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The Karma of Vocation
GA 172

Lecture VI

18 November 1916, Dornach

You have seen how involved the more profound questions of destiny are in human life, something we recognize when we try to approach them in ways made possible by spiritual science. For this, however, many things today will be necessary if man is to correctly put himself into the nature of those phenomena that lead to a truly fruitful grasp of life. When we consider these involved problems, we must frequently take roundabout paths in order to see clearly the difficulties that hinder our understanding. We have all grown up, in a sense, in the thinking of the present, and even though many of us suppose we have attained to unprejudiced thinking, it is always well to be quite unsparing in testing ourselves and our self-knowledge, especially the unprejudiced character of our thinking. Before we proceed further, therefore, permit me to draw your attention to some particulars.

It is often difficult to discuss these things because language is obstinate when we undertake to work out concepts in accord with reality. It is easy to suppose that a concept that has been worked out and is, as it were, obtained from the sum total of occult science is directed toward an entirely different objective than is really intended. In this way, various misunderstandings arise. A certain observation may frequently be made when we discuss the course of life of eminent personalities. I will give you an example. A small brochure has just been published in Switzerland. It deals with the person we have mentioned in a different connection, Friedrich Theodor Vischer, the author of Auch Einer and the great Aesthetics, and describes with loving devotion the life of this true-hearted and extraordinarily prolific Swabian. Permit me to mention him here simply as an example of some things that we desire to consider in connection with the question of human destiny; we could just as well select another example.

Vischer was as true a Swabian by nature as might be found in the nineteenth century. The biographical sketch73 Franza Feilbogen, F. Th. Vischer's “Auch Einer“ (Zurich, 1916). that has just been published shows how he grew up in poverty, how this compelled him to take the theological training in the Tubingen seminary, and so on. Now, the point that interested me is that at the very beginning attention is called to the fact that even his secondary schooling was rather narrow. To be sure, the boys learned to get along in Latin and later in the Greek writers, but they really did not know until a rather late age into what main river the Neckar empties, nor had they even seen a map until they were fairly well along in years. Many such defects in the educational system are mentioned.

Now let us look at the matter in the right light. Friedrich Theodor Vischer became, in a sense, a great and famous man who accomplished something important. We must understand how he became the specific individual we find in history. The fact that he had never seen a map before a particular age has something to do with this; if he had seen a map earlier, a certain trait in his character would not have been present. Much else that is severely criticized had to be so. In short, if we view the matter from a more comprehensive standpoint, we shall say that the soul of Vischer descended from the spiritual world and chose precisely his environment. It wanted to have just the education that would keep it for a time from seeing a map. Likewise, his soul wanted to be close to the Neckar river but did not wish to know into which major river it emptied. If we study Vischer, we shall see that precisely all his whims and abundant peculiarities are truly integrating components of his greatness. So it seems really out of order for someone to write his biography and criticize the school that actually made him the very man he was.

Let it be clearly understood that I did not want to emphasize that schools which do not show maps to children are of the right kind. But for Vischer it was entirely right and had to be so. We have often experienced this in the nineteenth century and up to the present day. Certain famous scientists are a case in point. They were quick to criticize the present system of education, demanding that much more natural science be introduced into the schools. However, when someone would ask the scientists: “You yourselves experienced these conditions—do you find them so terribly bad,” they generally did not know what to say. We must understand clearly that everything has at least two and, under some circumstances, many sides. What do we have really when a biographer sits down and so forms his concepts and ideas—in this case the biographer was a woman—that such a thing is written as I have just told you about Vischer? It really contributes nothing whatever to an understanding of the personality concerned. When someone forms such concepts, he actually slashes—spiritually, I mean—into the person with whom he is dealing. If we do not wish to slash into a personality with our concepts, we should simply have to characterize in a loving way the nature of the school in all its narrowness and how it brought forth this individuality. But people slash—and criticize, which is surely slashing in many respects. What is the cause of this?

It comes from cruelty, a quite definite characteristic that is widespread in the thought system of the present and is rooted in the subconscious. Since people lack the courage to practice this cruelty outwardly, they are cruel in their concepts and ideas. In many works of the present time we observe this cruelty in descriptions and representations. We observe it in much that is done and said, and it is far more common at the bottom of the soul than is ordinarily supposed. I have told you that in some schools of black magic the custom exists of acquiring the means for performing black magic by having the novitiate cut into the flesh of living animals. Certain characteristics are thus developed in the soul. Not everyone can do that at present, but many people gratify the same lust through their system of concepts; this does not lead to black magic, of course, but to our present civilization. Much today is permeated by this characteristic; of this we must be entirely clear. We arrive at an unprejudiced grasp of the world only by paying attention to such things; it is achieved in no other way.

