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Anthroposophical Leading Thoughts
GA 26

27. The Apparent Extinction of Spirit-Knowledge in Modern Times

To gain a true appreciation of Anthroposophy in relation to the development of the Spiritual Soul, we must turn our gaze again and again to the particular mental condition of civilised mankind which began with the blossoming forth of the Natural Sciences and reached its climax in the nineteenth century.

One should place the character of this age vividly before the soul's eye, comparing it with that of preceding ages. In all ages of the conscious evolution of mankind, Knowledge was regarded as that which brings man to the world of Spirit. To Knowledge, man ascribed whatever relationship to Spirit he possessed. Art and Religion were none other than the living life of Knowledge.

All this became different when the age of the Spiritual Soul began to dawn. With a very great part of the life of the human soul, Knowledge now concerned itself no more. Henceforth, it sought to investigate that relation to existence which man unfolds when he directs his senses and his intellectual judgement to the world of ‘Nature.’ It no longer wanted to concern itself with that which man unfolds as a relation to the world of Spirit, when he uses—not his outer senses—but his inner power of perception.

Thus there arose the necessity to connect the spiritual life of man, not with any living present Knowledge, but with Knowledge gained in the past—with Tradition.

The life of the human soul was rent in twain. On the one hand there stood before man the new science of Nature, striving ever onward and unfolding in the living present. On the other side there was the experience of a relation to the spiritual world, for which the corresponding Knowledge had arisen in the ages past. All understanding of how the Knowledge, corresponding to this side of human experience, had been gained in ages past, was gradually lost. Men possessed the Tradition, but they had lost the way by which the truths of Tradition had been known—discovered. All they could do now was to believe in the Tradition.

A man who had consciously reflected on the spiritual situation, say about the middle of the nineteenth century, would have been bound to admit: mankind has come to a point where it no longer feels itself capable of evolving any Knowledge, beyond that science which does not concern itself with the Spirit. Whatever can be known about the Spirit, a humanity of earlier ages was able to investigate and discover, but the human soul has lost the faculty for such discovery.

But men did not place before themselves the full bearing of what was taking place. They were content to say: Knowledge simply does not reach out into the spiritual world. The spiritual world can only be an object of Faith.

To gain some light upon these facts of modern history, let us look back into the time when the old Grecian wisdom had to retreat before the power of Rome, when Rome had accepted Christianity. When the last Greek Schools of the Philosophers were closed by the Roman Emperor, the last custodians of the ancient Knowledge too departed from the regions in which European spiritual life was henceforth to evolve. They found a haven in the Academy of Gondishapur in Asia, to which they now became attached. This was one of the centres of learning in the East where through the deeds of Alexander the tradition of the ancient Knowledge had been preserved.

The ancient Knowledge was living on there in the form which Aristotle had been able to give to it. But in the Academy of Gondishapur it was also taken hold of by that Oriental spiritual stream which we may describe as Arabism. Arabism in one aspect of its nature, is a premature unfolding of the Spiritual Soul. Through the soul-life working prematurely in the direction of the Spiritual Soul, the possibility was given in Arabism for a spiritual wave to go forth, extending over Africa to southern and western Europe, and filling certain of the men of Europe with an intellectualism that should not properly have come until a later stage. In the seventh and eighth centuries, southern and western Europe received spiritual impulses which ought to have come only in the age of the Spiritual Soul.

This spiritual wave was able to awaken the intellectual life in man, but not the deeper founts of experience whereby the soul penetrates into the world of Spirit.

And now, when in the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries man exercised his faculty of Knowledge, he could but reach down to those levels of the soul where he did not yet impinge upon the spiritual world.

Arabism, entering into the spiritual life of Europe, held back the souls of men, in Knowledge, from the Spirit-world. Prematurely it brought that intellect into activity which was only able to apprehend the outer world of Nature.

This Arabism proved very powerful indeed. Whosoever was taken hold of by it, was seized by an inward—though for the most part quite unconscious—pride. He felt the power of intellectualism, but not the impotence of intellect by itself to penetrate into Reality. Thus he gave himself up to the externally given Reality of the senses, which places itself before the human being of its own accord. And it did not even occur to him to approach the spiritual Reality.

The spiritual life of the Middle Ages found itself face to face with this position. It possessed the sublime Traditions about the spiritual world. But the soul-life was intellectually so impregnated by the hidden influence of Arabism, that medieval Knowledge found no access to the sources from which the contents of the great Tradition had after all proceeded.

Thus from the early Middle Ages onwards, that which men felt instinctively within them as a connection with the Spirit, was battling with Thought in the form that this had assumed under Arabism.

Man felt the world of Ideas within him; he experienced it as something real. But he could not find the power in his soul to experience, in the Ideas, the Spirit. Thus arose Realism, feeling the reality in the Ideas and yet unable to discover it. In the world of the Ideas, Realism heard the speaking of the Cosmic Word, but it could not understand the speech. And Nominalism in opposition to it, seeing that the speech could not be understood, denied that there was any speech at all. For Nominalism, the world of Ideas was but a multitude of formulae within the human soul-rooted in no Reality of Spirit.

What lived and surged in these two currents, worked on into the nineteenth century. Nominalism became the mode of thought of Natural Science, which built up an imposing conceptual system of the outer world of sense, but destroyed the last relics of insight into the nature of the world of Ideas. Realism lived a dead existence. It knew still of the reality of the world of Ideas, but had no living Knowledge with which to reach it.

But man will reach it when Anthroposophy finds the way from the Ideas to the living experience of Spirit in the Ideas. In Realism truly carried forward, there will arise—side by side with the Nominalism of Natural Science—a path of Knowledge which will prove that the science of the Spiritual, far from being, extinguished in mankind, can enter into human evolution once again, springing forth from newly-opened sources in the soul of man.

(March, 1925)

Further Leading Thoughts issued from the Goetheanum for the Anthroposophical Society (with regard to the foregoing study: The apparent Extinction of Spirit-Knowledge in Modern Time)

177. Looking with the eye of the soul upon the evolution of mankind in the Age of Science, a sorrowful perspective opens up before us to begin with. Splendid grew the knowledge of mankind with respect to all that constitutes the outer world. On the other hand there arose a feeling as though a knowledge of the spiritual world were no longer possible at all.

178. It seems as though such knowledge had only been possessed by men of ancient times, and man must now rest content—in all that concerns the spiritual world—simply to receive the old traditions, making these an object of Faith.

179. From the resulting uncertainty, arising in the Middle Ages as to man's relation to the spiritual world, Nominalism and Realism proceeded. Nominalism is unbelief in the real Spirit-content of man's Ideas; we have its continuation in the modern scientific view of Nature. Realism is well aware of the reality of the Ideas, yet it can only find its fulfilment in Anthroposophy.