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Origins of Natural Science

Schmidt Number: S-5104

On-line since: 29th May, 2004

Lecture I

Dornach, December 24, 1922


My dear friends! You have come together this Christmas, some of you from distant places, to work in the Goetheanum on some matters in the field of spiritual science. At the outset of our considerations I would like to extend to you — especially the friends who have come from afar — our heartiest Christmas greetings. What I myself, occupied as I am with the most manifold tasks, will be able to offer you at this particular time can only be indications in one or another direction. Such indications as will be offered in my lectures, and in those of others, will, we hope, result in a harmony of feeling and thinking among those gathered together here in the Goetheanum. It is also my hope that those friends who are associated with the Goetheanum and more or less permanently residing here will warmly welcome those who have come from elsewhere. Through our working, thinking and feeling together, there will develop what must be the very soul of all endeavors at the Goetheanum; namely, our perceiving and working out of the spiritual life and essence of the world.

If this ideal increasingly becomes a reality, if the efforts of individuals interested in the anthroposophical world conception flow together in true social cooperation, in mutual give and take, then there will emerge what is intended to emerge at the Goetheanum. In this spirit, I extend the heartiest welcome to those friends who have come here from afar as well as to those residing more permanently in Dornach.

The indication that I shall try to give in this lecture course will not at first sight appear to be related to the thought and feeling of Christmas, yet inwardly, I believe, they are so related. In all that is to be achieved at the Goetheanum, we are striving toward the birth of something new, toward knowledge of the spirit, toward a feeling consecrated to the spirit, toward a will sustained by the spirit. This is in a sense the birth of a super-sensible spiritual element and, in a very real way, symbolizes the Christmas thought, the birth of that spiritual Being who produced a renewal of all human evolution upon earth. Therefore, our present studies are, after all, imbued with the character of a Christmas study.

Our aim in these lectures is to establish the moment in history when the scientific mode of thinking entered mankind's development. This does not conflict with what I have just said. If you remember what I described many years ago in my book Mysticism at the Dawn of the Modern Age, 1 ] you will perceive my conviction that beneath the external trappings of scientific conceptions one can see the first beginnings of a new spirituality. My opinion, based on objective study, is that the scientific path taken by modern humanity was, if rightly understood, not erroneous but entirely proper. Moreover, if regarded in the right way, it bears within itself the seed of a new perception and a new spiritual activity of will. It is from this point of view that I would like to give these lectures. They will not aim at any kind of opposition to science. The aim and intent is instead to discover the seeds of spiritual life in the highly productive modern methods of scientific research. On many occasions I have pointed this out in various way. In lectures given at various times on various areas of natural scientific thinking, 2 ] I have given details of the path that I want to characterize in broader outline during the present lectures.

If we want to acquaint ourselves with the real meaning of scientific research in recent times and the mode of thinking that can and does underlie it, we must go back several centuries into the past. The essence of scientific thinking is easily misunderstood, if we look only at the immediate present. The actual nature of scientific research cannot be understood unless its development is traced through several centuries. We must go back to a point in time that I have often described as very significant in modern evolution; namely, the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. At that time, an altogether different form of thinking, which was still active through the Middle Ages, was supplanted by the dawn of the present-day mode of thought. As we look back into this dawn of the modern age, in which many memories of the past were still alive, we encounter a man in whom we can see, as it were, the whole transition from an earlier to a later form of thinking. He is Cardinal Nicholas Cusanus, 3 ] (Nicholas of Cusa) a renowned churchman and one of the greatest thinkers of all time. He was born in 1401, the son of a boatman and vinegrower in the Rhine country of Western Germany, and died in 1464, a persecuted ecclesiastic. 4 ] Though he may have understood himself quite well, Cusanus was a person who is in some respects extremely difficult for a modern student to comprehend.

Cusanus received his early education in the community that has been called “The Brethren of the Common Life.” 5 ] There he absorbed his earliest impressions, which were of a peculiar kind. It is clear that Nicholas already possessed a certain amount of ambition as a boy, but this was tempered by an extraordinary gift for comprehending the needs of the social life of his time. In the community of the Brethren of the Common Life, persons were gathered together who were dissatisfied with the church institutions and with the monastic and religious orders that, though within the church, were to some degree in opposition to it.

