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Contrasting World-Conceptions of East and West

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Contrasting World-Conceptions of East and West

Rudolf Steiner Archive Document

Lectures Section

First printed in English in the Anthroposophic News Sheets of the 24th of August and the 9th of September, 1941, this lecture was given at Dornach on June 17th 1922, and is included in Volume 212 of the Bibliographic Survey, 1961. It is lecture 9 of 9 from the lecture series: Human Soul in Relation to World Evolution, published in German as, Menschliches Seelenleben und Geistesstreben im Zusammenhange Mit Welt- und Erdenwickelung.

By Rudolf Steiner

Translator is unknown
Bn/GA 212

First printed in English in the Anthroposophic News Sheets of the 24th of August and the 9th of September, 1941, this lecture was given at Dornach on June 17th 1922, and is included in Volume 212 of the Bibliographic Survey, 1961. It is lecture 9 of 9 from the lecture series: Human Soul in Relation to World Evolution, published in German as, Menschliches Seelenleben und Geistesstreben im Zusammenhange Mit Welt- und Erdenwickelung. It has been translated from notes unrevised by the lecturer, by an unknown translator.

This lecture has been authorized for the Western hemisphere, and published here by kind permission of the Rudolf Steiner Nachlassverwaltung, Dornach, Switzerland.

Copyright © 1941
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Anthroposophic News Sheet


9th Year No. 33/34 24th of August, 1941.

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Lecture by Dr. R u d o l f   S t e i n e r.

Delivered at D o r n a c h, 17th of June, 1922.

[From stenographic notes unrevised by the lecturer]

To-day I feel called upon to explain to you a few anthroposophical facts closely connected with the human being.

We are, to begin with, connected with the world through our senses; we are connected with it — and this is clearly evident — from the moment of waking up to the moment of falling asleep. We perceive the various spheres of life through our senses, and a certain soul-activity within us constructs a picture of the world from these perceptions. I only allude to this, in order to draw attention to the way in which we can study our waking life and all that it concerns.

Yet we do not only live in the world during our waking condition, but also when we are asleep. During our sleep, we live outside our body with our Ego and our soul, in an environment, which is, at first, unknown to the ordinary human consciousness.

All that I am telling you now, applies to the present-day human being; that is, to man and the way in which he has developed his soul-life from the time which I have often indicated as an extraordinarily significant moment in the evolution of humanity — from the 15th century onwards. Yet we must ask ourselves: How are we connected with a world which is closed to our ordinary consciousness? How are we connected with it, when we are asleep? When we ask this question, we immediately encounter an obstacle, particularly in the present moment of human evolution, unless we bear in mind the development of humanity, and the fact that its soul-life has passed through many stages.

If we reflect upon the soul-life of modern man, we find that the human being belonging to our so-called civilised world must make the greatest effort to form his ideas and concepts. Nowadays we frequently look back into earlier epochs of human development without any clear thoughts. At that time there was no educational system of the kind required to-day, and we look back without really thinking about it into that ancient culture which developed and flourished in the East, when it was not necessary for man to have the education through childhood upwards, that he has to-day.

In Europe it is almost impossible at this time to imagine how differently the men of earlier epochs regarded education in the Orient. In those times, powerful Eastern teachings were created, which uplifted heart and spirit, such as the Vedas and all that is contained in the wisdom of the East. To-day all that arises through the spirit is judged in accordance with the way in which we have been educated and taught from childhood upwards, and the way in which we have developed through our education, and what we have learned through our life in the external world. At first, it seems obvious to our ordinary way of thinking that we must be educated, for we must learn to form our thoughts on life. If we were unable to do so, we should be helpless in the present-day world. I might say, that at the present time, we have not yet progressed very far in the art of forming thoughts. One of the aims of education should be that of more and more perfecting in us by our own effort this art of forming thoughts about the things in the world.

This was prepared for in the Greek epoch. The Grecian life was to a certain extent completely under the influence of the Orient, and consequently the education there aimed only at a very elementary development of the thinking forces. Oriental influences streamed into Greek cultural life, and these did not encourage thought-efforts, they did not induce man to form ideas himself on the objects around him, if I may express this trivially.

In the spiritual life of the West, we now admire Socrates, and rightly so, as one of the first who stimulated man to form thoughts about surrounding objects. Yet it would be wrong to jump to the conclusion that there was no thought-life in the Orient, simply because in Europe man had to develop a thought-life through his own effort. The Orientals had a powerful life of thought, which we find all the more powerful, the further we go back into the cultural life of the East.

