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Some Conditions for Understanding Supersensible Experiences

A Lecture By
Rudolf Steiner
Dornach, January 18, 1920
GA 196

One of his lectures on Spiritual Essence and its Working, this lecture was delivered by Rudolf Steiner at Dornach on the 18th of January, 1920. It is lecture 6 of 18 from the volume: Spiritual and Social Transformations in Human Evolution The volume of the Complete Edition of the works of Rudolf Steiner containing the original text of the this lecture, among seventeen others, is entitled: Geistige und Soziale Wandlungen in der Menschheitsenticklungen. (No. 196 in the Bibliographical Survey, 1961).

This English edition was transcribed from stenographic notes, unrevised by the lecturer, and is presented here with the kind permission of the Rudolf Steiner Nachlassverwaltung, Dornach, Switzerland.

Copyright © 1960
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[ Introduction | Lecture ]

Thanks to an anonymous donation, this lecture has been made available.

Published in The Golden Blade 1960

Anthroposophy, a way of thought rather than a body of dogma, springs from the work and teaching of Rudolf Steiner (1861 – 1925). He spoke of it as “a path of knowledge, to guide the spiritual in the human being to the spiritual in the universe”.

The aim of this Annual is to publish writings which bring the outlook of Anthroposophy to bear on questions and activities relevant to the present time.

The title derives from a reference by Rudolf Steiner to an old Persian legend. “Djemjdid was a king who led his people from the north towards Iran, and who received from the God, whom he called Ahura Mazdao, a golden dagger, by means of which he was to fulfil his mission on earth. ... It represents a force given to man whereby he can act upon and transform external nature.”


Some Conditions for Understanding Supersensible Experiences

Rudolf Steiner

A Lecture (hitherto untranslated) given by Rudolf Steiner at Dornach on January 18, 1920 From a shorthand report, unrevised by the lecturer. Published by permission of the Rudolf Steiner-Nachlassverwaltung, Dornach, Switzerland.

FROM the present time onwards it will be impossible for man to acquire any real self-knowledge or feeling of his own being without approaching the science of Initiation, for the forces out of which human nature actually takes shape are nowhere contained in what man is able to know and experience in the material world. To form an idea of what I want to convey by saying this, you must think about many things that are familiar to you from anthroposophical studies.

You must remind yourselves that as well as living through his life here between birth and death, man passes again and again through the life between death and a new birth. Just as here on earth we have experiences through the instrumentality of our body, we also have experiences between death and a new birth, and these experiences are by no means without significance for what we do during our earthly existence in the physical body. But neither are they without significance for what happens on earth as a whole. For only part — and indeed the rather lesser part — of what happens on the earth originates from those who are living in the physical body. The dead are perpetually working into our physical world. The forces of which man is unwilling to speak to-day in the age of materialism are nevertheless at work in the physical world. Our physical environment is fashioned and permeated not only by the forces emanating from the spiritual world, from the Beings of the higher Hierarchies, but forces proceeding from the dead also penetrate into what surrounds and overtakes us here. So that a full and complete survey of man's life is possible only if we look beyond what can be told us by knowledge obtained through the senses and through history, here on earth.

The existence of such forces is in the end the one and only thing that can explain man in his whole being and the whole course of human evolution on the earth. A time will come in the physical evolution of the earth — it will be after the year 5,700 — when, if he fulfils his rightful evolution, man will no longer tread the earth by incarnating in bodies derived from physical parents. In that epoch, women will be barren; children will no longer be born in the manner of to-day, if evolution on the earth takes its normal course.

There must be no misunderstanding about such a fact as this. Something else, for example, might come about. The Ahrimanic Powers, which under the influence of the impulses working in men to-day are becoming extremely strong, might succeed in preventing earth-evolution in a certain respect. It would then become possible for men — by no means for their good — to be held in the same form of physical life beyond this time in the sixth or seventh millennium. They would become much more like animals, while continuing to be held in the grip of physical incarnation. One of the endeavours of the Ahrimanic Powers is to keep humanity fettered too long to the earth in order to divert it from its normal evolution.

