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Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

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

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Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

Schmidt Number: S-3087

On-line since: 31st December, 2020

Lecture I


24th July, 1915

Tree of Life - I

My dear friends,

When people encounter the world conception of Spiritual Science their chief desire is to have an answer to their questions, a solution of their problems. That is quite natural and understandable, one might even say justifiable. But something else must be added if the spiritual scientific-movement is really to become the living thing it must be, in accordance with the general course of evolution of earth and humanity. Above all, a certain feeling must be added, a certain perception that the more one strives to enter the spiritual world, the more the riddles increase. These riddles actually become more numerous for the human soul than they were before, and in a certain respect they become also more sacred. When we come into the spiritual scientific world concept, great life problems, the existence of which we hardly guessed before, first appear as the riddles they are.

Now, one of the greatest riddles connected with the evolution of the earth and mankind is the Christ-riddle, the riddle of Christ-Jesus. And with regard to this, we can only hope to advance slowly towards its actual depth and sanctity. That is to say, we can expect in our future incarnations gradually to have an enhanced feeling in what a lofty sense, in what an extraordinary sense this Christ-riddle is a riddle. We must not expect just that regarding this Christ-riddle much will be solved for us, but also that much of what we have hitherto found full of riddles concerning the entry of the Christ-Being into humanity's evolution, becomes still more difficult. Other things will emerge that bring new riddles into the question of the Mystery of Golgotha, or if one prefers, new aspects of this great riddle.

There is no question here of ever claiming to do more than throw some light from one or other aspect of this great problem. And I beg you to be entirely clear that only single rays of light can ever be thrown from the circuit of human conception upon this greatest riddle of man's earthly existence, nor do these rays attempt to exhaust the problem, but only to illumine it from various aspects. And so something shall here be added to what has already been said that may bring us again some understanding of one aspect of the Mystery of Golgotha.

You remember the pronouncement of the God Jahve, radiating from the far distance, which stands at the beginning of the Bible, after the Fall had come about. The words announced that now men had eaten of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil they must be banished from their present abode, so that they might not eat also of the Tree of Life. The Tree of Life was to be protected, as it were, from being partaken of by men who had already tasted of the Tree of Knowledge.

Now behind this primordial two-foldness of the eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil on the one hand and the eating of the Tree of Life on the other hand, there lies concealed something which cuts deep into life. Today we will turn our attention to one of the many applications to life of this pronouncement: we will bring to mind what we have long known: i.e., that the Mystery of Golgotha, in so far as it was accomplished within the evolution of earthly history, fell in the Fourth Post-Atlantean epoch, in the Graeco-Latin age.

We know indeed that the Mystery of Golgotha lies approximately at the conclusion of the first third of the Graeco-Latin age and that two-thirds of this age follow, having as their task the first incorporation of the secrets of the Mystery of Golgotha into human evolution.

Now we must distinguish two things in regard to the Mystery of Golgotha. The first is what took place as purely objective fact: in short, what happened as the entry of the Cosmic Being ‘Christus’ in the sphere of earthly evolution. It would be-hypothetically possible, one might say, it would be conceivable, for the Mystery of Golgotha, that is, the entry of the Impulse of Christ into earthly evolution, to have been enacted without any of the men on earth having understood or perhaps even known what had taken place there. It might quite well have happened that the Mystery of Golgotha had taken place, but had remained unknown to men, that no single person would have been able to think about solving the riddle of what had actually occurred there.

This was not to be. Earthly humanity was gradually to reach an understanding of what had happened through the Mystery of Golgotha. But none the less we must realise that there are two aspects: that which man receives as knowledge, as inner working in his soul, and that which has happened objectively within the human race, and which is independent of this human race — that is to say, of its knowledge. Now, men endeavoured to grasp what had taken place through the Mystery of Golgotha. We are aware that not only did the Evangelists, out of a certain clairvoyance, give those records of the Mystery of Golgotha which we find in the Gospels; an attempt was also made to grasp it by means of the knowledge which men had before the Mystery of Golgotha. We know that since the Mystery of Golgotha not only have its tidings been given out, but there has also arisen a New Testament theology, in its various branches. This New Testament theology, as is only natural, has made use of already existing ideas in asking itself: What has actually come about with the Mystery of Golgotha, what has been accomplished in it?

