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Living Knowledge of Nature
A Task of the Anthroposophical Society
GA 214

20 January 1923, Dornach

Translator Unknown

In recent lectures we have been comparing man's relationship towards Nature, towards the whole world, in olden times with that existing in our time. I pointed out, for example, how very much more concrete and actual was man's experience of Nature in more ancient times, because his inner life was much more vivid. I showed how man used to perceive his thinking process as a kind of deposition of salt in his own organism—if I may express it somewhat crudely. When man thought, he had the feeling that something hardened in his own organism. He seemed to feel the thoughts shining through his being and was aware too of a kind of etheric-astral skeleton. The sight of a cubic crystal aroused in him feelings different from those evoked by a sharply pointed one. He experienced thoughts as a hardening process within himself. Willing was to him a fiery process, a process of warmth radiating inwards.

Because man possessed such definite and vivid feelings within his own being, he could also feel outer Nature more vividly and thereby also live more concretely within it. We might say that to-day man knows little more of his inner being than the reflections cast into it by the outer world. He knows these reflections as memories and he knows the feelings, the very abstract feelings, he experiences or has experienced in connection with them; but he has lost that vivid experience of his organism being irradiated, illumined and warmed through and through. At the present time man knows of his own inner being only as much as the doctor or the scientist can tell him. Actual inner experience of his own being has ceased. Since man's external knowledge corresponds exactly to his knowledge of his own inner world, and since of this latter he knows no more than the scientist or the doctor can tell him, then also his knowledge of the outer world remains equally abstract. He informs himself about the laws of Nature but these are abstract thoughts. A really sympathetic experience of Nature is only possible in an instinctive way, though it is one which cannot be denied. Man has gradually lost knowledge of the elementary forces really working in Nature and therefore he is shut out from the rich life of Nature.

What has been preserved from former times concerning the life of Nature is now called myths and fairy tales. Certainly these myths and fairy tales express themselves in pictures, but the pictures point to something spiritual ruling in Nature. This is first of all an "elementary" spirituality expressed in indefinite outlines, but it is nevertheless spiritual, and when we penetrate through it we see a higher spirituality.

We might say that in former times man dealt not only with plants, stones, animals, but with the elementary spirits living in earth, water, air, fire, etc. When man lost himself, he also lost this experience of the Nature spirits.

A kind of dreamy resuscitation of these Nature spirits in human consciousness would not do, for it would lead to superstition. A new attitude towards Nature must lay hold of human consciousness. Man must be able to say to himself something like this: "Once upon a time men looked into themselves. They then had a lively experience of what went on within their own being. They thereby became acquainted with certain elementary spirits. When man turned his gaze inwards, those spirits began to speak to his heart and to give him that older, inner knowledge in the form of pictures which even to-day work upon us with elemental poetic force."

Those beings who were thus able to speak to man had their homes in the several human organs; for one lived as it were in the human brain, another in the human lungs, another in the human heart, etc. For man did not perceive his inner being in the way described by the anatomist to-day, he perceived it as living, active, elementary being. And when to-day with the science of initiation the path is sought to these beings, man experiences a very definite feeling about them. It seems to him that in olden times they used to speak to man through his own inner being, through each single part of this inner being. They were as if enclosed within the human skin. They inhabited the earth but they dwelt in man. They were within man, spoke to him, and gave him their knowledge. All man's knowledge of earthly existence came to him from within his own human skin.

With the development of humanity to freedom and independence these beings have lost their dwelling-place in man on the earth. They do not embody themselves in human flesh and human blood and therefore they cannot inhabit the earth in the human way; but they are still within the domain of the earth, and together with man they must reach a certain earthly goal. This is only possible if man, as it were, pays back to them what he once received from them. Then with initiation science the path to vision of these beings is trodden, it is realised that these beings once cultivated and fostered human knowledge. Much of what man is, he owes to them, for they permeated his being in his former incarnations and through them man has become what he is to-day. But they do not possess physical eyes nor physical ears. Once they lived with man. Now having left him they remain in the domain of the earth. We should recognise that once upon a time they were our teachers. Now when they have grown old we must restore to them again what they once gave to us. But that is only possible in the present phase of evolution when we approach Nature in the spirit, when we seek in the beings in Nature not only that which the abstract intellectuality of the present day seeks, but that pictorial element which is not accessible to the dead judgment of the reason but only to the developed life of feeling.

