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Self Knowledge and the Christ Experience

A Lecture By
Rudolf Steiner
Dornach, February 2, 1923
GA 221

This is the 1st of 9 lectures given by Rudolf Steiner at Dornach, in February of 1923. The title of the series of lectures is: Earthly Knowledge and Heavenly Wisdom. It was published in German as: Erdenwissen und Himmelserkenntnis.

This translation is based on shorthand notes not revised by the lecturer. It was translated by Mona Bradley, edited by Dr. A. J. Welburn. It is presented here with the kind permission of the Rudolf Steiner Nachlassverwaltung, Dornach, Switzerland. From GA# 221.

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SELF KNOWLEDGE AND THE CHRIST
EXPERIENCE

A lecture given by Rudolf Steiner in Dornach, 2 February 1923

My dear Friends,

Suppose that we observe an animal during the course of a year. We will find that its life follows the cycle of the seasons. Take for example an insect: according to the time of year it will form a chrysalis (pupate), at another season it will emerge and shed its chrysalis-form, at another time lay its eggs, and so on. We can follow the course of nature, follow the stages of such an insect's life, and find a certain connection between them, for the animal organizes its life according to its natural surroundings.

If we then go on to consider people — say, the people of one of the larger human communities during earlier stages of the earth's evolution — we find that they too experienced, more or less instinctively, the Life of nature. But as humanity developed further, those instincts, which enabled people to experience their natural surroundings so directly, largely died out. Among more advanced humanity, therefore, we will not find that spontaneous harmony — a harmony between what arises from the human side and the immediate setting or natural surroundings. That has to do with the fact that humanity itself is undergoing a development, which constitutes its history, and which will form a whole within the long planetary development of the earth.

Returning to our example of a lower animal, in insect, where these matters are revealed most clearly, we find that its experience spans a comparatively short space of time — a year. Then the cycle repeats itself. With regard to mankind, a certain law of development is found to run like a thread through long ages of our earth's planetary evolution, as we have repeatedly observed during our historical studies. We have become familiar, for instance, with the type of instinctive clairvoyance belonging to earlier peoples. Their pictorial consciousness gradually diminished during an intermediate period of human development, eventually giving place to modern consciousness which is intellectual, conceptual. Our own historical time, dating from the first third of the fifteenth century, is the time of the developing Consciousness Soul. It is that time when man will step fully into his capacity of intellectual thinking in its narrower sense, which will then bring him fully to free consciousness of the Self.

If we consider a longer space of time from this point of view, we begin to find certain observable laws in the development of humanity. We can compare these developmental laws with those which, say, an insect experiences during the course of a year. Now in ancient times people still instinctively lived together with their natural surroundings and with the cycle of nature but these instincts have more or less died away, and nowadays we live in a time in which conscious inner life must replace them. What would happen nowadays if a man were to give himself up entirely to chance! Suppose he were not to adopt any inner guiding principles or rules, or that he did not tell himself at a certain moment: ‘This is how you should orientate yourself’ — suppose that he were not to arrive at any such inner orientation but lived his life though, from birth to death, as chance directed. Man who by virtue of his higher soul development is ranged above the animals would sink because of the manner in which he handled his soul-life, below the animal level.

We may say, therefore, that the insect has a certain direction in its life through spring, summer, autumn and winter. It does not give its development up to chance, placing itself as it does within certain laws in each succeeding phase of its life. Mankind, however, has left behind the age of instinctive co-existence with nature. In his case it was more ensouled than that of the animals, but still instinctive. His life has taken on a newer, more conscious form. Yet we find that man, in spite of his higher soul-life and capacity to think, has given himself over to a more chaotic life. With the dying away of his instincts he has fallen, in a certain way, below the level of the animals. However much one may emphasize man's further steps forward, towering above the animals, one must still concede that he has lost a particular inner direction in his life. This directing quality of his life could be found once more by seeing himself as a member of the human race, of this or that century. And just as, for a lower form of life, the month of September takes its place in the course of the year, so does this or that century take its place in the whole development of our planet. And man needs to be conscious of how his own soul-life should he placed historically in a particular epoch.

