Donate books to help fund our work. Learn more→

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

The Karma of Vocation
GA 172

Lecture IV

12 November 1916, Dornach

Someone might say that the spiritual scientific reflections touching on the problem of vocation are among the least interesting. But such is not the case. This must be recognized, especially in our fifth post-Atlantean period, because in this period all human relationships will be essentially modified in comparison with those that prevailed in earlier periods of the earth. They will be so modified that man must, out of his own freedom, bring more with him than in earlier ages when his mission in the evolution of earth could be carried out almost instinctively; that is, when he received by inspiration the direction into which he had to go.

When we look back, for example, to the Egypto-Chaldean culture or to other cultures of earlier times, we shall find that the measure of freedom now given to man toward forging his external destiny—and this freedom will constantly increase—was not given him in earlier times. During the Egypto-Chaldean period, the fact that each person belonged to a certain class into which he or she was forced similar to the way an animal is forced into its species, though not so irrevocably, removed from the sphere of man's freedom much that at present belongs there. To be sure, there was a compensation for this limitation of freedom. Students of the external history of culture who are generally quite shortsighted in their thinking, usually assume that conditions in ancient times were such that those who were then guiding human affairs did so with the same impulses as the leading personalities today. But you must bear in mind that there were quite definite processes in the mysteries in ancient times whereby the guiding personalities acquainted themselves with what was willed by beings who guide life from regions outside the earth. I have told you that at certain times—we do not need now to review them—sacrificial priests carried out specified mystery rituals. As a result, certain personalities in the temples who were suited for such purposes were brought into contact with the universe, the cosmos, the extraterrestrial relationships. The consciousness of these specially qualified personalities was then inspired by beings who guided the earth from extraterrestrial regions, and what was learned from these beings determined the course of action.

I will show you through a hypothetical case how things took their course in earlier times. Suppose that today the Christmas festival was not more or less an external holiday for most people, but that in its form and time of occurrence men knew that our earth is especially fitted to receive ideas into its aura that cannot enter, for example, in summer. I have explained how the earth is awake during the winter and that Christmas time is one of the most brilliant points of this waking state. At that time the aura of the earth is permeated, interwoven, with thoughts. We may say that the earth is permeated, interwoven, with thoughts. We may say that the earth ponders the outer universe, just as we men, while in the waking state of day, reflect in our thought on what is around us. In summer the earth sleeps, so it is not possible then to find certain thoughts in it. In winter the earth is awake, and most wide awake at Christmas; then the earth's aura is interpenetrated with thoughts, and it is possible to read the will of the cosmos for our earthly events from them.

Now the sacrificial priests educated some individuals in such a way that they became sensitive and receptive to what was alive in the earth's aura. By putting these individuals into contact with the earthly thoughts that gave expression to the cosmic will, the sacrificial priests in the temples could learn it from them. What they learned was to them, in a sense, the will of heaven, and from this they were able to determine who should remain in a particularly worthy position and who should be taken into the mysteries in order that he might assume a leading position in ancient government or priestly life. Humanity has now outgrown such things and is exposed to chaos in this respect; we must simply recognize this fact. The transition from the ancient, quite definite conditions in which men learned from the will of the gods what was to happen here on earth has already occurred. During the fourth post-Atlantean period, in which the individual freed himself from the will of the cosmos, these ancient customs passed over into our present more chaotic conditions. Everything tends to be handed over more completely to man. Thus, it is all the more necessary that the will of the cosmos shall penetrate earthly conditions in another way.