When in spirituality, that is to say, from the spiritual world-conception of Anthroposophy, we seek this pictorial element, we meet with these beings again. They may be said to observe and listen to us immersing ourselves anthroposophically in Nature; in this way they receive something from us, whereas from the ordinary knowledge of physiology and anatomy they get nothing and even have to suffer frightful deprivation. They get nothing from the lectures on anatomy nor from the operating theatres, nothing from the chemical laboratories nor the experiments in physics. They seem to ask: "Has the earth become utterly empty? Has it become a desert waste? Have they left the earth, those men to whom we once gave all we possessed? Will they not now lead us again to the things of Nature, as they alone can do?"

The fact to be realised is that there are beings who are now waiting for us to unite with them—just as we unite with other human beings on a common ground of knowledge—so that they may share in our knowledge and our actions. When a man studies physics or chemistry in the ordinary way, he is ungrateful to the fostering beings who once made him what he is. For by the side of all that man now unfolds in his consciousness these beings must starve in the domain of the earth. And man will only develop gratitude for their kindly care when again he seeks the spirit in that which he can see with his eyes, hear with his ears, and grasp with his hands. For these beings are able to share with man the spirituality permeating the perceptions of the senses. But in what is grasped in a purely material way, these beings are quite unable to participate. We human beings are only able to pay our debt of gratitude to these other beings when we really enter deeply into the content of Anthroposophy.

For instance, let us suppose that a man of the present day lays a fish on the table, or places a bird in a cage, and perceives it externally through his sense of sight. He is so egoistic in his knowledge that he stops at what he already perceives. Nor is it enough to picture the fish in the water or the bird in the air—this egoism only gives way when we see from the very form of the fish or of the bird, that the former is a creature of the water and by means of the water, and the latter a creature of the air and by means of the air. Let us imagine that we are observing flowing water not merely as a chemist to whom it is a chemical combination of hydrogen and oxygen, H2O, but that we look at the water in its reality. Then perhaps we find fish in it; we find that these fish consist of a soft substance developed in remarkable way into breathing organs in front; and we find that they are surrounded by a bony structure which, on account of the water, remains soft, with a delicate jaw over which the flesh, the substance of the body is laid. This bodily substance may appear to us as if proceeding out of the water, from water into which fall the rays of the sun. If we are able to perceive the sun's rays falling into this water, shining through it and warming it, and the fish swimming towards the warm illumined water, then we begin to perceive how this sun-warmth tempered by the water, and this sunlight shining in the water come towards us. This warm illumined water, together with the rhythm of the breathing, lays the soft substance of the fish's body over the jaw, and when the fish faces me with his teeth, when he comes towards me with his covered jaws and his peculiarly formed head, I feel that with this fish the shining warm water also comes towards me. And then I feel how, on the other hand, some other formative force is active in the fins. I learn gradually to perceive in the fins of the tail (I will only briefly indicate this now) and in the other fins, a tempered light, a light so tempered as to produce a substance harder than the rest of the body. Thus I learn of gradually to recognise the reflection of the sun-element in all that the fish brings towards me in its head, and the reflection of the moon-element in its hardened fins; in short, I am able to place the fish in the whole water element.

Then I look at the bird. It is impossible for the bird to develop its head in water, by swimming towards or with the sun-warmed, sun-illumined water, for the bird is adapted to the air. I learn that there is effort in its breathing. Where the breathing is not supported by water working on the gills, it becomes an effort. I perceive how the sun shines through and warms the air differently, and I become aware of the way in which the substance of the bird is pressed back from the bird's beak; I recognise that in the bird it is somewhat as if a man were to force back all the flesh that lies over his teeth thus making his jaw project. I recognise why the bird thrusts its beak towards me, whereas in the fish the jaw is held out more modestly clothed in bodily substance. I learn how the bird's head is a creation of the air, air which is everywhere filled with the warmth and light of the sun. I learn to perceive a big difference between the warm gleaming water which produces fish, and the warm illumined air which produces birds. I learn gradually to understand how, through this difference, the whole life of the bird becomes different. While the fins of the fish obtain their simple rays from the water, the bird's feathers obtain their barbs and barbules through the particular activity of the air, air that is filled with the light and warmth of the sun.

