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The History and Actuality of Imperialism

Imperialism: Lecture 2

Lecture 2 of 3

Rudolf Steiner

Lecture Dornach, Switzerland – February 21, 1920

Unabridged translation by Frank Thomas Smith

I have spoken to you about the historical origin of what today may be called imperialism, and you will have already noticed from what I said yesterday that it is essential to see how contemporary occurrences, which were once real factors in social life, are now merely leftovers from older times as far as reality is concerned. In olden times institutions and customs had their real meaning. To a certain extent they were realities. Realty has ended though. After passing through the stage of symbols, it has finally become a platitude.

In general we live in the age of platitudes. It is necessary, however, to realize that platitudes need a certain soil from which to grow, and on the other hand they are a preparation for something which is yet to come in human evolution. If the old realities had not transformed themselves into platitudes, that is, into something existing yet illusional, then the new reality could not come into being. The new could not come if for example a visible god appeared in human form as happened in the last years of the Roman empire. For the Roman emperors were, at least according to their pretensions, still gods. Nero, at least hypothetically, was a real god in human form. In the course of time such things have lost their meaning. They have passed through the stage of symbols and have become mere platitudes.

But the more things become platitudes, the more the terrain is prepared for a new reality — a spiritual life which is not derived from the sensible world, but from the super-sensible world; for a spiritual life which does not seek the divine-spiritual beings in human form, but as real, genuine beings amongst the visible people on earth. First must come the age of platitudes which must, however, be recognized as such. Then the development of a new spiritual life will be possible. In order to understand the contemporary world under such disagreeable conditions, one must direct one's attention toward the birth of a new spiritual life, fully conscious of the illusionary nature of what was formerly reality in human evolution.

It is only natural that people want to hold on to the old realities, even when they have become platitudes; for to realize that they have become platitudes causes a feeling of insecurity. They feel that there is no longer solid ground under their feet if such things have become platitudes. People love to deceive themselves, and when they recognize the deception as deception, they feel that they are adrift. They will no longer feel themselves to be adrift when they can really feel the solidity of the new spiritual life. And we live in the age when we will have to be participants in the fall of the platitude stage and will have to be participants in the rise of the [new] spiritual life. And this will be especially possible if all English-speaking peoples realize that the traditions they have preserved from olden times and of which they still speak have become platitudes, and how the reality beneath these platitudes is the economy, as I explained yesterday.

But a moment will come, a moment which is very important. At the moment when it is recognized that we are dealing with an economic life which only becomes “reputable” in the third or fourth generation and otherwise with platitudes, as I also explained yesterday. At that moment we will recognize the inanity of the human being who merely participates in physical life as though it were the only reality. This knowledge must dawn especially on the peoples of the west. The moment of realization must come when we can no longer defend all that we maintained till now. Reality for us is what we do for our stomachs and digestion. As long as we have not seen through the platitudes and recognized them for what they are, as long as we do not realize that the economy is the only reality, we will not be able to admit what it is necessary to admit. If we do realize all that, then human nature can do no other than to say: in order to be human we need a spiritual reality in addition to the physical reality of the economy.

That moment of truth must dawn. Human evolution can not advance further without this moment of truth. For the same reason that we go forward towards a new spiritual life, at present we must be immersed in the element of the platitude.

The peoples of the west have the greatest talent for this truth. All the prerequisites for the dawning of such truth is present in the peoples of the west, whereas the other European peoples have little disposition for such a truth to dawn on them with the necessary intensity. For them other conditions exist that prevent the illusions from being seen through so thoroughly, so radically, as they can be seen through by the English-speaking peoples. But once again we must keep the historical context in mind.

Consider for a moment that the various Central European tribes of Germanic origin were united since the time of Charlemagne's successors as the Holy Roman Empire, as I have already pointed out. That Holy Roman Empire was basically a network of pure symbols — all signs and symbols, which pointed to some kind of reality. It was not possible, however, to attain to full spiritual reality through the use of signs and symbols. The churches prevented it. Everything which the Middle Ages had to say about spiritual reality, and what the successors of the European confessions had to say about such a spiritual reality, had the character of the half-understood, the not-to-be-completely-understood. It had the character of colored light shining through the stained glass windows of the churches. The people recoiled when they approached the spiritual by means of the symbols; they recoiled in fear of a clear, sharp comprehension. On the contrary, they preferred to characterize the thing as being half unknown, which cannot be penetrated by knowledge.

