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GA 307

III. Greek Education and the Middle Ages

Ilkley, 7th August, 1923

When I attempted to bring before you the Greek ideal of education, it was with the object that this ideal should stimulate ideas which ought to prevail in our modern system of education. For at the present stage of human life it is, of course, impossible to adopt the same educational methods as the Greeks. In spite of this, however, an all-embracing truth in regard to education can be learned from the Greek ideal, and this we will now-consider.

Up to the seventh year of life, the Greek child was brought up at home. Public education was not concerned with children under the age of seven. They were brought up at home, where the women lived in seclusion, apart from the ordinary pursuits of social life, which were an affair of the men. This in itself is the reinforcement of a truth of education, without knowledge of which one cannot really educate or teach, for the seventh year of life marks an all-important stage of childhood.

The main phenomenon characteristic of the seventh year of human life is the change of teeth. This is an event to which far too little importance is attached nowadays. For think of it, the nature of the human organism is such that it brings the first teeth with it as an inheritance, or, rather, it brings with it the force to produce these first teeth which are discarded at the seventh year. It is incorrect to imagine that the force which pushes up the second teeth at about the seventh year unfolds for the first time at this age. It is developing slowly from birth onwards, and simply reaches its culmination at about the seventh year of life. Then it brings forth the second teeth from the totality of force in the human organization. This event is of the most extraordinary importance in the course of human life as a whole, because it does not occur again. The forces present between birth and the seventh year reach their culmination with the appearance of the second teeth, and they do not act again within the entire course of earthly life. Now this fact should be properly understood, but it can only be understood by an unprejudiced observation of other processes that are being enacted in the human being at about this seventh year of life Up to the seventh year the human being grows and develops according to Nature-principles, as it were. The Nature-forces of growth, the being of soul and the spiritual functions have not yet separated from one another in the child's organization; they form a unity up to the seventh year. While the human being is developing his organs, his nervous system and his blood circulation, this development betokens the evolution of his soul and spirit. The human being is provided with the strong inner impulsive force which brings forth the second teeth because everything in this period of life is still interwoven. With the coming of the second teeth, this impelling force weakens. It withdraws somewhat; it does not work so strongly from out of the inner being. Why is this? Now suppose new teeth were to appear every seven years. (I will take an extreme illustration for the sake of clarity.) If the same organic forces which we bear within us up to the seventh year, if this unity formed of body, soul and spirit were to continue through the whole of life, new teeth would appear approximately every seven years! The old teeth would fall out and be replaced by new ones, but throughout our whole life we should remain children as we are up to the seventh year. We should not unfold the life of soul and spirit that is separated off from the Nature-life. The fact that the physical force decreases in the seventh year and the bodily pressure and impulses to a certain extent grow less — for the body now produces more delicate forces from itself — makes it possible for the subtler forces of soul life to develop. The body grows weaker, the soul stronger, as it were.

A similar process also takes place at puberty, in the fourteenth or fifteenth year. The element of soul now weakens to a certain extent and the spiritual functions make their appearance. So that if we take the course of the first three life-periods: up till the seventh year man is pre-eminently a being of body-soul-spirit in one, from the seventh to the fourteenth years he is a being of body-soul with a separate nature of soul and spirit, and from puberty onwards he is a threefold being, a physical being, a being of soul and a being of spirit.

This truth opens up deep vistas into the whole evolution of the human being. Indeed, without knowledge of it we really ought not to venture upon the education of children. For unless we realise the far-reaching consequences of this truth, all education must necessarily be more or less a dilettante affair.

The Greek — and this is the amazing thing — knew of this truth. To the Greek, it was an irrevocable law that when a boy had reached his seventh year he must be taken away from his parents' house, from the mere Nature-principles, the elementary necessities of upbringing. This knowledge was so deeply rooted in the Greeks that we do well to remind ourselves of it to-day. Later on, in the Middle Ages, traces of this all-important principle of education still existed.

