Dornach, 20th September, 1924
Rudolf Steiner: Good morning, gentlemen! Has an interesting question occurred to someone?
Question: Sir, in reference to anthroposophy: what is it actually? What is its aim and its task in the world?
Dr. Steiner: The questioner wants to know what anthroposophy is and what its significance is for humanity in general. I think he means its significance also for the working class.
It is obviously difficult to speak briefly about these matters. Those who have been here for a considerable time will have become more and more convinced that anthroposophy is something that had to enter the evolution of humanity. Those who have not been here long will naturally have some difficulty and only gradually be able to understand.
First and foremost, we must realize that people are little inclined to accept something new when it comes into the world. Remarkable examples could be given of how new scientific discoveries have been received. Think, for instance, of the extent to which everything today has been affected by the discovery of the power of steam and the invention of the steam engine. Think what the world would be like today if there were no steam engines in their many different forms! When the steam engine was first invented, a small boat, driven by steam, made its way up a river and was smashed up by the peasants because they said they were not going to put up with such a thing; it was such a silly, useless thing! Nor has it always been the peasants who behaved in that way. When an account of meteorites was given for the first time in a learned assembly in Paris, the lecturer was declared to be a fool. And I told you recently about Julius Robert Mayer, who is regarded today as a most illustrious man and a very great scholar: he was shut up in an asylum!
The fate of the railroads has been particularly remarkable. As you know, they have not been in existence very long; they came into use for the first time in the 19th century. Before that, people had to travel by stagecoach. When it was proposed to build the first railroad between Berlin and Potsdam, the Director of Mallcoaches (see Note 33) said that two went empty from Berlin to Potsdam every week, so he couldn't imagine what use railroads would be. It didn't occur to him that once the railroads were there, more people would travel by them than by the stagecoach.
Even more interesting was the attitude of a body of medical men, (see Note 34) in the forties of the 19th century. When the railroad from Furth to Nuremberg was being built, these learned gentlemen declared that the work should be stopped, because the speed could very easily make a traveler ill by damaging his nerves. When the people refused to accept this ban, they were told that high plank walls must be erected on both sides of the tracks, in order to save the peasants from concussion of the brain when the trains passed! You can still read about this in delightful old documents. But despite all this opposition, the railroads made rapid headway. And anthroposophy, too, will make its way in the world, simply because it is a necessity, because nothing in the world can really be understood unless the spiritual foundation of things is recognized and known.
Anthroposophy has not come for the purpose of opposing natural science: it has come just because natural science is there. But science with its elaborate instruments and remarkably clever experiments has discovered a mass of facts which — in the way it presents them — cannot really be understood. Nor will they ever be understood until it is realized that the spiritual world is behind everything and within everything.
Let us take a very ordinary, practical matter: the eating of potatoes. Once upon a time there were no potatoes in Europe; they were introduced into Europe from foreign countries. It is maintained that Sir Francis Drake (see Note 35) introduced potatoes, but that is not correct; they were introduced from a different source. Yet in Offenburg there is a memorial statue of Drake. During the war we were once obliged to stop at Offenburg, and I was curious to find out why this statue had been erected. I looked in the encyclopedia and there it was: A memorial statue of Drake stands in Offenburg because he was the man who first brought potatoes to Europe.
But now what about potatoes? Suppose a scientist or a doctor were asked to say what effect potatoes have when they are eaten. As you know, potatoes have become a staple. In some places it is very difficult to dissuade the people from feeding almost exclusively on them. What does the modern scientist do when he tests potatoes for their nutritional value? He makes a laboratory investigation to find what substances are contained in the potato. He finds carbohydrates, which consist of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen in definite proportions; he also discovers that in the human body these substances are finally transformed into a kind of sugar. But he gets no further than that; nor can he do so. For think of this: if some animal is fed on milk, it may thrive. But if the milk is analyzed for its chemical components and if these chemical components are given to the animal instead of the milk, it will waste away for lack of nourishment. Why is that? It is because something is working in the milk in addition to the chemical components. And in the potato, too, there is something more than the mere chemical components: namely, the spiritual element. A spiritual element works everywhere, in all of nature.
