Donate books to help fund our work. Learn more→

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

Secrets of the Threshold
GA 147

Lecture IV

27 August 1913, Munich

The soul, as it becomes clairvoyant, will progress further, beyond the elemental world we have been describing in these lectures, and it will penetrate the actual spiritual world. On ascending to this higher world, the soul must take into account even more forcefully what already has been indicated. In the elemental world there are many happenings and phenomena surrounding the clairvoyant soul that remind it of the characteristics, the forces, and of all sorts of other things in the sense world, but rising into the spiritual world, the soul finds the happenings and beings totally different. The capacities and points of view it could get on with in the sense world have to be given up to a far greater degree. It is terribly disturbing to confront a world that the soul is not at all accustomed to, leaving everything behind it has so far been able to experience and observe. Nevertheless, when you look into my books Theosophy or Occult Science or if you recall the recent performance of Scenes Five and Six of The Souls' Awakening, it will occur to you that the descriptions there of the real spiritual world, the scientific descriptions as well as the more pictorial-scenic ones, use pictures definitely taken—one can say—from impressions and observations of the physical sense world.

Recall for a moment how the journey is described through Devachan or the Spirit-land, as I called it. You will find that the pictures used have the characteristics of sense perception. This is, of course, necessary if one proposes to put on the stage the spirit region, which the human being passes through between death and a new birth. All the happenings must be represented by images taken from the physical sense world. You can easily imagine that stage hands nowadays would not know what to do with the sort of scenery one might bring immediately out of the spiritual world, having nothing at all in common with the sense world. One therefore faces the necessity of describing the region of spirit with pictures taken from sense observation. But there is more to it than this.

You might well believe that to represent this world whose characteristics are altogether different from the sense world, one has to help oneself out of the difficulty with sense-perceptible images. This is not the case. When the soul that has become clairvoyant enters the spiritual world, it will really see the landscape as the exact scenery of those two scenes of the “Spirit Region” in The Souls' Awakening. They are not just thought out in order to characterize something that is entirely different; the clairvoyant soul really is in such scenery and surrounded by it. Just as the soul surrounded in the physical sense world by a landscape of rocks, mountains, woods and fields must take these for granted as reality if it is healthy, the clairvoyant soul, too, outside the physical and etheric bodies can observe itself surrounded in exactly the same way by a landscape constructed of these pictures. Indeed, the pictures have not been chosen at random; as a matter of fact they are the actual environment of the soul in this world. Scenes Five and Six of The Souls' Awakening did not come about in just this way because something or other of an unknown world had to be expressed and therefore the question was considered, “How can that be done?” No, this world pictured here is the world surrounding the soul that it to some degree simply forms as an image.

However, it is necessary for the clairvoyant soul to enter into the right relationship to the genuine reality of the spirit world, the spirit-land that has nothing at all in common with the sense world. You will get some idea of the relationship to the spiritual world which the soul has to acquire from a description of how the soul can come to an understanding of that world. Suppose you open a book. At the top of the page you find a line slanting from the left above to the right below, then a line slanting from bottom left to top right, another line parallel to the first and still another parallel to the second; then come two vertical lines, the second shorter than the first and connected at the top to its center. Then comes something like a circle that is not quite closed with a horizontal line in its center; finally come two equal vertical lines joined together at the top. You don't go through all this when you open a book and look at the first thing that stands there, do you? You read the word “when.” You do not describe the w as lines and the e as an incomplete circle, and so on; you read. When you look at the forms of the letters in front of you, you enter into a relationship with something that is not printed on the page; it is, however, indicated to you by what is there on that page.

It is precisely the same with the relationship of the soul to the whole picture-world of the spirit region. What the soul has to do is not merely to describe what is there, for it is much more like reading. The pictures before one are indeed a cosmic writing, a script, and the soul will gain the right inner mood by recognizing that this whole world of pictures—woven like a veil before the spiritual world—is there to mediate, to manifest the true reality of that world. Hence in the real sense of the word we can speak of reading the cosmic script in the spirit region.

