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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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Human Knowledge and Its Significance for Man and the Cosmos I
GA 170

7 August 1916, Dornach

Translator Unknown

Many of the things that have to be said on the subject of the connection of man's being with the universe must necessarily seem difficult and complicated. People may ask themselves: Whatever more is there to be said about the being of man? But the fact remains that the birth of the human being from the cosmos is an exceedingly complicated process and must in some way become intelligible to us.

In the present age above all, light must be thrown on this fact, because otherwise it would be too late. This is a grave statement but it must be made. At the present time human beings are living through incarnations in which they can get along without actually knowing very much about the complexities of the being of man. They can manage now without this knowledge but times will come when their souls will be incarnated again and when knowledge of these things will be absolutely essential. It will be a vital necessity for souls incarnated upon the earth to know in what sense the being of man is connected with the universe. Let me put it in this way: We ourselves are still living in an age when it is not as yet left entirely to the human being to hold together certain members of his being. In our time these members are held together without our intervention. Nowadays, easy-going minds can still speak with irritation about the complicated nature of anthroposophical wisdom. They can still keep reiterating that truth is always simple and that what is not simple is not the real ‘truth.’

On all sides we hear people saying this. But they say it under the influence of the Luciferic temptation and have no inkling of the fact that when they speak of this ‘simplicity of Truth’ they are clouding their minds and are altogether labouring under a delusion. Times will come when knowledge, and knowledge alone will enable man to hold together certain of the inner principles and members of his being. But the future has always to be prepared and it is the task of anthroposophical thought to prepare earthly culture and civilisation for that age in the future when the human being will have to know how to maintain the cohesion of the different parts of his being himself.

And now let us think of a fundamental truth to which reference has been made in recent lectures, namely, that man's being is essentially twofold. Man is a twofold being inasmuch as the structure and nature of his head differs essentially from the structure and nature of the rest of his organism. The head of a human being living at the present time is, in essentials, the product of the metaporphosis of the body of the preceding incarnation. The body of the present incarnation, that is to say, the body with the exclusion of the head, will become the head of the next incarnation, after we have lived through the period stretching from death to a new birth. We can therefore picture man's progress through incarnation as follows: He has his head, and the other part of his organism. After death we may say that the head disappears, and the rest of the body is then transformed into the head of the next incarnation. Once again he will receive the body of the next incarnation from the Earth. The head disappears, but when I say this, you must remember that it is the forces connected with the head that disappear. The substance of the head and of the rest of the body too also disappear, but the physical substance itself is not the essential. The substance is Maya in the real sense. The forces are the reality. The forces contained in the body of man, with the exclusion of those of the head, are transformed during the period between death and a new birth into the forces underlying the head of the new incarnation. In our present incarnation we have, in our head, the forces that were connected with our body in the previous incarnation. It is this basic idea which we have been considering in detail in recent lectures.

And now we will turn to certain other thoughts in order to understand these matters more fully.

To begin with, let us ask ourselves: By what means are the forces contained in our present body transformed in such a way that they can become a head in the next incarnation? At the outset it is difficult to conceive of the body being transformed into a head. What is it, exactly, that makes this transformation possible? That is the question we must ask ourselves.

In order to answer this question we must think about what has been said in many lectures on the subject of the nature of cognition, of knowledge, of truth, of wisdom. In the ordinary way we imagine that the only purpose of the knowledge we acquire is to enable us to have mental pictures of the external world, to know something about the external world. There are philosophical psychologists who are constantly bringing forward theories about the mysterious connection that exists between the nature of a concept or an idea and the object that is pictured by the idea. These theories all suffer from one common error. I can only make this error clear to you by means of a picture. Suppose a botanist or an horticulturist wished to make investigations into the nature of a grain of wheat. He would probably say to himself: ‘I will use chemistry and investigate the grain of wheat from the point of view of the food-value of wheatmeal. I will try to find out the constituents that are required for man's nourishment.’ He would, in other words, be investigating the nature of the grain of wheat from the point of view of wheat as a means of nourishment. He would be trying to discover the reason why certain constituents are contained in the wheat. Anyone who imagines that it is possible to find out something about the real nature of wheat by investigating to what extent it is valuable as a foodstuff, would be making a curious mistake. A grain of wheat comes into existence in the whole sphere of plant life as the fruit of the wheat-plant and we can only discover why the nature of the grain is as it is, by studying the process of the growth of a new wheat-plant out of the grain. The fact that a grain of wheat contains constituents of nutritive value for the human being, is an entirely secondary consideration so far as the real nature of the grain is concerned. Those who look at everything merely from the utilitarian standpoint and want to make this the essential aim of science will investigate the grain of wheat from the chemical point of view and find that here we have in Nature something that is of value as a foodstuff. But this has nothing whatever to do with the innermost purpose of the grain of wheat. If it were possible to ask the grain of wheat what its innermost and primary purpose is, it would not answer that it is there in order to nourish human beings but rather in order to make it possible for a new wheat plant to come into existence.