If in spiritual science (anthroposophy is, after all, only a name) genuine investigation is made into how the potato nourishes the human being, the potato is found to be something that is not completely digested by the digestive organs, but it passes into the head through the lymph glands, through the blood, in such a way that the head itself must also serve as a digestive organ for the potato. When potatoes are eaten in large quantities, the head becomes a kind of stomach and also digests.
There is a very great difference between eating potatoes and, for instance, good, wholesome bread. When wholesome bread is eaten, the material part of the rye or wheat is digested properly and healthily in the digestive tract. And consequently only what is spiritual in the rye or wheat comes into the head, where it belongs.
This kind of knowledge can never be derived from natural science. When things are genuinely investigated with respect to their spiritual quality, it becomes apparent that in this modern age humanity has been seriously injured by the excessive consumption of potatoes. Spiritual science finds that the eating of potatoes has played a very large part in the general deterioration of health in recent centuries. That is a crude example of how spiritual science can investigate the excellent results of natural science by taking them as the basis for its research.
But there is something else as well. Every substance in the world can be examined to determine its spiritual quality. That is the only way in which real remedies for illnesses can be discovered. So spiritual science provides a very definite foundation for medicine as well.
Spiritual science is only an extension of natural science; it is by no means something that refutes natural science. And besides that, we have in spiritual science something that investigates the spiritual in a scientific way and therefore does not ask people simply to believe things that are said. Matters of faith are thus replaced by scientific inquiry.
It must also be said that in all provinces science acquires a certain amount of knowledge. Humanity cannot, of course, concern itself with scientific details, but every individual ought at least to know something about the essential things in the world.
I'd like to tell you something that will show you how important it is to be able to recognize how the spirit actually works. In the year 1773, a rumor suddenly spread in Paris that a distinguished scholar (see Note 36) was to give a lecture in a certain learned Society, in which he would prove that a comet was about to collide with the earth and destroy it. In those days it was believed that such a thing could be proven exactly and scientifically. So at that time, in the 18th century, when superstition was still rife, a terrible panic spread through the whole of Paris. If we read the records of what happened in Paris at that time, we find that there were enormous numbers of miscarriages: the women gave birth prematurely out of sheer terror. People who were seriously ill, died; others became ill because of fright. There was terrific agitation throughout Paris because it became known that a learned man would announce in a lecture the coming collision of a comet with the earth and the consequent destruction of the earth. The police — who, as you know, are ever on the alert — forbade the lecture, so the people never discovered what the professor had intended to say. But there was anxiety nevertheless! You may now ask: Was the professor who wanted to give the lecture right or wrong?
Well, the matter is not quite so simple as that. For since Copernicus propounded his new theory of the universe, everything has become a matter of calculation, and the calculations at that time led to the following conclusion: The sun is taken to be the center of the universe; then come Mercury, Venus, Moon, Earth, and Mars, then the planetoids, then Jupiter, then Saturn. And now the comets and their orbits. And now think of it: the earth is circling and men can calculate when it will reach a certain point where the comet will be approaching it. Bang! — according to the calculations-they will collide. And at that time, gentlemen, they would actually have collided — only the comet was so small that it dissolved in the air! Not exactly in the air over Paris, but somewhere else. The calculation was therefore quite correct, but there was no ground for anxiety.
In the year 1832 there was an even stranger story. For then it was calculated that a comet — it was the Biela comet — was about to cross the earth's orbit and would pass quite near to the earth. This comet was not such a midget as the other, and was likely to be more dangerous. But the calculation turned out happily, for it showed that when the comet would be passing the earth it would still be 13,000,000 miles away — and that's at least a tiny bit away, don't you think? So there was no need to fear that the earth would be demolished. But even so, the people were very alarmed at the time, because heavenly bodies are mutually attracted to each other, and it had to be expected that the comet would cause great convulsions in the oceans and seas through the force of gravity, and so on. Nothing very special happened-there was, it is true, a general unrest in nature, but nothing of particular interest. The comet was 13,000,000 miles away — the sun is thirteen times farther away — so no harm was done to the earth at that time.
