The Evolution of the Earth and Man and The Influence of the Stars
Dornach, 6th August, 1924
Rudolf Steiner: Good morning, gentlemen! A number of questions have been handed in, which lead up in quite an interesting way to what we want to discuss today. Someone has asked:
“How did man's cultural development come about?” I will consider this in connection with a second question:
“Why did primitive man have such a strong belief in the spirit?”
It is certainly interesting to investigate how human beings lived in earlier times. As you know, even from a superficial view there are two opposing opinions about this. One is that man was originally at a high level of perfection, from which he has fallen to his present imperfect state. We don't need to take exception to this, or to be concerned with the way different peoples have interpreted this perfection — some talking of paradise, some of other things. But until a short time ago the belief existed that man was originally perfect and gradually degenerated to his present state of imperfection. The other view is the one you've probably come to know as supposedly the only true one, namely, that man was originally imperfect, like some kind of higher animal, and that he gradually evolved to greater and greater perfection. You know how people point to the primitive conditions prevailing among the savage peoples — the so-called savage peoples — in trying to form an idea of what man could have been like when he still resembled an animal. People say: We Europeans and the Americans are highly civilized, while in Africa, Australia, and so on, there still live uncivilized races at their original stage, or at least at a stage very near the original. From these one can study what humanity was like originally.
But, gentlemen, this is making far too simple a picture of human evolution. First of all, it is not true that all civilized peoples imagine man to have been a physically perfect being originally. The people of India are certainly not much in agreement with opinions of our modern materialists, and yet, even so, their conception is that the physical man who went about on the earth in primitive times looked like an animal. Indeed, when the Indians, the wise men of India, speak of man in his original state on earth, they speak of the ape-like Hanuman. So you see, it is not true that even people with a spiritual world view picture primeval man similarly to the way we imagine him in paradise. And in fact, it is not so.
We must rather have a clear knowledge that man is a being who bears within him body, soul, and spirit, with each of these three parts undergoing its own particular evolution. Naturally, if people have no thought of spirit, they can't speak of the evolution of spirit. But once we acknowledge that a human being consists of body, soul, and spirit, we can go on to ask how the body evolves, how the soul evolves, and how the spirit evolves. When we speak of the human body we will have to say: Man's body has gradually been perfected from lower stages. We must also say that the evidence we have for this provides us with living proof. As I have already pointed out, we find original man in the strata of the earth, exhibiting a very animal-like body — not indeed like any present animal but nevertheless animal-like, and this must have developed gradually to its present state of perfection. There is no question, therefore, of spiritual science as pursued here at the Goetheanum coming to loggerheads with natural science, for it simply accepts the truths of natural science.
On the other hand, gentlemen, we must be able to recognize that in the period of time of only three or four thousand years ago, views prevailed from which we can learn a great deal and which we also can't help but admire. When we are guided by genuine knowledge in seriously studying and understanding the writings that appeared in India, Asia, Egypt, and even Greece, we find that the people of those times were far ahead of us. What they knew, however, was acquired in quite a different way from the way we acquire knowledge today.
Today there are many things we know very little about. For instance, from what I have told you in connection with nutrition you will have seen how necessary it is for spiritual science to come to people's aid in the simplest nutritional matters. Natural science is unable to do so. But we have only to read what physicians of old had to say, and rightly understand it, to become aware that actually people up to the time of, for instance, Hippocrates (see Note 12) in Greece knew far more than is known by our modern materialistic physicians. We come to respect, deeply respect, the knowledge once possessed. The only thing is, gentlemen, that knowledge was not then imparted in the same form as it is today. Today we express our knowledge in concepts. This was not so with ancient peoples; they clothed their knowledge in poetical imaginations, so that what remained of it is now just taken figuratively as poetry. It was not poetry to those men of old; that was their way of expressing what they knew. Thus we find when we are able to test and thoroughly study the documents still existing, that there can no longer be any question of original humanity being undeveloped spiritually. They may once have gone about in animal-like bodies, but in spirit they were infinitely wiser than we are!