To those who have real knowledge of these things, the philosophers and theorists are exactly like men who investigate a grain of wheat from the point of view of its value in the nourishment of human beings. There is a fundamental error here. The primary purpose of what lives within us in the form of knowledge, idea, truth, wisdom, is not that of enabling us to form mental pictures of the things of the external world. The process of forming mental pictures of the external world is just as secondary a purpose of knowledge as it is a secondary purpose of the grain of wheat to nourish human beings. Knowledge lives within us for another purpose altogether. It is there primarily in order that it may work and weave in our being. During our life between birth and death we accumulate wisdom, little by little. And at the same time we apply the wisdom thus accumulated in such a way that it can mirror the external world, just as we use grains of wheat for the purpose of nourishment. But remember, every time we use grains of wheat for food, we are depriving them of their essential and original purpose, namely that of bringing forth a new plant. In the same way, the wisdom we apply to the grasping of the world outside is a deviation from the real task of wisdom. It is a deviation because the forces of the True, the forces of Knowledge are not primarily there for this purpose.

What, then, is the function and purpose of what we call the True?—I mean, in the sense in which the primary purpose of the grain of wheat is to bring a new plant into being? The primary purpose of the forces of Knowledge within us, of our efforts to get hold of truth, is to develop forces within us between birth and death whereby our organism will be transformed after death—that is to say, the forces underlying the body in this incarnation, for it is these forces that will be transformed into the head of the next incarnation. This is the remarkable connection which becomes clear to us when we study the existence of the human being on the one side between birth and death and on the other side between death and a new birth. The knowledge we acquire serves to make it possible for the body to be transformed into the head of the next incarnation. You will say: ‘Yes, but there are so many who acquire no knowledge at all, who remain simpletons all their life, only a very few have really learnt anything.’ And those who make this remark generally include themselves among these few! But remember, several thinkers have rightly said, quite independently of each other, that during the first three or four years of life the human being learns more, assimilates more wisdom than in the three years spent in later life at the university. This is literally true. In the first three years of life we learn a very great deal; we learn what can only be learnt on Earth, namely the knowledge that is essential in order to be able to speak, to understand what is spoken, and a great deal more besides. In those first three years we learn very much, and what we thus learn forms part of what is known as the substance or content of wisdom.

This wisdom that is innate in man and in respect to which human beings do not differ so very much from one another—this wisdom is the weaving force which transforms our organism into a head during the period lying between death and a new birth. It is, as a matter of fact, an exceedingly intricate complex of forces that we take into our being in our life of knowledge and cognition. It is only now and then in dreams that human beings have a fleeting vision of what is weaving and surging between the ideal and inner pictures of which they are fully conscious. The forces that are weaving and working in us in this realm of our being will begin to manifest in their essential form after death and to transform our organism. Everything that is acquired in the way of knowledge accumulates for the purpose of transforming our organism—everything, that is to say, with the exception of the knowledge we apply in order to grasp the external world. The forces of knowledge we apply in order to grasp and comprehend the external world are lost, in a certain respect, so far as our own evolution is concerned. They are diverted from the onward stream of evolution. Just as the grains of wheat that are used as food for human beings are diverted from the stream of wheat-development taken as a whole, so, during our present epoch of civilisation, when knowledge is so universally applied for the purpose of grasping the phenomena of the outer world, we divert from the stream of our evolution, many more forces than we retain.

