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The Occult Movement in the Nineteenth Century
GA 254

Lecture VIII

23 October 1915, Dornach

At the end of the lecture yesterday I said that opponents of the spiritual-scientific Movement arise, naturally in a way, from two sides. They arise, on the one side, from the domain of natural science because its whole make-up and stamp at the present time are up to a certain point bound to be such that anyone who undergoes a scientific training and thinks that on this basis he can, or may, or must, develop a view of the world, feels compelled to adopt one which, on account of its materialistic trend, must inevitably be antagonistic to Spiritual Science. Right thinking is essential here. It must be realised that many individuals into whom the methods of modern materialistic science—which we recognise to be a necessity—have been instilled, simply cannot help becoming opponents on account of the thoughts that have been kindled in them. This of course cannot absolve anyone from the obligation to combat this opposition when it arises. But it will be combatted in the right way only when what I have just said is taken into consideration.

On the other side, in a similar way, opposition comes from the representatives of the various religious bodies. Just as in the domain of modern science there is an interest in concealing the spiritual behind nature, so have the representatives of modern religious bodies an interest in concealing the spiritual behind the soul. We may therefore say: Spiritual Science is obstructed from the side of natural science because of the desire to keep concealed the spiritual behind nature; and it is obstructed from the side of the religious bodies because it is held that the spiritual behind the manifestations of the life of soul should be kept hidden. Religious bodies, as they now are, will always be prone to oppose what Spiritual Science brings into the open, because they have no interest in pointing to the spirit behind the expressions of the life of soul, but consider that the spirit should be kept hidden. This must be realised, although again it does not imply that the opposition should be left out of account; it is a question of adopting the right attitude to it.

This is a chapter of which it is extraordinarily difficult to speak, for here we touch upon things which everyone must inevitably realise through what he reads between the lines in the literature of Spiritual Science and who feels something of what is contained in its communications. At the basis of the matters to which I have referred there lies something of great profundity, something very significant. For certain reasons it is actually dangerous simply to point from nature herself—that is to say, from the surface manifestations of nature—to what lies behind nature. And because of this danger there comes about what I have indicated, more or less metaphorically, by saying: In the so-called Secret Societies or Orders there is invariably a kind of “right wing”, composed of those esotericists who wish to adhere strictly to the principle of silence in regard to everything connected with the higher secrets. All such Orders—but, as I said, the expressions are to be taken metaphorically—all such Orders have a kind of “right wing”, a kind of “middle party”, and a kind of “left wing”. The inclination of those belonging to the left wing is always to make public certain esoteric matters; but those belonging to the right wing are wholly against making public anything whatever of what they believe should be in the guardianship of the Secret Orders and Societies. They consider that such knowledge is dangerous if it falls into the hands of incompetent people, if it were to be represented in public by persons insufficiently prepared.

The reason why it is so difficult to speak about this subject is that the moment one does so, one is obliged to give certain indications which in a way do bring things into the open. The Secret Orders, believing, rightly or wrongly, that they are custodians of certain higher knowledge, necessarily choose a method whereby they provide certain precautionary measures in connection with their real or alleged knowledge reaching the public.

In such Orders there are usually degrees—three lower and three higher degrees. The knowledge considered by those in the higher degrees to be dangerous in the hands of unprepared people is not, as a rule, imparted in the three lower degrees; in the three lower degrees, efforts are made to clothe the real or alleged knowledge in all kinds of symbols.

Of these symbols one may perhaps say the following: If they have been faithfully preserved since ancient times and have not been adulterated through the machinations of those who did not understand them, they constitute a kind of language which can gradually be mastered by those who really penetrate to the gist of them. And when this language is mastered, it conveys certain knowledge. These symbols could also be said to be vehicles of information brought upon the scene with extreme caution. The egoistic standpoint of restricting the store of knowledge to the innermost circle is not adopted. The knowledge is given in a certain way to those who are received into the outer circle. But it is hidden in symbolism, so that only one who is able to unravel the symbols can penetrate to the underlying truths. There are, indeed, Orders which keep a strict watch against theoretical explanations of the symbols ever being given, insisting that the symbols shall simply be presented or demonstrated by exercises; so that anyone who wants to read the symbols, when he takes them to be a language, must achieve this by his own efforts.

