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Self Observation

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

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Self Observation

On-line since: 31st October, 2016



We used to believe that a Being of Immeasurable Power and Wisdom and Goodness decreed our creation with the words: — “Let us make man in our image.” We once felt we were at the centre of things. We thought of ourselves as known by the Cosmos and loved by it. We called the Universe “Our Father.” We held up our hands to it in prayer.

Physical Science requires us to think otherwise. It indicates a world-whole which is not only indifferent to us but is altogether unaware of us. It insists that neither at the outset nor anywhere along the line was there any prevision of what has actually taken place in evolution nor any intention to bring about the results with which we are familiar. That we exist at all is explained as merely the final result of a series of “accidents.” Astro-physicists are still in debate about the origins of our earth. A hypothesis until recently much in favour was that somewhere about 2000 million years ago another star in our galaxy happened to pass near enough to what was then “the sun” to attract out of it the blazing substances which became in due course the planets of our solar system — among them a planet on which by a chance the physical conditions were such as to make life as we know it practicable. After some 1000 million years; at a certain place or at certain places; at a certain moment or at certain moments; conditions occurred which resulted in the formation of special chemical compounds having the property of “livingness.” Living matter, having been brought forth, somehow maintained itself. It not only maintained itself; it reproduced itself and it evolved. It evolved blindly into many blind-alleys. It evolved with equal blindness along what we unscientifically regard as a uniquely important and specifically intended main-fine — cell — cluster of single-celled organisms — some sort of jelly-fish — fiat-worm stage — roundworm stage — coelomate — primitive chordate — fish — amphibian — reptile — monotreme — marsupial — true mammal — insectivore — some sort of tree-shrew — some sort of lemur — some sort of monkey — some sort of ape — and finally man.

The full title of Darwin's great first book on evolution was “The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.” Here in the title are indicated the essentials of Darwin's doctrine. He asked his readers to look at facts on every hand observable in nature: — that organisms vary; that features are transmitted by heredity; that in every environment and at every level of life, there is among living organisms competition for survival. He argued convincingly that in the struggle for life in any given environment, those that survive will be those that possess characteristics giving them in that particular situation some biological advantage over their competitors; he argued further that those surviving would tend to hand on their helpful qualities to their off-spring. Working along these lines, he saw every environment mechanically eliminating organisms ill-adapted to it and mechanically bringing into existence organisms that could adapt themselves. This materialistic, mechanistic mode of accounting for what has taken place in evolution was applied more and more comprehensively. Darwin himself brought man into his evolutionary scheme in his “Descent of Man.” Darwin's followers out-Darwined Darwin. In the period from 1859 to the present day we have witnessed the rise of an official biology, almost universally accepted in universities and schools, which purports to explain man as originating exclusively from blind physical and chemical events.

What Julian Huxley writes in his Foreword to Eileen Mayo's “Story of Living Things” (1947) is typical: —

“The discoveries of the 19th Century concerning life rank with those of the 17th concerning lifeless matter as the two achievements of science which have had the greatest influence on general thought. Galileo and Newton following on Copernicus and Kepler, finally robbed our earth of its claim to a central position in the universe. At the same time, they introduced us to the idea of universal scientific law, by demonstrating that the behaviour of the moon, the earth and the other planets was due to the same force of gravity that makes a rain-drop or a stone fall to the ground.

“So, two centuries later, Darwin, following on Lamarck and the other great naturalists, comparative anatomists and physiologists who preceded him finally dethroned man from his claim to a unique position as Lord of Creation. At the same time he introduced us to the idea of universal law in biology, by demonstrating that all plants and animals, including man himself, share many basic similarities, and that the origin of human species is due to the same general type of agency which is involved in producing a local variety of snail or a new breed of poultry: evolution operates as automatically as gravity.”

Those who look at things with the quantitative eyes of Modern Physical Science see no point in the long evolutionary process where man could have possessed himself of any private, inner, spiritual-ethical reality. They see him as in the last resort nothing other than a highly organised chemical structure, an ephemeral assemblage of molecules. If such a view were valid, it would be unthinkable for Dr. Steiner to try to elaborate a philosophy of man's spiritual activity.

Fortunately, there is among theories of evolution themselves, a struggle for existence

Alfred Russel Wallace came forward with the notion of Natural Selection at the same moment as Darwin himself. But unlike his less imaginative confrere, he did not allow the theory to run amok in his speculations. He allowed it only a circumscribed range. That evolution in general can be accounted for on what are now called “Darwinistic principles;” and that in especial man himself was materialistically and mechanically evolved into existence; Wallace flatly denied. Here are a handful of quotations from the last chapter of the book he generously called “Darwinism:” —

“The special faculties we have been discussing clearly point to the existence in man of something which he has not derived from his animal progenitors — something which we may best refer to as being of a spiritual essence or nature, capable of progressive development under favourable conditions. On the hypothesis of this spiritual nature, superadded to the animal nature of man, we are able to understand much that is otherwise mysterious or unintelligible in regard to him, especially the enormous influence of ideas, principles, and beliefs over his whole life and actions ... These distinct stages of progress from the inorganic world of matter and motion up to man, point clearly to an unseen universe — to a world of spirit, to which the world of matter is altogether subordinate. ... And still more surely can we refer to it those progressive manifestations of Life in the vegetable, the animal and man — which we may classify as unconscious, conscious and intellectual life, — and which probably depend upon different degrees of spiritual influx ... As contrasted with this hopeless and soul-deadening belief, we, who accept the existence of a spiritual world, can look upon the universe as a grand consistent whole adapted in all its parts to the development of spiritual beings capable of indefinite life and perfectibility.

