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On Nuclear Energy and the Occult Atom

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

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On Nuclear Energy and the Occult Atom

On Nuclear Energy and the Occult Atom: Lecture 1: On Nuclear Energy

On Nuclear Energy

We come today to the occult mystery of the atom. If one were to place the question of whether atoms really exist before Rudolf Steiner, and consider what he has had to say in this direction, one would find a twofold answer. For we find that at times he speaks quite matter-of-factly about atoms; yet at other times he states quite decisively that atomism is completely unfit to provide a usable world-conception. It is thus our task today to penetrate deeper into these seeming contradictions and the consequent difficulties presented to our thinking.

Before we begin, however, I would like to emphasize that these two fundamental positions, which are to be examined this afternoon, need to be very carefully understood in their proper contexts, otherwise we would be opening ourselves to grotesque misunderstandings. I would like to give you an example of what can happen. I was once given a circular by the vice-president of the so-called “World-Federalists” (Welt-Föderalisten) in which nuclear energy and atomic and neutron weapons were discussed in an additional “lecture” of Rudolf Steiner. A passage was quoted from the lecture, “The Etherization of the Blood”; but it was torn out of context and so interpreted as to state that “a planned destruction of the earth and thereby of all life developing an it” would be led by Anthroposophy, which was claimed to be a helper of Satanism.

Here I would like to characterize the kind of logic which we sometimes encounter. In 1968, at the beginning of the student revolutions, a university professor said to me, indicating what he had to envisage: that “at any moment in my mathematics lectures a student might stand up and demand, ‘Let us discuss the Vietnam issue!’ And if I would answer, ‘No, we are here to study mathematics,’ he would say, ‘Then you are for that War.’” — That is the logic which could now be held against me when I say, “Now I want to speak about the spiritual-scientific aspects of the atom, and only in the next lecture discuss the human perspectives.” Perhaps someone will now say, “Then you are for nuclear fission!” I thus state here, in advance, that I decline to discuss anything on that level. One cannot work in this way even in the sense, for example, of the Constitution of the Anthroposophical Society. A certain familiarity with any anthroposophical subject is necessary, in order truly to understand the quotations related to it.

The atom, in the sense in which Rudolf Steiner mentions it, has at least three fundamentally distinct aspects:

  1. The hypothetical atom of the 19th century;

  2. The material particles which, in the 20th century, actually became phenomena; and

  3. The “occult atom” as a spiritual entity.

We have spoken in past lectures about the atomic conception of the 19th century and about that which has appeared in the 20th century, and I shall therefore assume a certain understanding based on this work.

We shall now speak for a moment not of the atom of the 19th or of the 20th century, but rather of the “atom of occultism.” Our discussion will begin by learning what Rudolf Steiner had to say about atoms in a lecture of December 23, 1904; but we shall see that we must be quite clear as to which “atom” he was referring to, and that we therefore need to read this lecture in its proper context. He speaks here not of “the atom as coagulated electricity,” as it can be considered from other points of view, but rather of the higher grades of Freemasonry. This lecture was given before a small group of people who obviously could not have been studying for very many years under Rudolf Steiner, for he had only a few years previously begun his work. It was, however, certain that by the background of their occult studies they would be able to understand something said about atomism in the more ancient language of occultism. In particular, they would be able to understand that man, in that he builds technical tools and machines, embodies something of his own Spirit in them. This, then, alters the material; or, to use the term under consideration, it alters the atoms, which could be understood by his listeners. What was meant was not the atom of the 19th century, but rather the atom of occultism — that which we must understand still more deeply.

To find, however, this deeper understanding, we must not restrict our search to those passages where the question of the atom is discussed directly. We also must come to understand many things spoken of in other lectures: that man, as he passes through his occult development, transforms his own body; that it is not a matter of indifference for the substance of the earth that it passes through man; that there exists something of a seed for Spirit Man in all things which serve the spiritual transformation of man. This can only be truly understood through knowledge of the Supersensible Body of the Risen One, through which a true Spirit Man has appeared in etheric form upon the earth. (I can here only allude to this very broad theme.) Only through all that Rudolf Steiner has said about the Resurrection Body can we understand how much depends on the transformation which takes place through the deeds of all men, and how this will lead an to the next planetary condition.

