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Background to the Gospel of St. Mark
GA 124

II. Higher Knowledge and Man's Life of Soul

24 October 1910, Berlin

In the last lecture I gave a survey of our studies during the past year and an indication of the purpose and spirit of those studies. I said that the whole spiritual-scientific Movement must be permeated by the same spirit which actuates our study, for instance, of the many aspects of the Christ-problem. In all our striving for knowledge we must display modesty and humility and it is of this humility that I want to speak a little more specifically.

I have often said that while an object can be depicted in some way by painting or photographing it from one side, it must never be claimed that such a picture is in any sense a complete presentation. We can get an approximate idea of an object if we look at it from several sides and gather the single pictures into one whole, but even in ordinary observation we have to go all round an object if we want to get a comprehensive idea of it. And if anyone were to imagine that he could obtain the whole truth about some matter relating to the spiritual world from a single glimpse of that world, he would be greatly mistaken. Many errors arise from failure to recognise this. The four accounts of the events in Palestine given by the four Evangelists are actually a safeguard against students taking such an attitude. People who do not know that in spiritual life an object or a being or an event must be contemplated from different sides will, with their superficial approach to truth, find apparent contradictions in the accounts of the individual Evangelists. But it has been repeatedly pointed out that the four accounts present the great Christ Event from four different aspects and that they must be viewed as a whole, just as we should have to do in the case of an object painted from four different sides. If we proceed with careful attention to detail, as we have tried to do in connection with the Gospels of St. Matthew, St. Luke and St. John and later on shall try to do with that of St. Mark, we shall see that there is wonderful harmony in the four accounts. The mere fact that there are four Gospels is a sufficient indication of the need to look at truth from four different sides.

During the past year I have often spoken of the possibility of discovering different aspects of truth. At our General Meeting last year I tried to supplement what is usually called `Theosophy' by another view which I called that of `Anthroposophy' and I showed how it is related to Theosophy. I spoke of a science based upon physical facts and upon the intellectual assessment of facts revealed to sense-observation. When this science deals with Man, we call it Anthropology, which comprises everything about Man that can be investigated by the senses and studied by means of rational observation. Anthropology, therefore, studies the human physical organism as it presents itself to the methods and instruments used by natural science. It studies the relics of prehistoric men, the tools and implements used by them and since buried in the earth, and then tries to form an idea of how the human race has evolved through the ages. It also studies the stages of development in evidence among savages or uncivilised peoples, starting from the assumption that these peoples are now at the stage of culture attained by civilised humanity in much earlier times. In this way Anthropology forms an idea of the various stages through which man has passed before reaching his present level.

A great deal more could be said to shed light on Anthropology. Last year I compared it to a man who gains his knowledge of a country by walking about on flat ground, noting the market-towns, the cities, woods and fields, and describing everything just as he has seen it from the flat countryside.

But there is a different point of view from which man can be studied, namely that of Theosophy. The ultimate aim of Theosophy is to shed light upon the nature and purpose of man. If you study my book, Occult Science, you will see that everything culminates in a description of man's true being. If Anthropology can be compared with a man who collects his facts and data by walking about on flat ground and then tries to understand them, Theosophy can be compared with an observer who climbs to a mountain-top and from there surveys the surrounding country, looks at the market-towns, the cities, the woods, and so on. Much that he sees on the ground below will be unclear and often he will see particular points only. The standpoint adopted by Theosophy is on a lofty level at which many of the qualities and idiosyncracies displayed by man in daily life become unclear, just as villages and towns are indistinct when they are viewed from the top of a mountain.

What I have just said will not, perhaps, be very enlightening to someone who is only beginning his study of Spiritual Science. He will try to understand and form certain ideas of the nature and being of man, of the physical, etheric and astral bodies and so on, but at first he will not come up against the difficulties that lie ahead when he tries to make progress in the deeper understanding of Spiritual Science. The greater the progress he makes, the more he recognises how difficult it is to find a connection between what has been attained on the heights of Spiritual Science and the feelings and perceptions of daily life.