In this way I outgrow the ordinary crude view, and when the fish comes on to the table I am not too lazy to see the water as well, and when the bird is in the cage, to see the air with it. When I go further and do not limit myself to seeing the air round the bird only when it is flying in the air, but in its form I see and feel the formative element in the air, then that which lives in the forms and is filled with spirit awakens for me. In this way I learn to distinguish how differently the different animals live together with outer Nature, what a difference there is between a pachyderm, a thick-skinned animal such as a hippopotamus, and a soft-skinned animal such as a pig. I perceive that the hippopotamus has the tendency to expose his skin to the direct rays of the sun, while the pig continually withdraws his skin from the direct sunlight, preferring to withdraw into the shade. In short, I learn to recognise the particular action of Nature in each single being. My method is to pass from the several animals to the elements. I leave the path of the chemist who says that water consists of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen! I leave the path of the physicist who tells us that air consists of oxygen and nitrogen. I pass over to concrete vision. I see the water filled with fish; I see the relationship between water and fish. To speak of water in its abstract character as hydrogen and oxygen is to be quite inadequate. In reality water, together with sun and moon, produces fish, and through the fish the elementary nature of the water speaks to my soul. To speak of the air as being a mixture of oxygen and nitrogen is too abstract—the air that is filled with light and permeated with warmth, that pushes back the flesh from the bird's beak, and that shapes the organs of breathing in fish and bird each in its own peculiar way. Through fish and bird these elements express to me their own character. What riches are brought to the inner life by this approach to Nature, what poverty by the other!

Anthroposophical spiritual science gives us opportunities everywhere to speak of things in the way just described. For Anthroposophy has no wish to be received like the products of contemporary civilization; it desires to stimulate us to a new and special perception of the world.

If what has just been characterised were to be really felt, than a gathering of people into such a society as the Anthroposophical would make this society a reality. For then every member of this Anthroposophical Society would have a certain right to say: "I return thanks to the elementary beings who were once active in my human nature and really made me what I am. Once they dwelt within my skin and spoke to me through my organs; now they have lost that possibility. But when I gaze upon the single objects in the world in this way and see how each is fashioned out of the whole of Nature, when I take seriously the descriptions in Anthroposophy, then I speak in my soul a language which these beings can understand once more. I am able to be grateful to these spiritual beings."

This is what is meant when it is said that members of the Anthroposophical Society should not merely speak of spirit in general,—the pantheist also does that,—but should be conscious of being able to live again with the spirit. Then quite of itself there would enter into the Anthroposophical Society this "living in the spirit" with other men. And it would be realised that the Anthroposophical Society is in existence for the purpose of repaying the debt we owe to those beings who nurtured us and cherished us in ancient times; then would members become aware of the reality of the spirit ruling in the Anthroposophical Society. Many of the old feelings that still live on in tradition would disappear, and be replaced by the recognition that the Anthroposophical Society has a very definite task. Then would everything else develop and be understood in its relation to life. We may indeed point with a certain inner satisfaction to the fact that during the war, when the peoples of Europe were engaged in fighting against one another, seventeen nations were working together on this Building, which has now come to such a sad end. But the reality behind the Anthroposophical Society only emerges when the various nationalities are able to burst through the narrow limita¬tions of nationality to real unity in Anthroposophy; when behind the abstract form of the Anthroposophical Society we experience the true reality. But to this end very definite preparations are necessary.

There is a certain justification in the reproach made by the outside world against the Anthroposophists, that whereas much is said about spiritual progress there is little of it to be seen among individual Anthroposophists.

It is quite possible to make this spiritual progress; for the right reading of any one book gives this possibility. But to this end it is necessary that the content of our last lecture1Truth Beauty and Goodness, Dornach, 19.01.1923 should be taken seriously:—that the physical body is built up rightly through truthfulness, the etheric body through the sense of beauty, and the astral body through the feeling for goodness.

To speak first of truthfulness. The cultivation of truth should be a fundamental characteristic of all who really strive to unite in an Anthroposophical Society. It must first of all be acquired in life itself, and it must be something different for those who wish to develop gratitude to the beings who nurtured them in ancient times from what it is for the ignorant who prefer to remain in ignorance.

Those who do not wish to hear these things may be those who assimilate facts in accordance with their prejudices; when they desire it they may make false statements about an event or a man's character. But he who wishes to develop inner truthfulness may never go beyond what the facts of the outer world tell him. And, strictly speaking, he must always take care so to formulate his words that in respect to the outer world he only relates the facts which he has proved.

Only think how much it is the custom for people to-day to presuppose something that pleases them, and then to suppose that it is so! Anthroposophists must accustom themselves to separate all their prejudices from the true course of the facts and to describe only the pure facts. In this way Anthroposophists would of themselves act correctively in a world in which falsehood is only too often the custom.

