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The Karma of Materialism
GA 176

6. Reflections on the Times

4 September 1917, Berlin

It is especially important in our time that the reality of spiritual life is not confused with the way people interpret this reality. We live in an age when human understanding and human conduct are strongly influenced by materialism. However, it would be wrong to think that because our age is materialistic, spiritual influences are not at hand, that the spirit is not present and active. Strange as it may seem it is possible, particularly in our time, to observe an abundance of effects in human life which are purely spiritual. They are everywhere in evidence and, the way they manifest, one could certainly not say that they are either invisible or inactive. The situation is rather that people, because of their materialistic outlook, are incapable of seeing what is manifestly there. All they see is what is so to speak "on the agenda." When one looks at people's attitude to the spirit, at the way they react when spiritual matters are spoken of, it reminds one of an incident which took place several decades ago in a Central European city. There was an important meeting of an important body of people and the degeneration of moral standards came under discussion. Immoral practices had begun to have adverse influence on certain financial transactions. Naturally a large part of this distinguished body of people wanted financial matters to be discussed purely from the point of view of finance. But a minority—it usually is a minority on such occasions—wanted to discuss the issue of moral corruption. However a minister got up and simply tossed aside such an irrelevant issue by saying: “But gentlemen, morality is not on the agenda.”—It could be said that the attitude of a great many people today in regard to spiritual matters is also one that says: But gentlemen, the spirit is not on the agenda. It is manifestly not on the agenda when things of importance are debated. But perhaps such debates do not always deal with the reality, perhaps the spirit is present, only it is not put on the agenda when human affairs are under discussion.

When one considers these things, and has opportunity to talk more intimately with people, a situation emerges which is very different from what is imagined by those who feel embarrassed by talking about things of a spiritual nature. When one comes to discuss how people got the impulse to do what they are doing one finds again and again that they decided on a project because of some prophetic vision or because of some inner impulse. As I said, if one looks at these things and is able to assess the situation, more often than not things are done because of some spiritual influence, perhaps in the form of a dream or some other kind of vision. Much more than is imagined takes place under the influence of spiritual powers and impulses which flow into the physical world from the spiritual world. People's theoretical rejection of spirituality, based on present-day outlook, does not alter the fact that significant spiritual impulses do penetrate everywhere into our world. However, they do not escape being influenced by the prevailing materialism. There has always been an influx of spiritual impulses throughout mankind's evolution and one ought not to think that this has ceased in our time. But people responded differently when there was more awareness of the existence of a spiritual world than they do in a materialistic age like ours. Let us look at a particular example.

It is extraordinarily difficult to convey to the world certain facts concerning spiritual matters, the reason being that people in general are not sufficiently prepared; they cannot formulate the appropriate concepts for receiving rightly such communications from the spiritual world. Such communications are all too easily distorted into the very opposite. Therefore it often happens, especially at present, that those who are initiated into spiritual matters must remain silent in regard to what is most essential. They must because it cannot be foreseen what might happen if certain things were imparted to someone unripe for the information. Nevertheless certain situations do often arise. On occasions, in accordance with higher laws, discussions take place about spiritual matters. When it is difficult, as it usually is at present, to discuss such things with the living it can often be all the more fruitful to discuss them with those who have died. Seldom perhaps was there a time when conscious interaction between the physical plane and the spiritual world, in which the dead are living, was so vigorous as it can be at present.

Let us assume that a discussion takes place of a kind possible only between someone with knowledge on the physical plane and someone who has died. In this situation something very curious can happen, something that could be termed a "transcendental indiscretion" can take place. The fact is that there are those who listen at keyholes, so to speak, not only on the physical plane, but also among certain beings in the spiritual world. There are spirits of an inferior kind who are forever attempting to obtain knowledge of all kinds of spiritual facts by such means. They listen to what is being said between beings on the physical plane and those in the spiritual world. Their opportunity to listen to such a conversation can arise through someone who, being especially passionate, in the grip of his passion is, as one might say, “beside himself.” This kind of situation often arises through passion, through being drunk—really physically drunk—or through faintness. It gives the lower spirit opportunity to enter into the person with the result that the person either then or later has visions of some kind and can hear things he is not supposed to hear.