Someone might ask why it is that spiritual truths seem illuminating and right to many people in spite of the fact that they are incapable of testing what they have been told from spiritual heights by comparing it with their own observations in everyday life. The reason is that there is an affinity between the human soul and truth. This instinctive, natural sense of truth is a reality and of untold value particularly in our own day, because the spiritual level from which essential truths can be seen is so infinitely high. If people had first to scale these heights themselves they would have a long road in the life of soul and spirit to travel and those unable to do so could have no sense of the value these truths have for human life. But once spiritual truths have been communicated, every soul has the capacity to assimilate them.

How is a soul which accepts these truths to be compared with one which is able actually to discover them? A trivial analogy can be chosen here, but trivial as it is it means more than appears on the surface. — All of us can put on our boots, but not all of us can make them; to do that we should have to be bootmakers. What we get out of the boots does not depend upon being able to make them but upon being able to put them to proper use. — This is precisely the case with the truths given us through Spiritual Science. We must apply them in our lives, even though we cannot ourselves discover them as seers. When we accept them because of our natural feeling for truth they help us to orientate our lives, to realise that we are not limited to existence between birth and death, that we bear within us a spiritual man, that we pass through many earth-lives, and so on. These truths can be absorbed and applied. And just as boots protect us from the cold, so do these truths protect us from spiritual cold and from the spiritual poverty we should experience if we were capable of thinking, feeling and perceiving only what the external sense-world presents to us. Spiritual truths are brought down from the heights for the use and benefit of all human beings, though there may be only a few who can actually find them, namely those who have trodden the spiritual path already described.

Any view of the world around us — which, when it is a question of studying Man is also the concern of Anthropology — shows us how this world itself reveals behind it another world which can be observed from the higher, spiritual standpoint of Theosophy. The sense-world itself can reveal another world if we do not just accept the facts with the intellect, but interpret them; when, that is to say, we do not move so far beyond the field of sense-perception as does Theosophy itself but stand as it were on the mountain-side where a wider view is possible without the details becoming unclear. This standpoint was characterised last year as that of Anthroposophy, showing that three views of Man are possible, namely the views of Anthropology, of Anthroposophy and of Theosophy.

This year, in connection with our General Meeting, the lectures on ‘Psychosophy’ — which will be as significant as those on Anthroposophy, only in a quite different sense — will show how, on the basis of its impressions and experiences, the human soul itself can be described in its relation to spiritual life. Later lectures on ‘Pneumatosophy’ will conclude this series and will show how our studies of Anthroposophy and Psychosophy merge into Theosophy. The aim of all this is to show you how manifold truth is. The earnest seeker discovers that the further he progresses, the humbler he becomes and also the more cautious in translating into the language of ordinary life the truths attained at higher levels. For although it has been said that these truths acquire value only when they are thus translated, we must realise that this translation is one of the most difficult tasks of Spiritual Science. There are very great difficulties in making what has been observed at high levels of the spiritual world intelligible to a healthy sense of truth and acceptable to sound reasoning.

It must be emphasised again and again that when Spiritual Science is studied in our Groups the object is to create this feeling for truth. We have not merely to grasp with the intellect what has been communicated from the spiritual world; it is much more important to experience it in our feelings and so acquire qualities which everyone who strives earnestly for spiritual truth should possess.

As we look at the world around us we can say that at every point it displays to us an outer manifestation of an inner, spiritual world. For us this is now a commonplace. Just as a man's physiognomy is an expression of what is going on in his soul, so all phenomena of the external sense-world are a physiognomical expression, so to speak, of a spiritual world behind them. We understand sense-perceptions only when we can see in them expressions of the spiritual world. When by following his own path to knowledge a man cannot reach the stage at which spiritual vision is possible, he has only the material world before him, and he may ask whether his study of the material world provides any confirmation, any evidence, of communications based upon spiritual vision.

