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On Chaos and Cosmos

Notes of a Lecture given
by Dr. Rudolf Steiner
Berlin, October 19th, 1907
GA 284

This is the 6th of 14 lectures given by Rudolf Steiner at various cities and dates from 1907 to 1923. The title of this series of lectures is: Pictures of Occult Seals and Columns. They were published in German as: Bilder Okkulter Siegel und Saeulen. Der Muenchner Kongress Pfingsten 1907 und seine Auswirkungen. The lecture was transcribed from a typescript version, and the translator is unknown. It is presented here with the kind permission of the Rudolf Steiner Nachlassverwaltung, Dornach, Switzerland. From GA# 284.

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“On Chaos and Cosmos”

Notes of a lecture by Dr. Rudolf Steiner
Given in Berlin, 19 October, 1907
(S-1594) E N 34

The subject of our study today will appear at first comparatively remote; nevertheless, these things can interest us in a certain sense even for our everyday life. The motif of today's lecture will be what is called by a name borrowed from ancient times; namely, Chaos. What this word really refers to lies even beyond what we understand as Heaven. Not only the wonderful old Grecian myth speaks of Chaos when it says that the most ancient Gods were born out of the Chaos; the legends and myths of other nations, too, are acquainted with this Chaos, albeit under a different name. In the Norse Saga we find it designated as Ginnungagap, the Yawning Abyss, from which there arises on the one hand the cold Niflheim, and on the other hand, the hot Muspelheim. The beginning of the Bible also refers to it in the words: “In the Beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth; and the Earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the waters. Then there resounded the Word of the Godhead: “May Light become.” And it became light. And the Godhead perceived the Light and perceived that it was beautiful, and severed the World of Light from the World of Darkness.”

“The earth was without form and void” — these are only other words for the Chaos out of which the highest Spiritual Beings are born. What is the Chaos? With these old words for very lofty concepts things have taken a strange course in human evolution. For a long time past men have lost the right feeling and right conception of them; they no longer know what was meant when such words were said. The materialistic age scarcely has words any more to truly characterize what underlies such concepts as of Chaos. Indeed, many words have assumed quite a different meaning. Formerly it was different; the word corresponded to the spiritual meaning of the object; that is to say, to the concept. Our words today have been divided and distributed, so to speak, into so many materialistic meanings, referring, as they do, to the outer and material objects. They are no longer applied to the spiritual meaning. Whoever hears a word today applies it to what it represents in the sense world, and no longer thinks of relating it to the Spiritual World. Among the manifold reasons for the founding of this spiritual movement is one that is connected with the transmutation of the word. If this spiritual movement, this spiritual stream, did not find entry into the world before the end of this century, such a movement would probably be quite impossible in a hundred years' time. We have just been able to catch at the favourable conditions. Why so? In a hundred years' time it would be no longer possible at all to express in the words of ordinary language the ideas of super-sensible facts in their true nature. We should no longer understand them, for the words are more and more assuming the character where they can only be applied to material things and conditions. So it would gradually have come about that people would no longer understand the spiritual teachings at all, because everything would at once be applied to the material world. Spiritual knowledge must bring about an actual renewal of language. The words must be given a new stamp; new values must be lent to the words once more. Men must once more gain the feeling that there is something inherent in these words, that certain words intend something that points to higher worlds. It is the task of this spiritual movement to carry up into the higher worlds not only deeds, but words. In former ages this was done; and we must try to find again the feelings of those human beings who were far more directed to the non-material ideas — far more attracted to the Spiritual World than the feelings of our time.

It is very interesting to take up an old book and enter into it, and transplant one's feelings into such an ancient work, and read out of it the spirit of the author. Take, for instance, the Physica by Amos Comenius, who lived from 1592–1671. His Physica are physics of which the man of today will not be able to make very much in his way of thinking. He speaks of physical things, yet always referring to the spiritual background of spiritual forces and beings. Many things are described in this book, which were objects of real knowledge at that time. Comenius, the great educationist and thinker of the 17th Century, not only comprised all the knowledge of his time, but developed deep and original thoughts of his own on men and events, and discovered deep spiritual relationships. He is a remarkable and very strange personality.