It was also the case with social relationships. Studying the history of the Holy Roman Empire — and Swiss history is closely connected to it — we find that a lack of clarity was perpetuated from age to age. The lack of clarity in the social organism was perpetuated until finally in 1806 it became noticeable — even the Habsburgs realized it by then — that the Holy Roman Empire no longer made any sense. And the especially talented — that is negatively talented — Emperor Franz Joseph I abdicated the German crown. It lost the power to exist because no sense could be found behind the symbols. And the people of Central Europe were left with a striving in all directions, which contained but little concrete meaning.

Thus the founding of the Reich [empire] of 1870/71 with its inner contradictions. A German “empire” was created, but based on a false premise. The title “emperor” was invented. Perhaps in France under similar conditions the “empereur” would be understood, half-understood at least, because there was some substance left in the people; but in Germany a name existed which presumed that the people had a talent for mere names without meaning; that on one hand a talent for cultivating platitudes existed and on the other hand for the underlying reality of economic life. But that talent did not exist in Central Europe. And in order to understand what happened in Central Europe, history should not be studied based on abstract concepts, but on realities! We could ask the question: What happened in the German Reich between 1871 and 1914?

What people saw as happening from without was only an illusion. What was the reality? You see, with historical happenings something appears [draws on blackboard in red]; and beneath its surface something else appears [blue]. When the first thing disappears as an illusion, then the second thing, the reality, appears as its continuation.

One should not analyze, but look for the concrete reality. What developed in the German Reich during 1871 to 1914 was not apparent then, for the Reich itself was an illusion. The reality came later, it is what has been happening since November 1918; it is those who are presently in power. The fundamental character of the Wilhelmian age is Gustav Noske [Minister of War]. The fundamental character of what had been developing for decades only became apparent when the present rulers appeared. The German ex- emperor is defined by the so-called revolutionary rulers of the present. The state of affairs which existed beneath the surface in the previous decades, during which illusions were cherished, is the state of affairs which exists today in reality.

You can really study history when you seek involution in evolution, in that you look for what is happening beneath the surface. What was Russian tsarism in the 19th century in reality? What Russian tsarism was then has appeared in its reality today: Lenin and Trotsky, Bolshevism. That is the concrete reality of what was then an illusion. Tsarism was the lie that floated on the surface; but what tsarism really cultivated appeared in its true reality after tsarism itself was swept away. Lenin was nothing other than the tsar; after the tsar has been skinned what remains today is the reality: Lenin or Trotsky. And, continuing this analogy, if you were to skin people like Caprivi or Hohenlohe or Bethman Hollweg [German Chancellors from 1890 through 1917], Moske and Scheidemann [German politician in office from 1903 to 1918] and so on remain. These are the real figures; the others were mere illusions.

It is a question of not illustrating historical phenomena with abstract concepts, but of showing the historical realities. In history the definition of one fact will always be another fact, not an abstract concept. Therefore it is a question of studying realities. For we are living in an age when realities must be closely observed and revealed.

This phenomenon is particularly obvious if you study the constitution, the content of the secret societies which possess great power in the English-speaking countries, a power unsuspected by the general public. They are societies organized outwardly under very sympathetic rules, and have become ever more powerful during the fifth post-Atlantean epoch.

If you look back to England in 1720, you will find very few members of these secret societies. Members are usually merely tools, the really powerful people stand behind them. But there were very few members. But if we look at the statistics today, we find 488 Masonic lodges in London. Such lodges are excellent tools in the hands of the secret societies. In Great Britain there are 1,354 lodges, in the colonies and overseas 486, and then 836 lodges in the world of the so-called Royal Arch Chapter, which keeps even the external Masonic rituals secret.

It is a matter of observing the substantial content of what actually exists within these lodges, for that is what is used as tools by the groups in power. And it is also important to discern why these powerful circles have been so meaningful even until today. The real content goes back to the far past. Those who keep claiming that the contents of Freemasonry go back to the far past are not so very wrong, although the things presented as examples are often nebulous, perhaps even quackery. They go so far back that we can say that the time they started was during the first stage of imperialism when the god walked around in human form. At that time the things spoken and especially the things shown in these lodges today made some sense. Then they became symbolic. The sense is long gone. One can say that what goes on in the lodges today has almost no content. Only the symbols remain.