The modern age of rationalism and intellectualism has forgotten all these things, and, indeed, even takes pride in showing that it places no value on such truths, for the child is usually required to go to school at an earlier age, before the end of the seventh year. We may say, indeed, this departure from such eternal principles of human evolution is typical of the chaos obtaining in our modern system of education. We must rise out of this chaos. The Greek placed so high a value on this truth that he based all education upon it. For all that I described yesterday was carried out in order to ground education upon this same truth.

What did the Greek see in the little child from birth to the time of the change of teeth? A being sent down to earth from spiritual heights! He saw in man a being who had lived in a spiritual world before earthly life. And as he observed the child he tried to discover whether its body was rightly expressing the divine life or pre-earthly existence. It was of importance for the Greek that in the child up to the seventh year he should recognize that a physical body is here enclosing a spiritual being who has descended. There was a terribly barbaric custom in certain regions of Greece to expose and thus kill the child who was instinctively believed to be only a sheath, and not expressing a true spiritual being in its physical nature; this was the outcome of rigid regard to the thought that the physical human being in the first seven years of life is the vesture of a divine-spiritual being.

Now when the child passes its seventh year — and this, too, was known in Greece — it descends a second stage lower. During the first seven years the child is released from the heavens, still bearing its own inherited sheaths, which are laid aside at the seventh year, for not only the first teeth but the whole body is cast off every seven years — cast off for the first time, that is to say, in the seventh year. In the first seven years of life the bodily sheaths revealed to the Greek what the forces of pre-earthly life had made out of the child. The child was thought to bear its earthly sheaths proper, its first earthly sheaths, only from about the seventh to the fourteenth years onwards.

I am trying now to express these things as they were conceived of by the highest type of Greek. He thought to himself: I reverence the Divine in the little child, hence there is no need to concern myself with it in the first seven years of life. It can grow up in the family in which the Gods have placed it. Supersensible forces from pre-earthly life are still working in it. When the seventh year is reached it behoves man himself to become responsible for the development of these forces. What must man do, then, when he knows how to pay true reverence to the Divine in the human being? What must he do as regards education? He must develop to the highest extent the human faculties that have unfolded in the child up to the seventh year. The Divine power, the way in which the spiritual expresses itself in the body — this must be developed to the greatest possible extent. Thus the Gymnast had perforce to be convinced of the necessity to understand the Divine power in the human body and to develop it in the body. The same healing, life-sustaining forces which the child possesses from pre-earthly existence, and which have been fostered in an elementary way up to the change of teeth — these must be preserved from the seventh to the fourteenth year by human insight, by human art. Further education must then proceed wholly in accordance with Nature. And so all education was ‘gymnastic’ because the divine education of the human being was seen as a ‘gymnastic.’ Man must continue the ‘divine gymnastic’ by means of education.

This was more or less the attitude of the Greek to the child. He said to himself: If through my intuition I am able to preserve in freshness and health the forces of growth which have developed in the child up to the seventh year, then I am educating in the very best way; I am enabling the forces which are there by nature up to the seventh year to remain throughout the whole of earthly life, right up to death. To see that the “child” in the human being was not lost till death — this was the great and far-reaching maxim of Greek education. The Greek teacher thought: I must see to it that these forces between the seventh and fourteenth years — the forces of childhood — remain living throughout the whole of his earthly life, right up to death. A far-reaching and deeply significant principle of education! And all gymnastic exercises were based on the perception that the forces present up to the seventh year have in no way disappeared, but are merely slumbering within the human being and must be awakened from day to day. To waken the slumbering forces between the seventh and the fourteenth years, to draw forth from the human being in this second period of life what was there by nature in the first period — this constituted Greek gymnastic education. The very glory of his culture and civilization arose from the fact that the Greek, by a right education, was at pains to preserve the ‘child’ in the human being right up to death. And when we wonder at the ‘glory that was Greece,’ we must ask ourselves: Can we imitate this ideal? We cannot, for it rests upon three factors, without which it is unthinkable.

