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Metamorphoses of the Soul
Paths of Experience Vol. 1

Schmidt Number: S-2109

On-line since: 15th January, 2008

LECTURE 7
Human Egoism

Berlin, 25th November 1909

Once upon a time a Society was founded with a programme announcing as its central aim: “The abolition of egoism”. All its members had to pledge themselves to cultivate selflessness and freedom from egoism in any form. This Society had elected a President, as all societies do, and the thing now, was to gain support for its fundamental principle in the world at large.

It was emphatically laid down over and over again and in the most diverse ways that no member at any time or place (and especially within the Society) should cherish the slightest egoistic wish or give utterance to any kind of selfish desire.

Now this was certainly a Society with an uncommonly praiseworthy programme and an exalted human goal. But one could not immediately say that the members were seeking to exemplify in themselves the primary point in their programme, for they scarcely allowed themselves to become acquainted with unselfish human wishes. The following scene was often enacted within the Society. A member would say: “Yes, I would like this and that. But if I were to put it to the Chairman, I would be advancing an egoistic wish, and that would never do.” Another member would reply: “Quite simple — I'll go on your behalf. I shall be acting as your representative, and in putting forward your wish I shall be doing something entirely selfless. But listen — there is something I would like. Naturally, it is something quite egoistic, so according to our programme I can't propose it.” The first member would then say: “If you are to be so unselfish on my account, I will do something for you. I will go to the Chairman on your behalf and ask him for what you want.” And so it turned out. One of the two went first to the Chairman and then, two hours later, the other member went. Both had put forward quite unselfish wishes.

“Once upon a time”, I said — of course this Society has never existed. But anyone who looks round him in daily life will perhaps agree that a little of this Society is always present everywhere. At all events, my intention was only to indicate how “egoism” is one of those words which most readily become catch-words unless they are used in a direct connection with whatever they designate; otherwise they appear in disguise and deceive us into passing casually over them.

Today we will take this catch-word, egoism, and its opposite, altruism or selflessness. We shall not treat them as catch-words, but will try to penetrate a little way into the nature of egoism. When we examine these things from the standpoint of Spiritual Science, we are not so much concerned with whatever sympathy or antipathy may be evoked by this or that human characteristic, or how it may be assessed in accordance with some prevailing judgment — these are not important points. What matters much more, is to show how the relevant characteristic originates in the human soul, and within what limits it is valid; and if it must be fought against, to determine how far it can be combated through human nature or through other existent beings.

In its literal sense, egoism is the characteristic which impels a man to give first place to his own advantage and the enhancement of his own personality, while its opposite, altruism, aims at placing human faculties at the service of others, indeed, of the whole world.

A simple consideration will show us how precarious our position is if we think only of the word egoism, and fail to enter into the thing itself. Suppose that someone proves himself to be a great benefactor in one way or another. It could well be that he is a benefactor only out of egoism, perhaps out of quite petty forms of egoism, perhaps out of vanity and the like. On the other hand, if a man is dubbed an egoist without more ado, this is by no means the last word on his character. For if a man seeks only to satisfy himself but otherwise has noble qualities, so that he sees the service of others as the best way forward for himself, we might perhaps be well pleased with such an “egoist”. This may sound like a mere play on words, but is more than that, for in fact this playing on words permeates our entire life and shows itself in all realms of existence.

For everything we find in man we can find something analogous in the rest of the world. Schiller has a verse which indicates how in the realms of Nature something symbolical of an outstanding human quality can be found:


Seek you the highest, the greatest?

The plant can teach it to you.

What the plant does without willing it,

Go you and do by willing it. 42 ]


Schiller here brings before us the being of the plant and urges man to develop in his own character something as noble as the plant is on its own level. And the great German mystic, Angelus Silesius, says much the same:


Not asking why or wherefore blooms the rose

Cares not for herself or whether men behold her. 43 ]


Here again we are called to look at the plant world. The plant draws in whatever it needs for growth; it asks no why or wherefore; it flowers because it flowers and cares not whom it may concern. And yet, it is by drawing its life-forces and everything it needs for itself from its environment that the plant acquires whatever worth it can have for its environment and finally for men. Indeed, it attains the highest degree of usefulness that can be imagined for a created being, if it belongs to those realms of the plant world which can be of service to higher beings. And it will now be an idle triviality to repeat here a familiar saying, although it has been quoted so often:


When herself the rose adorns,

She adorns the garden. 44 ]


When the rose is as beautiful as it can be, the garden is adorned. We can connect this with the word, egoism, and say: When the rose strives quite egoistically to be as beautiful as she can, and to grace herself with the finest possible form, then through her the garden becomes as beautiful as possible. Can we take this result from a lower level of existence and apply it in some way to man? We have no need to do this, for it has been done already by many others, and by Goethe best of all.

When Goethe wishes to express what man is in the most authentic sense, and how he manifests most truly his worth and the entire content of his existence, he says: “When a man's healthy nature works as a whole, when he feels himself to be living in the world as in a great and beautiful and worthy whole, when this harmony brings him a pure, free joy, then the universe, if it could come to be aware of its own self, would cry out in exultation at having reached its goal and would marvel at the height which its own being and becoming had attained.”