This is an idea to which man needs to grow accustomed so as to step even further into the development of the Consciousness Soul. A man should be able to say to himself: ‘I live in this or that epoch. I am not man in the full sense of the word if I give myself over to chance. Chance has deposited me into earthly life through birth. But to give myself up to change as far as my consciousness is concerned would be simply to abandon myself to karma. I am only man, in the full sense of being man, if I take account of what the historical development of humanity asks from my soul-life, belonging as I do to this particular epoch.’ An animal lives within the cycle of the year: man must learn to live as part of the earth's history.

We have placed as the most vital event in the earth's history the Mystery of Golgotha. And we have often considered what it meant to live before the Mystery of Golgotha, or at some point after it. We have here a kind of fulcrum in historical development, from which vital, historical deed one can reckon backwards and forwards. But to do justice to such reckoning we must keep in mind the particular tasks awaiting the human soul in each historical age. The kind of presentation of the past which is customary cannot lead to such an understanding of each particular age. We may be told in bald terms, how Persian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek or Roman history unfolded, but that leaves us without any key to the position of each in the whole regular historical development of our planet — in the whole regular way an animal stands within the course of the year. Now, in order to gain a concept of what we need to arouse in our own soul-life in this age, we have had to consider the various ages of history from many points of view. Life is rich and diverse, and if one wants to reach some reality concerning our life on earth, we shall have to look at human life from ever-differing points of view, from which the particular tenor of soul-life in our own time.

If we look back to ancient times in human history we shall find, scattered about the inhabited earth, what are know as the Mysteries. We find that various groups of people, living their lives scattered about the earth, develop under the influence of the Mysteries. They do so outwardly — but more particularly in regard to culture and the life of the soul. We find that individuals are accepted into the Mysteries, according to their degree of maturity. There they undergo further development, which is to lead them to a particular grade of knowledge, of feeling, and willing. Then, when they have advanced in knowledge, in higher feeling, and higher willing, they step out again and move among the majority of mankind, giving guidance for the details of daily life, for the strengthening of the soul's inner work and of their will, their actual deeds. With regard to past ages of man, the best place in which to study such guidelines is actually the training of those preparing for initiation in the Mysteries.

Though not of course in the abstract, intellectual manner of today, the pupils in the Mysteries were led to know the world about them. Most importantly, they learned to know the so-called three kingdoms of nature and all that lives in them. In the lowest classes of our schools we learn, by way of all sorts of concepts and pictures, how we stand within the three realms of nature. Through concepts and ideas we learn to know mineral, plant and animal. We then seek there the key to understanding human life itself. Such concepts, with the intellectual soul-content imparted to people these days, did not exist among those working for initiation in the ancient Mysteries. Concepts did exist then; but they were not won, as today, through the exercise of observation and logic. Rather, people had to exercise their souls inwardly, so as to arrive eventually at inner pictures of mineral, of plant, and animal. These people did not absorb the abstract concepts of today but experienced pictures — pictures that intellectual modern man might find fantastic but, nevertheless, pictures. And man knew from direct experience that what he discovered, when he experienced these pictures, actually yielded him something that lived in the mineral, plant or animal — of what grew there, took form, and unfolded within them. This he knew: and he knew it from those pictures which to modern man would appear fantastic myths.

Ancient man knew that reality expressed itself in things which today are considered mere mythology. He could certainly say: ‘The animal before me has firm visible outlines.’ But these firm outlines were not what he tried to grasp or understand. He tried rather to follow the flowing, mobile, fluid quality of its life. He could not do this, however, in sharp outlines, in sharply defined concepts. He had to teach in pictures that were fluid, metamorphosing, changing. And thus it was taught in the Mysteries.

