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The Principle of Spiritual Economy

On-line since: 15th May, 2009


1909 was the year when Rudolf Steiner published Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and Its Attainment and completed An Outline of Occult Science, the sequel to his important book Theosophy, which had appeared in 1904. These three works, along with the earlier The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity (1894), contain the nucleus of Steiner's anthroposophical thought.

The eleven lectures translated in this book were also given in 1909 and have been taken from the first half of a volume of lectures published in German under the title Das Prinzip der spirituellen Ökonomie im Zusammenhang mit Wiederverkörperungsfragen. Ein Aspekt der geistigen Führung der Menschheit (Rudolf Steiner Verlag: Dornach, Switzerland, 1979). The titles of this German volume and its component lectures are not by Rudolf Steiner but were assigned later on the basis of expressions used by him. Inasmuch as individual lectures in the German language have been published individually, their titles go back to the Complete Edition (CE) of Steiner's works begun by Marie Steiner. Steiner himself first spoke about the “principle of spiritual economy” in Berlin in 1908 when he was already working on his book An Outline of Occult Science.

The theme “spiritual economy” is directly related to Steiner's investigations about “the spiritual guidance of human beings and humanity” and later lectures dealing with karma. The eleven lectures translated in this book and the ten lectures translated and published under the title Esoteric Rosicrucianism (Anthroposophic Press: Spring Valley, N.Y., 1978) occupy a special place in Rudolf Steiner's work because the aspect stressed in the two volumes is not presented in this fashion elsewhere in the Complete Edition.

The Anthroposophical Society was founded as a separate organization in 1912, but Steiner did not actively guide it until 1923, two years before his death. At the time when the following lectures were given, Rudolf Steiner was still General Secretary of the German Section of the Theosophical Society and was using the terms “theosophy” and “theosophical,” but always in the sense of the anthroposophical spiritual science presented by him from the beginning. He suggested later that these designations be replaced by “anthroposophy,” “spiritual science,” “ anthroposophical,” or “spiritual scientific.”

As the excerpt from his autobiography printed at the end of this book indicates, Rudolf Steiner directed his lectures largely to individuals who were somewhat familiar with the rudiments of anthroposphical teachings and who joined him in the struggle and labor. Then, as he listened “to the pulsations in the soul-life of the members,” the form of a lecture began to emerge. This process — admirable in itself — is problematic for the translator of Steiner's lectures because the style, syntax, and choice of words were intended to involve the souls of a listening, and not a reading, audience in a process of discovery.

Another problem facing the translator is the fact that most of the lectures collected were originally transcribed from Steiner's shorthand notes by different individuals and that the quality or completeness of these transcriptions differs considerably. Most can be considered nearly literal transcriptions of the spoken word, but in this book there seems to be gaps in the fourth, fifth, and ninth lectures. The reader should take into consideration that these three lectures were extracted from lecture cycles whose transcription was of insufficient quality to warrant their publication as a whole. The three seemingly incomplete lectures mentioned above were included in the present collection because they contain important details relevant to the subject matter and are not mentioned in other lectures. Finally, although the sixth lecture, given at the dedication ceremony of the Francis of Assisi Branch, seems repetitive and somewhat tedious, it too offers insights that add to the understanding of the theme.

Given these special circumstances I have tried to grasp the connotative quality of words, phrases, and sentences as Steiner used them in his probing, searching manner and render them in an English form that is simultaneously comprehensible and suggestive to a modern American speaker. Ultimately, however, such an attempt must not be considered more than an approximation of the author's original sense and a confirmation of Wilhelm von Humbolt's dictum that “all understanding is also a misunderstanding.”

The translation of some words in this book may require an explanation. Throughout the eleven lectures I have endeavored to translate the German word Mensch, which has a masculine grammatical gender, not with “man” and in the plural with “men,” but with “human being,” choosing “human beings” when the repeated use of the reflexive pronouns “himself” and “herself” would seem awkward. I employed this practice in deference to modern female readers and because I wanted to dispel even the slightest hint of a mistaken notion arising from the use of “man” or “men” that human evolution and the reincarnation of the human soul applies primarily to males. One of the few exceptions to this practice is the rendering of Geistesmensch or Geistmensch as “spirit man,” because “spirit human being” would sound awkward.