This passage is from Goethe's splendid book on Winckelmann, 45 ] and elsewhere in the same book he says: “Placed upon the summit of Nature, man sees himself as another complete nature, with the task of achieving another summit in himself. To this end he heightens his powers, imbuing himself with all perfections and virtues, invoking choice, order, harmony and meaning, and finally rising to the creation of a work of art.”

Goethe's whole mood shows that he is referring here to the artist only as a specialised example and that he really means: Placed upon the summit of Nature, man gathers together everything that the world can express in him and finally displays to the world its own image, mirrored from within himself; and Nature would rejoice if she could perceive in the human soul this reflected image of herself.

What else does this mean than that everything which surrounds us in the world, as Nature and as spirit, concentrates itself in man, rises to a summit, and becomes in individual men, in the individual human Ego, as beautiful, true and perfect as it can? Hence, man will best fulfil his existence if he draws in as much as possible from the outer world and makes his own everything that can blossom and bear fruit in himself.

This view of things implies that man can never do enough to combine in himself whatever the surrounding world offers, in order to manifest through himself a kind of supreme achievement of Nature. Anyone who wishes to call that “egoism” may do so. Then one could say: The human ego is there to be an organ for elements in Nature which would otherwise remain forever hidden and which can come to expression only through being concentrated in the spirit of man. But although it is natural for man to gather these elements from the natural world into himself, it also lies in his nature to bring error and confusion into the general law which leads the lower realms in outer existence towards the highest levels. This is bound up with what we call human freedom. Man could never enjoy a free existence if he were not capable of misusing in a one-sided way certain forces within him — forces which can lead to the heights and can also pervert existence and perhaps even make a caricature of it. A simple comparison will make this clear. Let us go back to the plant.

It does not generally occur to us to speak of egoism in connection with the plant. It was only in order to bring out clearly the law of egoism that we said: What comes to expression in the plants could be called egoism. Normally, we do not speak of egoism in their case. If we consider the plant world in a spiritual and not a materialistic sense, we can see that the plant is in a certain sense proof against egoism. On the one hand, the conditions of its life require it to make itself as beautiful as it can, without asking who will benefit from its beauty.

But when the plant has risen to the highest expression of its individual being, it is on the verge of having to give all this up. The plant world has a peculiar characteristic. Goethe puts this finely in his Prose Sayings: “The law of vegetable growth reaches its highest manifestation in the blossom and of this, in him, the rose is the summit. ... The fruit can never be beautiful, for then the vegetable law retreats and becomes again merely a law.” 46 ] Thus it was clear to Goethe that the plant gives expression to its own law most vividly when it flowers. At this moment, however, it must be prepared to yield up its beauty to the process of fructification, for it is now called upon to sacrifice its highest self on behalf of its successor in the form of the seed-bud. There is something great in this act of self-sacrifice by the plant at the moment when it is rising to the point of imprinting its Ego, as it were, on its appearance. So on this lower level, we see how in Nature egoism progresses to a certain stage, and how it then destroys and surrenders itself in order that something new may emerge. The highest manifestation of the plant, its individuality — as we may call it — which achieves its summit of beauty in the flower, begins to fade directly the new plant-seed is produced.

Now let us ask: Does anything similar occur on the human level? Yes, if we consider Nature and spiritual life in terms of the spirit, we find that something quite similar does occur in man. For man is not intended merely to reproduce his kind and to carry on the human species; he is called upon to transcend the species and to exist as an individual. We shall come to know the true form and nature of egoism in man only if we look at his being in the light of previous lectures.

In Spiritual Science, we do not regard man as consisting only of a physical body, which he has in common with the mineral kingdom. We speak of higher members of his being: the etheric body which he has in common with all living things, and the astral body, or consciousness body, the bearer of pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, which he has in common with the animal kingdom. And we say, that within these three members lives the true kernel of his being, the Ego. We must regard the Ego as the bearer of egoism both when the latter is justified and when it is unjustified. Man's development depends entirely on the work accomplished by the Ego in transforming the other three members of his being. At first, on a primitive level, his Ego is the slave of these other members; he follows all the urges, desires and passions that come from his astral body. But the further his development goes, the more will he be doing to purify his astral body, so that he transforms it into something which is ruled by his higher nature, by his Ego, and his Ego becomes increasingly the ruler and purifier of the other members of his being.

As you have heard in previous lectures, man is now in the midst of this development. In so far as he transforms his astral body, he creates what we call Spirit-self, or, in the terminology of oriental philosophy, Manas. In the future it will be possible for him to transform by degrees his etheric body, and so to create what we call Life-spirit, or Buddhi. And when finally he masters the processes in his physical body, the transformed part of it will be what we call Atman, or Spirit-man. So we look towards a future condition in which man will rule consciously, from out of his Ego, over all his activities.

These future faculties have been in preparation for a very long time. The Ego has already worked, unconsciously or subconsciously, on the three other members of man's being. In the far distant past the Ego transformed a part of the astral body, also called the sentient body, into the Sentient Soul; a part of the etheric body into the Intellectual Soul, and a part of the physical body into the Consciousness Soul. Today we shall be concerned especially with the relationship of the sentient body to the Sentient Soul.

