Donate books to help fund our work. Learn more→

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

Goethe and the Evolution of Consciousness
GA 206

Also known as: The Ego as Experience of Consciousness, lecture 4 of 5, or Pythagoras, Galileo and Goethe. Lecture 10 of 11 from the lecture series: Human Evolution, Cosmic Soul, Cosmic Spirit.

19 August 1921, Dornach

Translated by H. Collison

The views which have to be developed in anthroposophical Spiritual Science in order to comprehend man and the world are more easily understood if we study the changes that have taken place in the mental outlook of man through the centuries. If we tell people to-day that in order really to know something about the nature of man, quite a different outlook is necessary from that to which they are accustomed, their first reaction will be one of astonishment and, for the moment, the shock will make them put aside all such knowledge. They feel that one thing at least remains constant, namely, man's spiritual or mental attitude to the things of the world. This is very evident in the outlook of many teachers of history at the present time. They declare that, so far as his mental attitude is concerned, man has not fundamentally changed throughout history and that if this were otherwise there could really be no history at all. They argue that in order to write history it is essential to take the present mental attitude as the starting-point; if one were obliged to look back to an age when human beings were quite differently constituted in their life of soul, it would be impossible to understand them. One would not understand how they spoke or what they did. Historical thought, therefore, could not comprise any such period. From this the modern historian infers that human beings must always have possessed fundamentally the same frame of mind, the same mental outlook as they possess to-day.—Otherwise there could be no history.

This is obviously a very convenient point of view. For if in the course of historic evolution man's life of soul has changed, we must make our ideas plastic and form quite a different conception of former epochs of history from that to which we are accustomed to-day.

There is a very significant example of a man who found it inwardly and spiritually impossible to share in the mental attitude of his contemporaries and who was forced to make such a change in his whole outlook. This significant example—and I mention his name to-day merely by way of example—is Goethe.

As a young man Goethe necessarily grew up in the outlook of his contemporaries and in the way in which they regarded the world and the affairs of human beings. But he really did not feel at home in this world of thought. There was something turbulent about the young Goethe, but it was a turbulence of a special kind. We need only look at the poems he composed in his youth and we shall find that there was always a kind of inner opposition to what his contemporaries were thinking about the world and about life.

But at the same time there is something else in Goethe—a kind of appeal to what lives in Nature, saying something more enduring and conveying much more than the opinions of those around him could convey. Goethe appeals to the revelations of Nature rather than to the revelations of the human mind. And this was the real temper of his soul even when he was still a child, when he was studying at Leipzig, Strassburg and Frankfurt, and for the first period of his life at Weimar.

Think of him as a child with all the religious convictions of his contemporaries around him. He himself relates—and I have often drawn attention to this beautiful episode in Goethe's early life—how as a boy of seven he built an altar by taking a music-stand and laying upon it specimens of minerals from his father's collection; how he placed a taper on the top, lighting it by using a burning-glass to catch the rays of the sun, in order, as he says later—for at seven years he would not, of course, have spoken in this way—to bring an offering to the great God of Nature.

We see him growing beyond what those around him have to say, coming into a closer union with Nature, in whose arms he first of all seeks refuge. Read the works written by Goethe in his youth and you will find that they reveal just this attitude of mind. Then a great longing to go to Italy seizes him and his whole outlook changes in a most remarkable way.

We shall never understand Goethe unless we bear in mind the overwhelming change that came upon him in Italy. In letters to friends at Weimar he speaks of the works of art which conjure up before his soul the whole way in which the Greeks worked. He says: “I suspect that the Greeks proceeded according to those laws by which Nature herself proceeds, and of which I am on the track.”—At last Goethe is satisfied with an environment, an artistic environment enfilled with ideas much closer to Nature than those around him in his youth. And we see how in the course of his Italian journey the idea of metamorphosis arises from this mood of soul, how in Italy Goethe begins to see the transformation of leaf into petal in such a way that the thought of metamorphosis in the whole of Nature flashes up within him.

It is only now that Goethe finds a world in which his soul really feels at home. And, if we study all that he produced after that time, both as a poet and a scientist, it is borne in upon us that he was now living in a world of thought not easily intelligible to his contemporaries, nor indeed to the man of to-day.