It would require much time to make clear how in the third Egypto-Babylonian culture period something still lived and wove in earthly life from the various vocations of men—to use a term adapted to our present conditions—that was in large measure a reproduction of the will of the cosmos. This came about as described and was disappearing during the fourth post-Atlantean period. It has vanished completely in our fifth post-Atlantean period which began, as we know, approximately in the fifteenth century. If men would pay more attention today to what is happening and stop offering a fable convenue in place of history, they would be able to recognize, even from external conditions, how man's relation to his vocation has changed since the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. They would recognize from present conditions how everything will increasingly become different in the future. But a sort of anarchy would inevitably overtake mankind if no one were to grasp these deeper connections and impart to the intellectual community ideas that take into account the modifications produced by the natural course of evolution. What it has been possible to establish even from external history regarding the emergence of what we might call the modern vocational life since the fifteenth century would cause astonishment to those who are at all able to observe human life. If they would submit to the influence of all that it is possible to recognize, they would find fault with themselves, in a way, for living in such a somnolent state and for having no conception of what is connected with evolving human destiny.

Last time, I called your attention to the fact that what constitutes real vocational life is by no means so insignificant for the cosmic complex as it may at first appear. I pointed out that, as men, we have gone successively through the Saturn evolution, where the first potentialities of the physical body were prepared; the Sun period, in which the etheric man was prepared; the Moon period, in which the astral man was prepared, and that we are now passing through the earth period in which the ego develops. But other periods are to follow: The Jupiter, Venus, and Vulcan times. We may say that the earth is, in a way, the fourth stage of Saturn; likewise, Vulcan is the fourth stage of the earth. The earth is, in a sense, the Saturn of Vulcan. Just as on ancient Saturn processes occurred so intimately bound up with evolution that we owe the first potentiality of our physical body to them, which still continues to work in us, so must something happen on earth that will continue to work on in our evolution. On Vulcan it will attain a fourth stage of development, just as certain processes on Saturn have reached a fourth stage of development of earth. I pointed out that those processes that would correspond to Vulcan correspond to what we have on earth from the Saturn evolution; they represent, therefore, what works and lives in the various vocations that men take up on earth. As humans pursue vocational lives, something develops on earth within their vocational activity that will be the first potentiality for Vulcan, just as the Saturn activity was the first potentiality for our physical body.

If you add to this reflection the fact that vocational life has undergone a tremendous transformation since the beginning of the fifth post-Atlantean period, you will understand how increasingly important it will become to conceive of it as a component of the entire world evolution provided you do this by means of those points of view that may be developed through spiritual science. Only by learning first to recognize the objective aspects of vocational life can we form suitable concepts regarding the karma of vocation. Of even greater interest will be the question where vocational life is going and what it will develop into from our age onward because from this we shall derive more clear-cut concepts than from today's conditions.

As can easily be recognized when we take a common sense look out into the world today, the future evolution of vocational life will consist in the ever increasing differentiation and specialization of vocations. It is not too intelligent for people to criticize the fact that, in recent times, vocations have become more specialized and that not so many centuries ago a person could find in his vocation the connections between what he was producing and what this meant for the world. He thereby would take an interest in the forming and shaping of his product because he saw clearly what his product became in life. In our times, this is no longer the case for much of humanity.

To take a radical example, a man is placed by his destiny in a factory where he perhaps makes, not a whole nail, but only part of one; this piece is then joined with another part by another man. Thus, the man who makes only part of the nail can develop no interest in how what he produced from morning until night takes its place in the relationships of life. If we compare the earlier handicraft life with the factory life of today, we are immediately aware of a radical difference between what is contemporary and what existed not too long ago. What has already come to pass in the various branches of human activity will continue to develop, and more specialization and differentiation of vocational life will necessarily occur. It is by no means especially intelligent for people to criticize this because it is a necessity in evolution; it simply will happen, and will happen more and more.

What sort of outlook is opened to us by this fact? Fundamentally, it is that men must increasingly lose interest, as we can readily imagine, in the work that occupies the greater part of their lives; in a way, they must surrender like automatons to their work in the world. But the most essential point is something else. Man's inner nature must obviously acquire the color of his outer work. Anyone who observes the historic development of humanity will certainly discover to what a large extent the men of the recent fifth post-Atlantean period have become reproductions of their vocations and how their vocational lives influence their soul lives, specializing them. This does not apply to the majority of those who live today within our Anthroposophical Society, however. They are often in the fortunate position of having detached themselves from the interconnections of life. In the fortunate position? I might just as well say in the unfortunate position! This is good fortune often only for subjective egoistic feeling. For the world, it is often bad fortune because the world will demand increasingly of men that they excel in special fields and become specialists.

