Donate books to help fund our work. Learn more→

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

The Spiritual Hierarchies
GA 110

Lecture I

Düsseldorf, April 12, 1909, Morning

This course of lectures will take us into the high spiritual regions we shall be led from the earth, where we live, not only into the wide physical spaces of our universe, but also be uplifted to those spiritual worlds, from which this whole physical universe has derived its origin.

Such a course will show us, that the fundamental object of all knowledge and all wisdom is to solve the greatest problem of all — the problem of humanity. In order to make the human being understandable, explanatory facts have to be brought from far away. Above all it is necessary that those who wish to follow this course should be acquainted with the fundamental conceptions of Anthroposophy; although it is true that all Anthroposophists are acquainted with them in a general way. In these lectures we may rise in spirit to very exalted spheres, but we shall always endeavour to bring those facts which lie so far afield near to you and make them as comprehensible as possible.

When we have to speak of what we call the Spiritual Hierarchies, it means that our souls' gaze must rise to those beings who, in the sphere of our earth, have a higher existence than man. In the visible world we can only progress to beings that represent four degrees of one hierarchy, i.e., the mineral world, the plant world, the animal world and the human world. Above man begins a world of invisible beings, through the knowledge of the super-sensible world, and man is able (as far as it is possible for him) to rise a certain distance towards those beings and powers, which are the continuation in the invisible world of the four grades found within the realm of the earth. The knowledge and investigation which lead us into those regions has not, as you all know, come into existence only at our present time in evolution. There is what we may call a primeval world-wisdom; — all that man can fathom, all that he can know and realise, all that he has gained in ideas and conceptions, all that he has attained through clairvoyant imagination, inspiration, and intuition, — all has been lived before, and known before, by those Beings who are higher than he. He only follows so to say, in their track. To make use of a trivial example: the watchmaker has first the idea, then he makes the watch according to the idea. A watch is made after the maker's ideas which preceded the watch; afterwards everyone can study and observe for himself from what ideas the watch was made, he can follow up the thoughts of the watchmaker. At the present point of evolution it is indeed only this kind of connection that man can have with primeval world-wisdom and with the spiritual beings that stand above him. Spiritual beings had first those imaginations, inspirations, intuitions, those ideas and thoughts according to which the world, as we see it, was formed. Man finds these thoughts and ideas in the world again; when he rises to clairvoyant vision, he finds the imaginations, inspirations, and intuitions, by the help of which he can penetrate into the world of those spiritual beings. We can, therefore, say that before our world came into being there already existed the wisdom of which we are going to speak: it is the Plan of the World.