These three factors must be remembered by the modern educationalist when he looks back to Greece. The first thing to remember is the following: — These principles of education were only applied to a small portion of mankind, to a higher class, and they presuppose the existence of slavery. Without slavery it would not have been possible to educate a small class of mankind in this way. For in order to educate thus, part of man's work on the earth fell to the lot of those who were left to their elemental human destiny, without education in the true Greek sense. Greek civilization and Greek education are alike unthinkable without the existence of slavery. And so the delight of those who look back with inner satisfaction on what Greece accomplished in the evolutionary history of mankind is tempered with the tragic realization that it was achieved at the cost of slavery. That is one factor.

The second factor is that of the whole position of woman in Greek social life. The women lived a life withdrawn from the direct impulses at the root of Greek civilization, and it was this secluded life that alone made it possible for the child to be left, up to the seventh year, to the care of the home influences, which were thereby given full scope. Without any actual knowledge, but merely out of human instincts, the child was led on by the elemental forces of growth to the time of the change of teeth. One may say it was necessary that the child's life up to this point, should, despite its different nature, proceed just as unconsciously in the wider environment of the family, detached from the mother's body, as when the embryonic life had proceeded through the forces of Nature. This was the second factor.

The third is really a paradox to modern man, but he must, none the less, grow to understand it. The second point — the position of women in Greece — is easier to understand, for we know from a superficial observation of modern life that between the Greek age and our own time women have sought to take their share in social life. This is a result of what took place during the Middle Ages. And if we still wanted to be as Greek as the Greeks were, with the interest in conscious education confined exclusively to men, I wonder how small this audience would be if it were only made up of the men who were allowed to concern themselves with education!

The third factor lies deeper down, and its nature makes it difficult for modern civilization to acknowledge that we have to attain our spiritual life by human effort, by work. Anyone who observes the spiritual activities of civilized life will be obliged to admit that as regards the most important domain of civilized life, we must count upon what we shall achieve in the future by effort. Observing all the human effort which has to be spent on the attainment of a spiritual life in present-day civilization, we look with some astonishment at the spiritual life of the ancient Greeks and especially of the ancient Orientals. For this spiritual life actually existed. A truth such as that of the part played in human life by the seventh year, a truth which modern man simply does not realise, was deeply rooted in Greece. (Outer symptoms indicate its significance but modern culture is very far from understanding it.) It was one of the mighty truths that flowed through ancient spiritual life. And we stand in wonder before this spiritual life when we learn to know what wisdom, what spiritual knowledge was once possessed by man.

If, without being confused by modern naturalistic and materialistic prejudices, we go back to early civilization, we find, at the beginning of historical life a universal, penetrating wisdom according to which man directed his life. It was not an acquired wisdom, but it flowed to mankind through revelation, through a kind of inspiration. And it is this that modern civilization will not acknowledge. It will not recognize that a primal wisdom was bestowed spiritually upon man, and that he evolved it in such a way that, for instance, even in Greece, care was still taken to preserve the ‘child’ in man until the time of earthly death. Now this revelation of primeval wisdom is no more to be found — a fact deeply connected with the whole evolution of man. Part of man's progress consists in the fact that the primal wisdom no longer comes to him without activity on his part but that he must attain to wisdom through his own efforts. This is connected in an inner sense with the growth of the impulse of human freedom which is at present in its strongest phase. The progress of humanity does not ascend, as is readily imagined, in a straight line from one stage to another. What man has to attain from out of his own being in the present age, he has to attain at the cost of losing revelation from without, revelation which locked within itself the deepest of all wisdom.

The loss of primeval wisdom, the necessity to attain wisdom by man's own labours, this is related to the third factor in Greek education. Thus we may say: Greek education may fill us with admiration but it cannot be dissociated from these three factors •; ancient slavery, the ancient position of woman, and the ancient relationship of spiritual wisdom to spiritual life. None of the three exist to-day nor would they now be considered worthy of true human existence. We are living at a time when the following question arises: How ought we to educate, realizing as we do that these three a priori conditions have been swept away by human progress? We must therefore observe the signs of the times if we desire to discover the true impulse for our modern education from inner depths.