Those who embark upon a study of Goethe equipped with the modern scholarship acquired in every kind of educational institution from the Elementary School to the University, and with habitual thought and outlook, will never understand him. For an inner change of mental outlook is essential if we are to realise what Goethe really had in his mind when, in Italy, he re-wrote Iphigenia in Greek metre, after having first composed it in the mood of the Germanic North. Nor is it possible to understand Goethe's whole attitude to Faust until we realise the fundamental nature of the change that had taken place.

After he had been to Italy, Goethe really hated the first version of Faust which he had written earlier. After that journey he would never have been able to write the passage where Faust turns away from the

... heavenly forces rising and descending,
Their golden urns reciprocally lending,

where he turns his back upon the macrocosm, crying: “Thou, Spirit of the Earth art nearer to me.” After the year 1790 Goethe would never have written such words. After 1790, when he set to work again upon his drama, the Spirit of the Earth is no longer ‘nearer’ to him; he then describes the macrocosm, in the Prologue in Heaven, turning in the very direction from which, in his younger days he had turned away. When he speaks in suitable language of heavenly forces ascending and descending with their golden urns, he does not inwardly say: “Thou Spirit of the Earth art nearer,” but he says: Not until I rise above the earthly to the heavenly, not until I cease to cleave to the Spirit of the Earth can I understand Man.—And many other passages can be read in the same sense. Take, for instance, that wonderful treatise written in the year 1790, on the Metamorphosis of the Plants (Versuch, die Metamorphose der Pflanzen zu erkennen). We shall have to admit that before his journey to Italy Goethe could never have had at his command a language which seems to converse with the very growth and unfolding life of the plants. And this is an eloquent indication of the place of Goethe's soul in the whole sweep of evolution. Goethe felt a stranger to the thought of his time the moment he was obliged inwardly to ‘digest’ the result of contemporary scientific education. He was always striving for a different kind of thinking, a different way of approaching the world, and he found it when he felt that he had brought to life within him the attitude of the Greeks to Nature, to the World, to Man.

The modern physicist rejects Goethe because he lives in the very world which was so alien to Goethe in his youth. But, when all is said and done, it is more honest to reject than to express hollow agreement. Goethe could never fully find his way into the view of the world which had grown up since the fifteenth century. In his youth he was opposed to it, and after his Italian journey he let it pass, because he had gained something else from his intimacy with Greek culture.

What, then, is it that has permeated man's conception of the world and his view of life since the fifteenth century? It is, in reality, the thought of Galileo. This kind of thought tries to make the world and the things of the world comprehensible through measure, number and weight. And it simply was not in Goethe to build up a conception of the world based upon the principles of measure, number and weight.

That, however, is only one side of the picture. There is a certain correlative to what arises in man when he views the world according to measure, number and weight. It is the abstract concept—mere intellectualism. The whole process is quite evident: The application of the principles of measure, number and weight in the study of external Nature since about the middle of the fifteenth century runs parallel with the development of intellectualism—the bent towards abstract thinking, the tendency of thought to work chiefly in the element of reason. It is really only since the fifteenth century that our thinking has been so influenced by our partiality for mathematics, for geometry, for mechanics.

Goethe did not feel at home either with the principles of measure, number and weight as applied to the world, or with purely intellectualistic thought.

The world towards which he turned knew little, fundamentally speaking, of measure, number and weight. Students of Pythagorean thought will easily be misled into the belief that the world was viewed then just as we view it to-day. But the characteristic difference is that in Pythagorean thought, measure, number and weight are used as pictures—pictures which are applied to the cosmos and in close relation always with the being of man. They are not yet separated from man. And this very fact indicates that their application in Pythagorean thought was not at all the same as in the kind of thought that has developed since the middle of the fifteenth century. Anyone who really studies the writings of a man like John Scotus Erigena in the ninth century will find no trace of similarity with our method of constructing a world out of chemical and physical phenomena and theorising about the beginning and ending of the world on the basis of what we have learnt by measuring, counting and weighing. In the thought of John Scotus Erigena, the outer world is not so widely separate from man, nor man from the outer world. Man lives in closer union with the outer world and is less bent upon the search for objectivity than he is to-day. We can see quite clearly how all that unfolded in Greek culture since the age of Pythagoras manifested in later centuries and above all we can see it in a man like John Scotus Erigena. During this era the human soul lived in a world of absolutely different conceptions, and it was precisely for these conceptions that Goethe was driven to seek by a fundamental urge connected with the deeper foundations of his life of Soul.