The symbols continued into the stage of platitudes, so that we have, especially in the English-speaking areas and the other areas dependent upon them, two layers of cultural fermentation side by side: the external, exoteric platitudes of public life, and in the secret societies the symbols, which are only kept as tradition without any attempt to reach back to their original meanings. Thereby the symbols have become platitudes in symbolic form, or symbols which are also platitudes in a different form. You have therefore the external exoteric platitudes of public life, expressed in normal human language and which are extensively used in parliaments and congresses. Then you have the use of symbols in the secret societies, whose members usually don't understand them — platitudes in symbolic form. It is important that alongside the external purely literal platitudes we also have the cultural ceremonial platitudes. For these ceremonial platitudes at least contain spiritual elements. And in the secret societies which possess a real ceremonial form, meaning those which go back to the original practices, it can happen that through their karma certain especially talented people do get to the bottom of the symbols. And sometimes a blind chicken finds a kernel of corn. Sometimes especially talented people discover the meaning of the rituals; then they are expelled from the secret society. But care is taken that they can no longer be dangerous for the secret society. For what is especially important for these societies is power, not insight. It is important for them to keep the secrets in their original form. And they posses a certain power in this traditional form. Why?

I have described for you the substantial content. But this content depends upon the people who are banded together in those societies. Just imagine how many people belong to the various lodges in the world. These people, when they enter the lodges, are confronted with the ceremonies, which are mannered as I described. But they are won for the lodges due to certain criteria. One of the most important criteria is the absolute indifference to the members' religious beliefs — although this criterion is sinned against in some cases. There are lodges, for example, which do not accept Jews. But they are ignorant of the basic principle, which is that people of all confessions are embraced, and individual beliefs are not touched. Also no attention is to be paid within the lodge to social class and other differences. In the correct lodges all are brothers, regardless of one being a lord and the other a worker — although this is also sinned against. Workers are not accepted in most lodges, only lords and others who are amenable to them. But that has nothing to do with the principle. Those who are within are totally united under the slogan: We are all brothers.

Then there are the degrees, which have nothing to do with the external social position of the members. The members are really united in a way which has nothing to do with their external social position. In our society people are divided firstly according to religion, whereas in the lodges the religions play no role. And secondly no one would claim that in the external social order men are all brothers. They are not brothers. In the lodges, however, those who belong to them are brothers.

Such things are really meaningful. It is not a matter of indifference under which viewpoints people come together in communities. When people of the same confession come together in a community, then in real life it is often a community dedicated to external power — dead power. But when they come together under the viewpoint that the faith they profess is a matter of indifference, it becomes a community with particularly strong spiritual power. That is why the Catholic Church, wanting to keep people under a more or less unified faith, must always reinforce its power by political means. It has always been more powerful the less it has insisted on its creed, and less powerful the more it has insisted on creed; the less the hierarchy, Rome, has demanded adherence to creed. For in society in general to make religion the central issue results in lack of power. A community can only be powerful when it attaches no importance to individual beliefs.

This is a particularly important reality in the age of platitudes. For side by side with the public platitudes stand to some extent the esoteric platitudes of the ceremonies, of the rituals. This is the real reason for present day social confusion. One can cite some strange examples for the platitudinous nature of the times. You know that in the middle of the nineteenth century there were two opposing parties in the English parliament — the liberal Whigs and the conservative Tories. Whigs and Tories were in opposition. What kind of names were they? In the first half of the nineteenth century these names were seriously meant. The liberals were called Whigs, and no embarrassment was involved: the others were called Tories, also without embarrassment. But when these names were adopted during the dawn of the English parliament, what did they signify? The name Whigs was a cussword. When a Scottish group organized against a certain church discipline, in England they were called Whigs. And the platitude spread so far that a cussword became the group's official title. So the honorable Liberals acquired a name which was no longer a cussword. And the Tories — that name originated in Ireland. In the 17th, 18th century the papists were called Tories. Later that name, a cussword for Irish papists, became the official designation for the English conservatives. All this happened in the realm of names, in the realm of designations, in the realm of platitudes. Reality played no role here. This is of course superficial, but wherever you look you will find such things, first in the English- speaking world, then in the rest of the world, to the extent it has been infected.

But what is it that brings so many men together in the lodges under such laudable viewpoints? It doesn't really matter that there are a small number of doubtful personages as well. The principles matter. It is very meaningful that all those people come together in ceremonial platitudes, which however keep them together on a real spiritual foundation.

It is true however, that when someone is a powerful minister, say, and needs an under-secretary of state, he naturally prefers a brother Mason to someone else. It is even justified, because he knows him better and can work better with him. This kind of cooperation is justified under the circumstances in which it arose, but must cease now.

But what does it mean? It is certainly remarkable that just in the age of platitudes which reign in public life a spiritual community appears with decidedly worthy principles. The spiritual community is quite secret, not so much as concerns its possessions, but rather its internal objectives. Why is this the case? Because we are living in the age of platitudes and platitudes encourage the falsification of realities. And what happens? What is basically already in existence? An independent economy which no longer coincides with the platitudes; a spiritual life driven underground and a rights life wrapped in a toga of platitudes, which has as much meaning for the external world as jurisprudence, as the English judge dressed in his judicial finery. Just to the extent this judicial finery corresponds to reality, jurisprudence corresponds to the reality behind the scenes. A triformation in the realm of the platitude, a triformation of the untruth, but proof for the necessity of the threefold society.

