Our bookstore now ships internationally. Free domestic shipping $50+ →

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

Original Impulses for the Science of the Spirit
GA 96

I. Original Impulses for the Science of the Spirit

29 January 1906, Berlin

Again and again we see how difficult it is for people today to understand theosophical life. I therefore intend to present some general ideas on the subject. The nature of theosophy is such that everyone who feels drawn to it hopes it will fulfil his deepest longing with regard to the spirit. Yet if we want to know the right core idea of theosophy for the present time, if we want to fill the whole of our conscious mind with the idea that the spiritual principle is something very real, then it is indeed time that we respect the dignity of the individual who is our neighbour. We acknowledge the individual principle, for as human beings endowed with sentient souls we would not permit ourselves to injure the outer person of someone else, nor would we permit ourselves to encroach on his personal freedom. But we have not yet reached the point and are still far from being able to extend such tolerance to the inmost reality of the human being. We are as yet far from being aware—at most we are so in theory, but certainly not in practice—that sentience and thought, the spiritual principle altogether, is something very real. Surely this is something you all understand. Everyone understands today that it is utterly and absolutely real when I slap someone. But people do not find it so easy to believe that it is something real to send bad thoughts to someone. We have to be aware that the bad thought I have about someone I meet—antipathy, hatred—is like a slap in the face to his soul. A negative inner response, feelings of hatred and lack of love for others are truly the same as the ordinary external injury inflicted on someone. It is only when you know this that you become a theosophist.

If we let ourselves be wholly aware of this, if we understand that the spirit in ourselves is a reality, we have grasped the idea of theosophy, and such thinking will have an important consequence. People who are members of a cultured society will not slap each other in the face, they will not cause bodily harm to one another. But I need not tell you the thoughts, the opinions held by people sitting side by side in our cultured society. You know it. It is the function of the Theosophical Society to make people aware of the need for sympathy and the inviolability of the person. If you have seven people sitting together in our present day and age—a time when people are above all concerned to have opinions, views—they will have thirteen opinions, and because of those thirteen opinions they would really like to split up into thirteen factions. That is the consequence of differences in opinion. The theosophical movement must replace this difference of opinion with the deep-down idea of brotherhood. We only grasp theosophy, this idea of brotherhood, fully when we are able to sit together in brotherhood even if other thoughts we have show the greatest possible differences. We want not only to respect and honour the individual nature of the other person, wholly aware of and acknowledging his full human dignity, but also to acknowledge to the very depth of our souls the inner life of our fellow human being.

This means, however, that we have to remain sitting on our chairs and stay with the other person even if opinions differ to an extreme degree. No one should leave the theosophical community, the theosophical brotherhood, because of a difference of opinion. This is indeed the special quality of theosophists, that they remain brothers even if they are not of the same opinion. Unless we come together in the spirit of brotherhood we shall not be able to bring a core idea of theosophy to realization. For this alone makes it possible to let the deepest secrets that lie dormant in people's souls emerge, abilities that lie deep down in our soul as though asleep. We have to understand that we can work together with others even if there are fundamental differences of opinion among us.

It was not for nothing that the Theosophical Society was founded in the last third of the 19th century.1The Theosophical Society had been founded by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott in New York in 1875. The way in which it seeks the spirit does differ markedly from those of endeavours in which others seek to gain proof of human immortality. There is a big difference in the search for the eternal as one sees it in the Theosophical Society and the search for the eternal in other movements that seek the spirit. The theosophical movement is in reality nothing but a popular form of the occult brotherhoods that existed secretly everywhere in the world through the millennia. I have mentioned before that the most outstanding, the greatest brotherhood founded in Europe in the 14th century, was the Rosicrucian brotherhood. This Rosicrucian brotherhood is really the source, the starting point for all other brotherhoods and has preserved the culture of Europe. Occult wisdom was taught in strict secrecy in these brotherhoods. To define the aims of the individuals who met in those many different brotherhoods I would have to speak of the great, sublime wisdom taught and of the study of this wisdom in those occult brotherhoods, with the Rosicrucian brotherhood the most outstanding among them.