But when, on the basis of this Mystery-knowledge, a man was to rise to self-knowledge, he underwent a significant crisis in his soul. According to the type of knowledge available in those ancient times, early man obtained pictures of mineral, plant and animal. With his dreamlike consciousness, he could then see, as it were, into the inner realms of nature. From the content of the Mysteries he also received the guiding principles of self-knowledge, much as he did in later times. ‘Know Thyself’ has been an ideal in all civilizations, in all ages of human cultural development. But in progressing from his kind of imaginative, natural knowledge towards knowledge of himself, ancient man underwent an inner crisis of the soul. I can only describe the nature of the crisis by saying that when he learned to look at the nature of the mineral as it was spread before him man found fulfillment in his soul-life. He bore in himself the effects of physical-mineral processes. He bore in himself pictures of interweaving vegetative life, and also of animal life. In his world he was able to bring all these together: mineral, plant and animal. Looking back from the vantage point of the world around him into his own inwardness, he had, in his primitive type of memory, an inner picture of mineral, plant and animal, and of how they worked together.

Undertaking to obey the injunction ‘Know Thyself’, however, he found himself suddenly at a stand. He had a world of inner pictures, varied, richly diverse in form and colour, and sounding with inner music — this was his experience of his earthly surroundings. Yet he felt that this world of forms, diversity, and constant flux, this world that trembled with glowing colour and radiance and musical tones, let him down when he made the attempt to know himself. The pictorial way in which he tried to grasp the nature of man itself baffled him in his attempt. He was able to attain pictures of man too: but even while experiencing them he knew that the reality of man's being, the source of his human dignity, escaped him — it was not there.

In his Mystery-initiation man lived through this crisis. Yet out of it, arising from the impotence of self-knowledge, something else developed: a particular conviction about Life, a conviction on which every ancient civilization was based. It meant that really enlightened people in those ancient times could say: ‘Man does not reveal his true nature here on earth. The minerals, plants and animals all achieve their end here on earth; they can reveal themselves fully in the pictures which I have of them.’ This is at the root of all ancient civilizations: this living conviction that man does not belong to the earth in the same sense as do the other realms of nature. His home is elsewhere than on the earth. His home lies essentially in the super-sensible world. And this belief was no arbitrary figment. It was achieved through a crisis of the soul — after gaining the knowledge available at that time about the world external to man. And a solution to the crisis was only possible because people still had the capacity to turn their minds to life before birth, and from there to life after death. Everyone then knew instinctively of life before birth. It was part of earthly life, like a pre-natal memory. And they learned about life after death on the basis of life before birth (see Note 1).

On the basis of those capacities which he then had, man learned that after crossing the threshold of death the moment would come when he would not only have around him the natural world, external to man, but his own being would arise before his soul. For it was characteristic of the more ancient stages of human development that, between birth and death, man developed an exclusively pictorial consciousness. I have often spoken about this. He did not yet possess the intellectual consciousness which we have today. In those days this was only developed immediately after death. And people retained it then, after death. It is a peculiarity of man's progress that, in ancient times, man's consciousness after death was an intellectual one; whereas we experience a purely pictorial panorama of our life during the three days after death. There lies the peculiarity, that in ancient times men had a dreamy pictorial consciousness on earth, whereas nowadays we have an intellectual consciousness. Then after death, they grew into an intellectual consciousness which enabled them, once free of the body, to gain freedom. In ancient times man became an intellectual and free being after death.

On being initiated into this fact, the pupil in the Mysteries would be told that he could win knowledge of the world external to man through his picture-consciousness. If however he obeys the imperative ‘Know Thyself’, and looks back upon himself, he will not find his full human dignity there. He will not find it in earthly life before death. He will only become fully human when he has crossed the threshold of death, and pure thinking becomes his; for with pure thinking he can become a free being. It is a strange thing that this type of consciousness occurred after death in past ages of human development, whereas today after death we have the panorama of past life spread out before us. In a sense this consciousness has entered man's life in a counter-stream. It has moved from the life after death into his actual earthly life. And what we have gained, particularly since the first third of the fifteenth century, has trickled into earthly man from post-earthly man. The pupil in the ancient Mysteries knew clearly that the essence of man could only be found in super earthly life, after death. This has now taken its place in life on earth. A real super-sensible stream has entered into our life on earth. This sets up an opposition to the direction of our human life, moving from ‘before’ to ‘after’, the super-sensible stream moving from ‘after’ to ‘before’. Thus, as modern people, we take part in super-earthly life. We have undertaken to become worthy — worthy of what has been drawn from super-sensible into sensible existence. We now have to win our freedom by inner right. We must recognize fully the import of the super-sensible for the development of the Consciousness Soul.