In a manner of speaking, the Brethren of the Common Life were mystical revolutionaries. They wanted to attain what they regarded as their ideal purely by intensification of a life spent in peace and human brotherhood. They rejected any rulership based on power, such as was found in a most objectionable form in the official church at that time. They did not want to become estranged from the world as were members of monastic orders. They stressed physical cleanliness; they insisted that each one should faithfully and diligently perform his duty in external life and in his profession. They did not want to withdraw from the world. In a life devoted to genuine work they only wanted to withdraw from time to time into the depths of their souls. Alongside the external reality of life, which they acknowledged fully in a practical sense, they wanted to discover the depths and inwardness of religious and spiritual feeling. Theirs was a community that above all else cultivated human qualities in an atmosphere where a certain intimacy with God and contemplation of the spirit might abide. It was in this community — at Deventer in Holland — that Cusanus was educated. The majority of the members were people who, in rather narrow circles, fulfilled their duties, and sought in their quiet chambers for God and the spiritual world.

Cusanus, on the other hand, was by nature disposed to be active in outer life and, through the strength of will springing from his knowledge, to involve himself in organizing social life. Thus Cusanus soon felt impelled to leave the intimacy of life in the brotherhood and enter the outer world. At first, he accomplished this by studying jurisprudence. It must be borne in mind, however, that at that time — the early Fifteenth Century — the various sciences were less specialized and had many more points of contact than was the case later on.

So for a while Cusanus practiced law. His was an era, however, in which chaotic factors extended into all spheres of social life. He therefore soon wearied of his law practice and had himself ordained a priest of the Roman Catholic Church. He always put his whole heart into whatever he did, and so he now became a true priest of the Papal church. He worked in this capacity in the various clerical posts assigned to him, and he was particularly active at the Council of Basle (1431–1449). 6 ] There he headed a minority whose ultimate aim it was to uphold the absolute power of the Holy See. 7 ] The majority, consisting for the most part of bishops and cardinals from the West, were striving after a more democratic form, so to speak, of church administration. The pope, they thought, should be subordinated to the councils. This led to a schism in the Council. Those who followed Cusanus moved the seat of the Council to the South; the others remained in Basle and set up an anti-pope. 8 ] Cusanus remained firm in his defense of an absolute papacy. With a little insight it is easy to imagine the feelings that impelled Cusanus to take this stand. He must have felt that whatever emerged from a majority could at best lead only to a somewhat sublimated form of the same chaos already existing in his day. What he wanted was a firm hand that would bring about law and order, though he did want firmness permeated with insight. When he was sent to Middle Europe later on, he made good this desire by upholding consolidation of the Papal church. 9 ] He was therefore, as a matter of course, destined to become a cardinal of the Papal church of that time.

As I said earlier, Nicholas probably understood himself quite well, but a latter-day observer finds him hard to understand. This becomes particularly evident when we see this defender of absolute papal power traveling from place to place and — if the words he then spoke are taken at face value — fanatically upholding the papistical Christianity of the West against the impending danger of a Turkish invasion. 10 ] On the one hand, Cusanus (who in all likelihood had already been made a cardinal by that time) spoke in flaming words against the infidels. In vehement terms he summoned Europe to unite in resistance to the Turkish threat from Asia. On the other hand, if we study a book that Cusanus probably composed 11 ] in the very midst of his inflammatory campaigns against the Turks, we find something strange. In the first place, Cusanus preaches in the most rousing manner against the imminent danger posed by the Turks, inciting all good men to defend themselves against this peril and thus save European civilization. But then Cusanus sits down at his desk and writes a treatise on how Christians and Jews, pagans and Moslems — provided they are rightly understood — can be brought to peaceful cooperation, to the worship and recognition of the one universal God; how in Christians, Jews, Moslems and heathens there dwells a common element that need only be discovered to create peace among mankind. Thus the most conciliatory sentiments in regard to religions and denominations flow from this man's quiet private chamber, while he publicly calls for war in the most fanatical words.

This is what makes it hard to understand a man like Nicholas Cusanus. Only real insight that age can make him comprehensible but he must be viewed in the context of the inner spiritual development of his time. No criticism is intended. We only want to see the external side of this man, with the furious activity that I have described, and then to see what was living in his soul. We simply want to place the two aspects side by side.

We can best observe what took place in Cusanus's mind if we study the mood he was in while returning from a mission to Constantinople 12 ] on the behalf of the Holy See. His task was to work for the reconciliation of the Western and Eastern churches. On his return voyage, when he was on the ship and looking at the stars, there arose in him the fundamental thought, the basic feeling, incorporated in the book that he published in 1440 under the title De Docta Ignorantia (On Learned Ignorance). 13 ]

What is the mood of this book? Cardinal Cusanus had, of course, long since absorbed all the spiritual knowledge current in the Middle Ages. He was well versed also in what the medieval schools of Neo-Platonism and Neo-Aristotelianism had attained. He was also quite familiar with the way Thomas Aquinas had spoken of the spiritual worlds as though it were the most normal thing for human concepts to rise from sense perception to spirit perception. In addition to his mastery of medieval theology, he had a thorough knowledge of the mathematical conceptions accessible to men of that time. He was an exceptionally good mathematician. His soul, therefore, was filled on the one side with the desire to rise through theological concepts to the world of spirit that reveals itself to man as the divine and, on the other side, with all the inner discipline, rigor and confidence that come to a man who immerses himself in mathematics. Thus he was both a fervent and an accurate thinker.