How far must we go back, while still remaining within the limits of reality, if we want to come into touch with that primeval world-wisdom? Must we go back to some time or other in the historical past, when some great teacher was teaching? We can certainly learn a great deal if we do; but to come into touch with true primeval world-wisdom we must go back to the time when there was no outwardly visible earth, when no world visible to the outer senses was as yet in existence. It was from out [of] that wisdom itself that the world came forth. But this wisdom, out of which spiritual beings formed our world, was imparted to man later. Man with his thoughts could see behind those thoughts, could realise the thoughts according to which spiritual beings have built the world. After this primeval wisdom, this wisdom of the creators of the world had worked through many forms, it appeared in a form known to many of you: after the great Atlantean period it appeared in those ancient, holy Rishis, the great teachers of India, during our first epoch of civilisation. With these sublime Rishis the primeval wisdom expressed itself in a form which the man of the present day can but little understand. The human capacities of feeling and thinking have greatly changed since the times when the great teachers of India taught man in the first epoch of civilisation after Atlantis; and if the words which came from the Rishis were simply repeated as they were said, there would be hardly one soul in the whole earth who could hear anything more in them nowadays than just words and again words. One has need of other capabilities of feeling than those at present existing, in order to understand the wisdom which was given to humanity in the first epoch after Atlantis. For all that is found in the best books regarding primeval world-wisdom, is but a faint echo of what this really is which in many ways is but a deceptive, obscured wisdom. However grand and sublime the Vedas appear to us, however beautiful the songs of Zarathustra sound, and however magnificent the language in which the ancient wisdom of Egypt speaks, so that we can never sufficiently admire it; still, all that has been written down gives us but a dim, dull reflection of the wisdom of Hermes, of the grand teaching of Zarathustra, or of the sublime knowledge which the Ancient Rishis proclaimed. This sublime wisdom has been preserved and guarded for humanity; it was always to be found in certain very limited circles of people who watched over what is called the knowledge of the Mysteries. In the Mysteries of India, Persia, Chaldea, Egypt, and in the Christian Mysteries, all the primeval wisdom of humanity has been safely preserved up to our times. Up to a short time ago it was only in those narrow circles, that not book-wisdom, but living wisdom, could be found. For certain reasons which will be made clear in this course of lectures, our time has been chosen for extending to larger masses of people that which has been kept alive by those little groups. The original wisdom of the Rishis, for instance, has never lost life. It permeated, like the fountain of youth, the age which we regard as the beginning of our era. The very holy wisdom which the Rishis gave to man was continued through Zarathustra and his pupils, through the Chaldean and Egyptian teachers. It also flowed in the words of Moses, and it came forth again with. an altogether new impulse, as from the fountain of life, with the appearance of the Christ upon earth. It then became so deep, so intrinsically internal, that it could only gradually flow again into humanity. Thus we see that since the outward declaration of Christianity, the primeval world wisdom has penetrated but slowly and gradually into humanity from most elementary beginnings. Its messages are there, they are to be found in the Gospels and in other Christian writings which include the wisdom of the holy Rishis, in a new form; like a new birth out of a new fountain. But how could these messages be understood at the beginning of the era for whose purification Christianity had been created? Through the Gospels it was least of all understood; they only attained very gradually to further comprehension and in many ways to a still further obscuration, and to-day the Gospels are, in truth, the most sealed of all books for the larger part of humanity — books which will only be first understood by a future age which will have refreshed itself at the source of the original world-wisdom. But the treasures hidden in the Christian revelation have been preserved, treasures no other than those of the Eastern wisdom, but renewed by means of fresh forces They have been guarded in narrow circles which were the continuation of Mystery Societies, like the Brotherhood of the Holy Grail, and finally in the Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross. These treasures of truth have been kept well hidden and have been accessible only to those who through severe trials had prepared themselves for the living wisdom. Thus the treasures of the Eastern and Western wisdom, through all the centuries of evolution from the beginning of our era, were made almost inaccessible to the larger mass of humanity.

Only a little trickled through here and there to the outer world: the most part remained a secret of the new Mysteries. Then came a time when some of the contents of primeval wisdom, treasured in narrow circles, was allowed to be given out to larger masses of humanity in a language comprehensible to them. Since the last third of the nineteenth century or thereabouts one can speak of this world wisdom in a more or less unveiled form. It is only because certain things have taken place in the spiritual worlds that the Guardians of the Mysteries received permission to allow some of the ancient wisdom to penetrate to the outer world. All of you, my dear friends, know the course of development of the Anthroposophical Society. You know how the ice in which its development was bound was, so to say, broken by those words of wisdom, revealed in a way which I am not going to enter into now — the stanzas of Dzyan. Those stanzas of Dzyan, of the secret teaching, contain in truth some of the deepest and most important wisdom; they have in them much of that which coming from the teaching of the holy Rishis has flowed through the sanctuaries of the East. They contain also much of what has streamed into Western Europe since the Christian rejuvenation. For the stanzas of Dzyan do not include only the wisdom which had to be kept exclusively for the East, but also a great deal of that which streamed as a clear light through the centuries of our time, through the Middle Ages into the Mystery Schools of the West. Much that is to be found in the stanzas of Dzyan will only be gradually understood in all its depth. It may well be said here that the wisdom of the stanzas of Dzyan is of such a kind that it cannot yet be understood in the widest anthroposophical circles, or fathomed with the exoteric capabilities of the present day.

