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Supersensible Knowledge

Its Secrecy in the Past and Publication in our Time

An Article By
Rudolf Steiner
GA 35

Authorized translation from the publication ‘Das Reich’ April, 1916.

Originally published in Anthroposophy Quarterly by kind permission of Frau Marie Steiner.

Copyright © 1926
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Its Secrecy in the Past and Publication in our Time

THERE are two experiences whence the soul may gain an understanding for the mode of knowledge to which the supersensible worlds will open out. The one originates in the science of Nature; the other, in the Mystical experience whereby the untrained ordinary consciousness contrives to penetrate into the supersensible domain. Both confront the soul of man with barriers of knowledge — barriers he cannot cross till he can open for himself the portals which by their very essence Natural Science, and ordinary Mysticism too, must hold fast closed.

Natural Science leads inevitably to certain conceptions about reality, which are like a stone wall to the deeper forces of the soul; and yet, this Science itself is powerless to remove them. He who fails to feel the impact, has not yet called to life the deeper needs of knowledge in his soul. He may then come to believe that it is impossible in any case for Man to attain any other than the natural-scientific form of knowledge. There is, however, a definite experience in Self-knowledge whereby one weans oneself of this belief. This experience consists in the insight that the whole of Natural Science would be dissolved into thin air if we attempted to fathom the above-named conceptions with the methods of Natural Science itself. If the conceptions of Natural Science are to remain spread out before the soul, these limiting conceptions must be left within the field of consciousness intact, without attempting to approach them with a deeper insight. There are many of them; here I will only mention two of the most familiar: Matter and Force. Recent developments in scientific theory may or may not be replacing these particular conceptions; the fact remains that Natural Science must invariably lead to some conception or another of this kind, impenetrable to its own methods of knowledge.

To the experience of soul, of which I am here speaking, these limiting conceptions appear like a reflecting surface which the human soul must place before it; while Natural Science itself is like the picture, made manifest with the mirror's help. Any attempt to treat the limiting conceptions themselves by ordinary scientific means is, as it were, to smash the mirror, and with the mirror broken, Natural Science itself dissolves away. Moreover, this experience reveals the emptiness of all talk about ‘Things-in-themselves,’ of whatsoever kind, behind the phenomena of Nature. He who seeks for such Things-in-themselves is like a man who longs to break the looking-glass, hoping to see what there is behind the reflecting surface to cause his image to appear.

It goes without saying that the validity of such an experience of soul cannot be ‘proved,’ in the ordinary sense of the word, with the habitual thoughts of presentday Natural Science. For the point will be, what kind of an inner experience does the process of the ‘proof’ call forth in us; and this must needs transcend the abstract proof. With inner experience in this sense, we must apprehend the question: How is it that the soul is forced to confront these barriers of knowledge in order to have before it the phenomena of Nature? Mature self-knowledge brings us an answer to this question. We then perceive which of the forces of man's soul partakes in the erection of these barriers to knowledge. It is none other than the force of soul which makes man capable, within the world of sense, of unfolding Love out of his inner being. The faculty of Love is somehow rooted in the human organisation; and the very thing which gives to man the power of love — of sympathy and antipathy with his environment of sense, — takes away from his cognition of the things and processes of Nature the possibility to make transparent such pillars of Reality as ‘Matter’ and ‘Force.’ To the man who can experience himself in true self-knowledge, on the one hand in the act of knowing Nature, and on the other hand in the unfolding of Love, this peculiar property of the human organisation becomes straightway apparent.

We must, however, beware of misinterpreting this perception by lapsing again into a way of thought which, within Natural Science itself, is no doubt inevitable. Thus it would be a misconstruction to assume, that an insight into the true essence of the things and processes of Nature is withheld from man because he lacks the organisation for such insight. The opposite is the case. Nature becomes sense-perceptible to man through the very fact that his being is capable of Love. For a being incapable of Love within the field of sense, the whole human picture of Nature would dissolve away. It is not Nature who on account of his organisation reveals only her external aspect. No; it is man, who, by that force of his organisation which makes him in another direction capable of Love, is placed in a position to erect before his soul images and forms of Reality whereby Nature reveals herself to him.