This search for evidence is always possible but it will have to be carried out with precision and not superficially. If, for example, you have followed my lectures and have read the book Occult Science, you will know that there was a time when the Earth and Sun were one, when Earth and Sun formed one body. If you bear in mind what I have said, you will agree that the animal forms and plant forms on the Earth to-day are later elaborations of those already in existence when the Earth and the Sun were one. But just as the animal forms of to-day are adapted to the conditions prevailing on the present Earth, so must the animal forms of that earlier epoch have been adapted to the conditions of the planetary body of Earth plus Sun. It follows that the animal forms which have survived from those times are not only survivors but developments of creatures which were already then in existence but could not, for instance, have possessed eyes: for eyes have purpose only when light is streaming in upon the Earth from outside, from the Sun. Accordingly, among the different creatures belonging to the animal kingdom there will be some which developed eyes after the Sun had separated from the Earth, and also animal forms which are survivors from the time when Sun and Earth were still united. Such animals will have no eyes. They would naturally belong to the lower species of animals. And we find that such creatures actually exist. Popular books tell us that animals below a certain stage of evolution have no eyes. This is confirmed by Spiritual Science.

The world around us, the world in which we ourselves live, can therefore be pictured as the ‘physiognomical’ expression of the spiritual life weaving and working behind it. If man were simply confronted by this sense-world and it did not anywhere reveal to him that it points to a spiritual world, he could never feel longing for that world. There must be a point in the sense-world where a longing for spiritual reality springs up, some point where the spiritual streams as through a door or window into the world of our everyday life. When does this happen? When does a spiritual reality light up in us? As you will know from lectures given by me and by others as well, this happens when we experience our own ‘I’, our own Ego. At this moment we actually do experience something that has a direct relation with the spiritual world. Nevertheless this experience of the ‘I’ is at the same time very meagre. It is as it were a single point amid all the phenomena of the world. The single point which we express by the little word, ‘I’, does indeed indicate something truly spiritual but this has contracted into a point. What can we learn from this spiritual reality that has contracted into the point, into the ‘I’? Through experiencing our own ‘I’ we can know no more of the spiritual world than has contracted into this single point unless we widen the experience. Nevertheless this point does contain something of great importance, namely that through it we are given an indication of the process of cognition that is necessary for knowledge of the spiritual world.

What is the difference between experience of the ‘I’ and all other experiences? The difference is that we are ourselves actually within the experience of the ‘I’. All other experiences come to us from outside.

Someone may say: ‘But my thinking, my willing, my desires, my feelings — I myself live in all that.’ In regard to willing, however, a man can convince himself by a very simple act of introspection that he cannot be said to be actually within it. The will is something that seems to be driving us on, as if we were not within it; our actions seem to be due to the pressure of some thing or some incident from outside. And it is the same with our feelings and with most of our thoughts in everyday life. How little we are really within our thinking in everyday life can be realised if we try conscientiously to note how dependent it is upon education, upon the conditions we have encountered in life. This is the reason why human thinking, feeling and willing vary so greatly in different nations and in different periods. Only one thing remains the same in all nations, in all regions and in all societies: it is the experience of the ‘I’.

Let us now ask in what this experience of the ‘I’ really consists. The matter is not as simple as it might appear. You may easily think, for instance, that you experience the ‘I’ in its real nature. But this is by no means so. We do not actually experience the ‘I’ itself but only a mental concept, a mental picture, of it. If we could really experience the ‘I’, it would present itself as something raying out on all sides to infinity. Unless the ‘I’ could confront itself as an image in a mirror, even though the image is only a point, we could not experience the ‘I’, nor could the ‘I’ create a mental picture of itself. What man experiences of the ‘I’ is a mental picture of it; but that is sufficient, for it differs entirely from every other picture in that it is identical with its original. When the ‘I’ makes a mental picture of itself it is concerned with itself alone and the picture is only the return of the ‘I’ experience into itself. There is a kind of obstruction, as if we wished to check the experience and compel it to return into itself; and in this return it confronts itself as a mirror-image. Such is the experience of the ‘I’.