We can have no clear idea of what this really means unless we consider another historical fact to which little attention is paid to-day. In my book Ratsel der Philosophie I have spoken of this historical fact in one setting and will approach it to-day from a different angle.

We men of modern times must learn to make a clear distinction between concept and word. Not to make this distinction between what lives in abstract reason and what lives in the word can only pervert our clarity of consciousness. Abstract reason is, after all, a universal principle, universal and human. The word lives in the several national tongues. It is not difficult to distinguish there between what lives in the idea or concept, and in the word.

We shall not succeed in understanding such historical records of Greek culture as still remain extant, if we imagine that the Greeks made the same distinction as we make between the concept and the word. The Greeks made no sharp distinction between concept or idea, and word. When they were speaking it seemed to them that the idea lived upon the wings of the words. They believed that the concept was carried into the word itself. And their thinking was not abstract and intellectualistic as our thinking is to-day. Something like the sound of the word—although it was inaudible—passed through their souls, sounding inaudibly within them. The word—not by any means the abstract concept—was imbued with life. Everything was different in an age when it would have been considered altogether unnatural to educate the minds of the young as we educate them to-day. It is characteristic of our civilisation—although we seldom give any thought to the matter—that a large majority of our boys and girls between the ages of ten and eighteen are engaged in absorbing Latin and Greek—dead languages. Can you imagine a young Greek being expected to learn the Egyptian or Chaldean languages in the same way? Such a thing is absolutely unthinkable! The Greek not only lived in his speech with his thinking, but to him speaking was thinking. Thinking was incarnate in speech itself. This may be said by some to have been a limitation, but it is a fact nevertheless. And a true understanding of the legacy that has come to us from Greece can only consist in a realisation of this intimate union between the concept or idea, and the word. The word lived in the soul of the Greek as an inward, inaudible sound.

When the human soul is constituted in this way, it is quite impossible to observe the world after the manner of Galileo, that is to say, in terms of measure, number and weight. Measure, number and weight simply are not there, they do not enter into the picture. As an external symptom only, it is significant that the physics, for example, taught to nearly every child to-day would have been regarded as miracle by the Greeks. Many of the experiments we explain to-day in terms of measure, number and weight would have been looked upon as pure magic in those days. Any history of physics tells us as much. The Greek did not enter into what we call ‘inorganic Nature’ in the way we do to-day. The very nature of his soul made this impossible because he did not pass on to abstract thoughts as we have done ever since the time of Galileo.

To live in the word as the Greeks lived in the word meant that instead of making calculations based on the results of experiments, they observed the changes and transformations taking place unceasingly in the life of Nature. Their attention was turned not to the world of minerals but chiefly to the world of the plants. Just as there is a certain affinity between abstract thought and the comprehension of the mineral world, so there is an affinity between the Greek attitude to the word and the comprehension of growth, of life, of constant change in living beings. When we conceive of a beginning and an ending of a mineral Earth to-day and build up our hypotheses, these hypotheses are an image of what we have measured, counted, weighed. We evolve a Kant-Laplace theory, or we conceive of the entropy of the Earth. All these things are abstractions, derived from what we have measured, counted and weighed.

And now, by way of contrast, look at the Greek cosmogonies. One feels that the ideas here are nourished and fed by the very way in which the vegetation shoots forth in spring, by the way it dies in autumn—growing up and then vanishing. Just as we construct a world-system out of our concepts and observations of the material world, so did the Greeks construct a world-system from observation of all that is revealed in vegetation. In short, it was from the world of the living that their myths and their cosmogonies originated.

The arrogant scientist of modern times will say: ‘Yes, but that was all childish. We are fortunate in having got beyond it. We have made such splendid progress.’ And he will look upon all that can be obtained by measuring, counting and weighing as something absolute. But those who are less prejudiced will say: Our way of viewing the world has developed out of the Greek way of looking at the world. The Greeks formed a picture of the world by contemplating the realm of the living. We have intellectualism—which is also a factor in the education of the human race—but out of our way of viewing the world, based as it is on the principles of measure, number and weight, another must unfold.