Through the experience above-described the fact emerges, that the scientific frontiers of knowledge depend on the whole way in which man, as a sense-endowed being, is placed within this world of physical reality. His vision of Nature is of a kind, appropriate to a being who is capable of Love. He would have to tear the faculty of Love out of his inner life if he wished no longer to be faced with limits in his perception of Nature. But in so doing he would destroy the very force whereby Nature is made manifest to him. The real object of his quest for knowledge is not, by the same methods which he applies in his outlook upon Nature, to remove the limitations of that outlook. No, it is something altogether different, and once this has been perceived, man will no longer try to penetrate into a supersensible world through the kind of knowledge which is effective in Natural Science. Rather will he tell himself, that to unveil the supersensible domain an altogether different activity of knowledge must be evolved than that which he applies to the science of Nature.

Many people, more or less consciously aware of the above experience of soul, turn away from Natural Science when it is a question of opening the supersensible domain, and seek to penetrate into the latter by methods which are commonly called Mystical. They think that what is veiled to outwardly directed vision may be revealed by plunging into the depths of one's own being. But a mature self-knowledge reveals in the inner life as well a frontier of knowledge. In the field of the senses the faculty of Love erects, as it were, an impenetrable background whereat Nature is reflected; in the inner life of man the power of Memory erects a like background. The same force of soul, which makes the human being capable of Memory, prevents his penetrating, in his inner being, down to that experience which would enable him to meet — along this inward path — the supersensible reality for which he seeks. Invariably, along this path, he reaches only to that force of soul which recalls to him in Memory the experiences he has undergone through his bodily nature in the past. He never penetrates into the region where with his own supersensible being he is rooted in a supersensible world. For those who fail to see this, mystical pursuits will give rise to the worst of illusions. For in the course of life, the human being receives into his inner life untold experiences, of which in the receiving he is not fully conscious. But the Memory retains what is thus half-consciously or subconsciously experienced. Long afterwards it frequently emerges into consciousness — in moods, in shades of feeling and the like, if not in clear conceptions. Nay more, it often undergoes a change, and comes to consciousness in quite a different form from that in which it was experienced originally. A man may then believe himself confronted by a supersensible reality arising from the inner being of the soul, whereas, in fact, it is but an outer experience transformed — an experience called forth originally by the world of sense — which comes before his mental vision. He alone is preserved from such illusions, who recognises that even on a mystic path man cannot penetrate into the supersensible domain so long as he applies methods of knowledge dependent on the bodily nature which is rooted in the world of sense. Even as our picture of Nature depends for its existence on the faculty of Love, so does the immediate consciousness of the human Self depend upon the power of Memory. The same force of the soul, endowing man in the physical world with the Self-consciousness that is bound to the bodily nature, stands in the way to obstruct his inner union with the supersensible world. Thus, even that which is often considered Mysticism provides no way into the supersensible realms of existence.

For him who would penetrate with full conscious clarity of understanding into the supersensible domain, the two experiences above described are, however, preparatory stages. Through them he recognises that man is shut off from the supersensible world by the very thing which places him, as a self-conscious being, in the midst of Nature. Now one might easily conclude from this, that man must altogether forego the effort to gain knowledge of the Supersensible. Nor can it be denied that many who are loath to face the painful issue, abstain from working their way through to a clear perception of the two experiences. Cherishing a certain dimness of perception on these matters, they either give themselves up to the belief that the limitations of Natural Science may be transcended by some intellectual and philosophic exercise; or else they devote themselves to Mysticism in the ordinary sense, avoiding the full enlightenment as to the nature of Self-consciousness and Memory which would reveal its insufficiency.

But to one who has undergone them and reached a certain clarity withal, these very experiences will open out the possibility and prospect of true supersensible knowledge. For in the course of them he finds that even in the ordinary action of human consciousness there are forces holding sway within the soul, which are not bound to the physical organisation; forces which are in no way subject to the conditions whereon the faculties of Love and Memory within this physical organisation depend. One of these forces reveals itself in Thought. True, it remains unnoticed in the ordinary conscious life; indeed there are even many philosophers who deny it. But the denial is due to an imperfect self-observation. There is something at work in Thought which does not come into it from the faculty of Memory. It is something that vouches to us for the correctness of a present thought, not when a former thought emerging from the memory sustains it, but when the correctness of the present thought is experienced directly. This experience escapes the every-day consciousness, because man completely spends the force in question for his life of thought-filled perception. In Perception permeated by Thought this force is at work. But man, perceiving, imagines that the perception alone is vouching for the correctness of what he apprehends by an activity of soul where Thought and Perception in reality always flow together. And when he lives in Thought alone, abstracted from perceptions, it is but an activity of Thought which finds its supports in Memory. In this abstracted Thought the physical organism is cooperative. For the every-day consciousness, an activity of Thought unsubjected to the bodily organism is only present while man is in the act of Sense-perception. Sense-perception itself depends upon the organism. But the thinking activity, contained in and co-operating with it, is a purely supersensible element in which the bodily organism has no share. In it the human soul rises out of the bodily organism. As soon as man becomes distinctly, separately conscious of this Thinking in the act of Perception, he knows by direct experience that he has himself as a living soul, quite independently of the bodily nature.

