Our bookstore is now open. Shop today →

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

The Riddle of Man
Foreword and Introduction
GA 20

Thought-World, Personality, Peoples

During these fateful times, in central European cities, I have had to give lectures based on some of the views developing in me for thirty-five years about the thought-worlds of a series of German and Austrian personalities. I wanted to speak about personalities in whose thoughts urgent life questions were striving for a solution, and in whose spiritual struggles the essential nature of the German people (Volkheit) also revealed itself. I would like to take what I expressed there as the leading thoughts for this book. This book is meant to speak about the striving of the human spirit for knowledge of its own being, in connection with seekers who pursued neither their own personal infatuations in knowledge nor arbitrary aesthetic inclinations, but rather thoughts that arise from an irresistible, healthy urge of human nature and are native to the heart's needs of a people, in spite of the spiritual heights toward which those seekers were striving. We will be speaking, to be sure, about personalities whose sense for the realities of life is often denied by those who do not want to acknowledge that the human being is confused and incapacitated by the surface of reality if he cannot confront it with understanding for the spirit holding sway in the depths. Thoughts struggling for a knowledge of the spirit are often repellent to that attitude of soul which is far too eager to cite Goethe in opposing such thoughts: “Gray, dear friend, is all theory — and green the golden tree of life.” That attitude of soul disregards the fact that these words come from Goethe's sense of humor and are put into the devil's mouth as a teaching the devil considers good for a pupil of his.

It does not affect a life-sustaining thought to be called gray by a view catering to comfortableness in thinking; this view regards the grayness of its own theory as the golden radiance of the green tree of life.

It goes against the feeling of many to speak about the effects of a people upon the world views of personalities who spring from this people. To do so, they believe, contradicts the obvious truth that knowledge of the true is a treasure of life possessed by all men in the same way. This is really just as valid for the highest thoughts of a world view as it is for the commonplace truth that two times two is four. But just because this is so obvious, one should not suppose without going further into the matter, that this obvious fact has been overlooked by someone seeking, within the being of the thinkers of a people, the roots of the people from which these thinkers stem. The human spirit, after all, lives not only in the abstract formation of certain concepts; it also draws its life from forces which souls, out of their most intimate experiences, allow to sound along with the insights born from these experiences. Goethe felt this when he wrote to a friend: “To judge by the plants and fish I have seen in Naples and Sicily, I would, if I were ten years younger, be very tempted to make a trip to India, not in order to discover something new, but rather to contemplate in my own way what has already been discovered.” Goethe in fact knows how something already discovered can be seen in a new light when it is regarded in a new way. And what humanity develops in the way of thoughts for its spiritual life about questions of knowledge speaks not only about what people are seeking, but also about how they seek. Someone receptive to such thoughts feels in them the soul pulse that heralds the life from which they shine into our reason. Just as it is true that in a thought one also learns to know its thinker, it is evident that in a thinker one can behold the people from which the thinker has arisen.

As to the content of truth dwelling in a thought and as to whether a mental picture (Vorstellung) has grown from the roots of genuine reality: these can certainly be determined only by powers of knowledge that are independent of place and time. Still, as to whether a particular thought, as to whether an idea leading the human spirit in a certain direction, arises within a certain people: this does depend upon the sources from which the spirit of this people can draw. Karl Rosenkranz certainly did not want to prove anything about the truth of Hegel's thought from the fact that he brought these thoughts into connection with the German folk spirit, when in 1870 he wrote his book Hegel as the German National Philosopher. He held the view he had already expressed in his description of Hegel's life: “A true philosophy is the deed of a people ... But at the same time, for philosophy, insofar as it is philosophy, the particularities of its folk origins are of no importance at all. There, the universality and necessity of its content and the perfection of its proof are alone of significance. Whether the true is recognized and expressed by a Greek or German, by a Frenchman or an Englishman, carries no weight for the true itself, as true. Every true philosophy, therefore, as a national philosophy is at the same time a universally human one and, in the larger course of humanity, an indispensable part. It has the power to spread absolutely through all peoples, and for every people there comes the time when that people must acquire for itself the true philosophy of the other peoples, if it wants in other ways to further and assure its own progress.”

One's antipathy to the folk aspect of the thoughts in a world view can also assume other forms. Out of a recognition of the folk aspect of such thoughts one can raise an objection against their cognitive value. One might believe that such thoughts are thrust thereby into the realm of imagination, and that one must speak of them in the same way as of a German poetry, for example, whereas it would be inadmissible to speak in the same sense of a German mathematics or a German physics. There are people who see every world view — every philosophy — as a poetic work in concepts (Begriffsdichtung). Such people do not need to concern themselves with the objection that arises out of the feeling described above. But what this book presents is not written from that point of view. This book takes the position that no one can speak seriously about a world view who does not ascribe a cognitive value to it, who does not presuppose that its thoughts stem from realities common to all people. One can also say: “That is correct, in general; but a world view valid and common to all people is an ideal that has nowhere been realized as yet; all existing world views still carry with them what has been imposed upon them by the imperfection of human nature.” But we can dispense with any discussion here of imperfections existing in world views because of that human factor. For, it is certainly not our intention, in the folk characteristics of the thoughts in world views, to seek excuses for the weakness of such thoughts, but rather grounds for their strength. Therefore, we can leave out of our considerations here the assertion that thinkers, in fact, just as they are dependent upon their personal standpoints, are also dependent upon what adheres to them from their people; and that, just because of this, they cannot win through to a universally human world view. This book speaks about a series of personalities in such a way that their thoughts are acknowledged as really having universal human validity. What are characterized as errors or as one-sided views are spoken of only insofar as one can see in them roundabout ways to the truth. If an unconditionally valid objection could spring from the feeling mentioned above, such an objection would be justified with respect to the way in which the thoughts in world views are brought into connection, in this book, with the essential being of the German people.