In a lecture given on October 21, 1907, Rudolf Steiner spoke very precisely about that atom which can be called the occult atom. The Ancient Moon evolution ended with that which would bear fruit in the next planetary evolution, that which passed over to the earth as a “Cosmos of Wisdom.” It was there shown that every planetary condition will, in the end, be spiritually condensed into a type of atom — which is of course a spiritual imagination — which carries within it the entire spiritual essence of the previous planetary condition. This exists then in the Sphere of the Masters of Harmony and of the Consonance of Souls. In the preparation of the next planetary condition (that is, after the intermediate condition known as Pralaya), this atom becomes infinitely smaller and manifold. A sort of “bursting forth into numbers” takes place during this preparatory period. But that is not all! For now we must read further, in the lectures dealing with Future Jupiter and related topics, and we shall learn that many of the products of mankind — not only machines, but also cultural works (such as great works of art, ceremonial actions, and rituals) — attract elemental beings. “Out of the interaction between these creations of humanity and the elemental beings which live with man are formed the foundations of the kingdom of Future Jupiter. That, then, is comprised by the term the occult atom.”

How can we picture the occult atom? We can say, with reference to another statement I found given by Rudolf Steiner, “It is as large as the earth.” And what of the atoms of which one speaks today? On the one hand we could say that they are in part man-made and in part nature-made particles; and on the other hand we could say they are simply products of the human thought world. The atoms of the 19th century are products of the thought world, but the 20th century provides actual particles. From where do they come? — From the splitting of the spirit, which would become matter; or, as expressed in the lecture “The World of Senses and the World of Spirit” from the tearing asunder of the spirit. There is in this lecture a drawing which shows a ray, a vortex, and there where it tears the spirit asunder, arises matter. Now I would say — and this is my own imagination — that it is also just there that the “future” particles originate. I offer a comparison: when you have a piece of glass, and you shatter it with a hammer, then you have splinters. Now comes the question: is the glass, before you hit it, made up of splinters? In a certain sense, yes, — but of course it would be utter nonsense to assert that the glass “consists” of splinters. Yet there are in trains and in some cars, window panes made out of safety glass, and one can see an inner pattern using Polaroid glasses. (They have certain Stresses, which influence the reflection of the light.) You thus see the future particles into which the glass will shatter, so that in the event of an accident there would not be many long and dangerous splinters. One can see the future splinters, the future particles of glass; and in like manner can one see in crystalline matter, through X-rays and the like, the future particles, or atoms. Thus one can proceed as if they were actually there. In this sense we have “naive products of our thought world.”

But still there are also true particles, which prove themselves to be inaccessible to the senses! Underlying the mathematics of physics, which ascribes to the atom four shells, each of eight levels, are wisdom-filled relationships. You can, for example, read in Rudolf Steiner's works about the interior of the earth, which also has eight layers. Now I do not assert that these two are identical, but rather that this gives us a good imaginative picture, which can help to wean us from the mental picture of the “little balls of matter.” And we see, thus, that for many purposes the “size” of the spiritually conceived atom is not at all an issue.

In the lecture from 1904, in which the “mineral world” in which we live was spoken of in great detail, it was stated that mankind must evolve and develop, and that in olden times an awareness was present of the many stages through which this development must pass. These developmental stages still find their image in the higher grades of Freemasonry, but today they are no longer really understood. Yet in the spiritual movements which have preceded this Freemasonry — and particularly in Rosicrucianism — the principle of selflessness was strongly emphasized; so much so that every working initiate effectively renounced any claim to fame, lest this principle be violated by some deed becoming associated with his name.

