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Supersensible Influences in the History of Mankind

Supersensible Influences: Lecture V


WE HAVE BEEN HEARING in recent lectures how fundamental impulses in the development of history are expressed in such phenomena as the strange custom in Egyptian culture of mummifying the human body and in the modern age the preservation of ancient cults — which is also a kind of “mummification”, in this latter case of ceremonies and rites.

Thinking again of Egyptian culture as expressed outwardly in the phenomenon of mummification, we will combine the picture thus outlined with a theme of which I have spoken recently and have frequently expounded here, namely, the theme of ordinary human thinking, how this thought-activity is exercised by man, how he gradually unfolds the faculty of thinking during childhood, becomes to a certain degree accomplished in it during his youth and then puts it into operation until his death. This thinking, this intellectual activity, is a kind of inner corpse of the soul. Thinking, as exercised by the human being in earthly life, is viewed in the right light only when it is compared, as far as its relation to the true being of man is concerned, with the corpse left behind at death.

The principle, which makes man truly man, departs at death, and something remains over in the corpse, which can only have this particular form because a living human being has left it behind him. Nobody could be so foolish as to believe that the human corpse, with its characteristic form, could have been produced by any play of nature, by any combination of nature-forces. A corpse is quite obviously a remainder, a residue. Something must have preceded it, namely, the living human being. Outer nature has, it is true, the power to destroy the form of the human corpse but not the power to produce it. This human form is produced by the higher members of man's being — but they pass away at death.

Just as we realise that a corpse derives from a living human being, so the true conception of thinking, of human thought, is that it cannot, of itself, have become what it is in earthly life, but that it is a kind of corpse in the soul — the corpse of what it was before the human being came down from worlds of soul-and-spirit into physical existence on the earth. In pre-earthly existence the soul was alive in the truest sense, but something died at birth, and the corpse, which remains from this death in the life of soul, is our human thinking. Those who have known best what it means to live in the world of thought have, moreover, felt the deathlike character of abstract thinking. I need only remind you of the moving passage with which Nietzsche begins his description of philosophy in the era of Greek tragedy. He describes how Greek thought, as exemplified by pre-Socratic philosophers such as Parmenides or Heraclitus, rises to abstract notions of being and becoming. Here, he says, one feels the onset of an icy coldness. And it is so indeed.

Think of men of the ancient East and how they tried to comprehend outer nature in living, inwardly mobile pictures, dreamlike though these pictures were. In comparison with this inwardly mobile, live thinking, which quickened the whole being of man and blossomed forth in the Vedanta philosophy, the abstract thinking of later times is veritably a corpse. Nietzsche was aware of this when he felt an urge to write about those pre-Socratic philosophers who, for the first time in the evolution of humanity, soared into the realm of abstract thoughts.

Study the sages of the East who preceded the Greek philosophers and you will find in them no trace of any doubt that the human being lived in worlds of soul-and-spirit before descending to the earth. It is simply not possible to experience thinking as a living reality and not believe in the pre-earthly existence of man. To experience living thinking is just like knowing a living human being on earth. Those who no longer experienced living thinking — and this applies to Greek philosophers even before the days of Socrates — such men may, like Aristotle, have doubts about the fact that the human being does not come into existence for the first time at birth. And so a distinction must be made between the once inwardly mobile and living thinking of the East wherewith it was known that man comes down from spiritual worlds into earth-existence, and the thinking that is a corpse, bringing knowledge only of what is accessible to man between birth and death.

Try to put yourselves in the position of an Egyptian sage, living, let us say, about 2000 B.C.. He would have said: Once upon a time, over in the East, men experienced living thinking. But the Egyptian sage was in a strange situation; his life of soul was not like ours today; experience of living thinking had faded away, was no longer within his grasp, and abstract thinking had not yet begun. A substitute was created by the embalming of mummies whereby, in the way I have described, a picture, a concept of the human form was made possible. Men trained themselves to unfold a picture of the dead human form in the mummy and began, for the first time, to develop abstract, dead thinking. It was from the human corpse that dead thinking first came into existence.