In the 14th and 15th centuries there were quite a number of such people. In that time the Rosicrucian Order was founded; it guarded and preserved the occult secrets in their form for the New Age. Originally it consisted of seven members only. Down to our own times it has secretly carried on and handed on the great occult teachings. No one in the outer world ever discovered anything about Rosicrucians — no one who was not a Rosicrucian himself; no one could write about it. Whatever has been published on it is either quite unreliable, or if correct, came out of betrayal. Only today has the time come when something of the teachings of the Rosicrucians can be published and can be communicated to the world in general. But there are, and there were in those times, many ways and means of letting such spiritual movements flow into the general life of culture. It was, for instance, through such an influence, from a secret Rosicrucian stream, that Lessing said at the conclusion of his essay, The Education of the Human Race, that man is born again and again in the world: “Is not the whole of Eternity mine?” For one who knows, this is a sign that something of the Rosicrucian Movement worked upon Lessing, albeit in a way of which he himself remained unconscious, when he wrote these words on reincarnation. There are, in fact, many ways and means whereby this influence was poured out on men without their even knowing it. Nor does it matter if the work that is done, the influence that is wielded, is or is not attached to a name. Nowadays lawsuits are enacted against the stealing of thoughts, of the spiritual property of others. Lawsuits against plagiarism were never instituted by the Rosicrucians. They did not mind what the personal source was from which such things went out; the main thing was that they came into the world. It is a vicious custom of our time to institute legal proceedings against the stealing of thoughts.

Amos Comenius, the great educationalist, was among those who possessed higher knowledge as a result of a high spiritual development, and who, in consequence of the Rosicrucians, raised himself into the higher worlds by a strong and energetic will. It is very useful for mankind to enter into the thoughts of Comenius. Likewise it is useful to enter deeply into the thoughts of John van Helmont, a contemporary of Amos Comenius, who was also a Rosicrucian.

We all of us are familiar with the word which many people believe to be very old — the word ‘gas’. Many people today are only familiar with it as the gas we use for lighting. But we know from Physics that most substances can be transformed into gas. Without further thought one might imagine that the word was as old as any other. Gas and ‘gaseous’ were unknown concepts before the time of Comenius and Helmont. Helmont was the first; he invented the word ‘gas’. It was in 1615 that he wrote the work in which this word first occurs.

When one uses a new word, one must have some definite occasion to do so. Helmont was the first to give to mankind the idea, the concept of a gas which is current today. What occasion had he for the concept of a gas? When you heat water, and cause it to evaporate, water vapour or steam arises in the first place. Steam is not yet a gas; it is something you can still see with your eyes. It is the same substance which was formerly there in the water, divided there into finer particles. You can divide the great majority of substances into vapour. But you can heat them still further. By further heating you can get a condition where the substance is no longer visible; it passes over into quite another form. This new condition, the vapourous state in a higher form of development, is what we call the gaseous state; it is a vapourous condition at a higher level of temperature. Helmont, who was also a Rosicrucian, worked like Comenius, and with similar results. Before the Rosicrucians Helmont and Comenius, the gaseous state was unknown in this form. It was in the case of carbonic acid gas that Helmont first realized the nature of the gas. Helmont came to the idea that among the states of substance there is also the gaseous state, and in his work Ortus Medicinale we find the following sentence: “This spirit which was hitherto unknown, I will name with a new name: ‘Gas’.” We can learn a great deal from this sentence. Helmont calls what he describes as gas, “Spiritum”; that is, a Spirit. That is to say, the transparent substance he has constituted is for him the instrument for a spiritual being. He sees in it the expression for a spiritual being, and he calls this Spirit by a new name: Gas. He was well aware that when the gas was cooled, strange, cloud-like phenomena appeared. The gas became vapourous and watery again. To him the gas was a transparent and clear foundation from out of which something more dense and condensed arises. To him the gas was a parable in the sense of Goethe's saying: “Everything transient is but a parable.” Hence we can understand how much Van Helmont recognized in the process wherein a gas is cooled and condensed. Miniature worlds went forth from the gas, for Helmont. A human being who could feel in this way could also say: This unknown Spirit, I name “Gas.’ In contemplating this world he said to himself: How did all this that is here, originally come to be? Originally it arose from something that one cannot see, from out of which, however, as from a gas, the Universe was formed. Once upon a time, the whole Universe was Spiritum, purely spiritual. As the clouds of misty vapour are formed out of the gas, so out of the transparent, radiant, unclouded infinity of the Spiritual, all things that now exist emerged.