“To us, the whole purpose, the only raison d'etre, of the world — with all its complexities of physical structure, with its grand geological progress, the slow evolution of the vegetable and animal kingdoms, and the ultimate appearance of man — was the development of the human spirit in association with the human body. ... We thus find that the Darwinian theory, even when carried out to its extreme logical conclusion, not only does not oppose, but lends a decided support to a belief in the spiritual nature of man. It shows us how man's body may have been developed from that of a lower animal form under the law of natural selection: but it also teaches us that we possess intellectual and moral faculties which could not have been so developed but must have had another origin; and for this origin we can only find an adequate cause in the unseen universe of Spirit.”

Carlyle said of Goethe's works: — “There is in them a New Time, the prophecy and beginning of a New Time.” This verdict I hold to be veridical; and I hold it to include what Goethe has to say about evolution. Not (admittedly) in systematic form but in many scattered utterances, Goethe had already at the turn of the Eighteenth Century laid the foundations for a true spiritual theory of evolution. What he saw and stated may be read in Rudolf Steiner's studies of Goethe's scientific works. [See Rudolf Steiner's “Goethes Naturwissenschaftliche Schriften” (1883; 1887; 1890; 1897). These volumes are available only in German but the Introductions have been gathered into a single book and are published in English under the title of “Goethe the Scientist.”]

Dr. Steiner carried things much nearer to finality than Goethe. His entire outlook was evolutionary. In his great chapter on “Man and the Evolution of the World” (“Outline of Occult Science”), he has laid down the general lines of new evolutionary principles. In a thousand passages in his books and lectures, he has indicated the concrete ramifications of a “Spiritualised Evolutionism.” E. L. Grant Watson in his book “But to What Purpose” speaks as follows: —

“Steiner also propounds a theory of organic evolution, which, fantastic as it may sound at the first impact, seems to me to fit the facts better than any other. He postulates that the tree of evolution, Darwin's famous tree, is, the great bulk of it, in the supersensible world, and composed of a material more plastic than any material which our senses can perceive. From time to time, and from place to place, this material incarnates; archetypes are formed. They are the incarnated twigs on the ends of the branches of the unknown Tree of Life. From these, processes of devolution may or may not develop. For example: Man is an archetype, and from him the apes have been devolved. There is very considerable support for such an idea from many modern biologists.”

Amid his numberless preoccupations Dr. Steiner unfortunately never found time to work out his ideas into anything like textbook shape. [The reader may be disquieted to note that in this chapter, Dr. Steiner speaks of Darwin and Haeckel almost as if they were contributors to the “Spiritualised Evolutionism” which he has himself in mind; e.g. “Ethical Individualism is the crown of the edifice that Darwin and Haeckel have striven for in natural science.” When every child at school knows that Darwin and Haeckel were altogether identified with a materialistic evolutionism, this seems rather contradictory. Have we caught Jove nodding? The explanation is simple and straightforward. Dr. Steiner knew well enough that a “Greater Darwinism” would sooner or later replace the narrowly conceived Darwinism then prevalent. He saw Darwin and Haeckel as great pioneers of evolutionism in general and was not particularly perturbed about the limitations of their theories. He took sides, so to speak, with those who were clearing away the fundamentally untenable view that God had once and for all by direct fiat created the various species of animals immutably as we come across them to-day.]

Evolutionary theory in its present phase is the dupe of materialistic Renaissance mentality. Darwinians prevail in every centre of learning and research and practice. But there are many protestants both in these centres and outside them. I venture to assert that already the Goethe-Steiner Theory of Evolution is beginning to replace that of Darwin and Haeckel. [Perhaps no single achievement in scientific theory could more help mankind than a competent account of “Spiritualised Evolutionism” done by a person aware of all that has been said both by the Darwinians and the non-Darwinians; — whether he is an Anthroposophist or not is irrelevant. There are many beginnings of such an account, e.g. Poppelbaum's “Man and Animal;” articles by John Waterman in the Golden Blade for 1956 and for 1957; an article by Professor A. C. Hardy in the “Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research” for May, 1953.] In this new “Spiritualised Evolutionism” what Dr. Steiner has to say about the essential being of man will be accepted as the common-sense consummation of the evolutionary process.

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