This is man's first experience of himself as a supersensible soul-being, arising out of an evolved self-knowledge. The same experience is there unconsciously in every act of perception. We need only sharpen our selfobservation so as to Observe the fact: in the act of Perception a supersensible element reveals itself. Once it is thus revealed, this first, faint suggestion of an experience of the soul within the Supersensible can be evolved, as follows: In living, meditative practice, man unfolds a Thinking wherein two activities of the soul flow together, namely that which lives in the ordinary consciousness in Sense-perception, and that which is active in ordinary Thought. The meditative life thus becomes an intensified activity of Thought, receiving into itself the force that is otherwise spent in Perception. Our Thinking in itself must grow so strong, that it works with the same vivid quality which is otherwise only there in Sense-perception. Without perception by the senses we must call to life a Thinking which, unsupported by memories of the past, experiences in the immediate present a content of its own, such as we otherwise only can derive from Sense-perception. From the Thinking that co-operates in perception, this meditative action of the soul derives its free and conscious quality, its inherent certainty that it receives no visionary content raying into the soul from unconscious organic regions. A visionary life of whatsoever kind is the very antithesis of what is here intended. By self-observation we must become thoroughly and clearly familiar with the condition of soul in which we are in the act of perception through any one of the senses. In this state of soul, fully aware that the content of our ideation does not arise out of the activity of the bodily organism, we must learn to experience ideas which are called forth in consciousness without external perceptions, just as are those of which we are conscious in ordinary life when engaged in reflective thought, abstracted from the enter world. (As to the right ways of developing this meditative practice, detailed indications are given in the book ‘Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and its Attainment’ and in several of my other writings.)

In evolving the meditative life above-described, the human soul rises to the conscious feeling perception of itself, as of a supersensible Being independent of the bodily organisation. This is man's first experience of himself as a supersensible Being; and it leads on to a second stage in supersensible self-knowledge. At the former stage he can only be aware that he is a supersensible Being; at the second he feels this Being filled with real content, even as the ‘I’ of ordinary waking life is felt by means of the bodily organisation. It is of the utmost importance to realise that the transition from the one stage to the other takes place quite independently of any co-operation from outside the soul's domain — namely from the mere organic life. If we experienced the transition, in relation to our own bodily nature, any differently from the process of drawing a logical conclusion for example, it would be a visionary experience, not what is intended here. The process here intended differs from the act of drawing logical conclusions, not in respect of its relationship to the bodily nature, but in quite another regard; namely in the consciousness that a supersensible, purely spiritual content is entering the feeling and perception of the Self.

The kind of meditative life hitherto described gives rise to the supersensible self-consciousness. But this self-consciousness would be left without any supersensible environment if the above form of meditation were unaccompanied by another. We come to an understanding of this latter kind by turning our self-observation to the activity of the Will. In every-day life the activity of the Will is consciously directed to external actions. There is, however, another concomitant expression of the Will to which the human being pays little conscious attention. It is the activity of Will which carries him from one stage of development to another in the course of life. For not only is he filled with different contents of soul day after day; his soul-life itself, on each succeeding day, has evolved out of his soul-life of the day before. The driving force in this evolving process is the Will, which in this field of its activity remains for the most part unconscious. Mature self-knowledge can, however, raise this Will, with all its peculiar quality, into the conscious life. When this is done, man comes to the perception of a life of Will which has absolutely nothing to do with any processes of a sense-perceptible external world, but is directed solely to the inner evolution of the soul — independent of this world. Once it is known to him, he learns by degrees to enter into the living essence of this Will, just as in the former kind of meditative life he entered into the fusion of the soul's experiences of Thinking and Perception. And the conscious experience in this element of Will expands into the experience of a supersensible external world. Evolved in the way above described, and transplanted now into this element of Will, the supersensible self-consciousness finds itself in a supersensible environment, filled with spiritual Beings and events. While the supersensible Thinking leads to a self-consciousness independent of the power of Memory which is bound to the bodily nature, the supersensible Willing comes to life in such a way as to be permeated through and through by a spiritualised faculty of Love. It is this faculty of Love which enables the supersensible self-consciousness of man to perceive and grasp the supersensible external world. Thus the power of supersensible knowledge is established by a self-consciousness which eliminates the ordinary Memory and lives in the intuitive perception of the spiritual world through the power of Love made spiritual.