But there is something else to remember. You see, when man went about in primeval times, he acquired great wisdom spiritually. His face was more or less what we would certainly call animal-like, whereas today in man's face his spirit finds expression; now his spirit is, as it were, embodied in the physical substance of his face. This, gentlemen, is a necessity if man is to be free, if he is to be a free being. These clever men of ancient times were very wise; but they possessed wisdom in the way the animal today possesses instinct. They lived in a dazed condition, as if in a cloud. They wrote without guiding their own hand. They spoke with the feeling that it was not they who were speaking but the spirit speaking through them. In those primeval times, therefore, there was no question of man being free.
This is something in the history of culture that constitutes a real step forward for the human race: that man acquired consciousness, that he is a free being. He no longer feels the spirit driving him as instinct drives the animal. He feels the spirit actually within him, and this distinguishes him from the man of former times.
When from this point of view we consider the savages of today, it must strike us that the men of primeval times — called in the question here primitive men — were not like the modern savages, but that the latter have, of course, descended from the former, from the primeval men. You will get a better idea of this evolution if I tell you the following.
In certain regions there are people who have the idea that if they bury some small thing belonging to a sick person — for instance, bury a shirttail of his in the cemetery — that this can have the magical effect of healing him. I have even known such people personally. I knew one person who, at the time the Emperor Frederick (see Note 13) was ill (when he was still Crown Prince — you know all about that), wrote to the Empress (as she was later), asking for the shirttails belonging to her husband. He would bury them in the cemetery and the Emperor would then be cured. You can imagine how this request was received. But the man had simply done what he thought would lead to the Emperor's recovery. He himself told me about it, adding that it would have been much less foolish to let him have that shirttail than to send for the English Doctor Mackenzie, and so on; that had been absurd — they should have given him the shirttail.
Now when this kind of thing comes to the notice of a materialist he says: That's a superstition which has sprung up somewhere. At some time or other someone got it into his head that burying the shirttails of a sick man in the cemetery and saying a little prayer over it would cure the man.
Gentlemen, nothing has ever arisen in that way. No superstition arises by being thought out. It comes about in an entirely different way. There was once a time when people had great reverence for their dead and said to themselves: So long as a man is going about on earth he is a sinful being; beside doing good things he does many bad things. But, they thought, the dead man lives on as soul and spirit, and death makes up for all deficiencies. Thus when they thought of the dead, they thought of what was good, and by thinking of the dead they tried to make themselves better.
Now it is characteristic of human beings to forget easily. Just think how quickly those who have left us — the dead — are forgotten today! In earlier times there were persons who would give their fellowman various signs to make them think of the dead and thus to improve them. Someone in a village would think that if a man was ill, the other villagers should look after him. It was certainly not the custom to collect sick pay; that kind of thing is a modern invention. In those days the villagers all helped one another out of kindness; everyone had to think of those who were ill. The leading man in the village might say: People are egoists, so they have no thought of the sick unless they are encouraged to get out of themselves and have thoughts, for instance, of the dead. So he would tell them they should take — well, perhaps the shirttail of the sick man by which to remember him, and they should bury this in the earth, then they would surely remember him. By thinking of the dead they would remember to take care of someone living. This outer deed was contrived simply to help people's memory.
Later, people forgot the reason for this and it was put down to magic, superstition. This happens with very much that lives on as superstition; it has arisen from something perfectly reasonable. What is perfect never arises from what is imperfect. The assertion that something perfect can come from what is not perfect appears to anyone with insight as if it were said: You're to make a table, but you must make it as clumsy and unfinished as you can to begin with, so that it may in time become a perfect table. But things don't happen that way. We never get a well-made table from one that is ill-made. The table begins by being a good one and becomes battered in the course of time. And that's the way it happens outside in nature too, anywhere in the world. You first have things in a perfect state, then out of them comes the imperfect. It is the same with the human being: his spirit in the beginning, though lacking freedom, was in a certain state of perfection. But his body — it is true — was imperfect. And yet precisely in this lay the body's perfection: it was soft and therefore capable of being formed by the spirit so that cultural progress could be made.
