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Man's Eternal Biography

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

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Man's Eternal Biography

Poppelbaum: Man's Eternal Biography: I. The Will to Believe and the Duty to Know


The Will to Believe and the Duty to Know

EVERY discussion of vital issues in our day comes to a deadlock where the parties agree that further arguing is useless because the realm of unproven beliefs has been entered. At this point the adherent of a “scientific” world conception becomes indulgent; he generously grants to everybody the “right to believe.” The adherent of religious teachings is equally satisfied; he has “always held that nobody can live without unshakeable though unproven tenets.” Both agree that the sphere of beliefs is safe against proof and disproof. If they continue their discussion it consists solely in a benevolent comparison of private opinions.

In medieval disputations there used to be a similar armistice. It was an armistice, not between science and opinion, but between human knowledge and divine revelation. Mankind's consciousness has changed, but the idea of a frontier still looms large. The ancient hostility has mellowed to an amicable neighborliness; and the frontier no longer divides individuals but runs right through the soul of every person who seeks truth.

All who acquiesce in this situation overlook that there was a more ancient phase of knowledge to which there was no such limit. This is why Spiritual Science must insist on a careful study of this ancient “pre-scientific” consciousness. There was in those days only a single kind of cognition based on direct supersensible experience. Both scientific knowledge and religious teachings have their origin in this supersensible experience. The ancient priests were the scientists of their time.

Since this is so often overlooked let us consider here a very concrete example. Everybody knows that the ancient Egyptians used to store great quantities of grain. But few people realize that they had to protect their granaries against certain pests. Investigators have found that this was done by mixing finely powdered sand with the crop. As modern experiments have shown, this powder kills the insects by clogging their breathing tubes. Needless to say the Egyptians did not arrive at this method by blind trial. There is little doubt that it came to them from the wisdom of their priests, as all other knowledge of that time. The Egyptians themselves said so, in fact, and we have no right to assume that they wanted to mystify their contemporaries. Thus the knowledge of how to combat pests was part of that same “temple-lore” which also made known the will of the gods. Only when we realize the all-inclusive character of such priestly knowledge do we begin to understand the supreme role which supersensible wisdom played in the whole scope of pre-Christian cultures.

It does not detract in the least from the dignity of ancient temple knowledge that along-side of loftier things it could convey instructions which seem to border on the trivial. Yet to call them trivial is mere sentimentality. For the ancients, the storing of grain was just as sacred an act as worshipping and imploring the gods. The temples could tell them how to do both the one and the other. Moreover in those days the common man himself evidently still retained some glimpses of direct spiritual insight, which the trained priest possessed in full measure. So there was no need blindly to believe him.

Blind belief did not arise until supersensible experience faded from the reach of the people at large, and temple lore itself, therefore, had to undergo a change. The necessity arose to embody the “divine” part of this lore in doctrines. We can follow the rising necessity for ever more rigid formulations through late antiquity right down to the medieval centuries. The wording of divine formula' had now to be adapted to an age deprived of direct insight into things divine. Means had to be found to secure the concealed spirit-content of the dogmas against the interference of remnants of vision which had become unreliable. At the same time, the knowledge of earthly (natural) things had to be made independent of vision. It had to be based on the exclusive use of the bodily senses and the intellect which thus came into its own.

In our age the division has become an irreconcilable contrast. The churches, which guard the “tenets”, are not interested in even hinting at the original direct experience embodied in the dogma. The believer rightly feels that he cannot approach the religious content with his ordinary experience, and therefore accepts the dogma as inexplicable and holy, and he tries to embrace it by mere faith, which has come to mean blind belief. But faith carries him into a sphere where intelligent knowledge cannot follow.

In the meanwhile, the power of sense experience developed in inverse proportion to the fading of clairvoyance. It is quite natural that sense-supported inquiry should limit itself to objects and laws of the sphere accessible to the senses. It should not be assumed, however, that supersensible experience as such could not help to clarify also problems arising from sensible experience. It is here that modern spiritual science comes in as a tool of supreme importance. Yet the claim of monopoly for sense bound science is an understandable over-statement. It springs from a justified pride of man in his manifestly increasing empirical potencies, a pride which is again and again enkindled by the spectacular success of such practical empirical efforts.

The amazing career of “science”, as it has come to be understood today, is due not to some wicked inclination arising out of nowhere, but to the appeal it has to the intelligence. This science succeeds in making its objects ever better understood, while at the same time the religious dogma is admittedly understood less and less. Lucidity stands over against growing obscurity. There is a shift of confidence from the unintelligible to the intelligible. It becomes ever more uncertain how the claim of religious “truth” can conform to the rigorous standards of testable knowledge. The convictions of the faithful, and even the blood of the martyrs, can no longer prove a valid content, but only testify to the overwhelming strength of an irrational “Will to Believe”.

