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On the Duty of Clear, Sound Thinking

Schmidt Number: S-3175

On-line since: 25th July, 2008

By Rudolf Steiner

From Bn 165, GA 165

A lecture delivered in Dornach, on January 1st, 1916. Authorized translation from the German of Notes unrevised by the lecturer.

Lecture 18 of 19 from the lecture series: The Festivals of the Seasons (1928), and lecture 7 of 13 from the lecture series: The Spiritual Union of Humanity through the Christ Impulse. Published in German as: Die Geistige Vereinigung der Menschheit Durch Den Christus-Impuls. From Bn 165, GA 165.

This volume is presented here with the kind permission of the Rudolf Steiner Nachlassverwaltung, Dornach, Switzerland.

Copyright © 1928
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Lecture 2 of three lectures given at Dornach 31 December 1915 – 2 January 1916 under
MEDITATIONS ON THE NEW YEAR”


ON THE DUTY OF CLEAR, SOUND THINKING.

1st January, 1916.

IT seemed well yesterday, on the last night of the year, to enter deeply into many of the secrets of existence connected with the great super-sensible mysteries, such as the annual passing of one year into another — and of the great cosmic New Year's Eve and New Year. It seemed good to enter yesterday into those things which speak to the depths of our souls, mysteries far removed from the outer world; so, at the beginning of a New Year, it may perhaps be important to let a few at least of our great and important duties be brought before our souls.

These duties are connected above all with that which is made known to us in the course of human evolution, through Spiritual Science. They are associated with the knowledge of the road humanity must travel as it advances towards its future. A man cannot recognise the duties here mentioned, if he does not, in his own way, keep an open view in many directions. We have again and again endeavoured to do this in the course of our studies. To call up a few only of such duties before our souls may perhaps be fitting at this time, at the opening of a New Year.

It is true, that in view of this material age and all that it brings in its train, we recognise that Spiritual Science must form the basis from which we can work in a higher way for the progress of mankind. It is true, that all that seems to us necessary is so enormous, so incisive — there is (to put it mildly) so much to do at the present time, that we cannot believe that with our feeble powers we should ever be in a position to do much of what has to be done. One thing at least is important, that we should connect our interest with what has to be done, that we should acquire ever more and more interest in those things of which humanity in our time has need.

As a beginning, a group of people, however small, must be interested in that of which humanity has need, and gain a clear insight into those forces which in the evolution of time have a downward tendency, those that are harmful forces. At the opening of a New Year it is specially good to turn the interest of our circle somewhat from our own personal concerns and to direct them to the great objective interests of the whole of humanity.

To do this requires, as I have said, clear insight into that which is moving along the downward path in the human evolution of to-day. We need only carry those very thoughts which have been ours during the last few days over into the realm of the actual, there to find many of the things of which the men of the present day have need.

We have seen how at a certain moment of evolution, a far-reaching wisdom was actually lost to man; how this wisdom of the Gnostics perished; and how it is now necessary to work, so that an understanding of spiritual things may again be established, though of course in accordance with the progress of the time.

During the past autumn we have considered the deeper causes of the flood tide of materialism which took place in the nineteenth century, and I have again and again emphasised that the view of Spiritual Science in regard to this flood of materialism, in no way tends to a lack of appreciation, or want of understanding of the great progress of external, material science. This has always been recognised by us. But what we must keep specially before us is this, that the great progress made in the materialistic realms of natural science during the nineteenth century and on into the present time, has been accomplished with a falling off in the power of thought — of clear, precise thinking.

This decline in the power of thinking has taken place more especially in the domain of science. There — however much people may disbelieve it — the faith in authority has never been so strong as in our day, so that want of confidence as regards the certainty of thinking has spread widely through all the realms of popular thought. We live in an age of the most careless thinking and at the same time it is an age of the blindest trust in authority. People live to-day entirely under the impression that they must believe in, they must recognise authority, that they must have the sanction of outside powers. They desire a warrant for this or that. For the most part men do not consider to-day that it is an individual concern, that they will eventually have to take up the matter for themselves! So, they go to whom ‘right and law is bequeathed like a hereditary sickness’ and accept conclusions without weighing how those conclusions were reached; for they consider it right to accept authority blindly.