The whole of the so-called mediaeval development of man which followed the civilization of Greece and has indeed come right down to modern times, proved by its very nature that in regard to education and methods of teaching, different paths had to be struck from those of Greece, which were so well-fitted to that earlier age. The nature of man had, indeed, changed. The efficacy and reliability of Greek education were an outcome of the fact that it was based upon ‘habit’ — upon that which can be built into the very structure of the human body.

Up to the change of teeth in the seventh year, the development of man's being is inwardly connected with the body. The development of the bodily functions, however, proceeds as though unconsciously. Indeed it is only when the faculties work unconsciously that they are right; they are reliable only when what I have to do is implanted into the dexterity of my hands and is accomplished of itself, without need for further reflection.

When practice has become habit, then I have achieved securely what I have to achieve through my body. The real aim of Greek life was to make the whole earthly existence of man a matter of ‘habit’ in this sense. From his education onwards until his death, all man's actions were to become habitual, so habitual that it should be impossible to leave them off. For when education is based on such a principle as this, the forces which are natural to the child up to the change of teeth, up to the seventh year, can be maintained; the child forces can be maintained until earthly life ends with death.

Now what happened when through historical circumstances new peoples pouring over from the East to the West founded a new civilization during the Middle Ages, and established themselves in Middle Europe and in the West, even in America? These peoples assimilated the qualities natural to the Southern regions but their coming brought quite different habits of life to mankind. What was the result of this? It set up the conditions for a totally different kind of development, a development of the individual. In this time, for example, men came to the conscious realization that slavery ought not to be; to the realization that women must be respected. At this time it also became apparent as regards the evolution of the individual, in the period between the seventh and fourteenth year, when development is no longer of a purely bodily nature but when the soul is to a certain degree emancipated from the body that the child in this period was not now susceptible of being treated as in earlier times. In effect, the conservation of the forces of early childhood in the boy between the ages of seven and fourteen that had been practised hitherto was no longer possible.

This is the most significant phenomenon of the Middle Ages and right up to modern times so far as this second period of life is concerned. And only now for the first time do we see the powerful forces of revolt which belong to the period when the fourteenth and fifteenth years have been passed, the period during which human nature rises up most strongly in revolt, when indeed it bears within itself the forces of revolt.

How did this revolt in human nature express itself? The old primeval wisdom which flowed down naturally to the Greeks came to be in Roman and Mediaeval tradition something that was only preserved through books, through writing. Indeed it was only believed on the authority of tradition. The concept of Faith as it developed during the Middle Ages did not exist in very ancient civilizations, nor even in the culture of the Greeks. It would have been nonsense in those times. The concept of Faith only arose when the primeval wisdom no longer flowed directly into man, but was merely preserved. This still applies fundamentally to the greater part of humanity to-day. Everything of a spiritual, super-sensible nature is tradition. It is ‘believed,’ it is no longer immediate and actual. Nature and the perception of Nature this is an actuality, but all that refers to the super-sensible, to super-sensible life, is tradition. Since the Middle Ages man has given himself up to this kind of tradition, thinking at times it is true that he does in fact experience these things. But the truth is that direct spiritual knowledge and revelation came to be preserved in written form, living from generation to generation as a heritage merely on the authority of tradition. This was the outer aspect. And what of the inner aspect? Let us now look back once again to Greece. In Greece, faculties of soul developed as of themselves because the whole human being acquired habits of life whereby the ‘child’ was preserved in man till death. Music proceeded from the breathing and blood circulation, intellect from gymnastic. Without being cultivated, a marvellous memory evolved in the Greeks as a result of the development of the habits of the body. We in our age have no longer any idea of the kind of memory that arose, even among the Greeks, without being cultivated in any way, and in the ancient East this was even more significant. The body was nurtured, habits formed, and then the memory arose from the body itself. A marvellous memory was the outcome of a right culture of the body.