This, then, is a kind of selflessness which far, far surpasses that which today goes by that name. “With them it came to the point where they could completely eliminate themselves, in so far as they were personalities, and would allow what they did to live itself out independently, through its own effects.”

Then follows a longer discussion — which I shall here only summarize — to the effect that in that time in which the soul was not yet living in such substantiality (in the Polarean and Hyperborean times), the Spirit World, which is now our inner world, surrounded us as our outer environment; in the future, that which is now outer nature and that which is “constructed” by man will become our inner world. This again is a reference to one of the occult expressions connected with Freemasonry, and it was taken for granted that the listeners would understand what was meant. They knew that the old church builders constructed churches not for themselves, nor to bring their own names into the world, but rather for others. “It was the task of all secret brotherhoods to bring the spirit into the outer world.”

Now comes an important comparison, which was further elaborated in later lectures. progress rests upon involution and evolution. Involution is the drawing in, evolution the giving out. All world conditions alternate between these two ascending and descending activities. You are now inhaling nature, in that you see, hear, smell, and taste. What you experience does not pass you by without leaving a trace. The eye will be destroyed, the object you perceive will itself also be destroyed, but that perception which you have made remains. Now you must understand that in certain times it can be necessary that comprehension of such things be awakened. We are approaching a time in which this comprehension can even reach as far as the atom, as I have already indicated to you.” (December 6, 1904)

Seven years later, in 1911, in three lectures entitled “The Spiritual Guidance of Man and Humanity,” it was publicly stated that in the future, chemistry and physics will establish the fact that Christ has ordered the material world, even to the smallest details. This is a statement which you probably know, but which (at first) can be rather difficult to understand, for one must really meditate upon it, and not merely think it. One must come to understand Christ not only as the Son of God, but as a Cosmic Being, who was active from earliest times as the Creative Spirit — a fact which was veiled for a certain time in the beginning of Western Christianity.

Thus it was said in 1904: “We are approaching a time in which — as I have already indicated — comprehension can reach even as far as the atom. Even lay people will recognize that the atom is nothing other than coagulated electricity. Thought itself is of the same substance; even before the Fifth Cultural Epoch comes to an end, man will come so far that he will be capable of working right into the atom.”

I doubt that I need to go further into this passage; you may yourselves read it further. It concludes by stating that man will be able to call forth “great effects through pressing a button in his pocket” — as was already beginning to be possible at that time with the wireless telegraph, for instance.

When was this stated? In the very same time that the young Einstein, a clerk at the patent office in Bern, was working on his three important papers. (It would not have been possible for him to publish three papers, each worthy of a Nobel Prize, all with in one year (1905) if he had not already been at work on them previously.) In the third of these was presented the discourse showing that mass and energy stand in a proportional relationship to one another. This was a purely theoretical relationship, which the young researcher had derived from the theory of electricity. He had at that time, however, never even considered that energy could be attained by the destruction of matter. To be sure, such energy already existed, given off from radioactive substances, but it was not possible actually to work with it. It was in fact almost a creed of physicists for as many as thirty years that this energy simply could not be influenced. They saw that energy was indeed produced sometimes, and regarded this as a result of “unstable” chemical elements which were “decaying” and thus were “radioactive.” They had become familiar with the successive stages of radioactive decay, and during the years 1937-39 they struggled with the most unusual products and effects of uranium decay. But from the time of the 1911 lecture, approximately thirty years — thirty-three if you will — passed before man could truly work into the atom. Still, the idea of this possibility had in fact been conceived much earlier. I remember that even in my childhood, in about 1924, I read in “New Universe” (Neues Universum) a futuristic science fiction story in which atomic energy was discussed quite matter-of-factly. It had already been recognized that radium is warmer than its environment, and it was felt that since one knew the formulas of Einstein the time would come when it would be possible to control this in technology.