One should not imagine that learning to read this cosmic writing is anything like learning to read in the physical world. Reading today is based more or less on the relation of arbitrary signs to their meaning. Learning to read as we have to do for such arbitrary letters is unnecessary for reading the cosmic script which makes its appearance as a mighty tableau, expressing the spiritual world to the clairvoyant soul. One has only to take in with an open, unbiased inner being what is shown as picture-scenery, because what one is experiencing there is truly reading. The meaning itself can be said to flow out of the pictures. It can therefore happen that any sort of interpreting the images of the spiritual world as abstract ideas is more a hindrance than a help in leading the soul directly to what lies behind the occult writing. Above all, as described in Theosophy and in the scenes of The Souls' Awakening, it is important to let the things work freely on one. With one's deep inner powers coming sometimes in a shadowy way to consciousness, there will already have been surmises of a spiritual world. To receive such hints, it is not even necessary to strive for clairvoyance—bear this well in mind. It is necessary only to keep one's mind and soul receptive to such pictures, without setting oneself against them in an insensitive, materialistic way, saying, “This is all nonsense; there are no such things!” A person with a receptive attitude who follows the movement of these pictures will learn to read them. Through the devotion of the soul to the pictures, the necessary understanding for the world of the spirit will come about.

What I have described is actual fact—therefore the numerous objections to spiritual science coming from a present-day materialistic outlook. In general, these objections are first of all rather obvious; then, too, they can be very intelligent and apparently quite logical. Someone like Ferdinand Fox,11Ferdinand Fox Reinecke. See Guardian of the Threshold, Scenes 1 and 8; The Souls' Awakening, Scene 12, where there is the remark: “Ahriman goes off and returns with the Soul of Ferdinand Fox, whose figure is a sort of copy of his own.” who is considered so supremely clever not only by the human beings but also, quite correctly, by Ahriman himself, can say, “Oh yes, you Steiner, you describe the clairvoyant consciousness and talk about the spiritual world, but it's merely a collection of bits and pieces of sense images. How can you claim—in the face of all that scenery raked together from well-known physical pictures—that we should experience something new from it, something we cannot imagine without approaching the spiritual world?”

That objection is one that will confuse many people; it is made from the standpoint of present-day consciousness apparently with a certain justification, indeed even with complete justification. Nevertheless when you go more deeply into such objections as these of Ferdinand Fox, you will discover the way to the truth: The objection we have just heard resembles very much what a person could say to someone opening a letter: “Well, yes, you've received a letter, but there's nothing in it but letters of the alphabet and words I already know. You won't hear anything new from all that!” Nevertheless, through what we have known for a long time we are perhaps able to learn something that we never could have dreamed of before. This is the case with the picture-scenery, which not only has to find its way to the stage for the Mystery Drama performance but also will reveal itself on every side to the clairvoyant consciousness. To some extent it is composed of memory pictures of the sense world, but in its appearance as cosmic script it represents something that the human being cannot experience either in the sense world or in the elemental world. It should be emphasized again and again that our relation to the spiritual world must be compared to reading and not to direct vision.

If a man on earth, who has become clairvoyant, is to understand the objects and happenings of the sense world and look at them with a healthy, sane attitude, he must observe and describe them in the most accurate way possible, but his relation to the spiritual world must be different. As soon as he steps across the threshold, he has to do something very much like reading. If we look at what has to be recognized in this spirit land for our human life, there is certainly something else that can demolish Ferdinand Fox's argument. His objections should not be taken lightly, for if we wish to understand spiritual science in the right way, we should size up such objections correctly. We must remember that many people today cannot help making objections, for their ideas and habits of thought give them the dreadful fear of standing on the verge of nothingness when they hear about the spiritual world; therefore they reject it.