When we observe a human being from the time of his birth and see how his faculties gradually emerge — as though from the hidden depths of his bodily nature, we can say: Here the Sentient Soul is working its way out into the light of day. The Sentient Soul, as we have seen, is fashioned by the Ego out of the sentient body, and the sentient body is built up from the young child's entire environment. We can understand this if we recall Goethe's saying: “The eye is formed by light for light.” 47 ] If we consider any sense-organ whereby man becomes conscious of the external physical world, we must set against Schopenhauer's one-sided statement, 48 ] that we could not see the light if we had no eyes, the equally valid statement that if there were no light, there would be no eyes. Through endless ages, as Goethe says, the all-pervading light worked on the human organism so as to fashion the sense-organ which is now able to look on the light. We can discern in the world around us the forces which have produced in man the faculties which enable us to become conscious of it. Thus the entire sentient body, the whole fabric whereby we enter into a relationship with the outer world, has been woven from its living forces. We have no share in this achievement. The astral body is a product, a flowering, of the surrounding world. Within the astral body the Sentient Soul emerges, formed by the work of the Ego from the substance of the sentient body. So the Ego lives in the sentient body and draws from it the substance of the Sentient Soul.

Now the Ego can work in a twofold way. First, it can develop in the Sentient Soul those faculties which are in harmony with the faculties and characteristics of the sentient body. An example from the field of education will make this clear. It is precisely from the field of education that we can draw the most beautiful and practical examples of what Spiritual Science is.

The sentient body is built up from a child's environment. Hence all those concerned with bringing up and educating a child have an influence on the sentient body, from the very beginning of its physical existence. They can help the sentient body to acquire the soul-qualities that are in harmony with its characteristics, as indicated by the Ego; but they can also pass on things which contradict these characteristics. If a child is brought up and educated in such a way that he can feel a living interest in everything that meets his eyes, if he can rightly rejoice in colours and forms, if musical tones give him happiness, if he can gradually bring about harmony between the impressions that come to him from outside and the feelings of joy and pleasure, of sympathetic interest in life, that arise in the Sentient Soul — then the child's inner response will be in consonance with a true picture of existence; then the inner life of his soul will harmonise with outer existence. Then, secondly, we can say that a human being does not live only within himself, capable only of fashioning a Sentient Soul in his sentient body; he can go out beyond himself. Nor is he capable only of seeing and hearing; he can pour himself out into the surrounding world and live in whatever his sentient body transmits to him. Then we have not only harmony between sentient body and Sentient-Soul; we have harmony also between the outer world and the experiences of the Sentient Soul. Then man is truly a kind of mirror of the universe; a kind of microcosm which — as Goethe said — enjoys the feeling of living in the wide expanse of a great and beautiful world.

We can take another example. If a child were to grow up on a desert island, far from any human society, some of its faculties would not develop. It would be deprived of speech, of thinking power, and of all those noble qualities which can light up only through living together with other human beings, for these are qualities which belong to man's inner being, to his soul.

Now man can develop in such a way that he goes out from himself, with his attributes, and creates harmony between himself and the world around him. Or he can let his endowments harden and dry up within himself. This happens if he fails to respond to the colours, tones and so on that he receives from the outer world, and so is unable to give them back enriched with his own interest and pleasure. A man becomes inwardly hardened if he keeps to himself whatever he acquires from associating with other people, instead of making it contribute to human intercourse. If he secludes himself, choosing to live entirely within himself, a disharmony arises between him and his environment. A cleft opens between his Sentient Soul and his sentient body. If, after enjoying the advantages of human progress, he fails to place at the service of mankind the benefits that can flourish only in a social milieu, a gap arises between himself and his surroundings, whether it be the outer world, to which he can no longer respond, or his human environment, to which he owes his finest interests. The result is that he becomes inwardly dried up, for he cannot be advanced or enlivened by anything that comes to him from outside if it is torn from its roots, and this is what happens if he fails to allow his soul-life to flow out into the world around him. And if he continually reinforces his seclusion from the outer world, the effect is that his soul-life tends to wither and die away. This is precisely the bad side of egoism, and we must now characterise it in greater detail.

When egoism takes this form, so that man is not continually nourished and vitalised by the outer world, he is heading for his own extinction. That is the check generally imposed on egoism, and thereby the true nature of egoism is made clear. For whereas man, by absorbing the forces of the surrounding world, enables the world to attain a summit in himself, he then has to do consciously what the plant does unconsciously. At the very moment when the plant is in course of imprinting its inner being on its visible form, the power behind the plant leads its egoistic principle over into a new plant. But man, as a self-conscious being and an Ego-bearer, is required to bring about by his own efforts this development in himself. At a certain stage he must be prepared to surrender whatever he has received from outside and to give birth, within his own Ego, to a higher Ego; and this higher Ego will not become hardened, but will enter into a harmonious relationship with the entire world.