But what must happen in addition to this? Their specialization will be a necessary by-product of world evolution, and this question will soon become one of the weightiest of family problems; anyone who wishes to educate children will have to understand it. To place oneself rationally within the course of evolution then will depend altogether upon an understanding of the question: How shall I place my child into the evolution of humanity? What is still possible in many cases today, even though it is only a residue left over from ancient times that people routinely cling to, will soon prove to be empty phrases; that is, the fine manner of speaking so much admired today, according to which children must be allowed to become what corresponds to their observed talents. This will soon prove to be an empty phrase. In the first place, people will see that those who are born from now on will give indications of their previous incarnations in a more complex way than was the case with people in the fourth post-Atlantean epoch. They will show complex potentialities that no one would have dreamed of before since these potentialities were far simpler in earlier times. Those who consider themselves especially clever in testing the potentialities of grown children to determine whether or not they are fitted for this or that vocation may learn that the insights derived from these tests are nothing but their own fantastic imaginations.

In the near future, however, life will be so complicated that the word profession will take on an entirely different meaning. Today we still often associate something quite inward with the word, calling it “vocation,” although for most people their vocations do not at all represent anything inward. We conceive vocation (calling) as something toward which a person is called by his inner qualities. However, if we would question people about their calling, especially in our cities, many would say, “I am in my profession because I am convinced this is the only one that corresponds to my talents and inclinations that I have had since childhood.” Yet, closer inspection of these cases would reveal that the answers given did not correspond with the facts, and I imagine they are not congruent with your own observation of life. Today, a vocation is increasingly that to which a person is called by the world's objective course of development. There outside of men is the organism, the interconnection; you may call it, if you please, the machine—this is not important—that gives orders, that calls him.

All this will constantly intensify and, as a result, what humanity accomplishes through vocational activity is also detached from man himself; it becomes more objective. Through this detachment, vocational activity grows increasingly into something that, in its further development through Jupiter, Venus, and Vulcan, goes through a process of development similar to what has taken place for the earth through Saturn, Sun, and Moon. It is a peculiar fact that when one speaks as a spiritual scientist it is not possible to flatter human beings if the subject is related intimately to their lives. Spiritual science will be less and less exposed, you see, to the danger of expressing itself according to the model of wisdom to be found in the words:

At best a pompous moralistic play
With wonderfully edifying quips,
Most suitable to come from puppets' lips.67 Kaufmann's translation. See footnote 21.

Spiritual science will certainly not be in a position to do this. It will often be compelled to set forth as something significantly great for the evolution of the world the very thing that people would prefer not to hear. It will therefore be inevitable that some people today who consider themselves exceedingly bright because their philistinism has crept into their brains will glibly declare, “Oh, professional life is a prosaic, mundane matter.” The way vocational life appears to true spiritual science compels us to declare that through the very fact that this life becomes detached from human interests, it contains the necessity to develop relationships possessing a cosmic significance. Many people might think that a depressing view of the future results from this: increasingly people are caught in the treadmill of life and spiritual science cannot even console them that this has happened.

It would, however, be a great deception should one draw such a conclusion from what has been said since the nature of the universe requires things to be unified through polar opposites. Just consider how these polarities thrust themselves upon you in the world! It is, for example, in their mutual relationship that positive and negative electricity produce their unified effects. Positive and negative electricity are necessary to each other. Male and female are necessary for the propagation of the human race. It is from polarities that unity evolves in the evolution of the world.