Only think of all that is reported in the newspapers. The newspapers feel bound to report everything, no matter whether it can be proved or not. And then, when something is related, we often feel that no effort has been made to discover if the facts of the matter have been proved. If we point to this we often meet with the retort, "Why shouldn’t it be true?" With such an attitude as this we cannot acquire inner truthfulness. Anthroposophists especially should develop the capacity to describe events of the outer world in strictest accordance with the truth. Were this aim to be followed in the civilised world of the present day it would have a very remarkable result. If, through some miracle, it were to happen that a number of people were forced to coin their words in such a way as to correspond exactly to the facts, there would be widespread silence. For modern talk seldom corresponds to proved facts, but arises from all manner of opinions and passions.

It is the truth that everything we add to the outer facts apparent to the senses, everything that does not correspond to the actual facts, obliterates within us the capacity for attaining higher knowledge.

It once happened that at a gathering of students of law a little scene was carefully prepared and enacted before about twenty people. Then these twenty people were asked to write an account of what they had seen. Of course it was known exactly what had been done, for each detail had been carefully studied beforehand. Twenty people had to write an account of it afterwards. Three described it fairly accurately, seventeen wrongly. That was in a gathering of law students, where but three managed to see a fact correctly! When at the present time we listen to twenty people describing one after another something they are supposed to have seen, what they describe does not as a rule correspond in the least to the facts. We shall leave out of account altogether unusual experiences. For it has indeed happened in the fever of war that a man has taken the evening star shimmering through a cloud to be an enemy aeroplane. Certainly, such a thing may happen in a time of excitement; it is an obvious mistake. But even in everyday life great mistakes are constantly being made in regard to little things.

The growth of anthroposophical life depends upon men really acquiring this sense for the facts; it depends upon men training themselves gradually to acquire this sense for the facts, so that having observed the actual course of an outer occurrence, they do not paint in ghosts in addition when describing it afterwards. We need only read the newspapers to-day! Spectres have, of course, been done away with, but reports given in the newspapers as reliable news, are in reality nothing but spectres, phantoms of the worst kind. And the stories people relate are very often phantoms too. The first and most elementary thing we require for the ascent into the higher world is the acquisition of the sense for actual fact in the outer world. In this way only do we develop what is described in our last lecture [1] as truthfulness.

And the real feeling for beauty, as I tried to describe it vividly in my lecture, is developed in no other way than by beginning to observe the objects and beings in the world more closely,—by noticing why the bird has a beak, why the fish has that remarkable formation in front, in which a delicate jaw is hidden, etc., etc. Only by really learning to share in the life of Nature do we acquire the sense for beauty.

But it is impossible to gain a spiritual truth without a certain measure of goodness, of a sense of goodness. For man must be capable of a deep interest in his fellow men—as I was saying, morality only begins when a man feels in his own astral body the sorrows which cause the lines of care on his neighbour's brow. This is where morality begins; otherwise it is only an imitation of conventional rules or customs. What is described in my "Philosophy of Spiritual Activity" as moral action, is connected with this sympathetic experience in one's own astral body of the furrow of care, or the wrinkle caused by the smile on the countenance of another. Without this submersion of one's soul in the being of the other, it is impossible to develop the sense for the true life of the spirit.

It would therefore be an excellent foundation for the development of spirituality to have an Anthroposophical Society which is a reality, one in which each member so confronts another that he really experiences in himself that devotion to Anthroposophy felt by the other; and if the present all too human failings were not carried into the Anthroposophical Society. If the Anthroposophical Society were really a new creation whose members recognise one another as Anthroposophists—then indeed the Anthroposophical Society would be true reality. It would then be impossible for cliques and their like to appear in this society, or antipathy to a person on account of such a thing as the shape of his nose. These things which are customary in external life have entered to a large extent into the Society. In a real Anthroposophical Society personal relationships would have for their foundation mutual spiritual experiences. But the first step is the development of the sense for truth in regard to facts—which fundamentally means absolute accuracy—responsibility for one's own utterances and faithful and exact reports of the words of others.