I must mention here that this is connected with many occult secrets of which Rudolf Steiner spoke in 1904. In two essays which were published in 1964, I have collected various passages about the “mechanical occultism” of which Rudolf Steiner speaks. I have, however, also looked into the works of Blavatsky and other authors, trying to find where the topic of the great explosions which man is able to bring about was mentioned for the very first time, because Steiner's first reference to it was only in 1904. We find that Steiner often spoke of truly occult secrets only if they had already been revealed elsewhere. You will find passages, for example, in a rare book of 1894 entitled The Transcendental Universe, written by a theosophist named Harrison, which point towards a force quite different from that which is derived from explosions — namely, of a force derived from vibrations. And Rudolf Steiner has spoken of this also. He speaks of the technology of the future or, if you like, of the future of technology. There will, in the future, be machines which are “tuned” to human beings. A man will step up to a machine, make a gesture, and then another, and thereby set the machine in motion. This does not stem from such atomic forces of which we are now speaking — at least, not on the surface. Steiner speaks of this technology only after it had already been written about by Blavatsky and Harrison, when they were describing the work of an American inventor named John Worrell Keely. His discoveries about the consonance of vibrations could only be in part disclosed, so writes Harrison, because mankind was not yet ripe.

In the afore mentioned lecture of 1904 (after the passage mentioning the great explosions), Rudolf Steiner says: “It is impossible to imagine what could happen in such a situation, if mankind has not yet attained the quality of selflessness. Only through this attainment will it be possible to hold man back from the brink of destruction. The ruin of our present age will be brought about by a lack of morality.” The Lemurian Epoch was destroyed by fire, the Atlantean by water: “Ours” (that is, not the Fifth Cultural Epoch, but rather the whole Post-Atlantean Epoch) “will be destroyed through the War of All against All, through evil ... It will be an event that leaves man more inconsolable than have all the other catastrophes, for man himself shall bear the guilt. A small group of men will safely pass over into the Sixth Cultural Epoch. This small group will have already developed the quality of self-surrender. The others will have arrived at great sophistication in the work of harnessing the physical nature-forces, but without having developed the necessary levels of selflessness.” Then follows an image of the globe of the earth being changed into a type of self-functioning machine. This picture is taken up again later more than once. Thus it is quite clear that the selflessness mentioned here rests on the foundation of the good, primordially sacred, traditions of occultism.

In my last lecture I said that the year 1911 was a key year. In 1905 the treatises of Einstein first appeared. In 1911 we find that in a laboratory in England decisive steps were being made towards Bohr's model of the atom, later to be further elaborated. Also at that time, the first noteworthy experiments were being made and although man could not yet work directly into the atom, still it was not long afterwards that Rutherford arrived at the point where he could derive new particles from alpha particles. This was also the time when a new phrase was coined — one still commonly used today: “atom smashing.” (After 1939, scientists were taking great pains to make it clear that the uranium nucleus would not be “smashed,” but that it would split itself into two particles of approximately equal size.) Through the experiments of Rutherford it became possible for the first time to bombard particles, using other particles traveling at from two-thirds to nine-tenths the speed of light. Thus did the particle theory seem to prove true. Scientists thereby discovered new particles, thought to be the products of atom smashing. The expression “atom smashing” will eventually disappear. I mention it here, because in a lecture given by Rudolf Steiner in Basel on October 1, 1911, a similar term was used. This lecture is entirely concerned with the highest stages of the spiritualization of the human blood. It was called “The Etherization of the Blood.” First the foundation is laid: in the first two-thirds of the lecture you read how the human being in daytime is awake only in his thinking and asleep in his will, and how in sleep the thinking sleeps, while something takes place in the will. Then comes a very important disclosure: in the astral plane exist the true beings and events which send their reflections into the thought world of man; the reflection of Lower Devachan gives rise to that which we call sentience; and Higher Devachan is reflected in the beings and relationships of will.