I capitalized Spiritual Science, an approximation of the German word Geisteswissenschaft, because I wanted to give the term greater prominence in a text that abounds with words related to spirit and because I consider it a proper noun that designates systematic anthroposophical thought and spiritual activity. At no place in the lectures does Rudolf Steiner use the word Geisteswissenschaft in its more widely known academic meaning of “humanities” or “liberal arts.”

Furthermore, I rendered Ätherleib as “etheric body,” rather than the “ether body” preferred by some translators because the word “ether” may conjure up distracting connotations in the minds of some and also because adjectival consistency of the term with the related concepts “physical” and “astral” (body) seemed to be desirable. On the other hand, I was reluctant to, but finally did, choose “ego” for German Ich, which in English can mean “I” or “self.” Steiner once described the ego as “that which says ‘I’ to itself,” but once, in the first lecture of the present book, he uses both Ich and “ego” to designate the same entity in different physical bodies. I felt that even though the current use of “ego" in psychology and popular speech can conjure up imprecise and misleading feelings, it is nevertheless a term to which many modern American readers ascribe a soul quality. Whenever Steiner uses the word Ich, which I have rendered in these lectures with “ego,” it should be understood to mean the fourth body or principle with which the human being has been endowed — the other three being the physical, the etheric, and the astral bodies.

The few footnotes that were deemed necessary to provide some background information to the reader not familiar with certain historical personalities or contexts have been placed at the end of the book. Although I am sympathetic to the argument that the constant flipping of pages in search of a footnote can be distracting, I felt that the overriding concern should be that the reader gets a sense of the uninterrupted flow of thoughts with which Rudolf Steiner managed to involve his audience in the substance and dynamics of his presentations.

The lectures presented in this book touch on the very core of Rudolf Steiner's teachings and visions, according to which four basic facts govern human evolution from prehistoric times to the present. First, humanity has evolved as a result of the dialectics between forces and counterforces in the spiritual world. Second, earthly lives are repeated in a variety of spiritual ways, and valuable components are preserved for later use. Third, evolutionary forces have changed human consciousness, and new soul qualities are developed at certain intervals. Finally, the Mystery of Golgotha is the centerpiece of human evolution, but the influence of Christ-Impulse was manifest long before the birth of Jesus and can be observed in individualities such as Buddha, Zarathustra, and Moses.

Anthroposophy is not a religion — it goes beyond that — but its totality is subsumed under Rudolf Steiner's Christology. The reader will encounter recurring questions in these lectures — sometimes in a fresh combination, sometimes in a slightly different context, always thought provoking. For example, What is Spiritual Science and what can it do for us? What is human thought from a spiritual scientific point of view? How can it be that the Event at Golgotha is the centerpiece of all human evolution? Who was the Christ from an anthroposphical perspective, and how did the Christ-Impulse evolve? Why do the teachings of Zarathustra and Buddha constitute a transition in human consciousness and what, from an anthroposophical perspective, is the fundamental difference between the Buddhist and the Christian interpretation of life? How has the etheric body of Shem been preserved in all the Hebrew people? In what way does spiritual economy provide for certain etheric and astral bodies to remain active for the benefit of humanity, and what is the function of an avatar? Finally, why are we in the modern era, destined to undergo the complete unfolding of the ego?

It was Steiner's firm belief that his listeners or readers should never follow the teachings of anthroposophy blindly, but that they would have to struggle to find answers and new questions about the origin and the destiny of humanity. The seriousness of such a struggle gradually gives comfort to the human soul, and it is hoped that reading these lectures will have the same effect.

Peter Mollenhauer
Southern Methodist University

Last Modified: 15-Nov-2017
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