We have often considered how, in particular, Greek philosophy that which was developed for instance as Greek philosophy in the teachings of Plato and Aristotle — how the ideas of Greek philosophy endeavoured to grasp what had taken place in the Mystery of Golgotha, just as they took pains to understand Nature around them. And so we can say that on the one hand the Mystery of Golgotha entered as objective fact, and on the other hand, confronting it, are the different world-conceptions which had been developed since antiquity, and which reach a certain perfection at the time in which the Mystery of Golgotha took place, and then go on evolving.

Whence were these concepts derived? We know indeed that all these concepts, including those which live in Greek philosophy and which approached the Mystery of Golgotha from the earth, are derived from a primeval knowledge, from a knowledge which could not have been at man's disposal if, let us say, an original revelation had not taken place. For it is not only amaterialistic, but an entirely nonsensical idea that the attenuated philosophy which existed at the time of the Mystery of Golgotha could at its starting point have been formed by human beings themselves. It is primeval revelation, which as we know was founded in an age when men still had the remains of ancient clairvoyance; primeval revelation which in ancient times had been given to man for the most part in imaginative form and which had been attenuated to concepts in the age when the Mystery of Golgotha entered, the Graeco-Latin age. Thus one could see an intensive stream of primeval revelation arise in ancient times, which could be given to men because they still had the final relics of the old clairvoyance that spoke to their understanding and which then gradually dried up and withered into philosophy.

Thus a philosophy, a world-conception existed in many, many shades and nuances, and these sought in their own way to comprehend the Mystery of Golgotha. If we would find the last stragglers of what was diluted at that time to a world-concept of a more philosophic character; then we come to what lived in the old Roman age.

By this Roman age I mean the time that begins approximately with the Mystery of Golgotha, with the reign of the Emperor Augustus, and flows on through the time of the Roman Empire until the migration of nations that gave such a different countenance to the European world. And what we see flare up in this Roman age like a last great light from the stream flowing from revelation — that is the Latin-Roman poetry, which plays so great a role in the education of youth even up to our own day. It is all that developed as continuation of this Latin-Roman poetry till the decline of ancient Rome. Every possible shade of world-conception had taken refuge in Rome. This Roman element was no unity. It was extended over numberless sects, numberless religious opinions, and could only evolve a certain common ground from the multiplicity by withdrawing, as it were, into external abstractions.

Through this, however, we can recognise how something withered comes to expression in the far-spread Roman element in which Christianity was stirring as a new impulse. We see how Roman thought is at great pains to seize with its ideas what lay behind the Mystery of Golgotha. We see how endeavour was made in every possible way to draw ideas from the whole range of world conception in order to understand what hid behind this Mystery of Golgotha. And one can say, if one observes closely: it was a despairing struggle towards an understanding, a real understanding of the Mystery of Golgotha. And this struggle as a matter of fact continued in a certain current throughout the whole of the first millennium.

One should see, for instance, how Augustine first accepts all the elements of the old withered world-conception, and how he tries through all that he so accepts to grasp what was flowing in as living soul-blood, for he now feels Christianity flow like a living impulse into his soul. Augustine is a great and significant personality — but one sees in every page of his writings how he is struggling to bring into his understanding what is flowing to him from the Christ Impulse. And so it goes on, and this is the whole endeavour of Rome: to obtain in the western world of idea, in this world of world-conception, the living substance of what comes to expression in the Mystery of Golgotha.

