European Spiritual Life in the 19th Century
16 May 1921, Dornach
I have tried to show how about the middle of last century a radical transformation took place in spiritual life, and how moreover the peculiar configuration of the nineteenth century thought and the spiritual life in general that underwent this transformation can be traced back to another crucial turning point in the west which we have to look for in the fourth century A.D.
Now it might at first sight appear as if we were trying to show too close a connection between two periods that are so very widely separated in point of time. But this very thought will serve to call attention to certain interconnections in the history of humanity. To-day we will begin where we left off yesterday, with the downfall of ancient culture and of the Roman empire. We drew attention to a distinguishing feature of that time. We placed before our souls two representative personalities; one of them was Augustine, who grew entirely out of the South-West; and we compared them with another personality, that of the Gothic translator of the Bible, Wulfila, and with the spiritual stream out of which Wulfila sprang.
We have to be quite clear that Augustine was altogether the child of the conditions which had developed in the south-western parts of the European-African civilization of the day. At that time men who sought a higher culture only found it through contact with the philosophy, literature, art and science which had for a long time been pursued in a certain upper level of society. We even have to think of Greek culture as the possession of an upper class which relegated its more menial work to slaves. And still less can we think of Roman culture without widespread slavery. The life of this culture depended upon its possessors being remote from the thought and feeling prevailing in the masses. But one must not think that there was therefore no spiritual life in the masses. There was an exceptionally strong spiritual life among them. This was of course derived more from the native stock left behind at an earlier stage of evolution than that of the upper class, but it was nevertheless a spiritual life. History knows very little about it, but it was very like what was carried into the southern parts of Europe by the barbarian tribes, forced to migrate by the forward pressure of the Asiatic hordes. We must try to form a concrete idea of it.
Take, for instance, the people who over-ran the Roman Empire — the Goths, the Vandals, the Lombards, the Herules. Before the migrations had begun, thus before the fourth century A.D. which is for us such an important turning-point, these men had spiritual life away in the East which culminated in a certain religious insight, in certain religious ideas, which pervaded everything; and the effects of these experiences influenced every aspect of daily life. Before the migrations began these people have had a long period of settled life. It was while they were thus settled that they first experienced the southern oriental peoples, from whom the Indian, Persian and succeeding cultures sprang, had experienced at a much earlier time; they experienced what we can call a religion which was closely connected with the blood relationships of the people. It is only through spiritual science that this can be observed, but it is also echoed in the sagas and myths I lived in these peoples. What they worshipped were the ancestors of certain families. But these ancestors first began to be worshiped long after they had passed away, and this worship was in no way based upon abstract ideas, but upon what was instinctively experienced as dreamlike clairvoyant ideas, if I can use the expression without causing misunderstanding. For there were certain ideas which arose in quite another way from the way our ideas of to-day are formed. When we have ideas nowadays our soul life comes into play more or less independently of our bodily constitution. We no longer feel the seething of the body. These people had a certain intensive inward sense that in what took place in their bodies all sorts of cosmic mysteries were active. For it is not only in the chemical retorts that cosmic processes work according to law, but in the human body also. And just as to-day, by means of the processes which take place in their retorts chemists seek with their abstract reason to understand the laws of the universe, so these men too tried through what they had experienced inwardly, through their own organism, whose inner processes they felt, to penetrate into the mysteries of the cosmos. It was entirely an inner experience that was still closely bound up with ideas arising in the body. And out of these ideas which were called forth by what we might describe as the inward seething of the organism, there developed the pictorial imaginations which these men connected with their ancestors. It was their ancestors whose voices they heard for centuries in these dream formations. Ancestors were the rulers of people living in quite small communities, in village tribal communities.
These tribes had still this kind of ancestor-worship, which had its life in dreamlike ideas, when they pressed forward from the east of Europe towards the west. And if we look back to the teachers and the priests of these peoples we find that they were advanced spirits whose foremost task was to interpret what the individual saw in his dream-pictures, albeit dream-pictures which he experienced in his awake consciousness. They were interpreters of what the individual experienced. And now the migrations began. During the period of the migrations it was their greatest spiritual consolation that they had this inner clairvoyant life which was interpreted by their priests. This spiritual life was reflected in sagas which have been handed down, notably in the Slav world, and in these sagas you will find confirmation of what I have just briefly outlined.