This relationship of a modern human being to the spiritual world can be understood better by discovering what someone thinks about it who is quite well-intentioned. A book appeared recently that is worth reading even for those who have acquired a true understanding of the spiritual world. It was written by a man who means well and who would like very much to come by knowledge of the spiritual world, Maurice Maeterlinck;12Maurice Maeterlinck (1862 – 1949), Belgian poet who wrote his metaphysical, “Symbolistic” drama, poetry and prose in French. Dramas include “Melisande” and “The Blue Bird.” He won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1911. it has been translated with the title Concerning Death. In his first chapters the author shows that he wants to understand these things. We know that he is to some extent a discerning and sensitive person who has allowed himself to be influenced by Novalis, among others, that he has specialized somewhat in Romantic mysticism and that he has accomplished much that is very interesting—theoretically and artistically—in regard to the relationship of human beings to the super-sensible world. Therefore as example he is particularly interesting.

Well, in the chapters of Concerning Death in which Maeterlinck speaks of the actual relationship of the human being to the spiritual world, his book becomes completely absurd. It is an interesting phenomenon that a well-meaning man, using the thinking habits of today, becomes foolish. I do not mean this as reproof or criticism but only to characterize objectively how foolish a well-intentioned person can become when he wishes to look at the connection of the human soul to the spirit world. Maurice Maeterlinck has not the slightest idea that there is a possibility to so strengthen and invigorate the human soul that it can shed everything attained through sense observation and the ordinary thinking, feeling and willing of the physical plane and indeed, even that of the elemental world. To such minds as Maeterlinck's, when the soul leaves behind it everything involved in sense observation and the thinking, feeling and willing related to it, there is simply nothing left. Therefore in his book Maeterlinck asks for proofs of the spiritual world and facts about it. It is of course reasonable to require proofs of the spiritual world and we have every right to do so—but not as Maeterlinck demands them. He would like to have proofs as palpable as those given by science for the physical plane. And because in the elemental world things are still reminiscent of the physical world, he would even agree to let himself be convinced of the existence of the spiritual world by means of experiments copied from the physical ones. That is what he demands. He shows with this that he has not the most rudimentary understanding of the true spiritual world, for he wants to prove, by methods borrowed from the physical one, things and processes which have nothing to do with the sense world. The real task is to show that such proofs as Maeterlinck demands for the spiritual world are impossible.

I have frequently compared this demand of Maurice Maeterlinck to something that has taken place in the realm of mathematics. At one time the university Math departments were continually receiving treatises on the so-called squaring of the circle. People were constantly trying to prove geometrically how the area of a circle could be transformed into a square. Until quite recently an infinite number of papers had been written on the subject. But today only a rank amateur would still come up with such a treatise, for it has been proved conclusively that the geometrical squaring of the circle is not possible.

What Maeterlinck demands as proof for the spiritual world is nothing but the squaring of the circle transferred to the spiritual sphere and is just as much out of place as the other is in the realm of mathematics. What actually is he demanding? If we know that as soon as we cross the threshold to the spiritual world, we are in a world that has nothing in common with the physical world or even with the elemental world, we cannot ask, “If you want to prove any of this to me, kindly go back into the physical world and with physical means prove to me the things of the spiritual world.” We might as well accept the fact that in everything concerned with spiritual science we will get from the most well-meaning people the kind of absurdities that—transferred to ordinary life—would at once show themselves to be absurd. It is just as if someone wants a man to stand on his head while continuing to walk with his feet. Let someone demand that and everyone will realize what nonsense it is. However, when someone demands the same sort of thing in regard to proofs of the spiritual world, it is clever; it is a scientific right. Its author will not notice its absurdity and neither will his followers, especially when the author is a celebrated person. The great mistake springs from the fact that those who make such claims have never clearly grasped man's relation to the spiritual world.