It might be asked: Is that really a protection? Is not the knowledge still apt to fall into wrong hands?—Now at any rate until the fourteenth and on into the fifteenth or sixteenth century, it can be said that the Orders working with symbolism did not, by such practices, allow the knowledge to fall into wrong hands. Since then, however, things have become essentially different.—I will at once tell you why. Please, therefore, bear this in mind. In occult Orders established before the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, those in the three lower degrees to whom, as the outer circle, the knowledge was imparted in symbols, could not make any fundamental misuse of it because the symbols were simply presented and everything else was left to those who had now to get at their meaning. This was in itself a protection, because to discover the meaning of the symbols entailed a certain spiritual effort.

Suppose someone entered one of the lower degrees of an occult Order. Symbols were either presented or demonstrated to him. He was given only the symbols and was instructed to let them work upon him as if they were phenomena of nature. If he wished to go further, to discover the secret meaning of the symbols, he was obliged to investigate, to exert spiritual energy. Had he received help, it would not have been necessary to apply this spiritual energy. But he received no help and was therefore obliged to make efforts to decipher the symbols.

And now the question is: What spiritual force was used for deciphering these symbols? It was the same force which—if not employed for this purpose but for penetrating the phenomena of nature—would have helped to make a man cunning and induce him to apply certain faculties to a purpose to which he ought not to apply them. It was therefore a task of symbolism to ensure that the forces which might become dangerous were diverted to the deciphering of the symbols. In this way the forces were deflected from causing harm.

A second point to be remembered in connection with these symbols is that human nature is intrinsically constituted to view such symbols in their moral aspect. It must also be stressed that these symbols were contrived in such a way that their moral aspect was necessarily obvious. But in the case of phenomena of nature, the moral aspect does not come into consideration. A lily, because it blooms, cannot be judged on the basis of moral principles; there one must go to work objectively and with complete detachment. Symbols are a different matter, for they arouse moral feelings. And these moral feelings which study of the symbols aroused in the soul were able to combat unhealthy mystical tendencies. So unhealthy mysticism, too, was turned aside by the inner effects of the impression made by the symbols. This symbolism had therefore very valid grounds.

Since the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, however, these grounds have lost their validity; they can no longer be advocated. Hence since that time, occult Orders have long lost the significance once attaching to them. In many respects they have become Societies where all sorts of special aims are pursued; they are Societies for fostering particular vanities and the like. In many cases they are no longer repositories of any special knowledge but at most of an empty formalism.

The development of natural science since the time of Galileo, Copernicus and others has played an essential part here. For the appearance and cultivation of these methods of natural science has caused the human soul gradually to lose the possibility of cleaving to symbolism with the old devotion. In reality, all symbols conduce towards bringing to light the Spiritual behind Nature. But natural science with its materialistic methods which reached their zenith in the nineteenth century, has affected the human soul in such a way that it loses interest in the reality to which symbolism is a pointer. Practical evidence of this is that anyone who believes himself able to construct a view of the world out of the findings of natural science has no longer any inclination to concern himself with symbolism with any real earnestness or seriousness. And so a symptom has appeared the significance of which is fully in evidence today.

The symbols of the secret Societies which until the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were presented to the lower degrees, were expressions of very deep truths. But expression was given to these truths in the manner that was customary at that time. Under the influence of the natural scientific way of thinking, and especially of the proclivities consequent upon it, no efforts were made to carry these symbols to a further stage. Since the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, symbolism ought to have been developed with greater freedom. The symbols ought to have been kept abreast of what humanity was actually experiencing in the world. But this did not happen, and so to those whose mental horizon has been created by modern culture, the symbols seem antiquated and out of date—as indeed by far most of them are. But precisely among those who want to make some approach to occultism, a propensity has developed which I have often deplored—the propensity to unearth as many very ancient symbols as possible. And if these people can say of some symbol that it has the hallmark of great antiquity, their delight is unbounded. They do not value the symbolism as such but the fact that it originated somewhere and somehow in the distant past. Very often no attempts are made to understand it; these people are satisfied if the symbols unearthed are of great antiquity. During recent centuries, very little has been done to develop symbolism to a further stage. The result is that when it is presented today in Orders that can only be called “stragglers” of the old occult Orders—for such indeed they are—this symbolism is for the most part antiquated, and no efforts are made to develop it in accordance with the progress made by humanity.