Now shortly after the end of the fourth century these tribes settled down again. Some of them were absorbed into the peoples who had already for a long time inhabited the southern peninsulas, that is to say they were absorbed into the lower classes of these peoples, for their upper classes had been swept away in the time of Augustine. The Goths were among the tribes absorbed in this way, but mainly those Goths who peopled the countries of middle and western Europe; those who settled in the northern regions of southern Europe maintained their own existence and acquired a permanent home there.
Thus we see that after the fourth century the possession of a fixed dwelling place becomes an essential characteristic of these peoples. And now the whole spiritual life begins to change. It is most remarkable what a radical change now takes place in the spiritual life of these people through their peculiar talent. They were gifted not only with special racial dispositions, but with a much greater freshness as a folk for experiencing spiritual reality in dreams; something which in the southern regions had long since been transformed into other forms of spiritual life.
But now they have become settled, and through their peculiar endowment a new kind of spiritual life developed in them. What in earlier times had expressed itself in ancestor-worship, had conjured before the soul the picture of the revered forefather, now attached itself to the place. Wherever there was some special grove, some mountain which contained let us say, special treasures of metal, wherever there was a place from which one could watch storms and so on, there, with a depth of feeling left to them from their old ancestor-imaginations and dreams, men felt something holy to be connected with the place. And the gods that used to be ancestral became gods of place.
Religious perceptions lost their time a character and took on a spatial character. Those who had been previously the interpreters of dreams, the interpreters of inner soul-experience, now became the guardians what one might call the signs c — the peculiar reflection of the sun in this or that waterfall or other feature of nature, the phenomena of the cloud-drifts in certain valleys and so on — these are now the objects of interpretation, something which then became transformed into the system of Runes cultivated in certain places, where twigs were plucked from trees and thrown down, and the signs read from the special forms into which the twigs fell. Religion underwent a metamorphosis into a religion of space. The entire spiritual life became attached to the place. Thus these tribes became more and more susceptible to the influence which the Roman Catholic Church, since it had become the state church in the fourth century, had been accustomed to exercise over the southern peoples, that is to say over the lower classes which had been left behind after the upper classes have been swept away.
And what was it that the church had done? In these southern regions the period of transition from the time conception to the spatial conception of the world was long since past, and something of extraordinary importance always happens in a period of transition from a time outlook to a spatial outlook, a certain living experience passes over into an experience through symbol and cult. This had already taken place for the lower classes of the people in the southern regions. So long as men continue to live in their time-conceptions, the priests, those who in the sense of ancient times we can call learned men, our interpreters of a corresponding life of the soul. They were engaged in explaining what man experience. They were able to do that because men lived in small village communities, and the interpreter, who was in fact the leader of the whole spiritual life, could address himself to the individual, or to a small group. When the transition takes place from the time-outlook to the space-outlook, then this living element is more or less suppressed. The priest can no longer refer to what the individual has experienced. He can no longer treat of what the individual tells them and explain to him what he has experienced. What is something living is thus transformed into something bound to a place. And thus ritual gradually arises, the pictorial expression of what in earlier times was a direct experience of the super-sensible world.
And at this point development begins again, so to say, from the other side. The human being now sees the symbol, he interprets the symbol. What the Roman Catholic Church built up as cult was built up with exact knowledge of this world-historic course of human evolution. The transition from the ancient celebration of the Last Supper into the sacrifice of the Mass arose, in that the living Last Supper became the symbolic rite. Into this sacrifice of the Mass, it is true, flowed primeval holy mystery usages which had been handed down in the lower classes of the people. These practices were now permeated with the new conceptions Christianity brought. They became, so to say, christianised. The lower classes of the Roman people provided good material for such a birth of ritual, which was now to reveal the super-sensible world in symbol.
And as the northern tribes had also made the transition to a spiritual life associated with place, this ritual could also be implanted among them, for they began to meet it with understanding. This is the bases of one of the streams which start in the fourth century A.D.
