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Chance, Necessity and Providence
GA 163

3. Necessity and Chance in Historical Events

28 August 1915, Dornach

I want, as I've said, to use these days to lay the foundation we will need to bring the right light to bear on the concepts chance, necessity, and providence. But today that will require me to introduce certain preparatory concepts, abstract counterparts, as it were, of the beautiful concrete images we have been considering.1This lecture was preceded by a eurythmy performance of the final scenes of Goethe's Faust, II. And to do the job as thoroughly as we must, a lecture will have to be added on Monday. That will give us today, tomorrow (after the eurythmy performance), and Monday at seven. The performance tomorrow will be at three o'clock, and a further lecture will follow immediately.

For contemporary consciousness as it has come into being and gradually evolved up to the present under the influence of materialistic thought the concepts necessity and chance are indistinguishable. What I am saying is that many a person whose consciousness and mentality have been affected by a materialistic outlook can no longer tell necessity and chance apart.

Now there are a number of facts in relation to which even minds muddled by materialism can still accept the concept of necessity, in a somewhat narrow sense at least. Even individuals limited by materialism still agree that the sun will rise tomorrow out of a certain necessity. In their view, the probability that the sun will rise tomorrow is great enough to be tantamount to necessity. Facts of this kind occurring in the relatively great expanse of nature and natural happenings on our planet are allowed by such people to pass as valid cases of Necessity. Conversely, their concepts of necessity narrow when they are confronted with what may be called historical events. And an outstanding example is Fritz Mauthner, whose name has often been mentioned here; he is the author of Critique of Language, written for the purpose of out-Kanting Kant, as well as of a Philosophical Dictionary. An article on history appears in the latter. It is extremely interesting to see how he tries there to figure out what history is. He says, “When the sun rises, I am confronted with a fact.” To take an example, we have been able today, the 28th of August 1915, to witness the fact that the sun has risen. That is a fact. And now he concludes that we can ascribe this rising of the sun to a law, to necessity, only because it happened yesterday and the day before yesterday, and so on, as long as people have been observing the sun. It was not just a case of a single fact, but of a whole sequence of identical or similar facts in outer nature that brought about this recognition of necessity.

But when it comes to history, says Mauthner, Caesar, for example, was here only once, so we can't speak of necessity in his case. It would be possible to speak of necessity in his existence only if such a fact were to be repeated. But historical facts are not repeated, so we can't talk of necessity in relation to them. In other words, all of history has to be looked upon as chance. And Mauthner, as I've said, is an honest man, a really honest man. Unlike other less honest individuals, he is a man who draws the conclusions of his assumptions. So he says of historical “necessity,” for example, “That Napoleon outdid himself and marched to Russia or that I smoked one cigar more than usual in the past hour are two facts that really happened, both necessary, both—as we rightly expect in the case of the most grandiose as well as the most absurdly insignificant historical facts—not without consequences.” To his honest feeling, something that may be termed historical fact, like Napoleon's campaign against Russia (though it could equally well be some other happening) and the reported fact that he smoked an extra cigar, are both necessary facts if we apply the term “necessity” to historical facts at all.

You will be amazed at my citing this particular sentence from Mauthner's article on history. I cite it because we have here an honest man straightforwardly admitting something that his less honest fellows with a modern scientific background refuse to admit. He is admitting that the fact that Caesar lived cannot be distinguished from the fact of Mauthner himself having smoked an extra cigar by calling upon the means available to us and considered valid by contemporary science. No difference can be ascertained by the methods modern science recognizes! Now he takes a positive stand, declaring his refusal to recognize a valid difference, to be so foolish as to represent history as science, when, according to the hypotheses of present-day science, history cannot qualify as a science.

He is really honest; he says with some justification, for example, that Wundt set up a systematic arrangement of the sciences.2Wilhelm Wundt, 1832–1907, German philosopher and philologist. See also Mauthner's article “History” in his Dictionary of Philosophy. History was, of course, listed among them. But no more objective reason for Wundt's doing this can really be discovered than that it had become customary, or, in other words, it happens to be a fact that universities set up history faculties. If a regular faculty were provided to teach the art of riding, asserts Mauthner—and from his standpoint rightly—professors like Wundt would include the art of riding in their system of the sciences, not from any necessity recognized by current scientific insight, but for quite other reasons.