The general outlook and attitude of people have changed. To keep some matter secret today in the way in which this could formerly be done, is no longer possible. Let anyone try to delve into earlier, perfectly authentic symbolism, and he will soon find how little difficulty there is in doing so. Our age is the age of publicity and will not tolerate artificial secrecy, artificial mystery. Our age wants everything to come immediately into the open. Moreover, it can also be said that for those acquainted with the literature that has been published about symbolism scarcely anything is still unavailable! Practically everything has found its way into books, and some Orders today work on the principle of diverting their members' attention from literature where one thing or another is to be read. Hence a great deal that has long been accessible in books is thought by the members of such Orders to be a secret of which only their superiors may justifiably have knowledge. In no domain is humbug more rife than in that of occult Orders!

As I have said, it is really no longer possible to maintain the principle of secrecy and of erecting barricades by means of symbolism. But these things can only be rightly understood when one tries to discover the reasons why in earlier times certain things were kept secret. As I have already said, it is difficult to speak about these matters, because in doing so a great deal that cannot lightly be discussed would have to be said. Therefore today and tomorrow I shall choose a different way. I shall tell you certain things which if you follow them up consistently will help you to glimpse what it is really not advisable to express in plain words at the present time. I shall tell you certain things which can be followed up in your own thinking and experience, and also in your own inner life. If you do this, it will carry you far. Because it is timely to speak of these things, I shall do so—as far as is possible.

I will take one example.—In one of his addresses, the famous English writer Carlyle made a certain reference to Dante, the author of The Divine Comedy. In other respects the address is not particularly significant; it was on the subject of Dante and Shakespeare, but one passage is notable. Those who read this address in the way that ordinary readers are wont to read—and for most people today there is no difference between reading an address by Carlyle and a newspaper article—will find nothing particularly striking. But the attention of one who has absorbed something of Spiritual Science not only into his brain as theory but also into his feeling, may well be struck by this passage. Carlyle points out how remarkable it is that from happenings which outwardly seem like chance, or also from something that has not turned out at all as people would have wished, things of tremendous import have come to pass. Carlyle illustrates this by speaking of Dante's destiny. Dante was banished from his native city on account of his political views and was obliged to become a wanderer. It was owing to this that he became what he is for the world today. Being an outcast from his native city he was led to write The Divine Comedy. Now, says Carlyle, Dante certainly had no wish to be thus exiled! But had he remained in Florence he would probably have become something like a Lord Mayor in the city; he would have had a great deal to do as one of the leading figures in Florence, and The Divine Comedy would not have been written. So Dante was obliged to suffer something highly unwelcome in order that mankind might possess The Divine Comedy. Mankind owes this to a fate which Dante would certainly not have chosen for himself—and here Carlyle is assuredly right. There is genius in this utterance. It does not seem so very significant to one who reads the address in the ordinary way, but it may well strike an attentive reader. He may perhaps not understand why his feelings should be particularly arrested by this passage. Indeed, Carlyle himself was not aware of its significance. He made the utterance because he was a man of great insight, but he felt nothing of what I mean here.—I must make my meaning clear to you in a roundabout way.

Suppose that Dante had not been exiled, but had become something like a councillor or an official in Florence; he would have attained everything for which his talents fitted him. He might even have become a prior, and if he had he would have been a very distinguished one. Much would have come about through Dante—but there would have been no Divine Comedy.

The matter is, however, not as simple as this. Let us assume that Dante had achieved his goal, had not been exiled from Florence but had become one of the chiefs of the State or of the Church—posts which are somewhat akin as far as public influence is concerned. As you will admit from what is contained in The Divine Comedy, Dante possessed talents of no mean order and he would have been a most distinguished Lord Mayor, a figure of tremendous importance. In these circumstances, history would have assumed a totally different aspect. Florence would have had a very important civic official and statesman—yes, and not only that! Imagine a Florence administered by councillors possessing the talents which flowed into The Divine Comedy! This able administration would have meant that many, many other forces present would have been obstructed in their hidden working.