When Schiller had conquered his former dislike of Goethe and had become closely acquainted with him, he wrote a characteristic and significant letter in which he said: Had you been born as a Greek, or even only as an Italian, the world for which you are really seeking would have been about you from early youth.—I am not quoting literally but only according to the sense. Schiller perceived how strongly Goethe's soul longed for Greece. Goethe himself is an example of the change that can be wrought in a mind by entering into the spirit of Greece with understanding. Goethe's attitude to the thought of Greece was quite different from his attitude to the period since the fifteenth century, and this is the point in which we are more interested to-day. In our age, men live in the intellect and, their knowledge of the world is derived, for the most part, from the intellect; the phenomena of the world are measured, numbered and weighed. But this age of ours was preceded by another, when the intellect was far less such that the word was alive within him; he heard the word inwardly as ‘soundless’ tone. Just as an idea or a concept arises within our minds to-day, so, in those times, the word lived as inward sound. And because the content of the soul was itself living, men were able to understand the living world outside.

We can, however, go still further back than this. Spiritual Science must come to our aid here, for ordinary history can tell us nothing. Any history written with psychological insight will bring home to our minds the radical difference between the mental attitude of the Greeks and our own, the nature of the human soul before, say, the eighth century B.C. outer history can tell us nothing. Such documents as exist are very scanty and are not really understood. Among these documents we have Iliad and the Odyssey but they, as a rule, are not considered from this point of view. In still earlier times the life of soul was of a nature of which certain men, here and there, have had some inkling. Herder was one who expressed his views on the subject very forcibly but he did not ever work them out scientifically. In short, the period when men lived in the word was preceded by another, when they lived in a world of pictures. In what sense can speech, for example, and the inner activity of soul revealed in speech, be said to live in a world of pictures? Man lives in pictures when the main factor is not so much the content of the sound, or the nature of the sound, but the rhythm, the shaping of the sound—in short the poetic element which we to-day regard as something quite independent of speech itself. The poet of modern times has to give language artistic form before true poetry can come into being. But there was an age in the remote past when it was perfectly natural to make speech poetic, when speech and the evolving of theory were not so widely separated as they were later on, and when a short syllable following a long, two short syllables following a long, or series of short syllables repeated one after the other, really meant something. World-mysteries were revealed in this poetic form of speech, mysteries which cannot be revealed in the same fulness when the content of the sound is the most important factor.

Even to-day there are still a few who feel that speech has proceeded from this origin and it is worthy of note that in spite of all the confusing elements born of modern scholarship such men have divined the existence of something which I am trying to explain to you in the light of Spiritual Science. Benedetto Croce was one who spoke in a most charming way of this poetic, artistic element of speech in pre-historic or practically pre-historic times, before speech assumed the character of prose.

Three epochs, therefore, stand out before us.—The epoch beginning with Galileo, in the fifteenth century is an age of inner intellectual activity and the world outside is viewed in terms of measure, number and weight. The second and earlier epoch is that for which Goethe longed and to which his whole inner life was directed, after his Italian journey. This was the age when word and concept were still one, when instead of intellectuality man unfolded an inwardly quickened life of soul, and in the outer world observed, all that lives in constant metamorphosis and change. And we also look further back to a third epoch when the soul of man lived in an element by which the sounds of speech themselves were formed and moulded. But a faculty of soul functioning with quickened instinct in a realm lying behind the sounds of speech perceives something else in the outer world. As I have already said, history can tell us little of these things and the historian can only surmise. But anthroposophical Spiritual Science can understand thoroughly what is meant, namely, the Imaginative element of speech, the instinctively Imaginative element which precedes the word. And when he possesses this faculty of instinctive Imagination man can perceive in outer Nature something higher than he can perceive through the medium of word or idea.

We know that even to-day, when it has become thoroughly decadent, oriental civilisation points to former conditions of life in its heyday. We realise this when, for example, we study the Vedas or the Vedanta philosophy. Moreover we know that this age, too, was preceded by others still more ancient. The soul of the oriental is still pervaded by something like an ethereal element, an element that is quite foreign to the Western mind and which, as soon as we attempt to express it in a word, is no longer quite the same. Something has remained which our word ‘compassion’ (Mitleid) can only very poorly express, however deeply Schopenhauer may have felt about it. This compassion, this love for and in all beings—in the form in which it still exists in the East—points to a past age when it was an experience of infinitely greater intensity, when it signified a pouring of the soul's life into the life of feeling of other sentient beings. There is every justification for saying that the oriental word for ‘compassion’ signifies a fundamental element in the life of soul as it was in the remote past, an element which expresses itself in an inward sharing in the experiences of another, having a life of its own, manifesting not only in a process of metamorphosis as in the plant, not only in a process of coming-into-being and passing away, but as an actual experience in the soul.