It can therefore be said that we recognise the experience of the ‘I’ in the mental picture of it. But this mental picture of the ‘I’ differs radically from all other mental pictures, all other experiences which we may have. For all other mental pictures and all other experiences we need something like an organ. This is obvious in the case of outer sense-perceptions. In order to have the mental picture of a colour we must have eyes. It is quite obvious that we must have organs through which ordinary sense-perceptions reach us. You may think that no organ is necessary for what is so intimately related to our inmost self. Here too, however, you can quite easily convince yourselves that you do need an organ. You can find more precise details in my lectures on Anthroposophy; at the moment I am making it possible for you to hear in theosophical terms what was presented in those lectures rather for the benefit of the general public.

Suppose that at some period in your life you grasp a thought, an idea. You understand something that confronts you in the form of an idea. How can you understand it? Only through those ideas which you have previously mastered and made your own. You can see that this is so from the fact that when a new idea comes to a man it is accepted in one way by one person and differently by another. This is because the one person has within him a greater number of ideas than the other. All our old ideas are lodged within us and confront the new idea as the eye confronts the light. A sort of organ is formed from our own previous ideas; and for anything not formed in this way in the present incarnation we must look to earlier incarnations. This organ was formed then and we confront new ideas with it. We must have an organ through which to receive all experiences that come to us from the outer world, even when they are spiritual experiences: we never stand spiritually naked, as it were, in face of what comes to us from the external world, but we are always dependent upon what we have become. The only time we confront the world directly is when we attain a perception of the ‘I’. The ‘I’ is always there, even while we sleep, but perception of it has to be aroused every morning when we wake up. If during the night we were to journey to Mars, the conditions surrounding us would certainly be very different from those on the Earth — indeed everything would be different — except the perception of the ‘I’. This is always the same because no external organ is needed for it, not even an organ for concepts. What confronts us here is a direct perception of the ‘I’ in its true form. Everything else comes before us as a picture in a mirror and conditioned by the structure of the mirror. Perception of the ‘I’ comes to us in its own intrinsic form.

In fact we can say that when we have a mental picture of the ‘I’, we are ourselves within it and it is in no sense outside us. And now let us ask how this unique perception of the ‘I’ differs from all other perceptions. The difference lies in the fact that in the perception, the mental picture of the ‘I’, there is the direct imprint of the ‘I’, and in no other perception is this the case. But from everything around us we get pictures which can be compared with the perception of the ‘I’, for through the ‘I’ we transform everything into an inner experience. If we are to see any meaning or significance in the external world it must become a mental picture in us. Thus we form pictures of the external world which then live on in the ‘I’, no matter which organ is the channel for a sense-experience. We may smell some substance; when we are no longer in direct contact with it we still carry an image within us of the smell. The same is true of a colour we have seen; the pictures or images which come from such experiences remain in our ‘I’. The characteristic feature of all these pictures or images is that they come to us from outside. All the pictures which, as long as we live in the world of the senses, we have been able to unite with our ‘I’, are the relics of impressions received from the sense-world. But there is one thing the sense-world cannot give us — namely, perception of the ‘I’. This arises in us quite spontaneously. Thus in perception of the ‘I’ we have a picture which rises up within ourselves, contracted into a point.

Think now of other mental pictures which have not arisen from any external stimulus given by the senses but arise freely in the ‘I’ like the concept of the ‘I’ itself, and are consequently formed in the same manner. Images and pictures if this kind arise in the astral world. There are, then, mental pictures which arise in the ‘I’ without our having received any impression from outside, from the sense-world.