But one can understand the reply that must be made to this feeling only if one can free oneself from a belief which also causes serious misapprehensions in other ways. This belief is that the diverse thought-configurations of thinkers who are searching into questions of how to view the world are in fact just so many different, mutually incompatible world views.

Out of this belief the natural-scientifically minded person often opposes the mystic, and the mystic often opposes the natural-scientifically minded person. The scientist believes that natural-scientific knowledge alone is the true result of research into reality; it is from this knowledge that one must gain thoughts able to bring understanding of the world and of life, so far as this understanding is attainable to man. The mystic adheres to the view that the true being of the world reveals itself only to mystical experience, and that the thoughts of the natural-scientifically minded person cannot lay hold of genuine reality. The “monist” is content only when he pictures the existence of a unified foundation for the material and the spiritual world. One kind of monist sees this foundation consisting in the material elements and their effects, in such a way that spiritual phenomena become for him manifestations of the material world. Other monists ascribe true being only to the spirit, and believe that everything material is only a kind of spirituality. The dualist sees in any such unification a misunderstanding both of the essential being of matter and of the spirit. In his view, both must be regarded as regions of the world that are more or less independent in themselves.

A long list would result if one wanted to characterize even just the most outstanding of these supposed world views. Now there are in fact many people who believe they have gone beyond all talk of world views. They say: “I guide myself in knowledge according to what I find within reality; what some world view or other considers reality to be does not concern me.” Such people do indeed believe this; but their behavior shows something totally different. They do, in fact, more or less consciously, or even unconsciously, adhere in the most definite manner to one or another world view. Even though they do not express or think this world view directly, they do develop their picture of the world along its lines and oppose, reject, or treat the mental pictures of other people in a way corresponding to this “world view.”

A misapprehension of the relationship of man to the world outside him underlies the conscious or unconscious belief in any such supposed world views. The person who is caught up in this misapprehension does not distinguish rightly between what man receives from the outer world for the formation of his thoughts, and what he brings up out of himself when he forms thoughts.

When one notices that two thinkers express different thoughts about the questions of life, one all too readily has the feeling: If both were bringing true reality to expression in their thoughts, they would have to say the same thing, not something different. And one thinks that the difference cannot have its basis in reality but must lie only in the personal (subjective) way thinkers grasp things. Even though this is not always openly acknowledged by those who speak about world views, this opinion does underlie — more or less consciously, or even unconsciously — the spirit and style of their words. In fact, the thinkers themselves for the most part live in just such a preconception. They express their thoughts on what they consider reality to be, regard these thoughts as their “system” and rightful world view, and believe that any other direction in thought is based on the personal peculiarities of the thinker.

The presentation in this book has a different view as its background. (This view, to be sure, can at first be presented here only as an assertion. I hope the reader will be able to find in the book itself some substantiation for this assertion. In many of my other books I have made every effort to bring much more of this substantiation.) Two divergent directions in thought, in their essential nature, can often be understood only by regarding their differences to be like those between two photographs of one tree taken from two different sides. The pictures are different; their differences, however, are not based upon the nature of the camera, but rather upon the position of the tree relative to the camera. And this position is something lying just as much outside the camera as the tree itself. The pictures are both true views of the tree. The divergent elements of two world views do not prevent them both from bringing true reality to expression.

The confusion in ideas arises when people do not understand this, when they make themselves — or are made by other people — into materialists, idealists, monists, dualists, spiritualists, mystics, or even into Theosophists, and when they mean to express by this that one arrives at a true view about life's sources only if one's whole way of thinking is in tune with one of these concepts. But it is reality itself that one wants to know from one side through materialistic ideas, from another side through spiritual ideas, from a third side as a unity (monon), from a fourth as a duality. The thinking person would like to encompass the essential being of reality through one way of picturing things. And when he notices that he undertakes this in vain, he gets around this fact by saying: All our mental pictures about the roots of real life have a personal (subjective) form, and the essential being of the “thing-in-itself” remains unknowable.