A living proof of the fact that we have no conception of the kind of memory possessed by the Greeks, a memory which made it so easy for the spiritual treasures to be handed down and become a common good, is the fact that shorthand writers have to attend when lectures are given which people want to remember! This would have seemed absurd in Greek civilization, for why should one wish to keep that which one has manifestly thrown away? It was all preserved truly in the memory, by the proficiency of the body. The soul developed itself out of this bodily proficiency. And because of this self-development she stood in contrast to that which had arisen from revelation — the primeval wisdom. And this primal spiritual wisdom disappeared, grew to be mere tradition. It had to be carried from generation to generation by the priesthood who preserved the traditions. And inwardly man was forced to begin to cultivate a faculty which the Greek never thought of as a necessity. In education during the Middle Ages it became more and more, necessary to cultivate the memory. The memory absorbed what had been preserved by tradition.

Thus, historical tradition outwardly and remembrance and memory inwardly, had to be cultivated by education. Memory was the first soul quality to be cultivated when the emancipation of the soul had taken place. And those who know what importance was attached to the memory in schools only a short while ago can form an opinion of how rigidly this cultivation of the memory — which was the result of an historical necessity — has been preserved.

And so through the whole of the Middle Ages education tosses like a ship that cannot balance itself in a storm, for the soul of man is the most hard of access. To the body man can gain access; he can come to terms with the spirit, but the soul is so bound up with the individuality of man that it is the most inaccessible of all.

Whether a man found the inner path to the authorities who preserved the tradition for him, whether his piety was great enough to enable him to receive the words in which the mediaeval priest-teacher inculcated the tradition into humanity, all this was an affair of the individual soul. And to cultivate the memory, without doing violence to another man's individuality, this needs a fine tact. What was necessary for the soul-culture of the Middle Ages was as much heeded by tactful men as it was ignored by the tactless. And mediaeval education swung between that which nourished the human soul and that which harmed it in its deepest being. Although men do not perceive it, very much from this mediaeval education has been preserved on into the present age.

Education during the Middle Ages assumed this character because, in the first place, the soul no longer wished to preserve the ‘child;’ for the soul itself was to be educated. And on account of the conditions of the times the soul could only be educated through tradition and memory. Between the seventh and the fourteenth years the human being is, as it were, in a certain state of flux. But the soul does not work in the same condition of security as is afforded by the bodily constitution up to the seventh year and the direction imparted by the spirit has not yet come into being. Everything is of a very intimate character, calling for piety and delicacy.

All this brought it about that for a long period of human evolution education entered upon an uncertain and indefinite course in which, while tradition and memory had to be cultivated, there were extraordinary difficulties. To-day we are living at a time when, as a result of the natural course of development, man desires a firm foundation in place of the insecurity obtaining in the Middle Ages. And this search for other foundations expresses itself in the innumerable efforts towards educational reform in our time. It is out of recognition of this fact that Waldorf School education has arisen. Waldorf School education is based upon this question: How shall we educate in a time when the revolt in the soul between the seventh and fourteenth years of life against the conservation of ‘childhood’ is still going on? How shall we educate now that man, in addition to that, has in the modern age lost even the old mediaeval connection with tradition? Outwardly man has lost his faith in tradition. Inwardly he strives to be a free being, one who at every moment shall confront life unhampered. He does not wish to stand on a memory foundation all his life long. Such is modern man, who now desires to be inwardly free of tradition and of memory. And however much certain portions of our humanity to-day would like to preserve ancient customs, this is not possible. The very existence of the many efforts for educational reform indicates that a great question is facing us. It was impossible in the Middle Ages to educate in the Greek way, and in our times education can no longer be based on tradition and memory. We have to educate in accordance with the immediate moment of life in which man enters upon earthly existence, when he, as a free being, has to make his decision out of the given factors of the moment. How, then, must we educate free human beings? That is the question which now confronts us for the first time.


As the hour is getting late, I will bring these thoughts to a conclusion in a few words and postpone until tomorrow's lecture the consideration of the methods of education that are necessary at the present day.