Shadow pictures of the beings of the astral plane


Sympathies & Antipathies

Shadow pictures of the beings of Lower Devachan


Moral Impulses

Shadow pictures of the beings of Higher Devachan


In connection with this, it is described how, from the hearts of human beings, spiritualized substances of the finest sort stream with the blood to a particular place in the brain, and show themselves there, to spiritualized vision, as a glimmering light. While man sleeps, there takes place a kind of battle between that which presses in from without during sleep and that which streams upwards from the heart. Rudolf Steiner says that one can thereby read what kind of person a man is that is, whether he has higher or not-so-high moral principles. Then comes the essential point (and one must certainly not only research those passages where the new nature forces are discussed): that at one time, through the Christ Event, the etherization of the blood in reality took place in such a way that from now on it can occur in all mankind. That which can be observed in man is now not an “ordinary” process of nature: nature itself has been altered through the Christ Event. One must, therefore, keep in mind the full background. I would even underline that (in contrast to the lecture given in 1904, which was, naturally, addressed to “younger” members but considering the level of their previous occult knowledge) this lecture was given to persons who had had an esoteric preparation of seven years of intensive work in Anthroposophy. In short, an atmosphere existed in which such things could be spoken. Thereafter the appearance of the Etheric Christ was spoken of, and in a very particular imaginative picture: when men are gathered together, feeling themselves entirely helpless, the Christ will come among them and give them counsel. “We are definitely approaching this time. This is the positive element, that which will work itself into the development of mankind as a positive, constructive element. Not a word should be said against the great cultural advances of our time, for they are necessary for the health and freedom of mankind. But if you take all which you can consider of outer progress, the mastery of the forces of nature, it is but something small and insignificant in comparison with that which will be given to man experiencing the waking in his soul through Christ, Who is now working into the cultural life of mankind and its affairs.” Thus it is Christ who brings the constructive forces. A little later we find: “Yes, if we would take the First Post-Atlantean Epoch, we would see that people then built their homes in a different way than we do today. They used all sorts of things which grew, and which they only helped to tend. Today, however, man must build from wreckage. We make all the culture of the outer world from the products of destruction. And in the course of the next years you will understand still better, how various other things in our culture are the products of destruction.” (In German: Zertrümmerungsprodukte; compare atom smashing = Atomsertrümmerung.)

This was said in 1911, at the moment when the first steps were being taken towards the “smashing” of the atom. These accomplishments were first made public in 1918, but in fact a major breakthrough had been made in 1911. (This can be seen by the fact that the smashing of the atom was commemorated publicly in a “Fifty-Year Anniversary Celebration” in 1961.) Thus the lectures of 1911 were extremely timely in more than one respect, a fact which must not be overlooked.

We thus see that at this time, in order to impart a true understanding of the Christ, Dr. Steiner had to take a stand against a certain “orientalizing” misunderstanding, against a misinterpretation of the Bodhisattvas. And all this is connected with the fact that, for instance, the lectures “The Spiritual Guidance of Man and Humanity” appeared in publication in the same year, because, as Rudolf Steiner says in his foreword: “I have reasons to let this text appear exactly at this particular time.” The reasons just mentioned are quite well known. For me, however, other reasons must also be taken into consideration, as shown by the timetable which I have made. For then it is seen that all these lectures had a definite spiritual timeliness, accentuating the very points in time when this Technology of Destruction was approaching us. In the lecture, “The Etherization of the Blood,” the topic then turns to a certain forte which will gradually destroy the earth, the more we put it to use. As long as I have not let myself imagine that someone would have the idea that this should be interpreted as Satanism, I have only thought how striking it is to see with what equanimity Steiner speaks of this. It is mentioned with the same equanimity needed to speak of the physiology of old age and final death: for that is inevitable, it is a world law. It is spoken of from a certain elevated level. And when we know through spiritual science that in Lemurian times certain forces of passion or rage led to the catastrophe of fire, and that in Atlantean times the misuse of growth and reproductive forces led to the water catastrophe, then it is no wonder that the misuse of the new forms of energy can lead to a War of All against All. This is what Rudolf Steiner speaks of at the end of a short passage, in which he discusses the connection of light, which appears as coagulated electricity, with the sub-sensible realms, with the chemical force which appears as magnetism when it has fallen into the sub-sensible world.