After the first ice had been broken in this way, the time came when one could speak more openly from the sources of Western occultism, which is no other than the occultism of the East transplanted and continued in a way that has adapted itself to new circumstances and conditions of physical and spiritual life.

The time has come when one can speak from those ever living sources of occultism which have been faithfully treasured in the Mysteries of the Rosy Cross. There is no wisdom of the East which has not streamed into Western occultism and into the teaching and investigations of the Rosy Cross; in them is to be found absolutely all that the great teachers of the East ever had in their keeping. Nothing, nothing whatever of that which is to be found in the Eastern wisdom is lacking in the wisdom of the West. The only difference — if it can be called a difference — is that Western occultism has to include the whole of the Eastern wisdom and teaching and, without losing anything, to blend it with the light which has been kindled in humanity through the Christ Impulse. When one speaks of Western occultism, of that which has its derivation from the hidden Western Rishis (whom certainly no eye hath seen) it is impossible to say that in it is wanting one single iota, one single shred of the Eastern wisdom. Only it had all to be brought forth again fresh and new from the fountain-head of the Christ Impulse. All the great treasures of wisdom which were first revealed by the holy Rishis regarding superhuman worlds and super-sensible existence, resound in the description we have to give of the spiritual hierarchies and their reflection in the physical world. Just as the geometry of Euclid has not become something different from what it used to be, because one teaches and learns it with new human capabilities, just as little has the wisdom of the holy Rishis changed because we learn and teach it with the new capabilities which have been kindled in us by the Christ Impulse. Therefore much of what we have to say about the spiritual worlds can be called Eastern wisdom. There must not be any misunderstanding in these things — and misunderstandings happen so easily. Those who will not free themselves of a misconception, in order to come to understanding, can very easily misinterpret what, for instance, was said yesterday at the Easter lecture. They might assert about the so-called truths of Buddha, that I had said that the Buddha had taught and revealed the truths about life and life's pain as follows: ‘birth is pain, illness is pain, old age is pain, death is pain; to be separated from those one loves is pain, not to be united with what one loves is pain, not to have what one desires is pain’ and that I said: ‘Let us look at those who, in the times after Christ, really understood the Christ Impulse; for all the holy truths of the Buddha about the pain of life have no more their full importance; something has been created by the Christ Impulse that is like a cure for the pain of life.’ The Buddha taught: ‘Birth is pain’; but those who understood the Christ would answer that through birth we enter into a life shared with the Christ, and through the Christ's share in it the pain of life will be extinguished. Illness will also be extinguished through the healing power of the Christ Impulse, and there is no more pain in illness for one who understands Christ, and death also has no more pain for him who understands Christ. Yet someone might reply to this ‘Yes, but I could point to the Gospels to show that also there you will find it said that illness is pain, life is pain’: and one might superficially come to the conclusion: ‘We have those modern religious documents, but what they contain can also be found in Buddhism, therefore religions are not making progress, there is no evolution in them. All religions say the same things, but you have spoken of a progress, you expounded to us how, with the help of Christianity, the old truths of Buddhism would not be true any more.’ If anyone were to say this he would be guilty of a very serious misunderstanding. For that was not said: everything indeed was said with the exception of the last sentence. It is very important that this very subtle question should be rightly understood. A fanatic can never understand with precision, but a man who is objective can. No one who speaks with knowledge of Rosicrucian wisdom will ever expound anything that would be against any of the writings of the great Buddha, or say that anything in them is untrue. Every man who speaks from the sources of Rosicrucian wisdom shares the conviction of Buddha, no one denies it. ‘Yes,’ such a man says, ‘what thou, great Buddha, through thy inner illumination, hast seen of the great truths about pain and life is exactly true, it is true to its last iota.’ Nothing, absolutely nothing will be taken away from it. All of it remains as it was. And it is just because all of it remains as it was, because all is true of what the Buddha said about the pain of life, of illness, of old age and of death, just because of this, the Christ Impulse is such a powerful and important saving help to us, for it is just this which lifts the pain, because it is true that pain would be there, if the world could not be lifted beyond and above it through that great Impulse. Why could the Christ work effectively? Because the Buddha had spoken the truth. Humanity had to be brought down out of the spiritual heights where the primeval world wisdom is active in its purest form; man had to be led to independence, through physical existence with which life's pain and illness are bound up, and the great healing help had to oppose those unavoidable facts in the course of further evolution. Does that man deny the reality of facts who, while declaring that these realities exist, holds at the same time that remedy has been given us by which the facts, about which those truths have been said, can be brought to a salutary development; does he who says this deny any existing reality? Oh! in those heights of existence where we must look for the spheres of the spiritual hierarchies — there Buddhism is not opposed to Christianity, nor Christianity to Buddhism; there the Buddha gives his hand to the Christ, and the Christ to the Buddha. But every misconception regarding human evolution, every misconception as to its ascending development, is a misconception also of that spiritual act in our earthly evolution which is the Act of Christ.

