Donate books to help fund our work. Learn more→

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

Knowledge and Initiation—
Cognition of the Christ
GA 211

I. Knowledge and Initiation

14 April 1922, London

Anthroposophy, as I am attempting to expound it, represents a science of initiation originating in the necessity of the day. A science of initiation has existed always. Anthroposophy springs from the same foundation as ancient science, but in the course of human evolution ages succeed each other and vary in their demands. And thus the science of initiation arising out of the modern spirit is in some respects peculiar to this age, just as there was an initiation science of the Middle Ages, of Ancient Greece and of yet older periods of human evolution.

In the course of history the whole constitution and mood and tendency of the human soul undergoes changes. The so-called science of initiation has to investigate and understand what is the eternal in the human being and in the universe. We have to consider the needs and the subconscious longings of today, and a science of initiation, an ancient science that meets those needs and longings, is what Anthroposophy strives for.

It is for that very reason that it meets with such opposition, for the present time, standing as it does in the midst of the thoughts of natural science, is filled with certain judgments and prejudices which very often prevent us from consciously recognizing the sub-conscious longings within. And yet, if we regard life without bias, we have to understand that the conceptions of external natural science do not reach to what is eternal in the human being and in the universe, when, on the other hand, we of to-day turn aside from the external thoughts of natural science and attempt to find the eternal by inner mystic contemplation, we may indeed reach to a certain amount of faith or belief, but we do not attain that clear knowledge which to-day is necessary. Between these two extremes Anthroposophy has to take its stand. So it is that Anthroposophy is so generally misunderstood, because it endeavours in accordance with modern needs to attain to a science of initiation which is exact and of the nature of knowledge, and not of the nature of vague kinds of mysticism. But to understand what are the unconscious longings and needs of our time is to understand the need for such a thing as Anthroposophy.

I am not dwelling any longer on this introductory aspect because I assume that those who are here this evening have already experienced two things: that our natural scientific thoughts—borrowed from natural science and modeled upon it—do not reach far enough to penetrate and place before us the eternal in man and in the world, and that mysticism only reaches in a vague and unclear way and therefore, in that sense, is insufficient to meet present needs. One could prove these things by a multitude of examples if one were to dwell upon them further. Anthroposophy seeks for what may be called exact clairvoyance, again to borrow a term from scientific usage; that is to say it seeks to develop a knowledge and perception of the spiritual worlds which is no less exact, no less conscientious in the sense of exact science, than is the best tendency and striving of our natural scientific age.

I shall now indicate briefly how this path is begun. We must consider in the first place what we know in the ordinary life of the soul by means of our ordinary self-knowledge as the three forces or faculties that work in the soul, viz., thinking, feeling, and willing. We know in our thoughts that we are, as it were, awake; that we are essentially wakeful human beings. It is by virtue of our thinking life, which ceases between going to sleep at night and regaining consciousness in the morning, that we are awake, and it is in our thoughts that our soul-life is filled with a kind of clarity, an inner light.

Next, as to the feeling life. The feelings are perhaps even more important for the human being (or he attaches more importance to them) than are his thoughts, but we know from our ordinary observation that the feelings of our soul-life are far less clear and filled with light than our thoughts. In a sense our thoughts, our conceptual life, play into our feelings and bring them into a certain clarity, but our feelings seem to surge up from the unknown depths of our life. They do not appear with the full clearness of our life of thought.

Then we come to the third category of our soul-life, the impulses of will. Our impulses of will come from still deeper down and are still less clear and have less light. But from what we know already in the observation of our ordinary life about thinking, feeling and willing, we realize at once how little we know of what is happening within us; for example, when an impulse of will arises making us take some action! We realize how little we know of what is happening in that life of will itself, and yet we find that thinking, feeling and willing still form a kind of unity in our soul-life. At the one pole is our conceptual life, our thinking life, we find in the way in which we join the concepts together like the links of a chain that there is an element of will at work in the process. Then passing to the other pole, the life of will—for the feeling life stands midway between the two—we find that for willing there is a certain element of conception; the concepts play into our willing life. So we see that in our soul-life there are the two poles, thinking on the one hand and willing on the other, with feeling as it were between the two, and that in these three something works in them all.

Now with the development of a higher science, the science of initiation, according to modern requirements and to Anthroposophy, it is necessary to train, develop and evolve by our own conscious activity both the conceptual thinking-life and the will-life, and it is thus that we can trace what has been called an exact clairvoyance, a modern science of initiation. In the one case we have to carry out exercises in thought, and in the other of will. So it is that the way is sought to pass through those portals which lead into the super-sensible worlds; indeed without entering those worlds in consciousness it is impossible to gain that clear knowledge we need of the eternal in the soul and in the universe.