What is it, then, that makes such efforts, that so struggles, that in the Roman-Latin element overflows the whole civilised world? What is it that struggles despairingly in the Latin impulse, in the concepts pulsating in the Latin language, to include the Mystery of Golgotha? What is that? That is also a part of what men have eaten in Paradise. It is a part of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We can see in the primeval revelations when the old clairvoyant perceptions could still speak to men, how vividly alive concepts were in this ancient time, concepts which were still imaginations, and how they more and more dry up and die and become thin and poor. They are so thin that in the middle of the Middle Ages, when Scholasticism flourished, the greatest efforts of the soul were necessary to sharpen these attenuated concepts sufficiently to grasp in them the living life existing in the Mystery of Golgotha. What remained in these concepts was the most distilled form of the old Roman language with its marvellously structured logic, but with its almost entirely lost life-element. This Latin speech was preserved with its fixed and rigid logic, but with its inner life almost dead, as a realisation of the primeval divine utterance: Men shall not eat of the Tree of Life.

If it had been possible for what had evolved from the old Latin heritage to comprehend in full what had been accomplished in the Mystery of Golgotha, had it been possible for this Latin heritage, simply as if through a thrust, to gain an understanding of the Mystery of Golgotha, then this would have been an eating of the Tree of Life. But this was forbidden, after the expulsion from Paradise. The knowledge which had entered humanity in the sense of the ancient revelation was not to serve as a means of ever working in a living way. Hence it could only grasp the mystery of Golgotha with dead concepts.

‘Ye shall not eat of the Tree of Life’: this is a saying which also holds good through all aeons of earthly evolution with regard to certain phenomena. And one fulfilment of this saying was likewise the addition: ‘The Tree of Life will also draw near in its other form as the Cross erected on Golgotha — and life will stream out from it. But this older knowledge shall not eat of the Tree of Life.’

And so we see a dying knowledge struggling with life, we see how desperately it strives to incorporate the life of Golgotha in its concepts. [See ‘The Christmas Thought and the Mystery of the Ego. The Tree of the Cross and the Golden Legend’ — Rudolf Steiner.]

Now there is a peculiar fact, a fact which indicates that in Europe, confronting as it were the starting point of the East, a kind of primordial opposition was made. There is something like a sort of archetypal opposition set against the primeval-revelation [See Genesis 3:3 — The creation of man] decreed to mankind. Here, to be sure, we touch upon the outer rim of a very deep-lying secret, and one can really only speak in pictures of much that is to

There exists in Europe a legend concerning the origin of man which is quite different from the one contained in the Bible. It has gone through later transformations no doubt, but its essentials are still to be recognised. Now the characteristic feature is not that this legend exists, but that it has been preserved longer in Europe than in other parts of the earth. But the important thing is that even while over in the Orient the Mystery of Golgotha had been accomplished, this different legend was still alive in the feelings of the inhabitants of Europe. Here, too, we are led to a tree, or rather to trees, which were found on the shore of the sea by the gods Wotan, Wile and We. And men were formed from two trees, the Ash and the Elm. Thus men were created by the trinity of the gods, (although this was Christianised later, it yet points to the European original revelation) by fashioning the two trees into men: Wotan gives men spirit and life; Wile gives men movement and intelligence, and We gives them the outer figure, speech, the power of sight and of hearing.

The very great difference that exists between this story of creation and that of the Bible is not usually observed — but you need only read the Bible — which is always a useful thing to do — and already in the first chapters you will remark the very great difference that exists between the two Creation legends. I should like but to point to one thing, and that is, according to the saga, a threefold divine nature flowed into man. It must be something of a soul-nature that the Gods have laid within him, which expresses itself in his form and which in fact is derived from the Gods. In Europe, therefore, man was conscious that inasmuch as one moves about on earth, one bears something divine within; in the Orient, on the contrary, one is conscious that one bears something Luciferic within one. Something is bound up with the eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil which has even brought men death, something that has turned all men away from the Gods and for which they have earned divine punishment. In Europe man is aware that in the human soul a threefold nature lives, that the Gods have sunk a force into the human soul. That is very significant.