It is well known to those able to observe such happenings that countless things, obtained through indiscretion in spiritual communication, appear in distorted form in all kinds of literature, particularly those of a more dubious kind. Nothing is more effective than when some lower elemental spirit (Kobold) takes possession of the writer of a detective novel, especially if drunk and, entering into his human frailties, instills in him a particular sentence or phrase which he then introduces into his story. Later the novel reaches people through all kinds of direct or indirect channels; the particular sentence has an especially strong effect because, given the way people take these things in, it speaks, not to the reader's consciousness, but to his subconscious.

Another method which is very effective is when, in a spiritualistic seance, such a spirit may have the opportunity to insinuate, into what is related through the medium, the spiritual indiscretion he wishes put to effect. This is not to say anything against mediumship as such, only the way it is used. Many things occur in the course of human karma which, in order to come to light, need mediumistic communications. We are not dealing with this aspect today, however. The point I want to make at the moment is to emphasize that there are at the present time spiritual channels between the spiritual world and the physical plane. These channels are very numerous and far more effective than is supposed.—Having said this you will understand better when I now say something which may seem paradoxical but is nevertheless a reality.

The years between 1914 and 1917 will no doubt be written about in the future in the usual way of historians. They will scrutinize documents, found in archives everywhere, in order to establish what caused the terrible World War. On this basis they will attempt to write a plausible account of say the year 1914 in relation to events in Europe. However, one thing is certain: no documentary research, no report drawn up in the way this is usually done will suffice to explain the causes of this monstrous event. The reason is simply that according to their very nature the most significant causes are not inscribed by pen or printer's ink into external documents. Furthermore their very existence is denied because they are not, so to speak, “on the agenda.”

Just in these last days you will have read reports of the legal inquiries going on in Russia. The Russian minister of war Suchomlinoff,20Wladimir Alexandrowitsch Suchomlinoff 1848–1926 Russian General the Chief of the Russian General Staff and other personalities have made important statements which have caused a great deal of indignation. Many feel moral indignation on learning that Suchomlinoff lied to the Czar; or that the Chief of the Russian General Staff, with the mobilization order in his pocket, gave the German Military Attache his solemn promise that this order had not yet been issued. He said this because he intended to pass it on to the proper quarters a few minutes later. Such things are certainly cause for indignation and moralizing but so much lying goes on nowadays that no one should be surprised that really fat ones are told in important places. But these incidents and what people say about them are truly not the real issue. That is something quite different. When one reads the full report carefully one comes across remarkable words which are clear indicators of what really took place. Suchomlinoff himself says that while these events were taking place he, for a time, lost his reason. He says in so many words: “I lost my reason over it.” The continuous vacillation of events caused this state of affairs. He was not alone, quite a few others in key positions were in similar states.

Imagine a person occupying a position such as that of Suchomlinoff: The loss of his power of reasoning gives splendid opportunity for ahrimanic beings to take possession of him and instill into his soul all kinds of suggestions. Ahriman uses such methods to bring his influence to bear, especially when no importance is attached to remaining fully conscious—apart from sleep. When we are fully conscious such spiritual beings have no real access to our soul. But when our spirit; i.e., our consciousness is suppressed then ahrimanic beings have immediate access. Dimmed consciousness is for ahrimanic and luciferic beings the window or door through which they can enter the world and carry out their intention. They attack people when they are in a state of dimmed consciousness and take possession of them. Ahriman and Lucifer do not act in inexplicable terrifying ways but through human beings whose state of consciousness gives them access.

Those who in the future want to write a history of this war must discover where such dimmed states of consciousness occurred, where doors and windows were thrown open for the entry of ahrimanic and luciferic powers. In earlier times such things did not happen to the same extent in events of a similar kind. In order to describe the causes of events during earlier times what professors and historians find in archives will suffice, whereas in the case of present events something will remain unexplained over and above what is found in documents however well researched. This something is the penetration of certain spiritual powers into the human world through states of dimmed consciousness.