It is utter stupidity to maintain that there are no men of genius in the world. There are very many—only they go under because they are not awakened. If Dante had become a leader of the State, he would have had a successor also of great importance—and there would have been seven such successors. Exactly seven people—we shall one day see the reasons for this—seven people of importance would have succeeded one another as governors of Florence. Something really magnificent would have come into being—but there would be no Divine Comedy. Dante was born in the year 1265. We are living now in an age when, if all these seven men had worked in Florence at that time, we should still be feeling the after-effects, for they would have lasted for seven centuries! Seven centuries would have taken a course quite different from the one they have actually taken. But these things did not happen—the Catholic Church is still there, but so too is The Divine Comedy.

I have given you an example of how forces are transformed in the ordering of world-history, an example of what is really involved in the great process of the transformation of world-history. Viewed in this light, matters of immense significance open out before us, matters of vast, far-reaching significance.

I have used this example because I want to draw your attention to the fact that it is sometimes necessary in the evolution of humanity for forces to be transformed, turned into a channel quite other than that into which, according to outward appearance, they would seem to want to flow. This example has, apparently, nothing to do with what I really want to say, and yet it has everything to do with it. For if you follow to its ultimate consequences what is implied in this example, you will realise why it is difficult to hand over freely to the public certain truths connected with what lies behind outer nature. It is necessary to present many things in such a way as to keep rein on forces, in order that certain of them may not become dangerous.

With this example I have pointed to those forces which will unfold in human nature if a man penetrates behind the veil of the phenomena of outer nature. But there are also certain dangers when men do not only pierce through the veil of the phenomena of outer nature but try to pierce through the veil of the soul's experiences, endeavouring to plumb the depths of the life of soul. There are dangers here too. And again by means of a story I will make it possible for you to realise certain things which otherwise could not be expounded. I will take a story that is familiar to you but is not generally recognised as giving expression to such deep truths as those in question.

A man, by name Paul, came one day to Father Antonius, whose pupil he desired to become. He gave the appearance of being a very simple-minded man. Antonius, however, accepted this man as a pupil—we will call him Paul the Simpleton—and caused him year after year to carry out certain tasks. I do not think many of you would have enjoyed carrying out the tasks which Father Antonius set his pupil! The latter had to carry water, but in perforated vessels, so that when he reached his destination there was no water left in them; and this he had to do year after year. He had to stitch clothes, and when they were finished, unpick them; again, year after year, he had to carry stones up mountains and on reaching the top to let them roll down to their original places. The outcome was that Paul the Simpleton underwent a tremendous deepening of soul and he became aware that forces arising out of his subconsciousness were gradually making him into a man of wisdom. Paul the Simpleton became Paul the Wise.

I am not recommending that this example of what Father Antonius did with Paul the Simpleton should be imitated! I am merely telling the story. Suppose Antonius had not chosen this method but had made things easier for Paul the Simpleton. What would have happened ? One day Paul the Simpleton would have said: “Yes, Antonius, your teaching is very good, but you are really a very evil man. I must now take your teaching with me out into the world. I must fight you with your own teaching, for I recognise that you are evil. Moreover, you do nothing for me that I am entitled to demand. You promised that from a certain stage onwards you would declare that, although when I first came to you I appeared to be a simpleton, already then I was at a much higher level. And then you promised to declare that all your teaching is really inspired by me.” The pupil might have come to this, but he was protected by the methods employed by Antonius, methods which are now no longer practicable—although this is not to say that in certain cases they would not be very fruitful!

If you think through these two examples to their ultimate conclusions, you will perceive certain dangers which threaten a man if he enters into the field of operation of the spiritual forces which lie behind outer nature. From the example I gave you in connection with Dante, you can realise with what momentous issues one is confronted here.

The question might be raised: Why does not science, with its praiseworthy and really brilliant methods, arrive at certain things that lie behind nature? This can be answered very simply.—Science lacks the requisite forces of knowledge, nor does it work at developing them, owing—as I have often said—to a certain fear of what lies behind the phenomena of nature.

But on the other side it might be asked: why is it that those who know something of the spiritual in nature are not willing to bring to light more adequately than is the case at present, the methods and ways whereby man can develop the forces of knowledge which lead him behind nature, which enable him to cross the Threshold and to penetrate to what lies behind nature?