If we attain concepts that can be gained only in the spiritual world through clairvoyant consciousness, they will naturally meet with a great deal of opposition from people like Ferdinand Fox. All the concepts that we are to acquire, for instance, about reincarnation, that is, the truly genuine remembrances of earlier lives on earth, we have to gain through a certain necessary attitude of the soul towards the spiritual world, for only out of that world can we obtain such concepts. When there are impressions, ideas, mental images in the soul that point back to an earlier life on earth, they will be especially subject to the antagonism of our time. Of course, it can't be denied that just in these things the worst foolishness is engaged in; many people have this or that experience and at once relate it to this or that former incarnation. In such cases it is easy for our opponents to say, “Oh yes, whatever drifts into your psyche are really pictures of experiences you've had in this life between birth and death—only you don't recognize them.” That is certainly the case hundreds and hundreds of times, but it should be clear that a spiritual investigator has an eye for these things. It can really be so that something that happens to a person in childhood or youth returns to consciousness completely transformed in later life; then perhaps because the person does not recognize it, he takes it for a reminiscence from an earlier life on earth. That can well be the case. We know within our own anthroposophical circles how easily it can occur. You see, memories can be formed not only of what one has clearly experienced; one can also have an impression that whisks past so quickly that it does not come fully to consciousness and yet can return later as a distinct memory. A person—if he is not sufficiently critical—can then swear that this is something in his soul that was never experienced in his present life. It is thus understandable that such impressions cause all the foolishness in people who have busied themselves, but not seriously enough, with spiritual science. This happens chiefly in the case of reincarnation, in which so much vanity and ambition is involved. For many people it is an alluring idea to have been Julius Caesar or Marie Antoinette in a former life. I can count as many as twenty-five or twenty-six Mary Magdalenes I have met in my lifetime! The spiritual investigator himself has good reason to draw attention to the mischief that can be stirred up in all this. Something more, however, must be emphasized.

In true clairvoyance, impressions of an earlier life on earth will appear in a certain characteristic way, so that a truly healthy clairvoyant soul will recognize them quite definitely as what they are. It will know unmistakably that these impressions have nothing to do with what can arise out of the present life between birth and death. For the true reminiscences, the genuine memories of earlier lives on earth that come through scrupulous clairvoyance, are too astonishing for the soul to believe it could bring them out of its conscious or unconscious depths by any humanly possible method. Students of spiritual science must get to know what soul experiences come to it from outside. It is not only the wishes and desires, which do indeed play a great part when impressions are fished up out of the unknown waters of the soul in a changed form, so that we do not recognize them as experiences of the present life; there is an interplay of many other things. But the mostly overpowering perceptions of former earth lives are easy to distinguish from impressions out of the present life. To take one example: a person receiving a true impression of a former life will inwardly, for instance, experience the following, rising out of soul depths: “You were in your former life such and such a person.” And at the moment when this occurs, he will find that, externally, in the physical world, he can make no use at all of such knowledge. It can bring him further in his development but as a rule he has to say to himself, “Look at that: in your previous incarnation you had that special talent!” However, by the time he receives such an impression, he is already too old to do anything with it. The situation will always be like that, showing how the impressions could not possibly arise out of one's present life, for if you took your start from the ordinary dream or fantasy, you would provide yourself with quite different qualities in a former incarnation. What one was like in an earlier life is something we ordinarily cannot imagine, for it is usually just the opposite of what we might expect. The genuine reality of an impression arising through true clairvoyance may show in one way or another our relationship to another person on earth. However, we must remember that through incorrect clairvoyance many previous incarnations are described, relating us to our close friends and enemies; this is mostly nonsense. If the perception you receive is truly genuine, it will show you a relationship to a person whom it is impossible at the time to draw near to. These things cannot be applied directly to practical life.

Confronted with impressions such as these, we have to develop the frame of mind necessary for clairvoyant consciousness. Naturally, when one has the impression, “I am connected in a special way with this person,” the situation must be worked out in life; through the impression one should come again into some sort of relationship with him. But that may only come about in a second or third earthly life. One must have a frame of mind able to wait patiently, a feeling that can be described as a truly inward calmness of soul and peacefulness of spirit. This will contribute to our judging correctly our experience in the spiritual world.

