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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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The Presence of the Dead
GA 154

2. Understanding the Spiritual World II

12 May 1914, Berlin

Out of his conviction that we live in and are always surrounded by the spiritual world, the German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte said:1Johann Gottlieb Fichte, 1762–1814, German philosopher. “I do not need to wait until I am removed from the things around me in the physical world to gain entry into the spirit realm. I already exist and live in the latter much more truly than in the former. It is my only firm basis, and the eternal life I took possession of long ago is the sole reason why I still wish to continue the earthly one. Heaven does not lie beyond the grave; it is here already, pervading all of nature and its light rises in every pure heart.”2In Fichte, Die Bestimmung des Menschen (“The Vocation of Man”), vol. 3, section III, Berlin 1800.

It is good to draw attention to such a statement, for in our time many people would have us believe that only stupid, superstitious characters or at least those inclined to fantasy speak of the spiritual world and have views on it. Interestingly enough, even those people who want to make us believe it is silly to talk of the spiritual world constantly speak of Fichte and others like him. So it is good if at least some people know that those with an anthroposophical outlook are of one mind with all the people who have carried throughout history a true knowledge and understanding of the spiritual world in their hearts, or at least a striving—in the highest and most noble sense of the word—for these things. And when materialists mention Fichte and pull this or that passage from his writings as it suits them, it is good when anthroposophically inclined souls know where Fichte's confidence in life, his courage for living, and his belief in life come from—they have their origin in his loyal adherence to the conviction that the human soul lives in the spiritual world and has a spiritual existence. When you hear a man such as Fichte quoted—as you know, he wrote the Addresses to the German Nation in difficult times—you should always be aware in your hearts that he had the strength to say what he said because he knew: The best part of me always lives in the spiritual world even while I am living in my physical body.3Fichte gave these lectures in Berlin in the winter of 1807/08. The spiritual world surrounds me everywhere. This is true for others too; Fichte is only an example. People like Fichte were aware that their words were filled with a strength gained through a knowledge of the spiritual world that supported and worked on their souls.

There is another reason why it is good to recall such facts from time to time. After Fichte had delivered his lectures The Way toward the Blessed Life, which can be said to contain his life's teachings, to a small group of people, his audience asked him to have the lectures printed. The lectures had made a great impression on them, and they asked him to publish them because more people ought to have access to Fichte's encouragement for living, to his beautiful and noble striving for knowledge. And Fichte, strong, forceful, fired with the highest enthusiasm for his cause, made the following interesting remark in the foreword to these lectures:

I was, I might almost say, persuaded to publish these lectures by friends among the audience who had a favorable opinion of them. And because of the way I work, the most certain way never to complete them would have been to revise them once more for publication. Let it be my friends' responsibility, then, if they are not received as anticipated. I for my part have become so confused by the public at large when I see the endless bewilderment that greets every powerful idea, and also the thanks accorded to everyone who endeavors to do right, that I am unable to make a decision in matters of this kind and no longer know either how to speak to this public or whether it is even worth the effort to address it by means of the printing presses.4Fichte, “On the Publication of Same,” from the foreword to Die Anweisungen zum seligen Leben, Berlin 1806.

I want to quote this remark particularly because it shows how very alone Fichte felt then—108 years ago now—with his tidings of the spiritual world in view of the general attitudes and spirit of the times. And yet, we cannot help but feel that anthroposophy is the fulfillment of what the great minds in human history longed and strove for in their endeavors. In view of the apathy and lack of judgment shown spiritual science today, we must evoke in our souls the harmony we can achieve with these great minds through our spiritual science to encourage and strengthen us. Nevertheless, it may take a long time even for those who are sympathetic with spiritual science to find the right inner energy to develop a feeling for the impulse it should give our culture. I mention this again only because I would like to see your hearts filled not only with the right kind of ideas about the spiritual world itself but also with the right kind of attitudes and feelings about our relationship to the spirit realm and our entire environment.

It is easy to see why spiritual science meets with incomprehension and misunderstanding in trying to establish itself in the world at large. Just try to understand how an ordinary citizen, a product of modern thinking, who has not really come into contact with anything spiritual, might relate to spiritual science. He has heard claims of one kind or another about the spiritual world. What must he do? Well, people have no choice but to try and make sense of these ideas on the basis of their own concepts. However, the ordinary person of our time does not possess any concepts that could help him grasp what true spiritual science says about the realm of the spirit. To begin with, he lacks the thoughts, concepts, and ideas to do this. He tries to penetrate what he is told with his ideas, which, of course, originated on quite a different level. How, then, is he supposed to avoid misunderstanding? How can we expect him to understand?