What is the deeper reason for this “shift of confidence” from dogma to intelligible experience? It has often been said that it was a lapse into apostasy. But let us see the positive and creative side in the process. Then it appears to us as a change in demands concerning the way in which truth is acquired and transmitted. In acquiring and transmitting truth, science gives an impression of playing with open cards. It can convey the impression that its truths are found by well-defined methods which every layman can understand at least in principle. There is no mystification about the manner of “truth-getting”. No back-reference to a past authority, nor to the uncontrollable and indescribable “experience” of the select; but instead a generous expounding of the steps taken to secure observation and an open discussion of the conclusions drawn from it. Thus everybody can get, at least theoretically, an impression of “how it is done”; he can understand the demonstrable relationship of things observed. Since other and more ancient ways of securing knowledge are forgotten and the corresponding faculties extinct, the ways of science guarantee fair play with the learner's urge to know. He is not asked to believe but to see for himself. So when the student is told at some turning point of his study that certainty is to be found only in a restricted field and that therefore other fields have to be excluded, he is ready to make the sacrifice. He willingly abandons his time-honored hope to see truths established in fields lying beyond the scope of reliable investigation. No matter how strong his urge may have been to have other questions answered too, he resigns, and does so with the feeling that the sacrifice is a matter of honesty and sobriety.

This is the gain which makes all loss fade into negligibility. Giving up the passive security of faith means nothing when compared with the gain in self-respect of the responsible knower. Even the constant threats of the sponsors of old beliefs that the apostasy must end in failure can no longer impress him. He embraces an empiricism whose soundness he feels in his very heart; the opening of ever new fields for knowledge inspires him with a confidence in the new way of knowing. Soon this way appears to him as the only possible one; and the reiterated assertions of the dogmatist cannot tell him otherwise. “Spiritual truth” remains an empty claim; for its content is not “checkable”.

The defenders of dogma can do only one thing to secure a half-way respectable position. They must retire behind the dividing line which Kant has offered as inviolable. Has he not said that he must limit knowledge in order to make room for faith? Well, here was their chance. The nineteenth century did not essentially alter the situation. As we said at the beginning it merely uses “opinion” instead of “faith”. Private opinion need not be backed by authority. It can stand alone, self-conscious and stubborn.

*   *   *

IT IS this situation into which Rudolf Steiner's work was consciously introduced, If we are to understand its main purpose we must first realize what a powerful influence the Kantian “limit” has exercised even upon the promoters of modern science. By a strange irony of history the dogma of the “dividing line” became a tenet of science itself; a dogma held with no less eagerness than any church dogma in the past was held — on the other side of the established gap. Wide circles of our well educated contemporaries still look upon Kant as the one who has secured faith against the arrogance of empirical science.

Looking at this situation in our days, we cannot help but feel it to be a self-entrenchment of the soul. It is a kind of defense-mentality in the field of cognition; a conviction that eternal security can be found behind seemingly unconquerable defences.

In the military field, we know since 1940 what a disastrous error lurked in the Maginot mentality. In the field of cognition the illusion of unconquerable defences still survives, without an inkling in many supposed knowers that their attitude is doomed and spreads inevitable doom.

To give up the mental Maginot-attitude is the main challenge which Rudolf Steiner's work known as anthroposophy, puts forth in our days. The dubious armistice between knowledge and faith, it says, must come to an end. This does not mean the reopening of the old hostility, but a finding of common terms for reliable knowledge of whatever “field”. It means the rehabilitation of cognition in the realm beyond sense experience.

*   *   *

WE HAVE characterized the spiritual situation into which modern supersensible knowledge entered when it was first founded. This was toward the end of the nineteenth century, and in Europe. Let us now trace what this situation has become today, in the Western world. No doubt we shall have to modify our description.

In the first place, the contrast between faith and knowledge, in America, much more than in Europe, has mellowed to a neighborly relation between science and private opinion. Yet the division, though gently propounded, is no less distinct. There spreads on the one hand, the realm of the strictly knowable, with its well defined methods with which everybody, scientist or not, willingly complies; on the other hand, the still vast space for personal opinion where everybody can believe whatever he wants. In the one region standard methods must be adhered to, if the searcher for knowledge wants to be taken seriously; in the other region he enjoys complete liberty, because of the supposed lack of reliable methods to ascertain truth.