Only by realising this essence of the supersensible faculty of knowledge, does one become able to understand the real meaning of man's knowledge of Nature. In effect, the knowledge of Nature is inherently connected with what is being evolved in man within this physical world of sense. It is in this world that man incorporates, into his spiritual Being, Self-consciousness and the faculty of Love. Once he has instilled these two into his nature, he can carry them with him into the super sensible world. In supersensible perception, the ordinary power of Memory is eliminated. Its place is taken by an immediate vision of the past — a vision for which the past appears as we look backward in spiritual observation, just as for sense-perception the things we pass by as we walk along appear when we turn round to look behind us. Again the ordinary faculty of Love is bound to the physical organism. In conscious supersensible experience, its place is taken by a power of Love made spiritual, which is to say, a power of perception.

It may already be seen, from the above description, that supersensible experience takes place in a mood of soul which must be held apart, in consciousness, from that of ordinary Perception, Thinking, Feeling and Willing. The two ways of looking out upon the world must be kept apart by the deliberate control of man himself, just as in another sphere the waking consciousness is kept apart from the dream life. He who lets play the picture-complexes of his dreams into his waking life becomes a listless and fantastic fellow, abstracted from realities. He, on the other hand, who holds to the belief that the essence of causal relationships experienced in waking life can be extended into the life of dreams, endows the dream-pictures with an imagined reality which will make it impossible for him to experience their real nature. So with the mode of thought which governs our outlook upon Nature, or of inner experience which determines ordinary Mysticism: — he who lets them play into his supersensible experience, will not behold the supersensible, but weave himself in figments of the mind, which, far from bringing him nearer to it, will cut him off from the higher world he seeks. A man who will not hold his experience in the supersensible apart from his experience in the world of the physical senses, will mar the fresh and unembarrassed outlook upon Nature which is the true basis for a healthy sojourn in this earthly life. Moreover, he will permeate with the force of spiritual perception the faculty of Love that is connected with the bodily nature, thus tending to bring it into a deceptive relationship with the physical experience. All that the human being experiences and achieves within the field of sense, receives its true illumination — an illumination which the deepest needs of the soul require — through the science of things that are only to be experienced supersensibly. Yet must the latter be held separate in consciousness from the experience in the world of sense. It must illumine our knowledge of Nature, our ethical and social life; yet so, that the illumination always proceeds from a sphere of experience apart. Mediately, through the attunement of the human soul, the Supersensible must indeed shed its light upon the Sensible. For if it did not do so, the latter would be relegated to darkness of thought, chaotic wilfulness of instinct and desire.

Many human beings, well knowing this relationship which has to be maintained in the soul between the experience of the supersensible and that of the world of sense, hold that the supersensible knowledge must on no account be given full publicity. It should remain, so they consider, the secret knowledge of a few, who have attained by strict self-discipline the power to establish and maintain the true relationship. Such guardians of supersensible knowledge base their opinion on the very true assertion that a man who is in any way inadequately prepared for the higher knowledge will feel an irresistible impulsion to mingle the Supersensible with the Sensible in life; and that he will inevitably thus call forth, both in himself and others, all the ill effects which we have here characterised as the result of such confusion. On the other hand — believing as they do, and with good reason, that man's outlook upon Nature must not be left to grope in utter darkness, nor his life to spend itself in blind forces of instinct and desire, — they have founded self-contained and closed Societies, or Occult Schools, within which human beings properly prepared are guided stage by stage to supersensible discovery. Of such it then becomes the task to pour the fruits of their knowledge into life, without, however, exposing the knowledge itself to publicity.

In past epochs of human evolution this idea was undoubtedly justified. For the propensity above described, leading to the misuse of supersensible knowledge, was then the only thing to be considered, and against it there stood no other circumstance to call for publication of the higher knowledge. It might at most be contended that the superiority of those initiated into the higher knowledge gave into their hands a mighty power to rule over those who had no such knowledge.

None the less, an enlightened reading of the course of History will convince us that such conflux of power into the hands of a few, fitted by self-discipline to wield it, was indeed necessary.

