Suppose that a browser, knowing nothing about Rudolf Steiner, comes across this cycle of his lectures. From the place or the way the book is found, there may be no great surprise about references and statements which sound “mystical”— that word our age uses to pigeonhole anything appearing now to be factual. Yet complicating that impression would be Steiner's frequent use of the term “science of the spirit.” Spirit and science together? That sounds like mixing two totally different spheres and then trading on the term science, which our age — at least until recently — has venerated as the supreme human achievement and unassailable touchstone of all decisions. How is the casual reader to know that Steiner himself was trained as a philosopher and had a profound interest in and respect for the triumphs of contemporary science?
Yet by no means all casual readers would raise a question about that. There are some who in their depths feel affronted by the excision—if not denial—of all spiritual factors practiced by the modern natural sciences—a viewpoint sheepishly followed by the humanities and even the arts. Such people really yearn for genuine experiences of the spiritual realms that all mankind prior to our era had as a precious, if not entirely understood, gift. These people, though often without the benefit of technical knowledge, can in varying degrees see through the pretentions and unwarranted assumption of a science that has debased its own ideals and brought the world to the brink of destruction. This situation did not escape Steiner's penetrating observation and he discusses in chapters one and seven of this series how even well-meaning politicians (of his day but nothing has changed in this regard since then) became tragically involved in this process. And again in chapter five he shows how even an honest and decent philosopher could not find a way out of the intellectual trap into which our age has fallen.
So who was this man who already in the teens of this century dared to suggest that the way out of our difficulties — and the only way, demanded by world evolution — is to begin dealing with science spiritually and with the spirit scientifically? To be sure, such a program was more daring and more radical during World War I than it sounds now. At the end of the 20th century there are certainly more people than there were then who can see the possibility, and understand the necessity, for such an attitude. Generally, however, they have no clear idea of how it could be brought about. And the great majority of our contemporaries are undoubtedly still shut off from efforts in this direction by the very circumstances of the industrial age, with its all-pervading secularity. At least one segment of the American public has rebelled against this so-called secular humanism by demanding that science be bridled — a quite different solution from that proposed by Steiner. The basic situation is this: the public that Steiner had in mind in these lectures during World War I not only did not take hold of his solution but it has been succeeded by descendants who on the whole keep slipping farther and faster in the wrong direction: a passive, almost bemused attitude toward the excesses of a one-sided scientific mind-set that now, in combination with equally one-sided politics and one-sided economics threatens to bring disaster one way or another to the whole of mankind. Steiner already put this very succinctly in chapter seven by saying that “healthy human common sense ... is simply not there. This is the great secret of our time.” Indeed, through its lack we see humanity plunge from one unnecessary crisis to another almost day by day.
Who was this man? The idea that any one person could be wise enough to know what to do about all this often raises hackles, especially among sophisticated academics. Do they take time to realize that Steiner expressly declines to offer pre-packaged concepts for instant satisfaction (chapter seven)? He can offer something only to those willing to put aside routine contemporary ideas and make an unprejudiced effort to reach his multi-dimensional level. This is not easy, even though his remarks are sometimes quite entertaining on the ordinary level, as in this cycle when he discusses dowsing. And the wide range of his interests and contacts can be grasped simply by using as a roster the footnotes prepared for this publication. Nevertheless, reading one of his lectures is, on the whole, rather like being inside a piece of sculpture and from there attempting to locate oneself in space: one would have to become aware of many different factors at once and combine them in a creative way. Whereas standing outside the same piece we could depend on our automatic internal spatial orientation, of which we hardly take any notice, to accomplish the same thing. In other words, we are led by him, or can be, to view not a new world, but the same world from totally new angles we did not know existed. But it takes some effort to try these out ourselves.
In this sense we can perhaps approach the basic thesis of this series, that the chronological age of mankind (as a whole) corresponds to the scale of years in an individual human being, but to establish it we have to work backwards and down from old age to youth. So humanity as such is actually becoming younger, that is, over the millennia it reacts to the world collectively the way individuals do first at 56, then at 55, then 54 and so on. It may be an instinctive reaction to dismiss this as idle speculation but to do so is, in the long run, to stay put in the intellectual trap mentioned above. So far from being speculative fancy, this concept is a necessary facet of the complex philosophy and cosmology worked out in Steiner's literary books (as opposed to lecture cycles like this one which he never intended to be published). And it can acquire enormous significance in explaining, for example, how we got into our intellectual trap. For the basic reason why the world is moving faster and faster in the wrong direction is that too few people ever mature spiritually, that is, move beyond the attitude of the average person of age 27 (presently; next it will be 26, etc.), which they would have to do, if at all, by their own aroused, inner efforts to grasp the science of the spirit (in whatever form). In practical American terms this might mean looking beyond the prevailing extreme alternatives of agnostic secular humanism and fulminating fundamentalism in search of a true balance that retains what is valid in each and with that moving on to new tasks already being undertaken by the spiritually sane of our times — by definition those who exercise healthy common sense. To insist on the reality of both the spiritual realm and the scientific realm and their interweaving is actually the most practical idea of our troubled times.
J. LEONARD BENSON
South Egremont, Massachusetts