Donate books to help fund our work. Learn more→

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

Historical Necessity and Freewill
GA 179

6. New Spiritual Impulses in History, Their Rejection by the Materialistic World Conception, Result of the Catastrophic Events of the Great War

16 December 1917, Dornach

In the background of all these considerations stands a question which is looked upon in the present age in the light of materialism, and which is far more materialistic in its fundamental conceptions than can be imagined. This question refers to the origin of certain historical events. People speak of historical necessity; namely, that the events which took place, for instance, in the past year, were historically the result, as it were, of events which took place in the preceding years.

What I characterize here as “historical” reaches, of course, into everything that proceeds out of human actions—that is, into social life and civilized life in general. The materialistic conception does not only consist in leading spiritual phenomena back to the sphere of natural science or to a material cause, but it also consists in many other things. The materialistic conception would like to investigate the idea of free will in a full light. It would also like to interpret the events taking place in the course of history in the same way in which it contemplates scientific matters; namely, that a preceding cause always produces, with a certain necessity, something which follows it as an effect. Then people say, and believe they are thinking very clearly when they say this, that all events, also those that have broken into our world-happenings with such a catastrophic force, are a necessity.

In this sense, that is, in the meaning of scientific necessity, this is perfect nonsense, although the expression—all events are a necessity—is justified in other directions. If you consider the things that passed before our souls yesterday—namely, the complicated organization of human nature, you will gain an insight, not only with your understanding but also with your feeling, into the depths of the universal order of laws. You will also gradually lose the habit of thinking that this reality can be embraced in abstract scientific ideas limited to strict laws. Then your gaze will fall on certain phenomena in Nature that reveal many things, if they are looked upon in their true light. For instance, a phenomenon like the following one: Every year a great number of life-germs develop in the ocean, germs which do not become living beings. The life-germs, or eggs, are laid—and perish. Only a small part of these grow into real living beings. This, of course, does not only happen in the wide ocean, but in the whole of Nature. Consider how many life-germs are supposed to become living beings, even in the short space of one year! How much is meant to become alive and does not attain life, when eggs are laid which do not develop! Must we not say that all these germs of life contain causes that do not produce effects? Indeed, anyone who does not consider Nature with theoretical prejudices, especially not with the precise theoretical opinion that every cause has its effect and every effect has its cause—anyone who considers Nature in an unprejudiced way will find that there are countless things in Nature which must be designated, in the fullest meaning of the word, as causes, although they do not produce effects such as should be the case if the causes would live themselves out completely. There are countless instances where life is interrupted, as it were, and does not attain its goal.

This is something that you can see outside in physical Nature. If the spiritual investigator asks himself what corresponds to this in the spiritual world—he will find something very strange. He will find something which corresponds, in a certain sense, exactly to this standing still of life in Nature, but in the way in which spiritual things correspond to things in Nature. Many considerations have shown us that often, not always, the spiritual must be characterized as follows:—Its qualities are the exact opposite of the qualities to be found in Nature—they are the exact opposite. Just as we have seen natural causes that bring about no results—that is, the process is interrupted and what is inherent in the cause (“inherent” is one of the worst possible words for the comprehension of reality) does not develop further—so spiritual investigation shows us that effects arise in the spiritual world; we can say just as little that these are determined by causes, as in the cases which we have just characterized. Yet here we have effects.

Let us ask concretely:—What does the spiritual investigator see when the eye of his soul sees such repressed processes of life? The physical eye sees that eggs, or germs, perish in this case, but the eye of the soul, or of the spirit, sees that where such eggs apparently perish, something endowed with being arises in an earlier stage, in a stage which is not as yet material. If we wish to investigate what really happens in such a case in which material causes have, as it were, no results, then we must dream in a cosmic sense, if I may use this expression. In our usual consciousness we can only dream egoistically. When we dream at night, our dreams are connected with the organism; in our dreams we are not connected with the surroundings. If we are connected with the surroundings and develop the same forces that we develop otherwise in dreams, we experience in the form of imaginations. What is kept back in the processes of Nature and does not reach the stage of physical living beings, becomes something which can very well be experienced in the consciousness of imaginative thought. Beings arise from such repressed life-germs that are only accessible to imaginative thought.