A rich spiritual life existed in the East, even before the time of the Vedas and of the Vedanta philosophy. As I have frequently explained, the Vedas and the Vedanta philosophy are not the first stages of spiritual life of the East, for these first stages were never recorded in writing. During the last two or three thousand years before Christ, this powerful Oriental life had already reached a decadent stage. What the Oriental now admires, is but the last remnant of this ancient spiritual life.

This life of thought was not like ours, which makes us (please forgive the materialistic expression, which is only used as a comparison) grow hot inwardly and perspire in our efforts to bring it into being. The Oriental life of thought was an inspired one.

For the Oriental, the thoughts ordered themselves, as if of their own accord. He obtained his world-picture in the form of an inspiration. He always had the feeling: “My thoughts are given to me,” and he did not know the inner soul-effort which we must make in order to construct our thoughts. From the moment of waking up to the moment of falling asleep, he felt that his thoughts were gifts bestowed upon him. His whole soul-life had a corresponding nuance. When he nurtured thoughts, he felt grateful to the gods who gave him these thoughts. When he was able to say: “Thoughts live in me, who am a human being,” he felt in these thoughts the instreaming of divine-spiritual powers. Thus it was quite a different way of thinking.

For this reason, the Oriental life of thoughts of remoter epochs was not so severed from the life of feeling and from the life of the heart, as it is to-day, for the normal human consciousness. Just because man could feel that thoughts were given to him, he felt uplifted as a human being, and a religious feeling was connected with every one of his thoughts. Man felt that he must meet the divine powers who gave him his thoughts with a kind of religious piety, and he experienced these thoughts more as a united whole, than as single thoughts.

But what was the objective external cause of this? It was caused by the fact that in these ancient times man's sleep was different from ours. When we are asleep now, we are forsaken especially in the head by the Ego and the soul. The metabolic organs and the extremities do not become separated so completely from the human being. Even when we are asleep, our soul and our Ego still penetrate into the extremities of the body and into its metabolic organs. We should not think that during sleep the Ego and the soul forsake our whole being, but instead we should picture to ourselves that the head is the most forsaken part.

I have often explained this, and now I would like to put it before you schematically. In the waking human being, the Ego and the soul permeate the physical and the etheric body. Now it would be wrong to draw the sleeping man so as to indicate here the physical and etheric bodies lying on the bed, and the Ego and the astral body just there, beside them. Instead, they should be so drawn that if the physical organs and the extremities, including the arms, which are also extremities, are indicated here, then the Ego and the soul which are outside the human being would have to be drawn outside it only in the vicinity of the head. Strictly speaking, when we are asleep, the Ego and the soul are outside the physical and the etheric body only as far as the head is concerned.

If we now return to those remoter times to which I have alluded, we find that when the human being was asleep, the organs of the head — that is, principally the nervous-sensory system and a part of the respiration which permeates the head — were the field of action used by the divine-spiritual beings connected with the earth.

If we refer quite seriously to realities, it can indeed be said, without speaking metaphorically, that in the most remote epochs of human evolution the divine-spiritual beings on earth withdrew from the human being when he was awake. But when he was asleep they took up their abode in his head. The human Ego and the human soul abandoned the head: and there, the divine-spiritual beings directed their activities. When the human being woke up in the morning, he once more dived into his head, and there he found the results of all that had taken place under the influence of the deeds of the divine-spiritual beings.

These beings ordered man's nervous processes in accordance with their laws, and they exercised an influence even upon the circulation of the blood and penetrated into the organic processes in the etheric body and in the physical body. Yet this was not clearly realised; only those men who were schooled in the Mysteries had an insight into such things. The great majority of men did hot realise this, yet they could EXPERIENCE it.

On waking up, the human being thus found in his head the deeds of gods. And when he then lived through his waking life and was able to perceive the structure of his thoughts, this was due to the fact that the gods had been active in his head while he was asleep. The ancient Oriental thus discovered within him every morning the heritage of the gods, the results of what they had done in him while he was asleep. He perceived this in thoughts, in the form of an inspiration. The divine-spiritual beings did not inspire him directly, when he was awake.. They inspired him when he was asleep, while they were active in his head.

In those ancient times, everything that led to man behaving socially in this or in that way, was really inspiration. It might be said: At that time, the divine-spiritual beings still had the possibility of ordering earthly affairs in such a way that while human beings were asleep, they arranged the trust men felt in one another, and they brought about the obedience of the large masses to their leaders, etc. etc. In that ancient Oriental epoch there was still cooperation between the divine-spiritual world and the earthly world. But this was only possible, because the whole human organisation was different from the present one

I have often mentioned that now people imagine that everything connected with man as he is to-day has always been the same; that the physical part of his physical organism, the psychic part of his soul, the spiritual element of his Ego, were then as they are now. When a modern historian writes about ancient Egypt and unriddles its documents, he believes that the Egyptians may not have been as clever as he is, but that essentially speaking, they had the same thoughts, feelings and impulses which we have to-day.