Thus nothing is denied. of the wisdom of the East, the wisdom which has brought down to us the teaching of the holy Rishis, and with it the primeval world-wisdom, which through such long epochs of time has ever been streaming into humanity. But, all through those very long epochs, large masses of humanity could not penetrate to the sources of that wisdom, could only understand it with great difficulty; it was precisely the understanding of it which came with such difficulty. In ancient Atlantean times, before the great catastrophe, when the masses of humanity were still clairvoyant with the thin ancient clairvoyance, they beheld something quite different when they looked upwards to the spaces of heaven, to the spiritual hierarchies, from what they saw in the times after Atlantis when the larger part of humanity had lost its clairvoyance and so could gaze only with its physical eyes into the physical distances of the heavens. Therefore, in the times before the Atlantean catastrophe, it would have been quite senseless to speak to them of the heavenly bodies spread out in space as they are to-day. The clairvoyant human eye gazed into heavenly distance and saw the spiritual worlds. In those times there would have been no sense in speaking of Mercury or of Neptune or of Saturn, etc., as our astronomy speaks. The way astronomy speaks of the spaces of the world and what they contain is merely a reflection of what is seen by our own physical sight when it looks into depths of the sky. This did not exist for the ancient clairvoyant humanity of Atlantis; when they looked upwards, they did not see physically-limited stars, what the physical eye sees to-day is but the outer physical expression of the spiritual realities which people then beheld. When looking to-day with one's physical eye through a telescope at the place where Jupiter is, one perceives a physical globe surrounded by moons. What was seen by the man of Atlantis when he lifted his clairvoyant gaze to that same point which we look at to-day with our physical eyes? The Atlantean's eyes would have seen as little of what our sight sees to-day, as we should if we looked at a light through a thick autumn fog. The eye of the Atlantean would not have seen the physical star Jupiter, but he would have seen that which is also united with Jupiter to-day, which the man of the present day does not see: the aura of Jupiter, a totality of spiritual beings, of which the physical Jupiter is only the external expression. Thus did the gaze of man, before the Atlantean catastrophe, sweep round the spaces of the world seeing everywhere its spiritual content. He could speak only of the spiritual, for it would have had no meaning to speak of physical stars, when the physical eye was not yet opened as it is to-day. Looking into the spaces of the universe man saw spiritual beings — the spiritual hierarchies. He actually saw beings. We can compare the changes that took place with further evolution in this way: let us suppose that we are going out into a thick fog; we do not see separate lights, everything is surrounded by aura or fog. The fog lifts and disperses, the separate lights are visible, but their aura becomes invisible ... This is only a physical process which must serve for an example. But the ancient eye saw the aura of Jupiter, it saw spiritual beings in that aura which at certain points of their evolution were united to Jupiter. Humanity then developed further, to the attainment of physical sight. The aura remained: men could no longer see it, but the physical body in the centre became ever clearer and clearer, spiritually it was lost to sight as its corporeal part became visible. But the knowledge of the spiritual, the knowledge of the beings surrounding the star was kept and guarded in the holy Mysteries.