If we would not dream as human beings, but as beings belonging to the Hierarchy of the Angeloi, we could dream of them. In fact, if I may use ttii.s expression, the Angeloi dream of the beings that rise up every year in great numbers from the sea and from the earth, as elementary forms; these are nothing but the products of the life-germs that have apparently perished.

If you try to picture this very vividly, you can see a kind of elementary life rising out of the earth; in this elementary life we ourselves are embedded with our own soul. But we are in this elementary life more intensely still, for we take part in the process I have just mentioned. As human beings we participate very intensely in this process, and also the animals take part in this. How? Well, there is no difference between that which happens when a certain quantity of fish eggs are laid in the sea—eggs that do not develop and only give rise to elementary existence—and that which happens when we see the seeds growing out of the earth, let us say wheat. How many grains of wheat are predestined to become wheat halms,1haulm: stems of beans and peas and potatoes and grasses collectively as used for thatching and bedding. and yet they do not grow into halms because we eat them! In this case we ourselves and our processes are linked up with the universe; we connect ourselves with what arises as elementary existence.

In the grains of wheat and in other products that we use for our food, we interrupt the progressive process. We do not allow the life germs to become real beings, but through our own existence we cause that, which was destined for something else, to become an elementary process, which can be seen only through imagination. But the reality that lies at the foundation of this imaginative life takes place because we ourselves are placed into the process and participate in it. From the grains of wheat or rye, from everything else in Nature which we consume in this way, from all this, an elementary life arises. This elementary life permeates us. We take up this elementary life and are placed within it.

You have here the foundation of elementary life. We can, as it were, exist only because we interrupt another progressive process and spiritualize it. Even when we eat, we spiritualize a process that would otherwise take a purely material course.

The opposite is to be found in the spiritual world. There we find effects which have no causes, for instance, like a moving billiard ball which moves because another one hits it these effects exist as it were without a cause, no cause can be indicated in their case; when we contemplate such things, the idea of cause and effect loses its meaning. Effects arise in the life of our soul and spirit, effects from the spiritual world, of which we cannot say that they have been caused. We face the elementary results (which arise as it were in the form of vapor from the processes just described) with desires arising from necessities of life. We must eat; hence we must spin ourselves into these elementary processes. Just as we face such elementary processes with a certain lust, or desire, so we face spiritual effects, which are in a certain sense devoid of causes, with antipathy, inasmuch as we are human beings on the physical plane. Inasmuch as we are physical human beings, we strive to prevent these effects from the spiritual world from entering into us.

If you try to grasp this somewhat subtle thought, you will see that we are, as it were, surrounded by a spiritual will, which strives to enter into us; at first we do not face it with desire; we are not even inclined to accept it. It is as if will motions were constantly floating around us in the air, motions which we reject. When the clairvoyant consciousness develops, it soon comes into the insight that imaginative things surround us and that we are hindered by inner obstacles from taking up this imaginative element.

Let us consider this imaginative element as a reality. Just as here on the earth a certain number of life-germs perish every year, so do spiritual imaginative things live in the world that always surrounds us as a spiritual world; they can indeed be reached through imagination, but through our human disposition we place obstacles in the way. These obstacles are not to be looked upon in an abstract way, or in general; they must be grasped as concrete and differentiated obstacles. What develops every year from physical life as an ascending elementary life, develops spiritually at some other time. Then it descends and becomes something that we reject in another period. These periods of time are not very regular, for there are times in which the spiritual life surges around us very strongly and many things wish to come to us. There are other times in which the spiritual air around us is not so full. We may take up a more or less receptive attitude, although generally speaking we do not feel inclined to take up this imaginative kind of existence that can be reached only through imagination. But certain conditions may enable us to take up a receptive attitude—we shall still speak of this—or we may take up an entirely rejecting attitude.