One generally thinks that if we go far back into time, man was a kind of higher ape, and that from this stage he passed on to a condition which they only imagine. And when the time began which interests them from the historical standpoint, then they have to admit that man was more or less what he is to-day, with the thoughts, feelings and impulses which he now possesses.

Yet it is not so. Even in the course of history, man underwent considerable changes. You only have to remember how the Greek viewed the world, quite physically. The Greek did not see the colour blue, as we see it now. He only saw the reddish tones of colour. If a modern man contemplates the beautiful blue sky and thinks that the Greek, who was steeped in beauty, must have loved it, he is mistaken. The Greek saw the warm, reddish and yellow tints, and could not distinguish green from blue. He therefore saw the sky quite differently from the way in which we see it, with our normal consciousness. Even the eyes have changed completely in the course of human evolution, although this only applies to the more intimate and finer traits. The whole sense-organisation has changed in the course of history. During those ancient Oriental times of which I have spoken, the organisation of the senses did not prevent man from surrendering to that which came from his organism when he was awake, as the result of what remained to him from the activity of the gods in his body, while he was asleep.

Gradually, man's sense-organs changed; his senses connected him with the external world in so living a way, that when he awoke, this connection prevented him from noticing what might still remain in him as a heritage from the gods, left there while he was asleep.

Even if the gods were still to be active in his head during sleep (they are no longer active in it, for man's organisation has changed, and this would no longer have a meaning for the development of mankind), man's progress and further development would not profit by it. On the contrary, he would not be able to perceive this heritage which comes to him from his sleep, because on waking, his fully developed senses immediately attract him strongly to the external world. What remains from his sleep, would therefore pass over into his body, instead of being taken up by his consciousness. To-day man would not be able to experience himself through the inspiration of the gods in his sleep, and were they still to use his head-organisation as a field for their activities, these inspirations would retreat into his body and prematurely age his organism.

In older times, man's sleep-experiences could be assimilated during his waking condition, because his senses were not directed so strongly towards the external world as they are to-day, and man could at that time live in union with the world of the gods.

This existence was a real LIFE in union with the world of the gods. The gods cannot be perceived through the senses, and in ancient times, man had to rely on being able to experience at least the deeds of the gods. He could do this, because his senses were not yet so strongly turned towards the external world as to-day.

Now, however, a time came — speaking generally, in the thousand years preceding the Mystery of Golgotha — when in the Eastern countries man's senses, especially the eyes, first began to be receptive to the impressions of the outer world; this receptivity developed as time went on. Man gradually developed the sense organisation which he now has, adding it to the nerve organisation, which still remained from former times and which enabled him to experience the divine-spiritual deeds.

Earlier he had experienced these divine-spiritual deeds in their purity, without mingling them with sense experiences. At that time, the human being could still, experience something, because the gods had not as yet completely forsaken him, but these experiences were immediately absorbed by the sense-organisation, with the strange result that among the great majority of men, the gods, the spiritual beings, were, so to speak, drawn into the sense organisation. I might express this by saying that out of the former purely spiritual contemplation of divine-spiritual beings a belief in ghosts arose.

This belief in ghosts does not reach back into very ancient times in man's history, but the contemplation of divine-spiritual beings is very ancient. The belief in ghosts only arose when sense perceptions were intermingled with the contemplation of the divine. When the Mystery-culture of the East came over to Europe and was taken up, for instance, by the wonderful spiritual life of Greece, flowing into Greek art and Greek philosophy, then the great masses of men coming from the East brought with them also the belief in ghosts.

So we may say, that during the last thousand years before the Mystery of Golgotha, the Oriental conception as such was already becoming decadent and a kind of belief in ghosts became widely prevalent among the masses of mankind. This belief came over into Europe from the East, and it was the transformation into sense-perception of the former, purely contemplative spirit of the East. We may therefore say that the belief in ghosts is the last ramification, the end of a lofty, though dreamy spiritual vision, which had once constituted a high stage of culture in the evolution of man.

All that has been described to you, how that during sleep the ancient Oriental felt his head to be the earthly field of action for the world of the gods, this could only be EXPERIENCED by him as man, but the initiate of the Mysteries KNEW it. This contrast can already be seen to-day, in the development of a new culture.