A man is ill — he takes not the least trouble to learn the simplest thing about the illness. Why should he? We have recognised and certified physicians whose business it is to look after our bodies; we need not trouble in the least about them!

If information on any subject be desired, people go to those who ought to know, to the theologian, to the philosopher, to this one or to that.

Any one following up this line of thought for himself, will find that on numberless points he himself is sunk in blindest belief in authority. If he cannot find them — do not take it ill of me, if I say — that the less he finds of this belief in authority in himself, the larger the dose he must have swallowed!

But I would now like to show how a narrow, cramped and impoverishing mode of thought has slipped even into the finest domain of spiritual life, all the world over — without distinction of nation, race or colour; that a certain element of cramped thinking is to be found where the life of spiritual culture exists in its finest form. Let us take a philosophical idea and watch how it has developed. Who is not convinced to-day, on the grounds of a belief in an authority which has come down to him through very many channels — who is not convinced that one cannot by any means arrive at the ‘thing in itself,’ but can only catch the outward phenomena, the impression on the senses, the impression made on the soul by the thing. Man can but arrive at the ‘results’ of things, but not at the ‘thing in itself.’ This is indeed the fundamental type of the thought of the nineteenth century. I have described the whole wretched business in that chapter in my book Riddles of Philosophy, which is called ‘The World of Illusion.’ Anyone who studies this chapter will find a résumé of the whole matter. Man can only perceive ‘effects,’ he cannot attain to ‘the thing in itself;’ this remains unknown.

The most capable thinkers of the nineteenth century, if we can speak of them as capable in this connection, are infected by this necessary ignorance regarding ‘the thing in itself.’

If we now turn to the trend of thought which is at the base of what I have just described, it presents itself thus: It is wrongly insisted on, that the eye can only reflect that which it can evoke within itself by means of its nervous or other activities. When an external impression comes, it responds to it in its own specific way. One only gets as far as the impression — not to that which causes the impression on the eye. Through his ear a man only gets as far as the impression made on the ear — not to the thing that makes the impression, and so on.

It is, therefore, only the impressions of the outer world that act on the senses of the soul. That which was at first established as regards a certain realm, that of colour, tone and the like, has now for a long time been extended to the whole thinking world — that can receive only the impression or effects of what is in the world. Is this incorrect? Certainly it is not incorrect, but the point — as has often been said — is not in the least whether a matter is correct or not, quite other things come into consideration. Is it correct that only pictures, only impressions of things, are called forth by our senses? Certainly it is correct, that cannot be doubted; but something very different is connected with this. This I will explain by means of a comparison.

If someone stands before a mirror and another person also stands there beside him, it cannot be denied that what is seen in the mirror is the image of the one man and also of the other. What is seen in the mirror is without doubt images — merely images. From this point of view all our sense perceptions are in fact mere images: for the object must first make an impression on us and our impression — the reaction as one might say — evokes consciousness. We can quite correctly compare this with the images which we see in the mirror; for the impressions are also images.

Thus in the Lange and Kant train of thought we have a quite correct assertion — that man is concerned with images and that therefore, he cannot come into touch with anything real, with any actual ‘thing in itself.’ Why is this? It is solely because man cannot think things out further than one assumption, he remains at one correct assumption. The thought is not incorrect, but as such it is frozen in — it can go no further — it is really frozen in. Just consider: The images that we see in the mirror are true images, but suppose the other person who stands beside me and looks into the mirror too, gives me a box on the ear, would I then say (as these are but images I see in the mirror) that one reflection has given the other reflection a box on the ear? The action points to something real behind the images! And so it is. When our thoughts are alive and not frozen, when they are connected with realities, we know that the Lange-Kantian hypothesis is correct, that we have everywhere to do with images; but when the images come in touch with living conditions, these living conditions reveal what first leads us to the thing in itself. It is not so much the case here that certain gentlemen who have thus led thoughts astray, have started from a wrong hypothesis; the whole matter hangs on the fact that we have to reckon with thoughts that were frozen, with thoughts which when at last they are reached, make people say: true, true, true — and get no further. This unworthy thinking of the nineteenth century is wanting in flexibility, in vitality. It is frozen in, truly ice-bound.