It is a firmly entrenched dogma in this country that where science becomes incompetent the unlimited “right to believe” begins. This right is felt to be as “inalienable” as any other right in a democracy. Whoever wishes to speak of things outside the grasp of sense experience can claim this right. One may believe in the existence of supersensible worlds for no other reason than that one likes to do so.

It would be good to realize where this attitude leads when followed up to its extreme, Let us discard lofty language and tender politeness. What do we grant with this right to believe? We grant the believer the liberty to be as unreasonable as he likes. A straight line leads from the respectable “freedom of worship” to the much less respectable liberty to make a fool of oneself in all spiritual matters.

In the second place, the situation becomes even more difficult through the extension in America of the formula concerning the “Will to Believe” from religious issues to basic assumptions of science itself. It was William James who suggested that fundamental conceptions concerning the structure of reality are adopted by scientists in no other way than are the beliefs of the religious person. This seems to indicate that beneath the layer of responsible judgment there is in every case a substratum of beliefs which is usually unobserved, or admitted only with hesitation. Before knowing begins, so the argument runs, certain “options” have already taken place. These options are embraced by the will. They are rooted in an unalterable “will to believe”.

We do not want here to belittle William James' philosophical achievements, to which we have done justice elsewhere. [See note 1] What matters here is the profound impression which he left with the educated public in this country. The slogan of the “will to believe” is inevitably met with in discussions on spiritual questions. Defenders of religious faiths quote this slogan with the same ardor with which their forerunners, a few generations ago, quoted Kant's dictum on how room has to be made for faith by restricting knowledge. Indeed, James has done for the Western world in our time (whether he intended it or not) what Kant did for the Europe of the nineteenth century. Both saved faith and belief from the threat of expanding knowledge by giving them a sanctuary in man's subjectivity.

The result is felt, too, wherever one tries to call attention to supersensible knowledge in the sense of Rudolf Steiner. The most important point about anthroposophy, the reliability of its research, is least of all understood. Almost every person who first meets with anthroposophy takes it for granted that it is just a belief, at best a more or less interesting guesswork. And since everybody is entitled to have his own guess, why should one seriously study anybody else's? I have heard of an intelligent person in this country who began to read Rudolf Steiner's “Occult Science, an Outline” (obviously skipping the introductory pages which might have cured his error) and soon put the book down with the words: “Why read this? I could write such a book myself. My guess is as good as his. ...”

There are many such persons in the English speaking world. We have shown how their attitude is historically understandable. Nevertheless, this attitude has developed into a serious obstacle for the progress of knowledge. Truth-getting is an enterprise which involves the full responsibility of the seeker. This responsibility does not lessen when the boundaries of sense observation are crossed. On the contrary, it increases immeasurably. An important change in attitude is therefore necessary. The Will to Believe, supposedly based upon a right to believe, must be replaced by a keenly felt Duty to Know.

*   *   *

ANTHROPOSOPHY realizes the difficulty of such a transition. It asks the student to join the quest for a standard by which truth can be measured, whether it be in the realm of the senses or not. Fortunately, there is an agreement among those who feel the pulse beat of the modern age, that this standard can not be a body of statements of what is true and what is not. This would be a relapse into dogmatism. We cannot proceed as people did in the middle ages, where every new claimed truth had to be checked against a number of sentences previously laid down. It is not done this way in our days, certainly not in science. Every new discovery can necessitate the revision of concepts held valid before it was made. What is lasting is not the acknowledged concepts but the way of attaining them. And even the method of truth-getting may have to be altered in view of new phenomena and replaced by a more adequate method.

Anthroposophy adheres to this sort of standard. It does not, therefore, offer a body of sentences or statements to be subscribed to. However overwhelming the wealth of new findings contained in Rudolf Steiner's books and lectures, it is not the findings which matter first of all. It is the existence of new faculties in man. These faculties are demonstrated, not theoretically, but in the full life of their application.

Here is a point where it becomes evident that anthroposophy is in keeping with the best scientific heritage. The great thing about anthroposophy is that it is not just a new teaching or doctrine, but that it appeals to, and develops, faculties waiting to be awakened. Science, when it came to replace older ways of truth-getting, did the same thing. Its success was due not so much to the new information it brought to post-medieval man, but to the training it gave to his nascent capacities. In this sense, anthroposophy fulfills a modern demand. It is “timely”. Yet it cannot flatter any prejudice for this very reason. Least of all does it flatter those who want to belong to the “elect”.