Now as soon as a man passes the Threshold leading to the spiritual beings behind nature, he comes into actual contact with those beings. So much you will have realised from all that has been presented in recent lectures. Passive phenomena of nature, such as are studied by natural science today, are to be found only in the physical world. As soon as we cross the Threshold we enter a world of living spiritual beings. The remarkable thing is that the beings first encountered in yonder world make us more capable of clear thinking and the like than we previously were. It is indeed so: if we regard all the phenomena of nature studied by materialistic natural science today as a “screen” on which the laws of nature are inscribed—then behind that screen lies a vortex of spiritual beings. This screen must be pierced. But it cannot be pierced by men with the faculties at their command for the study of natural science. If this were possible, the screen would be pierced today. But with these faculties it is not possible.

There are, to be sure, individuals who through a true interpretation of symbols could bring people to the stage of being able to pierce the veil. These people would then inevitably come into contact with spiritual beings, and indeed with beings pre-eminently interested in making them very astute, very cunning, very subtle thinkers. These are certain elemental beings whose whole endeavour is to impart to man certain faculties of knowledge which make him really different from what he was before he had pierced the veil. Man is connected with these beings. They have, however, still another trait: they make a man astute, endow him with certain faculties of knowledge—but they are inimical to man, inimical in the highest degree to man and animal. Hence in piercing the veil a person forfeits the very generally prevailing friendliness to man and animal. It is not easy for anyone who is unprepared to break through without forfeiting this natural friendliness. He tends immediately to do all sorts of things that are unfriendly to man and even acquires a certain skill in the doing of them.

You will see from this that it is not advisable to allow men to break through the veil without proper preparation. It is fraught with danger, because the beings first encountered are inimical to man. But one who broke through on the path that would make this possible if the methods of modern natural science were to be carried further, would inevitably encounter these beings who are inimical not only to man but to nature herself—and he would come into possession of a great mass of powerfully destructive forces.

It is therefore not desirable to allow those persons to break through the veil who still have the slightest inclination to apply these destructive forces—many of which would thereby be delivered into the hands of mankind. The endeavour must be to allow only those individuals to break through whose training has brought them to the stage where they will make no use of such forces when these beings present themselves. In this direction the deciphering of the symbols was extraordinarily effective. For in deciphering the symbols, the forces which these beings would have been able to apply in order to make men into agents of destruction, are used up. And the train of thought in those who were in favour of keeping secret a large part of esoteric knowledge was as follows.—They said: If we make our knowledge and the kind of knowledge existing in the secret Orders accessible to men unconditionally, so that they are spared the exertion of themselves penetrating to the meaning of the symbols, we shall make them rebels against nature, we shall make them bearers of forces of destruction. They said: We possess knowledge which would unquestionably bring this about, therefore we cannot make this knowledge exoteric. We must adhere undeviatingly to the rule that those who approach us shall first of all be trained to develop an invincible love for plant, animal and man; we must therefore first subject them to careful training and discipline.

Well and good—but today people do not take kindly to discipline; they resist it, fight against it. Humanity has advanced!—Suppose one were to enforce this discipline, were to put people into the Orders in question and strictly apply what in most cases might be prescribed with great benefit! What would be the outcome? Within three months, the women, especially, would all have departed; they would certainly not have taken kindly to it! Certain Orders, therefore, in order to be able to continue in existence, have abandoned this discipline. Hence what was once profound knowledge has degenerated into mere straw, lacking all real substance. On the other hand, however, the practice of discipline continued among those who really knew something about how to keep the knowledge secret.

As you will have seen, the subject is widened by what I have said, namely, that when materialism was in full flood, the method of mediumship was adopted. It was thought that what would otherwise be gained from theoretical explanations of the symbols would be actually perceptible in the methods used by mediumship.

From all this you will realise that those who possess some knowledge in this domain have, after all, certain grounds for not allowing the veil over the secrets of nature to be easily pierced. But it will be clear to you, too, that our Movement cannot consist in taking secrets of some Order as there preserved, and making them exoteric. If that were to be done—and it would amount to my taking some ancient secrets of an Order and teaching them in public—then we should be involved in all kinds of questionable magic of which nothing good could come. This means that the making public of any secrets of ancient Orders is precluded in our Movement. We cannot use such preserves of ancient Orders for unravelling the secrets of nature. Tomorrow I will show you that neither can we so easily adopt religious truths because thereby another and different danger would be set on foot. So it will be clear to us why we could not adopt either of these methods and were obliged to take a particular path. It is precisely this path that brings us opposition from both sides—from natural science and from religion. I shall speak further of this tomorrow.