One touches with this, as I have said, the edge of a great secret, a deep mystery. But it will be readily understood: it looks as if in this ancient Europe a number of human beings had been preserved who had not been taken away from sharing in the Tree of Life, in whom there lived on, so to say, the tree or the trees of Life; ash and elm. And with this the following fact stands in intimate harmony. European humanity (and if one goes back to the original European peoples this would be seen with great clarity in all details) actually had nothing of the higher, more far-reaching knowledge that men possessed in the Orient and in the Graeco-Latin world.

One should imagine for once the immense, the incisive contrast between the naive conceptions of European humanity, who still saw everything in pictures, and the highly evolved, refined philosophical ideas of the Graeco-Latin world. In Europe all was ‘Life’; over there all was ‘Knowledge of Good and Evil.’ In Europe something was left over, as it were, like a treasured remnant of the original forces of life; but it could only remain if this humanity were, in a way, protected from understanding anything that was contained in such marvellously finely wrought Latin concepts. To speak of a science of the ancient European population would be nonsense. One can only speak of them as living with all that germinated in their inner soul nature, that filled it through and through with life. What they believed they knew was something that was direct experience. This soul nature was destined to be radically different from the mood that was transmitted in the Latin influence. And it belongs to the great, the wonderful secrets of historical evolution, that the Mystery of Golgotha was to arise out from the perfected culture of wisdom and knowledge, but that the depths of the Mystery of Golgotha should not be grasped through wisdom; they were to be grasped through direct life.

It was therefore like a predetermined karma that — while in Europe up to a definite point life was grasped — the ego-culture appeared purely naively, vitally and full of life where the deepest darkness was; whereas over there where was the profoundest wisdom, the Mystery of Golgotha arose. That is like a predestined harmony. Out of the civilisation based on knowledge which was beginning to dry up and wither ascends this Mystery of Golgotha: but it is to be understood by those who, through their whole nature and being, have not been able to attain to the fine crystallisation of the Latin knowledge. And so we see in the history of human evolution the meeting between a nearly lifeless, more and more dying knowledge, and a life still devoid of knowledge, a life unfilled with knowledge, but one which inwardly feels the continued working of the divinity animating the world.

These two streams had to meet, had to work upon one another in the evolving humanity. What would have happened if only the Latin knowledge had developed further? Well, this Latin knowledge would have been able to pour itself out over the successors of the primitive European population: up to a certain time it has even done so. It is hypothetically conceivable, but it could not really have happened, that the original European population should have experienced the after-working of the dried up, fading knowledge.

For then, what these souls would have received through this knowledge would gradually have led to men's becoming more and more decadent; this drying, parching knowledge would not have been able to unite with the forces which kept mankind living. It would have dried men up. Under the influence of the after effects of Latin culture, European humanity would in a sense have been parched and withered. People would have come to have increasingly refined concepts, to have reasoned more subtly and have given themselves up more and more to thought, but the human heart, the whole human life would have remained cold under these fine spun, refined concepts and ideas.

I say that that would be hypothetically conceivable, but it could not really have taken place. What really happened is something very different. What really happened is that the part of humanity that had life but not knowledge streamed in among those people who were, so to say, threatened with receiving only the remains of the Latin heritage. Let us envisage the question from another side. At a definite period we find distributed over Europe, in the Italian peninsula, in the Spanish peninsula, in the region of present France, in the region of the present British Isles, certain remains of an original European population; in the North the descendants of the old Celtic peoples, in the South the descendants of the Etruscan and ancient Roman peoples. We meet with these there, and in the first place there flows into them what we have now characterised as the Latin stream. Then at a definite time, distributed over various territories of Europe, we meet with the Ostrogoths, the Visigoths, the Lombardi, the Suevi, the Vandals, etc. There is an age when we find the Ostrogoths in the south of present Russia, the Visigoths in eastern Hungary, the Langobardi or Lombard's where today the Elbe has its lower course, the Suevi in the region where today Silesia and Moravia lie, etc. There we meet with various of those tribes of whom one can say: they have ‘life’ but no ’knowledge.’