It is while taking the exercises in thought that special attention has to be paid to what is not generally observed in ordinary life, viz., that slight additional element of will which is playing into the thinking life. This subject is dealt with in much greater detail in my book that is translated into English under the title Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and How to Attain It. We have above all to train that element of will which is at work in our thinking life, and in a sense have to exercise it. We have to select that very thing which passes unnoticed in the ordinary everyday thought-life, and pay less attention to what is most important to us in that life. We have to form a clear concept in our minds—its content is not of much importance; it may be either a simple or a complex concept—and then hold it as the full content of the soul to the exclusion of all else. To do this calls forth the full energy of the soul and an exercise of strong will power. The selected concept must be clearly abstracted for a certain time from everything else in the world, so that the forces of the soul are concentrated upon it alone. In the case of one individual these exercises may have to be carried on for months, in the case of another years, but sooner or later, provided they are undertaken systematically and with persistent energy, the soul-life will develop and experience an inner strengthening. What happens may be compared with the effect produced by exercising a certain muscle, by its doing the work for which it is best fitted, until it is developed to its full power. After a time has elapsed (varying, as we have seen, according to the individual) there will come a certain moment when the soul will have an experience of such strength and power that it will be shaken to its very foundations.

This experience may be described somewhat as follows: with the strengthening of the soul-life the door is opened to an entirely new way of thinking and to entirely new thoughts. It may be compared with the way in which sense impressions and thoughts are experienced in the ordinary soul-life. How do we experience sense impressions? In all sense impressions such as those of colour and sound, heat and cold, there is a certain vitality and life; they are experienced in a very living way and in the full sap of life. But in the way in which the thoughts are experienced there is something abstract, something vague and sketchy in outline; it is all grey and pale as compared with the intensity and living nature of the sense experiences. Now, when this new way of thinking has been attained, we find that the whole thought-life has become as intense and as full of life as is the ordinary soul-life in sense experiences and perceptions. It is called imaginative thinking; imaginative not in the sense of arbitrary fantasies in the mind but a pictorial, formative thought filled with inner life and possessing a quality of strength and intensity comparable with the sense impressions of the ordinary life. And with this life of imaginative thought, which is saturated with a kind of plastic vitality, there comes the realization that within us is an entirely new human being of which we never knew consciously before. The ordinary physical human being may be described as an ‘organism in space’; we see the different organs spread out in space, so to speak, and know that they are all connected together, that the heart is connected with the whole and the right hand with the left and so forth. The new human being that we come to know within us in the life of imaginative thought, however, is better described as ‘an organism in time’. Suddenly there stands before us in a single imaginative tableau or picture a memory of our whole life; in the first place to a point in early childhood; not, however, in the way in which isolated memories of the past appear more or less dully in the ordinary consciousness, but as the whole individual life laid out before us in a single moment. In this sense we, as human beings, are time-organisms. We have come to experience what in the modern science of initiation are called the ‘formative forces of the body’; not the full human being, using the term body in its extended sense, but its formative forces which in the older science of initiation are called the ether or etheric body. So we come to experience something that works within and builds up the physical organism of man; to know that when we entered this life in the physical body of a child we brought with us certain super-sensible forces direct from the super-sensible world; to know that these forces were modeling and moulding our physical organs, our minds, the circulation of our blood, even in our earliest childhood, and were gradually taking possession of the whole of our organism stage by stage. In the space-organism of the physical body the formative forces of the etheric body were building all the time. With this experience comes also an understanding of how we enter this world with certain particular faculties and qualities of character, and of how one individual will develop in quite a different direction from another. This knowledge of what works in our physical organism as a super-sensible thing brings us to the stage of the exact higher knowledge which the present age needs as its science of initiation. Thus to know the formative forces or etheric body from imaginative knowledge is the first and necessary stage we must pass through before we can learn to know what is essentially the eternal which was working in the human being in the spiritual worlds before birth.

As we have to learn to carry the power of will into our thoughts, and to strengthen that power in the holding of thoughts with the full forces of the soul, so we then have to carry out exercises in the opposite direction. We have to attain the power to extract the soul from the concept that we have learned to hold to the exclusion of everything else, so that they fill our consciousness, and then to extract ourselves from them so that our consciousness is empty of content and yet we maintain our wakefulness.