Today, beginnings tending toward attaining a particular view of the relationships of the fifth post-Atlantean epoch do exist everywhere. We do not come to understand this period when we simply criticize it or surrender to an abstract idealism, without taking into consideration that what appears in the form of mechanism, as a mechanistic culture, belongs absolutely and necessarily to it. Merely to condemn the mechanical element has no meaning whatever. Now, beginnings toward some understanding of what gives continuing life to our fifth post-Atlantean epoch have actually appeared, but few concepts that correspond with reality have yet been found for it and there is little inclination to pay attention to those who have tried to grasp it. It will be necessary for us to deal with these people whose endeavors will be a point of departure for true energetic, spiritual scientific activities.

There is a significant poet of the fifth post-Atlantean epoch through whose poetic works the life of the age pulses. This is Max Eyth,74 Max von Eyth (1836–1906) was an engineer and author of the book Hinter Pflug und Schraubstock (Behind Plough and Bench-Vice]. He introduced the steam-plough that was developed by John Fowler to Egypt, America, and Germany. who ought to be better known because he is truly a poet of our epoch. He is also a Swabian, the son of a schoolmaster who wanted his son also to be a schoolmaster but karma willed otherwise. Relatively early in his life he chose a technical vocation, became a true technician, and then went abroad to England. There he devoted himself especially to the production of steam-ploughs and became their poet. The way he has sung with warm, loving heart of these amazing mechanical beasts is today's true poetry. There is a peculiar interplay of sentiment in this heart. On the one hand, he is a man fully devoted to technology; on the other, he is receptive to everything that can be grasped without preconceptions by an intellect schooled in the mechanistic-materialistic concepts of the fifth post-Atlantean epoch.

Max Eyth wrote a novel which deals with the modern life of Egypt, where the English company that employed him frequently sent him to introduce and test the steam-ploughs. This novel contains an explanation of how the pyramids were built according to a specific system. Now, if you calculate certain ratios that Eyth discovered and included in a supplement to one of his novels, you will find, up to the thirtieth decimal point at least, the so-called number,75 The “Ludolf number“ was named after the mathematician Ludwig van Ceulen (1540–1610). π, by which the diameter of a circle must be multiplied in order to arrive at the circumference. You understand: 3.14159 ... carrying many decimals and extending to infinity. It might easily be supposed that this symbol π represents the result of later scientific progress. However, it occurred to Max Eyth that the ancient Egyptian temple priests must have known it up to the thirtieth or fortieth decimal point in primeval times because they used it to determine the ratios according to which they built the pyramids. In other words, because Eyth was a technician, something was disclosed to him that is deeply hidden in the ancient structure of the pyramids. Thus he was able to point out that our culture really has two origins: the one that we know from historical records and that of ancient times in which people depended on a kind of knowledge that relied more on atavistic clairvoyance; this later disappeared and today must be found again.

But still other things are to be found in Max Eyth. However insignificant it seems, this is extraordinarily important. One of his stories, a collection of which is entitled Behind the Plow and Vice, brings you face to face with a riddle of life, a riddle of destiny. It contains a splendid description of an engineer's capacities and ability to build bridges. But he is a little too brilliant; one might say, a bit careless. After he has built a bridge, which is again described in a splendid way, he is in a train passing over the bridge. There he sits in the train, but he has overlooked something in building the bridge. As he passes over it, it collapses and he is killed. This is an impressive karmic question—not answered, naturally, but posed. We see here how modern man approaches the profound question of destiny. Here we have a man who is brilliant in his profession and who dies at a relatively early age through his connection with a work that he created. I should like to say that this poetic fiction raises an important question of a sort that spiritual science seeks to answer. Such things do, of course, happen in the numerous variations of life. Now we have described a case that shows us how karma is fulfilled swiftly and precipitously. To be sure, such an event makes karma inevitable, but let us suppose hypothetically that in another case the person was not on the train as it passed over the bridge, but was sitting at home by the fire. Then he would probably have been imprisoned for a couple of years because of his mistake, but not much more than that would have happened to him in this life. What then?

You see, the important point is that what had brought death to this man, the death he suffered in connection with his work, must enter his karma either here in this life or in the life between death and a new birth. The experience must be gone through, but it may be accelerated as in the case described by Eyth, or it may be extended over a longer period of time. Indeed, life itself in the fifth post-Atlantean epoch will raise profound questions of destiny and the very conditions of life in this epoch will make people realize how life reveals riddles in a new way that is different from that of earlier epochs.