When he was crossing the sea from Constantinople to the West and looking up at the starlit sky, his twofold soul mood characterized above revolved itself in the following feeling. Thenceforth, Cusanus conceived the deity as something lying outside human knowledge. He told himself: “We can live here on earth with our knowledge, with our concepts and thoughts. By means of these we can take hold of what surrounds us in the kingdom of nature. But these concepts grow ever more lame when we direct our gaze upward to what reveals itself as the divine.”

In Scholasticism, arising from quite another viewpoint, a gap had opened up between knowledge and revelation. 14 ] This gap now became the deepest problem of Cusanus's soul, the most intimate concern of the heart. Repeatedly he sent through this course of reasoning, repeatedly he saw how thinking extends itself over everything surrounding man in nature; how it then tries to raise itself above this realm to the divinity of thoughts; and how, there, it becomes ever more tenuous until it finally completely dissipates into nothingness as it realizes that the divine lies beyond that void into which thinking has dissipated. Only if a man has developed (apart form this life in thought) sufficient fervent love to be capable of continuing further on this path that his though has traversed, only if love gains the lead over thought, then this love can attain the realm into which knowledge gained only by thinking cannot reach.

It therefore became a matter of deep concern for Cusanus to designate the actual divine realm as the dimension before which human thought grows lame and human knowledge is dispersed into nothingness. This was his docta ignorantia, his learned ignorance. Nicholas Cusanus felt that when erudition, knowledge, assumes in the noblest sense a state of renouncing itself at the instant when it thinks to attain the spirit, then it achieves its highest form, it becomes docta ignorantia. It was in this mood that Cusanus published his De Docta Ignorantia in 1440.

Let us leave Cusanus for the moment, and look into the lonely cell of a medieval mystic who preceded Cusanus. To the extent that this man has significance for spiritual science, I described him in my book on mysticism. He is Meister Eckhart, 15 ] a man who was declared a heretic by the official church. There are many ways to study the writings of Meister Eckhart and one can delight in the fervor of his mysticism. It is perhaps most profoundly touching if, through repeated study, the reader comes upon a fundamental mood of Eckhart's soul.

I would like to describe it as follows. Though living earlier than Cusanus, Meister Eckhart too was imbued through and through with what medieval Christian theology sought as an ascent to the divine, to the spiritual world. When we study Meister Eckhart's writings, we can recognize Thomistic shades of thought in many of his lines. But each time Meister Eckhart's soul tries to rise from theological thinking to the actual spiritual world (with which it feels united,) it ends

By saying to itself that with all this thinking and theology it cannot penetrate to its innermost essence, to the divine inner spark. It tells itself: This thinking, this theology, these ideas, give me fragments of something here, there, everywhere. But none of these are anything like the spiritual divine spark in my own inner being. Therefore, I am excluded from all thoughts, feelings, and memories that fill my soul, from all knowledge of the world that I can absorb up to the highest level. I am excluded from it all, even though I am seeking the deepest nature of my own being. I am in nothingness when I seek this essence of myself. I have searched and searched. I traveled many paths, and they brought me many ideas and feelings, and on these paths I found much. I searched for my “I,” but before ever I found it, I fell into “nothingness” in this search for the “I,” although all the kingdoms of nature urged me to the search.

So, in his search for the self, Meister Eckhart felt that he had fallen into nothingness. This feeling evoked in this medieval mystic words that profoundly touch the heart and soul. They can be paraphrased thus: “I submerge myself in God's nothingness, and am eternally, through nothingness, through nothing, an I; through nothing, I become an I. In all eternity, I must etch the I from the ‘nothingness’ of God.” 16 ] These are powerful words. Why did this urge for “nothing,” for finding that I in nothingness, resound in the innermost chamber of this mystic's heart, when he wanted to pass from seeking the world to seeking the I? Why? If we go back into earlier times, we find that in former ages it was possible, when the soul turned its gaze inward into itself, to behold the spirit shining forth within. This was still a heritage of primeval pneumatology, of which we shall speak later on. When Thomas Aquinas, for example, peered into the soul, he found within the soul a weaving, living spiritual element. Thomas Aquinas 17 ] and his predecessors sought the essential ego not in the soul itself but in the spiritual dwelling in the soul. They looked through the soul into the spirit, and in the spirit they found their God-given I. And they said, or could have said: I penetrate into my inmost soul, gaze into the spirit, and in the spirit I find the I. — In the meantime, however, in humanity's forward development toward the realm of freedom, men had lost the ability to find the spirit when they looked inward into themselves.