Now let us consider our ordinary life. Here our consciousness is always filled with thoughts, sense perceptions and memories, and the moment they cease to be there we tend to drop into sleep. Therefore it needs a still greater activity, a greater power, to hold the soul in full wakefulness when it is rendered empty of what has been held within it by imagination and concentration. This power is attained in the next stage if, by means of the exercises referred to earlier, we have once attained the power to hold a concept in our consciousness to the exclusion of all else. It consists in being able to detach the soul from the particular concept leaving the consciousness empty of content and yet wakeful, and once this is acquired there enters into the emptied but wakeful consciousness something which is entirely new to us, something which is not of the nature of a reflection, a memory or a conception, but a super-sensible reality. It floods into the soul, this spiritual reality of being which is in all the individual things of the world, and we see it blossoming forth from everything in nature. Into the consciousness that we have had the strength to train through meditation and concentration, and then to empty of content while keeping it fully wakeful, there streams the reality of spiritual being so that we perceive the super-sensible reality of being in the world. This is the super-sensible reality of which Anthroposophy and the science of initiation speak, not as of a vague ‘beyond’ but of something that is present, that is certainly outside the world of the senses and not perceived therein. So we may learn to penetrate into an entirely new thinking, to see that whereas our ordinary thought is making use of the time and the instruments of the physical brain and the nervous system, this new thinking is independent of the physical organism and outside it. It is thinking purely through the forces of the soul.

This new thinking is so entirely different in its conditions from our ordinary life of thought that we may say we recognize for example that in this new spiritual perception, this spiritually perceptive thought, you have something in which there is no such thing as ordinarily you have in memory. In our ordinary life of thought, if it is healthy and sound at all, there is memory. If we learn a certain thought or concept we can call it to memory again. But in this super-sensible thinking, which does not make use of the physical organism, we cannot call back to mind; we have no memory of the experiences in this new thought we have had, and if we wish to return to it we must only remember the activity of soul, the exercises and the precise path which we took in inner activity and concentration of will in order to reach that particular knowledge or super-sensible concept. We can remember the path our soul took and we can repeat that path. Then that perception, that super-sensible knowledge, is freshly again before us. In the physical world if we have seen a rose, for example, and want to have it raised before us again in all its full colour and freshness, it is no use trying to remember it. No memory will restore what we received by our sense perception; we must come before the rose again. So in the higher super-sensible thinking to have our thoughts again before us in all their freshness we must return by the path that led us to them. Let me put this to you in a personal way. When I speak on the higher knowledge it is not from reading books on the subject or from hearing about it, but as one who has attained to and experienced it. If I give a lecture I cannot do so like one who speaks on external science, who simply has his knowledge systematized in his memory and then gives it out; I must pass through the full experiences, through all those qualities of feeling and of thought, of inner life and activity, through which I had to pass before I had gained that knowledge for the first time. I must speak from the full freshness of the past to give it full freshness in the present. So different are the conditions of this higher knowledge that is attained by the science of initiation from the conditions of the ordinary knowledge which is connected with the physical instruments of the physical brain and nervous system.

There is yet another faculty of soul in which the student of the higher knowledge must train himself. It is that faculty which we know in ordinary life as presence of mind, the power to meet a circumstance that comes upon us suddenly and, without spending a long time in deliberation, to perceive the right course immediately. This faculty must be developed and enhanced, so that he who has these experiences before him in the super-sensible world, shall be able to grasp the reality of the spiritual world as it flits past. He must have the presence of mind to recognize it at once.

Now by the exercising and training of the soul to attain the power of detaching it from the content of consciousness, and of holding it empty and yet fully awake, we are led to perceive something still higher than was explained in the first part of this lecture. We are led to what is essentially the soul and spiritual being of man that had lived in the spiritual worlds before it united with the physical substance of heredity, with the physical bodily substance, for the course of this earthly life. We come to know our own eternal being, our life of soul and spirit in the spiritual worlds before birth. This second stage of knowledge is known as inspired or inspirational knowledge, as a technical term in this modern science of initiation. Just as the outer air enters our lungs through inhalation so does the spiritual world enter into our emptied consciousness. Thus we inhale, so to speak, the spiritual world as we knew it before we descended into physical earth existence. So we learned to know one facet of our being, the other side is the spiritual immortality. This will be dealt with in the third part of this lecture. We come to know in this second stage, but to know clearly, what might be defined as the ‘birthlessness’ or ‘unbornness’ (just as we speak of deathlessness or immortality) of that other side of the eternal in man, viz., that which existed in the spiritual worlds, his life in those worlds before birth. Our present age has very few conceptions, even though it may have dim conceptions through faith, about immortality, but in this second stage we learn to know our birthlessness, our eternal on the other side, our life in the spiritual reality before we entered this particular earthly life.

