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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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Hopeful Aspects of the Present World Situation
GA 36

Translated by Lisa D. Monges

Anyone looking beyond the immediate interests of the day feels that mankind is confronted by tasks such as have appeared only at important turning points in historical evolution. These tasks concern all people and touch all spheres of life. There are persons in the world who are inclined to perceive the seeds of decay and death everywhere in spiritual life, and who see a possibility of progress only in a rebirth of spiritual forces. To others, the decay proceeds only from the fact that there are widely extended groups of people who have turned away from well-tested traditions. But these are convinced that the old will have to seek new paths in order to lay hold of the heart and mind of man.

Social conditions have assumed a form which has led to shocking catastrophes and which conceals germs leading to new and overwhelming calamities. In consequence, for millions of people a material distress has resulted which words are powerless to describe, and only those who believe in the possibility of new methods in world economy can hope for alleviation.

A great conflict between the Occidental world and the world of the Orient is imminent. Many individuals are looking with anxious eyes at the possible consequences of the significant call sounding forth from America. How will that country, how will England, play the leading roles which have devolved upon them? How will the summons of these western powers be answered by what is to them the mystically dark Asiatic soul of the Japanese?

These are problems upon the solution of which depend, in the nearest future, the weal and woe of mankind; problems which involve the most commonplace every day experiences as well as the highest spiritual interests.

What is stated here contains something many people feel to be true. Confronting this, however, stands something else. Although we confess that a great deal ought to happen, a great weariness has invaded human souls; a lack of faith in human fortitude.

Much is being proposed from many sides; a belief that something might alleviate the great distress of the times gives no solution. In many quarters, indeed, people believe they know quite well what is needed; but such certainties have no effect upon the wills of human beings.

Before the great European catastrophe overtook the world, what eulogies could be heard about the spiritual and material progress of mankind! In view of the chaos which has engulfed the civilized world, how powerless does all that once lived in this progress now appear!

This experience might bring about a painful disillusionment, and yet we would doubt the human being himself if we halted before such a disillusionment. Indeed, many of the eulogists of the progress of the modern age have believed in the power of the spirit, since faith in the power of the human spirit lives even in materialism. Those who consider materialism the only sane thing believe that they have attained to their viewpoint through the power of the spirit.

We should feel in its full significance the fact that the materialistic paths travelled by this power of the spirit have led to a precipitous downfall of civilization; that world happenings have taken a course and brought results with which human beings cannot cope. It is only a step from the correct perception of this fact to a recognition of the necessity for this human spiritual power to seek other paths, paths leading deeper into reality.

Anyone who talks in this way encounters, as a matter of course, strong opposition. “What do you hope for now,” someone asks, “from a revolution in the spiritual life? Tell us how the world is to be relieved of her economic distress? First of all, people need bread; when this is provided, the way to the spirit will be found.”

Such a remark appears self-evident; and, on account of its “apparent” self-evidence, it evokes considerable applause. Yet it is only an illusion, not reality. For all economic conditions in human life are, in the final analysis, the result of spirit- borne human work. If the consequences are bad, the blame rests upon a spirit unequal to its tasks.

We shall understand this truth in its present significance only when, in spite of the turmoil of the age, we refuse to indulge in a blind criticism rejecting modern spiritual progress; that is, only when we recognize the good in modern progress. It is thus that we shall arrive at a direct insight into the reasons why this human progress is, in certain spheres, not commensurate with the course of cosmic progress.

Human progress is evident largely in the sphere of nature knowledge, and in the mechanical and technical sciences controlled by nature. Humanity has acquired sufficient power of thinking to engage in a study of mechanics, botany, archaeology, and so forth. The justification of this thinking power then operating in its own proper sphere should not be denied. But it uses the human spirit in order to master what lies outside the spirit. It comprehends nature through the spirit, while forgetting the spirit itself. Thus, science never grows weary of emphasizing that it presents nature to the human being the more faithfully the less it encourages him to color his ideas about nature with his spirit. It is not possible here to speak of the value of a knowledge of nature gained this way. But a humanity which educates itself largely by means of this soul activity is not able to produce ideas which have the sustaining force of the will. Will works in the human being by means of the spiritual force pulsating through it. And a spirit which is directed only to the unspiritual loses the sustaining power of its own being. The spirit which busies itself with nature can be strengthened in its own power, but cannot, in this manner, give itself a sustaining content.