The central point in our relationship to spiritual science is to acquire new concepts, new ideas that we did not have before we encountered spiritual science and that we cannot bring with us from the outside, but have to learn gradually. This realization is fundamental for a right attitude of soul toward this spiritual stream. Consider the basic fact, namely, that spiritual science is to enable us to understand the spiritual world outside us. In the course of this year, we have heard many descriptions and all kinds of information about the spiritual world. We have always tried to enlarge our concepts and ideas so that we can really grasp properly what is going on in the realm of the spirit. For example, we speak about beings of the higher hierarchies, and you know what we say about them. We also speak of the souls of the dead as they exist between death and a new birth, and you know what we say about them. However, we must never forget that in speaking about these things we cannot use the concepts we learn in today's world or we will run into misunderstandings. Therefore I want to draw your attention to a concept you have already learned about, but I would like us to consider it in detail by examining how essential it has been to our various talks.

The physical world makes its impressions on our senses, and we try to understand this world with ideas and concepts tied to our nervous system, to our brain. When we look at this process, we find the central element is that we perceive the world. By looking at things, we perceive the human realm, human beings as physical beings, the animal, plant, and mineral kingdoms, clouds, mountains, rivers, oceans, stars, sun, and moon. We perceive these things to the extent that they are physical entities. We look at them, see their colors, hear their sounds, feel their warmth—in short, we perceive them. This is a perfectly correct description of our relationship to the physical world. But as soon as we look at the world of the spirit, we should feel the need for another expression than “I perceive,” because it is not quite correct to say “I perceive the beings of the spiritual world.” We need to understand that all so-called perception of the spiritual world is quite different from that on the physical plane. As we grow into the realm of the spirit and approach it, we have the impression that we are perceived. Here on earth we are, in a certain sense, the highest physical beings. A stone, a plant, or an animal might say they are perceived by human beings. And in terms of our physical body, we can say we are perceived by beings of our own kind. We are also perceived from the moment we grow into the spiritual world. The spiritual beings look down at us, and in a certain sense we become objects to them. It is indeed a first sign of having entered the spiritual world when we are perceived.

As I said in my last lecture, the way to rise toward the spiritual beings is to grow up to the level of their capabilities so that our being is perceived by them.5Rudolf Steiner, “Understanding the Spiritual World (I),” lecture of April 18, 1914, Lecture One in this volume. That is how it is with regard to the higher hierarchies. We learn to see ourselves grow into a state of mind allowing us to feel we are perceived by the higher beings of the hierarchy of angels. Then as we develop further, we are perceived by those of the hierarchy of archangels, and so on. This feeling that we are looked at, that the will of spiritual beings is affecting us, is what I mean when I say “We are perceived.” We have to be quite clear about this and must not think that growing into the spiritual world is just a continuation of the panorama surrounding us in the physical world. Our whole soul mood changes because we become aware that we are living in the spiritual world, and that what we experience there is the feeling that the beings of the higher hierarchies perceive us. Their forces flow into us and are at work in us when we do something, when we act.

These things can best be explained with specific descriptions. So without any presumption—let me stress it again: without any presumption—and in all modesty, let me present the following example to show you what our relationship to the spiritual world is really like. When we undertake some work here on earth—whether it is spiritually inspired or not—we need forces coming to us from the physical realm. And these forces are outside our ordinary consciousness, of course. We cannot give them to ourselves; they are not really within our control. If you don't believe this, you can go to Dornach, to our building, and watch our friends there transforming large blocks of wood into capitals for the pillars and using their physical strength for this. Then you will have to admit that such forces come purely from the physical world. For my part, I admit quite openly that sometimes I wish I had more of this physical strength so I could help more with the work there. So, just as the strength of our hand muscles and other physical forces are involved in what we do physically, spiritual forces can also enter into our actions, flow into our souls from the spiritual world, and act from above downward, so to speak.

One of our tasks in past years was to express in our mystery plays what streams through our spiritual world view.6Rudolf Steiner, Four Mystery Plays, (London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1982). The four Mystery Dramas were premiered m Munich between 1910 an 1913 under Steiner's direction. Spiritually perceived facts had to be projected onto a physical stage; to use the common expression, they had to be “staged.” Such a production required new things compared with conventional stage productions. Over the years we have had to put on such plays with ever greater strength, one might say. But what I mean now refers not so much to external things, to what happens when everything is already there, but to the spiritual aspect of the matter.