Let us suppose that in a certain period of time many such Beings are there, Beings who wish, as it were, to approach man in a spiritual way, and that man is disinclined to accept them. What will happen? It then happens that by rejecting these spiritual beings who wish to come to him, man creates the possibility (he creates the opportunity within mankind itself) for a continuation of the old processes within him, processes that have withered, and continue to spin their dry threads, so that they produce dead results instead of bringing about a living result. It is just the same as if a plant that has reached the end of its life were not taken away, but were to continue as a dried-up, lifeless plant to the damage of its surroundings.

In the course of historical events this takes place in the following way:—An age approaches—the beginning of the 20th century was essentially such an age—in which spiritual Beings wait, as it were, to approach man, an age in which man is called upon in every way to open his soul to new revelations. Yet he does not take up these new revelations, but rejects them. Then the old continues to spin beyond its limits, for this old needs to be fertilized anew through man. This does not happen. What has not been fertilized continues to spin on in a dry and barren way and this causes such events as the present catastrophic one.

One of the most important causes to be found in the spiritual world is the fact that, as the 20th century approached, evolution took a course that made human beings oppose the new revelation, for reasons which we shall still discuss. One might say that the spiritual world was full of all that was offered to mankind in the form of new spiritual knowledge, new spiritual impulses, yet mankind rejected this. Why? Undoubtedly such things are connected with conditions of human evolution. We know that the materialistic age had to come—it has its good qualities from certain other aspects. The materialistic age came, and one of its consequences was that man formed ideas which were connected only with one side of human nature. Think of what we discussed yesterday.

Yesterday we said that the human being, consisting of four members, physical, etheric, and astral body and ego (roughly speaking) is really of a different age, as far as each one of these members is concerned. When a human being is 28 years old, he is 28 only as far as his physical body is concerned (I said this yesterday); as far as his so-called etheric body is concerned he is 21; as far as the astral body is concerned, 14; and as far as the ego is concerned only 7 years old. Yesterday's considerations can very well show you this. A human being of 28, is really 28 years old only as a physical human being. The ego lives in him, for instance (without considering the other members) and lives more slowly, so that it is still a child of 7 years when the human being has reached the age of 28. When a man is 28 years old according to his physical body, this child of 7 is indeed connected with quite different worlds from the one where scientific necessity is to be found. But in the materialistic age man has become accustomed to form only those ideas that can be applied to the relationship of the physical body with its surroundings, and everything is judged according to this. The human being, such as he stands in the world, is really a complicated being, as we have seen yesterday from many aspects. What a human being believes that he knows about himself, what he says about himself in our materialistic age, is only a quarter of all that concerns man. It is only that part which concerns the physical body. We can speak of a scientific necessity only in regard to the relationship of the physical body with its surroundings. Of what must we speak when we consider, for instance, what is contained, as a child of 7, in a man of 28 (without taking into consideration the other members)? Here we must speak of something quite different, something from which this illuminated age, this infinitely clever age, has turned away completely. Strange as it may sound to a modern human being, we must speak in this case of wonders, of miracles. Wonders in the sense in which people often imagine them, or as they are imagined by people who like to go to spiritistic séances, are things which cannot be considered by a real spiritual science. Wonders lie in entirely different spheres; wonders lie in spiritual happenings. Just as necessities lie in the outer events of Nature, so do wonders lie in spiritual events. No human being who enters the physical world from the spiritual world, and proceeds to a physical incarnation, is a physical necessity. He is a necessity only inasmuch as he himself determines this necessity, because he has taken the superconscious decision in the spiritual world to connect himself with a certain hereditary stream. The cause need not lie in father and mother; they merely provide an opportunity. The appearance of every human being in the physical world is a miracle, a wonder. The entrance into the physical world of the human being that is 7 years old when the physical body is 28 is always a true wonder, and in respect to this, every question from a scientific point of view concerning the "cause" is nonsense. It is nonsense to ascribe to heredity that part in us which lives so slowly that it is only 7 years old, when we are 28. If we really want to find out its origin, and ask whence comes that which is only 7 years old when we are 28, we reach the spiritual world, the world that we share with the so-called dead, and in which we lived before descending to our body. Men who were able to think in an unprejudiced way could, indeed, form thoughts concerning such things, even though with great difficulty in our materialistic age.