We really have to say that the present has parted ways to a very considerable extent with what we encounter in Goethe's Faust: this can be quite shattering if we take it seriously enough.3Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1749–1832, German poet, playwright, and novelist. Faust, dramatic poem. The quotations from Faust in this book are all taken from the translation by Bayard Taylor. There is much, very much in Faust that points to the profoundest riddles in the human soul. We simply don't take things sufficiently seriously these days. What does Faust say right at the beginning, after he has spoken of how little philosophy, jurisprudence, medicine, and theology were able to give him as a student, after expressing himself about these four fields of learning? What science and life in general have given him as nourishment for his soul has brought him to the following conviction:

No dog would endure such a curst existence!
Wherefore, from Magic I seek assistance,
That many a secret perchance I reach
Through spirit-power and spirit-speech,
And thus the bitter task forego
Of saying things I do not know,—
That I may detect the inmost force
Which binds the world and guides its course;
Its germs, productive powers explore,
And rummage in empty words no more
(Bayard Taylor translation)

What is it Faust wants to know, then? “Germs and productive powers”! Here, the human heart too senses in its depths a questioning about chance and necessity in life.

Necessity! Let us picture a person like Faust confronting the question of necessity in the history of the human race. Such an individual asks, Why am I present at this point in evolution? What brought me here? What necessity, running its course through what we call history, introduced me into historical evolution at just this moment? Faust asks these questions out of the very depths of his soul. And he believes that they can be answered only if he understands “productive powers and germs,” understands, in other words, how outer experience contains a hidden clue to the way the thread of necessity runs through everything that happens.

Now let us imagine a personality like Faust's having, for some reason or other, to make an admission similar to Fritz Mauthner's. Mauthner is, of course, not sufficiently Faustian to sense the consequences Faust would experience if he had to admit one day that he could distinguish no difference between the fact that Caesar occupied his place in history and the fact of having smoked an extra cigar in the past hour. Just imagine transferring into the mind of Faust the reflection on the nature of historical evolution voiced by Mauthner from his particular standpoint. Faust would have had to say, I am as necessary in ongoing world evolution as smoking an extra cigar once was to Fritz Mauthner. Things are simply not given their due weight. If they were, we would realize how significant it is for human life that an individual who embraces the entire scientific conscience of the present admits the impossibility of distinguishing, with the means currently available to science, between the fact that Caesar lived and the fact that Mauthner smoked an extra cigar, in other words, admits that the necessity in the one case is indistinguishable from the necessity in the other.

When the time comes that people sense this with a truly Faustian intensity, they will be mature enough to understand how essential it is to grasp the element of necessity in historical facts, in the way we have tried to do with the aid of spiritual science in the case of many a historical fact. For spiritual science has shown us how the facts relative to the successive historical epochs have been injected, as it were, into the sphere of external reality by advancing spiritual evolution. And what we might state about the necessity of this or that happening at some particular time differs very sharply indeed from the fact of Fritz Mauthner smoking his extra cigar. We have stressed the connection between the Old and the New Testaments, between the time preceding and the time following the Mystery of Golgotha, and stressed too how the various cultures succeeded one another in the post-Atlantean epoch and how the various facts occurring during these cultural periods sprang from spiritual causes.

The angle from which we view things is tremendously important. We should be aware of the consequences of the assumptions presently held to have sole scientific validity.

Days like yesterday, which was Hegel's birthday, and today, which is Goethe's, should be festive occasions for realizing how necessary it is to recall the great will-impulses of earlier times, to recall Hegel's and Goethe's impulses of will, in order to perceive how deeply humanity has become implicated in materialism. There have always been superficial people. The difference between our time and Goethe's and Hegel's is not that there were no superficial people then, but rather that in those days the superficial people could not manage to get their outlook recognized as the only valid one. There was that slight difference in the situation.

Yesterday was Hegel's birthday; he was born in Stuttgart on August 27, 1770. Since it was impossible for him, living at that time, to penetrate into truly spiritual life as we do today with the aid of spiritual science, he sought in his way to lay hold on the spiritual element in ideas and concepts; he made these his spiritual foothold. When we look at the phenomena surrounding us, we seek the spiritual life, the truly living life of the spirit that underlies them, whereas Hegel, since he could go no further, sought the invisible idea, the fabric of ideas, first the fabric of ideas in pure logic, then that behind nature, and finally that underlying everything that happens as a spiritual element. And he approached history too in such a way that he really accomplished much of significance in his historical studies, even if in the abstract form of ideas rather than in the concrete form of the spiritual.

