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The Michael Mystery

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Sketch of Rudolf Steiner lecturing at the East-West Conference in Vienna.

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The Michael Mystery

Michael Mystery: Foreword to this Edition

On-line since: 30th November, 2011

Foreword to this Edition

From the time of the Foundation Meeting of the Anthroposophical Society (Dornach, Christmas to New Year, 1923-24) until his death shortly before Easter, 1925, Rudolf Steiner wrote a letter week by week, addressed to the members of the Society. The letters were printed in the members' supplement to the Goetheanum Weekly and in the English edition of it, Anthroposophical Movement. They have since been republished in book form, both in the original and in translation. In English they have long been out of print.

The present publication represents the second of two volumes. The earlier letters (which it is hoped soon to republish as a first volume) speak of the character and aims of the Anthroposophical Society and of the social tasks arising in this spiritual movement. They deal with the problems met with in the common study of Spiritual Science and in presenting it to the world at large, relating it to the prevailing science and civilization of the time. The ones collected in this second volume, with the exception of the first two (issued in August, 1924, while he was in England) were written by Rudolf Steiner from his sick-bed during his final illness. During these last six months of his life, the letters — written always in the very early hours of the morning — came with unfailing regularity; the last of them was printed two weeks after his death. These letter form a continuous series, to which the appropriate title “The Michael Mystery” has since been given. As such, they constitute an invaluable addition to the great teacher's fundamental works on Spiritual Science.

The present volume is a revised edition of the translation made by the late Mrs. E. Bowen-Wedgwood, published in book-form in 1930 and again in 1933. the task of translating the written works of Rudolf Steiner is one of peculiar difficulty. In his own language he often departed from conventional forms, so as to adapt the style and wording to the difficult task of conveying facts of the spiritual world through the medium of earthly language. The forms of expression which he developed towards the end of his life present even greater problems of translation than his earlier writings, such for example as Theosophy or the Outline of Occult Science.

Fully aware of the difficulty of the task and bringing to it a thorough knowledge of the language and literature of both countries, Mrs. Bowen-Wedgwood made a deliberate effort to widen the range of expression, even at the cost of bold departures from the conventional English of the present day. She herself writes of it in her original foreword: “In trying to reproduce such contents in an English form, the translator would ask the reader's patience where the language may somewhat deviate from past tradition or present practice … In the West, it is time to make determined endeavours towards evolving forms of the mother-tongue that can receive what has now been given … They can be, at present, but groping first endeavours, may be uncouth and inhabitual. But the speech of any race of men is not a thing that can be standardised and fixed; it grows with their spiritual growth, and is at all times a measure of it. The English language…has still to find, through the souls of its speakers, those modulations which shall carry the spiritual substance that lives in the words of Rudolf Steiner.”

From conversations I myself was privileged to have with Rudolf Steiner when I interpreted his lectures by word of mouth, I know how anxious he was that we should not allow our language to become stereotyped, or resist the kind of changes which a new content in spiritual life will tend to bring about. You put a stop to all spiritual progress, he said to me on one occasion, if you insist that your mother-tongue must remain in the precise form to which you are now accustomed. He gave examples to show how rapidly — in German too — a new creative element in spiritual life will bring in quite new forms of expression, which soon become so familiar that it is difficult to believe they were not always there.

For this revised edition I have however made some modifications so as to ease the reader's way. Notably the anthroposophical technical terms, for some of which Mrs. Bowen-Wedgwood used new forms of her own, have been restored to the accustomed English versions. Concerning technical terms, the following notes may be of help. For the three soul-members, these are the renderings approved (or, in the last two instances, actually suggested) by Rudolf Steiner:

Empfindungs-Seele: Sentient Soul

Verstandes-oder Gemüts-Selle: Intellectual or Mind-Soul

Bewusstseins-Seele: Spiritual Soul

In the existing English editions of his works, the third of these — Bewusstseins-Seele — has often been rendered more literally, ‘Consciousness-Soul.’ This was the natural thing to do before Dr. Steiner — at Ilkley in 1923 — asked that it be rendered ‘Spiritual Soul.’ Competent students are of opinion that ‘Consciousness-soul’ should still be retained as an alternative. This should be borne in mind as regards the present volume too. Dr. Steiner, in writing of the ‘Age of the Spiritual Soul’ (the fifth post-Atlantean period, beginning in the fifteenth century A.D.) often shortens the expression Bewusstseinsseelen-Zeitalter to Bewusstseins-Zeitalter, and in the context this is related to the literal meaning of Bewusstsein, referring to the awakened human consciousness of modern time. In such instances we have translated literally, ‘The Age of Consciousness;’ it should be remembered that this is here synonymous with ‘the Age of the Spiritual Soul.’

World is here used as the equivalent of the cognate German Welt, meaning the or a Universe. Used without further qualification, the English word is now so commonly applied to the Earth-planet alone that many people have forgotten its wider meaning, which the Oxford Dictionary describes as “the system of created things; ‘heaven and earth;’ the cosmos.” It is undoubtedly better to retain this more universal meaning among others, and thus to use the cognate English word where Dr. Steiner speaks of Welt, or in the plural, Welten.

The word Vorstellung and the kindred verb and verbal noun Vorstellen present a special problem. The late Professor Hoernlé's rendering of Vorstellung as ‘idea’ in the first edition of ‘The Philosophy of Freedom’ (1916) has been adversely criticized and has since been replaced by ‘representation.’ Vorstellung is however a word in common use, and the colloquial present-day use of the word ‘idea’ in English comes very near its meaning. Vorstellen may then be rendered ‘ideation;’ it is the activity of forming mental images in the every-day process of thought. Mrs. Bowen-Wedgwood, in her translations of this and other works, has used diverse terms, including ‘mental presentation’ and ‘mental conception’ (conception as distinct from concept, which is the accepted rendering of Begriff). In the present volume, the terms: mental conception, mental picturing, and the forming of mental conceptions and mental images, have been used. (See especially Letters XXII, XXIII and XXVI.)

The ‘Leading thoughts’ in which the several Letters are summed up have also been published separately along with the many earlier Leading Thoughts containing the elements of Spiritual Science, most of which were given without explanatory Letters. In the existing English edition, entitled Anthroposophical Leading Thoughts (London, 1927) the translation is by the present writer. (No. XXXV here corresponds to No. III in the present volume, and so on to the end: No. LXI to No. XXIX.) So far as these brief summaries are concerned, an independent translation is thus available, and it may sometimes be helpful to compare the two.

George Adams

Last Modified: 03-Sep-2020
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