Furthermore, it is modern in the following respect. The faculties it appeals to are present potentially in every searcher after knowledge. This is clear from the very first sentence in the book “Knowledge of Higher Worlds and its Attainment”: “There slumber in every human being faculties by means of which he can acquire for himself a knowledge of higher worlds”. In this first sentence the words “every” and “for himself” stand out significantly. They are sometimes overlooked by students when they first read the sentence. (Yet I daresay they are never overlooked by those “sponsors of the past” who look askance at the new spiritual impulse contained in this message.) The message breathes confidence in man's growing capabilities.

These capabilities, it is true, are in a slumbering state in man today. There is only one way to awaken them; one must use them. Before being used they are only potentially present. But this is a discovery which the beginner can soon make; he comes to know of the presence of his slumbering organs in the same way as a child discovers that it has limbs, by trying to put them to use. Anthroposophical study in its beginning is an attempt to stand up and walk spiritually.

This experience is indeed as concrete and many sided as physical motion. It involves an ever more intimate acquaintance with difficulties and with the means of grappling with them. The very fact, however, that these faculties arise from use is already an experience of a purely spiritual kind. With every new attempt to understand a single paragraph in an anthroposophical book, or lecture, or essay the human being finds himself factually changed, — not transported into any strange condition of mind, abruptly and without understanding, but in possession of judgment and responsibility as before. There is even a greater clarity of mind and an additional amount of responsibility. The difference is clearly perceptible. It is like breathing in the strong, pure air of a mountain top after having spent some time in a stuffy room. The student learns to live now with certain facts of which previously he would have been afraid, or which he would have rejected as antipathetic.

This is another sign that his new experience has nothing to do with personal bias or so-called wishful thinking. The student learns to live with facts whether he likes them or not; and many of them he does not like at all. He has simply to “envisage” them, and this requires courage.

A good example is the way in which the student can learn to live with the idea of reincarnation of the human spirit. Naturally, he is not asked to believe that reincarnation is a fact. But instead, he is invited to weigh in thinking certain arguments which make it appear reasonable. Further he is made to see that certain subtleties of human development are best explained when we assume that the spirit-core of man comes back to successive embodiments after intermittent sojourns in a purely spiritual world. [See note 2] The student soon feels the value of such a wholly detached weighing of facts. He also recognizes that a premature acceptance for reasons of personal bias, or a rejection for reasons of antipathy, does not help him in the least. Indeed, after a superficial initial thrill which the idea may provide, he may find that in his deeper soul strata he is averse to it. The reason is that every serious consideration of reincarnation requires him to face his own moral entity. There is, however, a part of every one of us which hates to be told the truth.

Only he who is ready to face the depressing reality of his own shortcomings together with the need for coming back to earth for subsequent lives can be said to begin to live with this idea. One who has accomplished this now has an intimation of what requirements spiritual truth lays upon the knower. He realizes that the attacks of his likes and dislikes will be repeated; but they will not be able to unsettle his clear judgment. Quite the contrary, they will reveal to him the particular region in which likes and dislikes arise, — which is very different from that region in which the duty to know resides. So the impact of bias, far from clouding his integrity, actually sharpens his self-knowledge by showing him what is not his real self.

This example is given here not because of the problem it touches upon but because of the atmosphere within which the solution is approached. This new kind of knowledge can alone thrive in an atmosphere of objectivity in no lesser sense than that accepted as indispensible for every scientific inquiry. The necessity of a disengagement from sympathies and antipathies is even more imperative just because man's subjectivity becomes engaged so much more easily than in an ordinary scientific problem. Where prejudice is more apt to interfere extraordinary efforts must be made to keep it out.

The seeker for supersensible knowledge moves in a region where a hidden “Will to Believe” can only be regarded as an enemy. The attacks of this enemy are subtle, and they are renewed under ever fresh disguises. Each individual act of knowledge has to reckon with them. There is no permanent safeguard. The unselfish acceptance of supersensible truth cannot be theoretically secured. It can only be practically learned.

Fortunately, in the case of each particular spiritual scientific problem the student can make sure whether or not he has achieved the required degree of “disinterested interest”. He can test his readiness to form a new concept which is destined to cover facts not previously envisaged as belonging to one another. This is a spiritual adventure well worth being undertaken. It has a particular thrill. It involves a risk. Besides, it provides a peculiar sort of satisfaction. In short it has all the features of a testing trial. An example of such a test can he taken from Rudolf Steiner's book “The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity”, always keeping in mind that it is separated from the larger context in which it stands. The book invites the reader to discover the spiritual fact of human freedom. It shows first where this fact can not be observed. Then it goes on to show that man is able to conceive of a deed in the same way as an inventor conceives of a new technical idea, or a great discoverer hits upon a new concept in the field of science. The same basic faculty is at work in three different directions. Rudolf Steiner calls it intuition. We could call it, for our purpose, an ability of concept-finding. In the sense of this book, the highest achievement in the moral sphere is a sort of concept-finding, — the finding of a concept to cover facts not yet existent, because they are yet to be produced.