However, if men really take hold of the best possibilities for their evolution, then in the sixth millennium they will enter for a further 2,500 years into a connection with the earthly world of such a kind that they will, it is true, still have a relationship with the earth, but a relationship no longer coming to expression in the birth of physical children. In order to make the picture graphic, I will put it like this: In clouds, in rain, in lightning and thunder, man will be astir as a being of spirit-and-soul in the affairs of the earth. He will pulsate, as it were, through the manifestations of nature; and in a still later epoch his relationship to the earthly will become even more spiritual.

To speak of any such matters to-day is possible only when men have some conception of what happens between death and a new birth. Although there is not complete conformity between the way in which, between death and a new birth to-day, man is related to earthly conditions and the way in which he will be related to them when he no longer incarnates physically, there is nevertheless a similarity. If we understand how to imbue earth-evolution with its true meaning and purpose, we shall enter permanently into the same kind of relationship with earthly affairs that we now have only between death and a new birth. Only our life between death and a new birth in the present age is, shall I say, rather more essentially spiritual than it will be when this relationship is permanent.


Without the science of Initiation, understanding of these things lies leagues away. Most people to-day still persist in believing that the essential way to acquire knowledge of the science of Initiation is to amass all kinds of spiritual experiences, but not by the path that is proper for us in the physical body. Even the experiences gained by spiritualistic methods are apt to be valued more highly to-day than those which can be understood by the healthy human reason. Everything that is discovered by an Initiate, and can be communicated, is intelligible by the normal, rightly applied, human reason if only the necessary efforts are made. It is a primary task for the Initiate, also, to translate what he is able to proclaim out of the spiritual world into a language intelligible to human reason. Much more depends upon such translation being correct than upon the fact of having experiences in the spiritual world.

Naturally, if one has no such experiences, there is nothing to communicate. But crude experiences which arise without healthy reason being applied to their interpretation are really worthless, and have not the right significance for human life. Even if people were able to have many super-sensible experiences, but disdained to apply healthy reason to them, these experiences would be of no use whatever to humanity in the future. On the contrary, they would do serious harm, for a super-sensible experience is of use only when it is translated into the language that human reason can understand. The real evil of our time is not that men have no super-sensible experiences; they could have plenty if they so wished. Such experiences are accessible, but healthy reason is not applied in order to reach them. What is lacking to-day is the application of this healthy human reason.

It is of course unpleasant to have to say this to a generation that prides itself particularly on the exercise of this very reason. But at the present time it is not super-sensible experience that is in the worst plight; it is healthy logic, really sound thinking, and above all, too, the force of truthfulness that are worst off. The moment untruthfulness asserts itself, the super-sensible experiences fade away without being understood. People are never willing to believe this, but it is a fact.

The first requirement for understanding the super-sensible world is the most scrupulous veracity in regard to the experiences of the senses. Those who are not strictly accurate about these experiences can have no true understanding of the super-sensible world. However much may be heard about the super-sensible world, it remains so much empty verbiage if the strictest conscientiousness is not present in formulating what happens here in the physical world.

Anyone who observes how humanity is handling palpable truth today will have a sorrowful picture! For most people are not in the least concerned to formulate something they have experienced in such a way that the experience is presented faithfully; their concern is to formulate things as they want them to be, in the way that suits themselves. They know nothing about the impulses that are at work to beguile them in one direction or another away from a faithful presentation of the physical experience.

Leaving aside trifling matters, we need only observe the impulses which arise from ordinary human connections in life and prompt men to ‘varnish’ the truth in one respect or another. Further, we need only realise that the majority of people to-day are not speaking the truth at all about certain things, because of national interests or the like. Anyone who has national interests of some kind at heart can neither think nor say anything that is true in the sense in which truth must be conceived to-day. Hence the truth is virtually never uttered about the events of the last four or five years, because people everywhere speak out of one or other national interest.

What must be realised is that when a man desires to approach the super-sensible world, infinitely much depends upon such things. In times when procedures such as I characterised at the end of the lecture yesterday are possible — can you believe that many avenues to the truth lie open? [Steiner was quoting scurrilous statements based on deliberate falsification published in newspapers in Germany about the alleged political aims, methods and activities of the Threefold Commonwealth Movement at the time it was founded. He also referred to articles in a Roman Catholic periodical, and to a book by a Professor of Psychology containing false information about Anthroposophy.] They certainly do not. For those who wallow in such swamps of untruthfulness as were disclosed yester-day, spread fog which completely shuts off what should be grasped as super-sensible truth by the healthy human reason. There is equal unwillingness to perceive that straightforward, candid relations between man and man must prevail if super-sensible truths are to penetrate in the right way into the social life. One cannot ‘varnish’ truth on the one hand and, on the other, wish to understand matters of a super-sensible nature.


