciences are far from touching it. Where is the world to which man really belongs? — for it is not the visible world.

My dear friends, I know quite well it is not I who have spoken these words. I have only formulated what human hearts are saying. That is the point. It is not a matter of bringing men something unknown to their own souls. A person who does this may work sensationally; but for us it can only be a matter of putting into words what human souls themselves are saying. What we perceive of our own bodies, or of another's, in so far as it is visible, has no proper place in the rest of the visible world. We might say: No finger of my body really belongs to the visible world, for this contains only destructive forces for every finger.

So, to begin with, man stands before the great Unknown, but must regard himself as a part of it. In respect of all that is not man, there is — spiritually — light around him; the moment he looks back upon himself, the whole world grows dark, and he gropes in the darkness, bearing with him the riddle of his own being. And it is the same when man regards himself from outside, finding himself an external being within Nature; he cannot, as a human being, contact this world.

Further: not our heads but the depths of our subconscious life put questions subsidiary to the general question I have just discussed. In contemplating his life in the physical world, which is his instrument between birth and death, man realises he could not live at all without borrowing continually from this visible world. Every bit of food I put into my mouth, every sip of water comes from the visible world to which I do not belong at all. I cannot live without this world; and yet, if I have just eaten a morsel of some substance (which must, of course, be a part of the visible world) and pass immediately afterwards through the gate of death, this morsel becomes at once part of the destructive forces of the visible world. It does not do so within me while I live; hence my own being must be preserving it therefrom. Yet my own being is nowhere to be found outside, in the visible world. What, then, do I do with the morsel of food, the drink of water, I take into my mouth? Who am I who receive the substances of Nature and transform them? Who am I? This is the second question and it arises from the first.

When I enter into relationship with the visible world I not only walk in darkness, I act in the dark without knowing who is acting, or who the being is that I designate as myself. I surrender to the visible world, yet I do not belong to it.

All this lifts man out of the visible world, letting him appear to himself as a member of a quite different one. But the great riddle, the anxious doubt confronts him: Where is the world to which I belong? The more human civilisation has advanced and men have learnt to think intensively, the more anxiously have they felt this question. It is deep-seated in men's hearts today, and divides the civilised world into two classes. There are those who repress this question, smother it, do not bring it to clarity within them. But they suffer from it nevertheless, as from a terrible longing to solve this riddle of man. Others deaden themselves in face of this question, doping themselves with all sorts of things in outer life. But in so deadening themselves they kill within them the secure feeling of their own being. Emptiness comes over their souls. This feeling of emptiness is present in the subconsciousness of countless human beings today.

This is one side — the one great question with the subsidiary question mentioned. It presents itself when man looks at himself from outside, and only dimly, subconsciously, perceives his relation, as a human being between birth and death, to the world.

The other question presents itself when man looks into his own inner being. Here is the other pole of human life. Thoughts are here, copying external Nature which man represents to himself through them. He develops sensations and feelings about the outer world and acts upon it through his will. In the first place, he looks back upon this inner being of his, and the surging waves of thinking, feeling and willing confront him. So he stands with his soul in the present. But, in addition, there are the memories of experiences undergone, memories of what he has seen earlier in his present life. All these fill his soul. But what are they? Well, man does not usually form clear ideas of what he thus retains within him, but his subconsciousness does form such ideas.

Now a single attack of migraine that dispels his thoughts, makes his inner being at once a riddle. His condition every time he sleeps, lying motionless and unable to relate himself, through his senses, to the outer world, makes his inner being a riddle again. Man feels his physical body must be active and then thoughts, feelings and impulses of will arise in his soul. I turn from the stone I have just been observing and which has, perhaps, this or that crystalline form; after a little time I turn to it again. It remains as it was. My thought, however, arises, appears as an image in my soul, and fades away. I feel it to be infinitely more valuable than the muscles or bones I bear in my body. Yet it is a mere fleeting image; nay, it is less than the picture on my wall, for this will persist for a time until its substance crumbles away My thought, however, flits past — a picture that continually comes and goes, content to be merely a picture. And when I look into the inner being of my soul, I find nothing but these pictures (or mental presentations). I must admit that my soul life consists of them.

I look at the stone again. It is out there in space; it persists. I picture it to myself now, in an hour's time, in two hours' time. In the meantime the thought disappears and must always be renewed. The stone, however, remains outside. What sustains the stone from hour to hour? What lets the thought of it fluctuate from hour to hour? What maintains the stone from hour to hour? What annihilates the thought again and again so that it must be kindled anew by outer perception? We say the stone ‘exists’; existence is to be ascribed to it. Existence, however, cannot be ascribed to the thought. Thought can grasp the colour and the form of the stone, but not that whereby the stone exists as a stone. That remains external to us, only the mere picture entering the soul.

