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Mysticism at the Dawn of the Modern Age

Preface to the 1923 Edition

Preface to the 1923 Edition

In this work more than twenty years ago, I wanted to answer the question, Why do a particular form of mysticism and the beginnings of modern scientific thinking clash in a period from the thirteenth to the seventeenth century.

I did not wish to write a “history” of the mysticism of this period, but only to answer this question. The publications which have appeared on this subject in the past twenty years do not, in my opinion, furnish any grounds for making any changes in the answer. The work can therefore reappear in the main unchanged.

The mystics who are dealt with here are the last offshoots of a way of inquiry and thinking which in its details is foreign to present-day consciousness. However, the disposition of soul which lived in this way of inquiry exists in thoughtful natures at the present time. The manner of looking at objects of nature with which, before the period characterized here, this disposition of soul was connected, has almost disappeared. Its place has been taken by present-day natural science.

The personalities described in this book were not able to transmit the earlier way of inquiry to the future. It no longer corresponds to the cognitive powers which have developed in European man from the thirteenth and fourteenth century onward. What Paracelsus or Jacob Boehme preserve of this way of inquiry appears only as a reminiscence of something past. In essence it is the disposition of soul which remains to thoughtful men. And for it they seek an impulse in the inclinations of the soul itself, while formerly it arose in the soul when the latter observed nature. Many of those who incline toward mysticism today do not want to kindle mystical experiences in connection with what present-day natural science says, but with what the works of the period described here contain. But in this way they become strangers to what most occupies the present.

It might appear as though the present-day knowledge of nature, seen in its true character, does not indicate a way which could so incline the soul as to find, in mystical contemplation, the light of the spirit. Why do mystically inclined souls find satisfaction in Meister Eckhart, in Jacob Boehme, etc., but not in the book of nature, insofar as, opened by knowledge, it lies before man today?

It is true that the manner in which this book of nature is discussed today for the most part, cannot lead to a mystical disposition of soul.

It is the intention of this work to indicate that this manner of discussion does not have to be used. This is attempted by speaking also of those spirits who, out of the disposition of soul of the old mysticism, developed a way of thinking which also can incorporate the newer knowledge into itself. This is the case with Nicolas of Cusa.

In such personalities it becomes apparent that present-day natural science too is capable of a mystical intensification. For a Nicolas of Cusa would be able to lead his thinking over into this science. In his time one could have discarded the old way of inquiry, retained the mystical disposition, and accepted modern natural science, had it already existed.

But what the human soul finds compatible with a way of inquiry it must, if it is strong enough, also be able to extract from it.

I wanted to describe the characteristics of medieval mysticism in order to indicate how, separated from its native soil, the old way of conceiving things, it develops into an independent mysticism, but cannot preserve itself because it now lacks the spiritual impulse which, through its connection with inquiry, it had in earlier times.

This leads to the thought that those elements of more recent research which lead to mysticism must be sought for. From this inquiry the spiritual impulse which does not stop at the darkly mystical, emotional inner life, but ascends from the mystical starting-point to a knowledge of the spirits, can be regained. Medieval mysticism atrophied because it had lost the substratum of inquiry which directs the faculties of the soul upward to the spirit. This book is intended to provide a stimulus for extracting from more recent inquiry, when properly understood, those forces which are directed toward the spiritual world.

Goetheanum in Dornach bei Basel, Switzerland
Autumn, 1923

Rudolf Steiner




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