The knowledge that a one-sided egoism destroys itself can be verified by ordinary observation of life. One needs only to look at people who are unable to take any active interest in the great and beautiful ordering of nature from which the human organism draws its form and substance. How painful it is for anyone who understands these things to see how some people pass indifferently by the world to which they owe their eyes and ears; how they cut themselves off from the world in which their existence is rooted and wish only to be left alone with their inward brooding. Then we see how this perverted way of living brings its own penalty. Anyone who follows it goes through life in a state of chronic boredom; he pursues one desire after another, not realising that he is seeking satisfaction in vague phantoms, when he should be giving himself out to the world from which his own existence has come about. Anyone who goes through life saying: People are a burden, I have no use for them, they disturb my life, I am too good for this world — anyone who talks like that should merely reflect that he is repudiating the origin of his existence. If he had grown up on a desert island, far from the human society that he regards as not good enough for him, he would have remained dumb and would never have developed the faculties he now has. All that he finds so great and praiseworthy in himself would be absent, were it not for the people he has no use for. He should realise that he has separated himself from his environment by his own willful choice, and that in fact he owes to his environment the very faculties which now repudiate it.

If a man pursues this course, he not only kills the interest he might have taken in nature and human life, his own life-force declines and he condemns himself to a desolate, dissatisfied existence. All those people who indulge in world-weariness because they find nothing anywhere to interest them, should for once ask themselves: What is my egoism doing to me? Here a cosmic law is indicated. Wherever egoism takes a perverted form, it has a desolating effect on living. That is the good thing about egoism: if it is carried to an extreme, it destroys the egoist.

If now we take the great law that we have gained from studying egoism and apply it to the various faculties of the human soul, we can ask, for example: How does egoism affect the Consciousness Soul, through which man acquires knowledge of the world around him? In other words, when can a piece of knowledge prove fruitful? It will be truly fruitful only if it brings a man into harmony with the rest of the world. This means that the only concepts and ideas that can invigorate the human soul are those drawn from the life of the great outer world, and then only if we are in harmony with the outer world. That is why all ways of knowledge which seek, above all, to reach the great truths of existence, step by step, are so health-giving for the soul, and also, therefore, for the physical body. On the other hand, anything that leads us away from a living connection with the world, as solitary inward brooding does, or anything that brings us into discord with the world, will have a hardening effect.

Here is an appropriate occasion to refer once more to the widely misunderstood saying, “Know thyself!”, which has a meaning valid for all epochs. Only when a man realises that he belongs to the whole world, that his Self is not confined within his skin but is spread out over the whole world, over sun and stars, over all earthly creatures, and that this Self has only created an expression of itself within his skin — only if he recognises that he is interwoven with the entire world — only then can he make proper use of the saying, “Know thyself”. For self knowledge is then world-knowledge. A man who fails to realise this is like a finger which imagined it could achieve an individual existence apart from the rest of the organism. Cut it off, and in three weeks it will quite certainly no longer be a finger. The finger has no illusions about that; only man supposes that he could do without any connections with the world. World-knowledge is self-knowledge and self-knowledge is world-knowledge. Any sort of inward brooding is merely a sign that we cannot get away from ourselves. Very great harm is therefore done when in certain theosophical circles today it is said: A solution of the riddle of existence will not be found in the world outside, or in phenomena permeated by the spirit, but in your own self. “Look for God in your own breast” — that is the injunction often heard. “You need not exert yourself to seek for revelations of the cosmic Spirit out there in the universe. You have only to look within yourself; you will find it all there.” This kind of instruction does the student very bad service. It makes him proud and egoistic with regard to knowledge. The result is that certain theosophical directives, instead of training a person in selflessness, instead of freeing him from himself and bringing him into relation with the great riddles of existence, have a hardening effect on him. One can appeal to man's pride and vanity by telling him: “You need learn nothing from the world; you will find it all in yourself.” We appeal to truth when we show that to be in harmony with the great world can enable a man to become greater in himself and therefore greater in the world.

This applies also to human feeling and to the entire content of the Intellectual Soul, which gains in strength when a man knows how to achieve harmony between himself and the outer world. Strength and power are not acquired by sitting down and brooding all day long over such questions as — “What shall I think now? What shall I do? What's that pain I feel coming on again?” — but by opening the heart to everything great and beautiful in our surroundings, and by showing interest and understanding for everything that warms the hearts of others, as well as for their wants and privations. In this way we strengthen the life-forces in the realm of feeling within us; we overcome narrow minded egoism and we enhance and enrich our Ego by bringing the true form of egoism into harmony with our environment.

This comes out very clearly when we consider the human will and the Consciousness Soul itself. A man who exerts his will only for himself and his own advantage will always feel inwardly dissatisfied. Only when he can see his resolves reflected in the outer world and his will-impulses realised in action — only then can he say that he has brought his willing into harmony with outer events. And here we learn that our inner strength and power are not developed by anything we will for ourselves, but by whatever we will for the outer world and for other people. Our willing becomes reality and its reflection shines back to us. As our eyes are formed by light, so is our strength of soul developed by our actions and activities.

Thus we see how man, as a self-conscious being, is able through a right comprehension of his “I”, his Ego, to arrive at harmony between himself and the world around him, until he grows out of himself and accomplishes the birth of what we may call a higher man. In this way he brings forth something in himself, even as a plant on a lower level brings forth out of itself a new being at the moment when it is in danger of becoming hardened in its own existence. That is how we must understand egoism. The human Ego, having been fructified by the surrounding world, brings forth on the heights of existence a new Ego, and will then be ripe to flow out into actions which would otherwise give expression only to worthless demands and useless moral postulates. For only through world-knowledge can the will be fired to act on the world in return. Whatever points may be set out in the programmes of societies, however many societies may have “universal human love” at the head of their programmes, these moral injunctions will have no practical effect.