It is the same with every single thing of external Nature in relation to the human soul. In his soul, which man can regard as his own inner being, the whole of Nature is reflected. Yet he has only fleeting pictures — skimmed off, as it were, from the surfaces of things; into these pictures the inner being of things does not enter. With my mental pictures (or presentations) I pass through the world, skimming everywhere the surfaces of things. What the things are, however, remains outside. The external world does not contact what is within me.

Now, when man, in the sight of death, confronts the world around him in this way he must say: My being does not belong to this world, for I cannot contact it as long as I live in a physical body. Moreover, when my body contacts this outer world after death, every step it takes means destruction. There, outside, is the world. If man enters it fully, he is destroyed; it does not suffer his inner being within it. Nor can the outer world enter man's soul. Thoughts are images and remain outside the real existence of things. The being of stones, the being of plants, of animals, stars and clouds — these do not enter the human soul Man is surrounded by a world which cannot enter his soul but remains outside.

On the one hand, man remains outside Nature. This becomes clear to him at the sight of death. On the other hand, Nature remains external to his soul.

Regarding himself as an object, man is confronted by the anxious question about another world. Contemplating what is most intimate in his own inner being — his thoughts, mental images, sensations, feelings and impulses of will — he sees that Nature, in whom he lives, remains external to them all. He does not possess her.

Here is the sharp boundary between Man and Nature. Man cannot approach Nature without being destroyed; Nature cannot enter the inner being of man without becoming a mere semblance. When man projects himself in thought into Nature, he is compelled to picture his own destruction; and when he looks into himself, asking: How is Nature related to my soul? he finds only the empty semblance of Nature.

Nevertheless, while man bears within him this semblance of the minerals, plants, animals, stars, suns, clouds, mountains and rivers, while he bears within his memory the semblance of the experiences he has undergone with these kingdoms of Nature, experiencing all this in his fluctuating inner world, his own sense of being emerges amid it all.

How is this? How does man experience this sense of his own existence? He experiences it somewhat as follows. Perhaps it can only be expressed in a picture:

Imagine we are looking at a wide ocean. The waves rise and fall. There is a wave here, a wave there; there are waves everywhere, due to the heaving water. One particular wave, however, holds our attention, for we see that something is living in it, that it is not merely surging water. Yet water surrounds this living something on all sides. We only know that something is living in this wave, though even here we can only see the enveloping water. This wave looks like the others; but the strength of its surging, the force with which it rises, gives an impression of something special living within. This wave disappears and reappears at another place; again the water conceals what is animating it from within. So it is with the soul life of man. Images, thoughts, feelings and impulses of will surge up; waves everywhere. One of the waves emerges in a thought, in a feeling, in an act of volition. The ego is within, but concealed by the thoughts, or feelings, or impulses of will, as the water conceals what is living in the wave. At the place where man can only say: ‘There my own self surges up,’ he is confronted by mere semblance; he does not know what he himself is. His true being is certainly there and is inwardly felt and experienced, but this ‘semblance’ in the soul conceals it, as the water of the wave the unknown living thing from the depths of the sea. Man feels his own true being hidden by the unreal images of his own soul. Moreover, it is as if he wanted continually to hold fast to his own existence, as if he would lay hold of it at some point, for he knows it is there. Yet, at the very moment when he would grasp it, it eludes him. Man is not able, within the fluctuating life of his soul, to grasp the real being he knows himself to be. And when he discovers that this surging, unreal life of his soul has something to do with that other world presented by nature, he is more than ever perplexed. The riddle of nature is, at least, one that is present in experience; the riddle of man's own soul is not present in experience because it is itself alive. It is, so to speak, a living riddle, for it answers man's constant question: ‘What am I?’ by putting a mere semblance before him.

On looking into his own inner being man receives the continual answer: I only show you a semblance of yourself; and if you ascribe a spiritual origin to yourself, I only show you a semblance of this spiritual existence within your soul life.

Thus, from two directions, searching questions confront man today. One of these questions arises when he becomes aware that:

Nature exists, but man can only approach her by letting her destroy him;

the other when he sees:

The human soul exists, but Nature can only approach this human soul by becoming mere semblance.

These two truths live in the subconsciousness of man today. On the one hand, we have the unknown world of Nature, the destroyer of man; on the other, the unreal image of the human soul which Nature cannot approach although man can only complete his physical existence by co-operating with her. Man stands, so to speak, in double darkness, and the question arises:

Where is the other world to which I belong?

Man turns, now, to historical tradition, to what has been handed down from ancient times and lives on. He learns that there was once a science that spoke of this unknown world. He looks to ancient times and feels deep reverence for what they tried to teach about the other world within the world of Nature. If one only knows how to deal with Nature in the right way, this other world is revealed to human gaze.