Let us take another example. During the past year I have often communicated certain things to you from a celebrated thinker — Mauthner, the great critic of language. Kant occupies himself with Critique of Idea. Mauthner went further, (things that follow must always go further) — he wrote a Critique of Speech. You will remember that during the autumn I gave you examples from the Critique of Speech. Such a man has many followers at the present day. Before he took up philosophy he was a journalist. There is an old saw which says: ‘One crow does not peck out the eyes of another.’ Not only do they not peck out each other's eyes, but the others even give eyes to the crows that are blind, especially when these are journalists! And thus this critic of language — but as I said I wish in no way to raise any question as regards the honesty of such a thinker, even as regards his solidity and depth, for I must always insist again and again that it is incorrect to say that criticism of natural or of any other science is practised here, its characteristics are only defined. So I say expressly, that Mauthner is an honourable man, ‘so are they all honourable men’ — but just let us consider one process of thought which is along the lines of this Critique of Language. For example it is stated there: Human knowledge is limited. Limited — why limited according to Mauthner? Well, because all that man experiences of the world enters his soul by way of his senses. Certainly there is nothing very profound in this thought, but yet it is an undeniable fact. Everything comes to us from the outer world through the senses. But now the thought came to Mauthner that these senses are merely accidental-senses, which means that supposing that we had not our eyes and ears and other senses, we might have other senses instead, then the world around us would appear quite different. An exceedingly popular thought, especially among many philosophers of our day! So it is actually by chance that we have these particular senses, and therewith our conception of the world about us. Had we different senses we should have a different world! Accidental senses!

One of the followers of Fritz Mauthner has said roughly as follows: ‘The world is infinite; but how can man know anything of this infinite world? He can but gain impressions through his accidental senses. Through the door of these chance-senses many things enter our souls and group themselves, while without, the infinite world goes on, and man can learn nothing of the laws in accordance with which it progresses. How can man believe, that what he experiences through these chance-senses of his, can have any connection with the great cosmic mysteries beyond?’ So speaks a follower of Mauthner, who did not, however, look upon himself as an adherent of his, but as a clever man of his day. Yes, so he said. But you can transpose this line of thought into another. I will absolutely retain the form and character of the thought, but translate it into another. I will now state this other thought.

One cannot form any idea of what such a genius as Goethe really has given to mankind, for he has no other means of expressing what he had to say to men, than by the use of twenty-two or twenty-three chance letters of our alphabet which must be grouped in accordance with their own laws and set down on paper. This goes still further. How is it possible to learn anything of the genius of Goethe, through the chance grouping of letters on paper?

Clever such a man might be who believes that because Goethe had to express his whole genius by means of twenty-three letters, A.B.C. and so on, — we could learn nothing of his genius or of his ideas, — clever he might be who used such an excuse and still maintained that he had before him nothing but the twenty-three chance letters grouped in various ways! ‘Away with your explanations,’ he would say, ‘they are but fancy, I see nothing before me but letters!’ Clever, in the same way, is he who says: The world beyond is infinite, we cannot learn anything of it, for we know only what comes to us through our chance-senses.

The fact is that such inaccurate thinking does not only exist in the domain of which I am speaking, where it comes very crudely into evidence, it is present everywhere. It is active in the profoundly unhappy events of the present day, for these would not be what they are if the thinking of all humanity was not permeated with what has been pointed out in a somewhat crude form.

People will never be able to take the right interest in such things, I mean the things concerned with the true efforts of man for his real progress — true effort in the, sense of Spiritual Science — if they have not the will really to enter into such matters, if they have not the desire to recognise the things of which man stands in need. Objections are ever being raised from this side and from that, to the teaching of Spiritual Science, that it is only accessible to those who have clairvoyant perception of the spiritual worlds. People will not believe that this is not true, that what is required is, that by thought they should really be able to attain understanding of that which the seer is able to bring forth out of the spiritual world. It is not to be wondered at that people cannot to-day grasp with their thought what the seer derives from the spiritual world, when thought is built up in this way I have described. This kind of thought is ‘trumps’ and rules life in every department.