In present time, however — meaning ‘present’ in the wider sense — the evolution of mankind has reached a point whenceforward it becomes not only impossible but harmful to prolong the former custom. The irresistible impulsion to misuse the higher knowledge is now opposed by other factors, making the — at any rate partial — publication of such knowledge a matter of necessity, and calculated also to remove the ill effects of the above tendency. Our knowledge of Nature has assumed a form wherein it beats perpetually, in a destructive way, against its own barriers and limitations. In many branches of Science, the laws and generalisations in which man finds himself obliged to clothe certain of the facts of Nature, are in themselves of such a kind as to call his attention to his own supersensible powers. The latter press forward into the conscious life of the soul. In former ages, the knowledge of Nature which was generally accessible had no such effect. Through Natural Science, however, in its present form — expanding as it is in ever widening circles — mankind would be led astray in either of two directions, if a publication of supersensible knowledge were not now to take place. Either the possibility of a supersensible world-outlook would be repudiated altogether and with growing vehemence; and this would presently result in an artificial repression of supersensible faculties which the time is actually calling forth. Such repression would make it more and more impossible for man to see his own Being in a true light. Emptiness, chaos and dissatisfaction of the inner life, instability of soul, perversity of will; and, in the sequel, even physical degeneration and illhealth would be the outcome. Or else the supersensible faculties-uncontrolled by conscious knowledge of these things-would break out in a wild tangle of obtuse, unconscious, undirected forces of cognition, and the life of knowledge would degenerate in a chaotic mass of nebulous conceptions. This would be to create a world of scientific phantoms, which, like a curtain, would obscure the true supersensible world from the spiritual eye of man. For either of these aberrations, a proper publication of supersensible knowledge is the only remedy.

As to the impulse to abuse such knowledge in the way above described, it can be counteracted in our time, as follows: the training of thought which modern Natural Science has involved can be fruitfully employed to clothe in words the truths that point towards the supersensible. Itself, this Science of Nature cannot penetrate into the supersensible world; but it lends the human mind an aptitude for combinations of thought whereby the higher knowledge can be so expressed that the irresistible impulsion to misuse it need not arise. The thought-combinations of the Nature-knowledge of former times were more pictorial, less inclined to the domain of pure Thought. Supersensible perceptions, clothed in them, stirred up — without his being conscious of it — those very instincts in the human being which tend towards misuse.

This being said, it cannot on the other hand be emphasised too strongly that he who gives out supersensible knowledge in our time will the better fulfil his responsibilities to mankind the more he contrives to express this knowledge in forms of thought borrowed from the modern Science of Nature. For the receiver of knowledge thus imparted will then have to apply, to the overcoming of certain difficulties of understanding, faculties of soul which would otherwise remain inactive and tend to the above misuse. The popularising of supersensible knowledge, so frequently desired by overzealous and misguided people, should be avoided. The truly earnest seeker does not call for it; it is but the banale, uncultured craving of persons indolent in thought.

In the ethical and social life as well, humanity has reached a stage of development which makes it impossible to exclude all knowledge of the supersensible from public life and thought. In former epochs the ethical and social instincts contained within them spiritual guiding forces, inherited from primaeval ages of mankind. Such forces tended instinctively to a community life which answered also to the needs of individual soul. But the inner life of man has grown more conscious than in former epochs. The spiritual instincts have thus been forced into the background. The Will, the impulses of men must now be guided consciously, lest they become vagrant and unstable. That is to say, the individual, by his own insight, must be in a position to illumine the life in the physical world of sense by the knowledge of the supersensible, spiritual Being of man.

Conceptions formed in the way of natural-scientific knowledge cannot enter effectively into the conscious guiding forces of the ethical and social life. Destined as it is — within its own domain — to bear the most precious fruits, Natural Science will be led into an absolutely fatal error if it be not perceived that the mode of thought which dominates it is quite unfitted to open out an understanding of, or to give impulses for, the moral and social life of humanity. In the domain of ethical and social life our conception of underlying principles, and the conscious guidance of our action, can only thrive when illumined from the aspect of the Supersensible. Between the rise of a highly evolved Natural Science, and present-day developments in the human life of Will — with all the underlying impulses and instincts — there is indeed a deep, significant connection. The force of knowledge that has gone into our science of Nature, is derived from the former spiritual content of man's impulses and instincts. From the fountain-head of supersensible Realities, the latter must now be supplied with fresh impulsive forces.

We are living in an age when supersensible knowledge can no longer remain the secret possession of a few. No, it must become the common property of all, in whom the meaning of life within this age is stirring as a very condition of their soul's existence. In the unconscious depths of the souls of men this need is already working, far more widespread than many people dream. And it will grow, more and more insistently, to the demand that the science of the Supersensible shall be treated on a like footing with the science of Nature.

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