In the early days of our work in spiritual science, a certain individual visited us.7Steiner here refers to the actress Maria von Strauch-Spettini, 1847–1904. See Hella Wiesberger's short biography of Maria von Strauch-Spettini and her letters to Marie von Sivers in Aus dem Leben von Marie Steiner-von Sivers, Dornach 1956, p. 15ff. This person not only developed a profound and warm-hearted interest in our teachings as we had to present them then at the start of our work, but was also imbued with a wonderful artistic spirit, which was fused completely with her personality. One could say in the true sense of the word that she was an objectively kind person. She quickly assimilated everything we could say about the content of spiritual science at that time. Then, and this was in the early years of our work here, she left the physical world. In the years that followed, she worked in the subconscious depths that our souls reach after death and tried to integrate what she had learned about our spiritual science with her artistic sensibility. A spirit body was being built up in which these two forces were at work: the fruitful views of spiritual science and her kind, energetic and understanding artistic spirit. Many years passed, and then recently, when we were working in Munich, whenever I had to make decisions about inner matters of the Munich performances, I was always aware that this individual was looking down on everything that is happening. It is, of course, not true that such a being would tell us how to do things. We must have our own abilities for that. But through the blessing flowing to us from such an individual, we can feel strengthened for the task at hand. We can feel her radiant spiritual eye and her warm, sincere interest flowing into the things we have to do.

Things like this can show us that after death the soul gradually changes into a being involved and active here on the physical plane. Once we are conscious of this, we feel the presence of such beings as guardian spirits supporting us in the tasks we have to do here in connection with the spiritual world. Then we can set about our tasks knowing that there is a being in the spiritual world who protects our work.

Now you can see the concrete insight that should permeate our life in regard to the spiritual world. We gradually come to know that the dead do not really die, but merely move to another place. They still participate in what we do. This insight will be more than a vague feeling for us; we will gradually learn to point to the areas where they are active. We will learn to feel them with us when we need forces we cannot find on the physical plane, when we need support from higher regions. For the souls who have passed through death possess forces different from those on the physical plane, because they take the material for their development at that stage from another world. We can feel the true inner deepening we can gain by taking up spiritual science, not just in the form of abstract theories, but in lively understanding of concrete particulars. We can then realize the blessing our theories of spiritual science and also the whole spiritual stream connected with it bestow upon all human life.

Of course, I assume such explanations in a group like this are taken with the necessary reverence, for that is the only way we can proceed from the abstract to the concrete.

Let us look at the example of another person who left the physical world a short time ago. This man had been associated with us for five years and had gradually united the best of his being with the knowledge resulting from spiritual science.8Steiner here refers to Christian Morgenstern, May 6, 1871 – March 31, 1914. German poet, wrote lyrical verse as well as grotesque and nonsense verse. Also translated works of Ibsen, Strindberg, and Hamsun. For many years, he was physically ill and had to fight against the attacks from his sick body. He truly demonstrated the triumph of mind over matter, particularly considering the strength he needed to create his last poems. From samples you have heard you already know the wonderfully poetic, intimate characterization of the spiritual world this man achieved. People will get many valuable insights when his last volume of poems appears in a few weeks.9Morgenstern, Wir fanden einen Pfad. (“We Found a Path”), first published by Piper Verlag, Munich, in autumn of 1914. The author of this volume cannot witness its publication; yet it will show us how wonderfully his spiritual life triumphed over the physical body. When I spoke about his poetry in Leipzig late last year, I used an expression in a way similar to a person, or even a child, saying “the rose is red.”10This lecture was given on December 31, 1913, as part of the lecture cycle Christ and the Spiritual World: The Search for the Holy Grail (London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1963) at which Morgenstern was present. Rudolf Steiner's comments are in Die Kunst der Rezitation und Deklamation, volume 281 in the Collected Works, (Dornach, Switzerland: Rudolf Steiner Verlag, 1967), pp. 208–210. Such a statement can be quite correct without anyone needing to “know” the rose is red. In the same way, I knew then in Leipzig that I could use the expression I chose and that it was correct. Out of an inner necessity, I said his poetry not only reveals a wonderful expression of our world view, but one could almost say these poems have an aura! Something had entered this man's soul and taken hold of his personality so that words not only flowed from him but also contained something akin to an aura. In a nutshell, that is what I said and what I felt to be true. It is only now that I know why I said this. Of course, we can only know after death what the individual who wrote these poems intended to do in the spiritual world, what he was preparing for. He suffered much because his physical organism was deteriorating. But while his body was deteriorating, something developed in the soul far beyond the physical body, something that turned out to be quite different from what he initially thought it was. This new quality lived in the depths of his soul, and its light became ever brighter the closer his physical body came to destruction. And now we can see something shining in the spiritual world that prepared itself here on earth.