Here is a proposition brought into a short formula and expressed in words of our own. “A concept of the cognitional order gathers up hitherto disconnected facts into a whole not seen before. A moral concept can produce new facts which were not existent before”.

Every person able to think clearly can see that the two parts of this proposition are alike in all respects save one, namely that the facts are “done” in the one case, and “to be done” in the other. This means independent of the doer, and dependent on the doer, respectively.

Obviously, the thinker can form such a concept without any interfering sympathies or antipathies. He can feel the unbiased mood which here pervades the act of conceiving. It does not make any difference to him whether or not deeds of the kind described have ever been done or not. He simply can agree that if such deeds should exist they would depend completely upon the intuition of the doer and would have to be called his free creation in the same sense in which a technical invention is produced freely. (The book, in its later parts, shows that such deeds do exist; but this does not concern us here).

Spiritual scientific concepts must be formed with the same equanimity as the thinker possesses in this example. This is why Rudolf Steiner could say that a deliberate study of the thought forms used in the book “The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity” was an excellent preparation for spiritual scientific studies. We can add here that unbiased concept-formation is an excellent antidote against the bad habit of wishful thinking. At the same time such exercise does not in the least detract from the humanity of the thinker. It does not make him heartless. On the contrary, it gives him a chance to let his full human interest stream into the effort at forming a thought which he never conceived of before. He feels, if for the first time, that there is a satisfaction deeper than that which arises from finding things as they please him. He is ready now to cope with facts whether they be welcome or not.

Rudolf Steiner made it a point to present everything he had to say in an atmosphere where the “disinterested interest” of the student is called upon. Thinking over the results of spiritual scientific research the student can examine them in the light of responsible scrutiny. Not that he is already able to investigate the facts on his own accord, but he can view them and make them a part of his interest just as he does quite naturally with facts of the traditional sciences. His study thus becomes a continuous education of his sense for facing truth.

With this it becomes evident in which sense anthroposophy is a modern striving and how it deliberately keeps the continuity with the modern scientific heritage. Wherever science has deserved its name it has been an educator for coping with truth in the light of an objective interest and irrespective of personal bias. Anthroposophy bears the same unmistakable hallmark.

The substitution of a Duty to Know for a Will to Believe as a consequence of a sound scientific attitude in anthroposophy can be recognized from yet another angle. Since the student can abide by his objective interest when he passes from ordinary scientific to spiritual scientific studies, there is no sudden and violent change, no violent irruption which breaks in upon and unbalances his soul life. He is not subject to a conversion. He does not become a believer. Mere belief is overcome. Anthroposophy regards the freedom to accept truth as inviolable ground in man.

Of course there is a change in the student. But this change resides in the learning process itself, Not the texture of the student's personality is upset, but new modes of perception are gradually acquired. The learner becomes aware that he is able to observe things which were previously overlooked because his organs were not subtle enough. It is as if the very concepts which he first formed only tentatively and as it were on probation, acted as so many illuminating searchlights. Things within his field of experience reveal themselves in a new context; they tell a story not heard before. But the student remains throughout all the changes due to accruing new capacities the “same” person. He recognizes, just as before and even more so, his responsibility. His personality is extended, but never replaced or given up.

One who has been converted does not know what has happened to him. He praises his change as the work of God and never questions that it was a change for the better. He is satisfied with having “thrown off the old Adam” and enthusiastically embraces the new core of personality which has been implanted within him. Henceforth he is given over to the impelling power which moves him. The responsibility is no longer his. He has become a tool. He has no doubt that it is God who makes use of him.

In contrast to this, the student of spiritual knowledge has experienced every phase of the change in his capacities. He remains in possession of his previous power of judgment only with an increasing range. The concepts he has responsibly acquired act as so many fact-finders, but it is he who finds the new facts. He is ready to stand new tests in the form of further non-flattering discoveries. Whatever the consequences for himself, he will pursue his path.

The Duty to Know, as duty, shows him a stern face. But the knowledge conveyed by spiritual striving makes him more human.



Note 1. “Tim Quest for Reality in William James and Rudolf Steiner.” The Forerunner, Spring 1944.

Note 2. Cf. Rudolf Steiner: “Theosophy, Introduction into Supersensible World Knowledge and Human Destination”, Chapter on Reincarnation.

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