The teaching and the work done in those brotherhoods enabled human beings to become aware of the eternal core of their being. They enabled human beings to make a connection with the higher world, with the worlds that are above our own, and to look for guidance to our elders, for the guidance of those who lived among us and had reached a level which all of you will reach at a later time. We call them the ‘elders’ because they have hastened ahead of general evolution and reached this high level before us. We thus have the certainty of the eternal core of our being, and of its awakening so that human beings will be able to gain sight of the eternal just as ordinary people do of the world perceived through the senses. To achieve this, they must follow in the footsteps of the elders who live among us everywhere. These elders or ‘masters’, the great guides of humanity, have always been the most important leading figures among humanity, always the most important leading figures in the sublime occult wisdom through which man becomes aware of the eternal core of his being. Up to the middle of the 19th century people wishing to be received into such an occult brotherhood had to go through stringent examinations and trials. Admission would only be granted to individuals whose character guaranteed that the sublime wisdom taught would never be used for base purposes. They also had to have the kind of intelligence that ensured that they would understand anything given to them in the occult brotherhoods in the right way and give it the right meaning.

People had to meet these conditions, giving a full guarantee that they were in a position and had the right attitude to receive the most sublime teaching in life if they wanted to be members of such a brotherhood. People may be little inclined to believe it, but everything truly great that happened up to the French Revolution and into the 19th century came from those occult brotherhoods. People were not aware how much they were influenced by the streams that came from the occult brotherhoods. Let me describe a scene to show how those occult brotherhoods worked in this world. Let us take the following scene. A highly gifted, important man is quite unexpectedly visited by a seemingly unknown person. This unknown person knows how to arrange things so that a conversation develops between him and the important person, a statesman, for example. All of this in the most natural way and quite by ‘chance’, though we have to put the word ‘chance’ in quotes. The conversation is not just about anything, for in the course of it things are said that without his realizing it enter into the mind, the intellect of the individual who is being visited. Such a discussion, which may perhaps take no more than three hours, then brings about a complete change in the individual concerned. Believe it or not, but that is how many great ideas that played a major role in the world were implanted in human minds. Voltaire's great ideas were stimulated in this way, and he probably had no idea who it was that he spoke to, someone apparently utterly insignificant who nevertheless had important things to tell him. Some of Rousseau's2Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (1712–78), French philosopher, educationalist and author. basic ideas were established in this way; and so were Lessing's.3Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim (1729–81), German writer.

This kind of influence coming from occult brotherhoods gradually died away in the course of the 19th century. The 19th century was of necessity the century of materialism. The occult brotherhoods had withdrawn. The great masters of wisdom and of harmony in the sentient soul4Figures of supreme importance in human evolution. These sublime spirits have already walked the road which the rest of humanity still has to travel. They are now working as ‘the great masters of wisdom and harmony in man's inner responses.’ (From a letter Rudolf Steiner wrote to a member, Berlin, 20 January 1905). See also lecture of 24 August 1911 in Wonders of the World (GA 129); lecture of 26 December 1909 in Festivals of the Seasons (GA 117); The Christian Mystery. Novalis the Seer, Berlin 22 Dec. 1908 (GA 108). withdrew to the East, if we may use a technical term. They no longer influenced the West. And then something of special significance happened in the West. Let us consider this, so that we may get a clear understanding of the significance of the Theosophical Movement.

It was in 1841 that people who were members of the most secret society realized that something important was about to happen in Europe. To contain the flood waters of materialism, it was necessary to direct a stream of spiritual life into humanity. This was the time when a certain difference of opinion arose, initially among occultists. Some would say that humanity was not yet ripe to receive spiritual facts and experiences, and that the system of silence should be maintained. These were the conservatives. The system has much to be said for it, for the dissemination of occult truths holds great dangers. Others would say that the danger of materialism was too great and something had to be done against it, so that at least the most elementary knowledge should be conveyed to humanity. But—in what form? People had completely got out of the habit of grasping the spirit in its true form, they were no longer able to rise into higher worlds in any real way, they no longer had an idea of them, so that such a world actually no longer existed for them. How could one teach a human race which only understood materialism and show that there is also the spirit? Why was it so important to help humanity gain awareness of the world of the spirit?