The counterpart of this in modern times is that in occult societies here and there, rituals, cults and ceremonial enactments once filled with living reality have been preserved as dead traditions. Think only of rituals that you may have read, perhaps those of the Freemasons. You will find that there are ceremonies of the First Degree, the Second Degree, the Third Degree, and so forth. All of them are learnt, written or enacted in an external way. Once upon a time, however, these cults were charged with life as real as the life-principle working in the plants. Today, the ceremonies and rites are dead forms. Even the Mystery of Golgotha was only able to evoke in certain priestly natures here and there, those inner, living experiences which sometimes arose in connection with rites of the Christian Churches after the time of Christ. But up to now mankind has not been able to infuse real life into ceremonies and rites — and indeed something else is necessary here.

All present-day thinking is directed essentially to the dead world. In our time there is simply no understanding of the nature of the living thinking which once existed. The intellectualistic thinking current since the middle of the fifteenth century of our era is, in very truth, a corpse and that is why it is applied only to what is dead in nature, to the mineral kingdom. People prefer to study plants, animals and even the human being, merely from the aspect of mineral, physical, chemical forces, because they only want to use this dead thinking, this corpse of thoughts indwelling the purely intellectualistic man.

In the present series of lectures I have mentioned the name of Goethe. Goethe was, as you know, a member of the community of Freemasons and was acquainted with its rites. But he experienced these rites in a way of which only he was capable. For him, real life flowed out of the rites which, for others, were merely forms preserved by tradition. He was able to make actual connection with that spiritual reality of being, which flowed in the way described from pre-earthly into earthly existence and which, as I said, always rejuvenated him. For Goethe underwent actual rejuvenation more than once in his life. It was from this that there came to him the idea of metamorphosis (Note 1) — one of the most significant thoughts in the whole of modern spiritual life and the importance of which is still not recognised.

What had Goethe actually achieved when he evolved the idea of metamorphosis? He had re-kindled an inwardly living thinking, which is capable of penetrating into the cosmos. Goethe rebelled against the botany of Linnaeus in which the plants are arranged in juxtaposition, each of them placed in a definite category and a system made out of it all. Goethe could not accept this; he did not want these dead concepts. He wanted a living kind of thinking, and he achieved it in the following way. First of all he looked at the plant itself and the thought came to him that down below the plant develops crude, unformed leaves, then, higher up, leaves which have more developed forms but are transformations, metamorphoses of those below; then come the flower-petals with their different colour, then the stamens and the pistil in the middle — all being transformations of the one fundamental form of the leaf itself. Goethe did not say: Here is a leaf of one plant and here a leaf of another, different plant. (Note 2) He did not look at the plant in this way, but said: The fact that one leaf has a particular shape and another leaf a different shape, is a mere externality. Viewed inwardly, the matter is as follows. The leaf itself has an inner power of transformation, and it is just as possible for it to appear outwardly in one shape as in another. In reality there are not two leaves, but one leaf, in two different forms of manifestation. A plant has the green leaf below and the petal above. Intellectualistic pedants say: “The leaf and the petal are two quite different things.” Nothing could be more obvious, as far as the pedants are concerned, for the one form is red and the other green. Now if someone wears a green shirt and a red jacket — here there is a real difference. As regards clothing, at any rate in the modern age, philistinism prevails and is, moreover, in its right place. In that domain one cannot help being a philistine. But Goethe realised that the plant cannot be comprised within such theories. He said to himself: The red petal is the same, fundamentally, as the green leaf; they are not two separate and distinct phenomena. There is only one leaf, manifesting in different formations. The same force works, sometimes down below and sometimes higher up. Down below it works in such a way that the forces are, in the main, being drawn out of the earth. Here the plant is drawing forces from the earth, sucking them upwards, and the leaf, growing under the influence of the earth-forces, becomes green. The plant continues to grow; higher up the sun's rays are stronger than they are below, and the sun has the mastery. Thus the same impulse reaches into the sphere of the sunlight and produces the red petals.