Already in primeval times and among primitive peoples we find good parables and comparisons for that which we have just described. Primitive peoples sometimes see even the material world still in a spiritual way. In the breath that flows from the mouth, that turns to steamy vapour by contact with the outer air, they see something arising out of the soul's nature, and condensing. This was regarded as a parable of the origin of the world out of the Spirit. The breath, for them, came from the inner being, from the soul; thus the whole world to them was the result of the outbreathing of the Godhead. This ancient idea contains quite another concept of Spirit than man has today. Space, to them, was not a great infinite void in which there is absolutely nothing, as it is to the man of today. For those who stood on the ground of Occult Science, space was the all-spreading spirit whose parable they saw in the unclouded gas. In it they saw the source from out of which all seeds of things are created, and spring forth through the Word of the original Divine Spirit. Not endless emptiness is space; space is originally Spirit. We are ourselves condensed space, for space is Spirit. If all things were dissolved again, seemingly there would be an endless void around us; but this apparent void would contain all things that have ever been. It is no empty nothingness. The visible world is space condensed. This was clear to Helmont, too; he knew the world foundation, the world origin, from out of which all beings are condensed. Van Helmont had this thought: the gas is very thin, transparent; the light goes through. You do not even divine its existence. But in relation to the world origin, even the gas is a condensation. Nevertheless, one can understand, one can conceive the cosmic origin thereof. You can gain an idea of the Spiritual if you imagine that the gas is itself a vapour of the Spirit, just as the steam is vapour of the gas. With this conception in his soul, Van Helmont said: “I have described this vapour by the name ‘gas;’ it is not far removed from the Chaos of the ancients. Helmont coined the word ‘gas’ from the word ‘chaos.’ It is an extremely interesting connection in the world order. We are thus led by Helmont to a living conception of space, not empty and infertile like the concept of space for the man of today, but a concept of space appearing infinitely fertile, bearing countless seeds. The infinitude that is spread out is the seed from out of which we issue. Everything that is in the world is space condensed; it is the infinite Spirit who shows Himself to us in place of a mere empty space.

When we transplant ourselves into the condition of space (when space was still altogether spiritual) and we trace its condensation out of the laws of this space itself, then we shall clearly feel the beautiful words of the Bible: “In the beginning God created Heaven and Earth, and the Earth was without form and void, and the Spirit of the Godhead brooded and weaved over the depths.”

Imagine how originally the pure, spiritual transparent space was there. What happened in this pure transparent space? In this same space is also the extended gaseous air. As the thoughts that rise from our soul, when they are spoken in the word, bring the air around us into vibration, and every word shapes itself into forms in the air, quite silently and unseen by us, so did the Spirit of God hover over the waters. Into the waters the creating words of the Godhead were spoken. Now let us imagine the empty widespread cosmic space; fertile, rich in seeds, and resounding into it, the Word of the Godhead, working formatively into this space. Then we hear the words of the Bible. This Chaos, this cloud mist of the earth that was emerging was still waste and void: and the Spirit of the Godhead worked and wove, brooding thereover. First was the Spiritual World; then the Chaos revealed to begin with, in a kind of cloudiness, all that was to become. So do we recognize the depths of the religious documents. Human beings must gradually regain the feelings with which we understand such things.

But the Chaos works not only in the beginning of world evolution; it works on and on; it is present even today. Just as around us are the harmonies of the spheres, the harmonious heaven, so all around us is the Chaos, all things are permeated by it. It was the first and original foundation. Then it became cloudy; the seeds were formed; the shapes and forms arise; worlds were formed out of the Chaos. But just as when a gaseous mass condenses, something remains behind that works on between the single condensing particles, so likewise of the original Spirit something remained behind. And so the Chaos works on and lives on, along with the world. Everything is still permeated by the Chaos — every stone, every plant, every animal is permeated by the Chaos. Our soul and our Spirit are permeated with the Chaos. Such as he here is, the soul and the Spirit of man also partake in the Chaos.

