Our bookstore now ships internationally. Free domestic shipping $50+ →

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

The Spiritual Background of the Social Question
GA 190

Lecture III

11 April 1919, Dornach

Translator Unknown

From the various discussions on our present-day stage of development you will have seen that, from a certain higher point of view, mankind is at the present time passing through a very important phase in its existence. If I say "at the present time" we must naturally be aware that what is in question is a very long period, and when we speak of the "present time" today we mean the epoch of the consciousness soul, into which mankind entered roughly at the middle of the 15th century and which extends over 2,000 years. We will, in turn, be succeeded by another epoch, in which an essential part of human nature, quite different from what has developed in the epoch which has just elapsed, will force its way to the surface.

We always divide up the whole evolution of mankind, you see, into sequences of seven phases, whether we are fixing our eyes on longer or shorter epochs. We are now standing in the fifth epoch, and we know that in the sixth epoch the spirit-self is to take possession of mankind. The development of the Ego belongs to our epoch, although it particularly brings the consciousness- soul to expression. In passing over from the fifth to the sixth post-Atlantean epoch man passes over a sort of Rubicon (see diagram), when the whole of mankind enters into a phase of development which leads up to higher spirituality. This is a very important, significant fact. Now when one is describing conditions of evolution on a great scale, for example those which concern the whole of mankind, it is always inadequate to do so by means of the conditions of development of individual men. If one does this, one is very liable to get mere comparisons. What I am about to quote is, of course, more than a mere comparison, but you must be on your guard against taking the matter pedantically. You must take it in a broad sense.

You know that when a human being enters into the supersensible world he has to pass what we call the Guardian of the Threshold. One comes into the supersensible would by passing this Threshold. You will find this passing- over depicted in my little booklet The Threshold of the Spiritual World. If you take what is depicted there, together with certain chapters of the work How Does One Attain Knowledge of Higher Worlds?, you can get more precise representations of this. You know that when one passes over the Threshold the existing bonds in the human soul which connect thinking, feeling and willing become more loosened. Thinking, feeling and willing become in a certain sense more independent. On this side of the Threshold in a normal spiritual life, these three activities of Man are more interwoven.

Regard must be had to these facts, that one has to pass over the Threshold on entering into the supersensible world, and that, in a certain sense, a kind of splitting apart of the three principal activities of human soul-life takes place, which makes thinking, feeling and willing independent. What the individual man can consciously experience while passing over into the supersensible world is being experienced by the whole of mankind in this fifth post-Atlantean epoch. In this fifth post-Atlantean epoch lies the Threshold through which the whole of mankind must pass.

Spirit self in the fifth post-Atlantean epoch

The fact that the whole of mankind is passing through the Threshold does not at all need to come directly to the consciousness of individual men. If, for example, men were to persevere in that disposition which the majority now has, in refusing all spiritual knowledge, the whole of mankind would pass over the Threshold just the same in the course of the fifth post-Atlantean epoch, but men, for the greater part, would not be aware of the fact. That powerful soul-spiritual event which can be described as the Crossing of the Threshold can only be experienced consciously by men if they partake in that knowledge which is obtained through Spiritual Science. But event if not a single man were aware that the whole of mankind is passing over the Threshold, that in reality mankind is already, at this time, engaged in this passing, the passing would, nevertheless, take place. It does not in the least depend on whether mankind is aware of it or not. It can be that men are not aware of it. They can hinder the spreading of knowledge of this fact by their stubbornness. But the bringing to expression of the fact in the development of mankind is not thereby prevented.

If you first of all take this in its abstract aspect, you will be able to say to yourselves during this fifth post-Atlantean epoch of ours, during the development of the consciousness-soul, something significant and mighty is happening to mankind. To this belongs the fact that a certain separation is taking place of the life of thinking from those of feeling and willing. Please fix your attention clearly on this fact. A separation is taking place in mankind in the fifth post-Atlantean epoch, which makes independent the life of thinking, that of feeling and that of willing. The three spheres of the soul-life of the whole of mankind are becoming more independent. And this will distinguish that mankind of the future from the mankind of the past, that in the past the soul was more centralised in itself, while in the future it will feel itself to be three-membered. If a human being is alone by himself, he will certainly be able to undergo his development in this sense in which we find it intimated in the work How Does One Attain Higher Worlds?: this concerns single, individual men. When men are taken together as a people, a state, and economic organisation and so forth, when men have intercourse with one another to get to know and to satisfy their common interests, this splitting of the whole soul-life into three spheres is developing because, as has been said, behind the scenes of existence of the whole of mankind is passing through a phase of development which one can compare with the passing of the individual man through the Threshold into the supersensible world.