Let me use a picture to explain what I mean. Nature is everywhere around us in all its beauty and glory. Surely, anyone sensitive to the beauty of nature will think I was justified when I said here some time ago that a person may visit all the art galleries of Italy, finally go up to the Swiss mountains to see a sunrise, and then have the feeling that the spiritual beings who paint the sunrise are greater painters still than those who paint on canvas.11See Steiner, Background to the Gospel of St. Mark, (London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1968), Lecture Six, pp. 96–113. Even though this is true, we must also admit that while we may admire the beauty of nature with complete abandon, we find it infinitely precious when we see how a painting by Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, or another artist, presents the content of the artist's soul as well as nature's beauty.12Raphael, 1483–1520, Italian painter. Leonardo da Vinci, 1452–1519, Italian painter. In art, we see a physical expression of what the soul can give us, enriching what we take from nature. I want to use this analogy to prepare your heart to understand what I want to say next.

The individual I have just mentioned is now in the spiritual world, and the spiritual formations once trapped in his body are now free of it. Here on earth we have his wonderful poetry, but in the spiritual world we find lighting up what grew out of the Imaginations that were prepared here during his long illness, and that now form the basis of his spirit body. A splendid cosmic image! In these Imaginations lives a wonderful element from the cosmos that is to the direct perceptions of spiritual research what a wonderful painting is to a direct experience of the beauty of nature. When the spirit realm presents itself to the inner gaze in the Imaginations of a human soul, and we ourselves perceive it also, infinitely much will be revealed to us. In fact, it is almost as though the cosmos is perceived twice; once as it appears directly to our clairvoyant gaze, and then again as it is revealed to the clairvoyant gaze through what a human soul attained on earth through much suffering and vigorous striving for spiritual knowledge. I do not have to remind you that all these things must be understood as karma; no soul can acquire anything of this sort merely by force of will. Whether such things are granted us lies in the grace of the wise cosmic powers. During the time we spend on earth, we, and others as well, must take care to remain on earth as long as possible and in as healthy a condition as possible. This should go without saying, but these things are so easily misunderstood. No one should ever attempt to do anything to cause suffering. That must not happen, and, in any case, nothing could be achieved this way. Therefore, no worse and more false conclusion can be drawn from all this than to decide to make oneself suffer in some way just to achieve something.

With these specific examples I wanted to present two ideas. The first is that spiritual beings send their powers to us through the gaze of their spiritual eyes, as I tried to show with the example of the guardian soul of our artistic work. The other idea demonstrates the inner wisdom of the cosmic powers, which allows us to see in the spiritual world what an individuality has drawn from his earthly existence. This can then in turn enrich our perception of the spiritual world, just as artistic perception enriches our experience of the physical world.

I could say much more now about individualities who are blessed to carry what they absorbed from the anthroposophical world view into the spiritual world. However, the time for that has not yet come. I quoted these two cases because I believe such concrete and familiar examples can help us better understand the thoughts and ideas necessary for real access to the spiritual world. We must adhere to those concepts from the beginning, if we really do want such access. After all, we meet in smaller groups so that we can, in a sense, speak the language we have gradually developed for the description of spiritual life. Through spiritual science, we can progress to where we no longer talk in general terms about the spirit around us, just as we do not talk of nature around us in general terms, either. We speak not only of nature this and nature that, but of grass in the meadows, corn in a field, trees on a hillside, clouds, and so on. Gradually we have to learn to speak of the spiritual world in equally specific terms. Therefore, I like to talk of the spiritual world in concrete terms by discussing a guardian soul such as the one I mentioned today in connection with our artistic work, or by mentioning a soul whose form after death mirrors the forces emanating from the spiritual cosmos itself, forces this soul gathered while the body was overtaken by infirmity here on earth. This soul teaches us things we would not easily learn otherwise.