Here we touch on one of the important secrets that lie dormant in our age. I have indicated on a number of occasions why we have a Theosophical Movement, and why it is needed. Anyone able to look into the world of the spirit knows that everything which exists in outer material terms has its origin in the spirit, comes from the spirit. There is nothing material that does not come from the spirit. The health and sickness people know in outer terms thus also comes from their way of looking at life, from their thoughts. The saying ‘What you think today you'll be tomorrow’ does indeed hold true. You have to understand that when people have bad, corrupt ways of thinking in one age, the next generation and the next age will have to pay for this physically. It is the truth that lies in the saying of visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon the children for many generations.5Exodus 20:5 The fact that people began to think in such coarse material terms in the 19th century, turning their minds away from anything spiritual, did have its consequences. What people thought then will be fulfilled. And it will not be long before strange diseases and epidemics will appear in our human world. Nerviness, as we call it, will take on serious forms not more than half a century from now. Just as there was the plague once, and cholera, and leprosy in medieval times, so there will be epidemics in the inner life, diseases of the nervous system taking epidemic form. These are the very real consequences of the circumstance that people lack a spiritual core to their life. Where someone has awareness of this vital core at the centre, he will grow healthy under the influence of a sound, true and wise way of seeing the world. But materialism denies the soul, denies the spirit; it hollows people out, focusing them on the periphery, on the outside. Health is only possible if the inmost core of the human being is spiritual and true. The very real disease that follows when the inner human being is hollowed out—that is the epidemic in mind and spirit which we now face.

We have a Theosophical Society in order that people may be given awareness of the spiritual core of their being. It exists above all to bring health to humanity, and not in order that one person or another knows something or other. It is not a matter of you knowing—I mean merely knowing—that reincarnation and karma exist. What matters is that these ideas become the very life blood of the soul, the spiritual core of our being, for they are sound. It is not a matter of proving or disproving them, nor of founding a science where reincarnation and karma are presented in strictly mathematical terms. There is only one proof of what is taught in the science of the spirit, and that is life itself. The teaching of spiritual science will prove to be true when healthy life develops under its influence. This will be the proof of what is taught in theosophy. If you want to have proof of theosophy, you must live theosophy; then it will show itself to be true. Every step and every day must gradually give us proof of the truths taught in the science of the spirit.

This, then, was the reason why a Theosophical Society came into being. But how could one teach 19th-century materialists that there is a spirit? The spiritualist movement then came up. It came up exactly because people did not think it possible to teach humanity that there is something which is of the spirit; one had to show the spirit, to see it with one's own eyes. In Stuttgart someone asked why theosophists were unable to give Haeckel solid proof that there is a spirit. You see, solid evidence was to be provided as to the spirit. People first tried to do this with the aid of spiritualism. They tried for decades, right into the 1860's and 1870's. But then an awkward situation arose. Let us take a look at it. It will show you the difference between the theosophical way of rising to higher worlds and any other approach that is used. We are not for the moment concerned with the truth or untruth of spiritualist phenomena. It is evident that phenomena exist that bring spirits from other worlds into our world, so that definite proof can be furnished even for people who will only accept what they can perceive through the senses. We have grown out of the foolishness of saying that a lot of cheating goes on in spiritualism. Yes, there is false coin, but there is also true coin. We'll leave the truth issue aside for now.

But does one learn from attending a seance? We assume—leaving all else aside—that we are dealing with genuine revelations. If one has been presented with the apparition of someone dead, this is definite proof of the immortality of the human soul. It has been physical proof, one is able to convince oneself that the dead are still there in some world or other, and that they can even be called into our world. But it shows us that just to know this is of no real account; it is not what matters. Let us assume you have all been convinced in this manner, with a dead person brought into this group in a seance. You would then know that the human soul is immortal. But the question is, does such knowledge have real significance in a higher sense for the true higher life of man? At first people thought that would be the case. They thought people could be taken one step higher if they knew that there is immortality. But this is the point where the view held in the science of the spirit differs quite distinctly from one where all one is given is visible proof of immortality.