This culture is still in its infancy, and the further West we go, the more does it make itself felt. For an ancient Oriental it would have been meaningless to say, for instance, that human thoughts do not pulsate through the human will, for he knew that what lived in his will, and even in his blood, came to him from the gods. The gods made his thoughts and during his sleep condition the gods developed a mighty power in his head. This he felt as inspiration.

Even to-day, when we look across to the East and view the last remnants of Eastern culture, still existing for instance in Solovieff's philosophy, we find, particularly in Solovieff, that he would have been quite unable to understand it, if he had been told that thoughts bring no impulses to man and have no bearing on his will.

Yet Western people, particularly the Americans, have this view. Americans describe what lies immediately before them; even their physiology and biology are represented in this way. If we penetrate into its more intimate fundamental character, we shall find that American science greatly differs from European science. The Westerner portrays how little significance thoughts really have for the human will, for he is far too strongly aware of the fact that it is man who forms the thoughts. Nevertheless he cannot form them out of the blue, and so the modern American declares it to be of far more importance than his actual thoughts, how a man is rooted in a certain family or political party through his social life-conditions, or in the way he has grown into a certain sect. All this, he declares, stirs up emotions in him and determines his will. It is really impossible to influence the will through thought. The will is determined by such life foundations as family, political party, nationality, sect, etc. The American and the Westerner in general argues that thought is not the real ruler in man, but is only the Prime Minister of the ruler, an expensive minister, as Carlyle expressed it. This ruler is the human organism, which is will, instinct, passion, and thought is only the executive organ.

We really have to admit that this is the way of thinking of the great masses of people to-day, who rush forward to assert their own views in the face of old traditions in the world. This is why men like so much to study the ways of primitive man, because they think that he followed his instincts and passions, and that his thoughts were merely a kind of reflexion of these instincts and passions.

Consequently, regarding man in this way, the Westerner says he is driven by his instincts and passions. Why? — Because man is not yet organised in a way which enables him to perceive the spiritual behind these instincts and passions, he can only see an instinct or a passion and nothing spiritual behind them. Yet when an instinct or a passion rises up in man, evil though it may be, and no matter in what form it may appear in this or in that man, the SPIRIT lives behind this instinct or passion, even behind the most brutal ones. But to-day man cannot as yet perceive this spirit, for the human race is still in a state of development. It must gradually approach a spirituality which enables man to perceive the spirit whenever he looks within his own being and beholds his instincts and passions. In the future this will be possible. It is a matter of indifference whether a man has good or evil instincts. When he has evil instincts, then Ahrimanic or Luciferic beings lie hidden within him, but these are spiritual beings!

In advancing the view that instincts and passions are the driving powers, we have before us the same case as that of the ghosts in comparison with the spirituality of the past. You see, an ancient spirituality existed in the Oriental conception. This spirituality continued to develop, and as I have already said, during the last thousand years before the Mystery of Golgotha the final product was the belief in ghosts, in seeing ghosts.

We now stand within the evolution of the world in such a way, that on the one hand we see how the belief in ghosts arose out of an ancient spirituality; but at the same time, we see that in the future a purely spiritual contemplation will once more arise. To-day, however, there is still an inner belief in ghosts. Just as those who believe in ghosts think that ghosts are sensory things and look like something which the eyes can see, so a man of to-day, a Westerner, does not yet discern the spiritual, when he looks into himself; he only sees something spectral, something ghostly.

All passions, instincts and desires are ghostly spectres, which to-day precede the spirituality of the future, whereas the old ghosts in which people believed succeeded the spirituality of the past. It might be said that the old pure spirituality developed from East to West, then came the belief in ghosts, and the last traces of this belief are still among us. From West to East a future spirituality is developing, which is gradually drawing near, and which will become a reality in a distant future. The first traces of this spirituality, however, appear to be just as spectral as the ancient ghosts, namely the instincts, passions, etc, such as we see them to-day. The scholar of to-day must necessarily from his own point of view attribute to man himself his instincts and passions, yet he regards with contempt the general belief in ghosts. He does not realise that this belief of the masses in ghosts has just as much cognitive value and substance as has his own belief in human desires, instincts and impulses. He too is a believer in ghosts, but they are the ghostly spectres which are only now beginning to appear, whereas the great masses believe in ghosts belonging to a time now coming to an end. That is why our European civilisation has become so chaotic, because the old and the new spectres collide with one another.