All the ordinary preaching of human love is as though a stove were standing in a cold room and someone says to it: “Dear stove, your moral duty as a stove is to warm the room”. You could go on like that for hours or days — the stove would not be moved to make the room warm. Similarly, men will not be moved by sermons to practise human love, even if you were to preach to them for centuries that men ought to love one another. But bring the human Ego into connection with the content of the whole world, let people participate in the radiance of flowers and in all the beauties of Nature, and you will soon see that this participation is a foundation for the higher participation that can arise between human being and human being.

By gaining knowledge of human beings and human nature, man learns to meet the faults and good qualities of others with understanding. Wisdom of this kind, derived from approaching the world with living insight, passes over into the blood, into action and will. And what we call human love is born from it. Just as babbling to the stove is useless, when what we need to do is simply to bring wood and start a fire, so should we bring to human beings the fuel that will kindle, warm and illuminate their souls; and the fuel required is knowledge of the world, so that understanding of human nature and harmonious consonance between the human Ego and the outer world are brought about. Then we shall in fact be kindling human love — a love that can flow from heart to heart and draw human beings together, teaching them that actions performed only for ourselves have a deadly, desolating effect upon us, while actions that have a helpful influence on the lives of others are reflected back to enhance our own strength. Through a right understanding of egoism, accordingly, our Ego is enriched and enabled to develop, if, as far as possible, we realise our own Self in the service of another, and strive to cultivate not only personal feeling, but fellow feeling, as far as we can. That is how the nature of Egoism is seen by Spiritual Science.

The subject we have touched on today has deeply interested all the thinkers who have pondered seriously on human existence. The nature of egoism was bound to concern outstanding men during the 18th century, a time when man as an individual had broken free from certain ties with his social environment. One of these outstanding men was Goethe. And he has given us a work, Wilhelm Meister's Years of Apprenticeship and its sequel Wilhelm Meister's Year's of Travel, which we can take as an example, as if drawn from the world, of his thoughts on the nature of egoism.

Just as Faust occupied Goethe throughout his life, so did Wilhelm Meister. As early as the seventeen-sixties, Goethe felt that he had the task of depicting, in the peculiar life of Wilhelm Meister, a kind of mirror-image of his own life, and it was in his old age, when he was nearing his death, that he completed the Years of Travel. It would take us too far to go into the details of Wilhelm Meister, but perhaps you will allow me to outline the problem of egoism as we meet it here in Goethe.

A thoroughgoing, refined egoist, one might say, is portrayed here. Wilhelm Meister was born into the merchant class, but he is enough of an egoist to abandon this calling, in spite of the claims of duty. What, then, does he really want? We are shown how he wants to develop his own Self to the highest degree and with the utmost freedom. He has a dim presentiment of becoming some kind of perfected man. Thus Goethe leads Wilhelm Meister through the most varied experiences, so as to show how life works upon this individuality in order to raise it to a higher level. Of course, Goethe is well aware that Wilhelm Meister is driven around by all sorts of circumstances and reaches no definite goal. Hence at one point he calls him a “poor wretch”. 49 ] But at the same time he knows that although a man may have to work his way through folly and errors, he is led by certain forces to a certain goal, or at least along a certain path. It was Goethe's opinion, which never left him, that human life is never completely at the mercy of chance, but is subject, like all things, to laws — indeed, spiritual laws. Therefore Goethe says that the whole human race can be regarded as a great individual, striving upwards and making itself the master of chance. 50 ]

Goethe's intention, accordingly, is to show Wilhelm Meister as intent always on heightening, enriching and perfecting his Ego. At the same time, he leads Wilhelm Meister into a way of life which is, strictly speaking, at one remove from actuality. The whole character of the 18th century can help us to understand why Wilhelm Meister is led away from pursuing a career in the world of real events and brought into the theatre, where he mingles with people who present an appearance, a picture, of life. Art itself is, in a certain sense, an image of life. It is not part of immediate reality but raises itself above this reality. Goethe knew very well that the artist, standing alone with his art, is in danger of losing the firm ground of reality from under his feet. It has been well said that the Muse may accompany a man but cannot lead him through life.

To begin with, Wilhelm Meister gives himself over entirely to the forces that belong to art, and especially the art of the theatre, with its beautiful illusions. If we follow the course of his life, we find that he is habitually torn to and fro between dissatisfaction and joy, and these swings of feeling are evident already during his time in the theatre. At last he experiences a kind of model performance of Hamlet, and this gives him a certain satisfaction within the limits of the theatrical world. His Ego is enhanced.

Two episodes are particularly important for understanding this first part of the story, the Years of Apprenticeship, and they show clearly that Goethe had the nature of egoism at the back of his mind. The first episode concerns little Mignon, who is found by Wilhelm Meister in somewhat dubious company and accompanies him as a wonderful attendant for a while.