For the people of ancient times, when the injunction ‘Know Thyself’ loomed before them, their response had to be that there is no self-knowledge on earth: for the essence of humanity is simply not fulfilled here on earth. Man reaches it only when he has gone through the threshold of death into the super-sensible world.

At the time of the Mystery of Golgotha, and for centuries afterwards, man as he lived on earth was still called, in the language of ancient Mystery wisdom, the ‘natural man’. And it was considered that this natural man was not the real human being. The natural man was clearly differentiated from the spiritual being which bore the essence of man. The view then was that one only became spiritual man with the laying aside of the physical body. Only after crossing the threshold of death did one become spiritual man and, as such, ‘fully human.’ Initiation in the ancient Mysteries led to great humility with regard to earthly consciousness. Earthly man could not be made arrogant through Mystery-initiation. For whilst on earth he did not even feel that he was man in the fullest sense. He felt that he was more a candidate for humanity, and that he needed to use his life on earth in such a way that, after death, he could become fully man. So, according to Mystery-wisdom, man, as he went about his business on earth, was not a revelation of full humanity.

Now we must come to ancient Greece, and the time when Greek culture was widely influential. For it was then that people began to be aware, with their intellect and in freedom, that the true being of man was pouring from the sphere of after-death into man's earthly being. In Greek civilization the individual on earth was not regarded as entirely fulfilling his humanity. Men saw the work of the super-earthly, as it was drawing into the earthly. They saw in the detail of man's physiognomy, his way of going about, his shape — in all this they beheld with reverence, the super-earthly streaming into the earthly.

With the recent development of humanity all that has changed. Now man says: My great task is to become aware of my humanity. My task on this earth is to reveal, at least to some degree, man's being in its fullness. I too stand under the banner of the exhortation ‘Know Thyself’. I can compose my soul for freedom, because I have gained intellectual consciousness. I can lay hold of the inner strength of pure thinking in the act of self-knowledge. Before the eye of my soul man can appear. Not that man should grow proud in the partial fulfillment of this injunction ‘Know Thyself’. He should realize how at every moment this freedom of his has to be wrestled for. He should realize how, in his passions, emotions, feelings and sensibilities, he is always dependent on the subhuman. What was seen by that high form of pictorial consciousness in the world around, by ancient humanity, was also this realm of subhuman. They recognized that all their knowledge was of the subhuman realm in those ancient times. That was a significant point. For, they said, true man does not exist on earth. To grasp the intellectual nature of man they would have needed intellectual capacities themselves. With their non-intellectual form of knowledge they could only grasp the subhuman.

I have described in my (Philosophy of Freedom) how the intellectual is further developed into conscious, exact clairvoyance. It then lives in a free inner constitution of the soul. Only then can man know himself and his relation to the other parts of his being, outside his pure thinking and his free will. Through such a higher consciousness — imaginative, inspired and intuitive consciousness — man may reach in self-knowledge beyond his intellect and know himself as part of the super-sensible world. And then it will be clear to him that although he is fully human, as has become clear to him in his self-knowledge, full humanity requires of him that he perfect it ever more and more.

Thus modern man cannot develop the same sort of humility that he needed in ancient times, which arose when he had to say of himself: ‘Living in a physical body you are not yet fully human, you are only a candidate for humanity, not yet fulfilling your human dignity and worth. All you can do is prepare yourself for consciousness and freedom as they will arise in you immediately after death.’ A more modern man, who has meanwhile lived under Greek conditions in a different incarnation, would say: ‘Take heed that in your fleshly body between birth and death you do not neglect to be fully man. For as a modern man your inner task is the working-out of what has entered earthly life from the realm of the pre-earthly. You can become man on earth, and you must therefore take upon yourself the difficulty of becoming man on earth.’