This Chaos is at the same time the essential reason of the constant and ever-present fertility in nature. Let us take a simple example: the working of Chaos appears wherever animal excrements occur. The New Year's crop springs from the ploughed land, after manure has been put into it — manure which lends the land fertility and causes the crop to spring and thrive. What has happened in such a case? What was the manure, to begin with? The manure, too, was perhaps at one time a beautiful, marvelously-formed plant, an entity in the world that had also once been formed out of the Chaos. Then it served as nourishment for the animals, and the useless substances were excreted again. Now the manure mingles with the soil; it is a return of beings into Chaos. Chaos is working in manure, in all that is cast out; and unless, at some time or other, you mingle Chaos with the Cosmos, further evolution is never possible. The process we here have before us on its lowest level will enable us to rise to an understanding of the word ‘chaos’ with respect to higher realms. Cosmos cannot work alone. Everything in the Cosmos has grown from causes, from things that went before — not only all physical things, but intellectual and moral teachings, too, arise from causes that were planted once before.

It is Cosmos when a Goethe, a Schiller, a Lessing have done their work. When a schoolmaster comes and assimilates and passes on all the beautiful things that are found in the works of these great men, he can only do so because the causes are already there for him. But with the man of genius it is not so; he works out of the Chaos. New impulses, new entries into evolution, new concepts arise and begin to take effect. Genius is like a fresh spark; it is out of the ordinary just because a union there takes place between the Cosmos and the Chaos; thereby a new thing arises not connected with the laws of evolution that come from olden time. It enters in from other worlds like a Divine spark. Genius is the marriage of the past with the present, of the Cosmos with the Chaos. Hence the peculiar feeling and influence which the occult pupils of olden times experienced when the name ‘Chaos’ was spoken. It is only felt as merely waste and void by those human beings who stand entirely on the ground of what is working from the past. But something new must arise out of the Chaos; there must be a union with something new to work in this spiritual movement. This movement has arisen because mankind needs to be fertilized with a fresh spiritual seed; and we must realize that it is not a question here of carrying on and merely evolving existing things and past things, but that entirely new seeds must spring forth from the Chaos. He who would understand this movement must understand that in this movement we cannot work out of the Cosmos of our worthy forebears, but that new things must come into the world as if out of the Chaos. Thereby humanity is spiritually fertilized. Spiritual Science realizes concepts and ideas that are not taken from the past, as when the geologist, for instance, derives his knowledge from the past of our earth. For Spiritual Science the future form is the important thing. There are laws of the future that must flow out of the Chaos into the Cosmos. It is important for man to receive into himself ideas, feelings and impulses of will, taken directly from that form which the Spirit had, before it took shape out of the Chaos. Such ideas out of the Chaos, taken from the higher worlds, are the signs and symbols. Such symbols and signs were intended to be given to us among those things that underlie all occult science, all imaginative knowledge. In the Cosmos that is about to become, there are the Spiritual Beings. Out of the Chaos they work in upon the human soul in new impulses; new condensations arise and take effect.

That which is presented in the Seven Seals is not yet in the Cosmos, but it is in the Chaos. Out of the Chaos they work upon the human soul. If they work in the right way, then the Chaos works livingly, and leads the human being into worlds that lie beyond the Cosmos. This is what it means when the human being has recourse to such pictures. We feel the overwhelming influence of the Chaos that contains the seed of all things, when we let these things work upon us. Thus we can see how comprehensive the idea of Chaos is for anyone who understands it in the right way. It is the Chaos from out of which the physical arises. Whether it be the Greek Philosophy or the Bible, or the Indian Philosophy of the A-Chaos, the Akasha — all this shall remind us that that which was in the Beginning works throughout all time. To him who is bound to the sense world, the Chaos appears waste and void. But he who penetrates it in a spiritual sense can hear the harmonies of the spheres resounding through it. Today it is still possible for single human beings to get a feeling for some of these words that come from the spiritual world. Hence it is the time to speak of these things.

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