This sense for truth is one thing. The second is the sense for the recognition of the real place of each being in the world of which it is a part—to perceive the water with the fish, the air with the bird, and then further to the sense for the understanding of our fellow men. For the sense for goodness, which is this sympathetic experience of what interests another and lives in his soul, is the third thing. Then would the Anthroposophical Society be a place where an endeavour is made towards the gradual development of the physical body, the etheric body and the astral body, each in accordance with its own purposes and its own nature. Then there would be a real beginning towards something that I have had to characterise again and again. The Anthroposophical Society should not be a society that merely enrols new members by giving each a card bearing his name and a number; it should be something that is really permeated by a common spirituality containing within itself at least the power to increase in strength and to surpass other forms of spirituality, so that at length it would mean more spiritually to a man that he should be an anthroposophist than that he should be Russian, English or German. Then only is unity really achieved.

At the present time the historic element is not yet considered essential. But it is the task of man in our time to come to the realisation of his place in history and to know that the Christian principle of universal humanity must be taken seriously: otherwise the earth loses its purpose and its inner significance. We may start by thinking of the elementary spiritual beings who long ago nurtured and fostered our human nature and remembering them with gratitude. These beings, during the last few centuries, have lost their connection with man in the civilised world of Europe and America. Man must again learn to feel gratitude towards the spiritual world. We can only arrive at the right social conditions on the earth by developing feelings of deep gratitude and love towards the beings of the spiritual world, feelings which can be present when we acquire knowledge of these beings. Then, too, feelings between man and man will change. They will be quite different from the present attitude which has had its origin in earlier conditions and has developed during recent centuries. For to-day man really regards every other human being more or less as a stranger and only himself as of importance. Yet in reality he does not know himself at all! Though he does not acknowledge it he can really only say: "Oh, I like myself best of all." If asked: "What is it in you that you like best of all?" he could only reply, "well, I must leave that to the scientist or the doctor to explain." But unconsciously, in his feelings, man really lives only in himself.

This attitude is just the opposite of what an Anthroposophical Society can give.

We must first of all realise that man must come out of himself, that the peculiarities of other men,—at least to some extent,—must interest him just as much as his own. Without this an Anthroposophical Society cannot exist. Members may be received into the Society, and, by means of rules, they may continue to hold together for a time; but that is not reality. Realities do not arise through accepting members and these members having cards on which it is stated that they are Anthroposophists. Realities never arise through anything that is written or printed, but through that which lives. The written or printed word only counts when it is an expression of life. If it is an expression of life, then a reality exists; but if what is written and printed is merely written and printed matter, the significance of which is determined by convention, then it is a corpse. For the moment I write something down I "moult" my thoughts. We know what "moulting" means; when a bird casts its feathers something dead is thrown off. When something is written down, that is a kind of "moulting". At the present time people are only too ready to "moult" their thoughts. They desire to express everything in writing. But it would be very difficult for a bird, if it had just moulted, to moult again at once. If someone were to try to make a canary moult again when it had just moulted, he would have to make imitation feathers for the purpose. Such is the case to-day. Because people only want to have dead moulted thoughts we are really no longer dealing with realities but with counterfeit realities. What men produce are chiefly imitations of reality. It is enough to drive one to despair to measure these against genuine reality. It is no longer the human being, the man, who is speaking but the government official or the solicitor or the barrister. Abstract categories speak—the "young lady", or the Dutchman or the Russian. What we must strive for is that the "man" shall speak, and not the Privy Councillor, the member of the government board, the Russian, the German, the Frenchman nor the Englishman. But first of all there must be the "man" there. But a man does not really become man so long as he only knows himself. The remarkable thing is, that just as we cannot breathe the air which we ourselves produce, neither can we live out the human being who fills our own skin, whom we feel within ourselves. We cannot breathe the air we ourselves produce; neither can we really live the human being we produce within ourselves. Our social relationships are not determined by ourselves, but by the character of others—and through what we experience in common with them. That is true humanity; that is true human life! Were we to desire to live what we produce only within ourselves, that would be the same as deciding to breathe into a vessel in order to breathe over again the same air we have ourselves produced, instead of breathing the outer air. In that case, as the physical is not as merciful as the spiritual, we should very soon die. But if a man continually breathes only what he himself experiences as a man, he also dies; though he does not know that he has died psychically, or at least spiritually.

What is really needed is that the Anthroposophical Society or Movement should, as I recently said: "Stichel!" (Wake up!) In a recent lecture I said that this anthroposophical life should be an awakening. And at the same time it must be a continual avoidance of inner death, a continual appeal to the vitality of the psychic life. In this way, the Anthroposophical Society would of itself be a reality through the inner force of the spiritual and psychic life.