The other stream must be characterised differently. I have described how the ancient ancestor-worship lived on, rolling over from the east upon the declining Roman Empire. In the “Our Father” of Wulfila we see that in these nomadic peoples Christianity was absorbed into the ancestral cults and the cults connected with locality. And that constitutes the essence of Arian Christianity. The dogmatic conflict in the background is not so important. The important thing for this Arian Christianity, which traveled with the Goths and the other German tribes from the East towards the West by a path which did not lead through Rome, is that in it Christianity becomes steeped in a living spiritual life which has not yet reached the stage of ritual, that is closely related to the dream experience, to the clairvoyant experience, if you will not misunderstand the expression.
On the other hand the Christianity that Augustine experienced had passed through the culture of the upper classes of the southern peoples, and had to encounter all sorts of oriental cults and religious ideas, which flowed together in a great city of Rome. The heathen Augustine had grown up amidst these religious ideas and had turned from them towards Christianity in the way I have described. He stands within a spiritual stream which was experienced by the individual in quite a different way from the stream I have already mentioned. The latter arose out of the most elemental forces of the folk-soul life. What Augustine experienced was something which had risen into the upper class through many filtrations. And this was now taken over and preserved by the Roman Catholic clergy. Moreover its content is far less important for the progress of history than the whole configuration of soul that constituted first Greco-Roman culture and then, through the adoption of Christianity, the culture of the Catholic clergy. It is essential to see this culture as it was at that time and as it then lived on through the centuries. Our present-day educational system is something which remains over from the real culture of that time.
After one had mastered the first elements of knowledge, which we should to-day call primary education, one entered what was called the grammar class. In the grammar classes one was taught structure of speech; one learned how to use speech properly in accordance with the usages established by the poets and the writers. Then one assimilated all other knowledge that was not kept secret, for even at that time quite a lot of knowledge was kept secret by certain mystery schools. What was not kept secret was imparted through grammar, but through the medium of speech. And if anyone reached a higher stage of culture, as for example Augustine, then he passed on from the study of grammar to the study of rhetoric. There the object was to train the pupil above all in the appropriate use of symbol, how to form his sentences rightly, particularly how to lead his sentences to a certain climax. This was what the people who aspired to culture had to practice.
One must be able to sense what such a training develops in a human being. Through this purely grammatical and rhetorical kind of education he is brought into a certain connection with the surface of his nature, he is within what sounds through his mouth far more than is under the influence of thought. He pays much more attention to the structure of speech and to the connection of thought. And that was the primary characteristic of this ancient culture, that it was not concerned with the inner soul experience, but with structure, the form of speech, with the pleasure it gives. In short, the man became externalised by this culture. And in the fourth century, at that time Augustine was a student, as we should say to-day, we can see clearly this process of externalization, this living in the turn of words, in the form of expression. Grammar and rhetoric were the things that students had to learn. And there was good reason for this. For what we to-day call intelligent thought did not at that time exist. It is a mere superstition very commonly to be found in history to suppose that men have always thought in the way they think today. The entire thought of the Greek epoch right up to the fourth century A.D. was quite different. I have gone into this to a certain extent in my Riddles of Philosophy. Thought was not hatched out of inner soul activity, as is the case to-day, but thought came to the human being of itself like a dream. Particularly was this the case in the East, and the Oriental spiritual life which had animated Greece and still animated Rome was not won through thinking, it came, even when it was thought, as dream pictures come. And the oriental and south-european scholars only differed from those of the north in that the pictures that came to the northerners at first stimulated ideas of their ancestors, and later were associated with particular localities and became more or less ritualistic. The ideas that were formed in Asia, in southern Europe, already had the character of thought, but they were not thoughts won by inner soul activity, inner intelligence, they were inwardly revealed thoughts. One experienced what one called knowledge and elaborated for oneself only the word, the sentence, the discourse. There is no logical activity. Logic arose through Aristotle, when Greece was already decadent. And what lived in beauty of speech, in rhetoric, was essentially Roman culture, and became the culture of Catholic Christianity.