Now what does a person who honestly adopts Fritz Mauthner's standpoint do if, let us say, he sets about describing the evolution of art from Egyptian and Grecian times up to the present? He examines the documented findings, registers them, and then considers himself the more genuinely scientific the less ideas play into the proceedings and the more he keeps—objectively, as he thinks—to the purely external, factual evidence. Hegel based his attempt to write the history of art on a different approach. And he said something, among other things, that we are of course able to express more spiritually today: If we conceive, behind the outer development of art, the flowing, evolving world of the ideal, then and then only will the idea that has, so to speak, been hiding itself, try to issue forth in the material element, to reveal itself mysteriously in the material medium. In other words, the idea will not at first have wholly mastered matter, but expresses itself symbolically in it, a sphinx to be deciphered, as Hegel sees it. Then, in its further development, the idea gains a further mastery over matter, and harmony then exists between the mastering idea and its external, material expression. That is its classic form. When, finally, the idea has worked its way through the material and mastered it completely, the time will come when the overflowing fullness of the world of ideas will run over out of matter, so to speak; the ideal will be paramount.

At the merely symbolic level, the idea cannot as yet wholly take over the material. At the classic stage, it has reached the point of union with matter. When it has achieved romantic expression, it is as though the idea overflowed in its fullness. And now Hegel says that we should look in the surrounding world to see where these concepts are exemplified: the symbolic, sphinx-like form of art in Egypt, the classic form in Greece, the romantic form in modern times. Hegel thus bases his approach on the unity of the human spirit with the spirit of the world. The world spirit must allow us thoughts about the course of art's evolution. Then we must rediscover in the outer world what the world spirit first gave to us in thought form.

This, says Hegel, is the way external history too is “constructed.” He looks first for the progressive evolution of ideas, and then confirms it at hand of external events. That is what the Philistines, the superficial people, have never been able to grasp, and it is their reason for reproaching Hegel so bitterly. A person who is superficial despite his belonging to a spiritual scientific movement wants above all to know about his own incarnation, and there were of course people in Hegel's time too who were superficial in their own way. You can see from one of Hegel's remarks that there was one such. As you've seen, Hegel followed the principle of first lifting himself into the world of ideas and then rediscovering in the world around him what he had come to know in the ideal world.

Now the superficial critics had of course risen up in arms against this, and Hegel had to make the following comment: “In his many-sided naivete Herr Krug has challenged natural philosophy to perform the sleight of hand of deducing his pen only.” “Deducing” was the term used to denote a rediscovering in the outer world of everything that had first been discovered in the inner world. The person referred to in this remark was Wilhelm Traugott Krug, who was teaching at Leipzig at that time.4Wilhelm Traugott Krug, 1770–1842, German philosopher, influenced by Kant. Oddly enough, Krug was the predecessor of Mauthner in having written a philosophical dictionary, though he did not succeed in becoming a leading authority in his day. But he said, “If individuals like Hegel search for reality in ideas and then want to show, from the idea's necessity, how external reality coincides with it, then someone like Hegel had better come and demonstrate that he first encountered my pen as an idea.” Krug remarks that Hegel with his “idea” is not convincing in his assertions about the development of art from Egyptian to Greek to modern times, but if Hegel could “deduce” Krug's pen from his idea of it, that would impress him.

Hegel comments in the passage mentioned above, “It would have been possible to give him the hope of seeing this deed accomplished and his pen glorified if science had progressed so far and so cleared up everything of importance in heaven and on earth in the past and present as to leave nothing of greater importance in doubt” than Herr Krug's pen. But in today's world the mentality characteristic of superficial people is really dominant. And Fritz Mauthner would have to say honestly that there is no possibility of distinguishing between the necessity of Greek art coming into being at a certain time and the necessity involving Herr Krug's pen or his own extra cigar.

Now I have already called your attention to the prime importance of finding the proper angle from which to illuminate these lofty concepts of human life. We need to find the right angles from which to study necessity, chance, and providence.

I suggested that you picture Faust in such relation to the world that he would have to despair of the possibility of discovering any element of necessity. But now let's imagine just the opposite and picture Faust conceiving of himself in relation to a world where nothing but necessity exists, a world where he would have to regard every least thing he did as conditioned by necessity. Then he would indeed have to say that if there were no chance happenings, if everything had to be ruled by necessity, “no dog would endure such a curst existence,” and this not because of what he had been learning but because of the way the world had been arranged. And what would a person amount to if there were truth in Spinoza's dictum that everything we do and experience is every bit as necessitated as the path of a billiard ball which, struck by another, has no choice but to move in a way determined by the particular laws involved?5Baruch Spinoza, 1632–1677, Dutch philosopher. If that were true, nobody could endure such a world order, and it would be even less bearable for natures aware of “productive powers and germs!”