When they are put into words, these things seem almost matters of course, but actually they are so little matters of course that everybody to-day ought constantly to repeat them to himself. Only so can there gradually be achieved what is necessary in this domain. As I said here recently, the essential principle of social community is that it must be founded upon confidence, in the sense indicated. This must be taken in all earnestness. In very many respects this confidence will also be necessary in the future with regard to paths of knowledge. The attitude adopted towards those who are in a position to say something about the science of Initiation should be to examine their utterances with the healthy reason only, not with sympathy, antipathy or the like, nor in the mirror of personal feeling. It must at all times be realised that the Anthroposophical Society should become in the real sense a bearer of super-sensible truths into the world. Thereby it could achieve something extraordinarily necessary and significant for the evolution of mankind.

But it must be remembered that to have experiences in sensible spheres is obviously a matter to be taken in earnest. I told you some time ago how a friend of our Movement, shortly before he died from the effects of war-wounds, wrote lines in which, in the very face of death, he speaks of the air becoming hard, granite-like.

I said at the time that this is an absolutely true experience. [See lecture given at Dornach, 15th November, 1919: “An impression of this nature must be understood. ... For in wrestling to acquire the wisdom needed for the future, one of the most frequent experiences is this: the surrounding world presses in upon one, as if the air had suddenly hardened to granite. The reason for these things can be known, for it need only be remembered that it is the striving of the Ahrimanic Powers to cause the earth to become completely rigidified.”] Think only of the most elementary experiences connected with crossing the Threshold of the spiritual world and you will be able to gauge the importances of these things. In our life by day — or also by night, for then there is electric light — the sun, the light of the sun, illumines the objects around us; the sunlight makes them visible. In a similar way the other senses become aware of surrounding objects. If I limit myself at the moment to the example of the sunlight, directly the Threshold is crossed man must become one with the light in his inmost being. The light cannot enable him to see objects because he has to pass into the very light itself. Objects can be seen with the help of the light only as long as the light is outside. When man is himself moving together with the light, the objects illumined by it can no longer be seen. But when, in his being of soul, he is moving in the light itself, then for the first time he becomes aware that thinking is, in reality, one with the light weaving in the world.

Thinking that is bound up with the body is proper to physical life only. Directly we leave this body, our thinking loses definition; it weaves into the light, lives in the light, is one with the light. But the moment our thinking is received into the light, it is no longer possible to have an ego as easily as man has one between birth and death, without doing anything towards it. His body is organised in such a way that his being reflects itself through the body, and he calls this mirror-image his ego. It is a faithful mirror-image of the real ego, but it is a mirror-image, a picture only, a picture-thought, a thought-picture. And the moment the Threshold is crossed, it streams out into the light.

If another anchorage were not now available, man would have no ego at all. For this ego, this ‘I’, that he has between birth and death, is furnished for him by his body. He loses it the moment he leaves the body, and then he can be conscious of an ego only by becoming one with what may be called the forces of the planet especially the variations of the planet's force of gravity. He must become so entirely one with the planet, with the earth, that he feels himself to be a part of the earth, as the finger feels itself to be a member of the human organism. Then, in union with the earth, it is possible for him again to have an ego. And he perceives that just as here in earthly life he makes use of thinking in the physical body, after earthly life he can make use of the light.

From the standpoint of Initiation, therefore, one would have to say: Man is united with the earth's force of gravity and through radiating light concerns himself with the things of the world. Applied to the experience beyond the Threshold, this would express the same fact as when one says here on earth: Man lives in his body and thinks about the things of the world. Of the life between birth and death we say: Man lives in the body and concerns himself with things through thinking.

As soon as he leaves the body, we must say: He is united with the earth's force of gravity or with its variations, with electricity or magnetism, and through radiating light, inasmuch as he is now living in the light, concerns himself with the things of the world.