And now think of the days of antiquity, when man's knowledge was acquired through faculties of inner clairvoyance. Man did not then expend his forces upon the outer world to anything like the same extent. The people of ancient Egypt and ancient Chaldea acquired their knowledge through atavistic clairvoyance and not nearly so much by observation of the external world. Our own age is, in a sense, exactly the opposite in this respect. Nowadays a very great deal of knowledge is absorbed from the world outside and very little is added from the inner being of man. The Greeks were the outstanding example of the ‘golden mean’ in this respect. That they were able to hold this ‘golden mean’ was not due alone to their special qualities. They did, of course, possess these special qualities, but the self-contained glory of their civilisation was also due to the fact that the area of the Earth inhabited by the Greek people was relatively small. Moreover they had comparatively little knowledge of the rest of the world. What knowledge had the Greeks of countries other than Asia Minor and a little further Eastwards into Asia? They knew little of Africa and of America, and of the rest of the Earth they knew absolutely nothing at all. Plato's knowledge concerning the inner nature of the Good and the function of certain inner parts of the human organism was very largely due to the limited area of the world to which Greek knowledge could be applied. For this reason it was possible in Greece to preserve man's spiritual forces for the purpose of his inner development. But even the Greeks applied less of their powers for the purpose of inner development than the ancient Egyptian and Chaldean peoples—not to speak of the ancient Persians and Indians. In our age, when practically the whole Earth has been explored, everyone is bent upon acquiring as much knowledge of the external world as he possibly can! If all this knowledge of the external world were as intensive as it extensive then people would have very few powers left over for the work of transforming the physical body into the head of the next incarnation. And the most learned would have far fewer powers than the simple peasants! One can only be thankful that when the majority of people travel about the world today, they are content with simply turning over the pages of Baedeker or some other book of travel, and really do not take in very much! So you see, they are not, after all, depriving themselves of very much inner power; If it were otherwise, those human beings who are always hunting for sensation, who only want to get their knowledge from the outside world, would be facing a grave danger. The danger would be that in their next incarnation they would return with a head produced from a body that had undergone very little transformation. The head would be exceedingly animal-like in appearance. This is bound to happen, when, in the previous incarnation, comparatively few formative forces were preserved for the work of transformation.

Analogies which are taken from the realm of Imagination, my dear friends, can be multiplied over and over again. And now let us ask ourselves a question. we have heard that the powers we apply in order to build up a science of the outer world, are diverted from their primary, original purpose—just as the grain of wheat that is used as substance for nourishment is diverted from its primary purpose as wheat. What analogy is there between the acquisition of knowledge of the outer world and the use of wheat as a foodstuff for human beings? There is an inner analogy here which we must try to discover.

Consider once more the curious fact that numbers and numbers of grains of wheat do not go to the producing of new wheat plants but are given over to the purpose of supplying human beings with food. These grains of wheat, as we have heard, are diverted from their direct line of evolution as grains of wheat. Some grains of wheat, on the other hand, bring forth other grains of wheat, and these again others. But numberless grains of wheat are split off, as it were, and diverted to another sphere of activity altogether. They are used for the purpose of food for human beings and this has nothing directly to do with the onward course of their own stream of evolution.

Nature herself will help us here to understand something which it is most essential to bear in mind if we wish to unfold a true picture of the world. Modern science has little by little instilled into us the dreadful maxim that the later is invariably to be regarded as a product of what has preceded it. Effect follows directly upon cause—so it is said. There is nothing more foolish than to generalise in this way about things in the world, saying that effect directly follows cause, and that cause gives rise to effect. There are always subsequent effects which have no direct connection whatever with a preceding cause. For how can it possibly be said that the cause of wheat being used as a foodstuff lies in the grain of wheat itself? It is true that during the 18th century a loose kind of thinking led people to explain the presence of certain cork-like substances for the ultimate purpose of producing corks for champagne bottles! It is impossible to imagine a more erroneous line of reasoning. The truth is that when wheat is used as a foodstuff, the grains of wheat pass over into another sphere of working altogether.