Necessity and chance exist in the universe in such a way that they correspond to a certain human yearning. We feel that we couldn't get along without both of them. But they have to be properly understood, to be judged from the right angle. To do that in the case of the concept of chance naturally requires abandoning any prejudices or preconceptions we may have on the subject. We will have to examine the concept very closely so that we can replace the cliche that this or that “chanced” to happen—as we are often forced to say—with something more suitable. We will have to search out the fitting angle. And we will find it only if we go a bit further in the study we began yesterday.

You are familiar with the alternating states of sleeping and waking. But we recognize that waking consciousness too has its nuances, and that it is possible to distinguish between varying degrees of awakeness. But we can go further in a study of that state. It is basically true that from the moment we awaken until we fall asleep again, our waking consciousness takes in nothing but objects in the world around us, senses their action, and produces our own images, concepts, and ideas. Sleeping consciousness, which has remained at the level of plant consciousness, then lets us behold ourselves as described yesterday, and, since our consciousness in this state is plantlike, this is a pleasurable absorption in ourselves.

Now if we penetrate fully into the nature of human soul life, we come upon something that fits neither day nor night consciousness. I am referring to distinct memories of past experiences. Consider the fact that sleeping consciousness doesn't involve remembering anything. If you were to sleep continuously, you wouldn't need to remember previous experiences; there would be no such necessity, in any case. We do remember to some extent when we are dreaming, but in the plant consciousness of sleep we remember nothing of the past. It is certainly clear that memory plays no special part in sleep. In the case of ordinary day-waking consciousness we must say that we experience what is around us, but experiencing what we have gone through in the past represents a heightening of waking consciousness. In addition to experience of our present surroundings we experience the past, but now in its reflection in ourselves. So if I draw a horizontal line (see drawing) to represent the level of human consciousness, we may say that we look into ourselves in sleep.

I will write “Looking into ourselves” here; we can call it a subconscious looking. Day-waking consciousness can be set down as “Looking out consciously into the world.” Then a third kind of inner experiencing that doesn't coincide with looking into the world is the conscious “Looking into ourselves in memory.” So we have

“Conscious looking into ourselves” = memory
“Consciousness looking into the world around us” = day-waking consciousness
“Subconsciousness looking into ourselves” = sleep

The fact is, then, that we have not just two sharply different states of consciousness, but three of them. Remembering is actually a deepened and more concentrated form of waking consciousness. The important thing about remembering is more than just being aware of something; we recapitulate awareness of it. Remembering makes sense only if we are aware of something all over again. Think a moment: if I encounter one of you whom I have seen before, but merely see him without recognizing him, memory isn't really involved. Memory, then, is recognition. And spiritual science teaches us too that whereas our ordinary day-waking consciousness, our consciousness of the world outside us, has reached the very peak of perfection, our remembering is actually only just beginning its evolution; it must go on and on developing. Metaphorically speaking, memory is still a very sleepy attribute of human consciousness. When it has undergone further evolution, another element of experience will be added to our present capacity, namely, the inner experiencing of past incarnations. That experiencing rests upon a heightening of our ability to remember, for no matter what else is involved, we are dealing here with recognition, and it must first travel the path of interiorization. Memory is a soul force just beginning its development./

Now let us ask, “What is the nature of this soul-force, this capacity to remember? What really happens in the remembering process?” Another question must be answered first, and that is, “How do we arrive, at this point in time, at correct concepts?”

You get an idea of what a correct concept is if you are not satisfied with a meager picturing of it; in most cases people have their own opinion of things rather than genuine concepts. Most individuals think they know what a circle is. If someone asks, Well, what is it? they answer, Something like this, and draw a circle. That may be a representation of a circle, but that is not what matters. A person who only knows that this drawing approximates a circle and remains satisfied with that has no concept of what a circle is. Only someone who knows enough to say that a circle is a curved line every point of which is equidistant from the center has a correct concept of a circle. An endless number of points is of course involved, but the circle is inwardly present in conceptual form. That is what Hegel was pointing out: that we must get down to the concept underlying external facts, and then recognize what we are dealing with in outer reality on the basis of our familiarity with the concept.

