On the Development of Human Culture
6 August 1924, Dornach
A number of questions have been handed in, which can lead in a quite interesting way to what we are going to discuss today. Someone has asked: “What has man's cultural development arisen from?” I am going to consider this in connection with this second question: “Why did primitive man have such a strong belief in the spirit?”
It is certainly interesting to ask how men of former times have lived, and about this, as you know, even looking superficially at the matter, there are two opinions. One opinion is that originally man was at a high level of perfection from which he has fallen to his present imperfect state. We need not have any particular objection to this nor concern ourselves about the various ways the different peoples have interpreted this perfection — some talking of Paradise, others of other things. But until a short time ago the opinion held good that man was originally perfect, degenerating to his present state of imperfection gradually. The other view you have probably come to think of as the only true one, namely that man was originally imperfect, like some kind of higher animal, and evolved gradually to greater perfection. You know how people try to draw upon the primitive condition prevailing among savage peoples — or so-called savage peoples' — in order to get some idea of what man could have been when he still resembled an animal. It is said: We in Europe and the people of America are highly civilized, whereas in Africa, Australia, and so on, there live still uncivilized races at their original stage, or at least at a stage very near the original. From these it is possible to make a study of what people were to begin with.
But, curiously, in this way people are making far too simple a picture of man's evolution. To begin with, it is not at all true that, for example, all civilized peoples imagined that man as a physical being was originally perfect. The Indians are certainly not of the opinion held by modern materialists, but, even so, their conception is that the physical man who used to go about on earth in primitive times looked like an animal. When the Indians, the wise men of India, speak of man in his original earthly state, they talk of the ape-like Hanuman. So you see it is not at all true that people with a spiritual world-conception always imagine that originally men were in some way as people today imagine them to have been, that is, of a paradisian nature, for indeed it is not so. We have, rather, to be clear that man is a being who bears within him body, soul, and spirit, each member going through its own particular evolution. Naturally, when people do not speak of spirit, they cannot speak of the evolution of spirit. But once we admit that man consists of body, soul, and spirit, we can go on to ask in what way the body develops, in what way the soul and in what way the spirit evolve. If we are to speak of man's body then we shall say: Man's body has gradually been perfected from lower stages. We must also say that the evidence we have provides us with actual proof of this. As I have already pointed out, in the strata of the earth we find the original man exhibiting a very animal-like body — not indeed like any animal we have today, but 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 the truths of natural science are accepted by it.
On the other hand, we must come once more to recognize that in those times — which may be said to be only about three or four thousand years ago — views we re current from which today we not only can learn a great deal but which we are obliged to admire. When today we have a certain amount of relevant knowledge and study with real understanding the documents that have appeared in India, Asia, Egypt, or even in Greece, we find the people in those times far in advance of us. What they knew, however, was acquired in a quite different way from how we acquire knowledge today.
Today there are many things we know very little about. For example, from what I have shown you in connection with nutrition, you will have seen how necessary it is for spiritual science to come to our aid in the simplest nutritional matters. Physical 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 in reality people up to the time of Hippocrates in Greece knew far more than is known by our modern materialistic physicians. We grow to respect, deeply respect, the knowledge once possessed. The only thing is that knowledge was not imparted in the same form as it is today. Today we clothe our knowledge in concepts. This was not so in the case of ancient peoples; they clothed their knowledge in poetical imaginations, so that anything of it remaining to us is now just taken figuratively — as poetry. It was not poetry to those men of old, however; it was their way of expressing what they knew. Thus we find that when we are able to test and thoroughly to study the documents still existing, there can no longer be any question of men originally having been undeveloped spiritually. In spirit they are infinitely wiser than we are!
But there is another thing that has to be remembered. When men of primeval times went about he acquired great wisdom spiritually. His face was more or less what we should certainly call animal-like, whereas today in man's face his spirit finds expression, his spirit is as it were incorporated in the physical substance of his face. This, is a necessity if man is to be free, if he is to be a free being. These clever men of yore, the clever men of primeval 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 which constitutes a real step forward for the human race — this consciousness man has of his freedom. With it 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 we consider from this point of view the savages of today, it must strike us that the men of primeval times — called in our question here primitive men — were not like the modern savages, but that these have descended from the primeval men. You will get a better idea of this if I tell you the following.