Goethe might have spoken somewhat as follows. Suppose a man who has nothing to eat sees another who has quantities of food and gets envious, literally pale with envy. Another time someone gives him a blow and then he reddens. According to the principle that speaks of two distinct and different leaves, it might be argued: Here are two men — two, because one is pale and the other is red. Just as little as there are two men, one who is red on account of a blow and the other who is pale because of envy — as little are there two leaves. There is one leaf; at one place it has a particular form, at another place a different form. Goethe did not regard this as particularly wonderful for, after all, a man can run from one place to another and the men you will see in different places are certainly not two different persons. Briefly, Goethe realised that this observation of things in strict juxtaposition is not truth but illusion, that there is only one leaf — green at one place, red at another; and he applied to the different plants the same principle he applied to the several parts of the single plant. Think of the following. Suppose some plant lives in favourable conditions. Out of the seed it forms a root, a stem, leaves on the stem, then petals, stamens and pistil within the stamens. Goethe maintained that the stamens too are only different formations of the leaf. He might also have said: Intellectualists argue that, after all, the red petals are wide and the stamen as thin as a thread, except perhaps for the anther at the top. In spite of this, Goethe maintained that the wide flower petal and the slender stamen are only different formations of one and the same fundamental leaf. He might have asked: Have you not noticed some person who at one time in his life was as thin as a reed and afterwards became very stout? There were certainly not two different people. Petals and stamens are basically one, and the fact that they are situated at two different places on the plant is immaterial. No man can run swiftly enough to be in two places at once, although the story goes that a clever banker in Berlin when he was being pestered on all sides, once exclaimed: “Do you think I am a bird which can be in two places at once?” ... A human being cannot be in two places simultaneously. The point here is that Goethe was seeking everywhere for manifestations of the principle of metamorphosis, of the unity within multiplicity, of the unity within the manifold. And thereby he imbued the concept with life.

If you grasp what I have now said, my dear friends, you will grasp the idea of Spirit. I have said that the whole plant is really a leaf manifesting in different formations. This cannot be pictured in the physical sense; something must be grasped spiritually — something that transforms itself in every conceivable way. It is spirit that is living in the plant kingdom. Now we can go further. We can take a plant that is normal and healthy because its seed has been properly placed in the earth, it has absorbed the gentle sun of spring, then the full summer sun and has been able to develop its seeds under the weakening sun of autumn. But suppose a plant exists in such conditions of nature that it has no time to develop a root, an adequate stem, leaves or petals, but is obliged to unfold very rapidly — so rapidly indeed that everything about it lacks definition. Such a plant becomes a mushroom, a fungus.

There you have two extremes: a plant that has time to differentiate into all its detailed parts, to develop roots, stem, leaves, flowers, fruit; and a plant placed in such conditions of nature that it has no time to form a root, with the result that everything about it remains indication only; it cannot develop stem and leaves, and is obliged to unfold rapidly and without definition the principle underlying the formation of petals, fruit and seed. Such a plant only just manages to take its place in the earth and unfolds with amazing rapidity what other plants unfold slowly. Think, for example, of the corn poppy. After slowly putting out its green leaves it can proceed to unfold its petals, then the stamens, then the jaunty pistil in the centre. But a mushroom must do all this very rapidly; there is no time for differentiation, no time for exposure to the sun, which would bring the beautiful colours, because the sun is absent during its brief period of development. In the mushroom we have a flower without definition; development has taken place far too rapidly. Here, too, there is fundamental unity. Two quite different plants are basically the same.

But before all this can be really thought through, one must change a little, inwardly. An intellectualist — Goethe might have said, a “rigid philistine” — looks at a poppy with its sappy, red flower and well-developed pistil in the centre. What he really ought to do is at the same time to look at a mushroom and keep the concept he has formed of the poppy so mobile and flexible that he is able to see within the poppy itself, in tendency at least, some kind of mushroom or toadstool. But that, of course, is asking too much of a pedant. You will have to place before him the actual mushroom so that his intellect may drag itself away from the poppy without inner exertion, without being kindled to life — for all he need do is to incline his head very slightly. Then he will be able to visualize the one object beside the other separately, and all is well!