It is not because man is unable to understand with his thoughts all that Spiritual Science teaches, that it fails to be understood, but because he permits himself to be infected with the slip-shod thinking of the present day. Spiritual Science should stimulate us to intensive, courageous thinking; that is what matters: and it is well able to do this.

Of course, as long as we take Spiritual Science in such a way that we only talk about the things with which it is concerned, we shall not advance very much in the establishing of the thought for the future of humanity, which is exactly the mission of our movement to establish. When, however, we take the trouble really to understand — really to grasp the things, the matter taught, — we shall certainly make progress.

Even the conceptions of Spiritual Science are affected by the careless thinking of the present day. I have explained to you how this careless thinking acts; I quoted: ‘results only do we have in the external world, so we cannot attain to the thing in itself.’ This thought is as it were immediately frozen in; people do not wish to go any further, the thought is frozen in, they no longer see that the living interchanging activity of the reflected images leads further than to the mere image-character. This method is then applied to the conceptions of Spiritual Science. Because people are fully infected by such kind of thoughts, they say: Yes, what Spiritual Science tells on page a,b,c, are facts of Spiritual Science; these facts we cannot have before us, if we have not acquired the seer's gift. Therefore, they do not go on to think whether in their present attitude to what Spiritual Science teaches they are not making the same mistake that the whole world makes to-day. The worst of it is, that this fundamental failing of contemporary thought is so little recognised. It is dreadful how little it is recognised. It enters into our everyday thinking, and makes itself felt there, just as in the more advanced thinking of the philosophers and scientists. It is but seldom that people recognise what a really tremendous duty springs from an insight into this fact, how important it is to be interested in such things, how lacking in responsibility to permit our interest in them to be blunted.

The fact is now apparent, that in the course of the last century purely external sense-observation obtained and gave its tone to science; people laid the greatest value on the results of observation in the laboratory, or in the clinic, in the Zoological Gardens and the like, (the value of which observation must be recognised, as I have often remarked) but they desired to hold to these only and go no further. It is true that extraordinary progress has been made by these methods of natural science, quite extraordinary progress; but it is just through this progress that thought has become quite unreliable. Therefore it becomes a duty not to allow those persons to attain power in the world, who exercise this power from the standpoint of a purely materialistic experimental knowledge, — and it is power that such people want. At the present day we have reached the point, when all that is non-materialistic learning is to be driven out of the world by the brutal language of force which is used in materialistic erudition. It has already become a question of force. Among those who appeal most eagerly to the external powers to gain their external privileges, we have to recognise those who stand on the foundation of material science alone. Therefore, it is our duty to understand that force rules in the world. It is not enough that we should be interested only in what concerns ourselves personally, we must develop interest in the great concerns of the whole of humanity. It is true that as individuals and even as a small society we cannot do much to-day, but from small germs like these a beginning must be made. What is the use of people saying to-day that they have no faith in doctors; that they have no confidence in the system, and seek by every other means, something in which they can feel confidence? Nothing is affected by this, all that is but personal effort for their own advantage. We should be interested in establishing, alongside the material medicine of to-day, something in which we can have confidence. Otherwise things will get worse from day to day. This does not only mean that those who have no faith in the medical science of the day should seek out someone whom they can trust; for this would put the latter in a false position, unless he interests himself in seeing that he too should be suitably qualified to interest himself in the progress of the general condition, of humanity. It is true that to-day and to-morrow we cannot perhaps be more than interested in the matter, but we must bear in our souls such interest for the affairs of humanity if we wish to understand in their true meaning the teaching of Spiritual Science. We still often think that we understand the great interests of humanity, because we frequently interpret our personal interests as if they were the greatest interests of mankind.

We must search deeply, within the profoundest depths of our soul, if we wish to discover in ourselves how dependent we are on the blind faith in authority of the present day — how profoundly we are dependent on it. It is our indolence, our love of ease that withholds us from being inwardly kindled, and set aflame by the great needs of humanity.