All the holy Rishis speak of that knowledge. In the times when men already saw only in a physical way, the Rishis spoke to them of the spiritual atmospheres, of the spiritual inhabitants of those spheres which are spread out in the spaces of the world.

Consider what the situation then was. In the centres of knowledge, spiritual beings were spoken of which surround the spheres of the universe. Outside where the physical eye was growing always sharper, physical matter was spoken of more and more. When the Ancient Rishis said the word Mercury (they did not use that word, but we take it as an example), did they mean by it the physical orb of that name? No! — even the ancient Greeks did not use it in that sense; what they meant was the totality of spiritual beings belonging to that planet. Spiritual world and spiritual beings were spoken of when, in the centres of secret knowledge for instance, the word Mercury was pronounced. When the disciples of that sacred knowledge spoke of the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn pronouncing these words in their different languages, they expressed the gradations of spiritual beings. When those names are used to-day, only the coarsest part is meant of that which was originally understood by Moon, Mercury, Venus. The principal part is just what is omitted to-day; the ancient teacher of wisdom said the word Moon and with that word he evoked the idea of a great spiritual world. When he, pronouncing the word ‘Moon’, pointed to the place in heaven where the moon was, he felt in his consciousness that it was the lowest stage of the spiritual hierarchies, but the man to whom he was showing it, who was getting ever further from that spiritual sight because humanity was growing more and more physical, saw only the physical moon, and called it ‘Moon.’

One single word for two things which, though they certainly belong to each other, call forth quite different ideas in man. It was the same when the sages of the sacred knowledge pointed to Mercury, Sun, or Mars. Thus we see that the two currents grew always further apart in humanity, the spiritual one describing something quite different from the material current. In the sacred Mysteries these words — which later became the mere names of physical planets — were always understood as descriptions of spiritual worlds and gradations of spiritual realms. The outer world always understood it materially up to the time of modern Mythology — I use the word purposely — which is called Astronomy. And as Anthroposophy has recognised the full worth of all the other Mythologies, it has also, as you will understand, given full value to that Mythology which is called modern Astronomy, which sees only space and in it, the physical world-spheres as physical orbs. But to him who knows, modern Mythology is only a special phase of all Mythologies. What the ancient inhabitants of Europe said in their myths about gods and stars, what the Romans gave in their Mythologies, and what appeared as the obscured Mythology of the Middle Ages, lead up in a straight line to the wonderful and admirable discoveries of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo. A future will come when modern Mythology will be spoken of somewhat in this way: ‘There was a time when people found it right to place a material sun as the middle point of an ellipse and let the planets rotate within it, and spin round themselves on their own axes in different ways; they arranged a world system in that way, as people of earlier times also did. To-day’ — so will that future age think — ‘all that is only legend and fairy tale.’ Yes, that future age will come, although the man of the present who laughs at former Mythologies thinks it impossible that one could ever speak of Copernican Mythology. But this consideration will make clear to us how through the same words something ever more different may be meant. In spite of this the true primeval wisdom has always been cultivated and has always continued; it has however always been less understood exoterically and its spiritual side less seen, the more it has been materially explained.