Now we can put the question: Where have these peoples gone to? We know that for the most part they have disappeared from the actual evolution of European humanity. Where have the Ostrogoths, the Visigoths, the Langobardi, etc. gone? We can ask this. In a certain respect they no longer exist as nations, but what they possessed as life exists, exists somewhat in the following way. My dear friends, let us consider first the Italian peninsula, let us consider it still occupied by the descendants of the old Roman population. Let us further imagine that on this old Italian peninsula there had been spread abroad what I have designated Latin knowledge, Latin culture; then the whole population would have dried up.

If exact research were made, it would be impossible not to admit that only incredible dilettantism could believe that anything still persists today of a blood relationship with the ancient Romans. Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Lombardi, marched in, and over these there streamed the Latin heritage — though merely mentally as seed of knowledge — it streamed over-the life-without-knowledge, and this gave it substance for continuing. Into the more southern regions there came a more Norman-Germanic element. Thus there streamed into the Italian peninsula from the European centre and the East a life-bearing population. Into Spain there streamed the Visigoths and the Suevi in order later to unite with the purely intellectual element of the Arabs, the Moors. Into the region of France there streamed the Franks and into the region of the British Isles, the Anglo-Saxon element.

The following statement expresses the truth. If the southern regions had remained populated by descendants of the old Romans, and the Latin culture had gone on working in them, they would have faced the danger of completely losing the power of developing an ego-consciousness. Hence the descendants of ancient Rome were displaced and there was poured into this region where Latinism was to spread, what came from the element of the Ostrogoths and Lombardi. The blood of Ostrogoths and Lombardi as well as Norman blood absorbed the withering Latin culture. If the population had remained Romans they would have faced the danger of never being able to develop the element of the Consciousness-soul. Thus there went to the south in the Langobardi and the Ostrogoths what we can call the Wotan-Element, Spirit and Life. The Wotan-Element was, so to say, carried in the blood of the Langobardi and Ostrogoths and this made the further evolution and unfoldment of this southern civilisation possible.

With the Franks towards the West went the Wile-element, Intelligence and Movement, which again would have been lost if the descendants of the primitive European population who had settled in these regions had merely developed further under the influence of Rome. Towards the British Isles went We, what one can call: Configuration and Speech, and in particular the faculty to see and to hear. This has later experienced in English empiricism its later development as: Physiognomics, Speech, Sight, Hearing.

So we see that while in the new Italian element we have the expression of the Folk Soul in the Sentient-soul, we could express this differently by saying: The Wotan-element streams into the Italian peninsula. And we can speak of the journeying of the Franks to the West by saying: the Wile-element streams West, towards France. And so in respect of the British Isles we can express it by saying: the We-element streams in there.

In the Italian peninsula, therefore, nothing at all is left of the blood of the original European peoples, it has been entirely replaced. In the West, in the region of modern France, somewhat more of the original population exists, approximately there is a balance between the Frankish element and the original peoples. The greatest part of the original population is still in the British Isles.

But all this that I am now saying is fundamentally only another way of pointing to the understanding of what came out of the South through Europe, pointing to the fact that the Mystery of Golgotha was ensheathed in a dying wisdom and was absorbed through a living element still devoid of wisdom.

One cannot understand Europe if one does not bear this connection in mind; one can, however, understand Europe in all details if one grasps European life as a continuous process. For much of what I have said is still fulfilling itself in our own times. So, for instance, it would be interesting to consider the philosophy of Kant, from these two original polarities of European life, and show how Kant on the one hand desires to dethrone Knowledge, take all power from Knowledge, in order on the other hand to give place to Faith. That is only a continuation of the dim hidden consciousness that one can really do nothing with knowledge that has come up from below — one can only do something with what comes down from above as original life-without-knowledge. The whole contrast in pure and practical reason lies in this: I had to discard knowledge to make way for Faith. Faith, for which protestant theology fights, is a last relic of the life-without-knowledge, for life will have nothing to do with an analysed abstract wisdom.[Gap left between these sentences]