This habit of living not in oneself but in an external element expresses itself in the education that was given, and one can see how in this respect Augustine was a representative of his time. The correspondence between Jerome and Augustine is illuminating in this respect. It shows how differently these people conducted an argument in the fourth or beginning of the fifth century from the way we should do so to-day. When we discuss things to-day we have a feeling that we make use of a certain activity of thought. When these people discussed, one of them would have the feeling — “Well, I have formed my own view about a certain point, but perhaps my organism does not give me the right view. I will hear what the other man has to say; perhaps something else will emerge from his organism.” These men were within a much more real element of inner experience. This difference is seen also in Augustine's attitude in condemning heretics of various sorts. We see people deriving from the life of the common people, people like the priests of Donatism, like Pelagius and some others, specially coming to the fore. These people, although they believe themselves to be entirely Christian, stress the point that man's relation to justice, to sin, must come from the man himself. And thus we see a whole series of people one after the other who cannot believe that it has any sense to baptize children and thereby to bring about forgiveness of sins. We see objections made against the Christianity issuing from Rome, we see how Pelagianism wins adherents, and how Augustine, as a true representative of the Catholic element, attacks it. He rejected a conception of sin connected with human subjectivity. He rejects the view that a relation to the spiritual world or to Christ can come from an individual human impulse. Hence he works to bring about gradually the passing over of the Church into the external institution. The important question is not what is in the child, but what the Church as external ordnance bestows upon it. The point is not that baptism signifies something for the soul's experience, but that there exists an external ordnance of the Church which is fulfilled in baptism. The value of the human soul living in the body matters less than that the universal spirit that lives in the sacrament, so to say an astral sacrament, should be poured out over mankind. The individual plays no part, but the important thing is the web of abstract dogmas and ideas which is spread over humanity. To Augustine it seems particularly dangerous to believe that the human being should first be prepared to receive baptism, for it is not a question of what the human being inwardly wills, but it is a question of admitting into the Kingdom of God which has objective existence. And that is essentially the setting in which Athanasian Christianity lived, in contrast to the other background that originated in the north-east, in which a certain popular element lived. But the Church understood how to clothe the abstract element in the ritualistic form which again arose from below. It was this that made it possible for the Church to spread in this European element, from which the ancient culture had vanished. And above all it attains this expansion through the exclusion of the wide masses of the people from the essential substance of religious culture. It is a matter of tremendous significance that in the centuries which follow this substance is propagated in the Latin language.
And from the fourth century A.D. onward Christianity is propagated in the Latin tongue. It is as it were a stream flowing over the heads of men. That goes on right up to the fifteenth century. For what history usually relates is only the outer form of what went on in the souls of men. Christianity was kept secret by those who taught at right up to the eleventh and twelfth centuries, in a far deeper sense than the ancient Mysteries were kept secret. For only the outer ritual penetrated the masses. And what was transmitted, which at the same time laid claim to all science coming from the ancient culture and clothed it in the Latin tongue, this was the Church, something which hovered above the essential evolution of humanity.
And the centuries between the fourth and the fourteenth stand under the sign of these two parallel streams. The external history books, even the histories of the mind, only give the traditional description of what leaks out into greater publicity from the Latin ecclesiastical stream. Hence from present-day historical literature we get no idea of what took place among the wide masses of the people.
What took place among the masses was something like this. At first there were only village communities; in the colonization of the whole of middle, western and even of southern Europe the towns played a very small part. The most significant life developed in small village communities; such towns as did exist were really only large villages; in these large village communities there was the Catholic Church, way over the heads of men, but through the ritual working suggestively upon them; however, these men who only saw the symbolic rite, who participated in the cult, who watched something which they could not understand, did nevertheless develop a spiritual life of their own. The very rich spiritual life developed throughout Europe at that time, a spiritual life which stood first and foremost under the influence of human nature itself. It was something quite apart from their participation in the spread of Catholic doctrine. For to associate everything with the personality of Boniface, for instance, is to place things a false light. What went on in these village communities was an inner soul life through which echoed the omens of the divinity or spirituality associated with the place. Everywhere people saw intimations from one or other of these. They developed a magical life. Everywhere human beings had premonitions, and told their fellows about them. These premonitions expressed themselves in sagas, in mysterious hints as to what one or another had experienced spiritually in the course of his work.