When we want to learn something about another person in the physical world, we go at it in whatever way seems necessary. But this we cannot do with the impression that calls for spirit peacefulness, calmness of soul, and patience. The attitude of soul towards the genuine impressions of the spiritual world is correctly described by saying,

To strive for nothing—wait in peaceful stillness,
one's inner being filled with expectation.
(The Soul's Awakening, Scene 3)

In a certain respect this frame of mind must stream out over the entire soul life in order to approach in the right way its clairvoyant experiences in the spirit.

The Ferdinand Foxes, however, are not always easy to refute, even when inner perceptions arise of which one can say, “It is humanly not possible for the soul with its forces and habits acquired in the present earth life to create in the imagination what is rising out of its depths; on the contrary, if it were up to the soul it would have imagined something quite different.” Even when one is able to point out the sure sign of true, genuine, spiritual impressions, a super-clever Ferdinand Fox can come and raise objections. But one does not meet the objections of those who stand somewhat remote from the science of the spirit or of opponents who don't want to know anything about it with the words, “One's inner being filled with expectation.” This is the right mood for those who are approaching the spiritual world, but in the face of objections from opponents, one should not—as a spiritual scientist—merely wait in expectation but should oneself raise all those objections in order to know just what objections are possible.

One of these is easy to understand today, and it can be found in all the psychological, psychopathological and physiological literature and in the sometimes learned treatises that presume to be scientific, as follows: “Since the inner life is so complicated, there is a great deal in the subconscious that does not rise up into the ordinary consciousness.” One who is super-clever will not only say, “Our wishes and desires bring all sorts of things out of soul depths,” but will also say, “Any experience of the psyche brings about a secret resistance or opposition against the experience. Though he will always experience this reaction, a person knows nothing of it as a rule. But it can push its way up from the subconscious into the upper regions of soul life.” Psychological, psychopathological and physiological literature admit to the following, because the facts cannot be denied: When someone falls deeply in love with another person, there has to develop in unconscious soul depths, side by side with the conscious love, a terrible antipathy to the beloved. And the view of many psychopathologists is that if anyone is truly in love, there is also hatred in his soul. Hatred is present even if it is covered over by the passion of love.

When such things emerge from the depths of the soul, say the Ferdinand Foxes, they are perceptions that very easily provide the illusion of not coming from the soul of the individual involved and yet can well do so, because soul life is very complex. To this we can only reply: certainly it may be so; this is as well-known to the spiritual investigator as it is to the psychologist, psychiatrist or physiologist. When we work our way through all the above-mentioned literature dealing with the healthy and unhealthy conditions of soul life, we realize that Ferdinand Fox is a real person, an extremely important figure of the present day, to be found everywhere. He is no invention. Take all the abundant writing of our time and as you study it, you get the impression that the remarkable face of Ferdinand Fox is springing out at you from every page. He seems nowadays to have his fingers in every scientific pie. To counteract him, it must be emphasized again and again, and I repeat it in this case gladly: to prove that something is reality and not fantasy is only possible through life experience itself. I have continually said: The chapter of Schopenhauer's philosophy that views the world as a mere mental image and does not distinguish between idea and actual perception can be contradicted only by life itself. Kant's argument, too, in regard to the so-called proof of God' s existence, that a hundred imaginary dollars contain just as many pennies as a hundred real dollars, will be demolished by anyone who tries to pay his debts with imaginary and not real dollars.

Therefore the training and devotion of the soul to clairvoyance must be taken as reality. It is not a matter of theorizing; we bring about a life in the realm of spirit by means of which we can clearly distinguish the genuine impression of a former life on earth from one that is false, in the same way that we can distinguish the heat of an iron on our skin from an imaginary iron. If we reflect on this, we will understand that Ferdinand Fox's objections about the spiritual world are really of no importance at all, coming as they do from people who—I will not say, have not entered the realm of spirit clairvoyantly—but who have never tried to understand it.