Now there area actually men in our time who are aware of something of these events which are occurring behind the scenes of existence. But they are only aware of them, I should like to say, in the negative sense. I have often mentioned to you the name of Fritz Mauthner, who has written a Critique of Speech and a thick, two-volume Dictionary of Philosophy.1Fritz Mauthner, Philosophisches Wörterbuch, Munich 1910. After I have recently said something substantial to you, just about the significance of speech in human life,2The Social Question as a Question of the Soul: The Inner Experience of Speech. it will be interesting to you to hear how a man of the present day thinks about the soul-life of man, who, like Fritz Mauthner, directs his attention just to speech but in doing so has no inkling of the existence of Spiritual Science, who has no idea of what Spiritual Science can do for mankind. Just in the case of this kind of man of the present-day, who is entirely ignorant of spiritual-scientific matters but who has an acute brain, more intelligent than those of innumerable official learned men, one can find peculiar opinions uttered about human development when he turns his attention to the working of speech, to the human soul.

On the whole, as you know well, the mankind of today is still infinitely proud of what it calls its Science. Fritz Mauthner is not at all proud of this Science. He sets no store at all by this Science. For he believes that, while they think they have a Science, they are in fact, merely muddling about with words, that they are merely relying on words, and that while they think in words, come to an understanding with words and think that they have an inner soul-life, they are, nevertheless, fundamentally only moving about in the external words. Fritz Mauthner has made this clear.

Now call to mind that I recently said to you3R.S. The Social Question as a question of soul: of the whole construction of our speech, the dead most clearly understand what we say to them in verbs, while they aware of almost nothing of what we want to say to them when wee speak to them in nouns. In this connection you can already have a feeling of what importance speech has in the real spiritual life of men. And if men cannot rid themselves of the speech-content of their so-called thinking then, when they think in nouns, they are in actual fact thinking something completely unspiritual, something which does not make its way into the Spiritual World at all. They cut themselves off from the Spiritual World as a result of thinking in terms of nouns. It is, indeed, very much the case at the present day that men are cutting themselves off from the Spiritual World by a kind of thinking in terms of nouns.

Peoples which have already fallen into decadence and which experience their verbs in a very substantive way [...] are thereby setting themselves completely off from the Spiritual World.

Now after Fritz Mauthner had found that, in everything which is carried on today as Science, there really exists nothing more than a sort of "making a fool of oneself" through speech, he comes to an opinion about the human soul which is remarkable in the highest degree for the present day. He says in the first place, men confront the world. While they are confronting the world and perceive it with their senses, they are really only becoming aware of those impressions which they denote by means of adjectives. People do not pay attention to this, but it is a good remark. If you see a bird flying, if you see a table standing, you are really only perceiving qualities through your senses—let us say, the colour of the bird. You are also only perceiving the qualities of the table. It is really only a self- deception, an illusion, that you still perceive a special table apart from these qualities, that you can perceive something else besides those impressions which you denote by adjectives, namely what you can denote by nouns. With his senses, man only perceives the qualities of things. When he puts these sensible qualities into words by means of adjectives, by means of the adjectives of speech, he is living sensually with the things, in an external way. And a man like Fritz Mauthner asks himself: but what can a man, who is living with the things in an external way, really receive into himself from the things? What can he reproduce about the things? He can only receive, thinks Fritz Mauthner, what is reproduced through Art, by which is understood the whole development of art from the most primitive stages of mankind to what can be indicated today as the highest stage of art. When man digests what he perceives with the senses, what he can uttered through adjectives, Art arises.

For people like Fritz Mauthner, who have stripped off much that is superstitious in the present time, especially the superstitions of our schools, artistic creation, even the most primitive of all, is the only thing which man achieves creatively in union with things. But man is not satisfied with merely expressing the qualities of things by means of adjectives: he forms nouns. But with the nouns he indicates nothing at all of what approaches men in the external sense-world.