There is a brief description in one of my “West-East Aphorisms” showing how humanity has been influenced for a long period by an ancient traditional Oriental spirituality on the one hand (a spirituality which had condensed itself into a belief in ghosts), and on the other hand in the belief in the spectres of instincts and passions, which is only now beginning to spring into life and which has not yet lost its sensory character. Ghosts, as they are generally called, are spirits which have acquired a sensory-physical character (or have become tangible) through the human organisation, whereas impulses, instincts, desires and passions are modern spectres pointing towards the future, spectres which have not yet been raised to spirituality.

The inner soul-life of a modern European lives in this particularly chaotic co-operation of old and new spectres and a spiritual conception must be found which throws light on both. These questions are not only connected with man's conception of the world, but with the universal human life upon the earth. How can it be otherwise, seeing that not only the spiritual life, but also the juridical, political and economic life depend on such questions, since they all proceed from the particular constitution of man. What, then, is the origin of this whole development? — we must ask ourselves.

I have said that the divine-spiritual beings have their earthly concerns in the human head. In man we distinguish a threefold being: The nervous-sensory being centred chiefly in the head, the rhythmical being which lives in the middle part, and the metabolic limb being, which is contained in the extremities and in their inner ramifications, that is to say, in the real metabolic organs.

Now we know that the gods ordered their earthly concerns during the sleeping condition of the older type of humanity; that they opened their workshop, as it were, in the head of man while he was asleep. What takes place in the man of to-day?

It happens also at the present time that the gods open their workshop in man while he sleeps, but they no longer work in his head, they work now in his metabolic system. But the limb-metabolic organism — and this is what is now most significant and fundamental — remains unconscious even when the human head is awake. Remember how often I have told you that man is awake in his thoughts and ideas; but when, for instance, the thought comes to him, “Now I will raise my arm, I will move my hand,” he does not really know what takes place below, so that the muscle may carry out these movements. This is not known to the man of to-day through his normal consciousness. The whole way in which his thought-life influences his organism remains in the dark. This leads to an unconscious life even when man is awake. The gods' field of action upon the earth to-day is therefore of such a kind that during his waking life man's own natural development no longer enables him to receive this inheritance of the gods when he wakes up.

However, there is a divine-spiritual activity at work in man to-day, from the time of falling asleep to the moment of his awakening, but his surrounding natural conditions no longer enable him to gain an impression of the gods' activity. In the past, man's organisation was so constituted that he felt inspired by his thoughts. To-day, man forms his own thoughts, but in this activity the divine spiritual deeds do not yet work. This capacity must first be developed in mankind.

This is the task — I might call it a cosmic task — which spiritual science must set itself. It must bring man forward in his development, and even pedagogy must be encompassed within such development, enabling him to recognise out of his own inner being and in full consciousness the divine-spiritual deeds. At the same time it will come about that he will no longer see these inner spectres. Pacing man's real inner being, the instincts and passions, as they are imagined to-day, are nothing but spectres, even as ghosts are seen outwardly, though these ghosts are not merely fragments of :he imagination; they are divine-spiritual forces which have become- delusively perceptible to the senses and which are incorrect, untrue imaginings. Similarly the divine-spiritual forces which are active in man's inner being are. thought of in the wrong way to-day if we think of them as instincts and passions.

External ghosts are now despised, but what is regarded as so-called science is but a collection of spectres, of inner spectres, and these must be transformed with man's co-operation during the course of cosmic development. Our whole culture must be permeated by impulses which go in this direction. Therein will lie the possibility of breaking away from the forces of decay, or from the chaotic interplay of such decadent forces with constructive forces (though mankind still struggles against the latter). Then we can advance to future stages of human development inspired and driven by the spirit. All this is essentially important.

What I wished to explain to you to-day is even a kind of East-West contemplation, but expressed, I might say, more esoterically. These East-West contemplations are to-day quite in harmony with the times, and this is not meant trivially. Only by such thoughts and considerations can humanity attain a certain degree of consciousness.

We must therefore say: In past times of earthly evolution, man was even in sleep (for he is a human being when he is asleep, even though he does not carry his body about with him) connected with the gods in such a way, that he could perceive with his soul's eyes, with spiritual eyes, how the gods took up their abode in his head, but when he woke up, only the echo of these feelings remained. Man gradually withdrew from this divine-spiritual world, although he could still perceive it dreamily.

The gods descended deeper into the human physical form, and man is connected with them at the present time in such a way that they have now chosen his metabolic system and his extremities as a workshop for the earthly being. But man does not completely abandon this earthly being during sleep. And because this abandonment is not complete, he will once more be able to experience, from the world of the gods will-impulses, impulses for his social life, and these he will experience not only in sleep, but also as a complete human being, when he is awake. In other words: Man must acquire mere and more CONSCIOUSLY the knowledge of the spiritual world.

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