So much confusion in our thought life could be cleared up by realizing that many a person, in speaking of a world view different from his own, is like someone who — knowing a picture of a tree taken from one side, and being presented with a picture taken from another side — does not want to admit that it is a “correct” picture of the same tree! Many “practical” people, to be sure, seek refuge from such tormenting philosophical questions by saying: “Let those fight about these things who have the leisure and the desire for it; that doesn't affect reallife; real life does not have to bother about that,” But only those can speak in this way, after all, who have absolutely no inkling of how far removed their thoughts are from the real driving powers of life. It is such people whose picture stood before the soul of Johann Gottlieb Fichte when he spoke the words: “Although, within the sphere that ordinary experience has drawn around us, people themselves are thinking more universally and judging more correctly, perhaps, than ever, still the majority of them are totally confused and blinded as soon as they are supposed to go even a short distance outside that sphere. If it is impossible to rekindle in them the spark of higher genius once that has been extinguished, then one must let them remain peacefully within that sphere, and, insofar as they are useful and indispensable within that sphere, let their value, in and for that sphere, remain undiminished. But when they themselves now demand that everything to which they cannot lift themselves be brought down to their level, when they demand, for example, that all printed matter should be like cookbooks, arithmetic books, or service regulations, and when they decry everything that cannot be used in this way, then they themselves are in error in a major way. — We others know, perhaps as well, perhaps even better than they, that ideals as such cannot appear in outer reality. We only assert that reality must be judged according to ideals and, by those who feel the strength within them to do so, must even be changed according to ideals. When people cannot convince themselves of this fact, very little is lost to them, given that they already are who they are; and mankind loses nothing. It merely becomes clear that such people cannot be counted upon in any plan to ennoble mankind. Mankind will doubtless proceed on its way; and may benevolent nature hold sway over such people and bring them rain and sunshine at the right time, wholesome nourishment and undisturbed circulation of their juices, and also clever thoughts!”

It is actually a disaster when the ideas, fruitful for life, of the individual world views are kept at a distance from this life by the belief that their differences prove them all to be subjectively colored by the thinkers' ways of picturing things. Through this a semblance of justification is given to the talk of those opponents of ideas just characterized. It is not the content of thinkers' world views that condemns these world views to fruitlessness for life, but rather the belief, following in their wake, that a particular direction in thought must reveal all of reality or else these are all views with a merely personal coloring.

This book would like to show the extent to which the truth — and not just personally colored views — lives in the ideas of individual thinkers, in spite of their differences.

Only by trying to know how far reality reveals itself in its relation to man through different ways of picturing things does one also struggle through to a sound judgment about what originates in the being of the thinker who is observing the world. One sees how the nature of one thinker is moved toward one relationship between extrahuman (objective) reality and man, and how that of another thinker is moved more toward a different relationship. First of all one sees the sharply marked, personal direction of a personality's thought. Because one notices how his world view is based upon a personal tendency in thought, one is tempted to believe that his world view is therefore only a personal (subjective) way of picturing things. But if one recognizes how a personal tendency in thought, in fact, moves the thinker to adopt a particular viewpoint through which extrahuman (objective) reality can place itself in a particular relationship to him, then one wrests oneself from the confusion into which one can fall by looking at the different world views.

Many people will perhaps reply to this: Yes, from a certain point of view, all that is completely obvious and does not need to be stated beforehand. But the person who says this is often precisely the one who, in his judgments and actions, violates this view of truth and reality everywhere.

But the view we have presented is not meant to justify every human opinion that regards itself as a world view. Actual errors, faultiness in the sources of knowledge, viewpoints from which only a beclouded fantasy would want to create thoughts for a world view: all this will in fact reveal itself in the light toward which our view is pressing. By seeking to experience the extent to which the one reality manifests itself in divergent human thoughts, our view can also hope to see where a human opinion is rejected by reality itself.

If one senses how the forces of a people work in the thinkers of a people, then this sense stands in complete harmony with the view presented here. A people does not want to decide how a thinker is to shape his thoughts; but, together with other forces determining his viewpoint, his people affects the relationship to existence through which reality, in one direction or another, manifests itself to him. His people need not cloud his power of vision; it can prove particularly able to put the thinker belonging to it in a place where he can develop a certain way of picturing the truth common to all mankind. His people does not want to judge his knowledge; but it can be a faithfully supportive adviser on the way to truth. Indications about the extent to which this can be sensed with respect to the German people are meant to be given in this book by portraying a series of personalities who have arisen out of this people. The author of this book hopes that one will recognize his sense that a loving, thoughtful penetration into the particular soul nature of one people does not necessarily lead to a non-recognition and disregard for the being and worth of other peoples. At another time it would be unnecessary to state this specifically. It is necessary today in view of the feelings that are expressed from many sides about what is German.

It is completely natural for the author of this book to speak about the part played in spiritual life by both German and German-Austrian personalities; he is, after all, a German-Austrian by birth and education, who lived his first three decades of life in Austria, and then a period of time — which will soon be just as long — in Germany.

In his book The Riddles of Philosophy he has expressed his thinking on the place held by most of the personalities discussed in this present book within the general spiritual life. It was not his intention to repeat here what he said there. He can readily understand that someone could hold a different view than he does about the choice of the personalities portrayed. But, without striving for completeness in anyone direction, he wanted simply to portray some things that have become perception and life experience for him.

Rudolf Steiner
Berlin, May 1916