Here is a kind of analogy. I have spoken of all kinds of higher worlds before. I have told you what it is like in the astral world and the devachan,6A Sanskrit and Tibetan compound noun meaning 'go country'; the corresponding Christian term is ‘heaven’. and you know that after death the human being must first enter the astral world and then the devachan world. Let us now assume that many of the people sitting here say: ‘What he's telling us is something we cannot believe. It is too improbable.’ People who do not believe it, who go away and do not come back, would really have to prove their point of view entirely on their own. But with those who come back, even though they do not believe these things, it does not matter at all. I would say to those who come back: ‘Don't believe anything I say. You do not have to believe anything. That is quite immaterial. You may even consider it to be humbug, or think I am telling you something that comes from an utterly fantastic realm—but do listen and take it in.’ That is what matters.

Imagine I were to draw you a map of Asia Minor. Someone might come along and say: ‘The rivers and mountains he is drawing there are nonsense.’ I would then say to him: ‘I do not mind in the least that do you not believe me. But look at it, and keep it in mind. When you go to Asia Minor, you will find that it is true, and you'll then know your way about.’ What really matters—also for astronomers—is to go to higher realms, map in hand. That is what matters. And that is also true for knowledge of a higher world. We can only really enter into it if we take something of its essential nature into ourselves. So when I speak of the astral, you must take in something of the nature and the ways of that swaying, mobile character of the astral world, and when I speak of the devachan, you must take in something of the peculiar nature of that world which is so much the opposite of our own world. if you just make a connection with these ideas and a feeling comes alive in you for those higher realms, you will get a feeling for the state of awareness we have when the astral world surrounds us, for the state of awareness when the devachan world is around us. If you enter in a living way into the states a seer experiences as he rises into those worlds, this is something different from having solid proof that you can come across something or other in life. That is the difference between the method used in the science of the spirit and all other ways of gaining certainty of the spirit's existence.

With theosophy we seek to rise into the higher worlds so that we shall be able to gain direct sentient awareness of the spiritual, so that we have a breath of the higher worlds whilst still in the physical world. The spiritualists' approach, which I have described to you, is to bring the world of the spirit down into the physical, put it here before us, as if it were material. The theosophist seeks to raise the human world to the sphere of the spirit. The spiritualist says: ‘If the spirits are to be shown to be real, they must come down to me. They have to tickle me, as it were, then I can perceive them through the sense of touch.’ The theosophist goes up towards them, he seeks to come closer to them; he seeks to develop inwardly, so that he may understand the things of the spirit.

It may help to use a simple analogy. It is difficult enough, in present circumstances, to rise to the level of some higher spirits who have incarnated in the flesh. Imagine Christ Jesus were to appear in our midst today. How many people do you think would accept him? I won't say that some would call the police if someone were to make the claims today that Christ Jesus once made. But it all depends on people being ready to see what is going on right beside them.

Another analogy. A singer arrived a bit late for a dinner invitation.7The singer was Therese Devrient (1803–82). Her memoirs were published in Stuttgart in 1905. Her chair between two gentlemen had remained empty. One of them was Felix Mendelssohn, who was a friend of hers, the other was someone she did not know. She talked happily to Mendelssohn; the gentlemen on her left was very agreeable, paying her all kinds of compliments which she did not like, however. She therefore asked Mendelssohn: ‘Who is the silly fellow sitting on my other side?’ ‘That is Hegel, the famous philosopher,’ Mendelssohn replied. If she had been invited to meet Hegel she would no doubt have behaved differently. But having no idea as to who he was as she sat beside him, she took him for something of a fool.