You see, to want the threefold society means to replace the lie and the platitude with the truth, but the truth as reality, whereas at the present time the period has begun in which reality is not truth, but platitude. Of course one can force platitudes into spiritual life as well as civil rights, the state; but that doesn't work well in the economy. Now comes something about which I always receive objections in many public lectures. After I explain how one can achieve insight into the spiritual world by following the indications in my book “How to Attain Knowledge of the Higher Worlds,” after every third lecture someone stands up and says: “Yes, but how can one know that what he sees inwardly is real? There is such a thing as auto-suggestion. This whole spiritual world could by only an auto-suggestion! There is even the suggestion that when someone even thinks about lemonade he has a lemonade taste in the mouth.” I always answer that it's a matter of standing in reality. Of course the taste of lemonade can be suggested, but your thirst cannot be quenched that way. If you go sufficiently far, you will reach reality. You can have platitudes in the realm of spirituality, even in the rights-state, but platitudes in the economy do not work because you can't eat them, or at least can't be filled by them.

So actually in the age of platitudes of all the realities the only one remaining is the economy. And in the moment that illusion is recognized as illusion, that the platitude is recognized as platitude, a strong feeling a shame will arise: We humans possess reason, but we only use this reason to insure the economic basis of physical life, something which animals do without possessing reason. If with our reason we do not achieve anything except to support the economy — food and the things necessary for physical existence, then we are prostituting our reason, then we are using our reason to accomplish something which the animal does quite well without the luxury of reason. In the moment that self- knowledge dawns, that is, when the platitudes are recognized for what they are, the feeling of shame arises; and then the reversal — the awareness of the necessity for renewal of spiritual/cultural life.

This must however be prepared in the correct way — that a sufficiently large number of people see through the contemporary situation. What good does it do if people only deceive themselves as to what is real. What good does it do to believe Lloyd George

[British Prime Minster 1916-1922] when one sees through the fact that everything he says is necessarily platitude? What good does it do if the whole world worshiped Woodrow Wilson, when ones sees through the fact that Wilsonian politics were platitudes? What good does it do to dwell on European conditions today based on inherited principles from the past which are no longer valid?

Symbols should also be viewed in their historical context. It should be clear that outward appearances express remarkable things. The Habsburgs, for instance, came from Alsace and passed through Switzerland always moving east. They got as far east as they would go when they became the apostolic kings of Hungary. But in this journey from west to east, the remarkable thing is that the western realities faded away in the east.

The Hohenzollerns didn't take such a long journey — only from Nuremberg to Berlin, but also from west to east. These historical signs are also real symbols which we should pay attention to. And we should pay attention to the realities beneath the platitudes of today. That is why it is impossible to find reality in public opinion today. Whoever has a sense for reality arrives at some remarkable things. When you look into the origin of things in public life that everyone in the whole world is imitating, things like Whigs and Tories, you find that they were originally cusswords, and it was necessary to take them seriously because serious names for what really existed could not be found. And that's the situation with many things nowadays. In public life we try to enclose words in a kind of mystical shroud, and don't realize it. We don't realize that we are living in the age of platitudes.

For example I know of a very interesting codex consisting of a collection of platitudes. When you open this codex you find remarkable sentences. For example: What is justice? Justice is a people's will — and so on. Yes, my dear friends, The law is the will of a people! People — but today “people” is thought to be a mere sum of individuals. But this sum is supposed to have a will. That is the kind of explanation given in the codex of platitudes. One has the impression that someone wished to enjoy the luxury of translating into platitudes everything existing in public life today. And do you know the title of this codex of platitudes? The State, and its author is Woodrow Wilson. This codex appeared in the 1890s. Now it was not Woodrow Wilson's intention to enjoy the luxury of collecting all the platitudes in one book; nevertheless it was accomplished. So little had what people think and say to do with reality that in their opinion Woodrow Wilson had compiled the sum of today's political wisdom — but which was in reality a codex of platitudes. A few years ago the platitude bug bit a German so soundly that he translated this fat book into German. I assume that it will also be translated into other languages, but I don't know.

Without seeing through these things, without observing everywhere the realities in these things, we will not get far. One doesn't advance today with small thinking. It is necessary to motivate ourselves to think big. We will discuss this further tomorrow.

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