I spoke in an earlier lecture about how, in a certain region of the earth, conditions were prepared for decades so that at the right moment the appropriate ahrimanic forces could penetrate and influence mankind. Something of this nature took place in July and August of 1914 when an enormous flood, a veritable whirlpool, of spiritual impulses surged through Europe. That has to be rightly understood and taken into account. One simply does not understand reality if one is not prepared to approach it with concrete concepts derived from spiritual insight. To understand what is real, as opposed to what is unreal, at the present time spiritual science is an absolute necessity. Nothing can effectively be done in the political or any other sphere unless wide-awake consciousness is developed concerning events which must be approached with concepts and ideas gained from spiritual knowledge. Not that everything can be judged in stereotyped fashion according to spiritual science. But spiritual knowledge can stir us to alert participation in present issues, whereas a materialistic view of events allows us to sleep through things of greatest importance. A materialistic outlook prevents us from arriving at proper judgement of what the present asks of us.

A recognition of what here is at stake is what I so much want to be present as an undercurrent in our spiritual-scientific lectures and discussions, so that spiritual knowledge may become a vital force enabling souls to deal appropriately with outer life. It is essential to recognize not only the issues of spiritual science itself but also those of external life as they truly are. One must be able to arrive at judgements based on the symptoms to be seen everywhere.

I recently described the incredible superficiality with which a professor of Berlin University attacked Anthroposophy. I told you of the misrepresentations and slanders delivered by Max Dessoir.21Max Dessoir 1867–1947 Philosopher and Psychologist That such an individual should be a member of a learned body is part and parcel of the complexities of life today. Max Dessoir once wrote a history of psychology and mentions in the preface that he wrote it because the Berlin Academy of Science had offered a prize for a work on the subject. The history of psychology written by Max Dessoir is such a slovenly piece of work, containing fundamental errors that he withdrew it and prohibited further publication. Consequently not many copies are in circulation, though I have a reviewers copy and could say many things about it. For the moment I refer to it in my forth coming booklet concerned with attacks on Anthroposophy.

As I said Max Dessoir wrote a history of psychology and then withdrew it from circulation. But the fact remains that the Berlin Academy of Science did award it the prize. Such things should not be overlooked; they are symptomatic of what takes place nowadays. One must ask: who are the people who award such prizes? They are the very people who educate the younger generation; i.e., they educate those who will become leading figures in society. They also educated the generation which brought about the present situation in the world. It is necessary to see things in their true context and to recognize that all the symptoms reveal the need for that which alone can make our time comprehensible.

This again indicates what I wish so very much could flow as an undercurrent through our movement so that spiritual science would shake souls awake and make them alert observers of what really takes place in their surroundings. The occasion for sleep is in our time considerable and naturally ahrimanic and luciferic powers make use of every opportunity to divert the alert consciousness aroused by spiritual knowledge away from the real issues. The opportunities for dulling man's consciousness are plentiful. Someone who studies exclusively a special subject will certainly become ever more knowledgeable and clever in his particular field; yet the clarity of his consciousness may suffer as a result.—In speaking about these things one is skating on very thin ice.

While it is true that there are many things of which an initiate cannot speak at present because it could have terrible results, it is also true that there are things of which one can and indeed must speak. To give an example, there is a professor at a German university of whom much good could be said and I have no intention to say anything against the man. I want to give an objective characterization. He is a distinguished scholar of theology, has studied widely and his research in the domain of theology has made him very learned. Yet it has not made him awake and alert to what constitutes true reality. As professor of theology his task is to speak about religion, scripture and also about veneration and supersensible powers. This, for a modern professor of theology, is a rather uncomfortable task. Such learned men much prefer to speak about experiencing religion as such, about how it feels merely to approach the spiritual. This professor, as others like him, has a certain fear of the spiritual world, fear of defining or describing it in actual words and concepts. I have often spoken about this fear which is purely ahrimanic in origin. This professor has an inkling that he will meet Ahriman once he penetrates the material world and enters the spiritual world. He would then have to overcome Ahriman.

Here we see someone who as a theologian looks upon the beauty and the greatness of nature as a manifestation of the divine. But this aspect of nature he will not investigate for it is the beings of the Higher Hierarchies who reveal themselves through nature and to speak of them is not “scientific.” Nevertheless he does want to investigate the soul's religious experiences. However, in attempting investigation of this kind, without any wish to enter the spiritual world itself, one very easily succumbs instead to the very soul condition one is apt to experience when confronting Ahriman: the condition of fear. The religious experience of this theologian consists therefore partly of fear, of timidity in face of the unknown. The last thing he wants is to make the unknown into the known. He presumes that timidity and fear of the unknown—which stems from ahrimanic beings—is part and parcel of religious experience.