But something very remarkable permeated this remains of an ancient prophetic and clairvoyant dream-life, which continued to flourish in the village communities whilst Catholic doctrine passed over their heads, and one can see that everywhere in Europe the organization of the human being was involved in this characteristic spiritual life. Something was at work which indicated a quite special disposition of soul in two respects. When people told of their weightiest premonitions, their most significant dreams (these were always associated with places), when they describe their half-waking, half-sleeping experiences, these dreams are always connected either with events, with questions which were asked them from out of the spiritual world, or with tasks which were imposed upon them, with matters in which their skill played a part. From the whole character of these stories, which were still to be found among the common people in the nineteenth century, one sees that when men began to ponder and to dream and to build up their legendary sagas in their mythologies, of the three members of the human being it was not so much the nerve-system — which is more connected with the outer world — but the rhythmic system which was active; and in that the rhythmic system was drawn forth out of the organism it showed itself in clairvoyant dreams which passed by word of mouth from one to another, and in this way the villagers shared with one another fear and joy, happiness and beauty. In all this there was always an element of delicate questioning which came from the spiritual world. People had to solve riddles half in dreams, had to carry out skillful actions, had to overcome something or other. It was always something of the riddle in this dream life.
That is the physiological basis of the widespread spiritual experience of these men who lived in village communities. Into this, of course, penetrated the deeds of Charlemagne of which history tells you; but those are only surface experiences, though they do of course enter deeply into individual destiny. They are not the main thing. The important thing is what takes place in the village communities, and there, side by side with the economic life, a spiritual life developed such as I have described. And this spiritual life goes on right into the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries. Of course, something of what has developed in the heads of men in the upper strata of society gradually trickles down into the lower strata, and the ghostly and magical character of the stories men recount gets charmingly mixed with the Christ and His deeds, and what comes from the human being himself is sometimes overlaid with what comes from the Bible or the Gospel. But then we see that it is primarily into social thinking that the Christian element is received. We see it in ‘Der Heliand’ and other poems which arose out of Christianity but always we see something spiritual brought to the people, who meet it with a spirituality of their own.
When we come to the tenth and eleventh centuries we see a change in the external life. Even earlier, but at this time more markedly so, we see life centering itself in the towns. That life of picture-like waking dreams which I have described to you is altogether bound up with the soil. As, therefore, in the ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries the whole country became covered with larger towns, in these towns another kind of thinking began to develop. Men living in towns had a different kind of thought. They were cut off from the places in which their local cults had developed, their attention was more directed towards what was human.
But the human element which developed of the towns was still under the influence of this earlier state of mind, for some of the people who settled in the towns came from the villages and they with very special spiritual endowment made their own contribution. What they brought with them was an inner personal life which was an echo of what was experienced in the country, but which now manifested itself in a more abstract form. These men were cut off from nature, they no longer participated in the life of nature, and although they still have forms of thought derived from nature, they already began to develop the kind of thinking which was gradually directed towards intelligence. In the towns of the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries there developed the first trace of that intelligence which we see arise in the fifteenth century among the leading European peoples. Because life in the towns was more abstract, the abstract ecclesiastical element, clothed in the Latin tongue, became mixed up with what sprang directly out of the people.
Thus we see how this Latin element developed in the towns in a more and more abstract form. Then we see the great outburst of people from below upwards in various countries. There is a great to-do when Dante, assisted by his teacher, makes his way up into the world of culture. But even that is only one instance of many similar outbursts which happened because of the peculiar manner in which the Latin culture came up against the popular element in the towns.
We must not forget that still other streams entered into what was taking place at that time. It is of course true that the main streams of spiritual life, which so to say carried the others, was the one that continued the spiritual tradition in which Augustine had lived; that controlled everything and finally not only gave the towns the bishops, who controlled the spiritual life, if somewhat abstractly and over the heads of the people, but also, little by little, because it took over everything from the constitution of the Roman empire, ended by giving the civil government also, and built up the alliance between Church and State which in the eleventh and twelfth centuries was very close. We see other events light up in this stream, we see crusades arise, which I need not describe to you, because I want to lay the greatest stress upon the things that external history places in a false light; and too little importance is attached to other currents that were present.