People like this friend, whom you knew, become the best helpers to aid spiritual science in fulfilling its task in the world. Since spiritual science is received in many quarters with misunderstanding, contempt, and hostility, we may feel that it will truly be very difficult to make any progress toward achieving its real purpose. However, the insights we discussed today evoke the encouraging thought that those who have passed through the gate of death become true witnesses for the true nature and purpose of spiritual science. I would like this thought to speak to our hearts and souls.

With this in mind, we cannot help believing that even if it takes longer than our lifetime, spiritual science will become part of the spiritual progress of humanity. This thought can give us courage to face what confronts us in certain quarters; it can give us courage in our conviction that more and more people will come to see the need to develop new concepts, new ideas, sentiments, and attitudes for a true understanding of the spiritual world.

I hope explanations like these also provide a proper context for our role in our spiritual movement. Let us accept examples such as those with reverence, and let us also draw from them what is relevant for our convictions so that we will be strong enough to bear the brunt of attacks from the outside. People outside our movement approach us only with the concepts they have learned in the world, and we should not be terribly surprised that they impose those concepts on what they find out about us. There are major problems in the relationship between spiritual science and the outer world's statements and judgments about it.

As you know—and as one of our dear members told you last time out of firsthand experience and an enthusiastic heart—we want to begin a real, true work of art in Dornach, near Basel; a work of art that is a result of our world view. Everything depends on there being a few people in the world who really understand what we intend to do. It is crucial that we do not let only those people judge this endeavor who want to describe it in terms derived from the outside world. No matter how good people's intentions are, if they approach our building with conventional concepts, they will only get a conventional description.

For instance, we can see now that newspapers in every language are saying things about the building in Dornach that can easily sweep away in a short time what we have struggled for many years to achieve—by not telling the public what it does not understand anyway. The newspapers have asked, What age are we living in? Is this still the age of materialism? An enormous temple is being built—and so on. And they have described the columns in this temple as supposedly linked by pentagrams and such. Seeing this, we can only wonder where such descriptions of the things that should develop out of our spiritual stream will lead. Such descriptions are now circulating through the media—it's terrible!

We do not need to go into detail, but the most painful thing is that the original article, which was the basis for all the others, was the work of a good-natured soul who wanted to understand us and do a great service to the movement by writing about it. We even showed him around to avoid the worst excesses of reporting. We showed him, for example, that there is really no pentagram to be seen, but that in one place the seeker's mind has to feel its way cautiously and subtly to a perception of a pentagram. Then we found that although we had asked this person not to write anything that smacks in any way of journalism, he could not do anything else, and did not use the concepts and ideas learned from us but instead only those that can be picked up on the streets of our modern culture! It is deeply painful to me to see how our original intentions and aims are now presented in the newspapers. The articles and clichés are passed on from one paper to the next and are translated into every language, and in each language another distortion and more stupidity are added. Of course, it is not hard to understand what happens when the aims of our serious and sincere spiritual science clash with what the outer world can understand. But I want to show you how solemnly and reverently we must approach our cause. It is important that we be aware how deep our understanding for the tasks of spiritual science in the world must be.

You may want to ask why we could not continue to work with our concepts modestly and anonymously even among those who cannot understand us, as we did before we started the building in Dornach. Well, people in the present age have their eyes focused on the physical level. Spiritual things go unnoticed, but that a building is being erected in Dornach cannot be ignored. Such questions are, of course, completely unproductive and also irrelevant. What matters is that we should have a proper appreciation for and understanding of our cause in our hearts. I do not say this to accuse or criticize anyone, but to remind you once again how earnestly we must try to understand the new that is to grow in us to counterbalance what comes from the world outside, particularly in the opinions of other people. What comes from outside is not part of what our souls really need and thirst for. They need spiritual science and yearn for it. Therefore, we must put the temptations and seduction of materialistic thinking, particularly that due to spiritual arrogance, in proper perspective. We must not be blinded when we encounter such views and attitudes everywhere in the external world, but must find the strength within ourselves to participate fully in this world and to seek in ourselves the impulse for a proper relationship to the world around us. Then spiritual science can really become something that warms and strengthens us inwardly. It can give us foundations for our judgment so that we are not blinded by external influences, which may approach us with authority and power and therefore can deceive us again and again about the ability of our age to understand spiritual science.

This is what I wanted to present again to your souls today. For now as summer approaches and our meetings will become less frequent, we want to be certain of one thing: The impulses of spiritual science should live in our souls independently of time and space. They should be alive in us regardless of whether we meet more often or less often. What is important is the character of our meetings that we really bring them to life in us. That is what I wanted to discuss with you today.