What distinguishes the images or pictures we derive from the sense-world from the rest of our inner experiences? Images derived from the sense-world can remain with us as images of experiences only after we have come into contact with that world; they become inner experiences although they were stimulated by the outer world. But what experiences of the ‘I’ are there that are not directly stimulated by the outer world? Our feelings, desires, impulses, instincts and so on, are such experiences. Even if we ourselves are not actually within these feelings, impulses, etc., in the sense already described, it must nevertheless be admitted that there is something which distinguishes them from the images that remain with us as a result of what our senses have perceived. — You can feel what the difference is. An image derived from the outer world is something that is at rest within us, that we try to retain as faithfully as possible. But impulses, desires and instincts represent something that is active within us, something that is an actual force.

Now although astral pictures arise without the external world having played any part, something must nevertheless have been in action, for nothing can exist as an effect without a cause. What causes a sense-image is the impression made by the outer world. What causes an astral picture is what lies at the root of desires, impulses, feelings, and so on. In ordinary life to-day, however, man is protected from developing in his feelings a force strong enough to cause pictures to arise which would be experienced in the same way as the picture of the ‘I’ itself. The significant feature of modern man's soul is that its impulses and desires are not strong enough to create a picture of what the ‘I’ sets before them. When the ‘I’ confronts the strong forces of the external world it is stimulated to form pictures. When it lives within itself, in a normal man it has only one single opportunity of experiencing an emerging picture, namely, when the picture is that of the ‘I’ itself.

Impulses and desires are therefore not strong enough to create pictures comparable with the ‘I’-experience. If they are to work strongly enough they must acquire a certain quality, a most important quality that is inherent in all sense-experiences. Sense-experiences do not behave just to suit us: if, for instance, someone lives in a room in which he hears an irritating noise, he cannot get rid of it by means of his impulses and desires. Through a mere impulse or desire nobody can turn a yellow flower into a red one because he prefers it. It is characteristic of the sense-world that its manifestations are quite independent of us. This is certainly not true of our impulses, desires and passions which are entirely consonant with our personal life. What, then, must happen to them in the process of intensification that is necessary to make them into pictures? They must become like the external world which does not consult our wishes in regard to its structure and the production of sense-images but compels us to give to the image we make the form imparted to it by the surrounding world.

If pictures of the astral world are to be correctly formed a man must be as detached from himself, from his personal sympathies and antipathies, as he is from sense-images he forms of the outer world. What he desires or wishes must be a matter of complete indifference to him. In the last lecture I said that this requirement simply means the complete absence of egoism. But this must not be taken lightly. It is no easy matter to be without egoism.

The following must also be borne in mind. Our interest in what comes to us from the outside world is vastly different from our interest in what arises within ourselves. The interest a man takes in his inner life is infinitely greater than his interest in the external world. You certainly know people who, when they have transformed something in the external world into an image, are apt to make it conform with their subjective feelings. Such people often spin the wildest yarns even when they are not actually lying, and believe what they say. Sympathy and antipathy always play a part here and create delusions about the external reality, causing the subsequent image to be distorted. But these are exceptional cases, for a man would not get very far if he were himself to create delusions in his daily life. There would be perpetual clashes with the circumstances of outer existence, but willy-nilly he is bound to acknowledge the truth of the external world; reality itself puts him right. It is the same with ordinary sense-experiences: the external reality is a sound corrective. This is no longer the case when a man begins to have inner experiences: it is not so easy for him then to let the external reality set him right and he therefore allows himself to be influenced by his own interests, his own sympathies and antipathies.

If we aspire to penetrate into the spiritual world, it is all-important for us to learn to confront our own self with the same absence of bias with which we confront the external world. In the ancient Pythagorean schools this truth was formulated in strictly precise terms, particularly for the department of knowledge concerned with the question of immortality. Think of all the people who are interested in the subject of immortality. It is normal for men to long for immortality, for a life beyond birth and death. But that is a purely personal interest, a personal longing. You will not be particularly interested if a tumbler gets broken; but if people had the same personal interest in the continued existence of a tumbler, even if broken, as they have in the immortality of the soul, you may be sure that most of them would believe in the immortality of a tumbler!