First of all there is the commercial traffic which had in fact always existed in Europe between the Danube basin and the East. There was constant trading in both directions particularly in the middle of the middle ages. In this way oriental ideas in an advanced stage of decadence were brought over into Europe. And someone who had probably never been in the east himself but had only traded with men from the east, brought to the householder not only spices, but spiritual life, a spiritual life tinged with Orientalism. This traffic went on throughout the whole of Europe. It had less influence on Latin culture, far more on the wide masses of people who understood no Latin. In the towns and in the surrounding villages there was a living intercourse with the east which was not merely a matter of listening to tales of adventure that which deeply influenced spiritual life. And if you want to understand figures such as Jacob Boehme, who came later, Paracelsus and many others, then you must bear in mind that they sprang from people who had developed without any understanding of the Latin culture which passed over their heads, but who were in a certain way steeped in Orientalism. All that developed as popular alchemy, astrology, fortune telling, had developed out of the union of what I described above as the inner experience of the riddle, told in waking dreams, with what came over from the east as decadent oriental life. Nor within the Latin culture have the will to think been able to make any headway. The logic of Aristotle had appeared, as it were, like a meteor. We see that even Augustine was little influenced by this logic. By the fourth century interest had been withdrawn from Greece, and later the Emperor Justinian had closed the School of Philosophy at Athens. This led to the condemnation for heresy of Origen, who had brought with him into Christianity much of oriental culture, of the earlier spiritual life. And the Greek philosophers were driven out. The teaching that they had from Aristotle was driven into Asia. The Greek philosophers founded centre in Asia, and carried on the Academy of Gondishapur, which had for its main objective the permeation of the old decadent oriental spiritual culture with Aristotelianism, its transformation into an entirely new form. It was the Academy of Gondishapur wherein a logical form of thought developed with giant strides, that saved Aristotelianism. Aristotelianism was not transmitted through Christianity, it came into Latin-ecclesiastical life by way of Africa, Spain and the west of Europe. And thus we see how Gondishapur, this philosophic form of Arabism, which does contain a living world-conception, although it is quite abstract, brings its influence to bear upon the current which we have already described as passing over the heads of men.
I have described to you both these streams, the one at work above, in the heads of men, the other in their hearts. They work together and it is very significant that the ancient culture was transmitted in a dying language. Of course there then flows into all this what came through the Renaissance. But I cannot describe everything to-day. I want to point out some of the main things which are of special interest to us. The two currents existed side-by-side right on into the fifteenth century.
Then something happened of extraordinary importance. The thought of antiquity, inspired thought which was half vision, became gradually clothed in abstract forms of speech, and became Christian philosophy, Christian spiritual life, the Scholastic philosophy, out of which the modern university system developed. In this grammatical-rhetorical atmosphere not thought, but the garment of thought, Romanism lived on. But in the popular stream thinking was born, evoked through subjective activity — for the first time in human evolution. Out of this ghostly-magical element of presentiment, mingled with Orientalism, which above all had its life in the interpretation of natural phenomena, active thinking was born. And this birth of thought out of the dreamlike mystical element took place somewhere about the fifteenth century. But up to that time the system of Roman law, clothed in Latin form, gathers strength side by side with the Roman priesthood. This current over the heads of men had been able to spread everywhere in a most systematic way first in the villages, then in the towns, and now in the new age which dawned in the fifteenth century it joined forces with that other current which now arose. In the towns people were proud of their individualism, of their freedom. One can see this in the portraits painted at that time. But the village communities were shut off from all this. Then the medieval princes rose to power. And those who outside in the villages gradually came to be in opposition to the towns, found in the princes their leaders. And it was from the country, from the villages that the impulse came which drew the towns into the wider administrative structure, into which then came Roman law. There arose the modern state, made up of the country parishes; thus the country conquered the towns again, and became itself permeated by what came out of the Latin element has Roman law. Thus the latter had now become so strong that what was stirring among the common people could find no further outlet; what in the times of unrest, as they were called, had expressed itself among the Russian peasants in the Hussite movement, in Wycliffism, in the Bohemian Brotherhood, such movements could no longer happen; the only thing that could find expression was what merged with the Roman-administrative element.