Some very significant remarks about Mignon were made to Chancellor von Müller 51 ] by Goethe in his old age. He referred to Madame von Stael's comment that all the part about Mignon was an episode which did not really belong to the story. Goethe agreed that anyone interested only in the external narrative might say that the Mignon episode could be left out. But it would be quite wrong to suppose, Goethe continued, that the part about Mignon was only an episode; in fact, the whole of Wilhelm Meister had been written on account of this remarkable figure.

Goethe was apt to express himself somewhat radically in conversation and to say things that are not to be taken literally. But if we go more deeply into the matter, we can come to see why he spoke in this way to Chancellor von Müller. In the figure of Mignon — this is not a personal name but means simply “the darling” — we are shown a human being who lives just long enough for the germ of anything that can properly be called egoism to develop in her. The whole psychology of Mignon is most remarkable. In her own naive way she expresses everything that could be called participation in the whole world. She never gives any sign of acting from selfish motives. Things that other people do out of self-interest are done by her quite naturally. She is naive in the sense that egoism has not yet awoken in her. Directly Wilhelm Meister embarks on an episode in his life which breaks his bond of union with Mignon, she fades away and dies, just as a plant withers when it has reached a certain stage in its existence. She is not yet a fully human person, not yet an “Ego”; she represents a childlike naiveté in relation to everything in the world around her. She dies as a plant dies, and one could indeed apply to her the lines:


Not asking why or wherefore blooms the rose,

Cares not for herself or whether men behold her.


One might say that two apparently identical actions are different when they are performed by different persons! What other people do out of egoism Mignon does naturally, and directly that there could be a question of an egoistic impulse arising in her soul, she dies. That is the enchantment of her character: we have before us a human being without ego-hood who slips through our fingers at the first stirring of egoism within her. And since Goethe was specially interested in egoism in Wilhelm Meister, it is quite conceivable that he should have said in effect at the time: What you are looking for in Wilhelm Meister, you will find in his counterpart, Mignon. The impulse that shows itself in the little creature, and dies with her at the moment of its appearance, is the same impulse that plagues Wilhelm Meister with so many difficulties when he tries to develop his Ego, and on account of which he has to go through a complete education in the school of life.

We then find woven into the story of Wilhelm Meister the apparently unconnected part called Confessions of a Beautiful Soul. It is known that these confessions are taken almost word for word from a diary kept by Goethe's friend, Susanne von Klettenberg. They show, one might say, the nature of egoism at its highest point. This beautiful soul, Susanne von Klettenberg, rose indeed to high levels, but these confessions bring out the danger of egoism, the reverse side of the enrichment of the Ego, for it is her own development that Susanne von Klettenberg describes.

First, she relates how, like other people, she delighted in the world around her. Then, one day, something awakens in her soul and tells her: “Living within you is something that will bring you nearer to the God within you.” These inward experiences have the effect of estranging her from the outer world; she no longer feels any interest in it. But she finds continual joy and blessedness and inward happiness in her experience of communion with what she inwardly calls her “God”. She withdraws entirely into her inner life. Yet this beautiful soul cannot escape from the feeling that her chosen way of life is nothing else than a refined form of egoism.

The dawning of this type of spiritual element in the soul, where it estranges a person from the outer world, shuts him off from his environment and makes him cold and heartless towards it, may bring him some satisfaction and a certain happiness, but in the long run it does him no good. By alienating him from the world around him it has a desolating effect on his soul. But this beautiful soul is also an energetic, striving soul, and she goes on from stage to stage.

She is not able to sever herself entirely from the impressions that come from the outer world and can lead to harmony with it. So she is forever seeking the mysteries that underlie the symbols of the various religions, hoping to see reflected there the divinity that had arisen in her soul. But whatever she can experience in these outer forms is not enough for her; she is resolved to go further. Finally, she is led to a remarkable stage in her life. One day she says to herself: Everything human on our earth was not too mean for God to descend and incarnate himself in a man. And at that moment she feels that the outer world is not debased by being only an expression of the spiritual rather than the spiritual itself, or because it represents a decadence of the spiritual; for now she feels that the outer world is permeated by the spirit and that man has no right to detach himself from his environment.

Then another experience comes to her and she says to herself: It was a true event that is said to have taken place in Palestine at the beginning of our era. She enters into this and experiences in herself the whole life of Christ Jesus up to His crucifixion and death. She experiences the divine in herself in such a way that — as she clearly describes — everything which appears to the physical senses as external image recedes and becomes purely spiritual experience; the invisible becomes visible and the inaudible, audible. Now she feels herself united not with an abstract divinity, but with a divine presence belonging to the earthly world. But she has again withdrawn in a certain sense and cannot find her way back into ordinary life. Then something comes to her which enables her to see in every natural object, in every detail and circumstance of daily life, the imprint of the spiritual; and she regards this as a kind of highest stage. And it is characteristic of Goethe that it was for him a kind of confession to be able to communicate the Confessions of a Beautiful Soul.

What was it that Goethe wished to indicate here as an important point in Wilhelm Meister's education? Wilhelm Meister was to read the manuscript and be led by it to a higher stage. He was to be shown that a man cannot do enough to develop in himself an active life of soul; he cannot go far and high enough in what may be called intercourse with the spiritual world; but also that to shut himself off from the outer world cannot lead to a satisfying existence, and that he can understand the great world around him only when his own enriched inner being flows out to meet it.