Now, the same principle is at the bottom of what has been said. When vocational labor is separated from the human being, we necessarily create the first cosmic potentiality for a far-reaching cosmic evolution. Everything that happens in the evolution of the world is related to the spiritual, and in what we create within the sphere of our vocations, whether by bodily or by mental labor, there lies the possibility for the incarnation of spiritual beings. At present, during this earth stage, these spiritual beings are, to be sure, still of an elemental kind; we might say an elemental kind of the fourth degree. But they will have become elemental beings of the third degree during the Jupiter evolution, and so on. The labor in the objective vocational process is detached from us and becomes the external sheath for elemental beings who thereby continue their development. But this occurs only under a certain condition.

If it be said that we must first begin to understand the meaning of what is often belittled as the prosaic part of life, we must also understand that this meaning is not clarified until we comprehend it completely in its comprehensive cosmic connection. What we produce in our vocational life can become meaningful for the Vulcan evolution, but something else is prerequisite to this. Just as positive electricity is necessary for negative, and the male necessary for the female, so also what will be released continuously from humanity as activity will require an opposite pole. A polarity of opposites was also present for humanity in its earlier evolutionary stages. Something absolutely new, of course, does not come into existence here because something similar was already present before. But when you look back at earlier cultural periods, if only two or three centuries ago, you will find that the human being was still far more immersed in his professional life with his feelings and passions, in fact with all his emotions, than today. When you compare the joy that a human being could still experience in his or her profession even a hundred years ago with the dissatisfaction of many people today who have nothing but their profession, you will be able to form an impression of what really needs to be said.

Such things are really considered rightly far too infrequently for the simple reason that those who discuss the character and choice of vocation are those who can least afford to talk about this subject matter. Schoolmasters, literary scholars, parsons—the very people who least experience the dark side of vocational activity in the modern world—write about these things. Thus you will find in ordinary literature and even in pedagogical books that people express themselves on this subject like the blind discussing colors. Of course, someone who has finished elementary and high school, and then looked around a little in a university because that's the thing to do, may easily consider himself unusually clever with the ideas he has absorbed; that is, if he now plays the role of a reformer of humanity who can tell us how everything should be done. There are, indeed, many such individuals. A person who has gained a proper perception of life knows that they are the ones who usually talk most stupidly about what must come about. This is ordinarily not observed simply because those who have acquired such educational credentials are at present highly respected. The time is yet to come when the feeling will develop that the so-called men of letters, the journalists and narrowly educated schoolmasters, understand the interrelationships of life least of all. This must gradually develop as a general opinion.

It is important that we come to see more clearly how in earlier times man's emotional life was intricately related with his professional life and how subsequently the latter has increasingly become disengaged from man's emotional life and must continue to do so. For this reason, the polar opposite of vocational life must become something different from what it was earlier. What was this element that was added earlier to vocational life? You have it before you today when you consider what constitutes the shell of culture. The buildings in which professions are practiced and in the midst of these, the church, have become the sheath and shell of culture; the days of the week reserved for work, and Sunday reserved for the needs of the soul. These were the two poles: the vocational life and the life dedicated to religious conceptions.

It would be one of the greatest mistakes that could be made to suppose that this other pole as it is still conceived today by the religious denominations could remain as it is, since it was made to fit a vocational life still bound up with the emotions of men. All of human life will deteriorate unless understanding increases in this sphere. So long as the elemental spirit that an individual creates in his vocation, as I have described, was not separated from him, the old religious conceptions still sufficed to some extent. Today they are no longer sufficient, and they will become less so the farther we advance into the future. The very idea that is most vociferously opposed by certain people must be revived; that is, the opposite pole, consisting of the fact that men shall be able to form concrete concepts regarding the spiritual worlds, should enter into evolution.