In 1872, when I was a boy living with my parents at a small railroad station, we were always reading in the papers: “The world is going to be destroyed!” — for the comet was due to appear again. Certain comets always do return, and this one, on its return, would now be nearer to the earth and therefore more dangerous. This remarkable comet had already come in 1845/46 and again in 1852 — but it had then split in two! Each half had become more rarefied in consequence of the split. And what was there to be seen in 1872? Something like a gleaming rain of shooting stars, a great number of shooting stars! The comet had indeed come nearer but it had split and was throwing off rarefied matter that came down like shining rain. Everyone could see it, for when such a tremendous array of shooting stars occurs in the night, they can be seen coming down from the sky. And some people who saw this happening believed that the Day of judgment had come. Again there was great alarm. However, the shooting stars dissolved in the atmosphere.
Now think of this: If the comet had remained whole, our earth would have suffered badly in the year 1872. As I said, papers reached our station announcing the imminent destruction of the earth. The astronomers had calculated the time. According to scientific reckoning this was quite correct. And it really would not do to put on record how many people at that time paid large fees to their priests — to be safely absolved from their sins. In 1773 too, in Paris, the father-confessors had made a great deal of money because the people wanted to be absolved from their sins immediately!
There was an astronomer called Littrow (see Note 37) who made a noteworthy calculation about what would have happened if things had remained as they were in the year 1832, that is, if the comet had not split up as it subsequently did. In the 19th century it was still thirteen million miles away from the earth, but every time it came it came closer. Littrow reckoned quite correctly that in September 1872 there would be the danger of the comet colliding with the earth. If the comet had then reached the point which as a matter of fact it did not actually reach in that year until November 27th, it would not just have been a matter of meteor showers but it would have been a serious matter. Such things do indeed happen. Littrow calculated that in 1933 (we are now in 1924), if the comet had remained as it still was in the 18th century, a collision would be inevitable and the earth would be demolished. The calculation was correct to the breadth of a hair. But the comet had not remained as it was! And so already at that time people could say: The comet has been merciful, for if it were still fiery, in 1933 it would be striking the earth in such a way that all the seas would surge from the equator to the North Pole and the whole earth would perish. Yes, the comet split up and it threw off the substance that had become too heavy for it, in the form of meteor stones that are not harmful.
So you see, we are living at a time when we can say: If that comet had not been merciful, none of us would be sitting here today! That is a fact. What has finally happened is this: The comet no longer appears as a comet, but on those dates when in the ordinary course of events it would have appeared, there are always showers of meteors. Gradually through the centuries it is throwing off its entire substance. Soon it will no longer be visible because it will have given up its substance to the universe and to the earth.
But now I want to show you the other side of this matter. It is obvious that in the process of human evolution man's spiritual faculties are constantly changing. Those who do not believe this simply do not understand the spiritual evolution of mankind. For think of it: All our modern discoveries would have been made long ago if men had possessed the same spiritual faculties that they possess today. In ancient times their spiritual faculties were not less, but they were different. I have explained this to you in the most various ways, also in answer to questions on the subject.
And now to return to the comets. The comet of which I've been speaking is not the only one that was merciful enough to split up and dissolve in cosmic space at the right time. There is a large number of other comets that have done the same. A great deal of superstition has always been connected with the subject of comets. Anthroposophy approaches the matter in an absolutely scientific way.
But now, what will happen if we go on developing in the same direction as we are developing today? Mankind is now so dreadfully clever! Just compare a man of today with all his cleverness, with all that he has learnt in school, with someone living in the 12th or 13th century, when very, very few people could write. Think of this: there is a beautiful poem by Wolfram von Eschenbach, (see Note 38) who was a nobleman of the 13th century. He composed the poem, but he could not write, so he was obliged to call in a priest to whom he dictated it. And that poem was the “Parzival” from which Wagner composed his opera. So you see, in those days people had different faculties. We need to go no further back than the 12th or 13th century. At that time a nobleman could not write. Wolfram von Eschenbach could read but not write.