Fritz Mauthner makes this especially clear, and for this reason he says in the second place: when Man arises to illusionary life by forming nouns, mysticism arises in his soul. Here he believes that he is penetrating into the essence of things, and is not aware that he really has nothing in the nouns. In this sphere—so Fritz Mauthner thinks—he can only dream. He therefore says: if you men really want to live, you must represent things artistically, for only then are you awake. If you have no mind for artistic representations, you really are not awake at all in your soul. You are dreaming if you think that you can penetrate into the essence of things further than can be done by the mere artistic forming of sensible quality- data. You fall into unreality with your mysticism, but you have a certain satisfaction in this mysticism. You dream of things by forming nouns in reference to them.

It is true that, from the spiritual-scientific point of view, this is a foolish assertion, but one which is extraordinarily acute and important for the present time, because in fact a man does only experience dream illusions if he develops only those qualities which people love today in the whole world of nouns, in which he can live mystically. But the majority of men do not make this clear to themselves.

However strangely it may sound, it is an extraordinarily important fact for the life of the present day that men work with the external, sensible qualities of things, with what they bring to expression in adjectives. They work on these external things by altering their qualities in some way. Then, disregarding the fact that they are working on these external things—let us say, in primitive art, people turn to the churches, to the schools, in order to learn something about the essence of things. But there they get only get an education expressed in nouns, really nothing but illusions. A man like Fritz Mauthner has a quite correct feeling for this. If one walks over a meadow and sees the green surface there, differentiated in the most varied way, interspersed with white, blue, yellow and reddish varieties of flowers, one has what is the true reality in the sensible world. But men believe that they can get hold of something beyond this. If they walk on the road, one beside the other, and the one stretches out his hand and picks something which looks yellow, he then asks the other: but what is the plant called? The other has, perhaps, learned at some time, from someone else or at school, what this plant is called, and he utters a noun. But this whole proceeding is an illusory one—it is a mere dream-activity. The true activity consists merely in seeing something yellow of a particular shape, but what is said about it in nouns is a dream-activity.

Men love this dream-activity today, but in fact it has no content. Many people, who are left unsatisfied by mere occupation with the external, qualitative impressions, listen to sermons and take part in divine-services. But all that lives in their souls as a result of the sermons and church services is also, at bottom, no more that a dream, a tissue of illusions, nothing real. Men who occupy themselves more accurately with the character of speech, as Fritz Mauthner did, notice this and draw attention to the fact that in the moment when one goes beyond what is artistic or artistically handled one at once enters the sphere of mystic dreaming.

Then Fritz Mauthner differentiates yet a third stage in the soul-life of men today, one which he calls Science. Today this is quite specially proud of the idea of development, of evolution. It prefers to express what it presents in verbs. But now take what I have said to you with reference to the experiencing of verbal activity, the activity of verbs. But how many people experience verbs eurhythmically today? How dry, insipid and abstract is what men experience in verbs! The German says Entwicklung. One says "evolution" if one is going to utter the same idea in speech in a different way. But one certainly has no idea at all of the reality of the words "evolution" or Entwicklung unless one is in the position concretely to carry one's feeling right through this word, inwardly to live through it.

ball of string

But how many people, if they say: "the physical man of today has evolved (entwickelt) from lower organisms" think of a ball of thread is wound together and which is being unwound, which is "e-volved"! If you have a ball, the thread of which is wound up, and unwind it, you can say: "you are evolving this". This is evolution (Entwicklung). For you have the concrete representation.

Now consider Ernst Haeckel, who says that man has evolved from the apes. We do not wish to speak of the substance of the matter. Do you believe that he pictures to himself that there is a ball of thread and that something has been unwound from it by the changing of the ape into a man? Is it not the case that quite certainly nothing concrete like this lies in the word which is uttered when someone says that man has evolved from the ape—otherwise he would have had to think of the "unwinding of a thread from a ball!"