The representatives of the religious sects will often say, “Oh, there they are in spiritual science talking about many spirits and gods, but it is the one God that is important; with Him alone we have enough.” Thus, we can still make an impression on people today if we present them with the great advantage of coming into contact with one god, especially during after-dinner coffee and family music, when contemptuous remarks are made about other more recent endeavors, and ideas are expressed in an especially egotistic and philistine fashion. But what is really important is that human horizons should be broadened; that is, that we should learn to know that everything is permeated not just by a single divine spirit conceived in the vaguest way possible, but that spirit is also omnipresent in a concrete, special sense. People must learn to know that when a workman stands at his vice and the sparks fly about elemental spirits are being created which pass over into the world process and there have their significance. Those especially clever ones will claim that this is stupid. These elemental spirits, however, will certainly come into existence even though the one working at the vice is unconscious of them. Nevertheless, they will still be created, and it is important that they shall come into existence in the right way since elemental spirits both destructive and helpful to the world process can come into being.

You will most clearly understand what I mean if you consider it in a special context because in all these things we are standing today at the threshold of new evolutionary developments. Many people already have an inkling of this. Should it be transformed into reality and people fail to have spiritual scientific aspirations, it would be the worst thing that could happen to the earth. What has come about primarily during the course of the fourth post-Atlantean epoch is that the human being has been liberated from the external, inorganic world which he embodied in his tools. Eventually, he will be reunited with what he has embodied in them.

Today, machines are constructed. Of course, they are at present objective, containing little of the human element. But it will not always be so. The course of the world tends to bring about a connection between what the human being is and what he produces and brings into existence. This connection will become ever more intimate. It will appear first in those areas that furnish the foundation for closer relations between one person and another—for example, in the treatment of chemical substances that are used in medicines. People still believe that when sulphur, oxygen, and some other substance—hydrogen or something else—have been combined, the product of this combination possesses only those effects that are derived from the individual substances. Today this is still true to a large extent, but the course of world evolution is tending toward something different. The subtle pulsations lying in the human being's life of will and disposition will weave and incorporate themselves gradually into what he produces. Thus, it will not be a matter of indifference from whom a certain preparation is received.

Even the most external and cold technical development tends toward a quite definite goal. Anyone who can form a vague conception of the future of technical development knows that an entire factory will operate in a completely individual way that will be in keeping with the one who directs it. His or her attitude of mind will enter into the factory and will pass over into the way in which the machines work. Human beings will blend with this objectivity. Everything that they touch will gradually come to bear a human impression. No matter how stupid it may seem today to the clever people—in spite of St. Paul having said that what men consider to be clever is often foolishness in the eyes of God68 I Corinthians, 1:20: “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?“ —people will realize that the time will come when an individual will be able to step up to a mechanism standing at rest and will know that to set it in motion he must move his hand this way, that way, and another way. Through the vibrations of the air caused by this signal, the motor,69 Rudolf Steiner says in the third lecture of “Weltwesen und Ichheit“ [The Essence of the World and Selfness], Bibl.-No. 169, CE (1963) that the American Keely invented such a motor in the 19th century. adjusted beforehand to respond to it, will be set in motion.

Then, national economic development will become such that to patent machines will be quite impossible; such things will be replaced by what I have just explained. Thus, everything will be excluded that has no relation to human nature, and by this it will be possible to bring about something quite definite. Just imagine what a truly good person who has reached an especially high level of morality will in future be able to do. He will construct machines with signals that can be governed only by individuals like himself. Evil minded people will produce quite different vibrations when they make these signals, and the machine will not respond.

People already have a faint inkling of this. It is not without purpose that I have called your attention to certain individuals who study flames dancing under the influence of definite tones. Further research in this direction will reveal the way to what I have just indicated. We might, indeed, say that it is the path back to those times when an alchemist who only wished to stuff money into his pocket could accomplish nothing, whereas another, who wished only to set up a sacrament for the glory of the gods and the welfare of humanity, would be successful.