Those who wish to place an independent spiritual conception on a par with a conception of nature believe themselves compelled to take this equality as a starting point. They do not mean by this a spiritual conception which continues to spin out what has been acquired from nature, but a spiritual knowledge which recognizes the spirit and its world as a living world, just as eyes, ears, and an intellect based upon them recognize nature as an unspiritual reality.

But the present-day world is able to speak of the living spirit only because of the traditions of the past. In bygone ages people were convinced that not only visible beings walk this earth and fashion the world's historical existence, but they were aware of the presence of active invisible spiritual beings in this world. They were aware by direct experience not only of living in a world of nature, but of living in a world of spirit. The modern human being has substituted an unreal thought experience for this spiritual experience. He is aware only of a world of thought; he is no longer directly conscious of the living events of the spirit. Indeed, the human being who has been educated in natural science rejects all knowledge of the spirit, and thus is dependent solely upon what of spiritual knowledge has been handed down from bygone ages. That, however, gradually fades away, loses its sustaining power in the human soul.

The spiritual science of Anthroposophy believes itself capable of acquiring a knowledge of the living spirit. It speaks of a spirit which lives in the human being, and not solely of thoughts which lead a picture existence in him. The fact that spirit reveals itself in the human being is for this spiritual science a result, just as in present natural science that which the intellect understands, based upon sense perception, is a result. This spiritual science does not speak of a nebulous spirit into which only the abstract intellect is interjected, but of a real spirit world with individual beings and facts; just as natural science speaks of individual plants, individual rivers, and other individual facts of nature.

This spiritual science believes that it may approach present- day tasks from two sides.

One approach is the cognition that spiritual science is knowledge and can be felt as such by all who permit themselves, through a healthy power of judgment, to be stimulated toward a satisfactory human relationship with the world and life; that, consequently, spiritual science does not bear the character of those methods of modern science which lead into this or that branch of knowledge, without the possibility of the human being gaining from that particular branch thoughts about his own nature and destination, or of his coming to a vigorous unfolding of his will. Spiritual science believes itself able to illumine thoughts, shape feelings full of devotion, and fashion a will filled with spirit. It speaks to the soul of every individual human being without considering the difference in degree of his education, because it seeks, indeed, its source in the pure spirit of science. Moreover, it reaches results to which every soul can respond with appreciation, out of a healthy judgment of human nature.

The other approach is fruitful for various fields of science and art, and for the religiously and socially inclined life.

The various sciences have, through their mode of research, arrived at a point where they need to be permeated by a living spiritual essence. The arts have their naturalistic epoch behind them; only out of the spirit can they again acquire a content which is not merely a superfluous imitation of nature. In the practical consequences of the Marxian mode of thought, social mass impulses have proved themselves impossible. They need the social forces which the individual human being discovers on his path to the spiritual life. Spiritual science will open the soul depths to religious experience, which otherwise would wither. By its very nature, spiritual science cannot itself create religion. We misunderstand spiritual science if we ascribe to it such intentions. But to the human being who can no longer discover religion in ancient spiritual movements, it will prove again that religion is the wellspring of a true humanness.

Spiritual science would give humanity what it needs, in order that ideas should again follow the course of world events. With such thoughts we shall certainly expose ourselves today to the easy reproach that we wish to say: Whoever would find his way into the needs encompassing all present-day people and life conditions has only to ask the Anthroposophists; they know how to solve all problems. Anyone who really knows how to live in the spirit of Anthroposophy, in the way intended by those who live at the Goetheanum [At Dornach, Switzerland], really does not suffer from megalomania, nor even from a lack of modesty; but would, quite modestly, point to what is lacking in the activity of modern mankind, and what must be sought in order that spiritual force, imbuing not only the head but the whole human being with soul force, may contribute to the great tasks now felt by many to be urgent. To be sure, such a mode of thought leads to something different from what is still expected by many people who place these tasks before their soul. Thus, the Occident and the Orient will come to a proper understanding only out of a spirit-imbued life, and not upon the bases upon which men build today. Nor will economic needs be alleviated until the right spirit points our direction.