What does it mean when one utters the word "evolves" but really calls up no picture of it before oneself? This is the remarkable thing that men today, while they are thinking scientifically, prefer to express themselves in verbs, take refuge in verbs, but that they think nothing at all while using verbs. For if they were to make clear to themselves what they really are thinking, they would not get on at all with the object of their thoughts. Scientific concepts are really nothing else than scientific absence-of-thought. Today you can take the thickest text book, especially in political economy, and go through the concepts there—there are just as many absences-of-thought contained in them as there are concepts.

Now in this way somebody like Fritz Mauthner, who has no inkling of Spiritual Science, naturally cannot look into the reasons for the absences-of-thought into which we area now looking after we have just discussed how things are connected with speech. But Fritz Mauthner feels that, in the present day scientific way of thinking, this scientific talk is nothing more than an absence-of-thought, in consequence of the boundaries of thinking in terms of speech. It is, however, a hard fact if one has to confess: in the lower school grades, where, to be sure, plenty of sins are being committed against the children, the nature of the child demands that one gives it concrete thoughts, because it still wants to have something perceptible to the senses. But then, when people pass into the Gymnasium or become high school girls, one can already expect more from them in the way of absence-of-thought, for already the Conceptional is ceasing to have a content. And when one passes right on to the University, this is the summit of the absence-of-thought with is there traded-in as science, for the only reality today consists in handling things, what is artistic, what one brings out of the laboratory, the dissecting room and so on, the technical, the artistic. But what is "thought-out"—yes, I see, to be uttering a piece of nonsense—is nothing thought-out: it is an absence-of-thought.

Fritz Mauthner feels this. He therefore sets out this list of three steps, firstly Art, secondly Mysticism (which, however, is a state of dreaming), and thirdly Science, of which he says that in reality it is a learned ignorance a docta ignorantia.

I. Art
II. Mysticism: dreaming
III. Science: docta ignorantia

Thus one must take something uttered by a man like this as being a confession of a representative man of the present-day. Something of this kind is said by just the man who has stripped off those superstitions under the sway of which the majority of men live today, one who, as a result of his consideration of speech, has come to see what an emptiness is overflowing over present day mankind, while in the highest level of education pretended thoughts are taught which are, nevertheless, only absence-of-thought. Then this absence-of-thought overflows with a clutter of words into popular literature and comes at last, in journalism, to that terrible bog of words from which the majority of men nourish themselves spiritually today.

I could have quoted some other personage of the present day as an example: however, Fritz Mauthner brings this thing to expression in a uniquely precise, narrowly-systematised manner. Consider it well, what I have brought before you with regard to a representative man of the present day who has no inkling of Spiritual Science. If, intelligently and in an unprejudiced way, you take the conversation which the men of today carry on with one another, from the customary afternoon gossip to what is said in meetings of professional or territorial bodies, in the Reichstag or the Duma, there results a jumble of speech, of words, permeated by absence-of-thought.

But in this way one describes the real facts about what one must call "culture" today. I have depicted to you no more than the facts which just simply exist. And the task of the spiritual scientist is to look into this condition in a really unprejudiced way, courageously and without deceiving himself. You see, people who stand outside Spiritual Science are already coming to the view that it is a terrible superstition to consider Science, as it holds sway today, as anything but a docta ignoratntia. And it has gradually come to be this. Since it has been described by Nicolas of Cusa (1401–1464) at the beginning of the 15th century by the words docta ignorantia, our science has become this to an ever greater extent.

Now, of course, simple people can come and say: "But what are you saying? You have surely as often told us that the present time has attained to something magnificent in respect of Natural Science, and that you fully acknowledge the triumph of Natural Science". Yes, my dear friends, but nature contains no thoughts! It is just in the age of absence-of-thought that Natural Science can develop to the greatest extent of all, because it needs no thoughts, but merely external formulae, in order to classify natural-scientific facts. Natural Science owes its greatness just to the circumstance that, in order to be correct Natural Science, it may be without thoughts and even ought to be so. But the thing to which I wanted particularly to draw your attention to is this: that already in the present day people are noticing how mankind is passing through something which is turning their inner soul-life into a state of dreaming and Science really into one of sleeping, a state of ignorance. This, again, is the comfort which people feel today in Science and scientific thinking, that it lets itself sleep so comfortably in their souls. People do not at all believe how deeply the men of today are sleeping while they consider that they know something, how obedient they are to authority, even to excess, when freed by what they call "science" and what is given to them as Science, but how, out of their deep sleep, they can nowhere apply this Science to their real surroundings. Yes, they look on the application of "something scientific" to external life as a fantastic thing.