Such is the difference between dead thinking and the inwardly alert, live thinking unfolded by Goethe in connection with the principle of metamorphosis. He enriched the world of thought by a glorious discovery. For this reason, in the Introductions to Goethe's works on Natural Science which I wrote in the eighties of last century, you will find the sentence: Goethe is both the Galileo and the Copernicus of the science of organic nature, and what Galileo and Copernicus achieved in connection with dead, outer nature, namely, clarification of the concept of nature to enable it to embrace both the astronomical and the physical aspects, Goethe achieved for the science of organic nature with his living concept of metamorphosis. Such was his supreme discovery.

This concept of metamorphosis can, if desired, be applied to the whole of nature. When a picture of the plant-form came to Goethe out of this concept of metamorphosis, it immediately occurred to him that the principle must also be applicable to the animal. But this is a more difficult matter. Goethe was able to conceive of one leaf proceeding from another; but he found it much more difficult to picture the form of one of the spinal vertebrae, for instance, being metamorphosed, transformed, into a bone of the head — which would have meant the application of the principle of metamorphosis to the animal and also to the human being. Nevertheless Goethe was partially successful in this too, as I have often told you. In the year 1790, while he was walking through a graveyard in Venice, he was lucky enough to come across a sheep's skull, the bones of which had fallen apart in a way very favourable for observation. As he examined these animal bones the thought dawned upon him that they looked like spinal vertebrae, although greatly transformed. And then he conceived the idea that the bones, at least, can also be pictured as representing one, basic bone-creating impulse, which merely manifests in different forms.

With respect to the human being, however, Goethe did not get very far because he did not succeed in passing on from his idea of metamorphosis to real Imagination. When real Imagination advances to Inspiration and Intuition, the principle of uniformity is revealed still more strikingly. And I have already indicated how this uniformity is revealed in the being of man when the concept of metamorphosis is truly understood. When Goethe contemplated the dicotyledons and visualised the flowers of such plants in simpler and more and indefinite forms, he could finally see them as a mushroom or fungus. And from this same point of view, when we study the human head, we can conceive of it as a metamorphosis of the rest of the skeleton.

Try to look at one of the lower jaws in a human skeleton with the eye of an artist. You will hardly be able to do otherwise, than compare it with the bones of the arm and of the leg. Think of the leg bones and arm bones transformed and then, in the lower jaws, you have two “legs”, except that here they have stultified. The head is a lazybones that never walks, but is always sitting. The head “sits” there on its two stultified legs. Imagine a man in the uncomfortable position of sitting with his legs bound together by some kind of cord, and you have practically a replica of the formation of the jaws. Look at all this with the eye of an artist and you can easily imagine the legs becoming as immobile as the lower jawbones — and so on.

But the truth of the matter is realised for the first time when the human head is conceived as a transformation of the rest of the body. I have told you that the head of our present earth-life is the transformed body (the body apart from the head) of our previous earth-life. The head, or rather the forces of the head, as they then were, have passed away. In some cases indeed they actually pass away during life! The head — I am speaking, of course, of forces, not substances — the forces of the head are not preserved; the forces now embodied in your head were the forces which were embodied in the other parts of your body in your previous life. In that life, again, the forces of the head were those of the body of the preceding life; and the body that is now yours will be transformed, metamorphosed, into the head of the future earth-life. For this reason the head develops first. Think of the embryo in the body of the mother. The head develops first and the rest of the organism, being a new formation, affixes itself to the head. The head derives from the previous earth-life; it is the transformed body, a form that has been carried across the whole span of existence between death and a new birth; it then becomes the head-structure and attaches to itself the other members. Accepting the fact of repeated earthly lives, we can thus see the human being as a metamorphosis recently perfected. The idea of plant-metamorphosis discovered by Goethe at the beginning of the eighties of the eighteenth century leads on to the living concept of development through the whole animal kingdom up to the human being, and contemplation here leads on to the idea of repeated earthly lives.

Goethe's participation in the ceremonial enactments of the cult to which he belonged was responsible for this inner quickening in his life of thought. Although it was not fully clear to his consciousness, he nevertheless had an inkling of how the human being, still living entirely as a soul in pre-earthly life, carries over forces which have remained from the bodily structure of the previous earth-life and which, having entered into the present life, develop within the protective sheaths of the mother's body into the head structure.

