Rudolf Steiner: "The whole of the period since the middle of the nineteenth century has been a period of stupefaction through the impressions received by the senses. It is the great illusion of this age that the over-powerful life of the senses has been considered to be the right one — that life of the senses whose aim was to obliterate completely the life in the Cosmos beyond the Earth."
The Age of Philosophy is often said to have been superseded, about the middle of the nineteenth century, by the rising Age of Natural Science. And it is said that the Age of Natural Science still continues in our day, although many people are at pains to emphasize at the same time that we have found our way once more to certain philosophic tendencies.
All this is true of the paths of knowledge which the modern age has taken, but not of its paths of life. With his conceptions and ideas, man still lives in Nature, even if he carries the mechanical habit of thought into his Nature-theories. But with his life of Will he lives in the mechanical processes of technical science and industry to so far-reaching an extent that it has long imbued this Age of Science with an entirely new quality.
To understand human life we must consider it to begin with from two distinct aspects. From his former lives on Earth, man brings with him the faculty to conceive the Cosmic — the Cosmic that works inward from the Earth's encircling spheres, and that which works within the Earth domain itself. Through his senses he perceives the Cosmic that is at work upon the Earth; through his thinking organization he conceives and thinks the Cosmic influences that work downward to the Earth from the encircling spheres.
Thus man lives, through his physical body in Perception, through his etheric body in Thought.
That which takes place in his astral body and his ego holds sway in the more hidden regions of the soul. It holds sway, for example, in his destiny. We must, however, look for it, to begin with, not in the complicated relationships of destiny, but in the simple and elementary processes of life.
Man connects himself with certain earthly forces, in that he gives his body its right orientation within them. He learns to stand and walk upright; he learns to place himself with arms and hands into the equilibrium of earthly forces.
Now, these are not forces working inward from the Cosmos. They are forces of a purely earthly nature.
In reality, nothing that man experiences is an abstraction. He only fails to perceive whence it is that an experience comes to him; and thus he turns ideas about realities into abstractions. He speaks of the laws of mechanics. He thinks he has abstracted them from the connections and relationships of Nature. But this is not the case. All that man experiences in his soul by way of purely mechanical laws has been discovered inwardly through his relationship of orientation to the earthly world (in standing, walking, etc.).
The Mechanical is thus characterized as that which is of a purely earthly nature. For the laws and processes of Nature as they hold sway in color, sound, etc., have entered into the earthly realm from the Cosmos. It is only within the earthly realm that they too become imbued with the mechanical element, just as is the case with man himself, who does not confront the mechanical in his conscious experience until he comes within the earthly realm.
By far the greater part of that which works in modern civilization through technical Science and Industry — wherein the life of man is so intensely interwoven — is not Nature at all, but Subnature. It is a world which emancipates itself from Nature — emancipates itself in a downward direction.
Look how the Oriental, when he strives towards the Spirit, seeks to get out of the conditions of equilibrium whose origin is merely in the earthly realm. He assumes an attitude of meditation which brings him again into the purely Cosmic balance. In this attitude the Earth no longer influences the inner orientation of his body. (I am not recommending this for imitation; it is mentioned merely to make our present subject clear. Anyone familiar with my writings will know how different is the Eastern from the Western spiritual life in this direction.)
Man needed this relation to the purely earthly for the unfolding of his Spiritual Soul. Thus in the most recent times there has arisen a strong tendency to realize in all things, and even in the life of action, this element into which man must enter for his evolution. Entering the purely earthly element, he strikes upon the Ahrimanic realm. With his own being he must now acquire a right relation to the Ahrimanic.
But in the age of Technical Science hitherto, the possibility of finding a true relationship to the Ahrimanic civilization has escaped man. He must find the strength, the inner force of knowledge, in order not to be overcome by Ahriman in this technical civilization. He must understand Subnature for what it really is. This he can only do if he rises, in spiritual knowledge, at least as far into extra-earthly Supernature as he has descended, in technical Sciences, into Subnature. The age requires a knowledge transcending Nature, because in its inner life it must come to grips with a life-content which has sunk far beneath Nature — a life-content whose influence is perilous. Needless to say, there can be no question here of advocating a return to earlier states of civilization. The point is that man shall find the way to bring the conditions of modern civilization into their true relationship — to himself and to the Cosmos.
There are very few as yet who even feel the greatness of the spiritual tasks approaching man in this direction. Electricity, for instance, celebrated since its discovery as the very soul of Nature's existence, must be recognized in its true character — in its peculiar power of leading down from Nature to Subnature. Only, man himself must beware lest he slide downward with it.
In the age when there was not yet a technical industry independent of true Nature, man found the Spirit within his view of Nature. But the technical processes, emancipating themselves from Nature, caused him to stare more and more fixedly at the mechanical-material, which now became for him the really scientific realm. In this mechanical-material domain, all the Divine-Spiritual Being connected with the origin of human evolution is completely absent. The purely Ahrimanic dominates this sphere.
In the Science of the Spirit, we now create another sphere in which there is no Ahrimanic element. It is just by receiving in knowledge this spirituality, to which the Ahrimanic powers have no access, that man is strengthened to confront Ahriman within the world.
Further Leading Thoughts issued from the Goetheanum for the Anthroposophical Society (with reference to the foregoing study: From Nature to Sub-Nature)
183. In the age of Natural Science, since about the middle of the nineteenth century, the civilized activities of mankind are gradually sliding downward, not only into the lowest regions of Nature, but even beneath Nature. Technical Science and Industry become Subnature.
184. This makes it urgent for man to find in conscious experience a knowledge of the Spirit, wherein he will rise as high above Nature as in his subnatural technical activities he sinks beneath her. He will thus create within him the inner strength not to go under.
185. A past conception of Nature still bore within it the Spirit with which the source of all human evolution is connected. By degrees, this Spirit vanished altogether from man's theory of Nature. The purely Ahrimanic spirit has entered in its place, and passed from theory of Nature into the technical civilization of mankind.