For this reason it was felt in the Pythagorean schools that no-one is really ready to know the truth about immortality unless he could endure it if he were told that man is not immortal and his question whether man is immortal had to be answered with a ‘no’. If immortality is to mean anything for a man himself in the spiritual world, then — so said the teacher in the Pythagorean schools — he must not yearn for it; for as long as a man yearns for immortality, what he says about it will not be objective. Weighty opinions about the life beyond birth and death can come only from those who could contemplate the grave with equal calm if there were no immortality. This was the teaching in the Pythagorean schools because it was essential that the pupils should understand how difficult it is to be mature enough to face the truth.

To state a truth on the basis of this maturity calls for very special preparation, which requires us to be entirely uninterested in its implications. Especially with regard to immortality, more than other problems, it is quite impossible to think that many people have no interest in the subject. Of course there are people who have been told about reincarnation and the eternity of man's existence, in spite of the fact that they are by no means disinterested. Everyone can take in the truth and use it for the benefit of life — including those who have not the task of formulating it themselves. There is no reason to reject a truth because one does not feel ready for it. On the contrary, it is quite sufficient for the needs of life to receive the truth and dedicate one's powers to its service.

What is the necessary complement to the reception of truths? They can be received and assimilated without misgiving even if we are not completely ready for them. But the necessary complement is this. — To make ourselves ready for truth with the same ardour with which we long for it in order to have inner peace, contentment and a sure footing in life, and at the same time to be cautious in proclaiming higher truths ourselves — truths which can only be confirmed in the spiritual world.

An important precept for our spiritual life can be gained from this. We should be receptive to anything we need and apply it in life; but we should be duly suspicious of truths we ourselves proclaim, especially if they are connected with our own astral experiences. This means that we must be particularly careful about making use of astral experiences at points where we cannot be disinterested, especially at the point where our own life comes into consideration.

Let us assume that through his astral development a man is mature enough to ascertain something that will be his destiny tomorrow. That is a personal experience. He should, however, refrain from making investigations in the book of his personal life for there he cannot possibly be disinterested. People may ask why it is that clairvoyants do not try to ascertain the time of their own death. The reason is that they could never be wholly disinterested about such a happening and they must hold aloof from everything relating to their personal concerns. We can only investigate in the spiritual worlds, with any hope that the results will have objective validity, matters which we are quite sure are unrelated to our personal concerns. A man who resolves to promulgate only what is objectively valid, apart altogether from his own interests, must never speak about anything that concerns or affects himself as the result of investigations or impressions from a higher world. He must be quite certain that his personal interests have played no part whatever in these results. But it is extremely difficult for him to be quite sure of this.

It is therefore a fundamental principle at the beginning of all spiritual aspirations that efforts should be made not to regard as authoritative anything that affects one personally. Everything personal must be strictly excluded. I need only add that this is extremely difficult to do: often enough when one thinks that everything of a personal nature has been excluded it proves not to have been so. For this reason, most of the astral pictures which appear to people are nothing more than a kind of reflection of their own wishes and passions. These spiritual experiences do no harm at all as long as people are strong-minded enough to remind themselves that they must be suspicious of them. Only when that strength of mind fails, when a man comes to regard these experiences as authoritative in his life — only then does he lose his bearings. It is then rather as if he were trying to get out of a room at a place where there is no door and consequently he runs his head against the wall. Hence this principle must never be forgotten: Test your spiritual experiences with extreme caution. No other value save that of being a means of knowledge, of enlightenment, should attach to these experiences; our personal life should not be governed or directed by them. If they are regarded as means of enlightenment then we are on safe ground, for in that case, as soon as a contradictory idea crops up it can also be corrected.

What I have said today is only part of the many studies we shall undertake this winter. I also wanted to give you something that can be a preparation for the study of Psychosophy, of man's life of soul, which will be the subject of the lectures during the week following the General Meeting.