Think how much Goethe occupied himself with scientific thoughts and how exemplary his scientific thoughts are. He had, as you know a constant longing to go to Italy before he ever saw Italy. And when he finally saw the great works of art in Italy which gave him a conception of the creative artistic activity of the Greek, he wrote to his friends at Weimar: “Here is necessity—here is God.” He wrote of a necessity that is not the one of natural science. His previous scientific thoughts gave him an inkling of the other necessity—the necessity that shines from the spiritual world and is the same as wonder, or miracle. This is what he felt when he saw Italy.

But our age is an illuminated one; our contemporaries are very clever. For this reason they have not only rejected the unjustified conception of “wonder,” but have banished wonder as such even from the spiritual world. But to banish wonder from the spiritual world implies nothing less than to do everything possible in order to misunderstand the spiritual world thoroughly. For the things coming from the spiritual world appear to us only as effects; if we look for the causes we cannot find them. For a spiritual investigator, this is an unquestionable truth. At the end of the 19th century men had no feelings of wonder and reverence for that which sought to come to them as a revelation from the spiritual world; this lack of feeling had increased to such an extent that there was an aversion to such revelations. For these revelations come to man in the same measure in which he develops reverence for all that is profound in the world.

That which can enter into the world's order of laws as wonders may also not take place—not be there. This dulling of human feelings in respect to wonder is the consequence of the omissions in the age approaching the 20th century. If we wish to speak of the causes of our present catastrophic events, we will find that these causes are not things done by human beings. Instead these causes are sins of omission. This is the essential point.

In lectures which I have held repeatedly in past years, I have pointed out that an excellent philosopher lived in the middle of the 19th century, Karl Christian Planck. In many places I have seized the opportunity of drawing attention to Karl Christian Planck, because he wrote a book that is, as it were, his philosophical, literary testament. This book sketches the details, even the spiritual details, of the present world catastrophe. Indeed, one may say that he describes them in advance. The book was written in 1880. Why? Because Karl Christian Planck belongs to those spirits who saw at the right time what was taking place. If you have a house that begins to grow dilapidated, it must be repaired in time. If you wait until it cannot be repaired any more, it falls together and the catastrophe occurs. Our present catastrophe is nothing but a collapse. If we look at it from a real aspect it is a collapse. The right time to bring about what might have taken place instead was during the decades 1870, 1880 of the past century. Men like Karl Christian Planck, who pointed out what was bound to come, never become—as we all know—leading personalities in outer life. When a leading personality is sought, when a statesman or someone similar must be found, one does not naturally turn to those who know something in the sense of Karl Christian Planck! These cannot be used—is it not so? Instead one chooses others, who very often can do nothing to repair and support the falling house. If we only look into the backgrounds of life, it can be proved historically (Karl Christian Planck is not the only one, there are many others) that the revelations from the spiritual world were given to many men at the right moment—the revelation of the event which mankind was facing. There might still have been time to avert the course of such an event. Of course, no one listened to Karl Christian Planck, and even now, who listens to those who speak of what must be said years before the catastrophe takes place, if this is to be averted?

Unfortunately we must say that the way in which humanity has lived through this catastrophic event up to now clearly shows that if it lasts another four years, human beings will have grown accustomed to it and will accept it as they accept normal life. Indeed, this has progressed to a high degree. He who understand the times, however, asks today:—What must take place? For, if something does not take place, the consequences will necessarily arise after decades, because something was left undone at the right time.

But what should take place according to the present conditions of time cannot be discovered in the surrounding physical world. If we wish to hear the right things it is, indeed, necessary today to listen to those who are able to speak out of the spiritual world. Of course, in less important things, events take place more quickly. One may say, in five years perhaps, human beings will recognize that they ought to have listened to many things, and they might already have known many things, if they had listened at the right moment. But they do not like to hear these things. They only like to hear things that show visible signs in the outer physical world. But this physical world has no significance for the historical course of events. It does not show the impulse, the motive force behind events. That which is to be the starting point and impulse for events in the social and ethical life must come from the spiritual world.