Now it is exactly the same with the knowledge we acquire about the things of the outer world, of outer Nature. The knowledge we thus acquire passes over into a different sphere of working. I beg you to take this truth in the deepest earnestness. In our efforts to understand the outer world it is possible for us to deprive ourselves of many of the forces that are necessary to the process of the transformation of our present body into the head of the next incarnation. As we acquire knowledge of the outer world, we deprive our being of a very great deal, and an adjustment must be brought about by providing that this knowledge passes over into another sphere. Just as the grains of wheat receive in a sense a nobler function when they are used as foodstuff for human beings, just as they receive compensation in this way for having been diverted from their original evolution, so too, knowledge of the outer world must be given over to a nobler purpose as compensation for having been deprived of its primary function. All the truth that a human being makes his own, all the knowledge he acquired of the outer world must be given into the hands of the Gods. We ought always to be inwardly conscious that the knowledge thus diverted from the onward stream of evolution must be placed in the service of the Gods, must, as it were, become an act of divine worship. All the knowledge we acquire without making it a holy offering to the evolutionary process of humanity, without consciously offering it to those Higher Spirits who receive their nourishment from it—all the knowledge we receive without thought of giving it over to this higher purpose, is like the grains of wheat which fall into the soil and decay—fulfilling neither their original purpose nor the other purpose of serving as nourishment for human beings.

At this point, my dear friends, we must surely realise how essential it is that a definite and absolutely practical result shall emerge from our strivings in the domain of Spiritual Science. It is not a question merely of learning the teachings of Spiritual Science, nor of making them into a body of knowledge, but of receiving them in such a way that a fundamental feeling is laid into the soul. We must associate with the acquisition of knowledge the realisation that this knowledge must be an act of divine worship and that it is a transgression against the divine purpose of evolution to profane knowledge, to divert it from its divine mission.

As I have said, the possibility of amassing a great deal of knowledge of the external world has arisen for the first time in the modern age. Among the Egyptians it was nearly all an inner and not an external form of knowledge. During the Graeco-Latin epoch of civilisation it became possible to acquire more knowledge of the outer world and at that very time it was also made possible for man to discover how they might place their knowledge in the service of the Divine, by the coming of Christ with His message to the Earth.

Here again is a connection which history makes clear to us. At the very moment in the evolution of humanity when knowledge became preeminently a knowledge of the external world—at that very moment the Christ came down from the spiritual world and enabled those men who directed their knowledge to Him in the true sense, to place it in the service of the Divine. It is quite true that this feeling has not as yet developed in humanity to any great extent, but as human beings begin to understand the sense in which Christ has made the Earth holy, they will also learn how to place their knowledge in the service of the Divine.

And so a small store of the forces connected with the head is preserved in order that our body may be transformed into the head of the next incarnation. And if the remaining forces are accompanied by the right kind of feeling, they can become the means of nourishing higher Spiritual Beings. Our concepts become food for these higher Spiritual Beings. In other words, we must try to acquire knowledge for the sake of the Gods, just as wheat also grows in order that human beings may find nourishment.

The substance which man receives as nourishment, however, must be for him. And in the same way, our knowledge must be rendered fit for the Gods by our attitude towards it. Indeed the healthy evolution of mankind depends very largely upon whether this kind of feeling is developed.

In the ancient Mysteries and Mystery Schools, knowledge was kept holy as a matter of course. One of the main reasons why everyone was not admitted to the Mysteries was that whoever sought admittance must prove that to him knowledge was really a holy thing, conceived as an offering to the Gods. Moreover this feeling was actually present. It was born from an atavistic instinct in man. In our own day this feeling is something that we must acquire once again. For good reason, human beings have been living through an age during which they have grown into materialism. But they must heal themselves of this materialism by associating their knowledge once again with the feelings that it must be offered up to the Gods. In the future ahead of us, however, this attitude will have to be acquired consciously and the only possibility of fulfillment will be if Spiritual Science grows and spreads among humanity. Knowledge must not be like a grain of wheat which falls into the Earth and decays. Knowledge that is placed only in the service of outer utility, in the service of mechanical, utilitarian purposes in the outer world—such knowledge is like the seeds which decay. Knowledge that is not placed in the service of the Divine, disappears and is lost. It can be used neither for the purpose of helping us in our next incarnation, nor for the nourishment of higher Spiritual Beings. The decay of a grain of wheat is a very real process. The dissipation of knowledge that is not made into an offering to the Gods is also a real process. It would lead too far afield to-day if I were to tell you what is really signified by the decay of the numberless grains of wheat that are sown in the soil. But Knowledge that is not placed in the service of the Divine is seized by Ahriman. It passes into his service and constitutes his power. Through the Spiritual Beings who are his servants, Ahriman then incorporates it into the world-process and sets up more hindrances to this world process than are justifiably and of necessity there. For Ahriman is the God of hindrances.

In this way, then, I have given you some idea of the significance of all that lives in our being in the form of knowledge and of truth.