In certain districts there are people who harbour the notion that when they bury in the earth some little thing belonging to a sick person — for example, a corner of his shirt — that this can have the magical effect of healing him. I have even personally known such people. I knew one who, at the time the Emperor Frederick was ill, wrote to the Empress asking for a piece of shirt belonging to her husband. It would be buried in the cemetery and the Emperor Frederick 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 have let him have the piece of shirt than to have sent for the English doctor Mackenzie, and so on. That had been absurd — they should have sent him the piece of shirt.
When this kind of thing comes to the notice of a materialistic thinker, he says: This is a superstition that has arisen somewhere. At one time or other, a man or several men got the notion that burying part of a sick man's shirt and saying a little prayer over it would cure the man.
But nothing has ever arisen in this way. No superstition arises by being thought out; it comes about in quite a 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; besides doing good things, he does many that are bad. But — so they thought — the dead man goes on living in his soul and spirit and in 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 the dead, those who have left us, are forgotten today. At that time, there were those who wanted to give their fellowman various signs to make them think of the dead, and thus to benefit their own health. Let us say someone in some village had the idea that if a man was ill, the other villagers should look after him. It was not the custom in villages to collect money for the sick, there were no poor-boxes, that kind of thing is a modern invention. At that time the villagers all had to help one another out of kindness; everyone had to think of those who were ill. The leading man in the village said: Because people are egoists they have no thought of the sick if they are not spurred on to get out of themselves and have thoughts, for instance, of the dead. So he told them they should take, perhaps, a corner of the sick man's shirt by which to remember him, and this was to be buried in the earth; through this they would remember the sick man. By thinking of the dead, they would remember to take care of someone. This outward deed was contrived simply to help man's memory. Later, people forgot the reason for all this and it was put down to magic, superstition. This is o in the case of a great deal 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 so appears to anyone with insight as if it were said: You are 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 it is not like that; 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 course of time. It is like that, too, outside in nature, anywhere in the world. You must first have things in a perfect state, out of which comes the imperfect. It is the same in the case of the human being whose spirit to begin with, though still lacking freedom, was in a certain state of perfection, but whose body, it is true, was imperfect. On the other hand the perfection of the body lay in its being soft and capable of being so moulded by the spirit that cultural progress could ensue.
So you see we are not justified in thinking that human beings were originally like the savages of today. 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 advantage we have over the savages is that, starting from the same conditions, we have not degenerated as they have. I might therefore say: The evolution of man has taken two different paths. It is not true that the savages of today represent the original condition of mankind. The men who, to begin with, looked more animal-like were highly civilised.
Now when you ask: But are these original, animal-like men the descendants of apes or of other animals? it is a quite natural question. You look at the apes as they are today and say: From these apes, men are descended. That is all very well but when human beings had this animal form, there were no such animals as our present apes! From apes as they are today, therefore, men have not descended. On the contrary, just as our 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 a short while ago, from a soft element and not from any animals as we have them. Human beings have never arisen from the kind of apes we now have. On the other hand, it might easily be possible that if conditions prevailing on earth today, conditions in which everything is based on authority and power — and wisdom counts for nothing — it might indeed happen that the men who thus want to found everything on power gradually take on animal-like bodies again, and that two great races may arise. One race would consist of those who stand for peace, for the spirit and for wisdom, whereas the other would be made up of those who re-assume animal forms. It might indeed be said that those who care nothing today for the progress of mankind may be running the risk of degenerating into apes.
You see, all manner of strange things are experienced today. What newspapers say is, of course, largely untrue, but sometimes in a quite remarkable way it shows the trend of man's thinking. During our recent travels in Holland, we bought an illustrated paper. On the last page of this paper there was a curious picture — a small child, quite a baby and its nurse, looking after it, an ape, an orang-utan. It was holding the child quite properly, and it was said to be installed somewhere in America as children's nurse.