These faculties of ours do not come to us ready-made; they are developed. And if we continue our present way of living, when between the ages of seven and fourteen we are crammed with scientific knowledge of every kind – there is, of course, a good side to this as well — we'll gradually all suffer from something that was previously quite unknown and that is now so prevalent. We'll all suffer from what you call “nerves”, from nervous illnesses. This shows you that those wise doctors in the forties of the last century who believed so “stupidly” that people would not be able to live if railroads were built, were — from the knowledge they had — not so stupid after all! For everything they knew at that time convinced them that if a man travels in trains, he will eventually become utterly incapable of work, lose his memory, exhaust his nerves and become shaky and abnormally restless. The science of their day justified them in their conviction. Moreover, what they said was correct, absolutely correct.
But there is one thing they left out of account. People have indeed become more nervous. You yourselves, when you get home from work, are not quite like the people of the thirties and forties of the last century who would simply put on their nightcaps in the evening and be snug and cozy without any trace of “nerves”. The world has certainly changed in this respect. But what was it that those Nuremberg doctors could not know at that time? They could not know that while they were learning all these things from their science, the comet was already in the process of dissolving. And what has the comet done? It gives us the meteors, the fine meteor rain. Instead of colliding with the earth and breaking people's heads it is giving all its substance away, and this substance, every piece of it, is in the earth. Every few years the comet gives something to the earth. And people who want to live by science alone and who will not admit that the earth receives something from the cosmos are every bit as stupid as someone who would say that when a person eats a piece of bread, it is not in him. Obviously, what the comet gives us is in the earth, but science takes no notice of it. Where, then, is it to be found? It goes into the air, is passed from the air into the water, from the water into the roots of the plants, from the roots of the plant into the food on our tables. From there it passes into our bodies. We eat what the comet has been giving us for centuries! This, however, has long been spiritualized. Instead of the comet putting an end to the earth in 1933, its substance has long been in the earth as a means of earthly nourishment, and it is a remedy, a cosmic remedy: it alleviates nervous troubles in human beings.
There, you see, you have a little piece of history. The comets appear out there in the heavens, and after a time they find their way into us out of the earth. By that time their substance has become spiritualized.
Such things play a real part in human life. History can no longer be presented as it is still being presented by those who want to be philistines; account must now be taken of what is going on in the world spiritually. That is possible only when light is shed upon the world through anthroposophy. You may say: Oh, well, life will go on just the same. All that comet business shows that it doesn't matter if we're stupid, and there is no need for us to bother about it! Although people want to be enlightened, in practice they are dreadfully fatalistic, thinking that everything in the world will go on “as it is meant to.” Well, perhaps — but there is also the opportunity either to take up a true science or to ignore it.
You recall, gentlemen, that for years I gave lectures to workers. (see Note 39) And I often called attention to a splendid lecture given by Lassalle (see Note 40) in 1863 entitled “Science and the Worker”. I don't know whether there is still any widespread knowledge of it, but in the meantime I've grown older and I've witnessed the rise of the labor movement. From my parents' house in the early seventies of the last century I could look out the window and watch the first Social Democrats — they still wore big hats, “democratic hats” — marching out into the woods where they held their meetings. So I've seen all stages in the development of the movement. At that time Lassalle was still greatly venerated; wherever workers' meetings took place, busts of him were displayed. Today these things have been more or less forgotten, for fifty years have elapsed since then. I was ten or eleven years old at the time, but I was already paying attention to what was happening. Lassalle had given this lecture, Science and the Worker, about eight or nine years earlier. In it he had stressed that science is absolutely crucial for the solution of the whole labor problem and that out of science the workers have developed a social outlook that has occurred to no one else. In a certain sense this was an extremely important thing that he said.
But now think what has happened since that time. I ask you: Are you satisfied? Can you be satisfied with the way the labor problem has developed, with the form it has taken? Are there not many widespread complaints about the way the workers are tyrannized by their labor unions and so forth? These things are in the air and the worker is aware of them. But what he does not perceive is where these conditions come from. Where do they come from? The answer is that in very fact the solution of the labor problem cannot be found without science. Formerly, these problems were solved through religion and the like; today they must be dealt with by means of science. But this requires genuinely scientific thinking — which was nowhere to be found because attention was invariably riveted upon matter, and science itself was sheer materialism. Nothing that is contained in our social problems will ever be solved until science becomes spiritual again.