And if electricity already appears to mankind today to be working miraculously, this third force will influence culture in still more wonderful ways. The more we employ this force, the sooner will the earth become a corpse, in order that that which exists as the true spiritual kernel of the earth can be reborn and metamorphosed into Future Jupiter. These forces must be employed, in order to destroy the earth, that mankind shall become free of the earth, and that the body of the earth can fall away. As long as the earth was in its progressive period, mankind did not come to this; only the decaying earth can use the great cultural advances afforded by electricity ...” (Since the middle of the Atlantean Age, the earth has no longer been in its progressive period.) This is a majestic description, portraying the role of man in the light of eternity, “sub-specie aeternitatis.”

At the end of the lecture are answers to questions, and there the downward thrust into electricity and magnetism is discussed in more detail. “If we throw that which lives in the Harmony of the Spheres still further downwards, as far as the Asuras, there arises a still more terrible force, which will not be able to be kept secret for long. One can only wish that before this force — which we must imagine to be far stronger than the strongest electrical discharges (and it will come in any case) — is given to the earth by an inventor, that mankind will have nothing immoral left in it!” Notice the difference here! In 1911 it is no longer said that mankind is not ripe, that it cannot, must not come, but rather that it will not be kept secret much longer, and that one can only wish ... And thus that which in the main part of the lecture was expressed from the viewpoint of the highest perspective of universal spiritual history was described in much more detail in the answers to questions.

In the last few minutes I would like to try to present a summary, in order that we will have a foundation for our next meeting. In following an idea from Paul Eugen Schiller, we can now describe schematically how the sub-sensible world is constituted, in connection with the above-mentioned ether types.

 Diagram 1
Diagram 1
Click image for large view

There quite obviously appears the simple association, “Oh yes, now we have clearly grasped it: fallen light ether — electricity, fallen chemical ether — magnetism, fallen life ether — third force, and that is surely atomic energy, or, as we call it today, nuclear energy!” But if you were to ask me if that is necessarily so, I must say that it cannot so easily be answered. If I were to say “No,” I would be misunderstood; but the same would happen if I said “Yes”! It is like a joke, in which a witness, told that he would surely be able to answer every question with a simple “Yes” or “No,” said to the judge: “Please, Your Honor, allow me to ask you a question.” — “Yes, do.” — “Have you stopped beating your wife?” And it is no different if we try to ask Steiner — or our understanding of Steiner — “Is that which we know today as nuclear energy the third force, or is it not?” That is not a productive question. It is much more important that we can indicate certain things which are now at hand, and which we know and understand; for physics has entered the realm of a type of magic, dealing with the sub-sensible. We must take up what is said in the last of the “Letters to the Members” about the reality of the realm of “sub-nature,” and we must carefully distinguish in our thoughts the difference between sub-sensible appearances and the “sub-natural.” Then we must consider just what the true being of the life ether includes. We then begin to sense that that which in our time begins to appear is not the full third force. It was many years ago that this question came to the consciousness of Anthroposophists. At that time Dr. Lehrs and I met on some Occasion, and he asked me then with grave doubts: “Is it your opinion that the third force is atomic energy?” I replied: “No, I am not of that opinion; this is only the tip of the iceberg!” But I will “naturally” be accused by some Anthroposophical friends that I, of all people, should be the one to equate atomic energy with the third force. It cannot be otherwise, for where emotions are involved, the greatest errors in judgment occur. Yes, if one does not equate these two, yet recognizes them to be connected, then we can perhaps find some spiritual vantage points. And I warn you: if you hope to hear a political solution from me, then please do not come next time!

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