Thus Goethe wishes to show that a man can take the surrounding world just as it is; he will then see it as ordinary and trivial and will remain bound to the commonplace. But then he will perhaps say to himself: All that is commonplace: the spiritual can be found only by looking within oneself. And we can indeed find the spiritual there, on a very high level. But we are then all the more in duty bound, for our own sake, to return to the outer world; and now we find that the commonplace has a spiritual dimension. The same world stands before a trivially minded man and a man who has found the spirit within himself. The former accepts the ordinary trivial world of present-day Monism; the latter, having first enriched his spiritual faculties and developed the appropriate organs in himself, is aware of the spiritual behind everything perceived by the senses. Thus, for Goethe, inner development is an indirect way of gaining knowledge of the world. This is evident, above all, in the soul characterised as Wilhelm Meister. He is helped to progress by the influences that work on him from the hidden side of life.

Towards the end of the Years of Apprenticeship we are shown that behind Wilhelm Meister there is something like an occult society, which guides a human being while remaining invisible to him. Some critics have complained that this kind of thing belongs to the 18th century and can have no interest for people today. For Goethe, however, something quite different was involved. He wished to show that Wilhelm Meister's Ego really had to find its way through the various labyrinths of life, and that a certain spiritual guidance of mankind does exist. The “Society of the Tower”, by which Wilhelm Meister is guided, was meant to be only the outer garment of spiritual powers and forces by which a man is led, even though the course of his life may lie through “folly and confusion”; and by these invisible powers Wilhelm Meister was guided.

In our time, such things are dismissed with a condescending smile. But in our time, also, the Philistines have acquired the sole right to pass judgment on personalities such as Goethe. Anyone who knows the world will concede that no-one can find more in a man than he has in himself. And anyone could say it in relation to Goethe. But that is just what the Philistine does not say; he believes he has found in Goethe everything there is to find. For he possesses the entire range of wisdom and can survey it from his vantage-point! Naturally, he makes Goethe into a Philistine, but that is not Goethe's fault.

Wilhelm Meister's life is continued in the Years of Travel. Both Philistines and non-Philistines have been moved to protest at the lack of composition and the inartistic character of this sequel. Yes, indeed, Goethe served up something rather dreadful here. In his prime, out of his life-experience, he had wanted to show a person finding their way through the labyrinths of life, had wanted to present a mirror-image of himself in a certain sense; and he has told us how this was composed. He had taken great pains over the first part of the Years of Travel, but printing began before the later part was finished, and the printer set the type faster than Goethe could write. Goethe then had somehow to sketch out the rest. In earlier years he had written various tales and stories, for example the story of the “Holy Family”, the story of the “Nutbrown Maiden”, the “Tale of the New Melusine”, and others. All these are included in the Years of Travel volume, although never intended for it. Goethe inserted these stories at various points and made quick transitions between them. Obviously, anything like orderly composition was ruled out; but still the work did not go fast enough.

Goethe had various other writings left over from earlier years, and these he now gave to his secretary, Eckermann, saying: “Slip in somewhere whatever can be slipped in!” So Eckermann patched in these remnants, and naturally the separate items are often very loosely connected. Hence it can well be said that this is an entirely formless work, and anyone is at liberty to judge it in this way from an artistic standpoint. But, after all, not a line of it was written by Eckermann. It is all by Goethe, and throughout he was giving expression to experiences of his own, with the figure of Wilhelm Meister constantly before him. Thus he was able to bring in events from his own life which had set their mark on his soul. And since Wilhelm Meister is a reflected image of himself, the various episodes meander through the story even as they had meandered through his own life, and the picture we gain from them is by no means irrelevant.

It has been said that the narrative lacks tension and is repeatedly interrupted by sagely discourses. Some people criticise the book from the ground up without having read it. They are, of course, right from their own point of view, but it is not the only one. We can learn an immense amount from these Years of Travel if we can muster the interest and the goodwill to raise ourselves to the level of the experiences from which Goethe learnt so much. And that is something. Must every piece of writing be skillfully composed if it can be of service to us in some other way? Is a lack of formal design so fatal? Perhaps the wealth of wisdom in Wilhelm Meister is fatal for those who know everything and have nothing more to learn.

It is precisely in this second part of Wilhelm Meister that we find described in a wonderful way how the Ego can rise to ever higher levels and become the peak of existence. We are shown in a particularly beautiful way how Wilhelm Meister takes his son Felix to a remarkable educational establishment. This, too, has been condemned by the Philistines. They have not stopped to think that Goethe had no intention of presenting this establishment as though it existed somewhere or other in the real world. He wished to give a kind of symbolic survey of the nature of education in his “pedagogical province”.