So you see, gentlemen, we are not justified in thinking that human beings were originally like the savages of today. The savages have developed into what they now are — with their superstitions, their magical practices and their unclean appearance-from states originally more perfect. The only superiority we have over them is that, while starting from the same conditions, we did not degenerate as they did. I might therefore say: The evolution of man has taken two paths. It is not true that the savages of today represent the original condition of mankind. Mankind, though to begin with it looked more animal-like, was highly civilized.
Now perhaps you will ask: But were those original animal-like men the descendants of apes or of other animals? That is a natural question. You look at the apes as they are today and say: We are descended from those apes. Ah! but when human beings had their animal form, there were no such animals as our present apes! Men have not descended, therefore, from the apes. On the contrary! Just as the present savages have fallen from the level of the human beings of primeval times, so the apes are beings who have fallen still lower.
On going back further in the evolution of the earth, we find human beings formed in the way I described here recently, out of a soft element-not out of our present animals. Human beings can never evolve out of the apes of today. On the other hand it could easily be possible that if conditions prevailing on earth today continue, conditions in which everything is based on violence and power, and wisdom counts for nothing — well, it could indeed happen that the men who want to found everything on power would gradually take on animal-like bodies again, and that two races would then appear. One race would be those who stand for peace, for the spirit, and for wisdom, while the other would be those who revert to an animal form. It might indeed be said that those who care nothing today for the progress of mankind, for spiritual realities, may be running the risk of degenerating into an ape species.
You see, all manner of strange things are experienced today. Of course, what newspapers report is largely untrue, but sometimes it shows the trend of people's thinking in a remarkable way. During our recent trip to Holland we bought an illustrated paper, and on the last page there was a curious picture: a child, a small child, really a baby — and as its nurse, taking care of it, bringing it up, an ape, an orangutan. There it was, holding the baby quite properly, and it was to be engaged, the paper said, — somewhere in America, of course — as a nursemaid.
Now it is possible that this may not yet be actual fact, but it shows what some people are fancying: they would like to use apes today as nursemaids. And if apes become nursemaids, gentlemen, what an outlook for mankind! Once it is discovered that apes can be employed to look after children — it is, of course, possible to train them to do many things; the child will have to suffer for it, but the ape could be so trained: in certain circumstances it could be trained to look after the physical needs of children — well, then people will carry the idea further and the social question will be on a new level. You will see far-reaching proposals for breeding apes and putting them to work in factories. Apes will be found to be cheaper than men, hence this will be looked upon as the solution of the social problem. If people really succeed in having apes look after their children — well, we'll be deluged by pamphlets on how to solve the social question by breeding apes!
It is indeed conceivable that this might easily happen. Only think: other animals beside apes can be trained to do many things. Dogs, for instance, are very teachable. But the question is whether this will be for the advance or the decline of civilization. Civilization will most definitely decline. It will deteriorate. The children brought up by ape-nurses will quite certainly become ape-like. Then indeed we shall have perfection changing into imperfection. We must realize clearly that it is indeed possible for certain human beings to have an ape-like nature in the future, but that the human race in the past was never such that mankind evolved from the ape. For when man still had an animal form — quite different indeed from that of the ape — the present apes were not yet in existence. The apes themselves are degenerate beings; they have fallen from a higher stage.
When we consider those primitive peoples who may be said to have been rich in spirit but animal-like in body, we find they were still undeveloped in reason, in intelligence — the faculty of which we are so proud. Those men of ancient times were not capable of thinking. Hence, when anyone today who prides himself particularly on his thinking comes across ancient documents, he looks for them to be based on thought — and looks in vain. He says, therefore: This is all very beautiful, but it's simply poetry. But, gentlemen, we can't judge everything by our own standards alone, for then we go astray. That ancient humanity had, above all, great powers of imagination, an imagination that worked like an instinct. When we today use our imagination we often pull ourselves up and think: Imagination has no place in what is real. This is quite right for us today, but the men of primeval times, primitive men, would never have been able to carry on without imagination.