The best New Year greeting that we can inscribe in our souls is that we may be enkindled and inspired by the great interests of the progress of mankind — of the true freedom of humanity. So long as we allow ourselves to believe that he who blows his trumpet before the world must also be able to think correctly, — so long as we hold beliefs derived from the carelessly organised thinking of the present day, — we have not developed within ourselves true interests in the great universal cause of mankind.

What I have just said is in no way directed against any great man in particular; I know that when such things are said especially in a public lecture, there are many who say: Natural Science and the authorities of the day were attacked by Spiritual Science; and the like. I specially quote instances from those of whom I can say, on the other hand, that they are great authorities of the present day, that they are great men, — to show that they support things which Spiritual Science has to extirpate, root and branch. Even without being a great man, one can recognise the careless thinking of great men, which has been so greatly enhanced just because of the brilliant advance in the experimental science of the day. One example, one among many, — I choose a book written by one of the best known men of the day and which is translated into German. No one can say that greatness is unrecognised by me. I repeat, I choose a book by a celebrated man of the day, in the domain of experimental Natural Science. I look up a passage in the introduction to the second volume, which deals specially with the question of the cosmology of the day; in which the great man goes into the history of the development of cosmo-conception. It runs somewhat as follows: In the times of the ancient Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans, men tried to form a picture of the world in such and such a way; then in the last four hundred years there arose the Natural Science of to-day, which has at last drawn the great prize, which has swept all previous ideas aside and has attained to actual truth, which now has but to be further built up.

I have often laid stress on the fact that it is not so much the individual assertions that people make, it is the Ahrimanic or Luciferic characteristics which at once lay hold on people, so that they become Ahrimanic or Luciferic. Thus at the close of this introduction we read the following, which is in the highest degree noteworthy. Take a special note of what is presented to us by one who is without doubt a great and celebrated man of the day. After remarking how grand the knowledge of Natural Science is to-day, he says: ‘The time of sad decline endured until the awakening of humanity at the beginning of the new age. The new age placed the art of printing at the service of learning, and contempt of experimental work disappeared from the minds of educated people. Opposition to old opinions as expressed in the writings of various investigators, advanced at first but slowly. These hindering conditions have since disappeared, and immediately the number of workers and the means of furthering Natural Science increased in rapid succession. Hence the extraordinary progress of recent years.’

There then follows the last sentence of this introduction — ‘We sometimes hear it said that we live in the best of all possible worlds: there might be some objection raised to this, but we scientists at least can assert with all certainty, that we live in the best of times. And we can look forward with confidence to a still better future. ...’ Now follows what really is astounding! This author attaches to himself, and to his age, that which great men have discovered and thought, regarding nature and the world. Therefore he says: In the firm hope that the future may be better, we can say with Goethe, — the great authority on man and nature:

‘Es ist ein gross Ergotzen
Sich in den Geist der Zeiten zu versetzen,
Zu schauen, wie vor uns ein weiser Mann gedacht,
Und wie wir's dann zuletzt so herrlich weit gebracht.’

[‘It is a great delight, to enter into the spirit of the age, to see how wise men thought before our time, and how splendidly we have advanced things.’]

In all seriousness a great man closes his remarks with these words, the pronouncement of Goethe, the great authority on nature and on man; words to which Faust replies, — for it is Wagner who says:

‘By your leave it is a great delight,
To enter into the spirit of the age, etc. —’

But Faust answers: (and perhaps we may accept what Faust says as the thought of Goethe, the great authority on nature and on man.)

‘O yes! As far as to the stars!’

This is exactly fitted for a man who can reach as far as to the stars, thus:

‘O yes! As far as to the stars!
The ages that are past, my Friend,
Are for us a book with seven seals;
What we call the spirit of the age,
Is in fact the spirit of ourselves
In which the times are mirrored.
This is in truth, often but a wail!
Men fly from the first glance of it.
A rubbish heap, a lumber room,
At most some act or state of law
With excellent pragmatic maxims
Such as are put in puppets' mouths!’