Goethe did not know this consciously but he had an inkling of it and applied it, in the first place, to the simplest phenomena of plant life. Because the time was not ripe, he could not extend the principle to the point that is possible today, namely to the point where the metamorphosis of the human being from one earth-life over to the next can be understood. As a rule it is said, with a suggestion of compassion, that Goethe evolved this idea of metamorphosis because, owing to his artistic nature, something had gone wrong with him. Pedants and philistines speak like this out of compassion. But those who are neither pedants nor philistines will realise with joy that Goethe knew how to add the element of art to science and precisely because of this was able to make his concepts mobile. Pedants insist, however, that nature cannot be grasped by this kind of thinking; strictly logical concepts are necessary, they say, for the understanding of nature. Yes, but what if nature herself is an artist ... presuming this, the whole of natural science which excludes art and bases itself only upon the concepts of logical deduction might find itself in a position similar to one of which I once heard when I was talking to an artist in Munich. He had been a contemporary of Carriere, the well-known writer on Aesthetics. We began, by chance, to speak about Carriere and this man said: “Yes, when we were young, we artists used not to attend Carriere's lectures; if we did go once, we never went again; we called him ‘the aesthetic rapture-monger’.” Now just as it might be the fate of a writer on Aesthetics to be called a “rapture-monger” by artists, so, if nature herself were to speak about her secrets she might call the strictly logical investigator ... well, not a rapture-monger, but a misery-monger perhaps, for nature creates as an artist. One cannot order nature to let herself be comprehended according to the laws of strict logic. Nature must be comprehended as she actually is.

Such, then, is the course of historical evolution. Once upon a time, in the ancient East, concepts and thoughts were full of life. I have described how, to begin with, these living concepts became actual perception through a metamorphosis of the breathing process. But human beings were obliged to work their way through to dead, abstract concepts. The Egyptians could not reach this stage but forced themselves in the direction of dead concepts through contemplating the human being himself in the state of death, in the mummy. We, in our day, have to awaken concepts to new life. This cannot happen by the mere elaboration of ancient, occult traditions, but by growing into, and moreover elaborating, the living concept which Goethe was the first to evolve in the form of the idea of metamorphosis. Those who are masters of the living concept, in other words, those who are able to grasp the Spiritual in their life of soul — they are able, out of the Spirit, to bring a new and living impulse into the external actions of men. This will lead to something of which I have often spoken to Anthroposophists, namely, that men will no longer stand in the laboratory or at the operating table with the indifference begotten by materialism, but will feel the secrets revealed by nature to listening ears as deeds of the Spirit which pervades and is active in her. Then the laboratory table will become an altar. Forces leading to progress and ascent will not be able to work in the evolution of humanity until true reverence and piety enter into science, nor until religion ceases to be a mere bolster for human egoism and to be regarded as a realm entirely distinct from science. Science must learn, like the pupils of the ancient Mysteries, to have reverence for what is being investigated. I have spoken of this in the book Christianity as Mystical Fact. All research must be regarded as a form of intercourse with the spiritual world and then, by listening to nature we shall learn from her those secrets, which in very truth promote the further evolution of humanity. And then the process of mummification — which was once a necessary experience for man — will be reversed. The Egyptians embalmed the human corpse, with the result that even now we can witness the almost terrifying spectacle of whole series of mummies being brought by Europeans from Egypt and deposited in museums. Just as human thinking was once rigidified as the outcome of the custom of mummification, so it must now be awakened to life.

The ancient Egyptians took the corpses of men, embalmed them, conserved death. We, in our day, must feel that we have a veritable death of soul within us if our thoughts are purely abstract and intellectualistic. We must feel that these thoughts are the mummy of the soul, and learn to understand the truth glimpsed by Paracelsus when he took some substance from the human organism and called this the “mummy”. In the tiny material residue of the human being, he saw the mummy. Paracelsus did not need an embalmed corpse in order to see the mummy, for he regarded the mummy as the sum-total of those forces which could at every moment lead man to death if new life did not quicken him during the night.