Thus we see that the folk-element which had won for itself the reality of thought, which held its own in opposition to the Roman-Latin element, remained to begin with a faint glow under the surface. There is a cleavage in the spiritual life. Out of the Latin element develops Nominalism, for which universal concepts are merely names. Just as this was an inevitable development from grammar and rhetoric, so, where there still remained a spark of the folk-element, as was the case with Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, there developed Realism, which experienced thought and expression of something real. But at first Nominalism had the victory. All that happened in the historical evolution of humanity is in a sense necessary, and we see that the abstract element becomes all the stronger because it is carried by the dead Latin language right up to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and is then fructified by thought, has to reckon with the birth of thought, but clothes thought in abstractions. And the fifteenth, sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries are primarily under the influence of thought born from out of the ancient Gothic Germanic way of life, clothed however in Roman formulae, in grammatical, rhetorical formulae. But now that they have been fructified by thought, these formulae can be called logical formulae. That now becomes inward human thinking. Now one could think thoughts, but the thoughts had no content. All the old world-conceptions contained, together with the inward experience, at the same time cosmic mysteries. So that thought still had content right up to the fourth century A.D. Then came the time which as it were bore the future in its womb, the time in which rhetoric, grammar and dialectic developed further and further in a dead language. Then that was fructified by the force of thought which came from below, and men acquired mastery over that, but in itself it had no content. There was a dim perception of Realism but a belief in Nominalism, and with the aid of Nominalism next came the conquest of nature.
Thought as inner soul life brought no content with it. This content had to be sought from without. Thus we see how from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century the conquest of natural law was the achievement of a thinking that was empty of all content, but was born as a capacity out of all that Europe had brought forth as her own. In the middle of the nineteenth century men began to be aware “With your thought you are conquering natural law, you are conquering the external world, but thought itself is making no progress.” And men gradually got into the way of eliminating from their thought everything that did not come from outside. They found their life in religious faith which was supposed to have nothing to do with scientific knowledge, because their thinking has become void of content and had to fill itself only with external facts and natural entities. The content of faith was to be protected because it had to do with the super-sensible. But because this empty thinking had no content, it could apply itself to the sense-perceptible. But this faith in which man lived could only fill itself with old traditions, with the content of the oriental culture of the past, which still lived on.
It was the same with art. If one looks back to earlier times, one finds art closely associated with religion, and religious ideas find their expression in works of art. One sees how their ideas about the Gods find expression in the Greek dramatists or the Greek sculptors. Art is something within the whole structure of the spiritual life. But by the time of the Renaissance Art begins to be taken more externally. Indeed in the nineteenth century we see more and more how men are happy to be offered a pure phantasy in art, something which they need not accept as a reality, something which has nothing to do with reality. And such men as Goethe are like modern hermits. Goethe says “He to whom nature begins to unveil her open secrets feels an irresistible longing for her worthiest interpreter, art.” Art, says Goethe, is a revelation of nature's secret laws, laws which would never be revealed without her. And it is worthy of note that Goethe has a way of turning to the past, different from that of other men, — he speaks therein for a content, in the age of empty intellect, filled only with the impression of the external world of the senses. He yearns toward Greece. And when in Rome he finds still something of what Greek art has fashioned out of the depths of its philosophy, he writes “That is necessity, that is God.” Art unveiled for him the spirituality of the world which he was trying to experience. But more and more men have a obscure ill-defined feeling “This thinking of ours is all right for the external world, but it is not suited to attain to an inner spiritual content.” And thus we see the second half of the nineteenth century run its course. As I remarked yesterday, the winds of the first half of the nineteenth century, such as Hegel, Saint-Simon or even Spencer, still believed that they could reach a philosophy, even a social philosophy, out of their inner soul experiences. In the second half of the nineteenth century men thought that no longer.