Thus, when we consider people who are really somewhat gifted with brilliant intellects, we can observe that they seek today for different complexities of life in their artistic creation than those of earlier periods. How frequently it happents that the individuals who do discover significant complexities of life are those who are engaged in practical vocations. From this point of view the books of Max Eyth are extraordinarily instructive: first, because he is really a great and gifted writer, and second, because, as an entirely modern human being, he creates wholly from the requirements of modern life. It is especially interesting—permit me to make this remark parenthetically—that those who read Eyth learn through this mere outward exposure much that it would be important for theosophists to know—for example, many things connected with the life of Olcott,76 Henry Steel Olcott (1832–1907). the first president of the Theosophical Society. We find this hidden away in the writings of Eyth, who was in America at a time when Olcott was doing all kinds of strange things there. In short, even social karma may thrust itself upon us when we do not disdain acquainting ourselves with what this modern spirit has written. In general, however, the peculiar fact is that often not the individuals gifted with genius—Max Eyth was a genius—but those formed by the life-mechanisms of the fifth post-Atlantean epoch, see the intricacies of modern life with special clearness because their minds are formed in a special way.

I am acquainted with a man who was a jurist in his younger years77 Dr. Max Burckhard (1854–1912). The description is based on Hermann Bahr's Erinnerung an Burckhard [In Memory of Burckhard] (Berlin, 1913). Cf. Rudolf Steiner, “Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Dramaturgie“ [Collected Essays on Dramaturgy], Bibl.-No. 29, CE (Dornach, 1960), p. 60 ff. (“The Crisis of the Vienna Burg-theater“). —a time when one could be a legal mind without necessarily realizing his financial gains from the practice of law. He was a clear-headed person who viewed everything without preconceptions, who by reason of his gifts attracted the attention of his superiors, as one calls them, not so much on account of his brilliance, but because he was a good and diligent worker whom they could use. Now, since he had established his reputation as an actuary or assessor, he entered a government ministry where he was also a remarkable worker who viewed everything with open eyes. There he was once assigned an important, significant task. He was to prepare a report on matters pertaining to the schools and to education and he was instructed to prepare it in such a way that it would indicate a transition to a sort of liberal system. That pleased him and, since he was a clearheaded individual who saw through the present state of affairs, an excellent report resulted, really an excellent plan of reform that looked to liberalizing and modernizing some of the conditions in the schools. But while he was working on his report, the market changed, as people say, and a reactionary report was required. His superior then said to him, “This report is so good that you certainly will be able to prepare a comparable reactionary report also; now, can you do this?” The man replied, “No, that I cannot do!” “Indeed, why not?” “Because this report presents my conviction!” “What? This is your conviction?” Well, the superior was most indignant and saw quite clearly that he no longer had any use for this man, a person not only diligent but also possessed of a conviction of his own. Clearly, such a person could not be used.

Yet, the man was an excellent jurist and worker. What could be done? He had proven himself everywhere, and it was well known that he was a competent jurist. Well, the effort was made to give him a promotion. People who have proven themselves in this way must, if possible, be kept contented. Things were arranged a little behind the scenes, as the expression goes, and one day—I think it was at a game of skittles—the secretary of a theater met this person as if by chance and said to him, “Do you know that the position of director of an important theater is vacant?” Now, the jurist, who had been attached to a government ministry, could not take it amiss when he was given this news. So when the game was over, the secretary said to him, “Won't you join me at the coffee house so I can explain the matter in detail? Would you like to be a theater director? We need one, but we cannot know, of course, when we select someone whether he would want the position under present conditions.” Then the jurist, who was quite intelligent and well versed in juristic matters and things pertaining to administration, replied, “Of course, that simply has to be accepted. One must be willing and, if one is not, he will simply be arrested.” Now, the end of the affair was that the position of director of the theater was offered him. There was one difficulty, however. There was a famous actress connected with the theater and whoever was to become the director had to be acceptable to her. “Well now,” said the secretary, “can you also get along with this actress?” “Oh, if that's all that's required! I have been in a theater no more than seven times in my life but, if I take this job, I shall certainly be able to get along with her. Can you tell me what she likes to eat?” Now, the other knew that her favorite food was poppyseed cake. That was lucky. He said, “We will go at once to the bakery and order a large cake for her.” This was delivered early the next morning. In the afternoon the secretary called on the actress in order—well, I suppose to sound her out, as the expression goes. He knew that she had a good deal of influence so he said to her. “We should like very much to have this gentleman as director. What do you think of him?” “Well,” she answered, “I don't know him at all, but so far he has only been good to me.” So the jurist became the director of the theater.