Now it will seem strange to you how this lively imagination possessed by primitive men could have been applied to anything real. But here too we have wrong conceptions. In your history books at school you will have read about the tremendous importance for human evolution that is accorded to the invention of paper. The paper we write on — made of rags — has been in existence for only a few centuries. Before that, people had to write on parchment, which has a different origin. Only at the end of the Middle Ages did someone discover the possibility of making paper from the fibers of plants, fibers worn threadbare after having first been used for clothes. Human beings were late in acquiring the intellect that was needed for making this paper.
But the same thing (except that it is not as white as we like it for our black ink) was discovered long ago. The same stuff as is used for our present paper was discovered not just two or three thousand years ago but many, many thousands of years before our day. By whom, then? Not by human beings at all, but by wasps! Just look at any wasp's nest you find hanging in a tree. Look at the material it consists of — paper! Not white paper, not the kind you write on, for the wasps are not yet in the habit of writing, otherwise they would have made white paper, but such paper as you might use for a package. We do have a drab-colored paper for packages that is just what the wasps use for making their nests. The wasps found out how to make paper thousands and thousands of years ago, long before human beings arrived at it through their intellect.
The difference is that instinct works in animals while in the man of primeval times it was imagination; they would have been incapable of making anything if imagination had not enabled them to do so, for they lacked intelligence. We must therefore conclude that in outward appearance these primeval men were more like animals than are the men of today, but to a certain extent they were possessed by the spirit, the spirit worked in them. It was not they who possessed the spirit through their own powers, they were possessed by it and their souls had great power of imagination. With imagination they made their tools; imagination helped them in all they did, and enabled them to make everything they needed.
We, gentlemen, are terribly proud of all our inventions, but we should consider whether we really have cause to be so; for much of what constitutes the greatness of our culture has actually developed from quite simple ideas. Listen to this, for instance: When you read about the Trojan War, do you realize when it took place? — about 1200 years before the founding of Christianity. Now when we hear about wars like that — which didn't take place in Greece, but far away, over there in Asia — well, hearing the outcome the next day in Greece by telegram, as we would now do: that, gentlemen, didn't happen in those days! Today if we receive a telegram, the Post Office dispatches it to us. Naturally this didn't happen at that time in Greece, for the Greeks had no telegraph. What then could they do? Well, now look, the war was over here in one place; then there was the sea and an island, a mountain and again sea; over there another island, a mountain and then sea; and so on, till you came to Greece — here Asia, sea, and here in the midst, Greece. It was agreed that when the war was ended three fires would be kindled on the mountains. Whoever was posted on the nearest mountain was to give the first signal by running up and lighting three fires. The watch on the next mountain, upon seeing the three fires, lit three fires in his turn; the next watchman again three fires; and in this way the message arrived in Greece in quite a short time. This was their method of sending a telegram. It was done like that. It's a simple way of telegraphing. It worked fast — and before the days of the telegram people had to make do with this.
And how is it today? When you telephone — not telegraph but telephone — I will show you in the simplest possible way what happens. We have a kind of magnet which, it is true, is produced by electricity; and we have something called an armature. When the circuit is closed, this is pulled close; when the circuit is open, the armature is released, and thus it oscillates back and forth. It is connected by a wire with a plate, which vibrates with it and transmits what is generated by the armature — in just the same way as in those olden times the three fires conveyed messages to men. This is rather more complicated, and, of course, electricity has been used in applying it, but it is still the same idea.