In the beginning of our era, when there was a rejuvenescence of primeval wisdom, (in order that humanity should not lose all touch with that ancient wisdom), it was said. in sharp, clear words, that when man looks at the outer space of the world and his physical eye sees only what is physical, the space is filled with spirit. It was the most intimate pupil of St. Paul, Dionysius the Areopagite, who said in clear-cut words: ‘There is not only matter out there in space; there is, for the soul which rises consciously into the spaces of universal existence, the spiritual part which stands above man in the evolution of existence.’ And he used words which sounded different from the old ones, for if he had used the old words everybody would have understood them in the material sense. The Rishis spoke of the spiritual hierarchies, they expressed in their language what the Greek and Roman wisdom still described when speaking of the ascending scale of worlds: of the Moon, of Mercury, Mars and Venus, Jupiter and Saturn. Dionysius, the pupil of the Apostle Paul had the same worlds in his mind as the Rishis, he repeated in clear cut words that here one had to do with spiritual realms, and he used words which he could be certain would be understood in their spiritual sense: he spoke of Angels, Archangels, Archai, Powers, Mights, Dominions, Thrones, Cherubim, and Seraphim. For now humanity had completely forgot what it once knew. Had it still been able to understand the connection between what Dionysius and the Rishis had seen, it would have grasped, while hearing on the one side of the Moon, and on the other side of the Mysteries of the Angels, that these were one and the same thing. It would have heard the word Mercury on the one hand and Archangel on the other, and would have known they were the same. The word ‘Archai’ spoken by the one, and ‘Venus’ by the other, were the same. And men. would have understood that with the words ‘Sun’ and ‘Powers’ the same worlds were meant. With the name ‘Mars’ they would have felt that they had to rise to the Mights (Dynamis). When they heard Jupiter mentioned, they would have known that it was the same as when in the school of Dionysius, Dominions were described. Saturn corresponds to ‘Thrones’; but in wider circles this was not known any more, it could not be known. Thus there was on the one side a science of matter, which became ever more material, and the old names which once signified spiritual forces, were now used in a material sense. And on the other side, there was a spiritual life which spoke of Angels and Archangels, etc. which had lost its connection with the physical designations of these spiritual beings.

Thus we see how the primeval wisdom enters through Dionysius into the school which Paul had inaugurated, and how this new inauguration had to be penetrated by the ancient spirit. It is the task of modern Spiritual Science, or anthroposophy to form once more the bond which must unite the physical to the spiritual, the bond between the earth and the spiritual hierarchies. It is impossible for those who do not know where their ideas about the outer world of the senses come from, to realise the other, the spiritual side of knowledge. This will be particularly noticeable when we have to deal with those writings which, although they are but a faint echo of the primeval cosmic wisdom, can still be understood in the light of that wisdom.

Let me show you an example of the difficulty there is in understanding writings which come down to us from that primeval wisdom. It is an example out of the Song Celestial, the Bhagavad Gita, where a sentence throws a very significant light on the connection between human life and the hierarchies. It is the following: (8th Chap. beginning with 23rd verse) ‘I will explain unto thee, oh man seeking for truth’ (it is thus generally translated) ‘under what circumstances those who know the Eternal leave the earth through the gate of death, to be later reborn or not. I will tell thee: Behold the fire, behold the day, behold the time of the waning moon, behold the half year when the sun is high — those who die at that time, who die in fire, in the day, in the time of the waxing moon, those enter through the gates of death into Brahma, but those who die in the sign of the smoke, in the night, when the moon is waning, in the half year when the sun stands low, these when they leave the world and pass through the gates of death enter only into the light of the moon, and return again to the world.’ Here you have, my dear anthroposophical friends, a sentence from the Bhagavad Gita, in which it says that the condition of man's progress and of his reincarnation depends on whether he dies in the sign of the light, by day, with the waxing moon, during the half year when the sun stands high, or whether he dies in the sign of the smoke, by night, when the moon wanes and when the sun is low. It is said that this refers to the material sun. Of those who die in the sign of the fire by day, with the moon waxing, and during that half of the year when the sun is high, it is said that they do not need to return. Those who die in the sign of the smoke, by night, with the moon waning, and when the sun is low, must return into the world. This sentence out of the divine song of the East presents the greatest difficulty to all those who want to explain it within the limits of exoteric life. It can be explained only when it is illuminated by the light of spiritual knowledge, by the light in which it was received and written, the light which streams out of the Mystery schools, which can be increased. which has known its rejuvenescence through Christianity and which shows us how to find the link which binds the names Moon to Angels, Mercury to Archangels, Venus to the Archai and so on. With its help we shall find the key to such sentences as the one we gave as an example. Our course of studies will start from the explanation of this sentence in the Bhagavad Gita, a thing which is impossible in exoteric life; and after we have found the key to it, we shall pass on to further explanations of the spiritual hierarchies.