And so on. ...

Thus in 1907 wrote one of the greatest men of the day who had surely got ‘as far as to the stars,’ and who looking back on all those who had worked before him had also got so far as to make use of the saying ‘of Goethe, the great authority on man and nature.’

It is a great delight
To enter into the spirit of the age.

You smile! One could wish that this smile always might be directed against those who are capable at the present day of making such carelessness valid; for the example I have given shows that it is those who are firmly established on the ground of the scientific outlook of the day, and who are associated with progress in this domain, who are able to put forth such negligent thinking. It just proves that what is called Natural Science to-day by no means excludes the most superficial thinking. A man may be a thoroughly careless thinker to-day, and yet be held to be a great man in the realm of natural science. This has to be recognised, and in this sense we must approach it. It is a sign of our time. If this were to continue; if any one is labeled as a great man, and given out as a great authority and if people put forward what he says in this or that domain without proof, as of something of great worth — then we should never surmount the great misery of our time. I am fully convinced that countless people pass over the sentence I read out to you to-day, without a smile, although it shows forth in the most eminent degree, where the greatest faults of our day lie, which are bringing about the decline of the evolution of humanity.

We must see clearly where to make a beginning with those things necessary for man; and also see that in spite of the immense advance in external natural science, the greatest scientists of the nineteenth century, even down to our own day, have shown themselves the worst dilettantists in regard to all questions of world-outlook. The great fault of our day is, that this is not recognised — that people do not recognise that the greatest investigators in natural science in the nineteenth century proved themselves the worst of dilettantists in the question of world-outlook, when they entirely left out that which as spirit rules in the realm of natural science. People blindly followed after these great persons, not only when they gave out the results of investigations in the laboratory, or of clinical research, but also when they asserted things regarding the secrets of the universe.

So, parallel with the popularising of science which is useful and beneficial in the highest degree, we have at the same time a deterioration as regards all questions of wide import and a heedlessness of thought which is infectious and very harmful, because it is founded on the very worst kind of dilettantism of great men.

Here are to be found the tasks with which our interests must be closely associated, even if we ourselves are not able to produce anything. We must at least look things in the face, we must see clearly that it will above all lead to far, far more unhappy times than we are at present passing through, if mankind does not realise what has been here pointed out; — if, in place of careless, inexact thinking, a clear and genuine method of thought be not established again among men. Everything can be traced back to this careless thinking. All those external, often very unhappy phenomena which we encounter would not exist if this inexact, negligent thought were not there.

It seems to me specially necessary to speak of these matters at the beginning of a New Year, for they are connected with the character and attitude of our whole task. For when we accustom ourselves to consider without prejudice the method and nature of modern thought, and see how powerful it is in all the varied conditions of life, we can then form some picture of what we have to do and of what mankind stands in need. We must in the first place overcome all tendency to slackness, all love of sloth and laziness, we must see clearly that a spiritual-scientific movement has duties other than that of merely listening to lectures or reading books.

I must continually remind you to make yourselves acquainted with the necessary ideas. It is clear to all that as a few individuals, — as a small society — we cannot do much. But our own thought must move in the right direction; we must know what is in question, we must not ourselves be exposed to the danger (to put it trivially) of succumbing to the different conceptions of the world, of those who are the great men of the day in the external sciences. Great men, but dilettante thinkers as regards questions of universal import, found numerous associations of monistic or other nature without the opposition that would arise if at least it were realised that, when such societies are founded, it is as if one said: ‘I am letting this man make a coat, because he is a celebrated cobbler!’

This is foolishness, is it not? But it is just as foolish when a great chemist or a great psychologist is accepted as an authority on a conception of the world. We cannot blame them if they claim it for themselves, for naturally they cannot know how inadequate they are; but that they are so accepted is connected with the great evils of the present day. To me it seems as if a thought for New Year's Eve must ever be associated with our feelings; whereas it seems to me that that which faces us as the more immediate duty of the day, must be directly associated with our reflections on New Year's Day; I thought therefore, that the tone of what has been said to-day might be fitly associated with what was said yesterday.




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