In a sense, so long as what arose from human work bore the aura of the emotions and joys that men transferred into it, it was not accessible to the kind of influence that I have just described. But to the extent that the products of vocational labor can no longer be produced with special and absolutely necessary enthusiasm, what thus flows away from men and streams forth from them can become a motor force. The truth is that through the fact that individuals can no longer unite their emotions with the world of machinery, they, in a way, restore to this world the purity that arises from or serves their labor. In the future it will no longer be possible for people to bestow the warmth gained from the enthusiasm and joy derived from their work on the things produced. But these things themselves will be purer as they are put into the world by workers. They will also become more susceptible to what will emanate from, and be predetermined by, man as a motor force, as I have described.

Such a direction to human evolution can only be given by concrete knowledge of the spiritual forces that can be discovered by spiritual science. In order that this development may occur, it is necessary for an ever greater number of individuals in the world to gradually find the opposite pole. This consists in uniting one human being with another in what rises far above all vocational labor, while at the same time illumining and permeating it. Life in the spiritual scientific movement furnishes the foundation for a united life that can bind all professions together. If there were only an external advance of vocational evolution, this would result in a dissolution of human ties; people would become less able to understand one another or to develop relationships according to the requirements of human nature. They would increasingly disregard one another, seek only their own advantage, and have only competitive relationships with one another. This must not be permitted to come to pass lest humanity thereby fall into complete decadence. To prevent this from happening, spiritual science must be propagated.

It is possible to describe truly what many people are today unconsciously striving for, even though they deny it. There are many today, you know, who say, “This talk about the spiritual is ancient twaddle! The true advance that will really bring about human progress is to be found in the development of the physical sciences. When men get beyond all this twaddle about spiritual things, we will then, in a way, have a paradise on earth.”

Should nothing prevail in humanity except competition and the compensatory acquisitive instinct, however, it would not be paradise on earth but hell. After all, there would have to be another pole if real progress were to take place. If a spiritual pole were not sought for, there would have to be an ahrimanic pole. Then the following argument would prevail: “Should vocations continue to be specialized, there would always be a certain unity in that one person would be this, another that, but all would have the common characteristic of acquiring as much as possible through their jobs.” True, all would be made alike, but this is simply an ahrimanic principle. It is incorrect to think that the world can reach its goal through such a one-sided evolution, proceeding purely in the external sphere as we have described it. To follow this line of thinking would be tantamount to a woman's arguing that men had gradually become worse, were really utterly unfit for the world, and should be completely exterminated, and that then we would get the right evolution of the physical world.

It would require a weird person, indeed, to hold such a view since nothing whatever could be achieved by getting rid of all the men. Because this applies to the sensory world, people understand it, but they do not understand such foolishness in reference to the spiritual world. Yet, it is the same for spiritual relationships as if someone were to suppose that mere external evolution could continue to progress; it cannot. Just as the earlier evolutionary periods required the abstract religions, so this new stage requires a more concrete spiritual knowledge as it is striven for in the spiritual scientific movement. The elemental beings that are created and released through the vocational labor of men must be fructified by the human soul with what it takes into itself from impulses striving upward to the spiritual regions. Not that this is the only mission of spiritual science, but it is the mission related to the advancing and changing vocational life. Therefore, world evolution demands that as professions become more specialized and mechanized, people feel the need for the opposite pole to become proportionately more intensely active in them. This means that each human being should fill his soul with what brings him close to every other human being, no matter what their specialized work may be.

All this leads to much more. As we will hear in due course, a new age will emerge from what we may describe as our own time's indifference to and withdrawal from life, which is frequently the experience of working people these days. In the new age, human beings will again perform their work from different impulses. These will really be no worse than those good old vocational impulses that cannot be renewed, but must be replaced by others of a different sort. In this connection we can already point today, not merely abstractly but quite concretely, to a human ideal that spiritual science will develop. This will show what even a vocation may become to human beings when they understand how to observe the signs of the times in the right manner.

We shall continue our reflections regarding the significance of these matters for the individual, and for karma.