Let us explore what the difference is between the “half-asleep” status of the mere mental images with which most people are satisfied and the active possession of a concept. A concept is always in a process of inner growth, of inner activity. To have nothing more than the mental image of a table is not to have a concept of it. We have the concept “table” if we can say that it is a supported surface upon which other objects can be supported. Concepts are a form of inner liveliness and activity that can be translated into outer reality.

Nowadays one is tempted to resort to some lively movement to explain matters of this sort to one's contemporaries. One really has an impulse to jump about for the sake of demonstrating how a true concept differs from the sleepy holding onto a mental image. One is strongly prompted to go chasing after concepts as a means of bringing people slightly into motion and enlivening the dreadfully lazy modern holding of mental images that now prevails; one wants to devote one's energies to clarifying the distinction between entertaining ordinary mental images and working one's way into the real heart of a matter. And why is one thus prompted? Because we know from spiritual science that the moment something reaches the level of the concept, the etheric body has to carry out this movement; it is involved in this movement. So we really must not shy away from rousing the etheric body if we intend to construct concepts.

What, then, is memory? What is remembering? If I have learned that a circle is a curved line every point of which is equidistant from the center, and am now to recall this concept, I must again carry out this movement in my etheric body. From the aspect of the etheric body, something becomes a memory when carrying out the movement in question has become habitual there. Memory is habit in the etheric body; we remember a thing when our etheric body has become used to carrying out the corresponding movement. We remember nothing except what the etheric body has taken on in the form of habits. Our etheric bodies must take it upon themselves, under the stimulus of re-approaching an object, being repeatedly brought into motion by us and thus given the opportunity of remembering, to repeat the motion they carried out in first approaching that object. And the more often the experience is repeated, the firmer and more ingrained does the habit become, so that memory gradually strengthens.

Now if we are really thinking instead of merely forming mental images, our etheric bodies take on all sorts of habits. But these etheric bodies are what the physical body is based on. You will notice that a person who wants to clarify a concept often tries to make illustrative gestures, even as he is talking about it. Of course we all have our own individual gestures anyway. Differences between people are seen in their characteristic gestures, that is, if we conceive the term “gesture” broadly enough. A person with a feeling for gesture learns a good deal about others from observing their gestures and seeing, for example, how they set their feet down as they walk. And the way we think when remembering something is thus really a habit of the etheric body. This etheric body is a lifelong trainer of the physical body—or perhaps I had better say that it tries to train the latter, but not entirely successfully. We can say, then, that the physical body, for example, the hand, is here:

When we think, we constantly try to send into the etheric body what then becomes habit there. But the physical body presents a barrier. Our etheric bodies can't manage to get everything into the physical body, and they therefore save up the forces thus prevented from entering the physical body. They are saved up and carried through the entire period of life between death and rebirth. The way we think and the way we imprint our memories upon the etheric body then comes to the fore in our next incarnation as our instinctive play of gesture. And when we see a person exhibiting habitual gestures from childhood on, we can attribute them to the fact that in his previous incarnation his thinking imprinted certain quite distinct mannerisms on his etheric body. If, in other words, I study a person's inborn gestures, they can become clues to the way he managed his thinking in past incarnations. But just think what this means! It means that thoughts so impress themselves upon us that they resurface as the next incarnation's gestures. We get an insight here into the way the thinking element evolves into external manifestation: what began as the inwardness of thought becomes the outwardness of gesture.

Modern science, in its ignorance of what distinguishes necessity from chance, looks upon history as happenstance. In a list of words dating back to 1482, which Mauthner refers to, we read the words, “geschicht oder geschehcn ding, historia res gesta.” “Res gesta” is what history used to be called. All that is left of this today is the abstract remnant “regeste.” When notes are taken on some happening, they are called the “register.” Why is this? The word is based on the same root as “gesture.” The genius of speech responsible for the creation of these words was still aware that we have to see something brought over from the past in historical events. If what we observe in individual gesture is to be understood as the residue of past lives on earth, born with the individual into an incarnation, surely it is not complete nonsense to assume something like gestures in what we encounter in the facts of history. A series of facts surfaces in the way we walk, and these are the gestures of our thinking in past incarnations.

Where, then, must we look for the facts underlying history? That is the question now confronting us. In the case of individual lives we have to look for the thoughts underlying gesture. If we regard historical events as gestures, where must we look for the thoughts behind them? We will take up the study of this matter tomorrow.