Believe me, it is perfectly possible for you to come across one of the masters and take him for something of a fool. We can only recognize these higher spirits incarnated in the flesh if we have made ourselves capable of doing so. People would not recognize Christ Jesus if he were to come down among us today, unless he showed himself in the way they would imagine him to be. It is the aim of theosophy to develop and transform human beings, making them able to recognize the higher worlds. And this is a problem for the awareness we have in our present civilization. What matters is not that the principle which lives in higher worlds descends to us but that we ascend towards it. We need to develop the ability to ascend to higher worlds. This alone will make it possible for us to reach the higher worlds in a worthy way when we depart from this world at our death. Someone who has a map of Asia Minor can find his way around there, a map created out of life itself. If we know about the things that await us over there, we are going to enter into a world that we know, knowing what may be found there.

Mere knowledge of such a world does not mean much, however. Here we are on the threshold of a great mystery, and another fact that is of the utmost significance. It was because of this fact that European and American occultists decided to abandon the spiritualist approach in the 1870's and start the theosophical movement. The great occultist conference held in Vienna at that time provided a major impulse towards this change of tactic.

To initiate the spiritualist movement it had been necessary to establish a number of procedures. These procedures, established in countries where people were educated, had come from American occultists or lodges. The spiritualistic approach was decided on in those lodges. It consisted in offering particular groups the opportunity to galvanize certain dead people and thus furnish solid proof of immortality. This means that initially the astral corpses of certain dead people on the astral plane were sent to spiritualist groups, into the physical world. They were to give proof of immortality. Now we may ask: ‘Is it right for occultists on earth to make the dead appear?’ It is true there is no border between dead and alive for those who do occult work. They are able to visit the dead in the astral world and in the devachan. If they want to they can indeed—as I have told you—furnish proof of immortality in spiritualist groups. Please take note of this and remember it. It would not make much sense to anyone who is not well versed in these things. But it was different for the occultists. It was found that this way of gaining conviction of immortality was not only worthless but in some respects extraordinarily harmful. This way, where people did not become better people but were given solid evidence of immortality in the physical world, was not only worthless but in fact quite harmful, the reasons being as follows.

Imagine people who have gained proof of immortality in this way then abandoning their longing to gain access to the higher world. They would have become materialists also as regards the world of he spirit. They knew themselves to be spiritualists, but in their way of thinking they were nothing but materialists. They believed in a world of the spirit, but thought it could be seen with the aid of the senses and not by spiritual means. It was then found that when individuals with such materialistic ways of thinking came to kama loka8A compound noun that may be translated as ‘desire world’; the Christian equivalent is ‘purgatory’. they were even less able to recognize things over there than the materialists were. The materialists generally believed themselves to be in a dream world; this usually happens when one gets there. The materialist thinks he is dreaming and that he'll wake up any moment. The human being sees himself in kama loka—he dreams, he sleeps, he wants to wake up.

For someone who has become convinced of the spiritual world's existence and now finds that this world does look very different after all, it is not the case that he just finds himself in a dream world. The difference between what he thought the spiritual world to be and what he now perceives it to be is like a lead weight to him. Remember, human beings have enough to contend with as it is when they reach kama loka, especially being unable to satisfy their desires. Gourmets for instance could only gain such satisfaction when they still had their tongue or their senses, and now they will no longer have them. It will then feel as if they were parched with thirst, or in a burning furnace.

The feeling is not exactly like that of parching thirst, but it is similar. If you consider everything human beings have to experience and go through over there, one might sum it up in the words: ‘He has to get used to living without a body.’ This is, however, difficult for anyone who is much attached to the sensual sphere. It is not really very difficult for anyone who has tom himself away from the sensual sphere. Someone who has done nothing to raise his soul higher, to develop it further, will know this difference between the spiritual and the sensual; it will be like a difference in weight, as though he were weighed down with a leaden weight. The spiritual and the sensual need different ways of perception, and the individual concerned expects the spiritual to be material and tangible. Over in the world of the spirit he finds, however, that the astral is very different by nature. The difference feels like a weight that threatens to drag him down again into the physical world, and that is the worst thing.