People who visit this establishment are surprised to see how the life of the soul is given expression in certain gestures. In one gesture the hands are folded on the breast and the eyes turned upwards. In another, the hands are clasped behind the back while the pupils stand side by side. Especially significant is the gesture which gives an impression of the soul bowing towards the earth. If questions are asked about the meaning of all this, one is told that the boys are taught to kindle in their souls the “three venerations”, whereby the soul's development can be carried to ever higher levels. The three venerations are presented as the most important of all educational principles. First, a man must learn to look up with veneration to what is above him. Then he must learn to venerate what lies beneath him, so that he may realise how he himself has grown up from it. Then he must learn to venerate what stands beside him as equality between man and man, for only thus can he learn to venerate his own Ego in the right way. By these means he will be brought into harmony with the world around him and egoism cannot go astray.

We are then shown how the most important religions are to carry their influences into the human soul. The folk or ethnic religions should take the form of gods or spirits standing above man. The philosophical religions, as they could be called, are to inculcate veneration for our equals. And the teaching that leads us down into existence and enables us to look with proper veneration on death, sorrow and the hindrances in the world — this teaching, though it can easily be despised, leads to a right understanding of the Christian religion. For it is emphasised that the Christian religion shows how God came down into a physical body, took on himself all the misery of life and went through everything human. Veneration for what is below us should especially promote a right understanding of the Christian religion.

Thus the development of the human being is set before us with precision. Goethe describes how Wilhelm Meister is led to a kind of temple, where deeply significant pictures of the three religions are brought before the souls of the pupils from their earliest youth, and we are shown how everything in this utopian school is intended to produce a harmonious whole. But the school gives expression even more to the wise principle that from his earliest years a human being should grow up in such a way that, on the one hand, he finds harmony with his environment, while, on the other, he finds it possible to lead his Ego to ever-greater heights.

This principle is applied to all details. For example, a boy's age is not indicated by the clothes he wears. He is offered a varied range of garments and has to choose those he prefers. In this way the individual characteristics of the pupils are brought out. Moreover, since a kind of esprit de corps is always apt to develop, with the result that a weaker boy will imitate a stronger by choosing the same outfit, to the detriment of his own individuality, the rule is that garments are exchanged for others at frequent intervals. In brief, Goethe wished to show how the growing boy should be educated, even down to his gestures and clothes, in a way that will lead him to a life in harmony with the world around him, while promoting his inner freedom as an individual.

It has been said that all this is a fantasy and that nothing like it has ever existed. But Goethe meant to imply only that the plan could be realised somewhere at some time; the thoughts in question would flow out into the “all and everywhere” and would find an embodiment when and where they could. Those who think this impossible might be advised to read Fichte; 52 ] he set a high ideal before his students, but he knew what he was doing, and to those who called themselves realists while knowing little about reality, he said: We know as well as you do: and perhaps better, that ideals cannot be realised immediately in ordinary life, but ideals must be there, in order to act as regulators in life and to be transmuted into living. That must be emphasised ever and again. And of those who reject all ideals, Fichte said that in the reckoning of Providence they were left out; but may a good God — he added — grant them rain and sunshine at the right times, a good digestion and, where possible, good thoughts! This saying could be turned against those who assert that the educational establishment in Goethe's Wilhelm Meister could never exist in reality. It could exist, both in its principles and in its details, if there were people ready to give effect to such principles in a setting of everyday life.

A second episode in the Years of Travel introduces a remarkable personality, Makarie, who exemplifies in the highest degree a union of the individual Ego with the great Self of the world. Goethe shows us here a personality who is inwardly awakened and has developed the spirit in herself to such an extent that she lives in the spirit that permeates the world. The liberation of her inner powers gives her the knowledge that an expert astronomer acquires from calculating the courses of the stars. The highest spiritual-scientific researches are indicated by Goethe when he describes how through spiritual science the soul can enter into the life of the universe, and how self-knowledge can become world-knowledge and world-knowledge, self-knowledge. Thus in a series of pictures we are shown how the human self must pursue its development. Rightly understood, Wilhelm Meister is from beginning to end an example of how the development of man is related to the nature of egoism.

If we find in a writer an exposition of a problem so important for Spiritual Science, this is for us a further proof — already apparent in our considerations of Faust, the Tale of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily, and Pandora 53 ] — that in Goethe we have a genius who is at one with our Spiritual Science in its true sense. Goethe himself speaks in this sense when he says, in effect: We can grasp the nature of egoism only if we know that the wisdom of the cosmos had to lead man out of spiritual existence to the point where he could fall into the temptations of egoism. If this possibility had not been open to him, he could not have become the flower of all that surrounds him in the outer world. But if he succumbs to the temptations of egoism, he incurs a sentence of death on himself. The wisdom of the cosmos has ensured that everything good in the world can be overturned and appear in man as freedom, but directly he misuses his freedom and overturns himself, a measure of self-correction comes in.

Here again we have a chapter which shows us how everything bad and sinful in human nature, if we consider it from a higher standpoint, can be transmuted into good — into a pledge of man's eternal, ever ascending progress. And so, if we are not afraid to descend into the depths of pain and evil, all the teachings of spiritual science will lead us eventually to the heights, and will confirm the beautiful words which resound to us from the wisdom and poetry of ancient Greece:

Man is the shadow of a dream, but when

The sun-ray, Heaven-sent,

Shines in upon him, then

His day is bright,

And all his life transfused with sheer delight. 54 ]




Last Modified: 07-Sep-2017
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