This inward sharing in the experiences of another is only possible when man rises beyond the idea, beyond the sound as such, beyond the meaning of the word, to the world where speech itself is shaped and moulded by Imagination. Man can have a living experience of the plant-world around him when the word is as full of life as it was among the Greeks. He shares in the life of feeling of other beings when he experiences not only the world of the living but the sentient life of other beings and when he is inwardly sensitive not only to speech but to the artistic element at work in the shaping of speech.

That is why it is so wonderful to find reference in certain mythological poems to this primeval phenomenon in the life of the soul. It is related in connection with Siegfried, for example, that there was a moment when he understood the voice of the birds—who do not utter words but only bring forth a consequence of sound. That which in the song of birds ripples along the surface like the bubbling of a spring of inner life, is also present in everything that has life. But it is precisely this element which imprisons the living in an interior chamber of the soul and in which we cannot share when we are merely listening to a word that is uttered. For when we listen to words, we are hearing merely what the head of another being is experiencing. But when we inwardly grasp what it is that flows on from syllable to syllable, from word to word, from sentence to sentence in the imaginative shaping of speech, we grasp that which actually lives in the heart and mind of another. As we listen to the words uttered by another human being, we can form an opinion about his capabilities and faculties; but if our ears are sensitive to the sound of his words, to the rhythm of his words, to the moulding of his words, then we are hearing an expression of his whole being. And in the same way, when we rise to a sphere where we understand the process wherein sound itself is moulded and shaped—although it is a process empty alike of concept and of word, unheard and simply experienced inwardly—we experience that from which feeling itself arises. When we thus begin to realise the nature of an entirely different life of soul in an age when audible speech was accompanied by living experience of rhythm, measure and melody, we are led to an epoch more ancient than that of Greece. It was an epoch when the mind of man was not only capable of grasping the process of metamorphosis in the world of the living, but of experiencing the sentient life connected with the animal creation and of beholding in direct vision the world of sentient being.

If we study the civilised people in the age which stretches back from the eighth century B.C. to about the beginning of the third millennium B.C., we find a life of soul filled with Imaginative instinct, prone by its very nature to experience the sentient life of all beings.

Modern scholarship, with its limited outlook, tells us that the ancients were wont to personify the phenomena of Nature. In other words, a highly intellectual element is attributed to the human soul in olden times and, the comparison often drawn is that a child who knocks himself against the corner of a table will strike the table because he personifies it, thinks of it as being alive.

Those who imagine that a child personifies the table as a living being which he then strikes, have never really gazed into the soul of a child. For a child sees the table just exactly as we see it, but he does not yet distinguish between the table and a living thing. Nor did the ancients personify the phenomena of Nature in this sense; they lived in the element by which speech is shaped and moulded and were thus able to experience the sentient life of other beings.

This, then, has been the way in which the souls of men have developed during the period beginning about the third millennium B.C. and lasting until our own time: from super-speech, through speech, to the age of intellectuality; from the period of experience of the life of feeling in other beings, through the age of sharing in the processes of growth and ‘becoming’ in the outer world, to the time when attention is concentrated on the principles of measure, number and weight. Only when we picture this process quite clearly shall we be able to realise that in order to penetrate into the nature of things in an age when we try to probe everything with the conscious mind, we must deliberately adjust ourselves to an entirely new way of viewing the world around us. Those who imagine that the constitution of the human soul has never fundamentally changed but has remained constant through the ages, regard it as something absolute, and think that man would lose himself irretrievably if the essential nature of his soul were in any way to undergo change. But those who perceive that changes in the constitution of the soul belong to the natural course of evolution will the more easily realise that it is necessary for us to transform our attitude of soul if we are to penetrate into the nature of things, into the being of man and into the nature of the relation of man to the world in a way fitted to the age in which we are living.