When we hear such things we must surely respect what the human beings of those ancient times devised and organized out of their imaginative faculty. And when we read the old documents with this feeling we must surely say: Those men accomplished great things on a purely spiritual level and all out of imagination. To come to a thorough realization of this you need only to consider what people believe today. They believe they know something about the old Germanic gods — Wotan, Loki, for instance. You find pictures of them in human form in books: Wotan with a flowing beard; Loki looking like a devil, with red hair, and so on. It is thought that the men of old, the ancient Germans, had the same ideas about Wotan and Loki. But that is not true. The men of old had rather the following conception: When the wind blows, there is something spiritual in it — which is indeed true — and that is Wotan blowing in the wind. They never imagined that when they went into the woods, they would meet Wotan there in the guise of an ordinary man. To describe a meeting with Wotan they would have spoken of the wind blowing through the woods. This can still be felt in the very word Wotan by anyone who is sensitive to these things. And Loki — they had no image of Loki sitting quietly in a corner staring stupidly; Loki lived in the fire!
Indeed, in various ways the people were always talking about Wotan and Loki. Someone would say, for instance: When you go over the mountain, you may meet Wotan. He will make you either strong or weak, whichever you deserve. That is how people felt, how they understood these things. Today one says that's just superstition. But in those times they didn't understand it to be so. They knew: When you go up there to that corner so difficult to reach, you don't meet a man in a body like any ordinary man. But the very shape of the mountain gives rise to a special whirlwind in that place, and a special kind of air is wafted up to that corner from an abyss. If you withstand this and keep to your path, you may become well or you may become ill. In what way you become well or ill, the people were ready to tell; they were in harmony with nature and would speak not in an intellectual way but out of their imagination. Your modern doctor would try to express himself intellectually: If you have a tendency to tuberculosis, go up to a certain height on the mountain and sit there every day. Continue to do this for some time, for it will be most beneficial. That is the intellectual way of talking. But if you speak imaginatively you say: Wotan is always to be found in that high corner; if you visit him at a certain time every day for a couple of weeks, he will help you.
This is the way people coped with life out of their imagination. They worked in this way, too. Surely at some time or other you have all been far out in the country where threshing is not done by machine but is still being done by hand. You can hear the people threshing in perfect rhythm. They know that when they have to thresh for days at a time, if they go at their work without any order, just each one on his own, they will very soon be overcome by exhaustion. Threshing can't be done that way. If, however, they work rhythmically, all keeping time together, exhaustion is avoided — because their rhythm is then in harmony with the rhythm of their breathing and circulation. It even makes a difference whether they strike their flail on the out-breathing or the in-breathing or whether they do it as they are changing over from one to the other. Now why is this? You can see that it has nothing to do with intellect, for today this old way of threshing is almost unheard of. Everything of that kind is being wiped out. But in the past, all work was done rhythmically and out of imagination. The beginnings of human culture developed out of rhythm.
Now I don't suppose you really think that if you take a chunk of wood and some bits of string and fool about with them in some amateurish fashion, you'll suddenly have a violin. A violin comes about when mind, when spirit, is exerted, when the wood is carefully shaped in a particular way, when the string is put through a special process, and so forth. We have to say then: These primeval people, who were not yet thinking for themselves, could attribute the way machines were originally made only to the spirit that possessed them, that worked in them. Therefore, these people, working not out of the intellect, but out of their imagination, naturally tended to speak of the spirit everywhere.
When today someone constructs a machine by the work of his intellect, he does not say that the spirit helped him — and rightly so. But when a man of those early times who knew nothing about thinking, who had no capacity for, thinking, when that man constructed something, he felt immediately: the spirit is helping me.
It happened therefore that when the Europeans, those “superior” humans, first arrived in America and also later, in the nineteenth century, when they came to the regions where Indians such as belonged to ancient times were still living, these Indians spoke of (it was possible to find out what they were saying) the “Great Spirit” ruling everywhere. These primitive men have always continued to speak in this way of the Being ruling in everything. It was this “Great Spirit” that was venerated particularly by the human beings living in Atlantean times when there was still land between Europe and America; the Indians retained this veneration, and knew nothing as yet of intellect. They then came gradually to know the “superior” men before being exterminated by them. They came to know the Europeans' printed paper on which there were little signs which they took to be small devils. They abhorred the paper and the little signs, for these were intellectual in origin, and a man whose activities arise out of imagination abominates what comes from the intellect.