An earlier figure such as John Scotus Erigena (810–880) would not have spoken as did Meister Eckhart. He would have said: I gaze into my being. When I have traversed all the paths that led me through the kingdoms of the outer world, then I discover the spirit in my inmost soul. Thereby, I find the “I” weaving and living in the soul. I sink myself as spirit into the Divine and discover “I.”

It was, alas, human destiny that the path that was still accessible to mankind in earlier centuries was no longer open in Meister Eckhart's time. Exploring along the same avenues as John Scotus Erigena or even Thomas Aquinas, Meister Eckhart could not sink himself into God-the-Spirit, but only into the “nothingness” of the Divine, and from this “nothing” he had to take hold of the I. This shows that mankind could no longer see the spirit in inner vision. Meister Eckhart brought the I out of the naught through the deep fervor of his heart. His successor, Nicholas Cusanus, 18 ] admits with complete candor: All thoughts and ideas that lead us in our exploration of the world become lame, become as nothing, when we would venture into the realm of spirit. The soul has lost the power to find the spirit realm in its inner being. So Cusanus says to himself: When I experience everything that theology can give me, I am led into this naught of human thinking. I must unite myself with what dwells in this nothingness in order to at least gain in the docta ignorantia the experience of the spirit. — Then, however, such knowledge, such perception, cannot be expressed in words. Man is rendered dumb when he has reached the point at which he can experience the spirit only through the docta ignorantia.

Thus Cusanus is the man who in his own personal development experiences the end of medieval theology and is driven to the docta ignorantia. He is, however, at the same time a skillful mathematician. He has the disciplined thinking that derives from the pursuit of mathematics. But he shies away, as it were, from applying his mathematical skills to the docta ignorantia. He approaches the docta ignorantia with all kinds of mathematical symbols and formulas, but he does this timidly, diffidently. He is always conscious of the fact that these are symbols derived from mathematics. He says to himself: Mathematics is the last remnant left to me from ancient knowledge. I cannot doubt its reliability as I can doubt that of theology, because I actually experience its reliability when I apprehend mathematics with my mind. — At the same time, his disappointment with theology is so great he dares not apply his mathematical skills in the field of the docta ignorantia except in the form of symbols.

This is the end of one epoch in human thinking. In his inner mood of soul, Cusanus was almost as much of a mathematician as was Descartes later on, but he dared not try to grasp with mathematics what appeared to him in the manner he described in his Docta Ignorantia He felt as though the spirit realm had withdrawn from mankind, had vanished increasingly into the distance, and was unattainable with human knowledge. Man must become ignorant in the innermost sense in order to unite himself in love with this realm of the spirit.

This mood pervades Cusanus's Docta Ignorantia published in 1440. In the development of Western civilization, men had once believed that they confronted the spirit-realm in close perspective. But then, this spirit realm became more and more remote from those men who observed it, and finally it vanished. The book of 1440 was a frank admission that the ordinary human comprehension of that time could no longer reach the remote perspectives into which the spirit realm has withdrawn. Mathematics, the most reliable of the sciences, dared to approach only with symbolic formulas what was no longer beheld by the soul. It was as though this spirit realm, receding further and further in perspective, had disappeared from European civilization. But from the opposite direction, another realm was coming increasingly into view. This was the realm of the sense world, which European civilization was beginning to observe and like. In 1440, Nicholas Cusanus applied mathematical thinking and mathematical knowledge to the vanishing spirit realm only by a timid use of symbols; but now Nicholas Copernicus boldly and firmly applied them to the outer sense world. In 1440 the Docta Ignorantia appeared with the admission that even with mathematics one can no longer behold the spirit realm. We must conceive the spirit realm as so far removed from human perception that even mathematics can approach it only with halting symbols; this is what Nicholas Cusanus said in 1440. “Conceive of mathematics as so powerful and reliable that it can force the sense world into mathematical formulas that are scientifically understandable.” This is what Nicholas Copernicus said to European civilization in 1543. In 1543 Copernicus published his De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Bodies,) where the universe was depicted so boldly and rudely that it had to surrender itself to mathematical treatment.

One century lies between the two. During this century Western science was born. Earlier, it had been in an embryonic state. Whoever wants to understand what led to the birth of Western science, must understand this century that lies between the Docta Ignorantia and the De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium. Even today, if we are to understand the true meaning of science, we must study the fructifications that occurred at that time in human soul life and the renunciations it had to experience. We must go back this far in time. If we want to have the right scientific attitude, we must begin there, and we must also briefly consider the embryonic state preceding Nicholas Cusanus. Only then can we really comprehend what science can accomplish for mankind and see how new spiritual life can blossom forth from it.

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