It is possible that this may not be actual fact — as yet, but it shows what many people are hoping for: apes installed as nursemaids. And if apes are employed in this capacity, what an outlook for man! Once it has been discovered that apes can be employed to look after children, that in certain circumstances an ape can be trained to look after the physical needs of children — then people will develop this strange desire and the social question will be on a new level. For you will soon see what far-reaching proposals will be made for teaching apes in this way; they will be sent to work in the 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 making apes look after children, we shall be inundated by pamphlets on how to solve the social question by training apes.
It is indeed conceivable that this might happen. Think — other animals besides 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 decline of civilization. Civilization will most definitely decline; it will deteriorate. The children brought up by ape-nurses will quite certainly become apelike. Then indeed we shall have the perfect changing into the imperfect. Thus we must be clear that it is possible for certain human beings to become of an ape-like nature in the future, but that the human race in the past was never such that men developed from the ape-like. For when man still had an animal-form (quite different indeed from that of the ape) the present ape was not yet in existence. They themselves have deteriorated; they have fallen from a higher stage.
When we turn to those primitive peoples who may be said to have been rich in spirit but animal-like in body, we find they were still undeveloped as far as understanding, intelligence, goes. 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 therefore says: This is all very beautiful but simply poetry. But indeed we cannot judge everything by our own standards alone, for then we go astray. Those men of yore had above all great powers of imagination, imagination that worked like instinct. When today we use our imagination we often pull ourselves up, saying: 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.
It will seem strange to you how this lively imagination possessed by primitive men could have been applied to anything real. However, here too we have wrong conceptions. In your school history books you will have read about the tremendous importance for man's evolution attached to the invention of a paper made from rag. The paper we use for writing — which is made of rag — 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 men discover the possibility of making paper from fibre coming from plants — worn threadbare after having first been used for clothes. Human beings were late in acquiring intellect which was needed for making this paper. But the same thing — except that it is not white as we want it for our black ink — was discovered long before. The same stuff that is used now for our paper was discovered not just two or three thousand years ago but very many thousands of years before our day. By whom then? Not by human beings at all, but by wasps! Look at any wasps' nest you find hanging on a tree. Look at the material it consists of — paper! Not, however, white paper, not the kind you write on, for the wasps have not learned to write, otherwise they would have made white paper, but such paper as you might use for a parcel. We have indeed a drab-coloured paper for parcels which is just what the wasps use for making nests. The wasps found out how to make paper thousands of years ago, long before human beings arrived at it by means of their intellect. The difference is that instinct works in animals whereas in the man of primeval times it was imagination; they would have been incapable of making anything had not imagination 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 was working in them. It was not they who possessed it through their own powers, they were possessed by it and their souls had great powers of imagination. With imagination they made their tools; imagination helped them in all they did, enabled them to make everything they needed.
We 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 arisen from quite simple ideas. For example: when you read about the Trojan War — do you realize when the Trojan War took place? About 1200 years before the founding of Christianity. Now when we hear about wars like this which didn't take place in Greece, but far away in Asia, it did not happen in those days that the result was known in Greece the next day by telegram S Naturally at that time this did not happen for the Greeks had no electric telegraph. What then did they do? Look, (drawing) the war was over here, this was sea, here was an island, there a mountain, and there again sea, over here an island, a mountain and then sea, and so on till you came to Greece. It was agreed that when the war was over, three fires should be kindled on the mountain. Whoever was posted on the nearest mountain was first to give the signal by running up and lighting the three fires. On seeing the three fires, the one on the next mountain lit three fires in his turn, and in this way the signal arrived in quite a short time at Greece. This was their method of sending a telegram. The process was a quick one and before the day of the telegram, it had to suffice.