But one can also consider older phenomena. One can observe how an endeavour appears among the most important leading personalities to create a harmony, as it were, between the two streams to which we have referred. For the modern physiognomy of Europe shows that up to our own day there is an after-working of the Latin knowledge in the European life, and that one can immediately envisage the map of Europe with the Latin knowledge raying out to south and west, and the Life still preserved in the centre. One can then see, for instance, how pains were taken at one time to overcome this dying knowledge. I should like to give an example. To be sure, this dying knowledge appears in the different spheres of life in different degrees, but already in the 8th-9thCentury European evolution had so progressed that those who were the descendants of the European peoples with the Life could get no further with certain designations for cosmic or earthly relations which had been created in old Roman times. So even in the 8th-9thCenturies one could see that it had no special meaning for the original life of the soul when one said: January, February, March, April, May, etc. The Romans could make something of it, but the Northern European peoples could not do much with it; poured itself over these peoples in such a way as not to enter the soul, but rather to flow merely into the language, and it was therefore dying and withering. So an endeavour was made, especially towards Middle and Western Europe (over the whole stretch from the Elbe to the Atlantic Ocean and to the Apennines) to find designations for the months which could enter the feelings of European humanity. Such month-names were to be: 

WintarmanothHornungLenzinmanothOstarmanothWinnemanoth (also Nannamanoth)BrachmanothHenimanoth (using the word Hay)Aranmanoth (Aran = harvest)Widumanoth (Wide = what is left when one has gone over the field)Windumemanoth (vintage)HerbistmanothHeiligmanoth.

He who was at pains to make these names general was Charlemagne.

It shows how significant was the spirit of Charlemagne, for he sought to introduce something which has not up to now found entrance. We still have in the names of the months the last relics of the drying-up Latin cultural knowledge. Charlemagne was altogether a personality who aimed at many things which went beyond the possibility of being realised. Directly after his time, in the 9th Century, the wave of Latinism drew completely over Europe. It would be interesting to consider what Charlemagne desired to do in wishing to bring the radiation of the Wile-element towards the West. For the Latinising only appeared there later on.

Thus we can say that the part of mankind which has been race, which, as race, was the successor of the old Europe, — of the Europe from which the Roman influence proceeded and which itself became the successor of Rome, wholly for the south, largely for the north — has simply died out. Their blood no longer persists. Into the empty space left, there has poured in what came from Central Europe and the European East. One can therefore say: the racial element both of the European South and West is the Germanic element which is present in various shadings in the British Isles, in France, in Spain and in the Italian peninsula, though in this last completely inundated by the Latin influence.

The racial element therefore moves from East to the West and South, whereas the knowledge-element moves from South to North. It is the race-element which moves from the East to the West and South and along the West of Europe to the North, and gradually flows away towards the North. If one would speak correctly, one can talk of a Germanic race-element,-but not a Latin race. To speak of a Latin race is just as sensible as to speak of wooden iron; because Latinism is nothing that belongs to race, but something that has poured itself as bloodless knowledge over a part of the original European people. Only materialism can speak of a Latin race, for Latinism has nothing to do with race.

So we see how, as it were, the Bible saying works on in this part of European history, how the destiny of Latinism is the fulfilment of the words: ‘Ye shall not eat of the Tree of Life.’ We see how the Life given to the earth with the Mystery of Golgotha cannot come to full harmony with the old knowledge; but rather how into what remained of the ebbing original wisdom, new life had to enter. If we are to give a concrete answer to the question: Where does that remain, which from such new life has not been preserved in its own special character, but has disappeared in history, the element of the Visigoths, the Suevi, the Langobardi, the Ostrogoths, etc.? we must give as answer: It lives on as life within the Latin culture. That is the true state of affairs. That is what must be known regarding the primeval Bible two-fold utterance and its working in early times in the development of Europe, if we are to understand this European evolution.

I had to give you this historical analysis today because I shall have things to say which assume that one does not hold the false ideas of modern materialism and formalism with regard to historical evolution.

Last Modified: 02-Feb-2021
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