But modern consciousness has discarded this ancient knowledge. It is no longer regarded as valid. It has been handed down to us, but is no longer believed. Man can no longer feel sure that the knowledge acquired by the men of an ancient epoch as their science can answer today his own anxious question arising from the above subconscious facts.

So we turn to Art.

But here again we find something significant. The artistic treatment of physical material — spiritualisation of physical matter — comes down to us from ancient times. Much of this treatment has been retained and can be learnt from tradition. Nevertheless, it is just the man with a really artistic subconscious nature who feels most dissatisfied today; for he can no longer realise what Raphael could still conjure into the human earthly form — the reflection of another world to which man truly belongs. Where is the artist today who can handle earthly, physical substance in such an artistic way?

Thirdly, there is Religion. This, too, has been handed down through tradition from olden times. It directs man's feeling and devotion to that other world. It arose in a past age through man receiving the revelations of the realm of Nature which is really so foreign to him. For, if we turn our spiritual gaze backwards over thousands of years, we find human beings who also felt: Nature exists, but man can only approach her by letting her destroy him. Indeed, the men who lived thousands of years ago felt this in the depths of their souls. They looked at the corpse passing over into external Nature as into a vast Moloch, and saw it destroyed. But they also saw the human soul passing through the same portal beyond which the body is destroyed. Even the Egyptians saw this, or they would never have embalmed their dead. They saw the soul go further still. These men of ancient times felt that the soul grows greater and greater, and passes into the cosmos. And then they saw the soul, which had disappeared into the elements, return again from the cosmic spaces, from the stars. They saw the human soul vanish at death — at first through the gate of death, then on the way to the other world, then returning from the stars. Such was the ancient religion: a cosmic revelation — cosmic revelation from the hour of death, cosmic revelation from the hour of birth. The words have been retained; the belief has been retained, but has its content still any relation to the cosmos? It is preserved in religious literature, in religious tradition foreign to the world.

The man of our present civilisation can no longer see any relation between what religious tradition has handed down to him and the anxious question confronting him today. He looks at Nature and only sees the human physical body passing through the gate of death and falling a prey to destruction. He sees, more-over, the human form enter through the gate of birth, and is compelled to ask whence it comes. Wherever he looks, he cannot find the answer. He no longer sees it coming from the stars, as he is no longer able to see it after death. So religion has become an empty word.

Thus, in his civilisation, man has around him what ancient times possessed as science, art and religion. But the science of the ancients has been discarded, their art is no longer felt in its inwardness, and what takes its place today is something man is not able to lift above physical matter, making this a vehicle for the radiant expression of the spiritual.

The religious element has remained from olden times. It has, however, no point of contact with the world, for, in spite of it the above riddle of the relation of the world to man remains. Man looks into his inner being, and hears the voice of conscience; but in olden times this was the voice of that God who guided the soul through those regions in which the body is destroyed, and led it again to earthly life, giving it its appropriate form. It was this God who spoke in the soul as the voice of conscience. Today even the voice of conscience has become external, and moral laws are no longer traceable to divine impulses. Man surveys history, to begin with; he studies what has come down from olden times, and — at most — can dimly feel: The ancients experienced the two great riddles of existence differently from the way I feel them today. For this reason they could answer them in a certain way. I can no longer answer them. They hover before me and oppress my soul, for they only show me my destruction after death and the semblance of reality during life.

It is thus that man confronts the world today. From this mood of soul arise the questions Anthroposophy has to answer. Human hearts are speaking in the way we have described and asking where they can find that knowledge of the world which meets their needs.

Anthroposophy comes forward as such knowledge, and would speak about the world and man so that such knowledge may arise again — knowledge that can be understood by modern consciousness, as ancient science, art and religion were understood by ancient consciousness. Anthroposophy receives Its mighty task from the voice of the human heart itself, and is no more than what humanity is longing for today. Because of this, Anthroposophy will have to live. It answers to what man most fervidly longs for, both for his outer and inner life. ‘Can there be such a world-conception today?’ one may ask. The Anthroposophical Society has to supply the answer. It must find the way to let the hearts of men speak from out of their deepest longings; then they will experience the deepest longing for the answers.


1. This sentence and the rest of the paragraph in which it occurs must of course be read in the context of the lecture as a whole. Taken by itself it may well arouse the objection: ‘The human form is as much within Nature's system of laws as those of the plants and animals. Certainly Nature destroys it after death; but does she not also bring it to birth?’ It may help to remind the reader that Dr. Steiner is at this stage merely putting into words a feeling, which, he expressly says, arises when we stand in the presence of death. Later on in the book, when he deals with the relation in which the human body stands to the world of nature, he shows how the human form in fact has an origin quite different from those of other living creatures. Editor.


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