It is because he wants to describe the soul's religious experience but refuses to enter the realm of the Hierarchies who live behind the sense world that Ahriman darkens his comprehension of the spiritual world. Through the ahrimanic temptation the spiritual world appears as “the great unknown,” as “the irrational” and religious experience is confused with the “mystery of fear.”—Nor is that all, for just as Ahriman is waiting without when one seeks the spiritual world through external nature so does Lucifer wait within. The modern theologian of whom we are speaking also refuses to seek the Hierarchies within. Here again Lucifer makes the realm of the Hierarchies appear as "the great unknown" which the theologian refuses to make into the known. Yet he wants to know the soul's experience, so here he meets the opposite of the mystery of fear, namely the “mystery of fascination.” This is a realm in which we experience attraction, we become fascinated. The theologian now has on the one hand the mystery of fear and on the other the mystery of fascination; for him these two components constitute religious life.

Naturally there are critics today who feel that it is a great step forward when theology has, at last, got away from speaking about spiritual beings; no longer speaks of what is rational but about what is irrational; i.e., the mystery of fear and the mystery of fascination, the two ways to avoid entering the unknown. The book: Über das Heilige (About the Sacred) by professor Otto22Rudolf Otto 1869–1937 of Breslau University is certain to attain fame. This book sets out to derationalize everything to do with religious experience. It sets out to make everything vague, to make all feelings indefinite partly through fear of the unknown and also through fascination for the unknown. This view of religious life is certain to attract attention. People are bound to say that here, at last, the old fashioned idea of speaking about the spiritual world is done away with.

Anyone knowing something of Anthroposophy will recognize that in the case of this scholar there is a condition of dimmed consciousness. Such conditions frequently occur; philologists and researchers often fall into states of dimmed consciousness, especially when their investigations are within a limited field. In such conditions Ahriman and Lucifer have access to them. And why should Ahriman not prevent such a researcher from beholding the spiritual world by deluding him through the mystery of fear? And why should Lucifer not delude him through the mystery of fascination? There is no other remedy than clear awareness of the roles played by Ahriman and Lucifer, otherwise one is merely wallowing in nebulous feelings. Certainly feeling is a powerful element of the soul's life which should not be artificially suppressed by the intellect, but that is something different altogether from allowing a surge of indefinite feeling to obscure every concrete insight into the spiritual world.

One is reminded in this connection of something said by Hegel,24Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel 1770–1831 German Philosopher though it was cynical and purely speculative. Hegel was referring to Schleiermacher's23Friedrich Schleiermacher 1768–1834 Theologian and Philosopher famous definition of religious feeling which, according to him, consisted of utter and complete dependence. This definition is not false but that is not the point. Hegel, who above all wanted to lead man to clear concepts and concrete views and certainly not to feelings of dependence, declared that if utter dependence was a criterion for being religious then a dog would be the best Christian. Similarly if fear is the criterion for religious feelings then one need only suffer an attack of hydrophobia in order to experience intensely the mystery of fear.

What I am bringing up in these lectures must be considered, not so much according to its theoretical content but rather as an indication of the kind of inner attitude which is indispensable if one wants to observe the conditions in the world as they truly are. And it is so very important to do so. No matter where or how one is placed in life one can either observe appropriately or be inappropriately asleep. What surges and pulsates through life comes to expression in small issues as well as in big ones and can be observed everywhere.

We are at the beginning of a time when it will be of particular importance that things I have indicated in these last lectures are kept very much in mind. Many people do arrive at awareness of a universal Godhead or a universal spirituality. Yet, as I demonstrated when I spoke about his article “Reason and Knowledge,” even someone of the stature of Hermann Bahr does not arrive at any real awareness of Christ. He allies himself with the most prominent Christian institution of the day, that of Rome. But despite all he says there is no sign in his “Reason and Knowledge” of any conscious search for the Christ Impulse. Yet the most pressing need in our time is to gain an ever clearer understanding of the Christ impulse.