Just put in a library—it must be a very big one—all the learned works about psychiatry, all the works on mental diseases. You would then have gathered together much that is ingenious, in the sense of the present time. But yet one must also assume that the psychiatrists who occupy themselves professionally with affairs know what is in the books at least, they must know the principal facts, and they do know them, but as though they were asleep. For if, for example, it is a matter of considering life, of considering the fact that a man, who has for years controlled events over a great part of Europe, was and is really mad, then their science of psychiatry is of no use to people, for they do not think of applying their Science to real life.

These things were not always like this in the development of mankind. If we go back into other epochs, this was not present in the same measure. And, the further back we go, so it is present to a smaller extent. When men had the old, atavistic clairvoyance in ancient times, their dreams were then no dreams as we understand the term today, but they had a psychic content, in which they perceived something real. And people examined human affairs out of their sleep. Today it has come about that if men want to remain men they must gather their a knowledge different from that before which Fritz Mauthner finds them standing as before a docta ignorantia or a dreamlike mysticism. Men must wake up, and they can only do so through spiritual-scientific knowledge. Therefore I refer to what must happen as a awakening. This awakening must be something very real, something encroaching very, very deeply into life. Today people speak, and think in speech as it is described by us, and they believe that by this means they have thoughts as well. But in reality they have no thoughts. For what are thoughts for the man of today, if he really grasps them as thoughts? They are, in fact, nothing real: they are reflections of something real. And just when the man of today soars up to thoughts, if he is sinking at the real life of ideas, he must be conscious of the fact that these ideas as such are phantoms of reality, but are not reality itself.

I recently brought you a chapter of Hegel (Vol. 1, Lecture 8). I told you that it would be difficult to understand, because Hegel always bestirs himself in thoughts. This, to be sure, is so terribly difficult for men today—to bestir themselves in thoughts. One even becomes offensive to people, offensive in the highest degree, if one bestirs oneself in thoughts. When first I began to speak about Anthroposophy in Berlin, all sorts of people came from the most diverse directions of so-called spiritual life and wanted to see really what was happening, people who had taken part in Spiritualism, who had tried by means of all sorts of questionable mediumistic methods to experience something of the Spiritual World—all of them came there. And then it often turned out that just this kind of person regularly went to sleep in my lectures, especially when they were themselves rather mediumistic. One could see many a person there, sound asleep. Then they stayed away for the future. And some of them said that they dared not continue to go these lectures, for the spirits had told them that they would be dealing with ideas there, with thoughts, and that they dared not go to them.

My dear friends, I still call to mind a lady—she appeared to have become unwell—who ran out the door at some speed but who laid herself down at full length as soon as she was outside. The giving of thoughts had made this impression on her! Today, people in general are not trained in real thoughts, because they consider that when they bestir themselves in the projection of speech they have thoughts. But just when one admits oneself to be thinking, one is aware that, in our fifth post-Atlantean epoch of today, one has shadow-pictures if one really thinks, that is to say if one lives in thoughts. If one rightly comprehends the character of the life of thought, one is aware that the soul, as it were, bestirs itself on the surface of the thoughts, while something remains behind in the unconscious. There is the soul. But it sees something which it sends forth like the shadow-pictures of that in which it lives. It must comprehend the shadow-pictures, thoughts, ideas, and must carry them over into something which still, in many cases, remains unconscious for the men of today. How can it do this? It can only do it when that is received into the life of thoughts about which we can give ourselves up to no deception of any kind when we receive it: that is, the will to think, the feeling of the will while we are thinking, the feeling that we are present, that we are really leading over one thought into another, that, while we are thinking, we always have a clear picture underlying our thoughts.

Men do not love this today. They sit, walk or stand today, and their thoughts are churning up in their heads as I have just described, which is really absence-of-thought, but it is playing through their heads. Men give themselves up to these so-called thoughts, passively give themselves up to them, even take in every so-called thought which rolls through their heads. And the result of this is that the will to think, that which works arbitrarily and actively in thoughts, is of the utmost rarity in the souls of men today.