In our age humanity should be educated to understand a very great event in the course of human evolution, namely, to believe in free will also in historical evolution. At a certain point of spiritual life humanity today should be led with the greatest force to believe in freedom or free will—and wonder is identical with this. This point lies in the conception of the Christ impulse, of the Mystery of Golgotha. In earlier times humanity took an entirely different attitude toward the Mystery of Golgotha, and the more we go back in history the greater we find this difference. We have often spoken of this. Today it is not possible for human beings—especially for those human beings who are most advanced in the sense of the spirit of the age—to understand the Event of Golgotha as an historical event resembling other historical events. As a foundation for the argument to be dealt with here, I only need to point out that the significance of the Gospels as historical documents has, as you know, been shaken. We cannot consider the Gospels as historical documents in the same way in which we consider the documents concerning Socrates, Plato, Alcibiades, or Caesar as historical documents. We cannot, according to methods of historical research, consider the Gospels or the other writings in the New Testament dealing with the Event of Golgotha, as documents in the same sense. The way of thinking adopted in modern historical research loses every possibility of considering the Gospels as historical documents and of looking upon the Event of Golgotha, described in the Gospels, as an historical event, in the sense in which other historical events and facts are historically proved. It is not possible to speak of Christ Jesus as an historical personality in the same way in which one speaks of Charlemagne as an historical personality, according to so-called historical sources.

He who sees through such things will realize that the time has come in which those who love truth and try to understand things through truth must say that what used to be considered as historical sources for the Mystery of Golgotha has been shaken, owing to the attitude adopted by modern historical investigation. One must, indeed, be very dull—for instance like Adolph Harnack, the famous theologian, to stand up again and again and state that what can be asserted concerning Christ Jesus on a quarto page constitutes an historical document in the meaning of modern history! Of course, these things standing on a quarto page are just as little historical documents as the Gospels—according toe Harnack—are historical documents. But an attempt like the one of Harnack (to which hundreds and hundreds of others may be added) is connected with the lack of truthfulness of our age in regard to such things; it is never willing to draw radical conclusions, nevertheless just these are the right conclusions.

The conclusion which must be drawn is that, in accordance with what lies before us, we must confess that it is impossible to find Christ Jesus if we seek him in an outward historical way; we cannot find him in this way. We must find him through spiritual investigation. But in this way we shall surely find him. We shall find the historical event of Golgotha. Why? Because the historical event of Golgotha occurred in human evolution through freedom—freedom of will, in a much higher sense than in the case of other historical events; and because this free event must approach the human being in our age in such a way that nothing compels him to accept it as valid; instead he must accept its validity through inner freedom. Events that can be proved historically cannot be accepted freely. Events for which there is no outer historical proof are accepted for spiritual reasons, and on a spiritual foundation we are free. One becomes Christian through freedom, and in our modern age we must understand, above all, that one can be a Christian in a real sense only through complete freedom and not through the compulsion of historical documents. The task destined for our age is that Christianity shall gain the truth through which it will become the great impulse for the human understanding of freedom. That this shall be understood belongs to the fundamental truths of our age—then an insight must be gained into the fact that the evidence for Christianity must be sought in the spiritual world.

If this insight becomes as intense in human nature as it should become it will produce further insight—it will give rise to other things. What it should produce first of all is that man should learn to answer for himself this question:—How shall I make myself more receptive for the recognition of that which is not forced upon me from the physical world, against which I may at first even feel an aversion, an antipathy? What makes me more inclined toward this?