This can happen only when science is prepared to look for the spiritual element in every single thing — whether it be a potato or a comet. For spiritual knowledge alone enables us to investigate the true connections of things. The true connections of social problems, too, can only be discovered through spiritual knowledge. These connections must be fully understood; and when they are, it will be found that the things which have been brought into prominence through Marxism, for example, were extremely well-meant, but they were based upon an erroneous science. I will show you in what respect this was the case. Nothing that is based on an erroneous science can really prosper.
Marx's arguments and calculations are uncommonly astute, uncommonly clever, and cannot be denied, because the principles upon which he bases them are from a science that is purely materialistic. Everything tallies, just as it tallied for the astronomers who calculated that the comet would collide with the earth in 1773, but then actually the comet had dissolved to such an extent that no harm was done to the earth! (This was the earlier, not the later comet.) The conclusions reached by Marx are based upon an equally meticulous but equally incomplete science.
One of his calculations was the following. He said: When a man is working, he uses up inner forces. The forces are given up to his work and in the evening he is fatigued. During the day he has used up a definite quantity of force or energy. Naturally, the worker needs something that enables his forces to be restored. It can be calculated with exactitude how much pay will make it possible for the worker to restore his forces. Yes, but along these lines expounded by Marx, does one really get at the right and proper wage for labor? The question is: Does one get at it in that way? Obviously, up to now no great progress has been made in this direction, but the fact is that it simply cannot be got at in that way — because although the science itself is admirable, it is untrue.
Think of someone who does no work the whole day long, someone who has private wealth. He can go for walks, or he can move from one armchair to another — and from morning till night he's using up his forces just the same. I've noticed at workers' concerts that those who had been working all day were much less fatigued than the well-to-do people who had done nothing at all. The latter kept yawning, while the others were bright and lively.
You see, there is an error in the calculation. The forces used up inwardly in our organism are not the ones we use in our outer work or labor. That is why the calculation cannot be based on scientific foundations. The whole matter must be approached in a different way; it must be based upon the intrinsic dignity of man, upon his rights as a human being, and so forth. The same applies in many other spheres. And the consequence is that science, as it has presented itself up to the present day, is responsible for dreadful confusion of thought, for ignorance in the social field.
Spiritual science will show you what nutritive value there is in potatoes, in cabbage, in salt, and so on. And then you can get at what the human being needs in order to be healthy and to thrive. You can only get at this through spiritual science, only on the basis of knowledge that comes from spiritual science. Then you can proceed to the study of social problems. And then the labor problem will look quite different. It will finally be given a sounder basis, because everything in connection with it will be looked at from a spiritual point of view.
People today simply don't understand how things are connected in this world; they believe everything goes on just as it is. But that is not true. People must understand how things in the world are constantly changing. And the greatest misfortune, one might say, is that in earlier times humanity was superstitious and now it is scientific! For little by little, superstition has crept into science itself. Today we have a natural science that is full of superstitions. People believe that when their stomach is full of potatoes, they have had a nourishing meal. The truth is that the health of their head is impaired, because the head itself then has to become a digestive organ.
Thus all problems should be dealt with in such a way that the spiritual aspect is not ignored as it has been for a long time now. It should be included in every consideration. In the sixties and seventies of the last century, people said: The worker must have science! — and rightly so. But it must be a true science. In those days it was not in existence. Now it is to be found in spiritual science, which has the name, anthroposophy. Anthroposophy refuses to put the cart before the horse as was done formerly. It will put spirit before matter, where it belongs. Then people will discover how things really are. And they will find proper educational methods. There will be a pedagogy that educates children as they really should be educated. Upon that, very much, very much indeed depends. And then human beings will find their right place in society.
In a single hour, naturally, I can give no more than hints; but we have arranged these lectures so that you could indicate by your questions what you want me to talk about. And so perhaps I should speak further on today's subject in the next session. Today I could only lay the foundation. But at least you have been able to glean something as to the real aim of spiritual science.
So we'll meet again next Wednesday.