Well, the most famous critic of that city still had to be won over. He was always writing the most terrible stuff until one day he also was brought around—at least, to such an extent that even if he did not write approvingly of the director, he did not disapprove either. This came about in the following way. I am not telling you a fairy story but something that actually happened; I only wish to describe it to you. So, the most highly placed person connected with the theater, even above the director, did not know what to do because of the critic. The new director was simply there, and he gave a good account of himself, being just as competent as the director of the theater as he had previously been as a jurist. But their top executive simply did not know what to do. He could not discharge the director, but the critic kept up his clamor. What did he finally do? He invited both of them in and served them some good wine. The director could drink and drink and drink. So could the critic, but not to equal the director. So it happened that early the following morning—about five o'clock, I think—the director rang the critic's doorbell and said he had to speak to his wife because he had left something quite heavy down below on the steps that he had to deliver to her. Well, she put on her dressing gown and he delivered her husband to her, a veritable bundle of misery. From that very hour the criticism decreased. Later, after this man had gone too far as a theater director in the view of his superiors, he was once more helped to a promotion in the legal profession.

Now, this man described in a remarkable way what he had observed in his occupation, and I wish only to show by this example that those people who are involved in the actual life of the present can make quite significant comments on it.

Still more interesting is a similar man, but one of nobler attitude than the one I have just mentioned, who wrote various things during his life. Shortly before his death—everyone of whom I am speaking is no longer alive—he produced a very interesting novella, really a contemporary work of art. Just think how anyone can write such a short story today according to the taste of the age. There must be nothing spiritual in it and, if there is, it must be pointed out quite clearly that the reader may believe the story or not; or better, he may consider it to be merely a fable. Now, I will present the material for the story, which this writer found in contemporary life. A person lived in the same environment as the man whom I have previously described. For a number of years he belonged to the legal profession and was relatively successful. The novelist can describe this. He can show how this character passed through the stages of his career as a jurist, how he had this or that experience and underwent complications of one kind or another. Then he can weave a love story into this material; of course, that also is the modern way. That is, the writer can tell how an exotic young lady comes to the jurist accompanied by her mother, how this eminent jurist falls in love with her and how, because a theme of espionage is introduced and he has to deal with this as a judge, he is again brought into relationship with the young lady. This brings him into a conflict, and so on. The story may then relate quite realistically how he is finally led to commit suicide.

The writer to whom I refer, however, did not do this; he wove the following significant material into his story. He narrated a course of events that is outwardly almost the same as I have told you, but he also lets the jurist read Schopenhauer and other philosophers in such a way that their thoughts, I might say, become totally enmeshed with his individual being, if not his nervous system. Now, he is a competent jurist. What does it mean when one, as a judge, is a competent jurist? It means such a person must be able to discover all possible hair-splitting subtleties in order to bring about a defendant's undoing, and he must likewise discover all possible legal casuistries of the defense. In short, this jurist is extraordinarily competent, and he convicts a certain person in a set of circumstances similar to those I have just described. But the defendent in the story behaved in a most astonishing way during the trial—that is, as if demonic—and especially the look in his eyes remained unforgettable in the minds of the people who were present during the trial. Well, the person concerned was, of course, imprisoned. The whole affair was then associated with that young lady with whom the judge had fallen in love. The convicted man, who was in ill health, was sentenced to twenty years the penitentiary.

The judge is exceedingly well described in this story. He had not thought of the convict since the trial, which people thought he had conducted brilliantly, when one night he awoke at about twelve o'clock. He lay only half asleep. At about two o'clock there was a knock at the door of the room and the convict entered. You can imagine the situation, but he nevertheless fell again into a half-sleep and when he awoke, it was already day. He was now seized with a terrible fear. He went to the court; once, on the way to his chambers he heard the name of the convict called out. This terrified terrified him tremendously. He decided to study the documents again and had them brought to him. But he left them lying there for three weeks. Finally, in a conversation one day it was revealed that about two o'clock on a certain night the convict had died in the penitentiary. It was precisely the time, as the judge could establish, when the prisoner had visited him in his bedroom!

This is the plot of the story, which is called Hofrat Eysenhardt and in which the judge finally commits suicide. Hofrat Eysenhardt by Berger78 Alfred Freiherr von Berger (1853–1912) was a theater manager, first in Hamburg and then in Vienna. On December 14, 1915, Rudolf Steiner spoke in detail about the novella Hofrath Eysenhardt in the fifth lecture of the cycle “Schicksalsbildung und Leben nach dem Tode“ [The Formation of Destiny and the Life after Death], Bibl.- No. 171, CE (Dornach, 1964). is an entirely modern story and shows even through other descriptions that the author was quite familiar with various recent endeavors to penetrate the secrets of occult existence. From this point of view alone the story is brilliantly written.