How is it then today? When you telephone, not telegraph, but telephone — I will show you in the simplest way what happens. 1This greatly simplified explanation of a very complicated process was given to the workmen in order to save time. We have a kind of magnet which, it is true, is produced by electricity; and at this place (drawing) we have something called an armature. When the current is off, this falls in place; when the current is switched on, the plate is released and swings to and fro. It is connected by a wire with the next one which oscillates with it and transmits what is generated by the plate in just the same way as in those olden times the three fires conveyed messages to men. It is rather more complicated but still the same idea, though electricity has been used in applying it.
When we have actual knowledge of it we come to respect what the human beings of those ancient times devised and organized out of their imaginative faculty. When we read the old documents with this respect, we say: These men have accomplished great things purely spiritually and all out of imagination. To come to a thorough realization of this you need turn only to what men believe today. They believe they know something about the old Germanic gods — Wotan, Loki, for example. Pictures of them in human forms have appeared in certain 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, like the old Germans, had these ideas about Wotan and Loki. But that is not true, those men of old had, rather, the following conception: When the wind blows there is in it something spiritual — which is indeed true — Wotan is blowing in the wind. When they went into a wood, they never imagined they would meet Wotan there in the guise of an ordinary man. Describing a meeting with Wotan, they would have spoken of the wind blowing through the wood. This can still be felt in the very word Wotan by anyone who is sensitive to these things. And Loki — this did not call up a picture of someone sitting quietly in a corner; Loki's life was in the fire!
Indeed in various way, the people were always talking of Wotan and Loki. Suppose someone to be speaking about Wotan, for example: When you go over the mountain you may meet Wotan. Wotan will then make you either strong or weak according to your deserts. You see this is how people felt, hew they understood these matters. Today people say: That is superstition, a superstitious notion. But in those times they did not understand it so. They knew: When you go up there, to that corner so difficult to access, you do not meet a man in a body like any ordinary man. But the very shape of the mountain gives rise to a whirlwind which is met with especially in that place and a special kind of air is wafted up from an abyss. If you withstand this and keep to your path, you may become well or you may become sick. In what way you become well or ill, the people were willing to tell; they were in harmony with nature and would speak — not in an intellectual way but out of imagination. Our modern doctor would try to express himself intellectually — thus: If you have a tendency to tuberculosis, go up and sit at a certain height on a mountain every day, then come down. Go on doing this for some time; it will be most beneficial. This is the intellectual way of talking, but what one says when speaking imaginatively is this: Wotan is always to be found at that corner; it will help you if for a couple of weeks you visit him at a certain time each day.
This is the way in which people came to grips with life out of their imagination, and in this way too they worked. You will all at some time or other have been in a country district where the threshing was not done by machine but by hand — in time, in rhythm. The people know that if they have to thresh for days together and go to work without any rule, just at their own sweet will, they will soon be overcome by exhaustion. Threshing cannot be done in that way. If, however, they thresh in rhythm, if they keep in time together, exhaustion will be avoided, because this rhythm will be in harmony with the rhythm of their breathing and of the circulating blood. It makes a difference whether they beat with their flail on the out-breath or the in-breath, or whether they do it. as the breath is changing over from one to the other. Why is this? It is easy to see that it is nothing to do with the intellect, for today it no longer happens; everything of the kind is being wiped out. But work that was done by the people — for instance, the contrivances they had to tread or anything else in which time had to be kept — all this was done rhythmically.
Now, I don't fancy you can really think that if you take a piece of wood, a few strings and so on, and deal with them in a haphazard fashion, the result will be a violin. A violin results when mind, spirit, is exerted, when the wood is fashioned in a particular way, when the strings are put through a special process, and so on and so forth. This then is what we must say — particularly because people at that time did not yet think for themselves — the way in which machines were originally made could only be ascribed to possession by the spirit, that is to say, the people having the spirit working in them. For this reason, primitive men who did not work with intellect but with imagination were naturally inclined to talk of the spirit. When today someone constructs a machine by means of intellect, he does not say — and rightly does not say — that the spirit has been helping him. But when a man of those early times who was not conscious of thinking, had no capacity for thinking — when he constructed anything, he immediately felt: The spirit was helping me.