Now the European with his materialistic civilization knows how to construct a locomotive. The intellectual method by which he constructs his engine could never have been the way the ancient Greeks would have set about it, for the Greeks still lacked intellect. Intellect first came to man in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Greeks would have carried out their construction with the help of their imagination. Since the Greeks ascribed all natural forms to good spirits and all that is not nature, all that is artificially produced, to bad spirits, they would have said: An evil spirit lives in the locomotive. They would certainly have contrived their construction from imagination; nothing else would ever have occurred to them than that they were being aided by the spirit.
Therefore, gentlemen, you see that we have actually to ascribe a lofty spirit to the original, primitive human being; for imagination is of a far more spiritual nature in the human soul than the mere intellect that is prized so highly today.
Former conditions, however, can never come back. We have to go forward — but not with the idea that what exists today in the animal as pure instinct could ever have developed into spirit. We ought not, therefore, to picture primitive men as having been possessed of mere instinct. They knew that it was the spirit working in them. That is why they had, as we say nowadays, such a strong belief in the spirit.
Perhaps this contributes a little to our understanding of how human culture has evolved. Also, we must concede that the people are right who contend that human beings have arisen from animal forms, for so indeed they have — but not from such forms as the present animals, for these forms only came into being later when humanity was already in existence. The early animal-like forms of man which gradually developed in the course of human evolution into his present form, together with the faculties which he already had at that time, came about because man's spiritual entity was originally more perfect than it is today — not in terms of intellect but of imagination. We have to remember always that this original perfection was due to the fact that man was not free; man was, as it were, possessed by the spirit. Only intellect enables man to become free. By means of his intellect man can become free.
You see, anyone who works with his intellect can say: now at a certain hour I'm going to think out such and such a thing. This can't be done by a poet, for even today a poet still works out of his imagination. Goethe was a great poet. Sometimes when someone asked him to write a poem or when he himself felt inclined to do so, he sat himself down to write one at a certain time — and, well, the result was pitiful! That people are not aware of this today comes simply from their inability to distinguish good poetry from bad. Among Goethe's poems there are many bad ones. Imaginative work can be done only when the mood for it is there, and when the mood has seized a poet, he must write the poem down at once. And that's how it was in the case of primeval humans. They were never able to do things out of free will. Free will developed gradually-but not wisdom. Wisdom was originally greater than free will and it must now regain its greatness. That means, we have to come back to the spirit by way of the intellect.
And that, you see, is the task of anthroposophy. It has no wish to do what would please many people, that is, to bring primitive conditions back to humanity-ancient Indian wisdom, for example. It is nonsense when people harp on that. Anthroposophy, on the other hand, sets value on a return to the spirit, but a return to the spirit precisely in full possession of the intellect, with the intellect fully alive. It is important, gentlemen, and must be borne strictly in mind, that we have nothing at all against the intellect; rather, the point is that we have to go forward with it. Originally human beings had spirit without intellect; then the spirit gradually fell away and the intellect increased. Now, by means of the intellect, we have to regain the spirit. Culture is obliged to take this course.
If it does not do so — well, gentlemen, people are always saying that the World War was unlike anything ever experienced before, and it is indeed a fact that men have never before so viciously torn one another to pieces. But if men refuse to take the course of returning to the spirit and bringing their intellect with them, then still greater wars will come upon us, wars that will become more and more savage. Men will really destroy one another as the two rats did that, shut up together in a cage, gnawed at each other till there was nothing left of them but two tails. That is putting it rather brutally, but in fact mankind is on the way to total extermination. It is very important to know this.