This higher ‘inspired knowledge’ leads us also in another direction which however can only be touched upon here, since it would take many lectures to describe it in detail. Just as we learn to know the super-sensible, the eternal reality of our own being, and to enter through inspired knowledge into our own soul and spirit before we entered this physical life, so do we learn to recognize the spirit in the world around us. This must be described in a few short sketches. If we look out upon the universe the sun appears to us as a physical ball, but when we enter into ‘inspirational knowledge’ we see it not only as the concentrated physical object that is seen by the senses. We see something that spreads through the whole universe and is accessible to us, namely, the spiritual quality and being of the sun, the sun-like being itself. What we see everywhere in mineral, in plant and animal, what is in man too as sun-force that we see physically concentrated when we look up to the sun. Though it may sound strange from the point of view of modern science, what we thus attain through inspirational knowledge is the power to perceive this sun-like being in everything, in the mineral, the plant, the animal and the human being. We learn to perceive the sun-force working in every single organ, in the heart, the liver and so forth, of the physical organism, and in everything within the whole universe that is accessible to us. This is the actual reality that is attained through the science of initiation.

And out of inspiration-knowledge we see that just as the sun does not only have a sharp outline, the same applies to the moon. The external physical moon is only the physical concentration, while the moon-substance streams through the whole universe. It is in mineral, plant and animal and every organ of man, in them the moon- and sun-substances live on. This experience comes in the second stage of inspirational knowledge, and it leads to something which is eminently practical and which already has been developed as a science, viz., the anthroposophical science of medicine. By its means we learn to see how in every human organ there is a kind of balance between the sun-force and the moon-force, the sun-substance and the moon-substance. In the former we recognize that there is something that expresses itself in the life element, in the blossom and growth of youthful forces, and in the moon-force something that expresses itself in degeneration and aging, in the thinning down of those blossoming, living forces which we can describe as a spiritual reality, as the sun-force. We recognize that there is a kind of balance and that both forces, both qualities of being which are at work permeating every single organ, are necessary; we see how that when we are sick it is because there is a preponderance, an imbalance of the one force over the other. Hence it becomes possible to exercise a healing influence on this or that organ of a sick human being by bringing to bear upon it the particular forces that are at work in some plant or mineral from the external world; the preponderance of one force at work in the sick man is counteracted by a particular plant or mineral in which the opposite spiritual force is at work. So we attain to a definite and rational science of medicine, and one that has not merely collected a number of empirical results but is built up scientifically upon rational conceptions.

I have shown how we can come to a true self-knowledge, how this can also help us in practical life. I have shown this for one field of activity, it is also possible to do the same for others. So we can say: initiation science provides on the one hand the basis for the deepest longings of the human soul; on the other, gives us what we need to work practically in the world, but deeper than through external science. This second aspect of human knowledge leads to the Spirit of the Cosmos. Higher still is that which leads us to conscious knowledge of man's passing through the gate of death.

It is only when this inspirational knowledge is attained that we come to perceive and recognize in full consciousness, the inner soul nature of our own human being. We then recognize our reality, the reality of our existence purely in soul, that is to say, independently of the body, for we recognize how we lived without a physical body in the spiritual worlds before birth.

Having thus dealt with the inspirational knowledge that brings us experience of our spiritual life before birth, I now come to the third stage of higher knowledge, that which leads us to conscious knowledge of the passing through the gate of death to immortality.

This knowledge of the soul-spiritual of man remains one-sided if there is progress only up to inspired knowledge, before birth. To obtain knowledge of life after death, the exercises to develop super-sensible knowledge must be raised to a still higher degree. This time, just as to start with, the element of will was trained and carried into the life of thought which thus became strengthened, so now it is a matter of carrying the thoughts into the life of will. For example, suppose that in the evening we set ourselves to think over the events and experiences of the day that is past, not however by beginning with the morning and following out the events in the order in which they took place, but beginning with those that were the most recent and tracing them backwards. What is the effect of this exercise of following the events of the day in the opposite way from their natural sequence? In our ordinary life and experience our thoughts all the while are being moulded and conditioned and determined by the course of our experiences in ‘time’; as they occur so do our thoughts take their impression. Whereas in those exercises whereby we pass from one event or experience to another in the reverse order we are training a strong element of will, not in the way that is determined by the external events or experiences but in the opposite way. By this means we develop strong forces of will and carry the thinking life into the willing life. It may be done by remembering a tune or melody backwards, or by following the action of a drama from the fifth Act back to the first. It may at first only be possible to pick out isolated episodes during the day, but gradually the power is attained of having the whole of the day's experiences before us in a kind of picture, passing backwards from the evening to the morning. Thus do we drive the power of thought right down into our will-life.