When things that have been illumined in this way — instead of being merely thought about, as is generally the case — are put into words, they are entirely comprehensible to the healthy human reason. And even the Initiate, if he has not developed his reason in the right way, gains nothing whatever from his super-sensible experiences. When someone to-day — please take what I am now saying as a really serious matter — has learnt to think in a way perfectly adapted to meeting the demands of school examinations, when he acquires habits of thought that enable him to pass academic tests with flying colours — then his reasoning faculty will be so vitiated that even if millions of experiences of the super-sensible world were handed to him on a platter, he would see them as little as you could physically see the objects in a dark room; for that which makes men fit to cope with the demands of this materialistic age darkens the space in which the super-sensible worlds come towards them.

Men have become accustomed to think in the one and only way that is possible when thinking is based on the bodily functions. This kind of thinking is ingrained in them from their youth onwards. But healthy human reason does not unfold on bodily foundations; it unfolds in free spiritual activity. And even in our Elementary Schools to-day children are educated away from free spiritual activity. The very methods of teaching hinder the development of free spiritual activity. Dare one incur the responsibility of concealing from the world these vital truths of the age? People may not realise why it was thought necessary to set into active operation an institution such as the Waldorf School in Stuttgart. But through this Waldorf School some at least of the children of men will be given a real chance to discard the bigotry of the times and to learn how to move in the element of thinking that is truly free. As long as such things are not regarded in this serious light, we shall make no progress.

Now I would like to call your attention to another tendency which is still far too common. Because people are tired of the old in its ordinary form, they like to get hold of something new; but for all that they want the new to be somehow veiled, whenever possible, in all the old, habitual conceptions. I have known many people — and it is well to be under no delusion about these things — who have realised that anthroposophical Spiritual Science is endeavouring to promulgate something true and right about Christianity, about the Mystery of Golgotha. But among them were some for whom this was right only because it exposed them to less disapproval in Church circles; hence they found Anthroposophy more opportune than some other form of spiritual science holding a different view of Christianity. In anthroposophical Spiritual Science the one and only question is that of truth; but with some people it has not always been a question only of truth, but often only of opportunism. Naturally it is unpleasant nowadays to have to witness the attitude to truth adopted by the representatives of the religious confessions and ultimately by their congregations who are also influenced by it. This is a trend of the times that must be kept clearly in view.


If it is desired to approach the super-sensible world in the right way, we must have interest in all things — but never mere curiosity. People are so ready to confound curiosity with interest. They must learn not only to think differently but to feel differently about all things. If anthroposophical Spiritual Science were ever to be given a mantle suitable for the atmosphere of coffee-parties or what corresponds to them nowadays, this would by no means conduce to the fulfilment of its task — for this task is of grave moment.

The reason for the hostility that is asserting itself at the present time in such ugly forms is simply this: People realise that here it is not a matter of a sect, or of a happier “family circle” such as many desire, but that something is truly striving to activate the impulses needed by the times. But what interest have the majority of people to-day in these impulses? If only they can bask in happiness or have something in the nature of a new religion! This egoism of soul, which impels very many people to anthroposophical Spiritual Science, must be overcome. Interest in the great affairs of humanity is necessary for any true understanding of Anthroposophy.

These great concerns of the life of humanity are clearly to be discerned in the most seemingly trivial facts of life. But in one respect our whole life of perception and feeling must change if we want so to orientate healthy human reason that it functions in the right stream of Spiritual Science. Let me repeat: The whole of our life of soul must change in one particular respect if our healthy human reason is to function within the stream of spiritual life that is to be brought to mankind through Anthroposophy. What is the orientation given us here on earth by the culture that is smothered in materialism? Our orientation is such that we feel ourselves as bodily men — with bones, muscles, nerves. And our body acts as a mirror, reflecting the image of our ego to us — schematically, like this:

Graphic #1

Your true being is somewhere in spiritual regions. Here, in the physical world, is your body. It becomes a mirror, reflecting back to you the image of the ego. The ego itself is here (= = =), but the image of the ego is reflected back to you by the body. You know of this ego-image when you look at the body with that centre of your being of which most people at present know nothing, but in which they nevertheless live. So the ego, together with the thoughts, feelings and impulses of will, is mirrored by the body. Behind this ego-image is the body, and man calls these mirrored images his soul; behind the soul he perceives the body and uses it as his support.