But something of what had given birth to thought out of the unconscious was still at work. Why was it that in the portentous dreams of village populations over the whole of Europe right up to the twelfth century there was always something of this riddle-solving element, this cleverness which expresses itself in all sorts of cunning? It was because thought, reflection, the work of thinking, was born. The foundation of thought was laid. And now we see how in the second half of the nineteenth century there is utter despair. Everywhere we find statements as to the boundaries of knowledge. And with the same rigidity and dogmatism with which once the scholastics had said that reason could not rise to the super-sensible, du Bois-Reymond, for example, said that scientific investigation could not penetrate to the consciousness of matter. I mean that previously the barrier had been set up in relation to this super-sensible; now it referred to what was supposed to hide behind the senses. But in all manner of other spheres we see the same phenomena emerge.
Ranke the historian of the second half of the nineteenth century is very typical in this respect. According to him history has to investigate the external events, even of the time in which Christianity begins to spread; one has to pay attention to what is taking place in the world around one politically and socially and culturally. What however has taken place through Christ in the course of human evolution — that Ranke assigns to the original world (Urwelt), not in the temporal sense, but to the world behind what can be investigated. We have seen that the scientist du Bois-Reymond says ‘ignorabimus’ as regards matter and consciousness. Natural Science can go pretty far; but what is there where matter lurks, what is there where consciousness arises, there du Bois-Reymond formulates his seven universal riddles; they are he pronounces his ‘ignorabimus!’ And Leopold von Ranke, the historian who works in the same spirit says “Upon all the wealth of existing documents historical investigations can pour its light; but behind what is at work as external historical fact there are events which seem to be primeval.” Everything which thus lies at the base of history he calls the ‘Urwelt’, just as does du Bois-Reymond the world lying beyond the limits of natural science. Within that sphere lie the Christian mysteries, the religious mysteries of all peoples. There the historian says ‘ignorabimus’. ‘Ignorabimus’ alike from scientist and historian; that is the mood of the entire spiritual life of the second half of the nineteenth century.
Wherever you meet the spiritual life, in Wagnerian music, in the cult of Nietzsche, everywhere this mood is to be found. The former is driven to take refuge in certain musical dreams, the latter suffers through what is taking place in the world of ‘ignorabimus’. Agnosticism becomes fashionable, becomes politics, shapes the state. And anyone who wishes to do anything positive but relies not on any kind of gnosticism, but upon agnosticism. The strategy of Marxism builds upon what lies in the instincts, not upon something which it wants to bring forth of super-earthly nature. We see how everywhere spirituality is driven back, how agnosticism becomes the formative reality. It is thus that we have to understand modern spiritual life. We shall only understand it aright if we follow its origin from the fourth century A.D., if we know that in it Nominalism is living, the purely legalistic and logical; and thought has been born in the way I have described. This thought, however, is still only so far born as to be able to make use of formalism, of empty thinking. It slumbers in the depths of civilised humanity. It must be brought out into the open.
We learn how really to study history, if we illuminate with the light of spiritual investigation what has hovered over us since the fourth century. Then we can know what is above. And certainly thought has become fruitful and natural science because it has been fructified by thought born out of human nature in the way I have described. But now in the time of poverty, in the time of need, mankind needs to remember that thought which to begin with could only fructify formalism — empty thought that receives knowledge of nature from outside — has exhausted itself in natural scientific agnosticism, must strengthened itself, must become ripe for vision, must raise itself into the super-sensible world. This thought is there, it has already played a part in natural scientific knowledge, but its essential force still lies deep beneath the consciousness of human evolution. That we must recognize as a historical fact, then we shall develop trust in the inner force of spirituality, then we shall establish a spiritual science, not out of vague mysticism, but out of clarity of thought. And the thoughts of such a spiritual science will pass over into action, they will be able to work into the human social and other institutions. We are constantly saying that history should be our teacher. It cannot be our teacher by putting before us what is past and over, but by making it capable of discovering the new in the depths of existence. What goes forth from this place goes forth in search of such a new vision. And it can find its justification not only in the inculcation of spiritual scientific method, but also by a right treatment of history.