These are the reasons why the masters of wisdom abandoned the method used in the 1850s, 1860s and early 1870s to give certainty of the higher world. They abandoned this method and decided on the theosophical path of development to give access to the world of the spirit. Essentially this is based on two things. One is that it is most eminently necessary to create a spiritual core [other set of notes: spiritual centre] so that humanity will be protected from new diseases affecting mind and spirit. The other is to make it possible for humanity to develop to a higher level and reach the higher world rather than draw the higher world down to themselves. Instead of dragging the higher world down to us, we must be raised into the higher world. Rightly understood, this gives you an idea of, a feeling for, the true mission of the theosophical movement. In this sense the theosophical movement sets us the task of developing to higher and higher levels, so that we may grow into the world of the spirit. Then, I think, the idea of brotherhood will come to us absolutely of its own accord. We would no longer want to go off in different directions. People only go apart for as long as they want to be completely on their own on this physical plane. In reality we are only separate whilst on the physical plane. As soon as we rise to the higher world we do become aware of brotherhood in the spirit; spiritual unity comes to awareness.

I have tried on several occasions to speak to you of this brotherhood in the spirit, at least in ideas for the intellect. It is so beautifully expressed in the words: ‘This is you.’ Let us think of this. As I told you before, if you cut off my hand, in a very short time it will no longer be my hand. It can only be my hand if it is part of my organism; otherwise it is no longer a hand; it shrivels up. As a human being you are such a hand belonging to the earth organism. Imagine you are raised a few miles above the earth. There you cannot live as a physical human being, you cease to live as a human being. You are part of this earth just as my hand is part of my body. The illusion of being independent creatures arises because you walk around on this earth, whereas the hand is attached to the body. But that does not matter. Goethe was referring to something very real when he spoke of the earth spirit. He meant to say that the earth has a soul and we are its members. He spoke of something real when he wrote the following lines for the earth spirit:

In life's floods, in roaring activity
I move up and down,
Going hither and thither.
Birth and the grave,
Weaving to and fro
Creating ardent life,
I work the rushing loom of time
Weaving the godhead's living garb.9Goethe, Faust 1, Night scene.

And so even the physical human being is part of the earth organism, part of a whole. And now think about the soul and the spirit—there it is exactly the same. I have so often said that humanity would not be able to live if it had not developed further against the background of the other realms on earth. In the same way the more highly developed human being cannot exist without the less developed one. A spiritual principle cannot exist without those that have remained behind, just as a human being could not exist if it were not for the fact that the animals have remained behind, and an animal cannot exist without the plant, nor the plant without the mineral. This is brought most beautifully to expression in the gospel of John after the washing of the feet: ‘I could not be, were it not for you...’10There is a gap here in the text as it was taken down. The disciples were a necessity for Jesus, the soil that fed him. This is a great truth. Just look into a court of law—a judge sitting on the bench, feeling superior to the accused. But the judge might reflect and say to himself that they may well have been together in an earlier life when he did not fulfil his obligations to the accused and this has made him the way he now is. If the judge's karma were investigated it might turn out that he should really be sitting in the dock. The whole of humanity is an organism. If you tear out at a single human being, that human being cannot continue but will shrivel up. A common bond unites us all. We will begin to understand this when we seek to develop the faculties we need for the higher world, so that we may truly rise and find the core in us that is the essence of the spirit. If that essence of the spirit lives in us it will lead us to brotherhood. This exists already on the higher planes. On earth we have only an image of it. Brotherhood here on earth is but an image of what exists on the higher planes. We deny something that already exists in us if we do not cherish brotherhood among ourselves here on earth.

That is the deeper meaning of the brotherhood idea. And we must therefore seek to bring the theosophical ideas to realization more and more, in such a way that we understand the other human being in his very depth of soul, and that we stay together as brothers however great the differences of opinion. That is true togetherness, true brotherhood, where we do not ask that the other individual should be in harmony with us by thinking the same way, but allow every individual to have his own opinion. Then the greatest wisdom will be achieved as we work together. This is a more profound view of our first theosophical principle. If we take our idea of brotherhood to be such that we say to ourselves: ‘We belong together, whatever the circumstances, and however much someone's views may differ from our own. Differences of opinion can never be a reason for us to separate.’ We shall only fully understand one another if we let each other be as we are. I know this view of theosophical brotherhood is still a long way off, and it cannot take effect until the theosophical idea has taken root in this sense, in this style.