When the Europeans, the “superior” men, first arrived in American, and when even later, in the 19th century, they came to the regions where Indians such as belonged to more ancient times were still living, these Indians spoke of the “great Spirit” ruling everywhere. These primitive men in general have gone on speaking in this way of the Being ruling in everything. It was this “great Spirit” who was venerated particularly by the human beings living in Atlantean times when there was still land between Europe and America; the Indians still had this veneration, and knew nothing as yet of intellect. The. Indians then gradually came to know the “superior” men before being exterminated by them. Paper on which there were little signs, printed paper, was held in abhorrence by Indians; they took the little signs to be small devils and abominated them, for these signs were intellectual in origin. The man whose activities arise out of imagination abominates what comes from the intellect.
Now the European with his materialistic civilization knows how an engine is constructed. The intellectual way in which a European 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 15th or 16th century. The Greeks would have done their constructing with the help of their imagination. Since the Greeks ascribed to good spirits all natural forms and to bad spirits all that has no part in nature and is artificially produced, they would have spoken thus: In the engine there lives an evil spirit. They would certainly have done their constructing out of imagination and it would never ha/e occurred to them that in this they were not aided by the spirit.
You see therefore that ultimately we have to ascribe more spirit to the original primitive man; for imagination is of a more spiritual nature in the human soul than the mere intellect so highly prized today.
Old conditions, however, can never come back. Hence we have certainly to go forward, but not with the idea that what today exists in the animal as pure instinct can ever be developed into spirit. We ought not therefore to picture primitive men as having been possessed of mere instinct, for they realized: What is working in us is the spirit. This is why they had such belief in the spirit.
All this contributes a little to our understanding of how human evolution originated. So we must allow right on both sides — on the side of those who imagine human beings to have arisen from animal forms; well, so indeed they have, but not from such animal-forms as we have now, for these came into being later, when human beings were already in existence. But those animal-forms which in the course of human evolution have gradually grown into man's present form, together with the faculties existing at that time, have arisen because the spiritual — not intellectually, it is true, but imaginatively — was more perfect than it is today. At the same time we have always to remember: This original perfection depended upon man, though lacking freedom, being, as it were, possessed by the spirit. Intellect enables man to become free; by means of intellect, he can be freed.
Just consider this. Anyone who works with his intellect may say: At a certain time I am going to think out such and such a thing. This cannot be done by a poet for he still works today with imagination. Now Goethe was a great poet. When, because someone wanted him to write a poem, or he himself felt inclined to do so, he set himself down to write — well, the result was execrable! 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 is on the poet, and when the mood is on him he must write down the poem at once. You see, that is how it was in the case of primitive men. They were never able to do things out of free will at all. Free will is something that developed gradually, but not wisdom. Wisdom was originally greater than intellect and must re-acquire its greatness. That means our having to come back to the spirit by way of the intellect.
That, you see, is the task of anthroposophy; it has no wish to do what many people would like, that is, to bring back primitive conditions among men — old Indian wisdom, for example. It is nonsense when people harp on that; anthroposophy sets value on a return to the spirit precisely in full possession of the intellect, with intellect fully alive. It must be strictly borne in mind that we have nothing at all against the intellect; we have to go forward with it. To begin with, human beings had spirit without intellect; then the spirit fell away whereas the intellect increased» Now, by means of the intellect, we have to return to the spirit. Culture is obliged to take this course, for if it does not do so — well, people are always saying that the world war was unlike anything seen before and it is a fact that men have never before so torn each other to pieces — but if mankind refuses to take the course of bringing their intellect with them on their return to the spirit, then still greater wars will come upon up, wars that go on becoming more and more savage. Men will exterminate each other like two rats that, shut up together in a cage, gnaw each other till there is nothing left but two tails. That is putting it brutally, but in actual fact men are on the way to mutual extermination, and it is very important to know whither they are going.