Further, the will-life should be trained so strongly that not only do we go about our life with those qualities and faculties and characteristics which we already had in childhood, or gained through education; we also carry on a rigorous self-education as mature men and women, especially if we set ourselves deliberately to train one or other specific quality or characteristic wherein we are lacking, and to develop along those lines, no matter if the exercises take a number of years. Thus by self-education we train ourselves to will, until we come to pass into the super-sensible world from yet another side. This may be explained as follows. Think of our soul life; what is our volitional life like? For instance, we have a certain conception, and as a result we wish, let us say, to raise our arm; a conception and then an act of will. But we have no knowledge of the way in which we raise our arm; that will-process by means of which we pass from conception to action is entirely hidden from us. We are asleep, so to speak, in our will life, and we are awake in our conceptual and inner thought-life. By way of comparison, how is it that the eye enables us to see the external world? It becomes transparent, and by thus practising a sort of self abnegation enables us to see right through it to the world. So much for the physical sense, but in a sense of soul the whole of our organism must be made transparent so that we learn to look on our physical organism in a physical sense and in a sense more transparent. Then do we come to experience the moment of death. When we have attained the power, through these exercises of the soul, of making our physical body transparent, we have before us a picture of the moment of death and we pass in conscious experience out through the gate of death and experience our immortality. This is the stage of Intuitive knowledge, the true intuitive knowledge. We know that once we have reached this stage after passing through Imagination and Inspiration, that we then belong to the universe as an eternal being, that we behold the spirit in the universe with the eternal spirit in us. That is the plateau initiation science reaches when it adapts to modern consciousness. In old times it rose in us in an atavistic, dreamlike way, but today it has to be in full consciousness, from the transitory to the eternal.

The conclusion should not be drawn that this science of initiation is only of importance to those who immediately set out to acquire these higher faculties of knowledge which have been described as imagination, inspiration and intuition. No. It is necessary for every human being, but just as it is not given to every man to become a painter so it is with this science. Everyone with a healthy and unbiased artistic sense can understand and appreciate a painting, and in the same way those who through the science of initiation have attained imaginational, inspirational and intuitional knowledge of the spiritual world, can describe that knowledge to their fellow men. And when once shown it can be understood by those who will exercise the simple unbiased faculties of thought and judgment normal to our present stage of development; such people can then take their stand upright as human beings equal to the tasks of life in the present age.

We must not meet this science of initiation with all sorts of prejudices and all sorts of confusions arising out of the prejudices and habits of thought and judgment that are external. For example, we must not confuse it with any kind of vision and hallucination, for it is outside and beyond the visionary, hallucinatory, or the mystical experiences. Imagination, inspiration and intuition are the very opposite of such. What is the characteristic of hallucinatory and visionary experience? It is that the person is completely given up to his visions and hallucinations; dependent upon them and therefore unable to maintain his full independence. But when undergoing this higher training of the soul that has been described, when we are developing this higher knowledge, imagination, inspiration and intuition in the soul, all the time there is standing beside us, fully present and fully there, the ordinary human being with his feet on the ground, his firm and sound judgment unhampered, entirely capable of exercising criticism, and with the full presence of mind of the ordinary healthy human being at the present stage. We are not completely given up and lost in these spiritual experiences but maintain full control; standing beside us is a normal and healthy human being.

Anthroposophy is actually a continuation of that modern striving for knowledge which has led to the results of natural science with its achievements of external scientific knowledge. This the anthroposophist would by no means decry, but would maintain that the results of external science need to be supplemented and completed, in the present experience and stage of the world, by a science extending into the higher spiritual worlds. In that sense it is a continuation of the true striving for knowledge of our age, and despite the triumphs of natural science it may well be said by those with a heart and an understanding of the experiences of the modern world, that the need of men for this higher knowledge is being proclaimed on every side. One may speak, for instance, of the need for higher knowledge in the religious and moral and ethical demands of the human soul. The subject that will be dealt with in the following lecture is the application of this science of initiation to an understanding of the Mystery of Golgotha.

In conclusion, just as we see the external features and physiognomy of a man confronting us but do not know him well until we become his friend, entering into his life with heart and soul until we know him from within, so it is with the natural science that we have attained so far. For it shows the external features or physiognomy of the world, and the need of the world and of humanity to-day is to gain a knowledge that not only shows those things but enters into the spiritual and soul-life of the universe. It is that which this higher knowledge of initiation reaches; something that perceives the spiritual and soul-being in all the universe and in the human being himself. In that sense and to develop to its real completion, the fundamental striving for knowledge, this science of initiation springing from the needs and from the spirit of the age in which we live and whose tasks we have to accomplish.