All this is expressed in the development of man's religious consciousness. On a previous occasion we saw how in earlier times man looked up principally to the Father God, and in Christ he had the Son of God. In God the Father he saw the creative source of substance and the super-sensible origin of divine providence. Of this the earthly, perceptible world is merely an impress. He looked up to the cosmos from the earth; and in religious consciousness he looked up to God the Father. The pupils in the Mysteries had always been conscious that the most they could learn about man would be a preparation for the life after death. Now, through the Mystery of Golgotha, the Son of God has united with the earth's life, and man is able to develop an awareness of what St. Paul meant when he said ‘Not I, but Christ in me’. Now man can so direct his inner life as to let the Christ-impulse come to flower in him; he can let Christ's life flow and breathe through him. He can absorb the stream which has come to us from pre-earthly life and bring it to fruition in his life on earth.

A first stage in the reception of this stream consists in man noticing that at a particular point in his life he feels something flowering and coming alive in him. Previously it sat under the threshold of his consciousness, and he notices for the first time that it is there. It rises, filling him with inner light, inner warmth, and he knows that this inner life, inner warmth, inner light, has arisen in him during life on earth. He acquires a greater knowledge of life on earth than was his birthright. He learns to know something which arises within his humanity during his life on earth. And if man is sensible of the light and Life, of the love arising in him, and feels there the flowing, living presence of the Christ, he will receive strength — strength to grasp the fully human, the post-earthly, in the free activity of his own soul. Thus the Mystery of Golgotha and the Christ-impulse are intimately bound up with the attainment of human freedom, of that consciousness which is able to suffuse with inner life and warmth our mere thinking that is otherwise dead and abstract.

The exhortation ‘Know Thyself — bring your humanity to fruition in your own inner life’ has been addressed to humanity through all time, and is still in force today. But the experience of Christ in man is essential to our own day. It takes its place alongside the injunction ‘Know Thyself’, and must be given its full weight.

This indicates once again the enormous difference between the soul-constitution of the present day and that which prevailed in times past. We learn to consider man over great periods of time. The whole process is compatible with what takes place when the insect is sensitive to the period of summer in the setting of this world. For man should be able to live in the whole history of the earth as an animal lives in the course of the year. The insect ensures that it notices the transition to autumn, and it sets in motion another aspect of its life accordingly, as it did for spring and summer. And man knows: Once upon a time we were instinctively clairvoyant; we were unfree; our consciousness was pictorial; we were unable to obey the injunction ‘Know Thyself’; we know we could fully realize our humanity only on the other side of the gate of death; that time was analogous to spring in the life of the insect. Then came the Greek era, as summer and autumn come round for the insect. This was a bridge to that later era in which we now live. Our soul's work is different. We should be able to know ourselves to a certain degree here on earth, and accordingly be free after death to reach higher stages of development than in previous ages of man. Then one was wholly man only after death. In those ancient times man's task on the earth was to be a candidate for life, becoming fully man after death. In this, our own age, it is man's task to realize himself here in earth, that after death he may rise to higher stages of development than he could in former ages.

In those times the danger was that if he did not live his life on earth properly, man would not arrive at his full humanity. Today we face something different. We have to achieve our full humanity while on earth. If we fail in this, we betray ourselves and in the life after death plunge further down into the subhuman. In ancient days things could be left undone; today destruction follows. Then, not to become a candidate for life was an omission; today a man destroys, through his own humanity, something in the whole human race if he does not strive after full humanity in his own life. In past ages he merely left something undone; by doing so today he betrays mankind.

Thus we must grasp the need to place ourselves consciously in the world on a higher Level of being, as the insect does instinctively, on a lower Level, in its world. Otherwise man delivers himself up to chaos, which the animal instinctively does not do. We must learn through Anthroposophy to be really human, that we may not experience the scandal of being less in the world-order than the animals — despite the Gods having determined us for higher things. The animals do not neglect their part in the cosmic harmony, yet we as mankind turn the cosmic harmony into dissonance. And thus, I may say, we shall heap upon ourselves cosmic scandal, if we do not learn to think in this way and make our consciousness accord with the demands of the age. This we must learn in these days to join our feeling to our intellectual life. We must take in what would follow upon our not striving after that knowledge which makes us fully man. It would be a scandal before the Gods themselves.



Note 1:
I refer to my remarks in the so-called ‘French Course’.
(Published as: Philosophy, Cosmology, and Religion).





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