Now, there is something extraordinary here. Berger is not the same writer I previously described; I introduced him only as an example of a man whose perception was incisive and who described well the very nerve of the fifth post-Atlantean epoch. I brought in this Berger as an official colleague, so to speak. Alfred Baron von Berger wrote that remarkable story, Hofrat Eysenhardt; it is written in such a way that we see he understands the various endeavors today to enter the spiritual world. Berger wrote much during the course of his life, but he published this story only after he had attained a position beyond which he could make no further progress. We may say this occurred “by chance” shortly before his death. This is most significant since it shows us that today whose who wish to get somewhere, as the expression goes, believe they make a mistake when they become involved in such things. But it also shows us how the striving of men tends in the direction of penetrating the mysterious aspects of existence. These aspects will increasingly come to the fore because they set important riddles before man.

If we wish to consider the question of destiny without presuppositions, we must first acquire a clear perception and try not to sleep through life—excuse the bald expression—but rather look around ourselves. Let me express figuratively the important point to bear in mind. Let us say that we have here one stream of life, there a second, there a third, since life consists of many streams crossing one another in the most manifold ways—for example, the life of the individual and that of groups of people, as well as the life of all humanity. The sort of concepts that dominate today are entirely too simplistic to disentangle the intertwining threads of life. Frequently, what needs to be done is to direct one's gaze first toward one point, then another, and then to relate these two points through one's perception. When we thus hit upon the right facts, the situation is then illumined.

Now, you will say, “Yes, but how can such things be accomplished?” Well, that is just the point. When you pursue spiritual science in the right way, your imagination will reveal to you those points in life that you must consider together, so that life may unveil itself to you. By contrast, if you simply trace the consecutive events of life, you will understand nothing whatever of its totality. This is the way the historians do, in a sense; they draw threads from one event to another but do not understand life at all because what is needed is to view the world symptomatically. This will become increasingly necessary; that is, to view the world in such a way that we direct our perception to the right places and then draw the lines of connection from them to other things. A clear, symptomatic view of things is especially important in the concrete study of karma—with which so much is associated that is confusing because so much is seductive in it.

I have already pointed out79 Lecture of October 30, 1916, published in Innere Entwicklungsimpulse der Menschheit [Inner Development Impulses of Mankind], Bibl.-No. 171, CE (Dornach, 1964). that some contemporary occult societies have endeavored to keep this symptomatic study as far as possible from human beings. I have called your attention to the societies that are derived from ancient institutions and still continue to call themselves “occult,” especially in Western Europe. Within these occult societies special study has been devoted to human character in order to be able to use and grasp these characteristics in the right way. All sorts of ways have been used to keep this knowledge, which is fostered within their walls, from the rest of humanity. When the connection between the occult endeavors of these modern societies and public events are some day laid bare, when the threads are exposed that lead from them to modern events and their methods are exposed, it will be exceedingly interesting. These occult societies had a way of dealing with human characters by taking in hand the threads of their karma, guiding and directing them without their being conscious of this. Simple attempts have often been made in the Theosophical Society, but they have remained for the most part dilettantish because the theosophists lacked the skills of other occult societies. It is, of course, difficult to speak about these things, especially today when an objective characterization is not only suppressed by prejudice but is even forbidden by law. It is difficult to speak of these things; indeed, in a certain sense, it is quite impossible. But intimations must be given in one way or another since it is impossible for people simply to live and share in all that flows from the karma of the age into the unconscious region of their souls and then, in spite of living in this nebulousness, also to cultivate spiritual science, which demands clear and unprejudiced minds. There must be truth in certain things, but it is not possible to gain the truth in an abstract way by hypocrisy when we have to do with things that pertain to the real occult world. What is essential is that we must have a real will to truth. Now, this will to truth meets with many obstacles, especially today because men have gradually lost their sense for it. Just think how often in public life people are not concerned with discovering the truth, but rather with saying whatever suits one person or another and offers certain advantages to them.

Nowadays one comes upon particular fields everywhere of which it is not possible to speak, even though it is so necessary to do so. But I ask you to give the most earnest attention to this very fact because we must understand quite clearly that what has been said is the truth. You may ask, “What have these things to do with the question of karma we are now discussing?” Indeed, they have much to do with this, and we shall undertake to go into some of them in order finally to reach the goal toward which we are really striving.