In the course of the 19th Century there was a great upsurge of natural-scientific thinking and all its attendant results. One of the first results was theoretical materialism accompanied by atheism. It can be said that the materialists of the 19th Century positively revelled in atheism. But such tendencies are apt to reverse and the same kind of thinking which made human beings atheists—due to certain luciferic-ahrimanic impulses at work during the first upsurge of natural science—will make them pious once the first glow has faded. The teachings of Darwin can make people God-fearing as easily as it can make them atheists, it all depends which side of the coin turns up. What no one can become through Darwinism is a Christian; nor is that possible through natural science if one remains within its limits. To become a Christian something quite different is required; namely, an understanding of a certain fundamental attitude of soul. What exactly is meant?

Kant said that the world is our mental picture, for the mental pictures we make of the world are formed according to the way we are organized. I may mention, not for personal but for factual reasons, that this Kantianism is completely refuted in my books Truth and Knowledge and The Philosophy of Freedom. These works set out to show that when we form concepts about the world, and elaborate them mentally, we are not alienating ourselves from reality. We are born into a physical body to enable us to see objects through our eyes and hear them through our ears and so on. What is disclosed to us through our senses is not full reality, it is only half reality. This I also stressed in my book Riddles of Philosophy. It is just because we are organized the way we are that the world, seen through our senses, is in a certain sense what Orientals call Maya. In the activity of forming mental pictures of the world we add, by means of thoughts, that which we suppressed through the body. This is the relation between true reality and knowledge. The task of real knowledge and therefore real science is to turn half reality; i.e., semblance, into the complete reality. The world, as it first appears through our senses, is for us incomplete. This incompleteness is not due to the world but to us, and we, through our mental activity, restore it to full reality. These thoughts I venture to call Pauline thoughts in the realm of epistemology. For it is truly nothing else than carrying into the realm of philosophic epistemology, the Pauline epistemology that man, when he came into the world through the first Adam, beheld an inferior aspect of the world; its true form he would experience only in what he will become through Christ.

The introduction of theological formulae into epistemology is not the point; what matters is the kind of thinking employed. I venture to say that, though my Truth and Knowledge and The Philosophy of Freedom are philosophic works, the Pauline spirit lives in them. A bridge can be built from this philosophy to the Christ Spirit; just as a bridge can be built from natural science to the Father Spirit. By means of natural-scientific thinking the Christ Spirit cannot be attained. Consequently as long as Kantianism prevails in philosophy, representing as it does a viewpoint that belongs to pre-Christian times, philosophy will continue to cloud the issue of Christianity.

So you see that everything that happens, everything that is done in the world must be observed and understood on a deeper level. It is necessary, when assessing literary works today, to keep in view not only their verbal content but also the whole direction of the ideas employed. One must be able to evaluate what is fruitful in such works and what must be superceded. Then one will also find entry into those spheres which alone enables one to stay awake in the true sense. The terrible events taking place in our time must be seen as external symptoms, the real change of direction must start from within.

Let me mention in conclusion that before 1914 I pointed out how confused were the statements made by Woodrow Wilson.25Woodrow Wilson 1856–1924 Professor of Philosophy, President of the U.S.A. 1913–1921 At that time I was completely alone in that view. What I said can be found in a course of lectures I gave at Helsingfors in May and June 1913. At that time Woodrow Wilson had the literary world at his feet. Only certain writings of his had been translated into other languages and much was said about his “great, noble and unbiased” mind. Those who were of that opinion speak differently now; but whether insight or something different brought about the change of view is open to question. What is important now is to recognize that because spiritual science is directly related to true reality it enables one to form appropriate judgements. This is an urgent need in view of the empty abstraction on which most judgements are based at present. An example of the latter is Der Geistgehalt dieses Krieges (The Spiritual Import of this War) by George Simmel. It is an ingenious presentation and a prime example of ideas from which all content has been extracted. To read it is comparable to eating an orange from which all juice has been squeezed out. Yet the book was written by a distinguished philosopher and innovator of modern views. At the Berlin university he had a large following; the fact that he never had a thought worthy of the name did nothing to diminish his fame.