I am not led by personal vanity or conceit, but only because I wish to bring a concrete example. I have pointed out again and again, on similar occasions, that I began my literary career by refraining, at first, from setting forth my own opinions; instead everything which I set forth was connected with Goethe's spirit, in a conscious retrospect of a spirit who ascended to the spiritual kingdom of the so-called dead, already in the year 1832. But read what I wrote in connection with Goethe, in the time that preceded my The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity. The so-called Goethe investigators study these books chiefly with respect to the question, whether or not they render Goethe's opinions. They find Goethe-opinions only if the writer is a literary "ruminant," in other words, if he ruminates what Goethe said during his incarnation up to 1832. I was always of the opinion that schoolmasters, and also I myself, really need not repeat what Goethe said, for Goethe himself said far better what he wished to say. It is always better to read Goethe's own works than the opinions of schoolmasters, even when they are such excellent schoolmasters as, for instance, Lewes, who wrote the famous Goethebiography. What I tried to write is based on the inspiration of a Goethe who is no longer on the earth—It is the continuation of his ideas in a certain sphere after death. I wrote what could be written out of a certain feeling of a living relationship with so-called deceased souls. I mention this as an example and indeed not out of conceit and vanity, but because it is connected with the question as to what human beings must do in order to become more receptive for that which comes out of the spiritual world.

Human beings must seek a connection with the dead; they must find the way into the worlds where the dead live, but in a sensible, sound way, in a really fitting way and not spiritistically. The dead continue to speak after their death and we have seen that what they say, and what they send down as impulses, is alive. It is alive, not in the experiences we gain through our sense and not in our thoughts, but in our feelings, and in the reality of the impulses of our will. This is where it lives. But then we must also find within us that which inclines us to approach the spiritual world. Antipathy for imaginations is connected with unbelief in the possibility of being able to approach the spiritual world—antipathy for imaginations which wish to enter from the spiritual world in the form of impulses permeating our actions, and wish to enter also the social events and the moral, ethical events in human evolution. They alone can make human beings free.

Two things are needed in our age: To realize that the acknowledgement of the Mystery of Golgotha must be a free deed of the human soul and to penetrate wholly into this truth. And then, to seek in a real way the bridge to the dead, not merely in an abstract way, or in an abstract faith. In our age there is a great aversion also to this. People do not see at once through all that speaks against it. What ideal have human beings today, as far as social life is concerned? They think: “We are clever people; we were born and went to school—and that is why we are so clever; we are clever human beings, and consequently we know very well what must happen in social life. We call together meetings, elect officers, councilors, parliaments, and whatever all the rest may be called. There people discuss what must happen in social life. Naturally, for we are clever; and when such clever people as those of the present age come together, the right things must result”—This is the idea, but it is based on an assumption which is not correct—namely, that people know right away what is right.

Have you met anyone who knows what is the right thing for the year 1917 (the year of this lecture)? Not those who are now twenty years old, and love to sit in Parliament in order to talk and determine what is the right thing for 1917! Those who died long ago know this best of all. We should ask them what attitude we should adopt. This answers to a great extent the question as to how we can improve our social life—When we learn to consult the dead.

As physical human beings up to the end of our life, we know as a rule only what is convenient to us personally. Only when we are dead does our knowledge become really mature. Then it is mature to such an extent that it can really be applied to social life. But one must not think that the dead can have a direct influence, as it were, physically in the course of events, more or less like physical human beings. The dead know more than the living what must happen socially, but human beings must listen to them. And the human beings living on the physical plane must be the instruments carrying out the knowledge of the dead. Modern human beings must learn above all to become instruments. But—let us use this expression even though it is an unpleasant one—parliaments where human being will strive to let the dead be heard also will not exist for a long time to come. But no well-being can come in certain spheres unless the dead are consulted, unless social life is spiritualized also from this direction. Before believing that the knowledge gained here on earth through birth, surroundings, and schooling is ripe for social impulses, we should penetrate into that which has really become ripe for social impulses—the wisdom of those who have already laid aside the physical body, a wisdom which can reveal significant points of view if we really investigate it. Just imagine how much deeper the life of feeling becomes, what a deepening the human soul experiences, when that which I have now expressed in the form of thoughts becomes feeling, and when the ancient myths which connected human beings with their ancestors are replaced by the link which I have mentioned—when a concrete spiritual life will again permeate our spiritual atmosphere, and what can thus be grasped through spiritual science, in the form of thoughts, passes into the soul and feelings, and human beings will really live in this!