We must always keep in mind that when we cross the threshold of the spiritual world, we enter a region of the universe that has nothing in common with what the senses can perceive or with what we experience in the physical world through willing, thinking, and feeling. We have to approach the spiritual world by realizing that all our ability to observe and understand the physical sense world has to be left behind. Referring to perception in the elemental world, I used an image that may sound grotesque, that of putting one's head into an ant hill—but so it is for our consciousness in the elemental world. There the thoughts that we have do not put up with everything quite passively; we plunge our consciousness into a world (into a thought-world, one might call it) that creeps and crawls with a life of its own. A person has to hold himself firmly upright in his soul to withstand thoughts that are full of their own motion. Even so, many things in this elemental world of creeping and crawling thoughts remind us of the physical world.

When we enter the actual spiritual world, nothing at all reminds us of the physical world; there we enter a world which I will describe with an expression used in my book The Threshold of the Spiritual World: “a world of living thought-beings.” Our thinking in the physical world resembles shadow-pictures, shadows of thoughts, whose real substance we find in the spiritual world; this thought-substance forms the beings there whom we can approach and enter into. Just as human beings in the physical world consist of flesh and blood, these beings of the spiritual world consist of thought-substance. They are themselves thoughts, actual thoughts, nothing but thoughts, yet they are alive with an inner essential being; they are living thought-beings. Although we can enter into their inner being, they cannot perform actions as if with physical hands. When they are active, they create relationships among themselves, and this can be compared to the embodiment in the sense world of thoughts in speech, a pale reflection of the spiritual reality. We can accustom ourselves to experience the living thought-entities in the spiritual world. What they do, what they are, and the way they affect one another, forms a spirit language. One spirit being speaks to another; thought language is spoken in the realm of the spirit! However, this thought language in its totality is not only speech but represents the deeds of the spiritual world as well. It is in speaking that these beings work, move, and take action.

When we cross the threshold, we enter a world where thoughts are entities, entities are thoughts; however, these beings of the spiritual world are much more real than people of flesh and blood in the sense world. We enter a world where the action consists of spiritual conversation, where words move, here, there, and everywhere, where something happens because it is spoken out. We have to say of this spiritual world and of the occurrences there what is said in Scene Three of The Guardian of the Threshold:

At this place words are deeds
and further deeds must follow them.

All occult perception attained for mankind by the initiates of every age could behold the significance in a certain realm of this spirit conversation that is at the same time spirit action. It was given the characteristic name, “The Cosmic Word.”

Now observe that our study has brought us to the very center of the spiritual realm, where we can behold these beings and their activities. Their many voices, many tones, many activities, sounding together, form the Cosmic Word in which our own soul being—itself Cosmic Word—begins to find itself at home, so that, sounding forth, we ourselves perform deeds in the spiritual world. The term “Cosmic Word” used throughout past ages by all peoples expresses an absolutely true fact of the spirit land. To understand its meaning at the present time, however, we have to approach the uniqueness of the spiritual world in the way we have tried to describe in this study.

In the various past ages and peoples, occult knowledge has spoken with more or less understanding of the Cosmic Word; now, too, it is necessary, if mankind is not to be devastated by materialism, to reach an understanding for such words about the spiritual world, from the Mystery Drama:

At this place words are deeds
and further deeds must follow them.

It is imperative in our time that when such words are spoken out of the knowledge of the spiritual world, our souls should feel their reality, should feel that they represent reality. We must be aware that this is just as much an exact characteristic of the spiritual world as when in characterizing the physical sense world we apply ordinary sense images.

Just how far our present age can bring understanding to bear on such words as “Here in this place words are deeds and further deeds must follow them” will depend on how far it takes up spiritual science and how well people today will be prepared to prevent the dominating force of materialism that otherwise will plunge human civilization into impoverishment, devastation and decay.