Dead thinking holds sway within us; our thinking represents death of soul. In our thinking we bear the mummy of the soul which produces precisely those things that are most prized in modern civilisation. If we have a wider kind of perception, the kind of perception, for example, which enabled Goethe to see metamorphoses, we can go through rooms where mummies are exhibited in museums and then out into the streets and see the same thing there ... it is merely a question of the level from which we are looking, for in the modern age of intellectualism there is little difference — the fact that mummies do not walk as human beings walk in the streets, is only an externality. The mummies in the museums are mummies of bodies; the human beings who walk about the streets in this age of intellectualism are mummies of soul because they are filled with dead thoughts, with thoughts that are incapable of life. Primordial life was rigidified in the mummies of Egypt and this rigidified life of soul must be quickened again for the sake of the future of mankind. We must not continue to study anatomy and physiology in the way that has hitherto been customary. This was permissible among the ancient Egyptians when corpses of the physical human being lay before them. We must not further mummify the corpse of abstract soul-life we bear in our intellectualistic thinking. There is a real tendency today to embalm thinking so that it becomes pedantically logical, without a single spark of fiery life.

Photographs of mummies are as rigid and stiff as the mummy itself. A typical standard work today on some branch of modern knowledge is a photograph, an image of the mummified soul; in this case it is the soul that has been embalmed. And if doubt arises because as well as the intellect which is certainly mummified, human beings have other characteristics, all kinds of bodily and other urges, for instance, so that the picture of the mummy is not very clear ... nevertheless it is there, unmistakably, in standard text books. The embalming process in such writings is very perceptible. This embalming of thought must cease. Instead of the embalming process applied by the Egyptians to the mummies, we need something different, namely, an elixir of life — not as many people think of this today, as a means of perfecting the physical body, but in a form which makes the thoughts alive, which de-mummifies them. When we understand this we have a picture of a profoundly significant impulse in historical evolution. It is a picture of how spiritual culture was once rigidified in the embalming of mummies and of how an elixir of spirit and soul must be poured into all that has been mummified in modern man in the course of his education and development, so that culture may flow onwards to the future. There are two forces: one manifests in the Egyptian custom of embalming and the other in the process of “de-embalming” which modern man must learn to apply.

To learn how to “de-embalm” the dead, rigid forces of the soul — this is a task of the greatest possible significance today. Failure to achieve it produces phenomena of which I gave one example here a short time ago. A man like Spengler realised that rigidified concepts and thoughts will not do, that they lead to the death of culture. In an article in Das Goetheanum I showed what really happened to Spengler. He realised that concepts were dead, but his own were not living! His fate was the same as that of the woman in the Old Testament who looked behind her. Spengler looked at all the dead, mummy-like thoughts of men and he himself became a pillar of salt. Like the woman in the Old Testament, Spengler became a pillar of salt, for his concepts have no more life in them than those of the others.

There is an ancient occult maxim that “wisdom lives in salt” ... but only when the salt is dissolved in human mercury and human phosphorus. Spengler's wisdom is wisdom that has rigidified in salt. But the mercury that brings the salt into movement, making it cosmic, universal — this is lacking; and phosphorus, too, is lacking in a still higher degree. For when one reads Spengler with feeling, above all with artistic feeling, it is impossible for his ideas to kindle inner enthusiasm, inner fire. They all remain salt-like and rigid and even produce a bitter taste. One has to be pervaded inwardly by the mercurial and phosphoric forces if it is a question of “digesting” this lump of salt that calls itself The Decline of the West. But it cannot really be digested ... I will not enlarge upon this particular theme because in polite society one does not mention what is done with indigestible matter! What we have to do is to get away from the salt, away from rigidity, and administer an elixir of life to the mummified soul, to our abstract, systematized concepts. That is the task before us.

Note 1 See The Mystery of the Trinity lecture II, by Rudolf Steiner.

Note 2 Sketches of leaves of various shapes were made on the blackboard.

Last Modified: 15-Nov-2017
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