The man who holds himself to be a leader of opinion today wishes to the smallest degree to sit down and bring his will into activity. He quickly takes up the newspaper, so that his thoughts may be unrolled from outside, or a book—but does not develop within himself that activity which now really leads to active thinking. The mankind of today lives in a state of social laziness with regard to this active thinking—one can call it nothing else.

All these things give the real form of that transition which a man like Fritz Mauthner feels when he thus utters what I have described to you above. But all these things are phenomena connected with the crossing of the Threshold by the whole of mankind. The whole of mankind must pass by the stern Guardian of the Threshold in this fifth post-Atlantean epoch. And just in the epoch of the development of consciousness, it ought to come to the consciousness that mankind is passing through this stage in its development. But then a sort of splitting-up of the life of the soul must take place. What was centralised as a unity in earlier times must be split asunder into a trinity, and every single member must be centralised on its own account.

Because this is a question effecting human beings in their community-life, not individual men, it can only come about if there are external points of support, on which this tendency towards inward threefoldness can go on developing. These external points of support must now be present in the social organism in which men live. It is not in my choice that I must speak about the threefold social organism today. It is this which must be made clear to mankind from the signs of the times, from those signs of the times which become clear when one considers that mankind must pass the stern Guardian of the Threshold. And if you seek for an inner characteristic of the reasons why the threefolding must come about in the social organism, then just re-read that chapter in How Does One Attain Knowledge of Higher Worlds which deals with the Guardian of the Threshold. It is all there already, from another point of view.

When one studies Spiritual Science, one is studying the most significant impulse of the present day development of mankind. Spiritual Science explains, from the most diverse points of view, the most intensively working life-necessities of the present time. And, while the splitting of the human soul into the three members of thinking, feeling and willing is pointed out in the chapter in How Does One Attain Knowledge of Higher Worlds about the Guardian of the Threshold, it is a result demanded of the whole of mankind that they give thought to the Threefold Social Organism.

This is how the things are connected. If you consider the individual human being who steps over the Threshold to the supersensible world, you can say to yourselves this man experiences in himself the separation into a life of thinking, a life of feeling and a life of willing. If you consider the mankind of today who, while they are going through the fifth post-Atlantean epoch, step over the Threshold behind the scenes of historical Becoming, then you must say: this mankind must find its life of thinking in an independent spiritual organism, its life of feeling—that is to say the relations of feeling which play between man and man—in the independent rights-organism, and the life of will in the economic circuit, in the economic organism.

If you consider these matters in this way you will have the right foundations for the necessity of such statements as are made with regard to the Threefold Social Organism. Then you will also rise above the mere babel of words which often rules the present time. Then you will have insight that at the present time one should not dispute in words but should realise that words only gain importance and point to thoughts if one brings them into the right direction, if one considers that everything which must develop itself as thought-life in the spiritual organism of mankind is the cultivation of the individual capabilities of mankind, i.e. that individualism must rule in the spiritual organism, democracy must rule in the rights- or state-organism because this has to do with what every man develops in the way of relations with every man; in the sphere of economics, associative life must rule which holds together the co-workers in a profession, or the association which also arises as a result of the connection of production with consumption—in other words, socialism must rule in the sphere of the economics organisation. But the three independent members must appear separated in their characteristic qualities.

Now we are still living in a time in which Ahriman plays ball with men, while he lulls them into illusion about what really is to come to pass. So he causes them, as he has been done in former times, to mix together the will-organism and the feeling-organism—namely, socialism and democracy—and causes them to say: we are striving for social-democracy. As a result, the individualistic momentum is entirely left out, for, you see, people do not love thoughts. For otherwise one would have to say: "we must strive for individual-social-democracy", and this would destroy the most significant ideas which doctrinal social-democracy has today. In the confusion which the harmonising-together of socialism and democracy brings to social-democracy, you see an activity which Ahriman is carrying on with men. And one will only feel the seriousness of this tendency if one keeps one's attention on the transition at the Threshold of the fifth post-Atlantean epoch and knows that, because the whole of mankind lives within the Social Organism must come about, just as a threefolding of the soul-life of the individual must come about in the passing of the individual man over the Threshold.