But this picture: There, down below, is the body; there the ego emerges ... this picture must be entirely changed. It is a picture perceived in complete passivity, and is indeed perceived only because the body is behind it. We must learn to perceive quite differently. We must learn to perceive: You are there in your spiritual world, a world in which there are no plants, minerals and animals, but Angeloi, Archangeloi, Archai, and the other Beings of the Hierarchies; in them you live. And because these Beings permeate us through and through, we ray forth the ego:

Graphic #2

We ray forth this ego from the spiritual world. We must learn to feel this ego, to feel that we have within us the ego behind which stand the Hierarchies, just as the body, composed of elements of the three kingdoms of nature, is behind the ego that is an image only. We must pass out of the passive experience into activity in the fullest sense. We must learn to feel that our real ego is brought into being out of the spiritual world. And then we also learn to feel that the mirror-image of our ego is brought into being for us out of the body that belongs to physical existence.

This is a reversal of the usual feeling, and to this reversal we must habituate ourselves. That is the important thing — not the amassing of facts and data. They will be there in abundance once this reversal of feeling has been experienced. Then, when thinking is active in the real sense, those thoughts are born which can fertilise social thinking. When the ego is allowed to remain a mirror-image, thinking can take account only of those social matters which are (as I said yesterday) merely the outcome of changes in phraseology. Only when man is active in his ego can his thoughts be truly free.

In past centuries, not so very long ago, this freedom in thinking was still present in men, although springing, it is true, from atavistic qualities of soul. Instinctively, they regarded it as an ideal to achieve this freedom in their thinking, whereas we have to achieve it in the future by conscious effort. There is an outer illustration of this. Just look at the diplomas conferring the Doctor's degree at universities in Middle Europe. As a rule, people are made not only Doctors, but Doctors and Masters of the Seven Liberal Arts — Arithmetic, Dialectic, Rhetoric, and so on. This no longer means anything, for the Seven Liberal Arts are nowhere included in the curriculum of modern universities. It is a relic, a heritage from an earlier period when through university life men strove to liberate their thinking, to develop a life of soul able to rise to truly free thinking.

At the universities to-day the degrees of Master of the Liberal Arts and Doctor of Philosophy are still conferred. But this is no more than a relic, for nobody understands what the Liberal Arts really are. They are justly named ‘Arts’ because they were pursued in a sphere lying above that of sensory experience, just as the artist's imagination unfolds freely and independently of material existence. The degrees inscribed in university diplomas once represented a reality, just as many other things still surviving in the formula current at universities were once realities. The title, Magister Artium Liberalium, is a very characteristic example.


This living grasp of the self (Sicherfassen) must again be achieved. But it goes against the grain, because people to-day prefer to move about on crutches instead of using their legs. Their ideal is to have what they are to think conveyed to them by the outer, material facts. It is unpleasant for them to realise that thinking in the true sense must be experienced in free spiritual activity, because it means tearing themselves away from the convenient things of life, from all props, all crutches in the life of soul. Whenever things are said from the standpoint of a kind of thinking that has nothing whatever to do with the sense-world, but in complete freedom creates out of intuitions, people do not understand it. My Philosophy of Spiritual Activity was not understood because it can be grasped only by one who is intent upon unfolding really free thoughts, one who is truly and in a new sense a ‘Master of the Liberal Arts’.

These are the things that must be understood today with the right feeling and with the earnestness that is their due. Especially to the English friends who are here for a short time only, I want to say this: The Building we have erected on this hill must be regarded as an outer beacon for the signs of the times. This Building stands here in order that through it the world may be told: If you go on thinking in the old way, as for four centuries you have become accustomed to think in your sciences, you will condemn humanity to destruction. With the help of crutches you may seek in the easy way to establish principles of social life, but in so doing you will only be preserving what already has death within it.

For the life of soul to-day it is essential to unfold thinking that is as free as are those forms out of which, in architecture, sculpture or painting, the attempt has been made to create this Building. Its purpose is that at one spot on the earth these things shall be said not through words alone, but also through forms. Men should feel that here, through these forms, something different from what can be heard elsewhere in the world to-day is intended to be said, and also that what is said is urgently necessary for the further progress of mankind in respect of knowledge and social principles, in respect of all the sciences and of all branches of social life.

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