In Greek education, the Gymnast must be recognized as one who preserved the forces of childhood on into the second period of life between the seventh and the fourteenth or fifteenth years. The ‘child’ must be preserved, so said the Greeks. The forces of childhood must remain in the human being up to the time of earthly death; these forces must be conserved. It was the task of the Greek educator, the Gymnast, to develop the fundamental nature, the inherited fundamental nature of the child in his charge, on into the period between the seventh and the fourteenth years of life. It was his task to understand these forces out of his spiritual wisdom and to conserve them. Evolution in the Middle Ages went beyond this, and, as a result, our present age developed. Only now does the position of a modern man within the social order become a matter of consciousness. This fact of conscious life can only come into being after the age of puberty has been reached, after the fourteenth or fifteenth year. Then there appears in the human being something which I shall have repeatedly to describe in the following lectures as the consciousness of inner freedom in the being of man. Then, indeed, man ‘comes to himself.’ And if, as it sometimes happens to-day, human beings believe themselves to have reached this consciousness before the fourteenth or fifteenth years, before the age of puberty, this is only an aping of later life. It is not a fundamental fact. It was this fundamental fact, which appears after the age of puberty, that the Greek purposely sought to avoid in the development of the individual man. The intensity with which he invoked Nature, the child, into human existence, darkened and obscured full experience of this glimpse of consciousness after puberty. The human being passed in dimmed consciousness through this imprisoned ‘Nature,’ this reality. The historical course of human evolution, however, is such that this is no longer possible. This conscious urge would burst forth with elemental, volcanic force after the age of puberty if attempts were made to hold it back.

During what we call the elementary school age, that is to say, between the seventh and fourteenth years, the Greek had to take into consideration the earliest Nature-life of the child. We in our day have to take account of what follows puberty, of that which will be experienced after puberty in full human consciousness by the boy or girl. We may no longer suppress this into a dreamlike obscurity as did the Greeks, even the highest type of Greek, even Plato and Aristotle, who, in consequence, accepted slavery as a self-evident necessity. Because education was of such a kind that it obscured this all-important phenomenon of human life after puberty, the Greek was able to preserve the forces of early childhood into the period of life between the seventh and fourteenth years.

We must be prophets of future humanity if we would educate in the right way. The Greek could rely upon instinct, for his task was to conserve the foundations laid by Nature. We, as educationalists, must be able to develop intuitions. We must anticipate all human qualities if we would become true educators, true teachers. For the essential thing in our education will be to give the child, between its seventh and fourteenth years something which, when the consciousness characteristic of the human being has set in, it can so remember that with inner satisfaction and assent it looks back upon that which we have implanted within its being. We educate in the wrong way to-day if, later on, when the child has gone out into life, it can no longer look back on us and say, “Yes!”

Thus there must arise teachers with intuition, teachers who enter once again upon the path along which the spiritual world and spiritual life can be attained by man, who can give the child between the seventh and fourteenth years all those things to which it can look back in later life with satisfaction. The Greek teacher was a preserver. He said: All that lived within the child in earlier life slumbers within him after the seventh year, and this I must awaken. Of what nature must our education be to enable us to implant in the age of childhood that which later on will awaken of itself in the free human being? We have to lead an education into the future. This makes it necessary that in our present epoch the whole situation of education must be different from what it was in the past. In Greece, education arose as the result of a surrender to the facts of Nature. It was a fact of Nature which, as it were, played into human life, but as a result of the whole of life up to our time, it has worked itself cut of its natural foundations.

As teachers in schools, this is what we must realize: We must offer to the child before us something to which it may be able to cry “Yes!” when in later life it awakens to independent consciousness. The child must not only love us during schooldays, but afterwards too, finding this love for us justified by mature judgment. Otherwise education is only a half-education — therefore weak and ineffective. When we are conscious of this we shall realize to what a great extent education and instruction from being a fact of Nature that plays into the human being must also become a moral fact.

This is the deep inner struggle waged by those who from their innermost being have some understanding of the form which education must assume. They feel this, and it is expressed in the question: How can we ourselves transform education for the free human being into a free act in the very highest sense, that is to say, into a moral act? How can education become out and out a moral concern of mankind? This is the great problem before us to-day, and it must be solved if the most praiseworthy efforts towards educational reform are to be rightly directed on into the future.